Friday, September 09, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XVII: Man in Motion


Only a year earlier, he was the picture of abject failure. Virtually nothing he had turned his hand to resulted in success. He was the husband of a devoted wife, and the father of adoring children, and exactly that much was right with his world. He was a miserable figure, shuffling to and from the only job he could find, a clerk in his father's store. At thirty-eight years of age, Ulysses Grant had hit rock bottom.

His fortunes hadn't always looked so grim. His father, Jesse Grant, was well-regarded though not spectacularly wealthy. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, he was mistakenly nominated to West Point under the name Ulysses S. Grant. He raised no complaint: he'd secretly dreaded having to go by the initials H.U.G., knowing that would mean no end of ribbing from his classmates. He was an indifferent student, graduating 21st out of 39, with two notable exceptions. He was an outstanding horseman, and he was exceptionally talented in mathematics.

Grant didn't actually want to be a career soldier. Oh, he had no qualms about the job, it's just that what he really wanted was to be a professor of mathematics. And that's what almost happened. He wanted the job, West Point wanted him back as an instructor, but this was 1843, and trouble was brewing down on the border with Mexico. Lieutenant Grant would be a soldier, after all.

As a quartermaster, if he were so inclined, he might have seen no action at all. But that wasn't his style. Twice, he was brevetted for bravery, at Molino del Rey and at Chapultepec. This, despite the fact that he was deeply opposed to the war itself. He thought it terribly unjust, and would later write, "I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day, regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

After the war, Grant remained in the Army. As a result of the Mexican War, the United States had acquired an immense amount of territory, and soldiers would be required to guarantee its safety. Grant's duties were to be as a quartermaster at a succession of forts on the west coast. It was more or less at this point that we'd see a facet of Grant's character that would resurface several times in the future. Grant, in the face of action, was a capable and diligent soldier. Grant, faced with the tedium of garrison duty, did not handle boredom well. It's not known for sure whether or not Grant ever drank on duty, but his commander believed that he had. Grant was given an ultimatum: resign, or face court-martial. He resigned.

For several years, Grant tried to make a go of it as a farmer, on a plot of land his family owned outside of St. Louis, Missouri. But Grant was a poor businessman. After four years, he had to give up farming, and spent a couple of years as a bill collector in St. Louis. This didn't work out, either; and after a string of failed ventures, he was forced to accept a job as a clerk in his father's leather goods store. This is where we find him in late 1860 and early 1861: a broken man, shuffling between his home and his father's store.

His luck began to change in April. After Fort Sumter was attacked, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Rebellion. As it happened, soldiering was something Grant was quite familiar with ... And so it was that Grant helped to recruit a company of volunteers, and accompanied said unit to the state capital at Springfield. This company seemed to be more well-drilled and disciplined than most volunteers, so Governor Richard Yates offered Grant a position to recruit and train new troops. Grant accepted -- this wasn't the field command that he was looking for, but it beat working in his father's store. Besides, if he did a good enough job, perhaps someone would notice.

Someone did notice. Grant's enthusiasm, energy, and efficiency made an impression not only on his soldiers, but on Governor Yates. In June, the Governor promoted Grant to Colonel, and gave him the Twenty-first Illinois volunteer regiment, a particularly unruly regiment of volunteers. Within a few months, they weren't quite so unruly anymore. It's not that Grant was a harsh disciplinarian, or a martinet. He wasn't. But he kept his men busy with drill, attended to their needs diligently, and as is so often the case, his soldiers responded positively to such treatment. This turn-around caught the eye of Major General John Fremont, who'd known Grant by reputation from the Mexican War. He'd been appointed by Lincoln as commander in the West, and Fremont needed someone to take charge of a deteriorating situation in the District of Cairo. Fremont saw Grant as "a man of dogged persistance, and iron will," and tapped him for the post.

What a difference a year makes. From the depths of failure in September 1860, Grant had risen to command of a regiment of volunteers in September 1861. This change of fortunes affected Grant's entire demeanor. He began to walk with a bold, confident step. He was immensely confident of his abilities, but at the same time, kept a fairly solid grasp on the limits of the possible. These two qualities seldom meet in one person.

General Fremont had given Grant orders to venture out and meet the Confederate forces at Belmont. Grant immediately began making the necessary preparations. Soon, he would march out to meet the enemy.

In September 1861, few knew the name Ulysses S. Grant. This was about to change.

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