18. Ulysses S. Grant

Grant Land (June 1, 2013)

If you follow the Ohio River east from Cincinnati, before too long you get to Point Pleasant. The town has about 50 people today, which means it has exploded in since 1822, when it consisted of three houses. When Hiram Ulysses Grant was born, it created a statistically significant spike in the population. The council seriously thought about putting in a stop light.

Leather goods are the jumping off point for so many great adventures, and the story of U.S. Grant is no different. His father, Jesse, worked in the Point Pleasant tannery and rented a frame cottage from his boss. About a year after his first son was born, Jesse moved the family to Georgetown, Ohio, where there were exciting new opportunities in the leather business. It had just been named the county seat, they had just opened an S and M club, and no one made a finer gimp costume than Jesse Grant.

Allegedly. Take your historical anecdotes with a grain of salt, kids.

Fortunately for Point Pleasant, Grant's brief stay was enough to keep the town on the map until the end of time, or at least until the Chinese invade and start redrawing our maps as part of their evil Maoist brainwashing program. The birth house has actually gotten around: back in the day, after Grant had become a national hero, it was shuttled around to different fairs; by 1896 it was contained in a permanent structure on the state fairgrounds in Columbus. They finally brought the home back home in 1936 and installed it on the original foundation. It has been there ever since.

It's actually a little larger than when the Grants lived there, meaning it has three rooms now instead of one. The second room is where an old lady sits and hands out pamphlets. The third one has a museum case with, among other things, old buttons and a locket with some of Grant's hair. There's also a caretaker's cottage next door, which is inhabited by the old lady. She is very chatty and pleasant, and when she dies, they are going to have a very hard time finding someone willing to live in Point Pleasant year round and talk to weirdos about history.

It's a nice drive through farm country from Point Pleasant to Georgetown; you can do it in about 50 minutes, which means it would have taken eight months in 1823. When the Grants got there, it was a small but growing town. When I got there, the Grant Boyhood Home was locked and the alarm system was blaring. This gave me the opportunity to wander the streets of Georgetown in a perplexed daze for a few minutes, much like the teenaged Grant probably did.

After about 15 minutes, my guide the magical world of Grant showed up and unlocked the doors. Apparently, he had to drop his mom off at another nearby historic site, and on top of that it's not all that common for people to show up at the boyhood home exactly at opening time. Go figure.

Judging by the house, Jesse Grant must have been pretty good at tanning things. The Georgetown house started small, but if you count the basement, the finished version is a three-story brick structure with some fairly nice entertaining spaces. I don't know what qualified as upper-middle class in 1830s middle-of-nowhere Ohio, but that was probably it.

Hiram lived there through his mid-teens. According to the legends, he wasn't all that good at school, but he was some kind of a horse whisperer who was insanely good with animals. So think of him as the guy in your high school with a manual I-Roc convertible.

There's also the legend about Grant's start in the military. Then as now, it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to get into West Point; you needed a recommendation from your congressman, and there were only so many slots to go around. One of Grant's neighbors (about three doors down on the other side of the street) got a commission, but flunked out. Hiram was a good candidate to replace him, but Jesse -- who was politically opinionated -- was in some kind of pissing contest with Rep. Thomas L. Hamer. For the good of his son, Jesse asked the congressman for help, and Hamer was cool enough to let bygones be bygones. If Hamer were a douche, slavery would still be legal in the South. Clearly.

Georgetown knows something about catering to the discriminating history tourist, so they also maintain one of the old schoolhouses attended by Grant. There's not too much of interest other than a bench Grant used to use, but the docent was the aforementioned mother of the guy from the boyhood home, and she is happy to talk about his personal life once you've exhausted all the learning opportunities. Apparently she's never getting grandkids.

A House Divided (September 24, 2011)

In September 1843, Ulysses Grant reported to Jefferson Barracks, right outside St. Louis. He had graduated from West Point in the middle of his class, and inspired by the frontier spirit of his new home, he was blazing a glorious path to the very center of mediocrity.

Actually, a lot of journeys started at Jefferson. It was one of the military's most important training and mustering sites from the early 19th century up to 1946 -- Robert E. Lee once commanded the post, and Zachary Taylor did a few stints alongside the Mississippi, and my grandfather did his basic training there in WWII. Today, it's been divided up into a National Guard base, a veterans cemetery, some private housing developments and open fields. A few old powder houses have been converted to museums staffed by very courteous senior citizens. There was a cross-country meet going on when I came to visit, and I think generations of soldiers would be thrilled to know that high school guys in short shorts were cavorting over the same parade grounds where they once froze their nuts off.

For it gets cold on the Mississippi River. My grandfather has stories about overcoats getting so frozen they stood up on their own. Fortunately, Grant's West Point roommate was also at Jefferson, and happened to be from the St. Louis area. So there was always a chance of a homecooked meal, just a muddy horse ride away.

You're looking at White Haven, the home of Colonel Frederick Dent, who made his money in fur trading (that's not a euphemism). The house is pretty much a glorified log cabin; the main building is mostly vertical timbers plastered over and painted.

As for Fred, he's basically a Tennessee Williams character -- a domineering, patriarchal plantation owner who wasn't actually a colonel, but insisted on the title. He was a racist and a slave owner, and he liked to be the big shot: he had so many visitors, he painted his front door orange to make it easier for guests to find him from the main road. As the slavery issue started to divide the nation, his home was becoming an island of southern sentiment in a mostly anti-slavery town.

And of course, he had a hot daughter. Well, hot by 19th century standards. At least to Grant.

When presented with a plantation owner's daughter, you pretty much have to hit on her, so Grant obliged. According to the great park ranger who gave me the tour, Julia wasn't exactly receptive. Grant went with the "Steve Urkel" approach (the ranger's words) and wore her down. It didn't sound particularly hot and heavy: horse rides, reading book aloud to each other, and the Colonel chaperoning every meeting for a year. Then, to play hard to get, Grant left to fight in the Mexican-American War.

There's nothing like being shot at by Mexicans to galvanize a love affair, and they were married when he came back. The Colonel, thinking Grant a shiftless loser and did not particularly like him, decided that the only proper thing was for U.S. to move into White Haven, where he could be brainwashed into becoming a Southerner. Grant, realizing the tacit contract when you marry money, obliged. He got a nice chunk of land for his trouble, and after a time he also got a slave from his father-in-law.

To be fair, Grant made some effort to be his own man. When life gives you slaves, make lemonade:

That's Hardscrabble, which was built on Grant's parcel of land by Grant and William Jones (who was freed in 1859). He and Julia lived in that craphole for about four months. Then Julia's mother died, and Julia insisted that they move back in with dad. Hardscrabble is actually not in its original location; it was moved around a bit and used as a coffee shop in the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The Anheuser-Busch family bought Grant's old farm as their country estate, and eventually moved the cabin to a new spot on the property. The estate (right next door to the National Park site) is now operated as "Grant's Farm," which combines a child-friendly zoo and safari park with an adult-friendly beer garden. For just $11, you can ride on a tram past Hardscrabble at 5 mph and never get within 50 feet of the building. But then you get to pet a goat, so ... I guess that makes it worth it?

But back to White Haven. A funny thing happened in the 1850s: Grant ended up taking over the family. The plantation wasn't exactly lucrative, and as anti-slavery sentiment started to spread, the Colonel found himself a social pariah. The Colonel kept reducing his slave holdings and renting out parcels of his land. Grant was scuffling himself, but he ended up slowly acquiring more of the property from his father-in-law. At the start of the war, the Colonel urged Grant to get on board with the Confederacy, but Grant (obviously) declined. The Colonel eventually came to live with Ulysses and Julia in the White House, which had to be as big a plate of crow as any parent ever swallowed.

The X factor in all this is Julia. According to my guide, she was living in the clouds; she enjoyed the perks of plantation living, never really gave much thought to the morality of slavery and focused on her perfect devotion to her father, husband and children (three of Grant's four kids were born at White Haven). They have a pretty nice museum in the old barn, detailing a marriage that included some long separations and sincere lovin'. Grant married a flake, but she was a flake with a good heart.

The house today is empty. The Grants rented it out when they left town for military and political pursuits, and when they did so they decided to store all the furniture in the nearby home of a relative. That home mysteriously burned to the ground in the middle of the day -- it might have been arson by abolitionists cheesed at the Colonel -- taking all the original furnishings with it. And the Grants never has a reason to refill the home, as they didn't retire to St. Louis; Grant eventually had to sell his wife's ancestral home to cover family debts.


  • Grant was wary of booze, which he felt either knocked him on his ass or had no effect. But Grant's reputation as a drunk lingers, mainly because he refused to defend himself in public, and also because Budweiser operates his property as a theme park.
  • When in Mexico, Grant would send letters to Julia written on any convenient surface, including drumheads captured from the Mexican army and receipts from suspicious cross-border pharmacies.
  • Grant was famed for directly and relentlessly attacking his opponents until they were exhausted. He perfected this strategy trying to get to second base with Julia.

Get the Lead Out (August 2014)

When U.S. Grant moved to Galena, Ill., in 1860, he had not yet actualized his potential. He was not yet the very best Ulysses Grant that he could be.

Basically, he sucked.

Grant had faded out of the military. He married the daughter of a Missouri plantation owner, but his father-in-law wasn't one of those cool plantation owners from the movies who two-fisted mint juleps and could shower a deadbeat son- in-law with riches. Instead, Grant scraped by as a mediocre farmer and failed businessman in the St. Louis area.

His own dad came to the grudging rescue. Jesse Grant was a tanner, and back then the leather goods industry was for more than bikers and sadomasochists. One of his sons was operating a leather shop in Galena, which at the time was a fairly big deal. It's not far removed from the Mississippi River, and it was home to delightful lead mines that sustained the economy before people started to sour on lead's mildly poisonous qualities. Farmers from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin might have dropped off some crops to ship downriver, then picked out a saddle for their horse and a ball gag for the missus.

However, Grant's brother had tuberculosis, and when you're coughing up blood on a regular basis it's nice to have a little help around the store. Grant took his wife, Julia, and their four children to Galena. They rented a modest home on High Street, on a crest overlooking the Galena River. Grant worked at the store, traveled around as a sales rep and accepted the fact that his soul had been crushed. In an independent film, this was the point where he would either start an affair or take swing dancing lessons in secret.

Fortunately for Grant, fate wanted him to star in a big-budget action flick. When the Civil War started, Grant made full use of his military credentials and took a bunch of cannon-fodder volunteers to Springfield. He eventually snagged a commission in the Union Army, and the rest is history.

Grant could have washed his hands of Galena, and after that much exposure to lead washing your hands is sound medical advice. But a group of 13 local Republicans and business leaders figured out that, once he won the Civil War, he might be a tourism draw. They got together in mid-1865 and bought Grant a new home on the other side of the river, with an even better view -- the truly amazing thing about fame is that once you're capable of buying anything you want on your own, people just give it to you for free. They gave Grant the house when he came through town on a victory lap, and it was his official residence for the next 15 years or so. He never really lived there for the long haul -- he was in Washington running the Army, then serving as president for eight years. But the house wasn't rented. A caretaker had it ready to go any time he stopped in town, and there were rooms for all his kids. Grant voted in Galena and during his political campaigns he stayed in town.

So there's actually something worth seeing. I came into Galena from the north, crossing the Mississippi at Dubuque and following the river south through ridiculously beautiful countryside. I parked the car in front of Elihu Washburne's house -- the congressman was one of the 13 homebuyers, and for a few weeks he was Grant's secretary of State. Walking down to the river, I got a glimpse of Galena's historic district, which is quaint as hell. And then I walked up the steep hill to Grant's home, to see exactly what you get for saving the nation.

It's not bad at all. I had a nice guide named Vernetta, who walked me through the parlor and the study while sharing most of the information above. They let you peek into the bedrooms, and they encourage you to admire the fine woodwork and wallpapering throughout the building. It's not opulent -- that was never Grant's style -- but it is respectably pleasant. The only ugly thing about the site is a statue of Julia on the front lawn. Speaking strictly as an impartial historical observer, she was a hag. And from what I've read, she wasn't all that bright. There may be a reason her husband was willing to stare death in the face repeatedly.

They're trying to build out the Grant site into a historical district, because the lead trade isn't coming back anytime soon. (Fun story: In the Grant house, the have samples of special Galena-produced pottery, which had an iridescent glaze; it's a big collector's item because they stopped using the glaze once they figured out that everyone drinking from the bowls and jugs was getting lead poisoning.) There is a historical general store next door, and a block up the street I spotted an old building with a statue on the porch. It appeared to be a "cigar store" Grant. Considering Grant died of cancer from smoking too many cigars, this is one of the greatest things I've ever seen.

Grant's Tomb (April 29, 2007)

Here's a list of famous people named Hiram:

Ulysses S. Grant

And that is what I learned at Grant's Tomb. The inspiration for the world's dumbest trivia question is in New York City, at 122nd and Riverside, smack in the middle of Riverside Park. At 150 feet tall, it's the largest mausoleum in North America, making it our Taj Mahal. I'm willing to bet we have more folding chairs, though. Suck on THAT, India!

Grant and his wife, Julia, are in a sunken alcove, making it easier for elderly southerners to walk in, spit on Grant and leave quickly; the bodies are circled by anti-presidential zombie charms and five busts of Grant's favorite Civil War generals, all of which are staring in at their boss. This creeped me out at first, but after sleeping on it, I now would like Stevie Wonder, Mike Schmidt, Humphrey Bogart, William Shatner and Leeroy Jenkins watching over me in death (metaphorically, Stevie). Great Americans all.

And oh yeah, the mummified remains of Grant's servants are in a smaller tomb at 123rd and Riverside.

But what about the man himself? Grant is inspiring, in the sense that below-average people everywhere can look to his example and hope for a better life. Behold the TRIUMPH OF MEDIOCRITY!

Hiram Ulysses Grant (a mediocre name) was born April 27, 1822, somewhere in mediocre Ohio. He was sponsored into West Point by a congressman who accidentally put his name down as U.S. Grant. It stuck. He graduated 21 out of 39 (mediocre). He did nothing much in the Mexican-American War (mediocre), then kicked around from post to post before resigning from the Army. He tried to be a farmer in Missouri and failed (mediocre) so he begged his dad for a job in Illinois (mediocre) when the Civil War broke out. Then came the non-mediocre years: He got reinstated in the regular army, kicked substantial ass in the West, and got called east by Lincoln in 1864 to lead all the armies. Then ... back to mediocrity! He wasn't a slouch in the strategy department, but he beat Robert E. Lee mostly with human wave tactics (mediocre).

Some really weird mosaic statuary surrounds Grant's tomb. Artsy craftsy, huh?After that he was our mediocre 18th president, which was unsurprising considering that all his past job experience was in either killing people or going broke in horrible business ventures. Congress didn't like him and he basically did nothing for eight years while his buddies got involved in 3,423 corruption scandals. His biggest accomplishment was signing the bill creating Yellowstone National Park. It wasn't his idea. He just signed the paper.

After that he died. But it's a funny story! Grant was a pipe smoker, but you couldn't really get pipe tobacco on the front. Before a battle, a lackey gave him a cigar, and he was photographed at the battle smoking it. Newspapers ran the photo, and since generals were basically the only celebrities back then (eat your heart out, Petraeus) adoring fans sent him thousands of cigars. He started smoking tons of them and ... blammo, throat cancer. Yet another example of the irresponsible media taking down a Republican. Insidious.

  • The "S" in theory stands for Simpson, his mom's maiden name. In practice, Grant told people it stood for "Superdude." Grant's real initials are H.U.G., which was just as embarrassing then as it is now.
  • Earned the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" when, at Fort Donelson, he surrendered unconditionally to the great taste of mutton.
  • The third-most beloved military officer in American history, behind George Washington and Colonel Sanders.
  • Elected in 1868 on the slogan "Let Us Have Peace," which contrasted nicely with Horatio Seymour (D-N.Y.) and his "Everyone Gets to Rape a Southerner" campaign.
  • He was broke when he left the White House, thanks to poor investments and the loss of the map where he hid all that Confederate gold. To provide for his family, he inked a deal with Mark Twain to publish his memoirs, and five days after finishing his manuscript he died (it earned the family $450,000). In his final months, Grant was on cocaine during the days and morphine at nights, which explains the five chapters in which he liberates Wonderland with the help of a magical talking hat.
  • His father owned a leather shop; hence Grant's lifelong love of bondage gear.
  • Grant ran for the GOP nomination in 1880, losing to James Garfield. In 1883 he rebounded by becoming president of the National Rifle Association, on the slogan "You saw what happened to Garfield."
  • Saw the nation through the Panic of 1873 by ordering the creation of a gigantic brown paper bag for the nation to breathe into.
  • Reputed as a drunk, but let's see you kill 100,000 dirty rebs without having a few drinks.
  • Won the siege of Vicksburg by blasting "Welcome to the Jungle" 24 hours a day.
  • If you're 37 years old, broke, and you had to beg your dad for a lousy job just to feed your family, pull out a $50 bill, look at Grant and say, "there's still hope." I'm assuming you have a fifty, because you probably ask your dad to pay you in cash. You guys are sketchy.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White