Leaving Home

Circumstances always did shape my course different from my plans.
-- Ulysses S. Grant

Cadets line up at West Point

Ulysses's father believed in education, and he knew a U.S. Military Academy degree would give his son some advantages in life. Also, a West Point education was free -- for those who could get in. As for Ulysses, he wanted to travel, and a military career would offer plenty of opportunities to see the world. But he was terrified he might fail his classes. After an exciting trip through the Midwest, Philadelphia and New York City, a nervous Ulysses arrived at West Point, on the beautiful Hudson River, at the end of May 1839.

Memoirs Excerpt: Off to West Point?

In the winter of 1838-9 I was attending school at Ripley, only ten miles distant from Georgetown, but spent the Christmas holidays at home. During this vacation my father received a letter from the Honorable Thomas Morris, then United States Senator from Ohio. When he read it he said to me, "Ulysses, I believe you are going to receive the appointment."

"What appointment?" I inquired.

"To West Point; I have applied for it."

"But I won't go," I said.

He said he thought I would, and I thought so too, if he did.

I really had no objection to going to West Point, except that I had a very exalted idea of the requirements necessary to get through. I did not believe I possessed them, and could not bear the idea of failing. 

-- Ulysses S. Grant (1885)

Memoirs Excerpt: Grant Describes West Point

There is a fine library connected with the Academy from which cadets can get books to read in their quarters. I devoted more time to these, than to books relating to the course of studies. Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of a trashy sort. I read all of Bulwer's then published, Cooper's, Marryat's, Scott's, Washington Irving's works, Lever's, and many others that I do not now remember...

My idea then was to get through [school]... secure a detail for a few years as assistant professor of mathematics at the Academy, and afterwards obtain a permanent position as professor in some respectable college; but circumstances always did shape my course different from my plans.

At last all the examinations were passed, and the members of the class were called upon to record their choice of arms of service and regiments. I was anxious to enter the cavalry, or dragoons as they were then called but there was only one regiment of dragoons in the Army at that time... I recorded therefore my first choice, dragoons; second, 4th infantry; and got the latter.

I left my measurement with a tailor, with directions not to make the uniform until I notified him whether it was to be for infantry or dragoons... This was a time of great suspense. I was impatient to get on my uniform and see how it looked, and probably wanted my old school-mates, particularly the girls, to see me in it. 

-- Ulysses S. Grant (1885)

Interview: Geoffrey Perret on a West Point Education

Grant ended up at West Point through no wish of his own. But West Point represented something that was valuable to his father. It represented a free education.

But West Point was both the premier science and technology college in the United States and, at the same time, it had, had the only art school in the United States. It was opposed through most of Grant's life by some congressmen who saw it as the seed bed of a new -- of an American aristocracy. And it is true, if you graduated from West Point, your social prospects were transformed. There was a situation then, and to some degree it attains even now I believe, that while being in the army does not earn you much in the way of social status, being a West Point graduate does.

Grant wanted not to go to West Point. But his father told him you will go to West Point. Now just as Grant had, had his way of saying I will not devote my life to your tannery, the other side of the deal turns out to be, okay, you won't be in the tannery, but you will go to West Point. And Grant, therefore, as a dutiful son, went to West Point. Because he did want a college education. Which at that time only about one percent of the population enjoyed.

When Grant arrived at West Point, he had no knowledge of algebra and none of geometry, and yet math is the basis of the West Point curriculum. In the space of about two weeks, Grant taught himself algebra, he taught himself geometry. There was no remedial education at West Point. You either knew this stuff when you arrived or you flunked out. That was the normal system. More people failed because of math more than anything else. Grant was determined not to fail. And he was asked how did you do this? And later on, he said, well, I intuited it. I don't believe anybody intuits binary equations or geometry. He taught himself. He could only do that because he had this tremendous innate mathematical ability. And the professor of math at West Point at the time, Albert Church, recognized this.

So Grant graduates from West Point with what amounts to in modern currency a C+ average. But the professor wants to bring him back to teach math. This is like hick from the sticks, goes to Harvard, graduates in the middle of his class, but they want him to come back and join the faculty. So he was mediocre, but he was also exceptional. It was only his grades that were mediocre; he was exceptional.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Do you admire Ulysses S. Grant? Or perhaps Robert E. Lee? Tell us who is your favorite and why.

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH