Ulysses Grant: the new history

I’m completely absorbed at the moment in Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Ulysses Grant. It’s an amazing story, written with real panache and, it seems to me, historical rigor (two qualities that don’t always go together). Why am I so captured by Grant?

First, I grew up at a time when Grant was seen as a rather pitiful figure. A successful general, yes, but also drunk, disheveled and corrupt. And as president? A disaster. Smith makes a very different case and in the opening pages of the book also tries to address that image of Grant that I had. Grant was disheveled, certainly, but that’s part of his charm. He also had a fondness for drink, but when it mattered he was far more sober than most nineteenth century judges. The bad rap on Grant seems largely the work of southern historians eager to promote their guy – Robert E. Lee – at the expense of our guy.

One of the aspects of Grant’s career that I knew nothing about was his complete financial ruin before the war. He had been a successful soldier, but a minor scandal led him to leave the army. He was always poor with money – too kind-hearted and gullible – and he just scraped enough for him and his family to live on by selling firewood door-to-door in St Louis. Yet a couple of years later he was leading the Union army to victory at Vicksburg. Certainly as remarkable a rags-to-fame story as exists in American history. An extraordinary tale.

One useless piece of Grant trivia, sure to stump most people. What does the “S” in Ulysses S. Grant stand for?

4 thoughts on “Ulysses Grant: the new history

  1. jaywalker

    If you combine the alleged author of the work Grant’s first name is based on with Grant’s middle name you get a modern hero soon to star in an animated motion picture.

  2. Felix

    Simpson, eh? I was always under the impression that it’s Ulysses S Grant, not Ulysses S. Grant — that is, “S” is his middle name. Think Jennifer 8 Lee. Or don’t. But I might well be wrong about this, and I’m not going to look it up — that would be cheating.

  3. Lance Knobel

    Jaywalker has part of the story, but only part. And Felix also gets some of it right.

    Grant’s mother’s maiden name was Simpson, but that wasn’t part of his name. At birth, he was Hiram Ulysses Grant. He was admitted to West Point on the recommendation of his congressman, Thomas Hamer. Hamer knew Grant’s mother and assumed his middle name was Simpson. So the name he submitted to the War Department was Ulysses S. Grant. At the rigid, hierarchical military academy, that’s the name with which he was stuck.

  4. Doug

    Felix, that’s Harry S Truman. Although apparently the S often gets a . after it, even though it’s not an abbreviation.


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