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ORIGINS OF THE GRANTS IN AMERICA
-MY EARLY CHILDHOOD-
AN INCIDENT INVOLVING USEFUL GRANT-AN ACCIDENT BEFALLS THE OTHER GRANTS-OFF TO WEST POINT
My upbringing would have been that of any other Ohio frontier boy in the 1820s and '30s, were it not for the fact there were two families named Grant in Georgetown, the town in which I was raised. That there were two such families changed both my life and history itself, forever.
My own family is American and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral. My fifth great-grandfather, Matthew Grant, came from England in 1630. He was established and prosperous, but not so established and prosperous that he didn't put his wife and everything he owned on a cramped little boat to cross the ocean and take a chance on getting killed by Indians. He settled in Windsor, Connecticut, where he became the town clerk and surveyor. As such, he adjudicated who was entitled to steal what, a position of considerable importance then as it is now. The Grants continued unexceptionally in America until Matthew's great-great-grandson, my great-grandfather, Noah Grant, was born. As was mine, Noah's life was undistinguished until touched by war. He teamed up with the famous patriot Israel Putnam in the 1750s to harass the French and Indians in the war so named. His bravery was rewarded by the Connecticut legislature with a considerable sum of money, which was of great consolation to Noah's widow when he was killed in battle only a few months later.
Now fatherless, my grandfather, also Noah, was as miserable a creature as was ever placed on this earth. After the Revolution, he claimed to take up arms at Lexington and Concord, and rued the fact the war had "spoiled" him. If the war spoiled him, it was only because all the other men had gone to fight it, leaving so much room at the tavern that Noah's access to libation was unimpeded. He chose to pursue a career in life as a drunken farmer. He failed only as a farmer. After a stint in debtor's prison, he sold all of the land he owned-and probably some he didn't-and, in 1790, moved to Pennsylvania, where he married. My father, Jesse Root Grant, was born there in 1794, the first of five children.
Noah soon outstayed his welcome in Pennsylvania and moved to Deerfield, Ohio. But when my grandmother died there in 1805, he found that raising their children interfered with his drinking. Noah's progeny were shipped off to various places and he continued west, where he died a common drunk.
There are people who say I'll die an uncommon one.
My father was pawned off on an older half-brother, who had a tannery in Kentucky. After five years, he moved across the river to Ohio. There he apprenticed as a tanner for a God-fearing farmer named Orvil Brown, who ran a station on what would one day be called the Underground Railroad, with the help of his son John. We would hear more from that corner later.
My father left the Brown house in 1818 and moved to Ravenna, Ohio, where he opened a tannery of his own. He began making money in ample quantities. There he learned of a farming family from Pennsylvania that had moved nearby, and went calling upon them to look for marriageable prospects. The Simpson family had a daughter named Hannah who fit the bill. She was plain and hard in both her features and attitude; quiet, disciplined, a devout Methodist, and, at twenty-three, an old maid. She had a pebble for a heart and a belief that God had a plan in which man played a passive role at best.
My father was uninterested in affection-having received none, he was unfamiliar with it. Instead, he wanted a wife who shared his approach-all business. He now had found one. As for my mother, the fact that Jesse Grant rode a horse out to her father's farm to find her was proof enough he was the man God intended for her-she was all business as well, even if her business was the Lord. Grandfather Simpson didn't take to my father at first, but he soon mastered the algebra of my father's burgeoning tannery bank balance and relented. My parents were married in 1821, moved to the town of Georgetown, and ten respectable months later my mother bore me into the world. I was born Hiram Ulysses Grant-my real name, though that is not how I came to be known-on April 27, 1822, the first of six children. My consumptive brother Simpson followed two years later, then my sister Clara, and then Jennie, who escaped her spinsterhood in 1869 only to trigger the near-downfall of capitalism. My conniving brother Orvil was then born twelve years junior to me, and finally little Mary Frances.
The second Grant family in Georgetown, Ohio-as I mentioned, there were two-was that of Mr. Llemmuel Grant and was not related to ours. In fact, it was not really named Grant. Llemmuel Grant's family's ancestral settler in the U.S. was Velliard Grande, a French reformist who escaped the Huguenot Massacre of 1604, fled to Holland, and crossed over to the New World with Peter Minuit in 1622, where he took the Dutch name Voorhees Grynt.
Voorhees Grynt grew in stature within New Amsterdam until the English defeated the Dutch in 1664 and renamed it New York. Voorhees Grynt was by then well into his seventies and had no appetite for political intrigues. So he approached the English and told them he was not Dutch but French, and as a Reformist whose family had been executed by marauding Catholics, he held a natural affinity for the English. He then made clear his willingness to help finance the new colonial government. Some combination of these statements so impressed the English that they allowed him to maintain his position and standing under their administration. Voorhees Grynt thereupon changed his name to Valiant Grant, which was not a difficult transition since Voorhees Grynt was not his name to begin with, and the other Grant family was now established in America.
Noah Grant cowered before the Revolution; Valiant Grant prospered mightily while waiting it out to determine which side would win. When Cornwallis was beaten at Yorktown, Valiant Grant's family became ardent revolutionists and committed their resources to the new nation by lending it money at a handsome profit.
Valiant Grant's descendants rode the westward expansion to Ohio. There Llemmuel was born and used his family's means to found the Southern Ohio Bank of the United States, which was really the Southern Ohio Bank of Llemmuel Grant.
As founder and principal stockholder of the bank, he elected himself president.
As president of the bank, he created the town of Georgetown and took for himself the position of mayor.
As mayor, he determined the town needed a magistrate and appointed himself.
And so he came to be known in our town as Judge Mayor Grant.
Judge Mayor Grant and my father disliked each other with a passion. If one could have bought the rights to the use of their common name for cash, he'd have done it. Judge Mayor Grant's family gave off an aroma of culture and refinement and looked down at our family, which reeked of the tannery and gave off the aroma of vats of fish oil and offal left in the sun. Judge Mayor Grant attended an Eastern university and married a handsome woman. My father had a few months of schooling, read grammar books so he could write vituperative abolitionist letters to the local newspaper, and lived under my mother's ever-disapproving visage. But the greatest source of friction between our two families was that Judge Mayor Grant had money, and my father was intent on having money. Judge Mayor Grant's was an "old family," people said.
"What does it mean, to be an 'old family'?" I asked my father.
"It means you're lucky your father was born before you were," my father said, snarling at the memory of his own father all the while.
My father envied Judge Mayor Grant as fervently as Judge Mayor Grant looked down upon my father. My family, as I have noted, was far from poor. My father was one of the few people in Georgetown who was not in debt to Judge Mayor Grant and his bank. He saved to build his home and develop his business and extended his own credit to the many customers who bought his hides. And he was a devout practitioner of Yankee ingenuity, which meant he saw finance, as practiced by Judge Mayor Grant, as a diversion from the august process of creating the wealth he revered. He had everything, it seemed, except the respect that came with Judge Mayor Grant's social station.
The friction between them-Judge Mayor Grant's disdain and my father's envy-was endless. The two of them argued at every available opportunity at the saloon in the local hotel, the Georgetown Inn, where the town's gentlemen would gather to see if "the Judge" and "Jesse" were going at it that evening. Amid the prosperity of the time, they frequently debated such topics as President Jackson's banking policies, tariffs, navigation improvements, or other commercial matters. Slavery was a frequent topic as well. Judge Mayor Grant was attracted to the grand style of Southern plantation life and had no quarrel with the enslavement of the Negro. My father, once Orvil Brown's boarder, opposed it strenuously, although even as ardent an abolitionist as he felt that if slavery had to exist, it was reasonable that it was the Negro whom it had been visited upon.
Judge Mayor Grant and his wife had but one son, born only weeks after I. His name was Ulysses S. Grant: I suspect Judge Mayor Grant picked the name to antagonize my father. The curiosity of Ulysses S. Grant and Hiram Ulysses Grant in the same town amused the people of Georgetown, particularly given the contrast between us, which became more pronounced as we grew. Ulysses Grant was articulate, while I was reticent; neat and well tailored, while I slouched and shuffled; facile and outgoing, while I was distant and withdrawn; studious, while I applied myself to school to unexceptional effect (it was only after I was repeatedly told a noun was the name of a thing that I came to believe it); and was focused and outgoing, while I was hesitant and unsure of myself in the face of my father's lofty standards and my mother's divine absolutes.
Given the similarities in our names, ages, and even appearances (we resembled each other to the point that I would often encounter someone hailing me at a distance, only to have them draw closer and say with disappointment, "Oh, Hiram, it's you"), and the differences in our natures, Ulysses and I went through our childhoods as would two horses tethered to the millpole at my father's tannery-tied to each other, but constantly going in opposite directions. Armed with his father's stature and resources and possessed of an inherited ease and command (as well as an inherited disdain for me), Ulysses Grant was at the center of Georgetown's circle of young people. The fact that my father was, by the standards of that time and place, a well-off businessman only seemed to make Ulysses' attitude toward me harsher and less forgiving. My father commiserated with me about it once and told me something I regarded as important.
"Some people are like that, son," he said, sharing the secret knowledge only a father possesses. "They know how to shake hands or cast a knowing look and by so doing achieve great wealth." My father shook his head bitterly. "They look down at an honest man like me not just because I smell like the vats, but because I had to work to obtain what came to them without effort."
As I sat in the tiny parlor of our house-it was a simple two-story brick affair with an interior kitchen my father had added only a few years before to celebrate his success-I found it easy to equate Judge Mayor Grant's easy accumulation of wealth with Ulysses Grant's effortless domination of me and the world around him. My father was right. There were some people who got what they wanted through some mysterious, subtle power, an ability to coax the world into doing their will, while the rest of us smelled of fish oil and worked hard. No matter what we gained or earned or won, it would never be enough to cross the unseen line between us and the other Grants. And, perhaps perceiving my father's unspoken feelings, I found in Ulysses Grant's effortless mastery and resourcefulness a mocking reflection of my own ineptitude.
But if I suffered by comparison in the world of men, I found great consolation, starting at an early age, in the world of horses. A story I was told had me, at the age of two, toddling between the hooves of one of my father's horses, unaware that I was inviting a kicking into the next world. A passerby saw me playing this way and bolted up the two stone steps to our front door, shouting for my mother. She calmly thanked him for his concern. "Horses seem to understand the boy," she explained, and withdrew inside the house.
My mother felt my fate was in God's hands, which must have been large to hold all the things she consigned to them. But she was right. Horses understood me, and I them. Before I could read and write, I rode with only a bridle and set of reins. I was able to do tricks, standing on a horse's back as it cantered through town or racing a horse through narrow trails in the wilderness.
And each moment spent on a horse was a moment not spent in my father's tannery, which was as near to purgatory as I could imagine. Dead animals would be carted to us, breaking wind through their seized, stiff haunches. We first stripped them of their skins, then soaked their fresh hides in lime to loosen the hair and any scraps of flesh still adhering to them. The soaked skins were then laid out and the hair and flesh scraped, a repugnant task. Thus cleaned, the hides were bathed in acid, soaked in a solution of oak bark, and left to sit in vats of fish oil until they were supple enough to be rubbed and softened by hand. There was no escaping all these rude emanations-regrettably, even our house was usually downwind of them.
Is it any wonder, then, that Judge Mayor Grant and his son thought of us as stench-ridden rabble, no matter how successful? Or, for that matter, that from an early age I hoped not to be a tanner? By the time I was ten, I had my own livery business of sorts, carting people around southern Ohio and breaking rebellious horses that vexed local farmers. This left me with a pocketful of coins, enough to hire some other local youth to work in the vile tannery while allowing me to take a team of horses somewhere else instead.
When I was eight years old I coveted a colt belonging to a local farmer named Ralston. I appealed to my father to buy it-when I wasn't using it for my livery, we could hitch it to the millpole. My father was won over by this utilitarian appeal. "Hiram," he said thoughtfully, "it is time to teach you how to be a merchant." I nodded, uninterested in being a merchant, but eager to get on with buying the horse. "What do you think this colt is worth?" he asked.
I quickly did some calculations. "I reckon as much as twenty-five dollars."
"Very good." He smiled, taking off his pinched wire-rimmed glasses and rubbing the harsh red spots they left on either side of his pointy nose. "Go to Ralston and offer him twenty dollars for the colt. If he does not accept, offer him twenty-two dollars and fifty cents. If he persists, offer him twenty-five, but not a penny more, and if he does not accept the twenty-five dollars, then thank him and take your leave. Do you understand?"
I nodded eagerly, delighted to have a strategy. In no time at all I rode to the farmer's house, where I said to him: Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you don't take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won't take that, offer twenty-five."
Well, you do not have to be Commodore Vanderbilt to figure out the final price. When I returned home, I told the story to my father, who promptly whipped me with a switch.
But the story of my transaction shot through town like a winter wind, and my father arrived at the Georgetown Inn that evening to find Ralston telling it to the other village gentlemen, egged on by a jeering Judge Mayor Grant. My father smiled gamely, shrugging his shoulders and saying it was a child's doing, but there was no stopping Judge Mayor Grant.
"A child's doing is right, Jesse," he roared. "And a useless child, at that! You should call him Hiram Useless Grant!"
And in the resulting explosion of laughter, it was born. I was referred to as Useless Grant from that day until I left Georgetown. Seizing upon the hilarity, the other gentlemen suggested Ulysses Grant be called Useful in contrast, and so it was done. We became Useless and Useful, so much so that my own father would ask me what Useful did in school that day, or whether I thought Useful would win the races at the Methodist picnic, in each instance oblivious to my implied Useless-ness.
And that is how I grew up, as Useless Grant.
As I said, Useful Grant was the sun of Georgetown's youthful social orbit, and I was a distant star. Judge Mayor Grant would hold the church youth day at his home, or a maypole party, and as often as not my invitation would somehow not find its way. My father would quietly seethe, and I resigned myself to the obvious: Useful was destined to be a judge mayor himself one day, while I was doomed to be a tanner.
I was sixteen the Christmas of 1838, and it was my last year at the local school. I came home one cold afternoon, the sun low in the winter sky, to see what odious work my father had planned for me, but, to my surprise, there was something else awaiting me-a note from Useful, properly addressed to Master Hiram U. Grant, asking me to attend a Christmas sleigh ride that very evening at his father's house!
Could I have been wrong about the fellow? Probably not, I supposed, but I was overjoyed at long last to be included. I put on the clothes I wore when I could not escape being dragged to church, trying futilely to shake the fish-oil smell out of my coat before I donned it, and headed for Useful's home after supper.
What a home it was! Set upon a fine blanket of newly fallen snow, it looked like a castle. It had a portico with majestic pillars, a parlor as large as most of our first story, and a colossal center hall as well. I entered to find Judge Mayor Grant and his wife smiling at me condescendingly as I gaped at the magnificence of their appointments-paintings, statuary, a library, all of it unique in Georgetown. A portrait of Judge Mayor Grant looked down from atop a large stone fireplace with a roaring Yule log. The town's young people were gathered in the hall, and once a few stragglers arrived we were led out to the largest sleigh I had ever seen, hitched to a team of strong horses that I regarded with envy.
"Magnificent animals, aren't they?" I heard somebody say, and turned to see Useful admiring them, as was I.
"Why, yes. Yes, they are," I said.
"Well, you're the horseman. We're all waiting for you to hitch them up and take us away," Useful said with a smile, patting me on the shoulder to direct me to my task.
I hesitated a moment and then smiled broadly at the realization. My new friend Useful was going to let me manage the team! I climbed onto the driver's bench and turned to see the other boys and girls scampering gaily onto the sleigh-there must have been twenty of them, all dressed smartly and filled with excitement-and I cracked the whip, starting us out.
It was a chilly night, but it was brilliantly clear, and a bright moon shone overhead. I led the team into the snowy woods as Useful narrated. "My father owns these woods," he said. "We imagine a town here and are putting aside capital for its development." I trained my eyes on the path and guided the team silently through the trees. "Perhaps we can even find a new location for Useless's tannery"-Useful laughed-"so its smell needn't offend us any longer." I turned again and saw Useful and his circle all asmile, sharing this humor at my expense. When their mirth subsided, Useful was reminded of his destination and sat up. "Say there, Useless," he cried, pointing off into the woods. "Take this trail off to the right and over this hill. There's a good spot there for finding a Christmas tree!" He smiled broadly at the admiring boys and girls surrounding him. "The Judge Mayor says we can get one as tall as our center hall-fifteen feet high!"
There were gasps of appreciation for the dimensions of this architectural marvel as I led the team onto a narrow trail among the pines and firs, enjoying the chance to run them through the drifts and ignoring the scorn of Useful's barbs. I headed in the intended direction for about a quarter mile when Useful excitedly directed me to stop, a conifer quarry in his sights. The team pulled back and snorted in the dark, brisk cold, their moonlit breath a stream of starry smoke. I hopped down from the driver's seat and shook the snow from a sturdy bough on which to tie the reins when I felt the pat of Useful's hand once again.
"The driver ought to stay with the team, don't you think? I'm sure my father will pay you adequately," he said with hale good nature, and turned away from me to lead his retinue into the piney dark.
The realization stunned me. I had not been invited-I had been hired! I looked down sadly and was listening as Useful's party retreated into the woods when I was startled by a voice coming from alongside me.
"Would you like some company?" the voice said, and I turned to see a girl standing there, a worn shawl over her chilled, rounded shoulders. I recognized her-she was a short, plump, but pleasant girl who was given to sitting quietly in the back of both our school and church, a habit that mirrored my own. She smiled at me and I recalled her name.
"Well, yes, Julia, I guess so," I said with a shrug. She came over and stood next to me.
"It's a nice night," she said, surveying the heavens to confirm her judgment.
"I guess so." I shrugged again and nodded dumbly.
She huddled a bit against the chill and looked off in the direction of the sounds of sawing in the woods. "Useful certainly is full of himself, isn't he?" she said disdainfully.
"I guess so," I said a third time, wishing my limited imagination could offer up something else.
Julia smiled and looked down until both of our attentions were summoned by the sound of a tree trunk shearing as it fell. There was the sound of cheering.
I found myself wishing they all would stay away and turned to my companion, still unsure of what to say, when she spoke up. "He ought to be nicer to you," she declared, then added, "I think you're nice, Useless." I was about to say, I guess so, yet again, when what I really wanted to say suddenly occurred to me.
"My name is Hiram."
She put a round little hand to her lips and might have blushed had not the frost already put a rose in her cheeks. "Of course it is," she said. "Won't you forgive me?"
I smiled for the first time and shrugged, this time more good-naturedly. "I guess so," I said, and we shared a laugh around my awkwardness.
Julia sat next to me on the driver's bench of the wagon as we headed back to Useful's house, dragging the felled tree behind the sleigh. Useful narrated all the way home-about the perfect tree he cut, his father, his home, and the like. Julia and I smiled quietly at Useful's self-absorbed prattling as we glided across the snow, when his soliloquy was suddenly interrupted by a thudding noise that forced a "Hmmph!" out of him in the back of the wagon, as if he had fallen. We turned just in time to see a second snowball hit him on the top of the head, a few inches above where a first had left a frosty imprint.
One of the girls in the wagon shrieked as a barrage of snowballs suddenly came flying toward the wagon. I turned and there were five or six boys stepping out from behind a nearby ridge on the far side of a frozen creek, their outlines crisp against the snow. They must have seen us head off into the woods and waited in ambush for our return.
"It's those boys from Kentucky!" one of the girls in the wagon shouted.
"Go away, you ruffians!" another shouted.
"Like hell we will!" one of the offending boys shouted in return, his voice heavy with scorn. "We're going to help ourselves"-t' hep ow-selves, was how he said it-"to a piece of young Ulysses!" he said.
"Yeah!" shouted a second. "His daddy took our Pa's farm! But you ain't so tough, is you, Ulysses?"
"Go back to Kentucky, you common trash!" Useful shouted at them hatefully, kneeling on the floor of the sleigh. "You're too poor to own a slave and too stupid to farm without one!"
"Oh yeah?" I heard them shout. "We'll see who's stupid, you little sissy!" I watched from the driver's bench as the boys let fly at Useful and his entourage. They must have taken me for a hired hand, just as Useful did, for they spared me. They drew closer as their taunts grew in strength, laying siege to us as smartly as I would Vicksburg years later, bombarding us as mercilessly as Winfield Scott one day would Veracruz.
"This one's for your daddy, the judge!" one of them shouted. "Puttin' men in jail for no more'n bein' poor!"
"An' this one's for your daddy, the mayor!" a second said as he let fly. "Makin' laws that help his own bank!" There was laughter in their ranks as his missile struck Useful's head. Useful glared back at them but then lost both his composure and balance in the face of another barrage.
"Somebody help me!" he whispered tearfully as he lay on the floor of the sleigh, dabbing at a show of blood on his scalp.
I looked at him and felt some unexpected surge of pity. I rose and shouted from the driver's bench, "That's enough!"
"What're you, boy," one of them asked, "some kind of white, up-North nigger? Why don't you just do the drivin' like he pays you and keep your head down!"
He had a point. But that did not give them the license they took for themselves. "You could bury him in snow and be no better for it when you were done!" I shouted back. "If his father's robbed your fathers of their dignity, why let him rob you of yours?"
"Oh, stuff it!" one of them replied. And with that a new barrage of snowballs flew, leaving Useful huddled on the floor of the wagon and his guests cowering as if they were the new recruits who faced their first bullets at Shiloh.
"Get down, Hiram," Julia urged from the bench next to me, but I would not. I looked down at Useful, who now lay curled on the floor of the sleigh behind me.
"Help me!" he cried through fearful tears. "Help me, Useless!"
I ducked a missile that now came my way and resolved to act. I grabbed the reins, the missiles flying around me, and sparked the team's rumps with my whip. The team strained forward against the inert weight of the sled as I prodded them, the runners ground against the snow for an instant, and then we were off. There was some cheering mixed with tongue-clucking in the sleigh as the marauders watched us pull away. I kept my head low and my whip to the lead's rump until we were some ways ahead, then reined them back to a trot.
Useful lay in the center of the sleigh, cradled all around by the other boys and girls like an infant Jesus in the manger. He hazarded raising himself to one elbow and peered over his shoulder to see if the danger was truly passed. Once satisfied, he rose slowly and made his way to the front of the sleigh.
"Thank you, Hiram," he said quietly, the look of fear only beginning to leave him.
"You're welcome," I said, barely above a whisper, and I looked back, expecting to see his hand extended toward me.
But there was none. Instead, he had already turned to the knot of now-hushed merrymakers in the sleigh. "Well, no one but the best driver for us!" he crowed, whereupon a boy in the back started into "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and the silent night around us suddenly rang with song.
I felt Julia's hand on my arm as I gave the whip a brief snap. The lights of Judge Mayor Grant's house glimmered up ahead.
Useful seemed to tolerate me a bit after that. And in the months that followed, I developed for this girl the feeling that passes for affection in a boy of such an age. She was fleshy like a ripe summer fruit, and her features plain, but she was attentive and soft-spoken, and expected only my own quiet attentiveness in return. We had done no more than some parlor hand-holding, of course, but my ardor for her burned steadily and I began to contemplate marriage so as to consummate our devotion.
Her father objected. He was a farmer, and not too prosperous, and I thought my father's growing affluence would win him over. But he considered my father argumentative and mean-spirited-not without reason, of course-and my own reputation as a lad destined to accomplish little probably led him to think me an unsuitable suitor for his daughter.
The end of our formal schooling came in the spring of 1839. I had just turned seventeen. My father expected me to enter his tannery business, but my desire to do so was even less than my likely aptitude for it. Meanwhile, Useful began his search for an appropriately prestigious college and settled on the United States Military Academy at West Point. Apparently Judge Mayor Grant had gone to some lengths to secure an appointment from our local congressman, a fellow my father had long ago alienated in one of his arguments over President Jackson's banking policies, which favored the common man over the merchant in a way that struck my merchant father as undemocratic.
If there was a moment when I had real feelings of jealousy for Useful's life of privilege, it was when I heard of his admission to West Point. I was never considered for West Point or a career in the military-no one took me for clever enough for any place other than the tannery. But I was envious of the exciting life it offered, and the chance to travel and see the world. If Useful was to go to West Point while I went to work, it was yet another confirmation of my father's views about the world, with its broad division into those who smelled and those who inherited. I began instead to contemplate a business as a livery driver-at least that way I could be near horses and satisfy Julia's father's doubts about me. Anything but a tanner!
Judge Mayor Grant gave a party for Useful the night before he was due to go east. Every young person in the town-all of them, like me, about to enter adulthood as a farmer, tradesman, merchant, or bride to the same-was summoned to see Useful off.
My father allowed me to use our best horse and cart so I could escort Julia in fine array: He would go into town later for an evening of "socializing," meaning arguing and drinking at the Georgetown Inn. I nervously groomed myself and even allowed myself a brief strut before the only mirror my mother would allow in our home. At the appointed hour, I rode out to fetch Julia for the grand event.
She looked wonderful that night bedecked in her finery, and we rode together in happy silence to Judge Mayor Grant's home. We arrived and entered the great hall, where we paid our respects to Judge Mayor Grant's wife. Judge Mayor Grant himself was at the hotel in town, no doubt making sure everyone knew of his son's departure the next morning.
It was a magnificent spring night, and the center hall of the house was crowded with tables, all of them burdened with game and fowl, fruits, nuts, and cakes. Bowls of punch and teas, chilled in the ice house, were laid out before us. A fiddler's band played on the great lawn behind the house, with torches dotting the perimeter. Julia and I sampled the treats and said some quiet hellos to the other young people there, then headed out back to congratulate the object of the celebration.
We walked out to the lawn, and there was Useful, in rare form. He wore a waistcoat and a look of condescension. If he had ever failed to give his feelings of superiority full flight, he would make up for it that night.
"Thank you for inviting us," Julia said to him as we approached.
"Think nothing of it," he answered haughtily. "I want to wish a fond farewell to all of my very good friends," he said, taking Julia's hand in his and pressing it in an unduly familiar way.
"We are pleased for your success," she said politely.
"I'll be starting a whole new life," he responded, engrossed in his own story. "I'm going to be first in my class at West Point and then take a commission among the engineers, which is the army's elite unit, you know. I suspect it won't be long before I end up a general." He turned toward me disdainfully. "Fancy that, Useless, my being a general," he said. "General Grant!"
The paradox of his pronouncement is apparent today, but then I regarded him silently, lest my unmannerliness disturb Julia. Useful scanned me for a reaction and, seeing none, turned his attention to her once again to see if he could raise one.
"There is an excellent life to be lived in the military. You serve the nation, as was done in the conquests of the Black Hawks and Seminoles, and the fellows around you are of a high quality. I have been called to be among the nation's best," he continued, "and it will be a good life for a wife as well, one day."
Now, what the devil did that mean? I wondered, as Julia responded. "We wish you all the best, don't we, Hiram?" she said, prodding me into agreement. "Why, Hiram, perhaps a military life is in order for you! It would please Father to no end!"
"For Useless?" Useful laughed out loud. "I should hope not! Come now, Useless, do you really imagine yourself such a man?"
My temperament was a quiet one, but Useful was pushing me to the limits of my endurance. I was about to respond when we were all suddenly distracted by a lad who ran quite agitatedly toward us across the lawn, shouting over the strains of the band.
"Useless! Useless!" he cried. "Useless, you must come quickly! It's your father!" The boy ran up to us and stopped, gasping for breath. "Hello, Useful," he said politely to Useful between pants, and turned back to me. "He's passed out drunk in the lobby of the Georgetown Inn, Useless! You've got to do something!"
Useful wrinkled his nose and arched his eyebrows in a studied look of revulsion as Julia turned toward me with caring and concern.
"You must go, Hiram," she said earnestly.
"But what about you?" I asked. "How will you manage getting home?"
"Please, Useless," Useful chimed in. "I'll take care of Julia myself. A military man must be the proper gent, you know."
His ceaseless tweaking was irrelevant-I had to go. I excused myself and rode to the hotel, where I found my father collapsed in a chair in the lobby. Just as I later proved to be, he was not a regular drinker, but was ardent when he did, and on this occasion he had carried the torch of abolition so strenuously his thirst overcame him. His eyes were glazed and open and his lips slightly apart-had I run into such a body at Donelson or the Wilderness, I would have buried it before it began to stink.
"Father, it's me, Hiram," I said. He grunted without moving his eyes. "It's me, Hiram," I repeated, and did a bit of what must have seemed like adagio dancing with him as I helped him to his feet and out the front door. I dumped him in the back of my cart and set off for home.
My next concern was that our arrival would awake my mother, who would seize upon my father's regrettable condition to give us another of her never-ending series of sermons about everything under the sun being God's will, except for those things of which she disapproved, such as drinking, which were to be corrected so God's will could once again be revealed as she imagined it. So when we arrived home, I drew a pail of water and flung it over my father as he lay in the back of the cart, to wash him off and revive him and get him quietly into the house.
He propped himself up on his elbows to determine the source of the deluge. He looked down at himself and cognition struggled to emerge from within him, whereupon he beckoned me closer and whispered to me his secret. "I'm drunk, boy," he said, and fell backward with a thud.
"Let's get you inside," I said. I extended my arm under his back and helped him out of the cart and to his feet. "You can lie down in the parlor and you won't have to see Mother until the morning. With some luck, she'll leave for church before you're up."
He nodded in agreement. "That's a good plan, Hiram," he said, and stumbled forward clumsily. "How was Useful's party?" he then asked.
His question lightened the moment. "Useful explained how he would soon be a general."
"Useful!" my father spat. "He wants to be a general, does he? If it was you going to West Point, Hiram, you'd be a general one day, not that little twit."
My father's sanguine if inebriated assessment of my prospects confused me. Did his endless impatience with my commercial ineptitude hide a loving father underneath? Or was this besotted self-pity expressing itself momentarily as affection? I didn't know what to think, but in my confusion I let my guard down and said softly, "I would have liked that," as I maneuvered him through our front door and positioned him on a sofa. "It would be better than being a tanner."
He belched a cloud of evil gas. "Well, Hiram," he said, "that's all I have to offer you."
He spoke the truth. I lay him on a sofa, and a life of acid vats, offal shreds, and fish oil came running up to greet my senses. Was I doomed to be a tanner, as much as I hated it? And if I was, was I doomed to be like my father as well? I sat there forlornly and wondered what the answers were. But when I tried to hear the answers in my own mind, all I could hear was my father's cacophonous snore. So I turned down the lamp, got back in the cart, and started back to Useful's party.
I was riding silently over the back roads and fields to Judge Mayor Grant's home when my horse stopped to relieve itself near an old barn standing in the meadow behind the Grant estate. I looked about at the night sky as the horse released a stream in the darkness. There was only the dimmest crescent of moon, and on this account I noticed a faint light from within the barn.
I thought someone must have left a lantern in the barn, a waste of fuel and a risk of fire. So I snapped the reins and led the horse toward the barn. When we stopped, I could discern voices coming from within and wondered who would be visiting that place at that hour. The horse and I both cocked an ear to listen and were drawn by a familiar quality.
I was listening to Julia.
As I stepped down from the cart, I began to make out pieces of the conversation. Julia was saying something about the propriety of being there when I was shocked to hear the voice that responded.
"But don't you see, Julia?" Useful said. "Useless has run home to tend to his drunken father. And just as I will be a prominent citizen as is my father, so Useless shall be like his father-drunken, temperamental, and abusive-for there is an architecture within us that drives us toward our fate."
My heart pumped with the expectation Julia would champion me.
"His name is Hiram, Ulysses," she corrected. "And he has been kind and devoted to me." It was a defense of sorts, but she had neither accepted nor rejected the argument.
"But isn't it true your father won't consent to your marriage? Don't you see what he's trying to tell you? He's telling you Useless is destined to be the same flimflammer his father is!"
A flimflammer! My father was a conniver, to be sure-he was a concocter, a contriver, a conniver, a bombast, a four-flushing trader in humbug-but he was no flimflammer, or so I then thought. I had a mind to intercede on the old man's behalf when I again heard Julia speak up. "His name is Hiram, Ulysses," she corrected once again. "He is not Useless. Perhaps he is simple in some eyes, but he has been sweet to me, and I offer him so little, stout and plain as I am."
I might have preferred stronger tones of outrage, but it was a good start. I inched toward an opening in the barn's north wall and saw them sitting together on a bale of hay. The lantern at their feet cast the flickering shadows of bridles and bits against the rough-hewn walls. "You have everything to offer, Julia," Useful responded. "The inner beauty of a woman that can only be the product of a radiant soul that glows with all the colors of the heavens." He shifted closer to her as she, like me, tried to make out what it was he had just said. "Julia, Hiram-if that is what you wish to call him-can offer you nothing. But I can offer you a life of comfort. In four years, I will have my military commission and will soon be a general. You will have servants and the amenities of a good life, just as my mother did when she married my father."
She pulled back, aghast and confused. "Ulysses, what are you saying?"
"I'm saying you must listen to my entreaty and reward me with your affection."
She was as shocked as I was. "Ulysses, I am plain and far from rich. Any girl in this town would be yours. What is it you want?"
Useful suddenly sprang from his seat and knelt before the stunned object of my affection and, apparently, his. "You can give me yourself, Julia. I am leaving tomorrow, leaving as the bell tolls after church, off to serve God and country. Perhaps I shall never return. Perhaps I will be off to fight the Seminoles or the Black Hawks," he said, referring once again to the unopposed extermination of those two peoples, "or be shipped out to fight the pirates in Tripoli." Of course, I didn't know then that he was in no greater danger at West Point than what results from failing to learn the trigonometric tables.
"U-Ulysses!" Julia stammered. "Are you asking for my hand?"
"I am asking for more than your hand," Useful replied with great intensity, and sprang up to embrace her, planting kisses on her face and running his hands over her more intently than a phrenologist explores a skull. I might have interrupted, but I was aghast and appalled, as well as envious that Useful would risk the flames of eternal hell (with which my mother regularly seared my own baser inclinations) for worldly satisfactions. I stood there, immobilized, as Julia fought back, pushing her hands and elbows against his chest and drawing up her knees to stop him. "Ulysses! Please, don't!" she implored.
But there was no holding him back. He wedged a knee in between her legs, his free hand searching and rearranging. "Julia, my sweet, you must now be mine!" he announced.
"But Ulysses, we are not yet wed! I have not responded to your proposal, if that is what it is," she said as she attempted to fend him off. But Useful would have none of it. He reached under the waist of her dress and was drawing down her undergarments, trying to stay atop her as she rolled from side to side. I watched, held in place by both my shock and fascinated curiosity as to what would happen next.
"Julia, I am a gentleman and a military man," Useful pressed on. "My word is my sacred badge of honor. If I vow you shall be mine, it is a hallowed bond between both of us and our Lord!"
I was impressed the Lord was as much a party to Useful's seduction as He was to my mother's dictates. The Lord certainly got around. Julia, meanwhile, was less interested in the Lord than in propping herself up and gaining some leverage, but Useful was overpowering. "Please, Ulysses!" she begged him. "You must give me time!"
"There is no time!" he exclaimed. "We must consummate our love before I go off, perhaps to die."
I steeled myself to burst upon the scene and defend Julia's honor against this affront when Useful suddenly slowed his assault and stared deeply into the girl's eyes, and Julia looked back at him as if transfixed, halting her protestations. I stopped myself and gaped. Lying upon her, he looked down and said, "And now, you shall be mine. Give me your gift," he coaxed.
"Oh, Ulysses," she said, starting to sob, "I am so confused."
"There is no confusion, my dove." And with that, Julia laid back in an attitude of apparent consent. Her eyes suddenly opened wider than I imagined they could. She had surrendered! Was she as pliant to Useful's wishes as everybody else? I watched, stunned, as Useful's motions became more aggressive and lurching-he would receive no points for art-whereupon he twitched spasmodically and made a gurgling sound, then came to a stop, all in little more than thirty seconds at best. Julia squirmed a bit underneath him and cocked her head to regard him. "Is it over?" she asked.
Useful rolled off her and shook his head as if to clear it. A moment passed before he spoke. "Yes, it's over," he smirked, his tone suddenly transformed. He sat up as he fastened himself, never looking down.
"Won't you lie here with me?" she asked.
"I think not," Useful snapped back. "I must be off to my party."
"But Ulysses," she entreated, "I wish to hear more words of love."
He burst out laughing. "Words of love? How about this-you're a plain, stout bag, good for poking and little more. Is it over?" he imitated, and laughed again.
Julia started to cry despairingly as she realized how she had been victimized. "How could you!" she exclaimed between deep, heaving sobs. "I shall tell!"
"Oh, shall you?" Useful shot back. "Who will you tell? Useless? Or your daddy? And what shall you tell them? That you snuck off to the barn and I had you without a fight? That you lay down for me like a wanton little harlot? I knew you'd be an easy mark. Do tell them, so we all may have a good laugh. Perhaps they would like to go in front of the Judge Mayor and charge me with defaming your character."
Julia rolled over and began to wail fitfully as I hid against the outside of the barn, anger welling within me. Useful had done this to victimize not only Julia, but me. I suddenly understood he measured himself against me as much as I measured myself against him.
My first inclination was to kill him and flee. There were some implements in the barn that would do the job nicely, a pitchfork among them, although drowning him in a vat of tannic acid-no, fish oil!-might be better yet. But I then thought my mother would never be able to rest in heaven (where I assumed she was otherwise headed) were her son to take a human life. Of course, I have since taken hundreds of thousands of lives in the most methodical slaughter the world has ever seen. But that was war, which is different, I have been assured.
I then considered consoling Julia once Useful left the barn, which he seemed intent on doing as quickly as possible. But to do so would be to show her I had seen all, which might cause her even greater shame than her actual despoiling. Moreover, she had, once you reviewed it, decided to lie down with Useful after what seemed like only the briefest of arguments.
There was a third option-to go back to the party and make believe I had seen nothing. But doing so would have broken my heart. So that left only one thing to do-go back home, angry and confused, which is what I did.
My mother had already left for church when I woke the next morning. My father was sitting at the pine-planked table in our kitchen, drinking coffee and not looking half as dead as he had only hours before. I felt a pressing need to unburden myself and told him the whole story. He pursed his lips with a look of sober assessment until my tale was told.
"What should I have done?" I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. "You should have killed the little villain," he offered.
"Maybe," I agreed. "But I couldn't bring myself to."
He nodded. "Son, if you think you love this girl, you must assume this experience will make her wiser. Besides, if it were to happen again, you could kill the next fellow with a clearer conscience. The question is, what do you feel?"
I shrugged. "I don't know."
"Well then, let's go over to her father's farm, like we were apologizing for leaving her there. You can look her straight in the eye and decide."
This seemed like extraordinarily good advice, and we got into the cart and headed north on the main road. We rode for a while without speaking when I saw a carriage heading south toward us. As it drew closer, I could see it held Judge Mayor Grant, his wife, and Useful.
I pointed them out to my father. He told me to be still, which seemed like good advice once again. We slowed down as they neared, in part to greet each other and in part because the road was carved out of a ledge along a rocky hillside so narrow only one team could readily pass. Our carts drifted toward each other until our teams were nose to nose.
"Hello, Judge Mayor," my father said. "Where are you heading this morning?"
Judge Mayor Grant cleared his throat. "We discussed that last night, Jesse, although you might not recall," he answered disapprovingly. "We have come from church, where we were pleased to see Mrs. Grant," he added pointedly, "and we are heading to Cincinnati, where Ulysses will catch a steamboat for Harrisburg and proceed by rail to Philadelphia, New York, and then West Point."
"That's quite an itinerary," my father said, nodding politely to Useful. "I hope your journey will be pleasant."
"We appreciate your wishes, Jesse," Judge Mayor Grant said, his manners failing to conceal his disdain. He tried to get his team to move ahead, but my father seemed unwilling to let him by.
"And we hear you had quite a party last night, Judge Mayor," my father continued. "Tell me, Ulysses, did you have a good time?"
Useful looked up, surprised to be asked. "Why, yes, Mr. Grant, and now I'm looking forward to being off."
"Did you find time to see Julia home, Ulysses? Hiram tells me you promised to do so."
Useful squirmed uncomfortably. "She saw herself home, sir," he replied.
"You sent her walking home?" my father said with a feigned, puzzled tone. "I thought a military man was a better gent than that."
"See here, Jesse," Judge Mayor Grant interrupted sternly. "No need to harass the boy."
"Harass him?" my father said, looking at Useful all the while. "Did I say anything amiss?"
Useful began to sense something was terribly amiss. "Let's go, Father," he insisted.
"Stay, Ulysses," my father quickly interceded, "if only for a moment, so we can hear about the life of a military man. I hear the cadets may be fighting the Seminoles or Black Hawks soon, Judge."
Judge Mayor Grant turned to Useful with a frown. "Have you been bragging, son? There's no room for that at West Point." I subsequently learned otherwise.
"Or perhaps the pirates of Tripoli," my father said, and a fearful look of discovery came over Useful. He had been found out, although he obviously could not figure out how. He turned deep red and reached for the whip in Judge Mayor Grant's hand.
"Let's go, Father, right now!" he shouted, grabbing the whip from Judge Mayor Grant's grasp.
"See here now, Ulysses," Judge Mayor Grant blustered. "What's going on?"
"Ulysses, behave yourself," his mother admonished.
"Yes, Ulysses, why in such a rush to go?" my father said, but now Useful was all but fighting his father for the whip. There was a terrible commotion that upset our horse, which was stung by the flailing lash as Judge Mayor Grant and Useful struggled for it. A wooden chest with Useful's belongings rattled in the back of the carriage as they fought, and the cart shifted until its wheels suddenly slipped over the edge of the ridge, rocking all three passengers. They let out a shout that unnerved our horse further and the animal reared in the air, frightening Judge Mayor Grant's team, which began to buck as well. Useful finally wrested the whip from his father and cracked it savagely across his team. His mother shrieked as she reached up to grab her bonnet. They all lurched backward and their carriage's axle teetered precariously over the edge of the road.
"Stop that, Ulysses!" Judge Mayor Grant cried, but Useful lashed furiously in his efforts to depart the scene, and he soon did, but not as he intended: His team panicked and stumbled over the edge of the road, spilling the carriage down the rocky hillside to the sound of screams from all three.
The cart smashed into the steep hillside in explosive caroms and bounces, sending billows of dust and rock into the air. The three Grants stayed inside for a roll or two but were soon thrown away from the wreck. Even before they came to rest, we started scampering down the gravelly slope after them. The carriage shattered at the bottom; the horses' harnesses snapped and the team bolted across the field at the bottom of the ridge and were gone.
"They're over there," I said to my father, pointing to Judge Mayor Grant and his wife. We hastened to their sides. I've seen bodies stacked from Shiloh to Spotsylvania, but this was a mess. Judge Mayor Grant's cheek was to the ground. He was bleeding profusely from where his nose, mouth, and right eye had been. His wife's head was thrown back at a grotesque angle; my father reached down and closed her eyes with his fingertips. We stood over them, the dust rising slowly into the pale sky. My father and I looked at each other and the same thought came to us-where was Useful?-when we heard a voice from behind us.
"Where am I?" the voice said, and we turned to find him slowly rising to his feet and rubbing his head, which was streaming with blood.
"Useful!" I called to him.
"What's useful?" he asked, looking with shocked detachment at his bloody fingertips. "Who are you? What am I doing here?"
My father cocked his head and put a hand on my arm to stop me from replying. Useful then saw his parents and recoiled in horror. "My God! Who are these people?" he gasped. "They're dead!"
"Don't you know who they are?" my father challenged.
"No, and I'm scared!" Useful said, wrapping his arms around himself. "Please don't hurt me!"
"Hurt you? Oh, a fine story that is," my father spat, and turned to me, hitching his thumb. "This scoundrel is worrying about our hurting him."
"No! No! I swear!" Useful protested. "I don't know what you're talking about!" And then I realized what my father already had-Useful had lost his memory. He had not the slightest hint how any of us came to be there.
"You swine!" my father raged. "You assaulted these poor people, tried to rob them!" Useful waved his hands as if to fend off the words. "Don't deny it! We saw the whole thing!"
"I'm not a thief!" Useful cried with a tone of genuine astonishment.
"We saw you!" my father repeated. "You wanted that chest!" Useful turned and saw his trunk, still locked, on the ground-it was making my father's case just by lying there. "And when this poor gentleman and his wife tried to race away, you grabbed the reins and the three of you went over the edge!"
"I did no such thing!" Useful exclaimed.
"Wait!" my father shouted with an affectation of sudden comprehension. "I recognize you! You are the vagabond robber I read about in the notice posted at the general store! 'The Highwayman from Philadelphia!' it said. Didn't you see it, son? McKenna was his name, a little Paddy murderer!"
I looked at Useful and my father and nodded uncertainly, unsure of his intent. "There's a reward for you, and it's going to be mine!" my father said as he started toward Useful.
Memory or no, in only a few seconds Useful realized he was about to be turned in for a reward. He started to back away. "I didn't do anything," he shouted. "I don't remember a thing! I swear!"
"Swear all you like," my father said. "Your words aren't worth dirt. You're a thief and a murderer. You're wanted from here to St. Louis and I'm going to be the one to receive the bounty for bringing you to the gallows!"
"Never!" Useful screamed, and took off across the field as fast as he could. He was a full hundred yards away and still moving rapidly when my father turned to me.
"Quickly," he said. "Help me with the old man." He turned Judge Mayor Grant's body over and reached into his breast pocket. He produced a wallet and some folded papers from the corpse. "Come here, Hiram," he said as he thrust them toward me. "What do these papers say?"
I looked at them quickly. "This introduces Useful to the registrar at West Point. And here's a ticket for the steamboat from Cincinnati to Harrisburg. And a rail ticket for Philadelphia and New York." I looked up and saw the old man at work on Judge Mayor Grant's pockets.
"There's two hundred dollars in bank notes and another fifty in gold coin. Take it," he said, extending a pouch toward me. I froze, horrified at the thought of thievery. "Take it!" he demanded. "Take the damn money and put the papers in your vest. You're the same size as Useful, right?" he asked, turning quickly toward the chest.
"Why, yes, but what are you-"
My father didn't answer. He was already setting Useful's trunk upright. "Help me with this damn thing." He picked up one end as I stood there, frozen. "Come on, Hiram," he commanded. "Pick up the damn chest!"
He spoke quickly as we carried the chest up the hillside. "The old man and his wife are dead, Hiram, and their little peacock will never be seen again. He'll be afraid to talk to another human being for months at least." We slung the chest into our cart and my father took to the lock with an axe. It broke with one blow. A full wardrobe was folded inside, together with some books and more papers.
"Listen to me, Hiram," he said adamantly. "They're expecting a boy named Grant from Georgetown, Ohio, at West Point. A boy your size, your name, a boy just like you."
"Oh, no," I moaned as I realized the full extent of the deception he was proposing. "That's just crazy-"
He would have none of it. "Just say your name is Ulysses S. Grant-you can say the S is for Simpson, your mother's maiden name. The old Ulysses S. Grant is running through the woods out there. You can be Ulysses S. Grant now. If we go quickly, we can get you to Cincinnati in time for the steamer."
"But we would never get away with it," I pleaded. "It would never work!"
He shut the lid of the chest and quickly positioned himself on the driver's bench of the cart. He backed the rig around and began heading south. "It's going to work, Hiram. I mean, Ulysses. Everything works in life when there's nothing to stop it from working. Nobody's going to know who you are and who you aren't. You've got no head for business; now you'll have the chance to make something of yourself. You'll have money, a wardrobe, papers, and all the other things you'd never get from me." He whipped the horse into a faster pace. "Fate's sent them to you."
"But it's wrong," I pleaded.
"It's not wrong," he spat. "You've been listening to the nonsense your mother gets from church. All that business about God. Don't you think gods make mistakes? People don't deserve everything they get in life. Do you think Judge Mayor Grant deserved everything he had? Or Useful was going to deserve everything he might get?" I shook my head in passive agreement and overwhelmed disbelief.
He gave the reins a snap. "You've been given a chance very few men have, Hi-I mean, Ulysses. What would you rather do-work in my tannery? Now you get to pick your destiny. You decide. Whose fate do you want? Yours? Or Useful's?"
I looked ahead as we sped along and, while I might not have said anything aloud, I realized that to pose the question was to answer it. I could change the trajectory of my life-escape the tannery, see the world-just by deciding to. I looked again at my father and at the life he represented, and when my gaze fixed once again on the road before us, I was reborn as Ulysses S. Grant.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Ev Ehrlich"