Chapter IX. Captain Grant in a Hard Fight
Meanwhile, what had become of Grant? The War Department did not know and apparently did not care. Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War, responded to his father's anxious inquiry that Captain U. S. Grant had resigned from the army in July, 1854, but that he had no official knowledge as to why he had taken this action. Mr. Grant, however, soon learned the facts from other sources, and in his bitter disappointment was heard to exclaim that "West Point had ruined one of his boys for him."
It was natural enough that the stern and proud old gentleman should have blamed West Point for the heart-breaking failure of his favorite son, but, as a matter of fact, West Point was in no way responsible for what had occurred. Neither during his cadetship at the Academy nor for some years after his graduation from that institution had Ulysses Grant touched wine or stimulants in any form. He had, indeed, tried to learn to smoke during his West Point days but had merely succeeded in making himself ill. During his hard campaigning in Mexico, however, he had learned not only to smoke, but to drink, though it was not until some years after the war closed that he began to indulge to excess. As a matter of fact, he ought never to have touched a drop of any intoxicant, for a very little was always too much for him, and the result was that he soon came to be known in the army as a drinking man. Had he been at home, surrounded by his wife and children and busily engaged, perhaps he might not have yielded to his weakness. But his orders carried him to lonely posts on the Pacific, many hundreds of miles away from his family, with no duties worthy of the name, and the habit grew on him until the exasperated Colonel of his regiment at last gave him the choice of resigning or being court-martialed for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Face to face with this ugly alternative, he chose resignation, and the army, officially, knew him no more.
It was not only social and professional disgrace, but financial ruin which confronted the broken officer as he bade good-bye to his regiment at its desolate quarters in California, after fifteen years of service to the army. He was absolutely without money and, at the age of thirty-two, it was by no means easy for him to begin life all over again and earn his own living at a new calling. His fellow officers provided him with enough cash for his immediate wants, and with their help he managed to find his way back to Sackett's Harbor, New York, where there was a little money owing him. But he failed to collect this and remained hopelessly stranded until another officer came to his rescue and provided him with sufficient funds to take him to his home. This friend in time of need was Simon B. Buckner, whom he was to meet again under strange and dramatic circumstances.
It was hardly to be expected, under such conditions, that stern old Jesse Grant would welcome the home-coming of his eldest son. Nevertheless, he helped him on his way to his wife and children, and, sick at heart and broken in health, the young man joined his family and began a desperate struggle to earn his own living. Mrs. Grant's father was a slave owner and a sympathizer with the South in the growing trouble between that section of the country and the North. But the quarrel had not yet reached the breaking point, and although he did not approve of his son-in-law's northern views and heartily disapproved of his conduct, he gave him a start as a farmer and then left him to work out his own salvation.
Farming was the only occupation at which Grant could hope to make a living, but he soon found that he did not know enough about this to make a success of it, and gradually fell back on his youthful experience as a teamster, hauling wood to the city where he sold it to the railroad or to anyone that would buy. At this he was fairly successful and, encouraged by his wife who stood bravely by him, he built a house with his own hands, which, although it was not much more than a log cabin, was sufficiently large to shelter his small family. All this time he was making a hard fight to conquer his drinking habits, but the vice had taken a terrible hold on him and he could not easily shake it off. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before his experiment at farming failed and with the aid of his father-in-law he entered business as a real estate broker in St. Louis. But for this calling he had no qualification whatsoever, and after a disheartening experience in attempting to secure the post of county engineer, he accepted his father's suggestion that he join his brothers in the leather business in Galena, Illinois, and retired there with his family in the spring of 1860.
The position which his father had made for him was not much more than a clerkship and the work was dull for a man who had been accustomed to active, outdoor life; but he was received with tact and kindness, no reference was made to his past record of failure and all this helped him to continue the successful struggle which he was making to regain control of himself and his habits.