Ulysses S. Grant: President, General, Alcoholic, And Protector Of Slaves

By | April 30, 2021

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The 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Commanding General of the U.S. Army, Secretary of War, the 18th President of the United States of America—no matter what title he held, Ulysses S. Grant was a man to be reckoned with. He was not only steadfast in his beliefs but more than happy to back them up with brilliant and sometimes even brutal force. While he is best known for his major victories and ultimate win as the preeminent Union general during the Civil War, he also made major contributions to American culture and the fight for social and civil rights for African-Americans during his presidency (even if subsequent administrations undid a lot of his hard work).

Grant's Early Life

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio on April 27, 1822 to a family of tanners and farmers. He wasn't an especially gifted student, and he loathed working with leather alongside his father, but it turned out he was pretty good with horses. As he came from a long line of soldiers—his grandfather fought in the American Revolution and his great-grandfather in the French and Indian War—it seemed natural for him to enroll in the prestigious United States Military Academy, better known as West Point.

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West Point. Looking north toward the central campus. (USMA Public Affairs Office/Wikimedia Commons)

The Ups And Downs Of Lieutenant Grant

Thanks to a still-unexplained clerical error by Congressman Thomas Hamer, who nominated young Grant, Hiram Ulysses became "Ulysses S." at West Point. It worked out for the young Grant, who was so embarrassed of his initials being "H.U.G." that he refused to put them on his suitcase, but his peers still teased him for having the initials U.S. and often referred to him as "Uncle Sam," a nickname that would prove apt.

He first saw military action during the Mexican-American War, where then-Lieutenant Grant served as a quartermaster, making sure supplies were safely transported and often coming under heavy gunfire. On a personal level, Grant was against the war effort and viewed it as a political scheme to conquer land and perpetuate slavery, so after the U.S. victory, he descended into alcoholism and never really emerged from it.

Grant was eventually forced to leave the army and took up farming, which didn't make him much happier. During this time, his father-in-law either sold or gave him a slave named William Jones, but Grant released the man to freedom after only a year. After Grant gave up farming, he became a clerk—and so poor that, at one point, he wrote he had "no shoes fit for to wear on the streets" and sold his only watch to buy Christmas presents for his children.