Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio. He was the first of six children born to religious and hard-working parents, Jesse and Hannah Grant. His father was a tanner who took animal hides and processed them into leather. He made a good living, but the work conditions were horrible—skinned and raw animal carcasses everywhere, their hides tossed into kettles of stinging, stinking chemicals. Although Grant occasionally worked in the tannery as a child, he hated the work and swore to his father that once he was an adult, he would never do it again.

Ulysses was a small, sensitive, quiet youth. The simple local schools bored him, and other children mistook his quietness for stupidity, nicknaming him "Useless." The boy, however, had an incredible knack in what was a critical skill in that time and place—horsemanship. On the family farm, his father often gave him the responsibility of taking care of the horses and the other farm animals, and he was renowned in the area for managing unruly horses.

Grant's father supported his son's ambitious nature to go beyond the limited life of a tanner. The family had little money for college, but the United States Military Academy at West Point, then as now, offered a deal: a superior free education in return for Army service after graduating. Without telling Ulysses, Jesse Grant applied for an appointment to the Academy for his son, who was accepted. Told of his acceptance, the shy Ulysses did not want to go. His father stated that he thought his son would go, and Ulysses "thought so too, if he did." With his father's encouragement, Grant decided to go to West Point to fulfill his own desire to travel and take advantage of the education being offered to him.

When his congressman applied for Grant's appointment to West Point, he incorrectly wrote the name as Ulysses Simpson (his mother's family name) Grant instead of Hiram Ulysses Grant. Although Ulysses tried to correct the mistake when he arrived at West Point, it was too late, and thereafter he signed his name as Ulysses S. Grant.

West Point was difficult for the humble youth from the Midwest. He was good at math and drawing, but his prior education was limited, leaving him an otherwise unexceptional student. His skill with horses, however, was unmatched, and he amazed everyone with his riding abilities. He seemed sure to win a coveted spot in the Army's cavalry, its horse-soldier elite, but he was assigned to the infantry after graduating twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine.

First Army Career

The United States Army of the 1840s was a small one. Grant was assigned to the Fourth Infantry at the Jefferson Barracks, just south of St. Louis, Missouri. His West Point roommate, Frederick Dent, had grown up nearby, and Grant often visited the Dent home, where the family's hospitality made him comfortable. One day while visiting, Grant met Frederick's sister, Julia Dent. Charming, smart, and sociable, Julia soon attracted Grant's declaration of love, although his service in the Mexican War would delay their union for several years. Their mutual devotion was deep and abiding throughout their courtship and 37 years of marriage.

Lieutenant Grant's regiment moved further south, first to Louisiana and then Texas, to prepare for the conflict with Mexico that was brewing over the Texas territory. From 1846 to 1848, the young lieutenant fought in the Mexican War and was twice cited for his bravery. He was appointed quartermaster for the Fourth Infantry and was responsible for providing supplies and transportation as his regiment moved through the Mexican countryside. This post gave him valuable experience in the logistics of war. He also greatly admired General Zachary Taylor and his calm, confident leadership. Grant, however, did not glory in the ideals of war. He mourned his lost comrades and the waste that war created.

When the war ended, Grant traveled back to St. Louis to marry Julia. Unbeknownst to the groom, all three of his Southern attendants, including James Longstreet, would fight against him during the Civil War. The Army then transferred the young lieutenant to Detroit and New York. At first, Julia was able to travel with him, but the Army then sent Grant to the Pacific Northwest, first to the Oregon Territory and then to California. He could not take his family to these distant locations and he hated being separated from them. He also ran into financial problems, became depressed, and, according to some accounts, began to drink to excess. In 1854, Grant resigned suddenly from the Army. It is still unclear what precipitated his resignation.

Hard Times

After leaving the Army, Grant returned to his wife and children in Missouri. Julia's father had given her some land, and Grant tried to farm it, building a log house he dubbed "Hardscrabble." Working hard, Grant found it difficult to make a living. When extra labor was needed, he hired free blacks. He could have made money from selling the one slave that his father-in-law gave him but instead freed the slave. The painful reality was that Ulysses could not support his family, which eventually grew to four children. He also attempted a half-dozen other lines of work over the next several years. One bleak Christmas, he pawned his watch for $22 to buy presents for his family.

By 1860, Grant was forced appeal to his father for help, and he went to work for his younger brother in a leather shop in Galena, Illinois. Soon thereafter, the South seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. The Civil War had begun, and, suddenly, the North needed experienced Army officers like Grant. The governor of Illinois appointed the former captain to lead a volunteer regiment that no one else had been able to train. Grant instituted badly needed discipline, focusing on the regiment's main goals and overlooking minor details. He gradually won the men's respect and allegiance and was subsequently appointed to brigadier general.

American Civil War

From the outset of the war, the Confederacy had the advantage of fighting on its own territory, as well as fighting a limited war for independence; in contrast, the United States needed to conquer vast territory and subdue a large population. The Confederates also enjoyed strong support from their citizens and, initially, had superior commanders. But over the years, the industrial capacity of the North proved consequential. The North had the advantage in factories, money, and manpower to fill the battleground with better weapons and more soldiers. The U.S. Navy also imposed an increasingly successful blockade that prevented the South from importing materiel (equipment and supplies).

But the Northern advantage did not translate into victories, and the war dragged on. Incompetent Northern military leadership and strong Southern fighting ability continued to fan the flames for four long years. During the early phases of the conflict, the North lacked a commander with the nerve and logistical skills to take the offensive against the outgunned Rebels. President Lincoln grew frustrated with his ineffective, overcautious commanders, especially General George B. McClellan who commanded the principal Union force of the Eastern Theater, the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was the first of many generals who fought not to win but to avoid losing. In time, Lincoln would select Grant as the man to lead the North to victory.

Grant displayed his military prowess early in the conflict. In 1861, he led 3,000 troops into his first major engagement. The clash at Belmont, Missouri, was a draw, but he showed a rare Union trait at the time—a willingness to fight. More than that in this early period Grant learned something about the enemy, and about himself. "I never forgot," he wrote, "that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable." In February 1862, he captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, two critical Confederate fortifications in Tennessee. At Fort Donelson, he accepted the surrender of an entire Confederate force, earning a nickname, "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. Fort Donelson was the first real Union victory of the war, and Grant became known nationally overnight, earning a promotion to major general.

But the good press did not last long. That April of 1862, the press blamed Grant for massive losses at the Battle of Shiloh, also in Tennessee. He had been surprised by an early morning Confederate attack that pushed the Union line back, resulting in the capture of many Union soldiers. At the end of the day, however, Grant had managed to hold his position. Supported by reinforcements, he launched a counterattack on the second day that led to a Southern retreat. Although the battle was a strategic success for the Union, it came at great cost, and many held Grant responsible.

But Lincoln stood by his general. Grant was the first Union commander to truly take the war to the South and put the region on the defensive. His calm during battle astounded everyone who witnessed it. His strategy for securing the Western Theater was sound; while puffing cigar after cigar, he issued his commanders clear, concise orders while staying out of their way in the heat of battle.

In 1863, Grant, now placed in command over the District of Tennessee, orchestrated the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which sat high on a bluff above the Mississippi River. Grant first attempted to capture this key installation from the north, but eventually decided to march his troops down the other side of the Mississippi and cross over it. Once they landed south of Vicksburg, Grant disregarded convention and cut his supply lines, using enemy resources to feed his troops. After defeating two separate Confederate armies at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and Big Black River, the Union forces settled into a siege of Vicksburg. Six weeks later, Confederate commander Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg and with it an army of more than 27,000 men to Grant on July 4, 1863. This federal victory ended the Rebel's stranglehold on the Mississippi River, checking Confederate momentum and dealing a devastating blow to Southern morale. "Grant is my man, and I am his" declared President Lincoln after hearing of Vicksburg's fall.

Not long afterward, Grant was running the entire Western Theater of the war. By November 1863, Grant secured Chattanooga, Knoxville, and eastern Tennessee for the North, and left the Confederate military command in disarray and defeat. At this time, Grant emerged as the undisputed top U.S. military hero, bringing along for promotion his talented group of western generals—William T. Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan, and James B. McPherson. In early 1864, President Lincoln named Grant lieutenant general and commander of all Union forces directing strategy and planning several major campaigns simultaneously. Grant was transferred to Washington, D.C., to oversee the war effort, especially the defeat of General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Rather than stay in the capital and direct the war from afar, Grant joined General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac in the field for the spring effort. In the six-week "Overland Campaign" that followed, the Union Army suffered setbacks and high casualties in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor as the titanic fight between Grant and Lee raged over the Virginia countryside. Grant's direct, relentless battle tactics led to such huge losses that the Democratic press began calling Grant, "The Butcher."

Still, Grant pressed on against Lee, and Sherman continued his relentless march to Atlanta, Georgia, then to Savannah and South Carolina, while Sheridan led a destructive campaign in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. In late 1864 and early 1865, the invaded, decimated South lost the means and the will to fight. Union troops trapped the main Confederate Army west of Richmond and forced a surrender on April 9, 1865, at the little village crossroads of Appomattox Court House. General Lee's surrender to Grant effectively ended the war.

In four years, Grant had gone from a leather-shop clerk to the most revered soldier in the Union. In 1866, he was named general of the armies, a rank that had been achieved by no one other than George Washington. Along with the military promotion came political opportunity, a development largely due to the war's centrality to American life. The Civil War dominated public discussion and the media for generations afterward. It was therefore far from surprising that a man widely credited with keeping the nation together was seen as a possible presidential candidate.