Ulysses S. Grant is remembered as a great general in the Civil War, and later a less-than-great President. But the stories of his childhood can teach us much about the great things that he did later.
Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant. His name was changed by a mistake made by a congressman on his nomination to West Point. At that time, Grant considered correcting the mistake, but since cadets were identified by their initials (and his would have been “H.U.G.”), he decided to stick with the new name, Ulysses Simpson Grant. His friends called him Sam.
His new name led to new and auspicious initials: U.S. Grant. In his first great victory, the capture of Fort Donelson, newspapers decided that his initials stood for “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. In his letter to Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Grant wrote: “Yours of this date proposing armistice, and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” (An interesting note to history is that Buckner was a pre-war friend of Grant’s who had lent Grant money when Grant was broke and reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis.)
When Grant was a young boy, his father informed him that he had planned to give Grant a silver dollar to clean out the barn, but that he didn’t think Grant was large enough yet to be able to do such a hard job. A dollar was a great deal of money then, and Grant pleaded to be allowed to try. After several hours, Grant had cleaned the barn. His father congratulated him on doing such a fine job and gave him the silver dollar. His father then told Grant that since he had proven he could indeed clean the barn, it would be his responsibility to clean the barn each day.
Grant always loved horses, and was known throughout his entire life as an excellent horseman. When he was eight, a neighbor had a colt for sale that Grant very much wanted. Grant’s father offered twenty dollars for the colt, but the farmer refused to sell for that price. Grant begged his father to buy the colt, and Grant’s father agreed. Grant was told by his father to offer twenty-two and a half dollars for the colt, and if the farmer would not accept that, to offer twenty-five dollars. Grant mounted a horse and rode straight to the farmer and said, “Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer you twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, to give you twenty-five.” Needless to say, he paid twenty-five for the colt, and it was a long time before he heard the last of that story from his neighbors in the town.
Unfortunately, his lack of business skills was never corrected. At the end of his life, he was taken in a swindle and left bankrupt. He managed to finish his memoirs a mere week or two before his death from cancer (too many of his famous cigars) and left his widow very wealthy.
One unusual trait that Grant developed early in his life was an obsession with not reversing his tracks. He simply hated to go back over the same ground he had already covered. He often made deliveries for his father using a horse and wagon. If he missed a fork in the road, or made a wrong turn, he would refuse to turn around, even if the distance was a very short one. He would drive on and spend several hours or more finding a different (and longer) route to the original destination.
This trait never left him. During the Civil War, numerous commanders of the Army of the Potomac followed the same pattern of attacking and then retreating over the same ground to where they started in order to regroup and refit. Grant took over and changed the pattern, refusing to retreat. He would attack, or continue to maneuver aggressively. It became his trademark as a military commander.
Grant attended the Military Academy at West Point, but he didn’t want to. After arriving, the Congress debated closing West Point because it was too elitist for a young democracy. Grant very much hoped they would close the Academy. He was extremely disappointed when they didn’t.
When the Military Academy was not abolished, Grant determined to get himself expelled. He dressed in his dress uniform, and without a pass or permission walked straight through the main gate and into town. He then went to an off-limits bar and had a beer, waiting for the guard to come and arrest him, after which he would be expelled. When no one came, he had second thoughts, and returned to his barracks, again going through the main gate in view of everyone. He was so bold about it that everyone, including the cadet officer of the day, assumed he must have permission for what he was doing. As a result, he got away with his crime. From this, he learned the benefit of bold, decisive action, a lesson that served him well many times during the Civil War.
When he graduated from West Point, he bought a new uniform and set off for Cincinnati. As he arrived at the outskirts of town, some of the young boys trailed behind him and taunted him in his fancy uniform. The incident deflated the proud Grant. When he got to his home town, another deflating experience took place. A rather dissolute stableman paraded around town in a pair of sky-blue nankeen pantaloons the same color of Grant’s uniform trousers with a strip of white cotton sheeting sewed down the outside seems, imitating Grant. The townspeople thought it was very funny; Grant didn’t. From then on, he never enjoyed wearing dress uniforms. As the nation’s highest ranking soldier, he often wore a private’s coat with his rank attached to the shoulders. In fact, that was how he was dressed when he received Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
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