THE UNFOLDING JOURNEY is a new blog written in association with Legacy Genealogy.

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Friday, October 19, 2012


Hiram Ulysses Grant (his true name) is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted men in the history of the United States. Today, many of the things people believe about Grant are distorted: that he callously sent his men to their deaths in war (which was never his intention), that he drank heavily (which was untrue), and that he led a corrupt administration (although he was not responsible for the actions of others).

What is mentioned less often is that he was a faithful and devoted family man, a true friend in times of hardship, a brilliant strategist, an inspiring leader, a great writer, and even a fine artist. Among the many facets of Grant’s life, we have chosen just four to give you a true sense of the man. These are just glimpses of his empathy, friendship, bravery, and keen intelligence.

Young Ulysses loved horses.

As a boy, he was what we would call a “horse whisperer.” Any horse brought to the boy, regardless of its temperament, could be calmed and ridden by Ulysses in a matter of a few minutes. While at West Point, Grant was considered the best cadet rider ever seen. During the Mexican War, Grant had to ride between the regiments under enemy fire on several occasions. He would ride “Indian style” clutching the horse’s side, with one arm around its neck and one leg on the saddle. Captain Ulysses Grant was a fearless rider and the finest equestrian other officers had ever seen.

He had six different mounts during the Civil War. His favorite was Cincinnati, a magnificent “War Horse” standing seventeen hands high, who he rode for the final two years of the war. Cincinnati was considered by most as the fastest “four-mile” thoroughbred in the country. The only other person Grant would allow to ride Cincinnati was Abraham Lincoln. The President would ride him every time he visited Grant’s field headquarters. 

Grant and Lincoln; a brief but true friendship.

An act of Congress, on February 26, 1864, the new rank of Lieutenant General was authorized. Two days later, President Lincoln nominated Grant as the first man to receive this highest title; Congress confirmed the appointment the next day. A week later, the President gave an evening reception at the White House. At 9:30 p.m., a commotion near the entrance drew everyone’s attention - General Grant had entered. He had just arrived from the front and wanted to pay his respects.

Lincoln immediately recognized Grant from photographs. With a big smile, he said loudly, “Why, here is General Grant! Well, this is a great pleasure, I assure you!” The President grabbed the General by the hand and shook it vigorously for several minutes. Grant’s eyes turned upward toward Lincoln. The President, eight inches taller, looked down, beaming. It was the first time the two men had ever met.

The two were different in appearance but they shared similar backgrounds. Both were from humble origins, they had risen from the common people, had learned from personal adversity, and possessed a unique common sense. They formed a close friendship that, unfortunately, lasted only one more year until Lincoln’s assassination.

Doing what was required during the Civil War.

Union General Horace Porter wrote, “Grant was the only man I ever saw who could go through a battle without flinching. He never lacked courage, never dodged. He wouldn’t as much as wink when bullets went whizzing by. He had iron nerves. He was never hurt by a bullet, despite his exposure.”

There is no question that Ulysses Grant was the most successful commander during the Civil War. But Grant had a reputation of being a cold-hearted killer on the battlefield; a man unmoved by the deaths of thousands of men under his command. Some believe that he had no compassion. Much of this has been historical misinterpretation; he did what was necessary to be done just as Sherman, Patton, MacArthur, and Eisenhower did.

The late Civil War historian, Shelby Foote, wrote, “Grant, after that first night in the Wilderness, went to his tent, broke down, and cried very hard. Some of the staff members said they’d never seen a man so unstrung. Well, he didn’t cry until the battle was over, and he wasn’t crying when it began again the next day. It just shows you the tension that he lived with without letting it affect him.”

His opponents on the battlefield also held high regard and admiration for Grant. John B. Gordon, the legendary Confederate General, wrote after the war, “General Grant’s truly great qualities - his modesty, his freedom from every trace of vain-glory or ostentation, his magnanimity in victory, his genuine sympathy for his brave and sensitive foe, and his inflexible resolve to protect Confederates against any assault will give him a place in history no less renowned and more to be envied than any other man.”

A literary masterpiece.

In May of 1884, the brokerage firm of which Grant was a silent partner fails. He falls into a prolonged depression. Four months later, an illness in his throat is diagnosed as cancer. Now penniless and dying, Ulysses Grant turns to the only thing that will provide for his family after his death - he begins to write his memoirs. Within six months, the cancer has spread. He is in extreme pain and can only take in liquid food in small portions. He is down to 120 lbs. Grant is racing against the clock to finish his book.

On July 19, 1885, he finishes his “Memoirs.” Four days later, he dies surrounded by his family. Sales of the book are astounding and the profits provide for his wife, Julia, for the rest of her life.

Ulysses Grant’s Memoirs is today judged a classic American biography; and perhaps the greatest book ever written by a former President. As a military journal, it is considered the finest since Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, two thousand years earlier. Mark Twain said on several occasions that Grant’s book is the book that he himself wished he had written. Twain reflected, “General Grant was just a man, just a human being, just an author. The fact remains and cannot be dislodged that his book is a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece.”

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