How Ulysses S. Grant Rose From Store Clerk to General

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On June 16, 1861 a nondescript little man boarded a trolley in Springfield, Illinois, and rode out to the state fairgrounds. With the country quickly mobilizing for civil war, the fairgrounds had become the camp site of a regiment of newly recruited Illinois state troops, and the trolley rider had business there.

In appearance, there was nothing distinguished about him. A friend who accompanied him that day later described him as being “dressed very clumsily, in citizen's clothes-an old coat, worn out at the elbows, and a badly dinged plug hat.” But there was much more to this man than his shabby dress might indicate.

When the newcomer reached the fairgrounds, now called Camp Yates in honor of the governor of the state, he walked boldly into the Adjutant’s tent and announced that “he guessed he’d take command.” He then sat down and started writing orders.

U. S. Grant takes command, and makes history

Nobody dreamed it at the time, but that little scene marked one of the most important events in all of American history. Ulysses S. Grant was taking charge of his first command in the Civil War. By the time the war ended, he would be in command of the entire United States Army, and would be celebrated as the man, second only to Abraham Lincoln, most responsible for defeating the Confederate insurgents and holding the United States together.

U. S. Grant’s military achievements would eventually put him in the White House as a two-term President of the United States. But his career didn’t begin with that kind of promise. In fact, until the Civil War gave him a new start in his life, Grant had pretty much failed at everything he tried.

A military hero the army didn’t want

At the start of the Civil War, Ulysses Grant had great credentials to be given an important military assignment. He had graduated from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in 1843, then had served well in the Mexican–American War of 1846-48, winning citations for bravery under fire. Ironically, one of the officers who commended Lt. Grant’s performance during that war was Major Robert E. Lee.

Now, with civil war having been initiated by the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the nation’s military was growing fast and was in desperate need of seasoned leadership. A West Point-educated officer with meritorious combat experience should have been in great demand for a high-level appointment. That’s what happened with men like George B. McClellan and Henry W. Halleck, West Point graduates who had left the army for business careers, but who were welcomed back with open arms when the war began, and were soon appointed to the highest levels of army command.

But with Grant, things didn’t work out that way. In fact, when he began offering his services, it quickly became apparent that nobody wanted him.

Was it fair that Grant's reputation for drinking made it hard for him to reenter the army?

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Depression drives Grant to drink

It wasn’t that Grant hadn’t been a good soldier. Men who had served with him knew that he had performed his duties well, winning promotion to Captain before deciding, like McClellan and Halleck, to resign from the army. The problem was that his former colleagues also remembered the circumstances under which Grant had left the army.

On the very day he received his commission as a newly promoted Captain, April 11, 1854, Grant wrote his letter of resignation from the army. At the time he was stationed at Fort Humboldt in California, far away from his wife and children. And Grant missed his family terribly. His loneliness caused him to become very depressed. Just a month earlier, on March 6, he had written to his wife, Julia:

I sometimes get so anxious to see you, and our little boys, that I am almost tempted to resign and trust to Providence, and my own exertions, for a living where I can have you and them with me. It would only require the certainty of a moderate competency to make me take this step. Whenever I get to thinking upon the subject however poverty, poverty, begins to stare me in the face...

Grant and his Family, 1867
Grant and his Family, 1867 | Source

Nothing had happened between March 6 and April 11 to provide Grant any better prospects for supporting his family without his army salary. So, why did he resign?

His army buddies thought they knew why. Grant, in his homesickness and general misery, had become a heavy drinker. It was probably beginning to affect his ability to perform his duties. The rumor was that he resigned his commission to avoid being cashiered.

When, at the start of the Civil War, Grant went looking for an army appointment, what his former army friends remembered about him was that he had had to leave the service because he drank too much.

Grant fails at everything he tries

Once out of the army Grant tried some of everything to support his family. He tried farming. The fact that he named his farm “Hardscrabble” pretty much shows the level of success he had in that occupation. By 1857 he was forced to pawn his watch to have money for Christmas gifts for his family.

"Hardscrabble" - Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's log cabin, near Kirkwood, St. Louis County, Missouri
"Hardscrabble" - Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's log cabin, near Kirkwood, St. Louis County, Missouri | Source

The next year, 1858, he became a partner in a real estate firm in St. Louis. That didn’t work out. Next, he applied for the post of county engineer. Although as a West Point graduate he was well qualified, he didn’t get the appointment. He did obtain a position as a clerk in the custom-house. But within two months the Collector of Customs died, and Grant was once more out of a job.

Finally, in May of 1860, Grant essentially gave up on trying to make it on his own. He accepted an offer from his father to work as a clerk in the family leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. He would, in effect, be working under his younger brothers, Simpson and Orville, who were then running the store. Humiliating as that may have seemed, Grant had few other options. He moved his family to Galena, and settled in as a store clerk.

Then came the war, and everything changed for Ulysses S. Grant.

The charge of being a drunk would be hurled at Grant throughout the war. In truth, however, he hardly drank at all during the conflict, and drinking never affected his military performance. His friend and staff aide, John A. Rawlins, kept close watch to prevent Grant falling prey to his weakness for alcohol.

The war gives Grant another chance

When President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion initiated by the seven slave-holding states that seceded from the Union, Grant had no doubts about where his duty lay. Lincoln issued his call on April 15, 1861, and the very next day a mass meeting was held in Galena to begin recruitment of a local company of volunteers to fight for the Union.

But that meeting, which Grant attended, was not entirely satisfactory. It was chaired by the mayor of Galena, Robert Brand, a man of Southern birth who was clearly not enthusiastic about the idea of sending troops to bring the seceding states back into the Union. So, another meeting was scheduled for two days later.

This time organizers wanted a chairman who was unequivocally committed to the Union cause. The man they selected was Captain Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant begins to show his leadership qualities

Grant was anything but a fiery orator. But it was known that he was a West Point graduate, and the only man in town with substantial military experience. His commitment to the preservation of the Union was unquestioned.

In a preview of the leadership style he would exhibit throughout the war, Grant didn’t try to stir the emotions of attenders to get them to volunteer. Instead, he told them calmly and frankly what they needed to be prepared for if they did volunteer:

Before calling upon you to become volunteers, I wish to state just what will be required of you. First of all, unquestioning obedience to your superior officers. The army is not a picnicking party, nor is it an excursion. You will have hard fare. You may be obliged to sleep on the ground after long marches in the rain and snow. Many of the orders of your superiors will seem to you unjust, and yet they must be borne. If an injustice is really done you, however, there are courts martial, where your wrongs can be investigated and offenders punished. If you put your name down here, it should be in full understanding of what the act means. In conclusion, let me say that so far as I can I will aid the company, and I intend to reenlist in the service myself.

VIDEO: The Rise of Ulysses S. Grant

The Grant who chaired that meeting was already a different man than the lowly store clerk he had been just days before. John A. Rawlins, who also addressed the meeting with a fiery speech, and who would later serve with General Grant as his most trusted military aide, recalled, "In this season I saw a new energies in Grant…. He dropped a stoop shouldered way of walking, and set his hat forward on his forehead in a careless fashion."

Grant himself felt the change. He would later note, "I never went into our leather store after that meeting, to put up a package or do other business."

Grant organizes volunteer troops

Although he held no official position at the time, Grant threw himself into the work of organizing and training the company of volunteers, now called the Jo Daviess Guards. He arranged for uniforms to be supplied, even helping to arrange a bank loan to pay for them. That money was later reimbursed by the federal government.

But when it was suggested that he become the Captain of this company of volunteers, Grant refused. As he told Augustus Chetlain, the man who eventually did take that spot, for a former captain in the regular army to command a volunteer company would be a demotion. Grant knew that by all rights, he was qualified to be a colonel. As he put it in his memoirs:

I felt some hesitation in suggesting rank as high as the colonelcy of a regiment, feeling somewhat doubtful whether I would be equal to the position. But I had seen nearly every colonel who had been mustered in from the State of Illinois, and some from Indiana, and felt that if they could command a regiment properly, and with credit, I could also.

But nobody else seemed to think so.

Grant asks the Governor for a military appointment

After drilling the Jo Daviess Guards into good military shape, Grant set out to get the commission he knew he deserved. Another speaker at the two organizing meetings for the volunteer company had been Elihu B. Washburne, the member of Congress for the Galena district. Although he and Grant had not known each other before those meetings, Washburne was impressed with Grant’s military knowledge. Knowing that Grant, along with Captain Chetlain, would be taking Galena’s volunteer company to the state capital at Springfield to enroll them into service, Washburne gave Grant a letter of introduction to the governor.

Illinois Gov. Richard Yates
Illinois Gov. Richard Yates | Source

At that time military units for the new volunteer army were being raised by the states rather than directly by the federal government. Each governor was in charge of raising his state’s quota. That meant that Governor Richard Yates would be appointing officers for all the Illinois regiments. And that, in turn, meant that every prominent and well-connected man in the state could be expected to show up in the Governor’s office seeking a military appointment.

Ulysses Grant was neither prominent nor well-connected. So when he arrived at the governor’s office, harried aides took one look at his shabby clothes and unimposing manner, and told him to wait. When, after hours of waiting, Grant finally did get to see the Governor and present his letter of introduction, the state’s busy chief executive was just as unimpressed as his aides had been. In answer to Grant’s offer to do anything he could to help, Yates replied, “Well, I don’t know that there is anything you could do. You might stay around for a day or two, or perhaps the Adjutant-General may have something that he can give you to do. Suppose you see him.”

Grant accepts a menial assignment

Like the Governor, Adjutant-General T. S. Mather could not at first think of anything Grant could do. But then he remembered that there were many official forms the overwhelmed federal government printing office had not yet able to supply. As a former army officer Grant would know how those forms should be formatted. So, West Point graduate Ulysses Grant was put to work “ruling blanks,” a job, as he himself said, any schoolboy could have done.

After a few days of doing his schoolboy job, Grant was profoundly discouraged and desperately short of funds. He determined to return home to Galena. Captain Chetlaine, with whom he was rooming, urged him to stay a little longer. Oddly enough, so did Governor Yates.

Grant finally gets an opportunity

The governor had suddenly found himself in need of a man with military experience. Captain John Pope was the officer who officially mustered new Illinois units into service. But in early May of 1861, Pope learned that he had been passed over for promotion to Brigadier General. Enraged, he stormed out of Camp Yates, leaving the Governor without a mustering officer. (Pope would eventually get his general’s commission, only to suffer humiliating defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Second Manassas in 1862).

"Grant Drilling his Volunteers, 1861" Detail from an 1885 engraving, “Grant from West Point to Appomattox”
"Grant Drilling his Volunteers, 1861" Detail from an 1885 engraving, “Grant from West Point to Appomattox” | Source

Pope’s impatience probably didn’t do him any good, but it finally opened a door for Ulysses Grant to demonstrate his abilities in organizing troops. Appointed by Governor Yates to take Pope’s place in this temporary duty, Grant spent the next several weeks organizing and training volunteer regiments, and officially mustering them into army service.

As he worked with these entirely untutored volunteer soldiers and their equally untutored elected officers, Grant’s professionalism shone through. One of the regiments he mustered in was the Seventh District Regiment, based at Mattoon, Illinois. Lt. Joseph Vance, who himself had spent two years at West Point, later recorded his first impressions of Captain Grant.

“He was a bit stooped at the time,” Vance would remember, “and wore a cheap suit of clothes and a soft black hat.” But Vance and the rest of the Seventh soon found out there was much more to Grant than his clothes. Vance went on to say,

[Grant was] the first officer to come to us clothed with authority from the State. We also saw that he knew his business, for everything he did was done without hesitation…. Anyone who looked beyond [his appearance] recognized that he was a professional soldier.

So great was Grant’s impact on the Seventh that they decided to name their encampment, “Camp Grant.”

General George B. McClellan in 1861
General George B. McClellan in 1861 | Source

Former army colleagues refuse to notice Grant

During this period Grant continued his attempts to secure an army appointment for himself. He went to Cincinnati to see General McClellan. The two had known one another both at West Point and during their service in the Mexican war. Undoubtedly McClellan knew of Grant’s rumored drinking problem. For whatever reason, McClellan was “out of town” during the two days Grant spent sitting in his office waiting to see him.

Grant then sent a letter to Washington, addressed to another old army acquaintance, Lorenzo Thomas, the Adjutant-General of the U. S. Army. Grant never received a reply.

A door cracks open for Grant

But now the seed Grant had planted by his faithful service in his seemingly dead-end temporary assignment as mustering officer began bearing totally unanticipated fruit.

The Seventh District Regiment, the unit Grant had drilled and mustered in at Mattoon, had elected as Colonel a man named Simon Goode. Although he had boasted of having substantial military experience, the men and officers of the regiment soon discovered that, as Grant biographer William Farina put it, “Goode’s hallmark was drunken incompetence.”

The junior officers of the regiment petitioned Governor Yates, saying they were unwilling to go into combat under Goode’s leadership, and would much prefer as their leader the man who had mustered them into service, Captain U. S. Grant.

It’s not often that junior officers get away with trying to boot out their commander, but this time they did. During his seemingly hopeless time serving as a clerk in the Adjutant-General’s office, Grant had impressed many with his solid good sense and military competence. After consulting advisors, Governor Yates made his decision. A local newspaper recorded the result the following day:

Captain Grant of Jo Daviess County, formerly of the regular army, has been appointed by Governor Yates colonel of the Seventh District Regiment, now in camp in Camp Yates, in place of Colonel Goode.

So it was that on that consequential mid-June day in 1861, Ulysses S. Grant got off the trolley and walked into Camp Yates as the new commanding officer of the Seventh District (soon to be renamed the 21st Illinois) Regiment.

Colonel Grant quickly proves himself as a regimental commander

It didn’t take Governor Yates long to discover that he had made an excellent choice. In his last annual message to the state he noted the immediate impact Grant’s appointment had on his new regiment:

Thirty days previous to that time, the regiment numbered over one thousand men, but in consequence of laxity in discipline and other discouraging obstacles connected with the acceptance of troops at that time, but six hundred and three men were found willing to enter the three years’ service. In less than ten days, Col. Grant filled the regiment to the maximum standard, and brought it to a state of discipline seldom attained in the volunteer service, in so short a time… He soon distinguished himself as a regimental commander in the field, and his claims for increased rank were recognized…

General U. S. Grant in 1864
General U. S. Grant in 1864 | Source

The former leather store clerk becomes a general

That increased rank came quickly.

President Lincoln, needing to quickly build a corps of top tier leadership for the new army, asked the states to nominate officers for promotion to the rank of Brigadier General. Illinois was allotted four nominees, and Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, who had been so impressed with Grant in Galena, recommended him for one of those slots. Washburne’s recommendation was unanimously endorsed by the Illinois congressional delegation, and on July 31, 1861 President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant a Brigadier General of volunteers in the United States Army.

In less than four months the man nobody wanted had risen from a lowly leather clerk to a U. S. Army brigadier general. Within another 36 months, he would be the country’s only Lieutenant General, the highest ranking officer in the nation, and the commander of all the armies of the United States.

And he would be the man who, after four years of bloody carnage, finally won the Civil War for the Union.

© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin

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21 comments

Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

Excellent educational piece, thank you


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Eric.


RachaelOhalloran profile image

RachaelOhalloran 2 years ago from United States

The man nobody wanted, indeed! It seems his confidence level was perpetually in doubt, as his enthusiasm for each project seemed to wane shortly after its beginning. While it may be true being away from his family impacted his job performance in some ways, his service record improved at one point.

As was the practice of the day, I wonder if his wife paid a visit to the camps like other wives did at the time. lol

He obviously did have a turning point somewhere, where leadership took over so Grant emerged as the man who won the war for the Union and went on to become President.

Sadly as happens with so many who are war presidents, he died at age 63 even though his pix show him to look older. He had 2 of the most aging jobs there are: military leader and President. Ron, I loved this article - this was an indepth look behind the tent curtain into Grant's personal and military life. Thank you for sharing.


cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

cmoneyspinner1tf 2 years ago from Austin, Texas

Another great history lesson Ron. Awesome biography as well. Found your link share via a Google+ post stream and came over to give this HUB a thumbs up!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Rachael. It's interesting that you mention Grant's confidence level. After all the rejection and failure he had experienced, you'd think it would be really depleted. Yet close military associates, like William Tecumseh Sherman, saw Grant's confidence in himself as his most outstanding characteristic, and the one that contributed most to his success. It makes me wonder how many Grants we might have in society today, people who seem mired in failure, but who simply haven't found the role in life that can bring out the hidden qualities within them.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Treathyl. I really appreciate you taking time to read. And it's good to know that Google+ is doing some good!


MsDora profile image

MsDora 2 years ago from The Caribbean

Thank you for a great story and for being such a good story teller. Grant sure made his impact on the nation's history; we remember him not for his personal flaw but for the great national victory he won.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, MsDora. Your comment made me think - we don't often hold up Grant as an example of overcoming obstacles in life, but that's exactly what he is. He didn't let his previous failures discourage him, and that's a great lesson for all of us.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

Very rarely in life does competence win the day, and thank God for the country that it happened with Grant. I think that mostly because of his unpolished demeanor Grant is our most underrated General, but his defeat and capture of three armies at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox is unprecedented.

In regard to his drinking Lincoln said "Find out what he is drinking and give a case to all my generals - I can't spare him, the man fights!"

Thank you for this superb account of my favorite general. Great hub, my friend!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Mel. For much of the 20th century Grant was deliberately devalued in favor of Lee by the cult of the Lost Cause. But now historians are aggresively redressing that imbalance. As you say, he's the only commander of the CW to receive the surrender of even one entire army - and he did so with three!


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 2 years ago from American Southwest

If you keep up with these articles I might decide the Civil War is interesting! (Can't have that - my brother likes Civil War history and I can't like the same thing he likes!) Seriously, please continue!


Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

What is known about his psychology? Did he feel guilt or remorse after killing hundreds of thousands of people?

Was there another way instead of war?


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, aethelthryth. Your brother sounds like a great guy! For me the Civil War is all about people, how they thought and acted, and upon what motives. And people are always interesting.


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Hi, Jay. As a matter of fact, Grant was deeply disturbed by the suffering the war caused. But I don't think he felt guilt at the part he played. He knew that the fight he and his men were engaged in was the only way to ensure, as Lincoln said, that government of the people, by the people, for the people would not perish from the earth. The more than 1 million men who put on Union blue put their lives on the line to defend that principle. They eventually came to understand that they were also defending an even more important principle, again as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, that all men are created equal. The South went to war to defend a system that kept four million human beings in abject bondage. They weren't going to let go of that system without a fight to the death. So, no, I don't think there was another way instead of war. Thanks for reading and commenting.


Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

You ended with:

"So, no, I don't think there was another way instead of war. Thanks for reading and commenting."

How about education?

The underground railroad?

Population shifts?

With time things change. Patience.

What would Jesus have taught?

Was Grant Christian?

Did Grant follow Jesus?


Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

Thanks for this great story on Grant. I really enjoyed reading a bio of him, some time back. I've now started Road to Glory, the bio of Robert E. Lee. Just yesterday, he was working on the levies of the Mississippi, near St. Louis, small world, looking back. Thanks for sharing your work here! ;-)


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Homeplace Series. I'm glad you enjoyed it.


misterhollywood profile image

misterhollywood 2 years ago from Hollywood, CA

Interesting hub and SUPER informative. Thanks for making this available to us!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, misterhollywood. I think Grant's entire story is fascinating.


esmonaco profile image

esmonaco 2 years ago from Lakewood New York

Ron, A very informative and interesting bit of history. I love reading the history of the Civil War, but sadly I don't do enough of it. Thanks for this piece of history, as I learned something new, great job :)


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, esmonaco. For me history is all about people, and I try to make their stories as interesting as I can. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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