Biography of Ulysses S. Grant Through 10 Interesting Facts

Ulysses S. Grant joined the West Point Military Academy at the age of 18 and he distinguished himself as a daring and competent soldier during the Mexican–American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. After resigning from the army due to a drinking problem, he faced financial difficulty for a number of years. During the American Civil War, Grant rose through the ranks to become General-in-chief of all the Union Armies. He worked closely with President Lincoln to lead the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy in 1865. In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant became the 18th President of the United States. He was the youngest American President till then. Though Grant accomplished a lot as president, his tenure was marred by several scandals associated with persons within his administration, including his cabinet. Post presidency, Grant wrote his highly acclaimed autobiography titled Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Know more about the family, life, education, Civil War years, presidency and death of President Ulysses S. Grant through these 10 interesting facts.


Matthew Grant and his wife Priscilla, ancestors of Ulysses S. Grant, sailed from England aboard the ship Mary and John and arrived at Massachusetts Bay Colony in America in 1630. Noah, grandfather of Grant, fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War. His son Jesse Root Grant became a tanner, a person who treats skins of animals to produce leather. Jesse married Hannah Simpson on June 24, 1821. Hannah gave birth to their first child, Hiram Ulysses Grant, on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio. Jesse and Hannah had five more children after Ulysses: Simpson, Clara, Orvil, Jennie and Mary.

Parents of Ulysses S. Grant
Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson – Parents of Ulysses S. Grant

In 1839, Ohio Congressman Thomas Hamer nominated Hiram Ulysses Grant to be a cadet at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. He incorrectly put the name “Ulysses S. Grant” on the nomination. He assumed Grant’s middle name was his mother’s maiden name of Simpson. Despite Grant’s best efforts to correct the record, the name stuck. The middle initial “S” in Grant’s name thus doesn’t stand for anything.


Grant entered West Point on July 1, 1839. His nickname became “Sam” among army colleagues since the initials “U.S.” also stood for “Uncle Sam”. At the academy, Grant developed a reputation as the “most proficient” horseman. He also set a high-jump record that stood for 25 years. Grant graduated from West Point on July 1, 1843. He was ranked 21st in a class of 39. One of Grant’s friends at the academy was Frederick Tracy Dent. In 1844, while visiting Dent’s family in Missouri, Grant became engaged to Dent’s sister, Julia.

Ulysses Grant and his family
Ulysses Grant and Julia Dent with their four children – Jesse, Ulysses Jr., Nellie and Frederick

Four years later, on August 22, 1848, Ulysses S. Grant married Julia Boggs Dent at her home in St. Louis, Missouri. The couple had four children: Frederick, Ulysses Jr., Ellen and Jesse. Julia Dent was born with strabismus (commonly known as “crossed eyes”). She refused surgery when she was young but when Grant became president she reconsidered the option. However, Grant objected, “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes?… They are mine, and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you had better not make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”


The Mexican American War broke out in 1846 and Grant experienced combat for the first time at the Battle of Palo Alto, the first major battle of the war. He distinguished himself as a daring and competent soldier during the war; and won two citations for gallantry and one for meritorious conduct. After the war, Grant was assigned monotonous duties at remote posts. He became bored and was also depressed about being separated from his wife. This led to Grant developing a drinking problem. He was reported to have been too much under the influence of alcohol to perform his duties efficiently. His reporting officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Buchanan, asked him to resign.

Battle of Palo Alto painting
Depiction of the Battle of Palo Alto, during which Grant experienced combat for the first time

Grant asked for some time to reform but when he couldn’t, he resigned from the army on July 31, 1854. Grant also struggled with alcohol during the American Civil War with rumors that he was intoxicated during battles. Supposedly, when a group of congressmen brought the issue in front of President Lincoln, he asked for what kind of whiskey did Grant prefer “for if it made fighting generals like Grant, I should like to get some of it for distribution.”


After resigning from the army, Grant had to face financial struggles for seven years. In 1855, he farmed on his brother-in-law’s property near St. Louis, using slaves owned by Julia’s father. The farm was not successful and he had to earn money by selling firewood on street corners. The following year, he moved to Julia’s father’s farm. Financial crisis in U.S. in 1857 devastated the farmers, including Grant. Such was his financial situation that he had to pawn his gold watch to pay for Christmas. In 1858, Grant retired from farming. He tried a number of ways to earn money in the following years but without success.

In April 1860, Grant moved with his family to Galena, Illinois where he worked in his father’s leather goods business which was being run by his brothers Simpson and Orvil. Within a few months, Grant was able to pay off the debts he had acquired in Missouri. In March 1859, when Grant was in deep financial crisis, he freed William Jones, a slave he had acquired from his father-in-law. This was when he could have earned $1,500 by selling William to get the much needed money.


The American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861 and Grant volunteered for military service in the Union army. After initially struggling to secure field command, he was later placed in charge of a regiment of Illinois volunteers and quickly promoted to the rank of brigadier general. In February 1862, Grant led the Union forces to a major victory when he forced 15,000 Confederates to surrender at Tennessee’s Fort Donelson. Playing with his initials, the Union press gave him the nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

1866 Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant
1866 Portrait of Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant

Grant quickly rose through the ranks by leading the Union army to several triumphs and ultimately, in 1864, President Lincoln made him the General-in-chief (Lieutenant General), giving him charge of all the Union Armies. Grant led the Union forces to victory in the American Civil War, which ended with the surrender of famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee in mid-1865. Ulysses S. Grant is the most acclaimed Union general of the Civil War. He continued to serve as the Commanding General of the United States Army till March 4, 1869.


On April 14, 1865, during a cabinet meeting, President Abraham Lincoln invited Grant to join him at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. However, Grant declined the offer as he and his wife had made plans to visit their children in New Jersey. As part of a larger conspiracy intended to revive the Confederate cause, Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater. Grant received the news when his train stopped later that night. Grant later called that day as the “darkest day of my life” and Lincoln as “the greatest man I have ever known”. He also regretted declining Lincoln’s offer to accompany him as he believed he would have somehow stopped John Wilkes Booth from pulling the trigger. Lincoln was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson. Grant was politically opposed to Johnson but their relationship began on a cordial basis. However, with time, the two became open opponents. The break with Johnson popularized Grant among Republicans and made him their uncontested candidate for Presidency in 1868.

General Grant, President Lincoln, General Sherman and Admiral Porter
1868 painting depicting General Grant and President Lincoln with General William T Sherman (extreme left) and Admiral David Dixon Porter (extreme right)


At the age of 46, Ulysses S. Grant became the 18th President of the United States. He was the youngest president elected till then. Grant won re-election and served from March 4, 1869 to March 4, 1877. Unlike his predecessors, Grant’s vision of Reconstruction included federal enforcement of civil rights and action against voter intimidation of Southern blacks. To counter the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white supremacist organizations in the south, Grant signed into law the Enforcement Acts, which were criminal codes to protect African-Americans’ right to vote, among other things.

Ulysses S. Grant presidential portrait
Official Presidential portrait of Ulysses S. Grant

Though Grant was able to destroy the KKK and provide temporary relief to African Americans, most of his work was undone later and by 1890, most black voters in the South were effectively disenfranchised by obstacles introduced by new state constitutions and state laws. Major achievement of Grant in foreign policy was the Treaty of Washington, which peacefully resolved outstanding disputes between the U.S. and the U.K; and initiated friendly relations between the two nations which would later prove beneficial for both sides.


President Grant had a policy of selling Treasury gold at weekly intervals to pay off the national debt and boost the economy. Jay Gould and James Fisk were speculators who approached Abel Corbin, brother-in-law of Grant. Though Cobin they befriended Grant and used information about up and coming government gold sales to manipulate the market. This led to a gold panic on September 24, 1869 known as Black Friday. When the scandal became known it led to undermining the credibility of Grant.

Black Friday of 1869
Depiction of the panic in Gold room on the Black Friday of 1869

Apart from Black Friday, there were several other scandals during Grant’s presidency including rampant corruption in the Department of the Interior; the Sanborn incident in 1874, in which Secretary of the Treasury, William Richardson, hired a private citizen named John D. Sanborn to collect $427,000 in unpaid taxes; and the Whiskey Ring scandal in 1875, which involved diversion of tax revenues in a conspiracy among government agents, politicians, whiskey distillers and distributors. As Grant’s tenure saw so many scandals, the term Grantism became a byword for political incompetence, corruption and fraud during the 1870s.


Post presidency, Ulysses S. Grant and his family embarked on a two and a half year world tour. During the tour, the Grants made stops in Europe, the Mediterranean, and points in middle and Far East. They met with notable dignitaries including Queen Victoria, Pope Leo XIII, Otto von Bismarck and Emperor Meiji. The world tour of Grant captured favorable global attention for the United States. After returning to America in September 1879, Grant attempted to run for President again but couldn’t get the Republican nomination.

Funeral procession for Ulysses S. Grant
Funeral procession for Ulysses S. Grant

In 1883, Grant joined the brokerage house of his son Ulysses Jr. and Ferdinand Ward. He invested $100,000 of his own money in the firm. Ferdinand Ward was a con man and he caused the financial ruin of many people, including Grant. Nevertheless, Grant repaid what he could with his Civil War mementos and the sale or transfer of all other assets. In October 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died at 8 o’clock in the morning on July 23, 1885 in a cottage of a friend on Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, New York. He was 63 years old. Attendance at his funeral in New York was over 1.5 million.


After financial reverses in his later life, Grant started writing articles about his Civil War campaigns for The Century Magazine at $500 each. The articles were well received by the critics and the editor of the magazine suggested to Grant to write a book of memoirs. After being diagnosed with cancer, Grant was also constantly worried about leaving his wife a suitable amount of money to live on. The Century Magazine offered Grant 10 percent royalty but his friend, the famous writer Mark Twain, made him an unheard-of 75 percent royalty offer.

Grant was able to finish his memoir a few days before his death. It was published posthumously by Twain with the title Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. The autobiography was a huge critical and commercial success; and Julia Grant received around $450,000 in royalties. Twain called the Memoirs a “literary masterpiece”; and reviewer Mark Perry later stated that they are “the most significant work” of American non-fiction. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant has been highly regarded by the public, military historians and literary critics. It is considered one of the best books ever written by an American president.

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    President Grant personally requested from the U.S. Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Act, also called the Third Enforcement Act or the “Ku Klux Klan Act,” empowered Grant as president to suppress the violent racist groups in the South, like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), that were increasingly terrorizing Blacks, including freedmen voters, as the 1872 election approached. The result, as Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow noted, was “the fairest presidential election in southern states until 1968.”

    During the years 1871–1877, Grant’s administration secured 1,143 convictions of white supremacists violating Americans’ civil rights. These action by Grant’s administration crushed the KKK, as well as its offshoots like the Knights of the White Camelia. Unfortunately, the KKK would reemerge in new form some 50 years later.

    President Grant signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It prohibited racial exclusion from public accommodations, transport, and juries. It would be 81 years before Congress passed another civil rights bill, and in the meantime, in 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the accommodations provisions of the 1875 act.


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