School Days

I was not studious in habit... 
-- Ulysses S. Grant

Children gather outside a schoolhouse

In the 1820s and 1830s, many kids never went to formal schools. But the Grants were well off enough -- and lived in a big enough town -- for Ulysses to go to school more than most of his peers. Ulysses was a so-so student in most subjects, except one: mathematics. Yup. He was a Math Whiz. It seemed to come easily to him, both in grade school and later at West Point.


Story: What was Ulysses Like in School?

Wondering what it was like to go to school in 1830 with an eight-year-old kid named Ulysses?

One of his school pals, James, described him as "a little short, fat fellow" who "usually went with boys older than himself because he passed for a boy three or four years older than he really was."

But the big thing that really stuck out in James's mind about Ulysses was that he loved doing math problems in his head:

"While the majority of us pupils would be just getting the problem settled in our minds Ulysses would shout an answer. That would make the older pupils feel ashamed that such a little fellow was smarter than they were."

Ulysses didn't have much interest in other subjects like grammar, geography, spelling, and essay writing. But what he really couldn't stand was declaiming. What's declaiming, you ask? It's giving speeches! According to James: "He spoke a selection from Washington's Farewell Address, but he made fearful work of it..."

Do you think he got over his dislike of public speaking by the time he had to give orders to thousands of troops?

-adapted from James H. Sanderson (1885)

Memoirs Excerpt: Grant's School Memories

The schools, at the time of which I write, were very indifferent. There were no free schools... They were all supported by subscription, and a single teacher... would have thirty or forty scholars... from the infant learning the ABC's up to the young lady of eighteen and the boy of twenty, studying the highest branches taught...

I attended the subscription schools of the village, except during the winters of 1836-7 and 1838-9. The former period was spent in Maysville, Kentucky... the latter in Ripley, Ohio, at a private school... Both winters were spent in going over the same old arithmetic... and repeating: "A noun is the name of a thing," which I had also heard my Georgetown teachers repeat until I had come to believe it.

I have no recollection of ever having been punished at home, either by scolding or by the rod. But at school the case was different. The rod was freely used there, and I was not exempt from its influence. Switches were brought in bundles, from a beech wood near the school house, by the boys for whose benefit they were intended. Often a whole bundle would be used up in a single day. I never had any hard feelings against my teacher, either while attending the school, or in later years when reflecting upon my experience. Mr. White was a kind-hearted man, and was much respected by the community in which he lived. He only followed the universal custom of the period, and that under which he had received his own education. 

-- Ulysses S. Grant (1885)

Next: Ulysses at Work

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