grant memoirs

“My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.”

April 27 marks the 194th anniversary of the birth of Ulysses S. Grant, victor of the Civil War and somewhat unsuccessful president of the United States.

Though Grant found his way into the world in Point Pleasant, Ohio, he began his incredible rise from reluctant soldier and hard luck businessman in Galena. There, at his father’s behest, he entered the leather goods business with his two brothers, one young, the other—more capable—dying of tuberculosis. He spent eleven months in the town, most of the time uneventful except for work, though in those epic days even a leather goods dealer might get caught up in the whirlwind of history:

I traveled through the Northwest considerably during the winter of 1860-1. We had customers in all the little towns in south-west Wisconsin, south-east Minnesota and north-east Iowa. These generally knew I had been a captain in the regular army and had served through the Mexican war. Consequently wherever I stopped at night, some of the people would come to the public-house where I was, and sit till a late hour discussing the probabilities of the future. My own views at that time were like those officially expressed by Mr. Seward at a later day, that “the war would be over in ninety days.” I continued to entertain these views until after the battle of Shiloh.

As the War Between the States heated up, Grant put aside the leather goods business and, as a former professional soldier, became a colonel in the Twenty-first Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Soon enough he was a brigadier general and the victor in the Chattanooga Campaign, a series of battles that blew the Confederate Army out of Tennessee and opened up the Deep South for Yankee invasion.

For a long time, even the corruption of the Grant Administration failed to diminish the man’s status. Can mean little political scandals eclipse one who vanquished the Rebellion and accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee? Yet Grant’s second act went less well. Though drafted to run as president, he seemed about as enthusiastic about the office as he did about soldiering, and indeed he delegated to the point that his appointees robbed the country blind. Nor did he get a free ride politically in his own time. Our own Journal of American Ethnic History once reprinted the sick burn below from 1872.

grant editorial cartoon

True, next to no one alive today understands what this cartoon is talking about. But back then!

After his glory days, Grant never spent significant time in Illinois again. He failed in business once more, leaving his family on the edge of ruin. Fellow cigar enthusiast Mark Twain helped Grant publish his memoirs—still acclaimed as one of the best books ever written by an American political figure—and Grant, ill with terminal throat cancer, saw it done days before his death in 1885.

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