This portrait of Ulysses Grant was drawn from information in several published sources. They include: The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Ulysses Simpson Grant, Dover Publications; The Road to Appomattox, Robert Hendrickson, John Wiley & Sons; and the web sites of the Ulysses S. Grant Home Page and Ulysses S. Grant Association.
The man Ely Parker first saw in Galena, Illinois bore little resemblance to the great military hero who would emerge during the American Civil War. In 1860, Ulysses S. Grant was working as a clerk in his father's harness shop, making about $800 a year. Apparently he wasn't very good at that job; Parker observed "How very diffident and reticent he was. It was with difficulty that information on any subject could be obtained from him. Selling goods from behind a counter did not seem to be his forte, for if he was near the front door when a customer entered, he did not hesitate to make a pretty rapid retreat to the counting-room which was in the rear part of the building, leaving the visitor to be waited on by some other employee."
Biographers as well as contemporary acquaintances assert that Grant was painfully shy, a man who liked the company of horses more than humans and had few (if any) close friends. He was plagued by ague, rheumatism, and depression; some friends described him as "plodding." Yet Grant demonstrated extraordinary patience and would endure a series of life failures and disgraces before proving himself during the Civil War.
Born in 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, he was originally named Hiram Ulysses Grant. A clerk at West Point gave him his new name 17 years later, mistakenly listing him as Ulysses Simpson Grant. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, the young cadet accepted the name without protest. His career at the Military Academy was less than stellar. Although he excelled at horsemanship, Grant was issued frequent demerits and would graduate 21st out of a class of 39.
Grant entered the Mexican War in 1846 as a quartermaster and, although he would distinguish himself more than once in battle, he had to endure constant ribbing from his fellow soldiers. Apparently some of the officers in his regiment called him "Little Beauty," a nickname mocking his good looks. According to an early biographer, Grant "had a girl's primness of manner and modesty of conduct. He was almost half-woman. He was small and slender. His voice was always soft, clear and musical, and his hands had the long, tapering fingers of a woman."
In 1848, Grant married Julia Boggs Dent. Six years later he resigned his Army commission to devote himself to his family, but he would prove to have a poor head for business. His attempt to grow potatoes failed despite the help of two slaves given to Julia by her father. (Grant returned the slaves before the Civil War.) He failed at wood hauling, at bill collecting, at a job as a customhouse clerk, as a real estate agent, and as a harness store clerk.
Ulysses S. Grant once said he detested war and had an aversion to guns. He despised killing animals and hated blood so much he refused to eat meat unless it was charred. According to Ely Parker and other close acquaintances, Grant never swore, his strongest words never worse than "dog-gone" and "by lightning." This view of the early Grant is a stark contrast to the Civil War image of the "bloody butcher," always pictured with an unkempt beard, rumpled clothes, and the stump of a cigar gripped between his teeth.
For more accounts of the life of Ulysses S. Grant in his own words, see:
Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Ulysses Simpson Grant; Dover Publications Civil War Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant, W.T. Sherman; Library of America