How Ulysses S. Grant Rose From Store Clerk to General
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?
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...
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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…
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