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Ulysses S. Grant: A Life of Scandal and Failed Adventures

Ulysses S. Grant may have been a general and the 18th president, but none of his other endeavors ever took off.

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Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) was the 18th president of the United States. Unlike former commanders in chief, he did not have a background in politics and was elected more because of his military achievements during the war than anything else. His life was fraught with scandal and failed adventures, but he did have the distinction of being great friends with the renowned Mark Twain.

Born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio to Jesse Root Grant – a tanner – and Hannah Simpson Grant, the future president was a shy and reserved boy. The idea of working at his father’s tannery was upsetting so his father arranged for him to get into the military academy at West Point. A clerical error resulted in his name being listed as Ulysses S. Grant, and afraid they’d take away his acceptance, he changed his name right then and there.

Unfortunately, Grant was not a very good student and even earned demerits for dressing slovenly and being late. He graduated 21st out of 39 in his class and was eager to resign after serving the mandatory four years.

Now a lieutenant, Grant proposed to Julia Dent in 1844 but was sent to fight in the Mexican-American War before they could marry. He served under Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott and decided the war was only about a way to increase America’s territory while spreading slavery.

It took four years before Ulysses and Julia could get married in 1848. He continued to serve in the military over the next six years, but when he was sent to Fort Vancouver – now Washington state – in 1852, he missed his family so much he tried his hand in several business ventures to get his family out to the coast. Those failed and he began to drink – something that would haunt the rest of his days and career.

On July 31, 1854, Grant resigned from the Army after being accused of heavy drinking that would lead to disciplinary action. He moved his family back to Missouri and tried to farm his land, another unsuccessful adventure. He tried his hand at real estate and failed, then was denied employment as an engineer and clerk. The former military man was reduced to selling firewood on the street and then finally went to work for his father, supervised by his two younger brothers.

On April 12, 1861, the Civil War broke out. Grant tried to volunteer his military services but was denied until an Illinois congressman helped him to get approved. At one point he was demoted because there were high causalities under his command at the Battle of Shiloh, but an investigation led to his reinstatement.

When Grant started suffering stress induced severe migraines, the rumors about his drinking resurfaced, despite the fact that those closest to him vowed he had quit drinking.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army surrendered to Grant at a farm near Appomattox Court House. He allowed the defeated general and his men to retain their pride and honor by letting them keep their horses and return home without taking any as prisoners of war.

In 1868, the now general was elected president and was the youngest – up to that time – to have ever been elected: he was 46. Unfortunately, the people he appointed for his cabinet were not of “good character” and that damaged his presidency. He was able to ratify the 15th Amendment and establish the National Parks Services before ending his term in office.

After the White House, the former president tried his hand again at business ventures but his partner embezzled money from their financial firm and bankrupted the company as well as Grant. Then he found out he had throat cancer and, trying to make financial ends meet, he started selling short magazine articles about his life. That was when he approached his friend Mark Twain to publish his memoirs. The two-volume set earned his family nearly $450,000 and sold about 300,000 copies, but Grant died on July 23, 1885, just as the memoirs were being published.

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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