10 Things You May Not Know About Ulysses S. Grant

H/T History.com.

One of the most influential Americans of the 19th century, Grant led the Union Army to victory during the Civil War and later helped steer the nation through Reconstruction during two terms as president. Check out 10 little-known facts about America’s 18th commander in chief.

1. The “S” in Grant’s name didn’t stand for anything.

Although he was always known as “Ulysses” during his youth in Ohio, Grant’s given name was actually Hiram Ulysses Grant. His phantom middle initial is the result of an error from Ohio Congressman Thomas Hamer, who accidentally wrote the future general’s name as “Ulysses S. Grant” when he nominated him to attend West Point. Despite Grant’s best efforts to correct the record, the name stuck, and he eventually accepted it as his own. “Find some name beginning with “S” for me,” he joked in an 1844 letter to his future wife, Julia Dent. “You know I have an “S” in my name and don’t know what it stands for.”

2. He was notoriously unlucky in business.

After spending a decade in the army and serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War, Grant resigned his post in 1854 and spent the next seven years flopping as a farmer, real estate agent and rent collector. He once had to eke out a living by selling firewood on St. Louis street corners, and when the Civil War erupted, he was toiling away in obscurity at his family’s Galena, Illinois leather business. Grant would later try his hand at business a second time after he left the White House, with equally disastrous results. A financial firm he started with his son and a man named Ferdinand Ward went belly up after Ward fleeced its investors, and by 1884, Grant was bankrupt. It was only after the posthumous publication of his memoirs that his fortune was restored.

3. Grant won the first major Union victory of the Civil War.

Grant struggled to secure a field command at the outbreak of the Civil War, but was later placed in charge of a regiment of Illinois volunteers and quickly promoted to the rank of brigadier general. The first display of his trademark aggressive style came in February 1862, when he forced the capitulation of some 15,000 Confederates at Tennessee’s Fort Donelson. “No terms except complete and unconditional surrender can be accepted,” he famously warned the garrison’s commander. The victory marked the first time in the war that a full Confederate force was captured, and grateful Northerners inundated “Unconditional Surrender” Grant with cigars after it was reported that he smoked one during the attack. Before the war ended, Grant would accept the surrender of two more rebel armies at Vicksburg, Mississippi and Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

4. He struggled with alcohol throughout his life.

Grant’s taste for strong drink first became problematic in the early 1850s, when he was reportedly forced to resign from the army for being caught drunk on duty. He swore off alcohol for most of the next decade, only to fall off the wagon during the Civil War. Grant’s penchant for binge drinking was usually kept in check by his teetotaler adjutant, Colonel John Rawlins, but rumors that he was intoxicated during battles swirled around him for most of the war. For his part, Abraham Lincoln appeared unperturbed by the gossip. When a group of congressmen once alleged that Grant was a drunk, the President supposedly responded by asking what kind of whiskey the General preferred. “I urged them to ascertain and let me know,” Lincoln later said, “for if it made fighting generals like Grant, I should like to get some of it for distribution.”

5. Grant hated wearing army uniforms.

Grant received numerous demerits for his unkempt uniforms during his days at West Point, and his distaste for military dress continued even after he assumed supreme command of the Union Army during the Civil War. Unlike many of his epaulet-wearing contemporaries, he rarely carried a sword and often took to the field clad in a civilian hat, mud-caked boots and an ordinary private’s coat with his rank stitched onto it. One observer who saw Grant during the war described him as an “ordinary, scrubby-looking man, with a slightly seedy look, as if he was out of office on half-pay.”

6. He was supposed to be at the theater with Lincoln on the night of his assassination.

Grant was invited to join Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865, but was forced to decline after he and his wife made plans to visit their children in New Jersey. He was informed of the President’s assassination when his train stopped later that night. Grant later described Lincoln’s death as the “darkest day of my life,” and bitterly regretted not having been at his side. Despite being a potential target himself, he was convinced he would have somehow stopped John Wilkes Booth from pulling the trigger.


7. Grant prevented Robert E. Lee from being charged with treason after the Civil War.

When he accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865, Grant offered generous terms that paroled Confederate soldiers and officers and allowed them to return to their homes. He even permitted the men to keep their horses and mules for use as farm animals. Grant believed leniency was critical to achieving a lasting peace, and he was furious when a federal grand jury later negated the terms of his agreement and charged Lee and several other Confederate generals with treason. During a subsequent meeting with President Andrew Johnson, he stated his intention to “resign the command of the army rather than execute any order to arrest Lee or any of his commanders so long as they obey the law.” Unwilling to lose Grant’s support, Johnson reluctantly dropped the case.

8. He had no political experience before becoming president.

His time in charge of the Union Army notwithstanding, Grant was a political novice when he was inaugurated as the 18th president in 1869. He’d never held any elected position, and had shown little interest in running for office before the Republican Party nominated him as its candidate. Critics would later blame his lack of experience for the economic turmoil and scandals that dogged his administration, a claim that Grant himself acknowledged. “It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training,” he wrote in his final message to Congress. “Under such circumstances, it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred.”

9. He was responsible for dismantling the KKK during Reconstruction.

After the newly formed Ku Klux Klan began murdering and terrorizing black Americans in the late-1860s, President Grant mobilized the Justice Department and secured thousands of indictments against their leaders. In 1871, he also oversaw passage of the so-called “Ku Klux Klan Act,” which armed him with the power to declare martial law and suspend habeas corpus in areas deemed to be in a state of insurrection. The law got its first test later that year, when Grant sent troops into South Carolina and ran thousands of Klansmen out of the state. Thanks to his administration’s efforts, the hooded extremists were effectively cowed into submission over the next few years. They wouldn’t resurface in force until the 1910s.

10. Mark Twain published his memoirs.

Grant first began compiling his memoirs in the mid-1880s, after he wrote a series of popular articles about his Civil War experiences. He was on the verge of signing a book deal with a magazine when novelist Mark Twain swooped in and offered a much more lucrative contract with his newly formed publishing firm Charles L. Webster & Company. Grant took Twain up on his offer, and later finished the book just a few days before succumbing to cancer in July 1885. The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant hit stores later the year, and was immediately hailed by Twain and others as a literary masterpiece. It was also a massive bestseller. After the book was published, Grant’s widow Julia received a whopping $450,000 in royalties.


10 Things You May Not Know About the Mexican-American War

H/T History.com.

Some of this I knew some I did not know.

Explore 10 fascinating facts about what has often been called America’s “forgotten war.”

1. Before invading Mexico, the U.S. tried to buy some of its territory.
In late-1845, President James K. Polk sent diplomat John Slidell on a secret mission to Mexico. Slidell was tasked with settling a longstanding disagreement about the border between the two countries, but he was also authorized to offer the Mexicans up to $25 million for their territories in New Mexico and California

When the Mexicans refused to consider the offer, Polk upped the ante by ordering 4,000 troops under Zachary Taylor to occupy the land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande—a region Mexico claimed as its own territory. Mexico replied by sending troops to the disputed zone, and on April 25, 1846, their cavalry attacked a patrol of American dragoons. Polk’s opponents would later argue the president had goaded the Mexicans into the fight. 

Nevertheless, on May 13, 1846, Congress voted to declare war on Mexico by an overwhelming margin.

2. The war marked the combat debut of several future Civil War generals.
Along with future presidents Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce, the U.S. force in Mexico included many officers who later made their name on the battlefields of the Civil War

Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant, George Meade and George McClellan all served, as did many of their Confederate adversaries such as Robert E. LeeStonewall Jackson and George Pickett. Lee, then a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, emerged from the war a hero after he scouted passes that allowed the Americans to outmaneuver the Mexicans at the Battles of Cerro Gordo and Contreras.

3. Santa Anna used the war to reclaim power in Mexico.
Most Americans considered Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna a mortal enemy for his actions at 1836’s Battle of the Alamo, but the charismatic general returned to power during the Mexican-American War thanks to a surprising ally: James K. Polk. 

Santa Anna was languishing in Cuba when the war began, having been driven into exile after a stint as Mexico’s dictator. In August 1846, he convinced the Polk administration that he would negotiate a favorable peace if he were allowed to return home through an American naval blockade. Polk took the general at his word, but shortly after setting foot on Mexican soil, Santa Anna double-crossed the Americans and organized troops to fight off the invasion. Along with reclaiming the presidency, he went on to lead the Mexicans during nearly all the war’s major battles.

4. Abraham Lincoln was one of the war’s harshest critics.
The invasion of Mexico was one of the first U.S. conflicts to spawn a widespread anti-war movement. Political opponents labeled “Mr. Polk’s War” a shameless land grab, while abolitionists viewed it was a scheme to add more slave states to the Union. Among the more notable critics was freshman Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln, who took to the House floor in 1847 and introduced a series of resolutions demanding to know the location of the “spot of soil” where the war’s first skirmish took place. 

Lincoln maintained that the battle had been provoked on Mexican land, and he branded Polk a cowardly seeker of “military glory.” The so-called “Spot Resolutions” helped put Lincoln on the map as a politician, but they also damaged his reputation with his pro-war constituents. One Illinois newspaper even branded him “the Benedict Arnold of our district.”

5. It included the U.S. military’s first major amphibious attack.
The most significant phase of the Mexican-American War began in March 1847, when General Winfield Scott invaded the Mexican city of Veracruz from the sea. In what amounted to America’s largest amphibious operation until World War II, the Navy used purpose-built surfboats to ferry more than 10,000 U.S. troops to the beach in just five hours. The landings were mostly unopposed by the town’s outnumbered garrison, which later surrendered after an artillery bombardment and a 20-day siege. Having secured Veracruz, Scott’s army launched the war’s final thrust: a six-month, 265-mile fighting march to the “Halls of Montezuma” at Mexico City.

6. A band of Irish Catholics deserted the U.S. and fought for Mexico.
One of the war’s most storied units was St. Patrick’s Battalion, a group of U.S. soldiers who deserted the army and cast their lot with Mexico. The 200-man outfit was mostly made up of Irish Catholics and other immigrants who resented the prejudice they faced from Protestants in the United States. 

Under the leadership of an Irishman named John Riley, the “San Patricios” defected and became Santa Anna’s elite artillery force. They served with distinction at the Battles of Buena Vista and Cerro Gordo, but most of their unit was later killed or captured during an August 1847 clash at Churubusco. Following a court martial, the U.S. Army executed around 50 of the soldiers by hanging. Several others were whipped and branded with a “D” for “deserter.” Though scorned in the United States, the San Patricios became national heroes in Mexico, where they are still honored every St. Patrick’s Day.

7. The Battle of Chapultepec gave rise to a famous legend in Mexico.
When they arrived in Mexico City in September 1847, U.S. forces found the western route into the capital blocked by Chapultepec Castle, an imposing fortress that was home to Mexico’s military academy. General Scott ordered an artillery bombardment, and on September 13 his troops stormed the citadel and used ladders to scale its stone façade. Most of the Mexican defenders soon withdrew, but a group of six teenaged military cadets remained at their posts and fought to the last. 

According to battlefield lore, one cadet prevented the capture of the Mexican flag by wrapping it around his body and leaping to his death off the castle walls. While Chapultepec was lost, Mexicans hailed the six young students as the “Niños Heroes,” or “Hero children.” They were later honored with a large monument in Mexico City.

8. An American diplomat disobeyed orders to end the war.
As the war inched toward its conclusion in 1847, President Polk sent State Department clerk Nicholas P. Trist south of the border to seal a peace treaty with the Mexicans. Negotiations proceeded slowly at first, and in November 1847 Polk grew frustrated and ordered Trist to end the talks and return home. Trist, however, would do no such thing. Believing that he was on the verge of a breakthrough with Mexicans, he disobeyed the President’s order and instead wrote a 65-page letter defending his decision to continue his peace efforts. Polk was left seething. He called Trist “destitute of honor or principle” and tried to have him removed from the U.S. Army headquarters, but he was unable to stop the negotiations. 

On February 2, 1848, Trist struck the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, an agreement in principle to end the war. While Polk reluctantly accepted the deal, he fired Trist as soon as the rogue diplomat returned to the United States.

9. The war reduced the size of Mexico by more than half.
Along with relinquishing all claims to Texas, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also forced Mexico to accept an American payment of $15 million for 525,000 square miles of its territory—a plot larger than the size of Peru. The lands ceded by Mexico would later encompass all or part of the future states of California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas.

10. It had one of the highest casualty rates of any American war.
The U.S. never a lost a major battle during the Mexican-American War, but the victory still proved costly. Of the 79,000 American troops who took part, 13,200 died for a mortality rate of nearly 17 percent—higher than World War I and World War II

The vast majority were victims of diseases such as dysentery, yellow fever, malaria and smallpox. According to scholar V.J. Cirillo, a higher percentage of U.S. troops died from sickness during the Mexican invasion than any war in American history. Mexican casualties were also high, with most historians estimating as many as 25,000 dead troops and civilians.