One hundred and fifty years ago, a soldier raised in southwestern Ohio put down the Rebellion, won the Civil War, saved the Union, and liberated four million enslaved persons. This soldier, with a lackluster West Point record, had resigned from the Army at age thirty-two and floundered in civilian life. But when President Lincoln declared war, Ulysses S. Grant reenlisted, steadily advancing all the way to Appomattox Courthouse, where he graciously accepted General Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
The quiet boy, who grew up riding horses near the banks of the Ohio River, shot up through the ranks and took charge of all the Union forces by age forty-two. Other generals dawdled or stalled, but Grant, with resolute focus, pressed forward. After the Union triumph, he wanted nothing less than a life in politics. Yet he served twice as President of the United States in order to ensure that the victory was not made null and void. Relentless determination to defeat the Secessionists marked Ulysses S. Grant’s sudden rise, and a steadfast pursuit of civil rights colored his work as President.
Grant’s unquenchable vigor has often been labeled mysterious, as though it came out of nowhere. Shelves and shelves of books describe the feats and foibles of U. S. Grant; few mention the source of his unyielding strength. Even fewer delve into the land where Grant grew up, where passion and place intertwined.
Many biographers skip Ulysses’ youth entirely and begin on the battlefield. Writers who consider his childhood tend to repeat the same stories, and Ulysses’ early years come off as normal and nondescript except for equestrian feats. Biographers then sink their teeth into Ulysses after he has left for West Point, but the keys to the mystery of Ulysses lie hidden in his childhood.
Ulysses Grant is always described as quiet, and often as indifferent on the question of slavery before the war, yet he matured in the heart of Ohio’s early illegal enterprise to free the enslaved. For more than a quarter of a century before Ulysses’ birth, the land of his infancy and boyhood drew persons of both races intent on quietly liberating those struggling under slavery’s lethal grip. Given the dangers and secrets in the region where Ulysses grew up, his silence makes more sense; his indifference does not.
As Ulysses headed into adolescence, new leaders arrived in Ohio who attacked slavery with raised voices and sharply worded sentences. These new abolitionists shot fresh conviction and conflict throughout Ulysses’ homeland. This clash of antislavery methods chafed against the Grant boy and impressed exceptional strengths within him. The entourage of antislavery leaders who gathered in Ulysses’ southwestern Ohio region illustrate Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed it is all that ever has.” 1
Many decades later at Grant’s funeral procession a massive crowd gathered to pay homage to the man who saved the Union. “Realistic estimates of the number of spectators ran as high as one and a half million; the crowd was certainly the largest ever to gather on the North American continent.”2 Once Grant is seen inside the community in which he was raised, the mystery of Ulysses recedes; and the reason General Grant won the war and became the most revered man in the world at his death comes into sharp focus.
Steady digging through the region of Ulysses’ childhood turns up shards of long-hidden history. When dusted off and reassembled, these fit together. One artifact would not matter. Two are not enough. Three start a conversation. After that the collection begs for an investigation. This book begins that task.