13 Things You Might Not Know About Ulysses S. Grant

U.S. Library of Congress, Getty Images
U.S. Library of Congress, Getty Images

From modest beginnings and Civil War military victories to the United States presidency and tough times in between, Ulysses S. Grant was a complicated man in perhaps the most complicated time in the country’s history. While his legacy has varied over the years, his unmistakable valor and ability to pull himself up by his (inevitably disheveled) bootstraps make him a fascinating figure in American history. Here are a few things you might not have known about the 18th president of the United States.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant's real name is Hiram Ulysses Grant.

If you called him Ulysses S. Grant during his youth, he wouldn’t know who you were talking about. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant in Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822, to Jesse Root Grant, a tanner, and Hannah Simpson Grant. The young Ulysses did go by his middle name as a boy (according to legend, he disliked the initials H.U.G.), but the moniker known to the history books was bestowed upon him when he was nominated to attend West Point by Ohio congressman Thomas Hamer. Hamer, an old friend of Grant’s father, did Ulysses a favor and nominated him for enrollment at the prestigious military academy in 1839, and somehow, in the process, his name was put down as “Ulysses S. Grant,” with the “S” standing for Grant’s mother’s maiden name: Simpson. The young Grant, aware of his meager social standing, accepted the clerical error, and the name stuck. His classmates even used it for a nickname, calling him “Sam.” Later, in an 1844 letter to his future wife Julia, he joked, “Find some name beginning with ‘S’ for me, You know I have an ‘S’ in my name and don’t know what it stands for.” (Grant isn’t the only president with a strange middle name, by the way. Harry S. Truman’s middle initial was also just an “S.”)

  1. Ulysses S. Grant hated the West Point uniform.

Though Grant’s father hoped that pushing him into the prestige of West Point would open up opportunities for his son, the younger Grant pretty much hated the decorum of going to school. He was known to be generally unkempt during his time there, and received demerits for his sloppy uniform habits (something he’d continue during his time as commander of the Union Army during the Civil War).

In an 1839 letter, a 17-year-old Grant told his cousin, McKinstry Griffith, he “would laugh at my appearance” if he saw the cadet in his uniform: “My pants set as tight to my skin as the bark to a tree.” If he bent over, he wrote, “they are very apt to crack with a report as loud as a pistol,” and “If you were to see me at a distance, the first question you would ask would be ‘Is that a fish or an animal?’”

  1. Ulysses S. Grant was introduced to his wife, Julia, by her brother.

Julia Boggs Dent was born January 26, 1826 in St. Louis. She was a voracious reader and skilled pianist who also had some artistic talent.

Julia was introduced to her future husband by her brother, Fred, who attended West Point alongside the future general. He wrote to his sister of Grant, “I want you to know him, he is pure gold.” The matchmaker mentioned Julia to Grant as well. After graduating from West Point in 1843 as a brevet second lieutenant, Grant began to visit the Dents at their home outside St. Louis in 1844, and popped the question to Julia a few months later. They hid their engagement until 1845, when Grant asked her father for her hand; though Mr. Dent said yes, the Mexican-American War broke out, and Julia and Grant didn't marry until 1848.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant went into battle with another future U.S. president: Zachary Taylor.

Zachary Taylor directing his troops at the Battle of Buena Vista in Northern Mexico during the Mexican-American war.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Grant fought in the Mexican-American War under General Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor, who went on to become the 12th president of the United States in 1849.

Taylor led Grant in his first military battle, along with thousands of troops, at the Battle of Palo Alto, with Grant going on to fight in nearly every major battle of the war. As regimental quartermaster during the Battle of Monterrey, Grant rode through heavy Mexican gunfire to deliver a message for much needed ammunition after Taylor’s troops ran out of bullets.

In his memoirs, Grant recalled how he admired Taylor for the same traits that he would be known for, including how Taylor “knew how to express what he wanted to say in the fewest well-chosen words” and how his general’s style “[met] the emergency without reference to how they would read in history.”

  1. Ulysses S. Grant wasn't a military man at the start of the Civil War.

The war hero of the Mexican-American conflict was far from those accolades when the Civil War broke out in 1861. After his resignation, Grant took to a series of civilian jobs without much success. He spent seven years as a farmer, real estate agent, rent collector, and he even sold firewood on St. Louis street corners. When the Civil War was announced, Grant was working in his father’s leather store in Galena, Illinois.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant turned his occupational failure into military success.

With a newfound patriotism at the outbreak of war, Grant attempted to enlist, but was initially rejected for a military appointment due to his previous indiscretions.

Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne took a chance on Grant and arranged a meeting with the governor of Illinois, Richard Yates. Grant was appointed to command a volunteer regiment, whipping them into shape well enough that it eventually earned Grant a spot as brigadier general of volunteers. (Grant later reciprocated Washburne’s favor by appointing Washburne to U.S. secretary of state, and later minister to France.)

Grant is credited with commanding two significant early Union victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, which earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender Grant."

  1. Ulysses S. Grant almost lost his post at Shiloh.

Major General Ulysses S. Grant's Union Army of the Tennessee attacks the Confederate Army of Mississippi at the Battle of Shiloh
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

After the dual victories of Henry and Donelson, Grant faced harsh criticism for his leadership during the Battle of Shiloh, one of the costliest battles in American history to that point. Though the Union came out victorious, both sides suffered a staggering 23,746 total casualties—a majority of which were Union soldiers.

On April 6, 1862, Grant’s army was waiting to rendezvous with troops led by General Don Carlos Buell, with the goal of overtaking a major Confederate railroad junction and strategic transportation link in nearby Corinth, Mississippi. But before Buell arrived, Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston’s forces attacked Grant's troops. Caught off guard, the Union soldiers spent most of that day being beaten back by Confederate forces, to the point of being nearly overrun until Buell’s army showed up to provide reinforcements.

The Union won, but Grant’s lack of preparedness immediately brought about demands for his removal.

Pennsylvania politician Alexander McClure visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House to call for Grant’s removal, saying, “I appealed to Lincoln for his own sake to remove Grant at once, and, in giving my reasons for it, I simply voiced the admittedly overwhelming protest from the loyal people of the land against Grant’s continuance in command.” McClure later recalled that Lincoln responded, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

Despite rumors that his early blunder at Shiloh was because he was under the influence, Grant assured Julia in a letter, dated April 30, 1862, that he was “sober as a deacon no matter what is said to the contrary.”

  1. Ulysses S. Grant's next few battles, including Vicksburg and Chattanooga, solidified his bona fides.

For his next major objective, Grant commandeered a six-week siege on the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in order to take the city over from General John C. Pemberton. The Union bombardment was so profound that most residents of the city were forced to leave their homes and shack up in caves. The editor of the town’s Daily Citizen newspaper was even reduced to printing the news on wallpaper. Pemberton eventually surrendered on July 4, 1863.

Later that year, from November 23 to November 25, Union forces routed the Confederates at the Battle of Chattanooga. Grant, then a major general, masterminded a three-part attack—one of which was led by Major General William Tecumseh Sherman—against enemy entrenchments on two Confederate strongholds: Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. The multi-faceted gamble worked, and the Union army was victorious.

Because of Grant’s successes, in March of 1864 he was promoted to lieutenant general with command of all Union forces. From then on, Grant would answer only to the president.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant wrote the surrender terms at Appomattox.

Despite one last push by General Robert E. Lee to rally his beleaguered troops, the Battle of Appomattox Court House lasted only a few hours after Confederate forces were cut off from their final provisions and support. Lee sent a message to Grant announcing he was willing to surrender, and the two generals eventually met in the front parlor of the Wilmer McLean home in the early afternoon of April 9, 1865.

Lee arrived in full military dress—complete with sash and sword—while Grant characteristically stuck with his well-worn and muddied field uniform and boots. He then wrote out the single-paragraph terms of surrender.

Under the terms, Confederate soldiers and officers were allowed to return home; officers were permitted to keep their horses for use as farm animals (according to the National Park Service, Grant also ordered officers to allow private soldiers to keep their animals) and to keep side arms. Grant allowed starving Confederate troops be fed with Union rations.

When news of the surrender reached nearby Union troops, gun salutes rang out, but Grant, aware of the weight of the bloody war, sent out an order for all celebrations to stop. “The war is over,” he said. “The rebels are our countrymen again; and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.”

  1. Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to be at Ford's Theatre the night Abraham Lincoln was shot.

Lincoln assassination
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Days after the Appomattox surrender, Lincoln invited Grant to see a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. Advertisements for the Good Friday 1865 performance even boasted that Grant would accompany President Lincoln and the first lady.

The celebrated general backed out, explaining that he and Julia were to travel to New Jersey to see their children instead. (In reality, Julia despised Mary Todd Lincoln and didn’t want to be in her company. Grant didn’t particularly want to go anyway. )

Grant was supposedly a target of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination plot, and was to be taken out along with Lincoln that night.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant had no political experience when he became president.

Though he was a war hero, and sat in on cabinet meetings during Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson, Grant had no political experience to speak of when he was nominated for president in 1868. But because the Civil War still loomed large at the time, it makes sense that one of the people credited with keeping the U.S. together would be given a shot.

He was elected for a second term, but scandals—including the 1869 Black Friday incident where two financiers attempted to corner the country’s gold market while Grant’s Treasury Department sold gold at weekly intervals to pay off the national debt—and his inability to maneuver party politics plagued his terms in office.

“It was my fortune, or misfortune, to be called to the office of Chief Executive without any previous political training,” he wrote in his farewell message to Congress. “Under such circumstances it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred.”

  1. Ulysses S. Grant had some bad luck after his presidency.

Despite the unofficial two-term rule in use since George Washington—the 22nd Amendment, establishing an official presidential term limit, was ratified in 1951—Grant attempted a third term four years after leaving office, but couldn’t get enough votes at the Republican convention. James Garfield won the nomination and eventually the presidency.

After retiring from politics, Grant invested his savings and became a partner in a financial firm where his son was also a partner. But it eventually went bankrupt in 1884 after another of the partners swindled investors with faulty loans.

His luck didn’t seem to get any better—soon after, he learned he had throat cancer. To pay off his mounting debts and to provide for his family after he was gone, Grant began writing his memoirs and eventually signed a contract with none other than Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author Mark Twain, whose Charles L. Webster & Company publishing house needed a hit.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant died on July 23, 1885.

Grant finished his book just before he died; the two-volume Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was a critical and commercial success, earning Julia royalties of about $450,000 (or more than $10 million today).

Grant's final resting place is a 150-foot-high tomb in New York City. According to the NPS, the tomb, designed by John Duncan, is the largest mausoleum in North America. The outside reads, “Let us have peace.” Julia was laid to rest next to her husband after her death in 1902.

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

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15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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