Ulysses S Grant was an amazing and complex man. There were many sobriquets he carried. General. Soldier. Butcher. Failure. Alcoholic. Taciturn. President. Author. Father. Husband. Businessman. Diplomat. Veteran. Equestrian. Artist. We could go on. But as I begin to read about Grant, it’s not too hard to simply put various parts of his life together to show that few of them fit neatly into the other parts. The value of this man, is far greater than the sum of his parts. He was a Renaissance man, to be sure.
In May 1839, the school at West Point had a cadet corps that numbered right at 250 men that were divided into four classes. Among the men that attended West Point when Grant did were William Tecumseh Sherman, Richard Ewell, William Rosecrans, Thomas Jackson, George B. McLellan, William Scott Hancock and James Longstreet.
James Longstreet once described Grant: He had “a girlish modesty; a hesitancy in professing his own claims; taciturnity born of
his modesty; but a thoroughness in the accomplishment of whatever task was assigned to him. We became fast friends at our first meeting. He had a noble generous heart, a loveable character, and a sense of honor which was so perfect…”
Ulysses S. Grant painted. Apparently nine of his original artworks are in existence. Three are attached. One is a pair of Indians, a breastfeeding mother and a man. There is a landscape that is absolutely lovely. And of course there is a horse.
Ulysses S. Grant was the original horse whisperer. His love of horses and his absolutely natural affinity to ride them and communicate with them are legendary. To the consternation of the cadets who hailed from the south and grew up on ranches and farms and plantations, this northern boy was better on a horse than the lot of them.
Once during a graduation commencement, a Prussian cavalry trainer, one Mr. Herschberger, led a very large and irascible horse named York onto the parade grounds. He set the jump bar at its highest, and he called forth Grant. Grant, a diminutive man, climbed the horse and galloped at full speed and brought the massive horse up over the bar. A stunned audience and then applause followed this. This was a record that was unbeaten for a quarter of a century.
Ulysses Grant had a wickedly funny sense of humor. Julia Dent, Grant’s future wife, suffered the death of her canary. Grant arranged for a tiny yellow coffin be made and culledtogether six officers to stage a mock funeral. He loved her deeply. He would have done anything for her. Grant asked her to marry him many times. She would not relent, and neither would he. She finally agreed. His sense of humor definitely helped close the deal with Julia.
The following is a transcript of an interview with Julia Grant and Hamlin Garland, famous poet and author of his day. She talks about her life with Grant. One thing I think it is important to note was this: he was called a butcher because his battles had so many casualties. Remember George McClellan took few casualties, and he and won no battles. Grant never lost a battle. He also took no pleasure in warfare. He would not exult in winning. Ever. Instead, he felt a deep compassion for the losers at the business end of his war machine. And he was a sweet and loyal husband.
I was married to Ulysses S. Grant on the 22nd of August, 1848. The place of the wedding was on the corner of 4th and Cerre Streets, St. Louis and I had a beautiful wedding. Our family was a very old family. My father settled there years before and our friends were among the elite of the city, as it then was; and they were all present. My family thought the world of Ulysses at that time and everybody came to the wedding who had an invitation. I say this to let you know that the wedding was not the wedding of a poor family. It was modest, but everything was nice.
The General never talked war matters with me at all. He wrote very little about the war, even after the taking of Vicksburg. I don’t remember that he wrote me any letter of exultation of joy. He was so sorry for the poor fellows who were opposed to him that he never could exult over any victory. He always felt relieved, of course, and glad that it seemed to promise to shorten the war, but he never exulted over them. After Vicksburg, he placed his headquarters at Nashville in order that I might be with him. The first day that I arrived there he was out and did not return until quite late in the evening, and then he told me with a great deal of sorrow that he would be obliged to go to the front, and he was afraid he might be away for some length of time.
Accordingly he was gone five days and during this time the Rebel women began to talk about me and the General and said the General had fled as soon as he could. When he came back I told him this, just to bother him, and he said, “Why, you can tell those ladies that I put my headquarters here just on purpose to have you with me.” During these five days I had been going out with the ladies of Nashville to the hospitals and doing what I could to aid the poor fellows there and the General came back. I began to tell him about it and present petitions and messages from these men which they had asked me to do. The General stopped me at once.
He said, “Now, my dear, I don’t want to hear anything at all about that. I don’t want you to come to me with any of these tales of the hospitals or any of these petitions or messages. I have all I can bear up under outside my home and when I come to you I want to see you and the the children and talk about other matters. I want to get all the sunshine I can.” When he sent for me, I was boarding at Louisville because I did not care to live in a hotel and it was not particularly pleasant for me at father Grant’s house.
My brother Fred Dent thought the world of Ulysses and when he returned from West Point he kept writing and telling us about Ulysses Grant. He told me Ulysses was the finest boy he had ever known. He said, ‘I want you to know him, he is pure gold. I want you to meet him.”
I don’t think his letters from the Mexican War would be particularly valuable, nor the letters which he wrote me during the Civil War. They were mainly relating to things personal or domestic. I cannot bear to read them now, they bring it all back to me. I was with him a good deal of the time during the Civil War. I was with him at Corinth and after Vicksburg I joined him at Nashville for awhile. After moving his camp from Nashville to City Point I went East and remained with him until the close of the war.
Grant, Jean Edward Smith, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Ulysses S. Grant Homepage