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.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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Visit Any National Park for Free on September 28—or Volunteer to Help Maintain Them

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Nick Hanauer/iStock via Getty Images

By the end of September—which always seems especially busy, even if you’re not a student anymore—you might be ready for a small break from the hustle and bustle. On Saturday, September 28, you can bask in the tranquility of any national park for free, as part of National Public Lands Day.

According to the National Park Service, the holiday has been held on the fourth Saturday of every September since 1994, and it’s also the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It’s up to you whether you’d like to partake in the service side or simply go for a stroll, but there is an added incentive to volunteer: You’ll get a one-day park pass that you can use for free park entry on a different day. Opportunities for volunteering include trail restoration, invasive plant removal, park cleanups, and more; you can see the details and filter by park, state, and/or type of event here.

If you’re not sure how you should celebrate National Public Lands Day, the National Park Service has created a handy flowchart to help you choose the best course of action for you—which might be as simple as sharing your favorite outdoor activity on social media with the hashtag #NPLD.

National public lands day celebration flowchart
National Park Service

There are more than 400 areas run by the National Park Service across the U.S., and many of them aren’t parks in the traditional sense of the word; the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island, and countless other monuments and historical sites are also run by the NPS. Wondering if there might be one closer than you thought? Explore parks in your area on this interactive map.

For those of you who can’t take advantage of the free admission on September 28, the National Park Service will also waive all entrance fees for Veteran’s Day on November 11.

And, if you’re wishing a free-admission day existed for museums, you’re in luck—more than 1500 museums will be free to visit on Museum Day, which happens to be this Saturday.

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