Horsing Around

I had come for the colt and meant to have him.
-- Ulysses S. Grant

Grant with his horse

Ulysses was obsessed with horses as a kid. Like other kids his age, he enjoyed lots of outdoor activities. He ice-skated in winter, swam in the creek in the summer, went fishing, and visited his grandparents. But he chose to spend a lot of his free time working and playing with horses. His ability to train and ride almost any horse made him the talk of his hometown, and the reputation stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Hanging Out With Ulysses

How would you describe your friends?

Would you say, "They are as noisy and rollicking a lot of fellows as there ever was"? Didn't think so.

But that's how Ulysses' friend James described the boys in their hometown of Georgetown, Ohio. About Ulysses, he said:

"There was something about Ulysses that made the boys respect him. He always seemed to be thinking and to take things that excited us to the highest pitch so easy. I don't remember that I ever once saw him excited, and I knew him so well. Even on Fourth of July celebrations, when we were always excited all day long, he was as cool as a cucumber, although he joined in our fun as much as anyone. "

The ability to stay calm during an excited situation... Sounds like the kid would make a good army general, don't you think?

James also says that Ulysses was a good marksman and swimmer. Unlike most of his friends, Ulysses was not a great athlete and did not enjoy hunting. But his skills in horsemanship were the best in town. 

-- adapted from James H. Sanderson (1885)


Memoirs Excerpt: Grant on Horses

While still quite young I had visited Cincinnati, forty-five miles away... I had also gone... to Flat Rock, Kentucky, about seventy miles away... While at Flat Rock, at the house of a Mr. Payne... I saw a very fine saddle horse... and proposed to Mr. Payne... to trade him for one of the two I was driving... I was seventy miles from home, with a carriage to take back, and Mr. Payne said he did not know that his horse had ever had a collar on... A trade was at once struck, I receiving ten dollars difference.

The next day... [we] encountered a ferocious dog that frightened the horses and made them run. The new animal kicked at every jump he made. I got the horses stopped, however, before any damage was done, and without running into anything. After giving them a little rest, to quiet their fears, we started again. That instant the new horse kicked, and started to run once more. The road we were on, struck the turnpike within half a mile of the point where the second runaway commenced, and there was an embankment twenty or more feet deep on the opposite side of the pike. I got the horses stopped on the very brink of the precipice. My new horse was terribly frightened and trembled like an aspen... Finally I took out my bandanna -- the style of handkerchief in universal use then -- and with this blindfolded my horse. In this way I reached Maysville safely the next day... Here I borrowed a horse from my uncle, and the following day we proceeded on our journey. 

-- Ulysses S. Grant (1885)

Memoirs Excerpt: Grant's Embarrassing Horse Story

You've had embarrassing moments, yes? Well, here's how Grant describes one of his biggies:

There was a Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village, who owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get him, to give the twenty-five...

When I got to Mr. Ralston's house, I said to him: "Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won't take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won't take that, to give you twenty-five." It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon...

I certainly showed very plainly that I had come for the colt and meant to have him. I could not have been over eight years old at the time. This transaction caused me great heart-burning. The story got out among the boys of the village, and it was a long time before I heard the last of it... I kept the horse until he was four years old, when he went blind, and I sold him for twenty dollars. When I went to Maysville to school, in 1836, at the age of fourteen, I recognized my colt as one of the blind horses working on the tread-wheel of the ferry-boat.

--Ulysses S. Grant (1885)

Interview: Brooks Simpson on the Embarassing Horse Story

The story goes that as a young boy Grant spied a colt owned by Mr. Ralston. He admired the colt, and wanted to buy it badly...

Grant told this story on himself afterwards, but he wanted to make sure that everyone understood that the story was not about his ineptitude as a businessman, but his determination to get that horse. And later on, talked about selling the horse at a good profit, seeing the horse later on, working the canals and that he was determined to get that horse, no matter what the obstacle. But he did notice at the same time, he did really in later years, even the years as his death approaches that that story caused him great heartache and humiliation as it was told at his expense among the Georgetown boys.

Next: Grant Leaves Home

My American Experience

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