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A Presidential-Sized Comeback: The Story of Ulysses S. Grant

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 28, 2023 3:02 am

A Presidential-Sized Comeback: The Story of Ulysses S. Grant

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 28, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Dr. John Marszalek and Eddie Rangel of the Grant Presidential Library tell the story about how Grant went from selling firewood on a street corner, to leading the US Army to victory in the Civil War.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. This is Lee Habib, and this is our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show, from the arts to sports, and from business to history, and everything in between. And we love telling stories about history. As always, all of our stories about American history are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, where you can go to study and learn about all the things that matter in life, and all the things that are beautiful in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

Go to And now, this is the story of our 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. Because on this day in 1822, Grant was born. Here's our own Monty Montgomery on the story. Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in the small town of Point Pleasant, Ohio, to parents Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson Grant.

Here's Dr. John Marzlak of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library with more. His mother and father were very, very important people in his life in different ways. His father is more or less an abolitionist, and he also wrote for a newspaper, which leaned in an abolitionist direction. So he's very outgoing. The mother, she is a very, very shy person. She doesn't give Grant the kind of love or support that you might expect for a mother to give. The father was always a presence in his life and always told him what to do, etc., etc., etc. Grant is much more like his mother than he is like his father. So this whole idea of Grant being a quiet person, I think you could trace back to the time when he's living at home. Grant is pretty much not interested in anything but farming, and not interested in doing much of anything else.

He's certainly not one of these people who wants to follow his father in his father's footsteps, because one of the things his father did was his father worked in a tannery, or owned a tannery, actually, and Grant hated it. Grant loved horses. He reacted very well to horses, and he knew how to train them.

He knew how to get them to do. He could do things with horses that nobody else could do. And there's a very famous story of his experience with that, where he really wanted his horse, and his father thought it was just, the horse just wasn't worth it.

He shouldn't do that. So Grant kept working on him, working on him, working on him. So finally the father said, okay, go in there, but what I want you to do is make an offer for that horse.

If the neighbor who owns this horse doesn't accept the offer, then raise it up a little bit and raise it up again. And so what Grant did, actually, he went to this neighbor, and he said, well, my father told me that I should come and talk to you, and I should offer you this much, and if you didn't take that, I should up it a little bit, and if you didn't take that, I should finally pay no more than I think it was $25. And so you have a situation where Grant actually gets what he wants, but he does it in such a way that it's something that he has to live down for the rest of his life. And while Grant was busy developing a love for horses, Jesse Root-Grant was busy developing a roadmap for his son's education. His father was a great believer in education, and so Grant was sent out of town to schools where he learned, and he learned, I think, more about abolitionism than he learned about anything else, but he was very much of a real supporter, was the father of Grant and getting as much education as he possibly could. He was obsessed with education. He wanted his children, and particularly Grant, his most important child as he saw it, to have as much education as possible. Here's Eddie Rangel of the Ulysses S. Grant Museum with more on Jesse Root-Grant's drive to have his son properly educated. I think one of those important moments was his father's drive to push him to think, to read, to be educated, so to speak. This is sort of unusual at the time for Grant's upbringing.

He was an average person. He would have been expected to take over the family farm, but his father wanted him to study, to continue to learn, and so I think this drive that his father instilled in him, although they didn't have a great relationship, it's something that Grant is going to carry through the rest of his life as he develops at West Point and then after that. He didn't want to go to West Point. His father shows up one day and basically tells him, I have secured an appointment for you to West Point. There was somebody in that town that didn't make it flunked out, basically, and so there was an opening and Grant's father was willing to go for it.

And Grant is like, what? You know, it's sort of that typical scenario that has happened over the centuries where parents tell their child that they're going to do something or they'll major in this, and their child sort of says, why? He thought it was a terrible mistake.

He'd be a terrible soldier, he thought. And if he just disliked the military all his life, even when he was a famous general, he didn't particularly care about this. But the reason why his father really secures this appointment from him is because Jesse Ruth Grant knows that West Point will be free. He won't have to pay for this education when he gets that appointment, and so, you know, that's reason number one. And then reason number two, and perhaps most important, is that this education that West Point is going to provide for him will secure his future for the rest of his life.

Once Grant completes that degree, he doesn't have to spend a lot of time in the military and then he can go and do whatever he wants with a world-class education at the time, of course. And so he's going to West Point sort of against his will, but this is for his future and, you know, for his benefit, so to speak. He only went because he liked traveling, and so he thought, well, maybe this way I'll get to see some of the country that I ordinarily won't see. He did it because his father. In fact, he said, since my father said I should go, I guess I better go.

I better change my mind and go. And you're listening to the story of Ulysses S. Grant. And my goodness, without his dad's influence, the world could have been changed, certainly Ulysses S. Grant's world.

When we come back, more of this remarkable life, the early life, the life before the life most of us know about Ulysses S. Grant, here on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.

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That's slash iHeart. And we continue with our American stories and we return with our look into Ulysses S. Grant's back story. When we last left off, Grant's father, Jesse Root-Grant, had secured him an appointment at West Point, an appointment Grant would rather not have taken.

And here's Dr. John Marzalek with more. Grant is not a very popular figure at West Point. He doesn't make a lot of a lot of friends. He is not somebody that people look up to as one of the individuals who's going to really make a difference. And they're going to say, yeah, that Grant boy, when he gets when he gets in the army, he's going to he's going to be a terrific person, et cetera, et cetera.

But it doesn't it doesn't really work out. But even at West Point, he's tried to stay, never read his lessons more than once because he just was bored by it. He spent most of his time reading novels more than anything else. One of the important moments, I think, for Grant, even even at a time where I think he's very unhappy, but he begins to develop his love for horses a little bit more into sort of a more useful skill. Grant is actually a very good horseman. He breaks several records that are going to stand for a long time at West Point.

This is a skill that later, especially in the Mexican War and in the Civil War as well, are going to be are going to be important. Grant would graduate West Point in a middling position within his class, 21st out of some 40 students. But he would meet someone there who would change his life and lead him to someone who would become very important to him. I think two of the most important things that that happened to him is he met two people. One person was a fellow named Fred Dent and Dent was his roommate.

Dent said, look, you're going you're going to be going you're going to be going to the St. Louis area. My father and my family has a has a place there and you're welcome to come anytime. And so he does go there and he meets his future wife, Julia. Of course, Grant, like we said, comes from a very modest abolitionist family from Ohio. And Julia is the daughter of a relatively well-to-do plantation owner with a pretty sizable number of enslaved persons working at the plantation. And so her family is part of the slave economy, whereas Grant's is not. Now, Julia's father was not very thrilled with the idea of her being courted by Grant. And Grant's father, Jesse Ruth Grant, was certainly not thrilled with the idea of his son courting the daughter of a slave owner. It's my understanding that the Grant family, no members of the Grant family showed up to the wedding. One thing that really did draw them together, the one thing was Julia liked to horseback ride. And so they would take rides together, you know, he on his horse and she on her horse along the plantation. And that that, I think, helped bring them bring them together. And interestingly enough, Julia is one of the few people who thinks that that Grant is going to amount to anything.

Most people say, no, he's not going to be good. In fact, the father, her father didn't like Grant at all and thought he was going to be he's an absolute loser. Grant would soon find himself in a more uncomfortable position than simply dealing with an unimpressed father-in-law.

He would be shipped out to the front in the Mexican-American war. And Grant went, despite his personal opinion on the conflict and the fact he would be assigned to a job which he didn't like. Quartermaster, a glorified paper pusher in the eyes of Grant. He's one of these people who believes that if you're given an order, like with his father, if you're given an order, you follow the order, you do what you're supposed to do. And so you have a situation where Grant in numerous occasions is willing to do the quartermaster work, even though he doesn't like it, but he'll do it anyway. But yet, when he gets a chance, he sneaks into into battle. He really learns a lot from General Zachary Taylor.

He sees the way he commands troops, the way he inspires, the way he leads his men from the front, not from the back. These moments are really important for Grant, even though Grant opposed the Mexican war. He saw it as a war of aggression towards a neighboring state. He thought it was unjust. He understood that the political motivations behind it from President James K. Polk. To essentially start a war with Mexico to gain this territory that Mexico would refuse to sell and continue to expand west to fulfill manifest destiny. Grant finds a problem with this, but nevertheless, his time in the Mexican war really becomes this really important moment for Grant.

And after the Mexican-American war, Grant was sent all across the expanded United States to remote forts in order to protect settlers. Falling into a depression as a result of being away from home and family for so long. In fact, one of the children, he doesn't even see until several years later when he shows up back at his house in St. Louis.

The child doesn't even recognize him. And what Grant was doing, he was drinking during that time. And the reason he was drinking was because he missed his wife and his family so much.

One could almost argue that he's self-medicating himself. And this led to problems with his superiors, especially a man by the name of Robert Buchanan, who would issue him an ultimatum after finding Grant hungover on the job. Buchanan says, you can't behave like that. We can't do that.

So you have a choice. You either straighten out or you resign. And so what actually happens is Grant doesn't want to resign, but he has no choice. This is where these rumors really that will follow him for the rest of his life originate of him being a drunk.

He was not addicted to alcohol in the same sense that an alcoholic is, as opposed to perhaps more of an abusive alcohol to alleviate some of that depression or angst that he has. That episode just made it so much more difficult for him and he's had to battle that for the rest of his life and even to the present day. After resigning from the military, Grant would return home and return home broke.

There's a couple instances where he's in such bad shape that he's got to sell firewood on the street corners of St. Louis. And there's a very famous, famous episode where Grant and Sherman, who don't know each other all that well, meet. And I think Sherman says, well, heck of a thing for former West Pointers, isn't it, Grant? And Grant just said, yeah, I guess it is. And that was about it. So he did that and he also had to sell a favorite watch so he could buy his family, his kids something for Christmas.

So you have some of that. So there's just a number of instances where Grant tries things and usually, come to think of it, usually it has something to do with farming. And that's something he thinks he can really do well, but he doesn't do well. And with no other options, Grant would be forced to ask his father for a job. What happened was he went to his father, which was an incredibly difficult thing for him to do, to go to his father and say, give me a job in your store where we sell these tanned goods. So Grant doesn't like that. He's not involved.

He doesn't do anything to do with tanning, but he's involved in the selling and he tours the Midwest and he sells. And the father is doing quite successfully at this particular time. So, yeah, Grant convinces his father, I can't make it on my own.

Give me a job in the store. And he's got a brother, an older brother who's ill. And so he helps him. And it's a very, very confused thing. But the result is that Grant does work for the father and the father never lets him forget that. And so for the rest of his life, even when he's president, the father is still trying to get stuff from Grant for some of his friends. What a rich and complicated early history. Grant going to a college he doesn't want to go to, doesn't like the military.

But while there develops this craft, this skill, horsemanship, by the way, that mattered if you were a soldier back in the 19th century, your ability to move and maneuver with a horse. And my goodness, the drinking, well, we can understand it away from his kid. His kid didn't even recognize him when he comes back to see him and ultimately chooses to resign knowing he won't be able to give up drinking. Comes back home selling firewood on a street corner and then in the end having to beg his dad for a job he never wanted. When we come back, more of this remarkable life story, the early life of Ulysses S. Grant. These were real life people, folks who walked around before us with real life stories and real life heartbreak. And when we come back, more of this remarkable story of Ulysses S. Grant here on Our American Stories. Digital currency is helping to form the base layer for a new global commerce infrastructure and stable coins like USDC issued by Circle help to bring faster payments at Internet scale.

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That's Goldco dot com slash I heart. And we return to our American stories and our look into the life of Ulysses S. Grant. When we last left off, Grant, he was at his lowest point. It was at this time that Grant would be given a slave by the name of William Jones.

Here's Eddie Rangel with more on that story. His father in law gifts him a or I guess gives him a slave, I guess what I'm trying to say, and Grant works alongside him, which is something that would have been frowned upon by, you know, white slave owning society of the time. However, eventually, you know, even at his lowest, he realizes that, well, one, this is this is not for him. And so he emancipates or he frees William Jones, probably at one of his lowest times when he could really have benefited from the monetary value that an enslaved person could have brought him.

I think it's an important part in the story of Grant, because you really get to see how he evolves over time. I think it's best to say that he felt he was sort of ambivalent. He didn't really care about institutional slavery, but he also didn't speak out openly against it, at least in his early in his early years.

And so he's just kind of in between there, not really caring for it, not really loving it. And so that that's an important moment while, you know, before the Civil War for Grant. Julia thinks that slavery is wonderful. In fact, she even holds on more or less holds on to a slave throughout the throughout the Civil War, where Grant comes to see that slavery is evil. And if you're going to understand why there is a civil war, you have to understand that people are fighting to defend slavery. He thought the Civil War was a terrible thing, that it shouldn't happen. There's no reason to split the country apart. Slavery was not not worth doing it.

Nothing was was worth doing it. And the way he really got into the war, more or less he got into the war, was when they had a big town meeting in Galena. And he was chosen as the person who run the town meeting simply because he was the only West Pointer that any everybody in town knew. And so the result is, is that that you have you have Grant running the meeting.

And then once he runs the meeting and once he gets company really set up in in Galena, then it doesn't much matter because they say, well, that's that's nice. But nobody wants to give Grant what he thinks he deserves because he's a West Pointer, that he that he get a regiment. Until finally, the governor of Illinois, Yates, Robert Yates, gives him the 21st Regiment because nobody else can can make these guys toe the line. And somehow Grant can, which is an amazing thing in itself, that Grant would be the one that could step in there and get these guys in line.

Because normally he just doesn't really doesn't really play much of a role in this sort of thing. In fact, Yates, the job that Yates gives them is based on his quartermaster skill. But in this case, he becomes the leader of the 21st Illinois Regiment. And soon, Grant would get his first taste of battle in the American Civil War. Grant is leading this 21st Regiment, which he straightened out pretty well, leading him into into battle. But he's scared to death. In fact, he says in his memoirs how his heart kept moving into his throat. And until he gets over this hill and he's expecting to find the Confederates ready to clean his clock. And they don't.

They're gone. And he comes to the conclusion, you know, these guys are as afraid of me as I am of them. And this is something he never forgets for the rest of the Civil War. I think one of the big things that you have to understand is, is that Grant understood that the people he was fighting were just human beings. They were some of the people he had met before.

They were some people that they were going to meet later on. But he came to understand that Robert E. Lee, for example, who he had met, Lee wouldn't admit that he met him, but he did meet him during the Mexican-American War, that Lee was no Superman. He was just, remember the famous statement he says where somebody is worried about, well, what's Grant, what's Lee going to do? And Grant says, look, don't worry about Lee. You worry about yourself. You do what you keep indicating that he's going to do a triple somersault and land behind our lines.

It's just not going to happen. I know this guy. He's just another human being.

And the other, secondly, that these are fellow Americans that you're fighting against. Grant's demeanor was more like his mother as opposed to his father. He was a calm individual. He didn't really show a lot of emotion. And so if you take his Mexican War experience, learning from Taylor, learning from Scott, his own demeanor, you really see a very calm, calculated individual in battle. He's also going back to his earlier time when he's willing to act whether or not he has the power to do it.

He's just going to do it. The whole idea is you keep moving forward, you keep moving forward. You're going this way and you're stopped. Doesn't matter.

Keep going, keep going, keep going. And that's what Lincoln comes to believe. And after winning countless victory after countless victory in the West, Lincoln would promote Grant to general. When Grant is promoted and he's recalled back to Washington, you know, no one really knows him.

He's sort of quietly been fighting in the West, just whipping the rebels, so to speak. But he comes back to Washington and when he checks into the hotel with his son, they basically put him up in an attic. You know, Grant, again, his personality was not flashy. He didn't really like attention or anything like that.

He was never known to be, you know, have his uniform super clean or anything. And so he just goes along with it until the clerk, after a few minutes, realizes who he is because they had read about him. And certainly they could see pictures of him, but they weren't accurate to what Grant looked like. He sees that U.S. Grant has signed in and he realizes the mistake he's made. And so he very quickly puts the hotel staff to, I believe, get a guest out of the room so the General Grant can have a room. And then certainly when he when he goes to the White House to meet President Lincoln, you know, it's full of people. And so here it is again, shy Grant walking in into this room full of high society Washington people.

I don't want to say he shrinks in the moment, but he's certainly taken by the moment of Lincoln sort of presenting him to all these Washington elite. And at the end of the war and after seeing so much bloodshed, Grant would show humility and respect to his former enemies at Appomattox, allowing them to keep their guns and horses, provided they simply return home. He pretty much follows what Lincoln has said. Lincoln kept saying, let them off easy, let them off easy. So one of the things that happens at Appomattox is they get together and Grant is willing to give Lee and give the Confederates and treat them fairly. And what he does is we're not going to put it to you Confederates. We're going to let you off easy, which Lincoln agrees with and other Americans agree with, because after all, these are all Americans. And great job to Monty Montgomery for putting that together and a special thanks to the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library in Starkville, Mississippi, for their contributions to this piece.

The story of Ulysses S. Grant, born in this day in 1822. And what an American story. What a turnaround from selling wood on a street corner, begging his dad for a job as a grown man to only a couple of years later, leading the U.S. Army in the Civil War and in the end becoming a U.S. president.

Just remarkable. And my goodness, he's charged to always be moving forward and to take action. Well, this is why Lincoln finally put him in command, because he was just willing to fight. And also what he said about, well, your enemy or something you might hear and perhaps his greatest insight as a commander.

They feared us as much as we feared them. The life of U.S. Grant here on Our American Story. Most TVs are smart nowadays, but with busy home screens and remotes with too many or too few buttons, smart shouldn't mean complicated. That's why Roku TV is the smart TV made easy. The customizable home screen puts your inputs, streaming favorites like iHeart and free live TV all in one place. From simple settings anyone can understand, automatic updates with the latest features and much more. Roku TV is more than a smart TV. It's a better TV. Learn more today at

Happy streaming. I'm Malcolm Gladwell. I live way out in the country. I drive everywhere.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-28 04:26:48 / 2023-04-28 04:39:22 / 13

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