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The Reluctant Cadet

By John Y. Simon | HUMANITIES, January/February 2002 | Volume 23, Number 1

Even Ulysses S. Grant believed that he was an unlikely military hero. “I won’t go,” said seventeen- year-old Ulysses when his overbearing father announced his impending appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Jesse Grant had settled an old political quarrel with a local Ohio congressman to secure the place. Yet young Grant feared failure. “I would have been glad to have had a steamboat or railroad collision,” he recalled, “by which I might have had a temporary injury sufficient to make me ineligible, for a time, to enter the Academy. Nothing of the sort occurred, and I had to face the music.”

“A military life had no charms for me,” wrote Grant, who studied halfheartedly, read novels to avoid tedium, and hoped for passage of a bill to abolish the academy. A natural talent for mathematics compensated for a poor record in French and on graduation -- ranked twenty-one in a class of thirty-nine -- he applied for a place in the dragoons. His standing, however, qualified him only for assignment to the infantry. His ambition was to return to West Point as an assistant professor of mathematics, and then to resign after securing a college teaching position.

He was assigned to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, where he fell in love with Julia Dent. Ulysses and Julia were separated when the young lieutenant was swept into deployments preceding the Mexican War, which he believed aggressive and unwarranted. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War,” he later concluded. “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.”

Grant returned years later to marry Julia and settle into army life, now necessary to support a family. Four years of domestic contentment were followed by two years of misery. Assigned to the Pacific Coast, and prudently unwilling to risk his pregnant wife and young son on the deadly journey through the jungles of Panama, Grant had to find the money to reunite the family. Every business he tried collapsed. Finally in 1854, he resigned his commission. He had achieved the rank of captain but had no prospects of further advancement for years. He was in poor health, assigned to an isolated post with a martinet as commanding officer, and desperately lonely. He had numerous reasons to resign, even though army gossip attributed this decision to drinking, a reputation that pursued him for the rest of his life. As he left, he remarked, “Whoever hears of me in ten years will hear of a well-to-do old Missouri farmer.”

Ten years later, however, the nation knew of him as commander of all the armies of the Union and lieutenant general -- only George Washington had previously held that rank. At the war’s outbreak the former captain had immediately volunteered, “feeling it the duty of every one who has been educated at the Government expense to offer their services for the support of that Government.” Nonetheless, army headquarters ignored Grant’s offer. He possessed fifteen years of military experience, including four years at West Point, yet he sought employment in four states before the governor of Illinois gave him a command, and then only because the unruly farm boys of the regiment had driven an incompetent colonel into premature retirement.

Now Grant began his meteoric ascent from clerk in a Galena leather goods store to general in chief. Throughout his career he maintained traces of the reluctant cadet and ambivalent junior officer. Regarding war as painful and disgusting, he sought to end it quickly through audacity, a policy that sometimes alarmed his more cautious superiors. Unconcerned about his reputation, he quickly rebounded after enemy triumphs. As a young officer, he had learned enough about standard military procedure to administer an army, but he was truly an innovator in strategy. Grant later commented that “there are no fixed laws of war. . . . The laws of successful war in one generation would insure defeat in another.”

Before his fortieth birthday, he had captured an enemy army at Fort Donelson and emerged victorious at Shiloh, despite a Confederate surprise attack that pushed his battered army to the brink of disaster. The surrender of Vicksburg, through which he captured a second army, stands as a military masterpiece and won from President Abraham Lincoln the remarkable confession to Grant that “you were right and I was wrong.” After another great victory at Chattanooga, he was called to Washington to take command of all the armies. He decided to accompany the Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee, but declined to displace its commander, General George G. Meade, the hero of Gettysburg. During the campaign, Grant displayed the tenacity and mathematical logic that led ineluctably to Appomattox. At Lee’s surrender, Grant’s modest and thoughtful approach softened Confederate humiliation, and he later stopped the cheering of his exultant army by admonishing them that “the war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.”

When a celebrated artist wanted him to pose for a giant canvas of him entering Richmond in triumph, the artist learned that Grant had never entered Richmond at all but instead had hurried to Washington to end the war quickly. Hailed in the North as a great hero, Grant gently deflected adulation.

In 1868, he was nominated for president. Grant accepted it as a duty but privately noted that he had “been forced into it in spite of myself.” Two years later, he contemplated leaving the White House “as the happiest day of my life, except possibly the day I left West Point, a place that I thought I had been at always and that my stay had no end.”

Yet he stayed in the presidency through another term. After leaving official public life, Grant continued to gripe about his military career. “I hear army men say that their happiest days were at West Point. . . .The most trying days in my life were those I spent there, and I never recall them with pleasure.” Nor was this the end of his objections. “I never liked service in the army not as a young officer. . . .When I resigned from the army and went to a farm I was happy. When the rebellion came I returned to the service because it was a duty.”

After Grant’s death in 1885, his posthumously published memoirs became a national sensation. Even in unbookish homes, unread copies stood proudly on bookshelves as a tribute to an American warrior and hero. Despite the glory he had garnered as the general who restored the nation, in his early chapters Grant expressed a distaste for the professional military that had become a national tradition. He was, after all, an unmilitary soldier who had dutifully, but unenthusiastically, served his country.

About the Author

John Y. Simon is executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, which houses The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.

Funding Information

The project has received $777,443 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and has published twenty-four volumes, which cover Grant’s career through 1873.