Read CHAPTER IV - HIS LIFEWORK APPOINTED of Ulysses S. Grant , free online book, by Walter Allen, on

When the boy was about seventeen years old he had made up his mind upon one matter, he would not be a tanner for life. He told his father, possibly in response to some suggestion that it was time for him to quit his aimless occupations and begin his lifework, that he would work in the shop, if he must, until he was twenty-one, but not a day longer. His desire then was to be a farmer, or a trader, or to get an education; but he seems to have had no definite inclination except to escape from the disagreeable tannery. His father treated the matter judiciously, not being disposed to force the boy to learn a business that he would not follow. He was unable to set him up in farming. He had not much respect for the river traders, and may have had little confidence in the boy’s ability to thrive in competitions of enterprise and greed.

Without consulting his son, he wrote to one of the United States Senators from Ohio, Hon. Thomas Morris, telling him that there was a vacancy in the district’s representation in West Point, and asking that Ulysses might be appointed. He would not write to the congressman from the district, because, although neighbors and old friends, they belonged to different parties and had had a falling out. But the Senator turned the letter over to the Congressman, who procured the appointment, thus healing a breach of which both were ashamed. General Grant gives an account of what happened when this door to an education and a life service was opened before him. His father said to him one day: “‘Ulysses, I believe you are going to receive the appointment.’ ’What appointment?’ I inquired. ‘To West Point. I have applied for it.’ ’But I won’t go,’ I said. He said he thought I would, and I thought so too, if he did.” The italics are the general’s. They make it plain that he did not think it prudent to make further objection when his father had reached a decision.

Little did Congressman Thomas L. Hamer imagine that in doing this favor for his friend, Jesse Grant, he was doing the one thing that would secure remembrance of his name by coming generations. It did not contribute to his immediate popularity among his constituents, for the general opinion was that many brighter and more deserving boys lived in the district, and one of them should have been preferred. Neighbors did not hesitate to shake their heads and express the opinion that the appointment was unwise. Not one of them had discerned any particular promise in the boy. Nor were they unreasonable. He was without other distinctions than of being a strong toiler, good-natured, and having a knack with horses. He had no aspiration for the career of a soldier, in fact never intended to stick to it. Even after entering West Point his hope, he has said, was to be able, by reason of his education, to get “a permanent position in some respectable college,” to become Professor Grant, not General Grant.

In the course of making his appointment, his name by an accident was permanently changed. When Congressman Hamer was asked for the full name of his protege to be inserted in the warrant, he knew that his name was Ulysses, and was sure there was more of it. He knew that the maiden name of his friend’s wife was Simpson. At a venture, he gave the boy’s name as Ulysses Simpson Grant. Grant found it so recorded when he reached the school, and as he had no special fondness for the name Hiram, which was bestowed to gratify an aged relative, he thought it not worth while to go through a long red-tape process to correct the error. There was another Cadet Grant, and their comrades distinguished this one by sundry nicknames, of which “Uncle Sam” was one and “Useless” another.

When he arrived at West Point, in July, 1839, he was not a prepossessing figure of a young gentleman. The rusticity of his previous occupation and breeding was upon him. Seventeen years old, hardly more than five feet tall, but solid and muscular, with no particular charm of face or manner, no special dignity of carriage, he was only a common sort of pleb, modest, good-natured, respectful, companionable but sober-minded, observant but undemonstrative, willing but not ardent, trusty but without high ambitions, the kind of boy who might achieve commendable success in the academy, or might prove unequal to its requirements, without giving cause of surprise to his associates.

He had no difficulty in passing the examination at the end of his six months’ probationary period, which enabled him to be enrolled in the army, and he was never really in danger of dismissal for deficient scholarship. He seems to have made no effort for superior excellence in scholarship, and in some studies his rank was low. Mathematics gave him no trouble, and he says that he rarely read over any of his lessons more than once, which is evidence that he had unusual power of concentrating his attention, the secret of quick work in study. This power and a faithful memory will enable any one to achieve high distinction if he is willing to toil for it. Grant was not willing to toil for it. He gave time to other things, not in the routine prescribed. He pursued a generous course of reading in modern English fiction, including all the works then published of Scott, Bulwer, Marryat, Lever, Cooper, and Washington Irving, and much besides.

The thing for which he was especially distinguished was, as may be surmised, horsemanship. He was esteemed one of the best horsemen of his time at the academy. But this, too, was easy for him. He appears to have been on good terms with his fellows and well liked, but he was not a leader among them. He has said that while at home he did not like to work. It must be judged that his mind was affected by a certain indolence, that he was capable enough when he addressed himself to any particular task, but not self-disposed to exertion. He felt no constant, pricking incitement to do his best; but was content to do fairly well, as well as was necessary for the immediate occasion. One of his comrades in the academy said in later years that he remembered him as “a very uncle-like sort of a youth.... He exhibited but little enthusiasm in anything.”

He was graduated in 1843, at the age of 21 years, ranking 21 in a class of 39, a little below the middle station. He had grown 6 inches taller while at the academy, standing 5 feet 7 inches, but weighed no more than when he entered, 117 pounds. His physical condition had been somewhat reduced at the end of his term by the wearing effect of a threatening cough. It cannot be said that any one then expected him to do great things. The characteristics of his early youth that have been set forth were persistent. He was older, wiser, more accomplished, better balanced, but in fundamental traits he was still the Ulysses Grant of the farm hardly changed at all. No more at school than at home was his life vitiated by vices. He was neither profane nor filthy. His temperament was cool and wholesome. He tried to learn to smoke, but was then unable. It is remembered that during the vacation in the middle of his course, spent at home, he steadily declined all invitations to partake of intoxicants, the reason assigned being that he with others had pledged themselves not to drink at all, for the sake of example and help to one of their number whose good resolutions needed such propping. At his graduation he was a man and a soldier. Life, with all its attractions and opportunities, was before. Phlegmatic as he may have been, it cannot be supposed that the future was without beckoning voices and the rosy glamour of hope.