Ulysses S. Grant: 200th Birthday

Grant posing collared shirt, partially buttoned vest and unbuttoned military overcoat

General Ulysses S. Grant. Brady-Handy photograph collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Manuscript Division. 

“In June 1821 my father, Jesse Root Grant, married Hannah Simpson. I was born on the 27th of April, 1822, at Point Pleasant, Clermont County, Ohio.”

In his typically concise way, General Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States, recounted in his manuscript memoirs his own start in life. His unremarkable birth, however, was the beginning of a remarkable life that would see him more than once plummet to the depths of despair and rise to the pinnacle of success. What better way to commemorate his 200th birthday than to explore his extraordinary life through his papers at the Library?

The most personal of Grant’s papers are the letters to his wife, Julia Dent Grant. While stationed in St. Louis, Missouri, after his graduation from the United States Military Academy in 1843, Grant visited the nearby family home of his West Point friend, Frederick Dent. There Grant met Fred’s sister, Julia, and fell helplessly in love. The couple quietly became engaged in May 1844, although “Ulys” would later admit that he had been “so frightened” on the day he proposed that he could not “remember whether it was warm or snowing.” Grant’s military postings and the Mexican War (1846-1848) contributed to their long engagement. He wrote faithfully when they were apart, sending flowers he picked on the bank of the Rio Grande River, sharing his observations of the war in Mexico, expressing his devotion to her, and always urging her to write more often.

Handwritten letter, in cursive, from Grant to his wife, Julia

Ulysses Grant note to his wife, Julia, on May 22, 1875, on their 31rst wedding anniversary. Manuscript Division.

The couple finally married in 1848 and shared several happy years living together at military posts in Michigan and New York. In 1852, the army sent him to outposts in California and Oregon. The devoted family man missed his wife and their two young sons. An air of desperation crept into his letters home. “You do not know how forsaken I feel here!” he wrote in 1854. “How very much I want to see all of you.” Not being able to “endure this separation” any longer, Grant resigned from the military in April 1854 and returned to St. Louis. Although reunited with his family, he struggled to find steady employment as a civilian. The name Grant gave to a family farm summed up the bleak years just before the Civil War: Hardscrabble.

Handwritten letter from Grant to Julia, his wife.

“My Dear Wife…” Fort Humbolt, California, February 2, 1854. Manuscript Division.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Grant returned to the U.S. Army. His series of battlefield successes eventually elevated him to the highest rank of lieutenant general. Despite his increasing responsibilities, he frequently wrote to his wife when she could not join him at the front. In a short but endearing letter on June 7, 1864, for example, the general-in-chief of the Union army thoughtfully enclosed a lock of hair she had requested. Before sending his usual “love and kisses for you and the children,” he joked that “war will get to be so common with me if this thing continues much longer that I will not be able to sleep after a while unless there is an occasional gunshot near me during the night.”

On the professional side, Grant’s military correspondence from 1861 to 1869 is reflected in volumes of Headquarters Records. The content encompasses both the mundane and momentous, including Grant’s notorious December 1862 order expelling Jews from the Department of the Tennessee (which was quickly revoked by President Abraham Lincoln) and the negotiations resulting in Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.

Cartoon drawings of Grant in attire from different countries, including England, Egypt and China

Cartoon of Grant in clothing of various countries he visited on global travels — but always shown with his familiar cigar. Manuscript Division.

After completing two terms as president in 1877, the Grants embarked on a trip that ultimately took them around the world. He learned about foreign governments, the people of other nations, and met Americans abroad, while she recalled in her memoirs the entertainment, sightseeing, and shopping opportunities. The correspondence Grant received between 1877 and 1879 reflects the countries to which he traveled and honors accorded him. A scrapbook of newspaper clippings provides readers a further glimpse into his international travel experiences.

An image of Grant's handwritten manuscript.

A section of Grant’s insert in his manuscript expressing regret for ordering a disastrous final assault at Cold Harbor in 1864. Manuscript Division.

Grant suffered two crushing blows in 1884.

First, he went bankrupt after the collapse of a Ponzi scheme in which he had invested. Second, and far worse, his persistent throat pain was diagnosed as cancer of the tongue. Fears for his family’s solvency prompted him to write his memoirs, of which his handwritten pages reside in the Grant Papers. The manuscript pages reveal Grant’s writing process, including corrections and additions, notably the later insertion of a section beginning, “I have always regretted that last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” The nation went on a death watch as Grant raced against time to complete the manuscript. Children wrote encouraging letters to him. Unable to speak at the end, Grant wrote notes to visitors to the Mount McGregor, New York, cottage in which spent his last weeks. He died in July 1885, just days after completing the memoirs that would earn both critical and commercial success.

From the highest highs to the lowest lows, Grant’s story is always compelling.

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