A tanner's son, Hiram Ulysses Grant grew up in straitened circumstances, though, unlike many westerners of his time, he managed to attend school more or less regularly until age seventeen. He was an indifferent student but a gifted handler of horses, and he never lost his boyhood fellow-feeling for animals. Later in his life he disapproved of killing them, even for food, especially, as he put it, "if they went on two legs."
Listed wrongly as "Ulysses S. Grant" when he arrived at West Point in 1839, he dropped Hiram and adopted his mother's maiden name, Simpson, as he second name, sparing the army the pain of admitting a mistake. His academy career was otherwise undistinguished. He graduated 21st in his class of 39 in 1843.
As a young infantry officer, Grant served in Missouri and Louisiana and fought in the Mexican War. In 1848 he married Julia Dent and looked ahead to a life of routine in the regular army. But Grant failed miserably as a peacetime soldier. Bored, lonely, and increasingly addicted to drink, he resigned under pressure in 1854. Grant fared little better in civil life. He moved from job to job, at one point selling firewood in the streets of St. Louis. In 1860, with nowhere else to turn, he went to work as a clerk in his brother's dry goods store in Galena, Illinois.
Those were bitter years, as Grant acknowledged latertoward the end of the Civil War , when a number of wealthy New Yorkers presented him with a handsome military overcoat at a ceremonial occasion. He had become a national idol, his future assured. He tried on the coat, and after a few moments' silence, he reflected somberly: " There have been times in my life when the gift of an overcoat would have been an act of charity. No one gave it to me when I needed it. Now when I am able to pay for all I need, such gifts are continually thrust upon me."
The coming of the War had reversed Grant's fortunes almost overnight. In September 1861, he was appointed brigadier general of the Cairo military district. " Be careful," his father warned him. " You're a general now; it's a good job, don't lose t." Within eighteen months, Grant had made his military reputation. A bold strategist and a master of logistics, his list of successes mounted: capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862; recovery from near disaster and eventual victory at Shiloh in April of that year; the brilliant overland campaign in the spring of 1863 that yielded one of the war's decisive victoriesthe surrender of the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg. His victory at Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga in November 1863 opened the invasion route to Atlanta and the Deep South and led to Grant's ascension to commander-in-chief of all Union land forces.
Coming east in the winter of 1864, he made his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac. On May 4, 1864, he opened a relentless campaign against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. In a continuous shifting battle from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor, he ground Lee's army mercilessly. " I propose," he wired in a famous dispatch after the drawn battle of Spotsylvania Court House, " to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."
Casualties mounted to unprecedented levels, but he pressed on all the same. " I can't spare this man," Lincoln had said after Shiloh, when's Grant's critics sought his removal from command. " He fights." But Grant was no mere slugger. He was a thinking soldier of rare ability. In June 1864, after a surprise crossing of the James River, he forced Lee into defensive lines around Petersburg and Richmond, robbing the Confederates of all freedom of movement. Lee never again resumed the offensive. Some analysts have called the James crossing the most brilliant Union operation of the entire War.
The 1864 battles cost the Army of the Potomac 66,000 casualties between May4 and June 19half the army's strength at the outset of the campaignbut Grant refused to turn away from his goal. With simplicity and directness of purpose, he pursued his strategy to the end: destruction of the Confederate armies, one by one.
Grant's last campaign opened on March 29, 1865, with a wide swing around the Confederate right beyond Petersburg. Cavalry and infantry under Gen. Philip Sheridan turned Lee' s flank at Five Forks on April 1. " If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender," Sheridan wrote Grant on April 6 as Lee limped westward. Grant passed the message on to President Lincoln. " Let the thing be pressed," the president replied.
The Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. That night jubilant Union forces fired off salutes and exploded now-surplus small arms ammunition in a grand fireworks display. Grant brusquely ordered a halt to the celebrations. "The war is over," he said. "The rebels are our countrymen again." The other Confederate armies soon followed Lee's example. Grant accepted Republican nomination for president in 1868 and his party won a landslide victory in November. He was re-elected in 1872.
Grant's two presidential terms were marred by scandal and corruption on a grand scale. No one ever suggested Grant himself had stolen while in office; in fact, he left the White House with a modest net worth of only a few thousand dollars. But he knew one final triumphthe completion, just before his death on July 23, 1885, of his Personal Memoirs, a best-seller in its time and an enduring classic of Civil War literature.