Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Man Who "Came Back"

"Can a man 'come back'?"

This is a question one frequently hears nowadays; and the answer is, more often than not, a shrug of the shoulders. For the man who has once failed—or even passed his first chance of success—is not considered seriously in this busy day and time. He is a "down-and-outer"; he cannot "come back."

But there are exceptions to every rule, and one of the most striking ones in all history, to the above adage, is furnished by the man who led the Union forces to victory in the American Civil War, and later achieved the presidency.

Here was a man who, at forty, was generally regarded as a failure, a ne'er-do-well. But for the accident of war he would in all likelihood have ended his days "unwept, unhonored, and unsung." We have a picture of this middle-aged man, clerking for his younger brothers in a country store, at eight hundred dollars a year, and day by day sinking further into the slough of despond.

He was of little real value to the store, at even that meager salary. He was no good at driving bargains or at palavering with the trade. He tried to keep out of sight as much as possible among the boxes and shelves: His clothing was poor and shabby, his hair and beard long and unkempt. The brand of failure was stamped all over him.

Yet this was the man who in five short years as to become the most famous military leader his day.

The life story of Ulysses Simpson Grant abounds in strange paradoxes. If ever a man was made the plaything of fate, it was he. His career has even persuaded some writers into the belief that he was "the Man of Mystery."

His father, Jesse Grant, was a self-taught man, who is said to have received but six months actual schooling in his life. He was all the more determined that his son, Ulysses, should have the education that he lacked. We find him intervening more than once to drive the boy contrary to the latter's wishes—but to his later good. The father was tall, about six feet, rugged and aggressive, making friends and enemies with equal readiness. Ulysses' mother, however, was quiet, self-possessed, and patient—qualities which she afterwards gave the boy. Jesse Grant said of her in later years: "Her steadiness and strength of character have been the stay of the family through life."

At the time of Ulysses' birth (April 27, 1822) the family were living at Point Pleasant, Claremont County, Ohio. But when he was still an infant they removed to Georgetown, a few miles away, where the father established a tannery. At this time the town was little more than a clearing hewed, out from the virgin forest. Wood was plentiful and cheap, and for this reason, Mr. Grant bought a tract of land and set up his tannery.

Ulysses, or "Lys" as the neighbors called him, was the oldest of six children—three boys and three girls. As soon as Ulysses was old enough, his father started him to school. There were no public schools in those days, so he went to a school maintained by private subscription and taught by a man named John White.

White had his own notions about a curriculum, and one of the most important was discipline. On top of his desk always reposed a bundle of good husky switches—except at frequently recurring times when they were beating a tattoo on some hapless scholar's back. It was his boast that he often used up a whole bunch in a single day. However, his school was no different from many another of the time. Beatings were taken as a matter of course. "Spare the rod and spoil the child!"

Ulysses went to this school until he was fourteen, and mastered the elementary studies. Between whiles he helped his father at the tannery or on the farm. The tannery work he always hated. But outdoor work, particularly with horses, he delighted in. At seven years of age he drove a team with all the skill of a man; and it was said that when he could scarcely walk he could ride horseback. The story is told of him that at a county fair, where a prize of five dollars was offered to any one who could stick on a trick pony, Ulysses won it after several other boys had got thrown helter-skelter. He flung his arms around the pony's fat neck, and stuck on, though as he afterward said: "That pony was as round as an apple."

He tells another amusing story of himself, in these early days. He greatly coveted a young colt owned by a neighboring farmer, and after teasing his father, the latter tried to buy it for him. But he offered only twenty dollars for the colt, and the owner wanted twenty-five. After some dickering without any result, the boy went to the owner with this message, which he delivered all in a breath:

"Father says I may offer you twenty dollars; and if you won't take that, I am to offer you twenty-two and a half; and if you won't take that for your colt, I am to pay you twenty-five dollars.",

"It would not take a Connecticut farmer to tell what was the price paid for the colt," he added afterward when telling the story.

This little incident, while amusing, reveals a trait in his character which persisted all through life. He was the soul of candor. He called a spade a spade; And he never could bargain.

Another early trait revealing itself in later years was something that, in his Memoirs, he calls a superstition. It was a dislike, to turn back when once started on a journey. If he found himself on the wrong road, he would keep going until he came to some branching road rather than turn aside. This habit was destined to make some of the generals on the' other side, in the. Civil War, somewhat uncomfortable. They found that he never quit.

Thus grew up the boy, Ulysses Grant. He was not considered particularly bright at school, but he was a plodder, going along keeping his own counsel. He could not talk readily, even in a small company, and was hopeless when it came to "speaking a piece" on Friday at the school. But he was a sturdy, outdoor boy, by this time remarkably proficient with horses. At the age of fifteen he had explored the back country for miles roundabout.

His father, however, had never lost sight of the fact that the boy was to get a good schooling—and frequently brought up the subject, to "Lys's" discomfort. The lad was not especially keen for any more books. But the opportunity came—just as others were to come, to shape the whole course of young Grant's life.

The son of a neighbor had received an appointment to West Point, but had failed to pass the entrance examinations. Jesse Grant immediately wrote to the Congressman of the district in behalf of Ulysses, although the two men were on opposite political sides and had quarreled bitterly: "If you have no other person in view and feel willing to consent to the appointment of Ulysses, you will please signify that consent to the Department."

Ulysses got the appointment, despite the political feud, and it is pleasant to note that the two men healed their differences and became good friends again.

The boy received news of his appointment without much enthusiasm. He would much rather be a horse trader he told his father But the latter was determined—and Ulysses went.

Not did his appointment please others in the village, who thought the boy dull. One man meeting Mr. Grant in the street, said bluntly: "I hear that your boy is going to West Point. Why didn't our Representative pick some one that would be a credit to the district?"

This ill-natured speech may have been inspired by the fact that political feeling ran high at that time; and Jesse Grant as a staunch Whig and Northerner had made a good many enemies.

Ulysses was coached for West Point at an academy at Ripley, Ohio, conducted by William Taylor, and passed his entrance examinations with fair grades. His best study was mathematics. He entered at the age of seventeen.

It took young Grant many a long day to accustom himself to the Military Academy. The hazing encountered by every Freshman he didn't seem to mind, so the older men soon let him alone. But the drill and the dress! To this farm lad it was deadly. These were the days of the "ramrod" tactics of Winfield Scott—the starch and stock and buckram days of the army. "Old Fuss and Feathers" his critics called him, but with all his love of pomp and circumstance Scott was a splendid soldier, whether on the drill ground, or in the face of the enemy. Nevertheless, to Grant it was a constant trial, at first. He felt like a fish out of water. General Charles King thus speaks of him:

"Phlegmatic in temperament and long given to ease and deliberation in all his movements at home, this springing to attention at the tap of the drum, this snapping together of the heels at the sound of a sergeant's voice, this sudden freezing to a rigid pose without the move of a muscle, except at the word of command, was something almost beyond him. It seemed utterly unnatural, if not utterly repugnant. Accustomed to swinging along the winding banks of the White Oak, or the cow-paths of the pasture lot, this moving only at a measured pace of twenty-eight inches, and one hundred and ten to the minute, and all in strict unison with the step of the guide on the marching flank or at the head of column, came ten times harder than ever did the pages of 'analytical' or the calculus.

"Grant had no sense of rhythm. He had no joy in martial music. The thrill and inspiration of the drum and fife, or the beautiful harmonies of the old Academy band were utterly lost on him. In all that class of 1843, it may well be doubted if there lived one solitary soul who found there less to like or more to shrink from, than this seventeen-year-old lad who, thanks to the opportunities and to the training there given them, was in less than a quarter of a century to be hailed as the foremost soldier of more than two millions of men in the Union blue."

But this was only one of the Grant paradoxes—the contradictions which were to mark his strange career.

Life at West Point was not all hardship, however. In his quiet way Grant made a few warm friends. On account of ,his initials he was promptly nicknamed "Uncle Sam," which was soon shortened to "Sam." He excelled in two widely different courses—mathematics and horsemanship. We have already noticed his early skill with, and love for horses. Now it was to stand him in good stead. He was assigned, during one year, to a particularly intractable young horse—a big, raw-boned sorrel, named York. One of York's tricks was to rear and throw himself backward with his rider. But in Grant he found his master, and the steed not only grew tractable, but developed under his rider's training into a famous jumper. Horse and rider are vividly described by General James B. Fry, in his Reminiscences:

"The class, still mounted, was formed in line through the center of the hall. The riding master placed the leaping bar higher than a man's head and called out, 'Cadet Grant!' A clean-faced, slender, blue-eyed young fellow, weighing about one hundred and twenty pounds, dashed from the ranks on a powerfully built chestnut-sorrel horse, and galloped down the opposite side of the hall. As he turned at the farther end and came into the stretch at which the bar was placed, the horse increased his pace and measuring his stride for the great leap before him, bounded into the air and cleared the bar, carrying his rider as if man and beast had been welded together. The spectators were breathless."

"Sam" Grant graduated from the Military Academy in July, 1843, one of thirty-nine out of a class that had originally numbered one hundred. Among his classmates were Sherman, Thomas, Meade, Reynolds, and other soldiers later known to fame. It cannot be said, however, that his entry into the army was auspicious. He was still by ho means reconciled to the idea of being a soldier. He had not received the assignment he had coveted, the Dragoons; and moreover his health was poor. He was troubled with a persistent cough which indicated weak lungs—but thanks to his life in the open and horseback riding he escaped a possible attack of consumption.

After a three months' furlough visiting his father's home, now at Bethel, Ohio, he reported for duty at the Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, as a second lieutenant in the infantry. The best horseman in his class had to walk!

But there were compensations. Outside of duty, Grant could always procure a mount; and about five miles away from the Barracks—just an easy canter—was the home of his college chum and roommate, Lieut. Frederick T. Dent. The Dents had a big, hospitable country place, and they speedily made Fred's friend feel at home. One member of the family who had heard much about "Sam" Grant from her brother's letters, long before Grant appeared in person, was Julia Dent now a charming girl of seventeen. It was not long before her friends began teasing her about "the little lieutenant with the big epaulets"—and while she laughed and blushed she didn't seem to mind.

The little round of social gayeties, however, was of brief duration. Trouble with Mexico, was brewing, and in 1844 relations had become so strained that an "Army of Observation," as it was called, was assembled under General Zachary Taylor, old "Rough and Ready," on the border. Grant's company was ordered to join this army, on the briefest notice. The young lieutenant had time only for a brief leave-taking with the Dents, and one member in particular, but her final message meant all the world to him.

In March ,of the next year, Congress sanctioned the annexation of Texas, and trouble with Mexico began in earnest. History records the rapid course of events which made up the Mexican War. We can only notice the events which directly concern the career of Grant. His company was a part of the expeditionary force of three thousand men destined to see active service on the border.

By the middle of March they had reached the Rio Grande, and pitched camp opposite the city of Matamoras. Their army was far from its base of supplies and in a country swarming with the enemy. Before war was formally declared two officers who were caught outside the camp were killed, and two whole companies captured.

There was no railroad, and General Taylor was compelled to send a considerable force back twenty-five miles for supplies. On the third of May the returning troops encountered a much larger force of Mexicans. A battle followed which continued after sundown. During the night the Mexicans retreated, but were found further on, in a much stronger position. They awaited the Americans on the far side of a pond, their position being further fortified by logs and branches of trees.

The captain of Grant's company was temporarily absent, and it fell to Grant to lead their advance. By this time the bullets were humming merrily, but he directed his men to deploy to one side and approach through thicker woods. At last they reached a clearing near the head of the pond, and he ordered a charge. They captured the position immediately in front of them, and made a few prisoners, including one colonel. The engagement all along the line had been too brisk for the Mexicans, and they broke and ran, leaving a considerable quantity of guns and ammunition.

As for the little lieutenant, it was his first battle, and first command of a company, and he had reason to feel satisfied with the day's work.

As one result of the engagement, the Americans now crossed the river, and became an Army of Invasion. And now that war had actually begun, volunteers began to flock to the standard. The ensuing months of that year were packed. with incident and no little. danger. In August, Grant was made quartermaster and commissary of the regiment—a position of responsibility which he held until the army was withdrawn.

Although Grant's duties were now such as to withdraw him from active fighting, he was not the man to take advantage of the fact. The lively battle, at Monterey bears witness of this. After a hard encounter on the outskirts of the city, the Americans stormed it from the north and east, and began to drive the Mexicans out, street by street. But when the citadel was in sight, the commanding officer, Colonel Garland, found to his dismay that they were short of ammunition.

"We must have ammunition at once," he announced to his men. "Who will volunteer to ride back with the message? I do not wish to detail any one, as it is extra hazardous."

At once, Lieutenant Grant stepped forward and, saluted.

"I will go, Colonel," he said.

"You are just the man. If anybody can ride through, you can. But hurry.

And Grant did. Crouching low on his mustang like an Indian, he dashed down the bullet-swept streets, made the open, and delivered his message to General Twigg.

The Mexican War was marked by the political rivalry of two American Generals, one of whom was destined to win the highest honors in the gift of his country—General Zachary Taylor, old "Rough and Ready," and General Winfield Scott, "Fuss and Feathers." Both were able leaders, though totally unlike in their methods. Taylor cared nothing for personal appearance or etiquette. He worked in close contact with his men. Scott, on the contrary, was fond of display, and issued his orders through his staff officers.

Scott was now given supreme command of the Mexican campaign, and summoned all the regular troops for an invasion by way of Vera Cruz—the scene of a later landing, in very recent years. Taylor was left with only the volunteers, but he utilized them at Buena Vista to such good effect that at the, next election old "Rough and Ready" became President of the United States—the very thing that his political foes at Washington had tried to prevent, by giving Scott the supreme command.

Grant's company, with other regulars to the number of eight thousand men, landed at Vera Cruz, and early in April began its perilous march into the interior. Roads had to be built and bridges constructed, and the army engineers toiled night and day. Among them were two young West Pointers, George B. McClellan and Robert E. Lee. Thus it was that Grant and Lee first came to know each other, in the wilds of Mexico.

By the middle of May they had reached Puebla, which they captured easily. But the army needed supplies, and Quartermaster Grant was sent out with an escort of one thousand men to forage the surrounding country. They filled their wagons and returned safely. This jaunt delighted Grant's soul. It was far better than bringing up the rear on a dusty line of march. In one of his letters home he writes:

"I have been delighted with the Mexican birds. Their plumage is superlatively splendid. They beat ours in show, but to my mind do not equal them in harmony. I have written this letter with my sword fastened to my side, my pistols within reach, not knowing but that the next moment I may be called into battle."

It is an odd coincidence, that at a later day we find another soldier—destined to lead his country's armies to victory in a far mightier conflict—using the soil of Mexico as a training ground. That soldier was John J. Pershing.

One other exploit of Grant's in the Mexican campaign must be mentioned, as it was not only daring, but it also revealed his resourcefulness.

During the attack upon Chapultepec, Grant noticed that one of the two main routes, the San Cosme road, was flanked by a small mission church surmounted by a belfry. He reasoned that if they could mount a howitzer in the belfry, that section would be made mighty uncomfortable for the Mexicans. He went at once to his superior officer, explained his plan, and secured a detail of men with one gun. The gun had to be taken to pieces, but with it in hand they compelled the priest to open the church doors to them, mounted the steps to the belfry, reassembled the gun, and it was soon beating a lively tattoo down upon the backs of the astonished Mexicans.

For this "gallant conduct at Chapultepec," as the official citation read, Grant won his brevet of captain.

With the signing of the treaty of peace, Grant came home on furlough, and in August, 1848, was married to Julia Dent. He took his wife to his father's home, and was made much of by his admiring townsmen. His father was inordinately proud of "my Ulysses," now a captain and cited for gallantry in action. In the darker days that were to follow, he looked back to this time as the very pinnacle of his son's greatness.

That there were  darker days, and many of them, must be chronicled in any true sketch of Ulysses S. Grant. He was to taste the very dregs of humiliation and despair. He was to see these same admiring friends turn from him one by one, with a sneer, or reproachful shake of the head.

For days of peace were at hand—long days' of barrack routine and enforced idleness. To Captain Grant these days coming after the excitement of Mexico were at first welcome, them speedily grew tedious. He had always hated the humdrum life of the drill ground. Now he was shifted, after a few months, to a camp at San Francisco. The distance was so great, travelling as they did by way of the Isthmus of Panama (this was long before the railroads), that he could not take his wife with him. His slender pay also would not admit of it.

Life in all the army camps was free and easy. Liquor flowed freely, and drunkenness was unfortunately common. Grant like others, drank, but not to excess. With him, however, one glass was sufficient to flush his face and render his walk unsteady. It was not long before the life at this far-removed western camp began to tell upon him. He quarreled with his commanding officer, and finally resigned from the service.

He had to borrow money in order to return home, a long and painful journey by way of New York, and it was a discouraged, broken-looking man who greeted his wife and his parents. This was the summer of 1854. Captain Grant was then only thirty-two, but it already seemed as though the best and only valuable part of his life was behind him. The recent conquering hero, with his dashing uniform and epaulets, had become a somewhat seedy-looking individual with shoulders prematurely stooped, and shuffling gait.

The word speedily went round the village, with many a nod and wink:

"Told you so! Went up like a rocket; came down like a stick."

His wife, however, had not lost her confidence in him. Through all the trying days that were to follow, she remained staunch and loyal. She persuaded her father to let her have a sixty-acre tract of land, near St. Louis. There she brought Ulysses and their children, and there he began life anew, as a plain farmer.

He built with his own hands a log house of four rooms, with chimneys at each end, and wide fireplaces. With grim humor he called the place, "Hard-scrabble." But he liked the place. He liked the freedom of it, with his horses and other live stock. Despite its hardships he welcomed it as an escape from the petty exactions of military life.

Nevertheless, he could not make it pay. He did not have sufficient capital or bodily strength to succeed. An attack of chills and fever, in 1858, put the finishing touch to this episode, and he sold his stock and farm the following spring.

During the ensuing few months he moved from pillar to post, trying various ventures and succeeding with none. The fates seemed against him. In St. Louis, whither he had drifted, he was regarded with open scorn as, what we would now designate, a "down-and-out." One reason for his poor success lay in the fact that he was a Northerner, and the city was seething with talk of secession. The clouds of Civil War were already gathering, and men began to distrust each his neighbor.

At this juncture his father, who seems rather to have turned against him also, came to his relief. He offered Ulysses a position in his leather business, now in charge of the younger boys. Ulysses thankfully accepted, although the pay was only fifty dollars a month. He brought his wife and boys to Galena, where at any rate he was sure of having a roof over his head.

"The brothers found him of no earthly account at driving bargains, or tending store," says General Charles King. "He could keep books after a fashion and do some of the heavy work in handling the miscellaneous stock."

Another soldier, who became his devoted follower in the later days, had his first sight of Grant at this down-at-the-heels period. "I went round to the store," he says; "it was a sharp winter morning, and there wasn't a sign of a soldier or one that looked like a soldier about the shop. But pretty soon a farmer drove up with a lot of hides on his sleigh, and went inside to dicker, and presently a stoop-shouldered, brownish-bearded fellow, with a slouch hat pulled down over his eyes, who had been sitting whittling at the stove when I was inside, came out, pulling on an old light-blue soldier's over-coat. He flung open the doors leading down into the cellar, laid hold of the top hide, frozen stiff it was, tugged it loose, towed it over, and slung it down the chute. Then one by one, all by himself, he heaved off the rest of them, a ten minutes' tough job in that weather, until he had got the last of them down the cellar; then slouched back into the store again, shed the blue coat, got some hot water off the stove and went and washed his hands, using a cake of brown soap, then came back and went to whittling again, and all without a word to anybody. That was my first look at Grant, and look at him now!"

But in all likelihood there would not have been another chance to "look" at him, had not the great Civil War broken out. It was to prove in his case that what seemed failure was merely lack of opportunity.

When South Carolina seceded and the call for troops came, the stoop-shouldered clerk in the hide store began to straighten up. The call to arms put new life in his blood. He felt his old confidence returning. He refused a local captaincy, after he had demonstrated what he could do in drilling recruits, saying: "I have been in the military service fourteen years, and think I am competent to command a regiment."

He went to Springfield, Illinois, and offered his services, and after some delay was given, a desk in the adjutant-general's office. It was not long before he proved his efficiency, and his advice was sought more and more by the Governor, in organizing the State Guards. When the 21st regiment was mustered into service, he was made its colonel. He had put his, foot on the first rung of the ladder of success.

The 21st, like other bodies of volunteers, was a loosely-knit, unruly set of men. They took military life as a huge picnic, but speedily got over that attitude—under Grant. On their first long hike, it is said that their canteens were filled with whiskey, instead of water—until Grant went through on a personal tour of inspection, and ordered every canteen emptied out on the ground. The way he took hold of that regiment and licked it into shape opened the eyes of Governor Yates and his staff. In two months it was the best drilled regiment in the State; and when President Lincoln wrote to the Governor asking suggestions for promotions, Grant's name headed the list. He was made a Brigadier-General.

The story of the Civil War and Grant's great part therein belong to a longer chronicle than this. Step by step this stern, quiet soldier fought his way up, winning. his country's battles and his own as well. In the full tide of war he found himself—and better still his country discovered him. He was never after to prove recreant to his trust.

"We will fight it out along this line if it takes all summer," is one of his typical remarks, and one most often quoted. It was toward the last of the hard-fought war, when the Southern forces under Lee were doing their utmost to fend off the inevitable. Grant, now the commanding General of the Union forces, was still putting into practise the quiet, bull-dog qualities that had led his armies to victory.

Then came the final dramatic scene at, the historic surrender at Appomattox. Lee had come to discuss terms with him, and now stood awaiting his arrival, erect, courtly, handsome—the typical Southern gentleman that he was. Down the road came riding a gaunt-looking man, with the familiar stoop-shoulders, and mud-bespattered trousers and boots. It was the general-in-chief on his way to greet his beaten foe!

The two men looked each other in the eye, then clasped hands like old friends. Grant recalled the days of the Mexican campaign, and was surprised that Lee knew so much about him in those days. He wanted to talk old times, and Lee himself brought up the subject of surrender.

Grant took his seat at a table and wrote out the simple and generous terms which allowed officers and men to return to their homes, on giving their word not to take up arms against the United States government again.

Lee's fine, dignified features softened as he read the terms—so much more magnanimous than he had dared to hope.

"My men are nearly starving," he began—"What do you need?" interrupted Grant; and gave instant orders that the defeated army should be supplied with rations. "Tell the boys to go home and go to work," he said.

That was Grant.

Important Dates in Grant's Life

1822. April 27. Ulysses Simpson Grant born.
1839. Received appointment to U. S. Military Academy, West Point.
1843. Graduated.
1845. Went as second-lieutenant to join Taylor's forces in Mexico.
1848. Brevetted captain for gallantry.
1848. Married Julia T. Dent.
1854. Resigned his army commission.
1861. Re-entered army at outbreak of Civil War. Commissioned colonel, then brigadier-general.
1863. Made major-general.
1864. Given supreme command of the Union forces, with rank of lieutenant-general.
1866. The grade of general created for first time, and conferred on him.
1868. Elected President.
1885. July 23. Died at Mt. McGregor, New York.