MILITARY (1822–1885); POINT PLEASANT, OHIO
Fresh off his victory as commander of the Union armies during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) became President of the United States in March 1869. While his time in office wasn’t without controversy, Grant has taken his place among the most fascinating of the country’s leaders. Today, you can find him on the $50 bill and the $1 coin that was issued in 2011. For more on Grant, including the mystery of his middle name, keep reading.
1. Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War victories are legendary.
Ulysses Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822, to parents Jesse and Hannah Grant. He was raised in Georgetown, Ohio, and eventually passed on an opportunity to follow his father into the tannery, or leather, business. Instead, he opted to join the United States Military Academy at West Point at the age of 17. After graduating, he wed Julia Dent and served during the Mexican-American War, before resigning from the military in 1854.
But it was the Civil War that made Grant’s name. He returned to the army when the war broke out, starting as commander of the 21st Illinois Volunteers on his way to eventually becoming Commanding General of the United States Army. During the war, Grant earned several major victories on behalf of the Union:
- Grant led the charge in the Battle of Fort Henry in Tennessee in February 1862, scoring the first major Union win in the war.
- Grant also took Fort Donelson that same month, each time forcing Confederates to surrender. Both are credited as being two crucial victories for the Union, allowing them to take control of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
- Grant conquered the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862, said to be among the most violent of the conflict. After two days of fighting and the fatal wounding of Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston, the Union beat back Confederate forces.
- In Vicksburg, Mississippi, Grant cut off supplies to Confederates and laid siege to their key city, overwhelming them and breaking their forces into smaller groups. They surrendered on July 4, 1863.
- In November 1863, Grant led Union forces in the Battle of Chattanooga in Tennessee, which included Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Enemy forces retreated to Georgia, leaving a key railroad junction under Union control.
- Now serving as a lieutenant general of the entire U.S. Army, Grant spent 1864 and 1865 advancing on General Robert E. Lee’s men in Virginia. Losing men rapidly, Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, ending the war.
2. Ulysses S. Grant had no formal middle name.
The “S” in Ulysses S. Grant has long invited questions about his middle name. If you don’t recall ever hearing it, that’s because he doesn’t actually have one. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant. When he enlisted in the U.S. Military Academy, a paperwork error had him listed as “Ulysses S. Grant.” Rather than get tied up in the confusion, Grant simply accepted the change in his name. The “S” would later come in handy, as his Civil War victories led to people nicknaming him “U.S. Grant” and “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”
3. Ulysses S. Grant was said to be unflappable.
Part of what made Grant such an effective military leader was a seeming sense of impermeability. Grant was said to be very steady and not easily excited. One Union officer who knew him wrote that Grant “habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.” Once, Grant was sitting for a photographer when the photographer’s assistant fell through a skylight. Glass shards fell right next to Grant, who remained sitting, not moving an inch.
4. As president, Ulysses S. Grant was not necessarily the most qualified.
Following his contributions to winning the Civil War, Grant had unmatched support among Union states and Republicans. When then-President Andrew Johnson was impeached following a controversy over the inappropriate firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Grant was elected to office in 1868. But his history was in military service, not politics, and some felt Grant was lost in the role as a world leader. He was said to look to Congress for guidance, as well as numerous military servicemen he brought to the White House.
Even so, Grant still implemented positive changes while in office. He signed the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, granting black men the right to vote, and supported improved government relations with Native Americans. And in 1872, he signed legislation that named Yellowstone the country’s first national park.
5. Ulysses S. Grant's presidency was not without controversy.
While Grant was never personally involved in any of the wrongdoing while in office, he had a knack for being associated with impropriety. Early on, gold speculators James Fisk and Jay Gould tried to manipulate the market by influencing the government, causing a mass panic on September 24, 1869, that came to be known as Black Friday. Because Grant knew Fisk and Gould personally, the president came under scrutiny. Later, in 1875, Grant’s private secretary, Orville Babcock, was involved in the Whiskey Ring, a network of alcohol distributors that conspired to avoid paying the government liquor tax revenue. Despite these gaffes, Grant was a proponent of civil service reform and established a civil service commission to examine the fair hiring and termination of workers. (Congress, unfortunately, withheld funding.)
6. Ulysses S. Grant toured the world.
Following his two terms as president, Grant, his wife Julia, and their youngest son, Jesse, decided to embark upon an ambitious world tour that would take two and a half years. Departing from Philadelphia in 1877, the Grant family traveled with New York Herald reporter John Russell Young. The first stop was England, where they visited Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. Though cordial, the Queen was famously irritated that Jesse, 19, had come along, describing him as a "very ill-mannered young Yankee." The Grants also made their way through Western Europe, then to Egypt, Greece, Rome, Russia, Austria, Germany, Burma, Singapore, and Vietnam, before returning to America on December 16, 1879.
7. Ulysses S. Grant got help from Mark Twain for his memoirs.
Following his two terms as president, Grant decided to start a career in investment banking, but the firm he was involved in wound up being disreputable. Turns out, his partner, Ferdinand Ward, was embezzling money from his clients and partners, including Grant and his son Buck. Broke and newly diagnosed with throat cancer, Grant turned to his sole remaining source for funds—writing his memoirs.
When he was going to sign a publishing deal that would award him 10 percent royalties, his friend Mark Twain, who Grant had grown close to after several meetings during and after his presidency, was appalled. Twain offered to publish the memoirs at Charles L. Webster & Co., the publishing house he established in 1884. The new royalty rate would be 20 percent, and Twain gave Grant $1000 for living expenses (the former president wouldn't accept a bigger advance out of fear that his book would lose money for Twain).
Twain supervised Grant's writing, and on July 20, 1885, the memoirs were finally finished. Grant died just three days later. When The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was released that December, it was a resounding success and acted as a kind of inheritance for his widow, Julia. She earned $450,000 in royalties from sales of the book.
Famous Ulysses S. Grant Quotes
- “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.”
- “Labor disgraces no man; unfortunately, you occasionally find men who disgrace labor.”
- “I don't underrate the value of military knowledge, but if men make war in slavish obedience to rules, they will fail.”
- “In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.”
- “To maintain peace in the future it is necessary to be prepared for war.”