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- On the Trail of Grant and Lee - 4/31 -
he proposed to send the boy to West Point, for the last cadet appointed from Georgetown had failed in his examinations before he had been a year at the Academy, and few of the neighbors believed that Ulysses would survive as long. Certainly, the boy himself had never aspired to a cadetship, and when his father suddenly remarked to him one morning that he was likely to obtain the appointment, he receive the announcement with uncomprehending surprise.
"What appointment?" he asked
"To West Point," replied his father. "I have applied for it."
"But I won't go!" gasped the astonished youth.
"I think you will," was the quiet but firm response, and Grant, who had been taught obedience almost from his cradle, decided that if his father thought so, he did, too.
But, though the young man yielded to his parent's wishes, he had no desire to become a soldier and entirely agreed with the opinion of the village that he had neither the ability nor the education to acquit himself with credit. In fact, the whole idea of military life was so distasteful to him that he almost hoped he would not fulfill the physical and other requirements for admission. Indeed, the only thought that reconciled him to the attempt was that it necessitated a trip from Ohio to New York, which gratified his longing to see more of the world. This was so consoling that it was almost with a gay heart that he set out of the Hudson in the middle of May, 1839.
For a boy who had lived all his life in an inland village on the outskirts of civilization the journey was absolutely adventurous, for although he was then in his eighteenth year, he had never even as much as seen a railroad and his experiences on the cars, canal boats and steamers were all delightfully surprising. Therefore, long as the journey was, it was far too short for him, and on May 25th he reached his destination. Two lonely and homesick weeks followed, and then, much to his astonishment and somewhat to his regret, he received word that he had passed the examination for admission and was a full-fledged member of the cadet corps of West Point.
Grant at West Point
Grant's father had obtained his son's appointment to the Academy through the intervention of a member of Congress, who, remembering that the boy was known as Ulysses and that his mother's name before her marriage was Simpson, had written to the Secretary of War at Washington, requesting a cadetship for U. S. Grant. This mistake in his initials was not discovered until the young man presented himself at West Point, but when he explained that his name was Hiram Ulysses Grant and not U. S. Grant, the officials would not correct the error. The Secretary of War had appointed U. S. Grant to the Academy and U. S. Grant was the only person they would officially recognize without further orders. They, therefore, intimated that he could either enroll himself as U. S. Grant or stay out of the Academy, making it quite plain that they cared very little which course he adopted. Confronted with this situation, he signed the enlistment paper as U. S. Grant and the document, bearing his name, which thus became his, can be seen to-day among the records at West Point. This re-christening, of course, supplied his comrades with endless suggestions for nicknames and they immediately interpreted his new initials to suit themselves. "United States," "Under Sized" and "Uncle Sam" all seemed to be appropriate, but the last was the favorite until the day arrived when a more significant meaning was found in "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.
The restrictions and discipline of West Point bore much more harshly on country-bred boys in those years than they do to-day when so many schools prepare students for military duties. But to a green lad like Grant, who had been exceptionally independent all his life, the preliminary training was positive torture. It was then that his habitual silence stood him in good stead, for a talkative, argumentative boy could never have survived the breaking-in process which eventually transformed him from a slouchy bumpkin into a smart, soldier-like young fellow who made the most of his not excessive inches. Still, he hated almost every moment of his first year and ardently hoped that the bill for abolishing the Academy, which was under discussion in Congress, would become a law and enable him to return home without disgrace. But no such law was passed and more experience convinced him that West Point was a very valuable institution which should be strengthened rather than abolished. He had not reached this conclusion, however, at the time of his first furlough, and when he returned to his more and found that his father had procured a fine horse for his exclusive use during his holiday, it was hard to tear himself away and resume his duties. Nevertheless, he did so; and, considering the fact that he was not fond of studying, he made fair progress, especially in mathematics, never reaching the head of his class, but never quite sinking to the bottom. Indeed, if he had not been careless in the matter of incurring demerits from small infractions of the rules, he might have attained respectable, if not high rank in the corps, for he was a clean living, clean spoken boy, without a vicious trait of any kind. Even as it was, he became a sergeant, but inattention to details of discipline finally cost him his promotion and reduced him again to the ranks. At no time, however, did he acquire any real love for the military profession. His sole ambition was to pass the examinations and retire from the service as soon as he could obtain a professorship at some good school or college. At this, he might easily have succeeded with his unmistakable talent for mathematics, and it is even conceivable that he might have qualified as a drawing master or an architect, if not as an artist, for he was fond of sketching and some of his works in this line which have been preserved shows a surprisingly artistic touch.
Graduation day at the Academy brought no distinguished honors to Grant, where he stood twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine, but it did win him one small triumph. As almost everyone knows, the West Point cadets are trained for all arms of the service, sometimes doing duty as infantry, sometimes as artillery and at other times acting as engineers or cavalry; and during the closing week of the year, they give public exhibitions of their proficiency before the official visitors. On this particular occasion the cavalry drill was held in the great riding hall, and after the whole corps had completed their evolutions and were formed in line ready to be dismissed, the commanding officer ordered an extraordinarily high hurdle to be placed in position, and while the great throng of spectators were wondering what this meant they heard the sharp command, "Cadet Grant."
A young man of slight stature, not weighing more than a hundred and twenty pounds, and mounted on a powerful chestnut horse, sprang from the ranks with a quick salute, dashed to the further end of the hall and, swinging his mount about, faced the hurdle. There was a moment's pause and then the rider, putting spurs to his steed, rushed him straight at the obstruction and, lifting him in masterly fashion, cleared the bar as though he and the animal were one. A thunder of applause followed as the horseman quietly resumed his place in the ranks, and after the corps had been dismissed Grant was sought out and congratulated on his remarkable feat. But his response was characteristic of the boy that was, and the man that was to be. "Yes, 'York' is a wonderfully good horse," was all he said.
A lieutenancy in the engineers or cavalry was more than a man of low standing in the Academy could expect, and Grant was assigned to the Fourth Infantry, with orders to report for duty at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri, at the end of a short leave of absence. The prospect of active service, far from his native state, was anything but pleasing to the new officer; but he had come home with a bad cough, and had he not been ordered to the South, it is highly probable that he would have fallen a victim to consumption, of which two of his uncles had already died. The air of Camp Salubrity, Louisiana, where his regiment was quartered, and the healthy, outdoor life, however, quickly checked the disease, and at the end of two years he had acquired a constitution of iron.
Meanwhile, he had met Miss Julia Dent, the sister of one of his classmates whose home was near St. Louis, and had written to the Professor of Mathematics at West Point, requesting his aid in securing an appointment there as his assistant, to which application he received a most encouraging reply. Doubtless, his courtship of Miss Dent made him doubly anxious to realize his long-cherished plan of settling down to the quiet life of a professor. But all hope of this was completely shattered by the orders of the Fourth Infantry which directed it to proceed at once to Texas. Long before the regiment marched, however, he was engaged to "the girl he left behind him" and, although his dream of an instructorship at West Point had vanished, he probably did not altogether abandon his ambition for a career at teaching. But Fate had other plans for him as he journeyed toward Mexico, where the war clouds were gathering. Lee was moving in the same direction and their trails were soon to merge at the siege of Vera Cruz.
Lieutenant Grant Under Fire
The movement of the United States troops towards Mexico did not take the country by surprise. It was the direct result of the action of Congress admitting Texas to the Union. Ever since it had won its independence from Mexico, Texas had been seeking to become part of the United States; but there had been violent objection in the North to the admission of any new slave state, and this opposition had effectually prevented its annexation. At the last election (1844), however, a majority of the voters apparently favored the admission of Texas, which was accordingly received into the Union, and the long-standing dispute which it had waged with Mexico as to its proper boundaries was assumed by the United States.
Texas claimed to own far more territory than Mexico was willing to
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