The motto of the Scottish clan “Grant” is “Stand fast; stand sure.” There could be no more appropriate motto for the 18th President of the United States and victorious general for the Union during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant. It is most appropriate too, that the steadfast Grant, who was born 189 years ago this week on April 27, 1822, had deep roots in the “land of steady habits,” Connecticut.
In chapter one of his Personal Memoirs, General Grant tells us that he was 8th in direct line from his ancestor, Matthew Grant, who set sail from England around 1630 on the Mary and John, settling first in Dorchester, MA. By 1635, Matthew had made his way to Windsor, where he spent the rest of his life. Matthew acted as town clerk and county surveyor for more than 40 years in Windsor.
Six generations of the Grant family lived in Windsor or ‘across the river” — presumably South Windsor — up through General Grant’s grandfather, Noah Grant, himself a Revolutionary War veteran. The general’s great-grandfather, also named Noah, fought in the French and Indian Wars with his younger brother, Solomon. Both lost their lives in that 1756 conflict.
Grant’s grandfather eventually moved the family to Pennsylvania after the war and then to the Western Reserve area of Ohio. Here, again, is a Connecticut connection to the Grant family, as that part of Ohio was actually owned by Connecticut at the time and was sometimes referred to as “New Connecticut.” It was here in Pleasant Point, Ohio, that Hiram Ulysses Grant entered the world on April 27, 1822.
The confusion that arises from Grant’s name — he is most often referred to as “U.S.” Grant — stems from an unintentional error by the congressman who nominated him to West Point, who mistakenly thought that “Ulysses S. Grant” was his real name. Over the years “U.S.” came to have various meanings. “Ulysses Simpson” — Simpson being his mother’s maiden name—was one. “Unconditional Surrender” — referring to his steadfastness of purpose and determination in battle — was another; “Uncle Sam” or just plain “Sam” were others. Grant himself ultimately settled on “Ulysses S. Grant” as an adult.
Never called “Hiram” by his family, “Lys” or “Ulysses” grew up in a rural area and had an overwhelming passion for horses. In fact, as a youth he mastered all of the bareback tricks of horsemen that he witnessed at the circuses and could often be seen emulating them in the streets of his hometown. Grant had no peer as a rider, and some even likened him to a centaur — so adept at horsemanship that the horse and his body seemed as one.
In fact, as a West Point cadet he held a jumping record that lasted over 25 years. Coming from a Connecticut family with a long history of military service and growing up with a passion for horses, it should come as no surprise that Grant became a cavalry officer. He distinguished himself as such early on in the Mexican War in the late 1840’s. After a four-year break from military service in the mid- to late 1850s, Grant rejoined the Army in time for the Civil War.
Described by John C. Fremont as "a man of dogged persistence, and iron will," with the steadfast Grant, Lincoln finally found the right general to bring about a Union victory. His popularity following the end of the Civil War helped propel him to the presidency in 1868 and again in 1872 — the first President to serve two consecutive terms fully since Andrew Jackson.
Near the end of his life, Hartford’s most famous resident, Mark Twain, persuaded his friend Grant to publish his memoirs with Twain’s nephew, Charles L. Webster, in Hartford, thereby once again establishing a Connecticut connection with the Grant family. Suffering from throat cancer, Grant undertook the writing project with the same steadfastness of purpose that characterized his actions throughout his life.
He finished the project on July 18, 1885, and died five days later. It was his hope that the book’s publication would save his family from financial ruin. His hope was realized, as the two volume book sold more than 600,000 copies.
Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which mainly focuses on the Civil War, continues to enjoy a well-deserved literary reputation. Mark Twain praised the book with these words:
I had been comparing the memoirs with Caesar's Commentaries... I was able to say… that the same high merits distinguished both books - clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech...The fact remains and cannot be dislodged that General Grant's book is a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece. There is no higher literature than these modest, simple Memoirs. Their style is… flawless, and no man can improve upon it.*
Years later, Gertrude Stein, an admirer of a short, direct prose style and a huge influence on Hemingway, would say that whenever she read Grant’s Memoirs she would weep. The English poet, Matthew Arnold, also gave the book high praise. The work contains many insightful, moving passages.
Grant’s description of his personal interaction with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox — both being former comrades during the Mexican War — is poignant. His withering indictment of the Mexican War itself is memorable: “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
His insistence on extending civil rights to former slaves in the South during his presidency is admirable and much under-appreciated. His desire to treat Native American Indians more humanely marks him as unusual and enlightened for his time. Grant describes wars of extermination as “immoral and wicked.”
Grant’s Personal Memoirs came in 3 binding types. The most treasured is the two-volume edition bound in three-quarters morocco (goatskin). Most appropriately published in Connecticut—the homeland of his family for six generations — the morocco edition usually sells for about $3,000. Take heart, however, the book is in the public domain and can be found free online.
Published in Connecticut by an author with deep roots in the Windsor-South Windsor area, and by a young Hartford publisher — Charles L. Webster — who died 120 years ago this week on April 28, 1891, it is a book that can make Connecticut residents proud.