True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

Ulysses Simpson Grant



America's Greatest General

Would you like to be a soldier? Do not all say yes to that, for a soldier's life is not all holiday and parade. We all like to see soldiers marching, with their drums and guns and flags and uniforms. They make a fine sight, and most of us hurrah and clap our hands as the regiments march by; and many think that a soldier's life must be a splendid one. But when these soldiers go marching to battle it is quite another thing. For war is terrible, and some of the bravest soldiers hate it the most.

Sometimes, however, great questions and bitter quarrels can only be settled by war and fighting, and then it is well for the people to have their armies led to battle by such a great and gallant soldier as I am going to speak of.

His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant. He was born in a little town, out in Ohio, called Point Pleasant, on the twenty-seventh of April, in the year 1822. The house in which he was born is still standing. It is on the banks of the Ohio River, and you can look across to Kentucky, on the other side of the river. But he did not live there long, for when he was only a year old his father moved to a place called Georgetown, not far away, where Ulysses spent his boyhood.

Ulysses was a strong, healthy, go-ahead little fellow, who did not like to go to school very well. But, if he had anything to do, either in work or play, he stuck to it until it was done. At seven or eight years of age he drove the wagons loaded with wood from the forest to the house. At eleven he was strong enough to hold a plough. When he was seventeen years old, he was sent to the splendid school among the beautiful highlands of the Hudson River, in New York, where boys are taught to become soldiers of the United States Army. This is called the United States Military Academy, and is at a place named West Point.

Young Grant stayed four years at this famous school. He did not like the school part of it any more at West Point than he did at his Ohio school-house, but he loved horses, and became a fine horseback rider. When he left West Point he was made second lieutenant in the United States Army. He went home, but in a year or two there was a war between the United States and Mexico, the country that joins us on the south. This war is called the Mexican War.

Young Ulysses Grant went to this war, and fought the Mexicans in many bloody battles. He was a daring young officer, and his men followed willingly wherever he led. In one of the hardest battles of the war—the battle of Monterey—the American soldiers charged into the town and then got out of ammunition—that is, their powder and shot ran out. To get any more, some one would have to ride straight through the fire of the Mexicans, who were in the houses of the town; so the general did not think he could order any soldier to do this. But he asked who would do it.

Lieutenant Grant at once said he would go. He mounted his horse, but slipped over on the side furthest from the houses in which the Mexicans were hiding. Then he set his horse on a gallop, and so dashed through the town and past all the hostile houses, and brought back the ammunition in safety.

[Illustration] from True Stories of Our Presidents by Charles Morris


He did many other brave and soldierly things when he was a young officer in this war with Mexico, but he was always such a modest man that he never liked to tell of his courageous deeds. When he did, he would generally say: "O, well; the battle would have been won, just as it was, if I had not been there." The brave men and the bravest boys, you know, never boast.

At another time, when a strong fort was in the path of the Americans, Lieutenant Grant dragged a small cannon away up into a church steeple, and, pointing it at the fort, fired his cannon balls so swift and straight and sure that the Mexican soldiers had to run out of the fort, and the Americans marched into it and soon after took the city it had defended. The Mexicans were defeated in many battles, and at last the cruel war was ended. The Americans were victorious and marched back north to their homes.

Soon after he came back, Grant got married. Three years afterward he had to go without his wife to California and Oregon, where his regiment was sent.

He soon got tired of being away from his wife and children, so he gave up the business of soldier, and went back to his little farm near St. Louis, in Missouri.

He lived in a log-house on his farm with his wife and children. At times he was quite poor. He moved from St. Louis to the town of Galena, in Illinois, where he became a tanner and made leather with his father and brothers.

One evening, in the spring of 1861, there was great excitement at Hanover, a little town a few miles from Galena, where Grant lived. The firing on the flag and the call for soldiers to defend the Union had aroused all the Northern land. A mass-meeting had been called at the town-hall, but the crowds were too large for the building, so they met at the Presbyterian Church, which was much larger. There were many fiery speeches, and at last a man whom few there knew was called upon for a speech; he rose, looking scared and nervous. He was a rather heavy man, of average height, with square features and resolute jaws. What made the crowd look at him was his old blue army-coat—the only one in the audience. Some of the people there knew that he had been in the Mexican War, and bore the rank of captain.

Everybody was quiet, and all eyes were turned to the man in the blue army-coat. At last he said, in a quiet, homely fashion, after a good deal of effort:

"Boys, I can't make a speech. I never made a speech in my life. But when the time comes to go to the front, I am ready to go with you,"

The man who said this in the old brick meeting-house at Hanover was Ulysses S. Grant. That he was ready to march, if not ready to talk, he soon showed.

Grant was a very modest man. He had no pride and no vanity, and did not think he was much of a soldier. There are men who do not know what they can do till they are tried. Instead of asking for a high office, as so many paper soldiers did, he began in a very humble way by drilling some awkward countrymen. Then he was put to mustering in regiments, but when he asked to be made colonel of a regiment, no notice was taken of his request. He was too quiet about it, and he tells us he was afraid he did not know enough to command a regiment. Do you not think that Grant was much too modest?

Anyhow, old soldiers were badly wanted, and Captain Grant was soon made a colonel. He marched away with his raw soldiers until he came near where there were some Confederate soldiers. Grant does not tell us that he was afraid, but that he "would have given anything to be back in Illinois." But he marched ahead, all the same, and when he came where the Confederates had been, he found they were all gone. They must have felt the same way as he did. Soon after that some one told President Lincoln that Colonel Grant was a good soldier. The President just then wanted good soldiers and gave him the rank of brigadier-general. That was a big move up from drilling raw recruits.

Gettysburg Incident


After the war had been going on for several months the men who were at the head of things began to find out that General Grant knew his business, and he was given command of a large number of men and marched with them against the Confederates, as the Southern soldiers were called. There were some hard battles fought, among them one at Belmont, on the Mississippi River, at which village a severe engagement took place. This was General Grant's first fight, and he got the worst of it, for the enemy had more men and guns than he had. But he got his men off all right. That was his first battle and the only time he met with any sort of a defeat.

I cannot tell the whole story of his battles. You will read them some time in history. All I can do here is to run over them very fast. Grant's first great victory was at a place in Kentucky called Fort Donelson. Here he got 15,000 Confederate soldiers cooped up as tightly as so many rats in a trap. "What terms can you give us?" asked the Confederate general. "No terms except unconditional surrender," said Grant. That meant that they must give up everything—their fort, their men, and their arms. And they did.

Grant's at Fort Donelson


This was the first great victory of the war, and the people praised General Grant highly and said that he was a fine soldier. Some said that his name, U. S. Grant, stood for "Unconditional Surrender Grant," and everybody liked the sound of that.

Grant's next great battle was at a place in Tennessee called Shiloh. It was one of the most dreadful battles of the war. General Grant was not nervous any longer and did not wish he was back in Illinois. He went in to fight and to win. The battle lasted through two days in April, 1862. Albert Sidney Johnston, a brave and able general, led the Confederates. Had not General Grant hung on like a bulldog and shown a wonderful skill in handling his men, the Northern troops would surely have been beaten, and the Union cause would have been sadly put back.

But he stuck to it. He must win, that was all. And he did win. He rode up and down the line all that terrible Saturday and Sunday, giving orders, directing and encouraging his men. For he knew that they were mostly soldiers who had never seen a battle, and he knew that unless they were made braver by the courage and bravery of their leaders, they would not make good soldiers.

So all through this dreadful battle of Shiloh, in which the dash and bravery of the South first met the courage and endurance of the North, General Grant was in the thick of it, always where he was wanted, inspiring his soldiers, bringing victory out of defeat, and showing the world what a great general he really was.

After that great victory he kept defeating the Confederate soldiers whenever he fought them. They were very brave, for they were Americans. But they had not so able a general to lead them in battle. At last Grant got a large Southern army surrounded in a town called Vicksburg, He marched his soldiers against it and built forts around it and banged away at it with his great cannons until at last, when the Confederates in the town could get no help and could not get away, they gave up the town and all its forts and soldiers and guns to General Grant. That is called the surrender of Vicksburg. After another great victory at Chattanooga, among the mountains, General Grant was given command of all the armies of the United States, and men began to say that he was one of the greatest generals of the world.

So far he had fought in the West. Now he came East and took command of the Northern soldiers in Virginia—what was called the Army of the Potomac. Here he fought the Confederates and their brave leader, General Lee, for a whole year. There were many dreadful battles. There never were harder ones in all the world. But General Grant knew that if he wished to win he must fight hard and terribly. The fighting was in the region that separated the two capitals—Washington, the capital of the United States, and Richmond, the capital of the Confederate States, as the Southern government was called.

Here the two greatest generals of the war, Grant and Lee, were face to face. Neither were defeated, but Lee had to go back, step by step, till Grant and his soldiers got near to Richmond. When Grant was asked what he was going to do, he said, in his grim way, "I will fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."

It did take all summer, and all winter, too; but Grant kept "fighting it out on that line." He did not know what it meant to give up, and at last General Lee could hold out no longer. Probably no other soldier in America could have defeated General Lee and his soldiers except General Grant. The Southern soldiers were brave and determined; they were desperate; they knew if they did not beat Grant and capture Washington the cause of the South must be given up; and they, too, had one of the best generals in the world.

So they fought on, even after they began to get hungry and ragged, and long after the South was poor and empty. Gradually, however, they grew weaker; and still General Grant kept at it, forcing them back, back, until at last they had to leave Richmond, and General Lee was forced to make an "unconditional surrender," with all his army. This was on the 9th of April, 1865, at a place in Virginia called Appomattox. It was the end of a long and cruel war.

And now General Grant showed his fine spirit. The men he had conquered were Americans. They were brave and thought they were fighting for their rights. Grant might have treated them harshly and cruelly, but he was not that kind of a man. He told them to keep their horses so that when they got home they could plough their fields and get them ready for planting; he gave them food and clothes, and sent them away friends; he said to North and South alike: "The war is over. Let us have peace."

Grant and Mrs. Grant


Of course his great success made him a hero. He was a splendid one, as great a soldier as Napoleon and a much better man. General Grant was quiet, modest and silent. Of course, the world thought all the more of him because he did not try to put himself forward. The people of his own country thought so much of him that they twice made him President of the United States, just as they had done Washington and Lincoln. That was a pretty good rise for a little Western farmer boy and tanner.

At the end of his second term as President he made a journey around the world, for he had always wished to see foreign lands. Wherever he went he was received with the greatest honor. Kings and queens and princes invited him to their palaces and were glad to see him. He visited the Queen of England in her palace of Windsor Castle; he talked with the soldiers and statesmen of the world, while emperors honored him as one of the world's famous men, and cities welcomed him as the foremost general of the day and the man who had been President of the great Republic.

I am sorry to say that this is not the whole story of General Grant's life, but that misfortune and misery came upon him in his later years. Some men in New York City induced him to put his money in a business which they had started, telling him that they could make much money for him. One of them proved a fraud and cheat. He used General Grant's name to deceive the people, and managed the business so that everything was lost. Then he ran away, after robbing Grant and the others who had trusted in him.

The news of this shameful affair broke the great general down. It almost defeated the soldier who had never known defeat. It made him weak and sick. But, just as he had marched to war courageously, so now he faced disaster just as bravely. He set to work to make his losses good, and, because all the world wished to hear about him, he began to write the story of his life and his battles.

He kept himself alive to do this. He was taken sick with a frightful disease, but for over a year he fought ruin and a terrible pain as stoutly as he had ever battled with real soldiers, while all the world looked on in love and pity. He won the fight, for he did not give up until his book was finished. On the twenty-first of July, 1885, on the mountain-top to which he had been carried, near Saratoga, in New York, General Grant died, and all the world mourned a great man gone.

The world mourned, for men and women everywhere had learned to honor the great general as much for his victories over disaster, disgrace and pain as for his conquests in war and his governing in peace. His funeral, on Saturday, August 8, 1885, was one of the grandest public ceremonials ever seen in America. The President of the United States, senators, governors, generals, judges and famous men came to New York to show their sorrow and esteem, and the poor boy of the Western prairies was buried on the banks of the Hudson in a tomb erected by the great General's friends, amid the solemn tolling of bells and firing of cannon, while all people and all lands sent words of sorrow and of sympathy to the Republic which had honored him in death as it had honored him in life.