Top 10 Things to Know About Ulysses S. Grant

Military, Home Life, and Scandals of the 18th American President

Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822. Although he was an excellent general during the Civil War, Grant was a poor judge of character, as the scandals of friends and acquaintances tainted his presidency and damaged him financially after he retired.

At his birth, his family named him Hiram Ulysses Grant, and his mother always called him "Ulysses" or "'Lyss." His name was changed to Ulysses Simpson Grant by the congressman who wrote to West Point nominating him for matriculation, and Grant kept it because he liked the initials better than HUG. His classmates nicknamed him "Uncle Sam," or Sam for short, a nickname that stuck with him throughout his life. 

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Attended West Point

Ulysses S. Grant
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Grant was raised in the village of Georgetown, Ohio, by his parents, Jesse Root and Hannah Simpson Grant. Jesse was a tanner by profession, who owned about 50 acres of forest that he lumbered for timber, where Grant worked as a boy. Ulysses attended local schools and was later appointed to West Point in 1839. While there, he proved himself to be good at math and had excellent equestrian skills. However, he was not assigned to the cavalry due to his low grades and class rank.

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Married Julia Boggs Dent

Julia Dent Grant, Wife of Ulysses S. Grant
Kean Collection / Getty Images

Grant married his West Point roommate's sister, Julia Boggs Dent, on Aug. 22, 1848. They had three sons and one daughter. Their son Frederick would become the Assistant Secretary of War under President William McKinley.

Julia was known as an excellent hostess and First Lady. She gave their daughter Nellie an elaborate White House wedding while Grant was serving as president.

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Served in the Mexican War

Zachary Taylor, Twelfth President of the United States
Credit Line: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-13012 DLC

After graduating from West Point, Grant was assigned to the 4th United States infantry based in St. Louis, Missouri. That infantry took part in the military occupation of Texas, and Grant served during the Mexican War with Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, proving himself a valuable officer. He participated in the capture of Mexico City. By the end of the war, he was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.

With the end of the Mexican War, Grant had several more postings, including New York, Michigan, and the frontier, before he retired from the military. He feared that he would not be able to support his wife and family with military pay and set up at a farm in St. Louis. This only lasted four years before he sold it and took a job with his father's tannery in Galena, Illinois. Grant tried other avenues to earn money until the outbreak of the Civil War.

04
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Rejoined the Military at the Start of the Civil War

Robert E. Lee Surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomatox
Robert E. Lee Surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomatox. Bettmann / Getty I mages

After the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, Grant attended a mass meeting in Galena and was stirred to enlist as a volunteer. Grant rejoined the military and was soon appointed colonel in the 21st Illinois Infantry. He led the capture of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862—the first major Union victory. He was promoted to major general of the U.S. Volunteers. Other key victories under Grant's leadership included Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and the Siege of Vicksburg.

After Grant's successful battle at Vicksburg, Grant was appointed to be the major general of the regular army. In March 1864​ President Abraham Lincoln named Grant as the commander of all Union forces.

On April 9, 1865, Grant accepted General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. He served in command of the military until 1869. He was concurrently Andrew Jackson's Secretary of War from 1867 to 1868.

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Lincoln Invited Him to Ford's Theater

Abraham Lincoln
National Archives, Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Five days after Appomattox, Lincoln invited Grant and his wife to see the play at Ford's Theater with him, but they turned him down as they had another engagement in Philadelphia. Lincoln was assassinated that night. Grant thought that he too might well have been targeted as part of the assassination plot.

Grant initially supported Andrew Johnson's appointment to president but grew disenchanted with Johnson. In May 1865 Johnson issued a Proclamation of Amnesty, pardoning Confederates if they took a simple oath of allegiance to the United States. Johnson also vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was subsequently overturned by Congress. Johnson's dispute with Congress over how to reconstruct the United States as a single union eventually led to Johnson's impeachment and trial in January 1868.

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Easily Won the Presidency As a War Hero

Ulysses S Grant, Seventeenth President of the United States
Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-13018 DLC

In 1868 Grant was unanimously nominated to be the Republican candidate for president, in part because he had stood against Johnson. He easily won against opponent Horatio Seymour with 72 percent of the electoral vote, and somewhat reluctantly took office on March 4, 1869. President Johnson did not attend the ceremony, although large numbers of African-Americans did.

Despite the Black Friday scandal that occurred during his first term in office—two speculators attempted to corner the gold market and created a panic—Grant was nominated for reelection in 1872. He won 55 percent of the popular vote. His opponent, Horace Greeley, died before the electoral vote could be counted. Grant ended up receiving 256 out of 352 electoral votes.

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Continued Reconstruction Efforts

CIRCA 1870: Grand celebratory parade in Baltimore celebrating the passage of the fifteenth amendment.
Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Reconstruction was the key issue during Grant's time as president. War was still fresh in the minds of many, and Grant continued the military occupation of the South. In addition, he fought for black suffrage because many southern states had begun denying them the right to vote. Two years after taking over the presidency, the 15th Amendment was passed that stated that no one could be denied the right to vote based on race.

Another key piece of legislation was the Civil Rights Act passed in 1875, ensuring African-Americans the same rights for transportation and public accommodations, among other things.

08
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Affected By Many Scandals

Financier Jay Gould. He and Jim Fisk almost cornered the gold market during Ulysses S. Grant's presidency.
Bettmann / Getty Images

Five scandals marred Grant's time as president.

  1. Black Friday - Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the gold market, driving up its price. When Grant realized what was happening, he had the Treasury Department add gold into the market, causing its price to plummet on September 24, 1869.
  2. Credit Mobilier - Officials of the Credit Mobilier Company stole money from the Union Pacific Railroad. They sold stocks at a huge discount to members of Congress as a way to cover up their wrongdoing. When this was revealed, Grant's vice president was implicated.
  3. Whiskey Ring - In 1875, many distillers and federal agents were fraudulently keeping money that should have been paid as a tax on liquor. Grant was part of the scandal when he protected his personal secretary from punishment.
  4. Private Collection of Taxes - Grant's Secretary of the Treasury, William A. Richardson, gave a private citizen, John Sanborn, the job of collecting delinquent taxes. Sanborn kept 50 percent of his collections but got greedy and began collecting more than allowed before he was investigated by Congress.
  5. Secretary of War Bribed - In 1876, it was found that Grant's Secretary of War, W.W. Belknap, was accepting bribes. He was unanimously impeached by the House of Representatives and he resigned.
09
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Was President When the Battle of Little Big Horn Happened

George Armstrong Custer
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B8172-1613 DLC

Grant was a supporter of Native American rights, appointing Ely S. Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe, as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. However, he also signed a bill ending the Indian treaty system, which had established Native American groups as sovereign states: The new law treated them as wards of the federal government.

In 1875 Grant was president when the Battle of Little Big Horn occurred. Fighting had been raging between settlers and Native Americans who felt the settlers were intruding on sacred lands. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer had been sent to attack the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Native Americans at Little Big Horn. However, warriors led by Crazy Horse attacked Custer and massacred every last soldier.

Grant used the press to blame Custer for the fiasco, saying, "I regard Custer's massacre as a sacrifice of troops brought on by Custer himself." But despite Grant's opinions, the military waged a war and defeated the Sioux nation within a year. Over 200 battles took place between the U.S. and Native American groups during his presidency.

10
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Lost Everything After Retiring From the Presidency

Mark Twain paid Ulysses S. Grant to write his memoirs.
PhotoQuest / Getty Images

After his presidency, Grant traveled widely, spending two and a half years on a costly world tour before settling down in Illinois. In 1880 an attempt was made to nominate him for another term of office as president, but the ballots failed and Andrew Garfield was chosen. Grant's hopes of a happy retirement soon ended after he borrowed money to help his son get started in a Wall Street brokerage business. His friend's business partner was a scam artist, and Grant lost everything.

To make money for his family, Grant wrote several articles on his Civil War experiences for The Century Magazine, and the editor suggested he write his memoirs. He was found to have throat cancer and to raise money for his wife, he was contracted by Mark Twain to write his memoirs at an unheard-of 75 percent royalty. He died a few days after the book was completed; his wife ultimately received about $450,000 in royalties.

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Sources

  • Grant, Ulysses Simpson. The Complete Personal Memoirs and Selected Letters of Ulysses S. Grant. Igal Meirovich, 2012. Print.
  • McFeely, Mary Drake, and William S. McFeely, eds. Memoirs and Selected Letters: Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant and Selected Letters 1839–1865. New York, New York: The Library of America, 1990. Print.
  • Smith, Gene. Lee and Grant: A Dual Biography. Open Road Media, 2016. Print.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. "That Other Impeachment." The New York Times. Aug. 11 1974, New York ed.: 9ff. Print.
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Kelly, Martin. "Top 10 Things to Know About Ulysses S. Grant." ThoughtCo, May. 9, 2018, thoughtco.com/things-to-know-about-ulysses-s-grant-105376. Kelly, Martin. (2018, May 9). Top 10 Things to Know About Ulysses S. Grant. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/things-to-know-about-ulysses-s-grant-105376 Kelly, Martin. "Top 10 Things to Know About Ulysses S. Grant." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/things-to-know-about-ulysses-s-grant-105376 (accessed May 22, 2018).