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.

Indeed, from the time he began his residence in Galena he already had the battle well in hand and he fought it out with such grim resolution that before a year had passed his victory was complete. Scarcely anyone in the little town knew of this silent struggle for self-mastery. Indeed, very few people knew anything at all about the newcomer, save that he was a quiet, hard-working man who occasionally appeared on the streets wearing a blue army overcoat which had seen rough service. This weather-stained garment, however, forced Grant to break his habitual silence, for he fully shared General Taylor's prejudice against a uniform and felt obliged to apologize for wearing even part of one. So one day he explained to a neighbor that he wore the coat because it was made of good material and he thought he ought to use it as long as it lasted. That was all the citizens of Galena then learned of the record of the man who had served with high honor in well-nigh every battle of the Mexican War. Had it depended upon him, their information would probably have begun and ended there.

During all this time the feeling between the North and the South was growing more and more bitter, but Galena was a town divided against itself on the slavery question. Grant himself was a Democrat. If he was not in favor of slavery, he certainly was not opposed to it, for he favored Douglas and not Lincoln in the contest for the Presidency, and Douglas was strongly against any interference with slavery. Indeed, it is a curious coincidence that at or about the time when Lee's family was ceasing to own slaves, Grant's family acquired some. Such, however, is the fact, for on the death of her father, Mrs. Grant inherited several Negroes and there is some evidence that Grant himself sold or attempted to sell them.

But, though he was at that time no champion of the black race, Grant was always a strong Union man, opposed heart and soul to secession. Indeed, when news of the attack upon Fort Sumter arrived in Galena, he arrayed himself with the defenders of the flag gathered at a mass meeting held in the town to form a company in response to the President's call for 75,000 volunteers. Moreover, this meeting had no sooner been called to order than someone proposed him as chairman, and to his utter astonishment, he found himself pushed from the rear of the room to the front and from the front to the platform. Probably few in the audience knew who or what he was, and his embarrassment was such that for a few minutes no words came to his lips. Finally, however, he managed to announce the object of the meeting, warning those who intended to enlist that they would be engaged in serious business involving hard work and privation, expressing his willingness to aid in forming the Galena Company and ending with a simple statement of his own intention to reenter the army.

There was nothing eloquent about his short speech but it had the tone of a man who knew what he was talking about, and the audience, availing itself of his military experience, immediately voted to entrust the organization and drilling of the volunteers to his care, and from that moment he never again entered his father's place of business.