Private citizen Grant in Galena, Illinois
Written by Ned Lodwick, U.S. Grant Homestead Association
Now a civilian with his life’s savings of $250 in his pocket, Ulysses S. Grant retraced his steps down the Pacific coast, across Central America, this time at Nicaragua, across the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, and landed in New York City a happy but penniless man. He ran into a classmate from West Point, Simon Bolivar Buckner, who loaned Ulysses $100 to make the trip to St Louis.
In the late fall of 1854 Ulysses was finally reunited with his wife and two sons. For a short time they lived with Julia’s parents, Col. Dent and his wife. Ulysses worked the 100 acre farm that Julia’s father had given them. In his spare time Ulysses worked on a house that they could call their own. Ulysses fell into the work with his entire strength. He cleared the land, plowed, planted, and harvested with all of his being. He completed his house and called it “Hardscrabble”. It was Ulysses pride and joy but Julia saw it as little more than a shack. The couple moved back to Col. Dent’s home in only a few months
Making a living on a farm in the 1850’s was hard work and it began to take a toll on the 120 pound Grant. He suffered with rheumatoid arthritis, malaria, and bouts of coughing that he feared may be consumption (tuberculosis). He had to cut firewood and sell it in St. Louis for $4 a cord just to make ends meet. This living from the land looked like it had Ulysses headed to an early grave.
On his trips to St Louis he ran into old army friends like Wm T. Sherman and James Longstreet. They saw a man in an ever more battered blue sack coat growing old before his time. Then when it couldn’t get worse, it did. In October of 1857 the United States’ economy crashed.
The market for grain was now gone and even his small income from firewood dried up. By now the family had grown after the birth of a daughter, Nellie. Another son, Jesse Root Grant would soon be born. Before Christmas 1857, Ulysses pawned his gold watch for $22 to buy presents for his children. Not only his farm but his father in law’s farm was near foreclosure.
The Dents owned slaves and Julia owned four slaves of her own. Selling them could save the land but Ulysses did not approve of slavery. When selling a slave seemed the only way to survive, Ulysses freed one of Julia’s slaves because he was a loyal man and Ulysses thought he could make a living as a free man. He promised the others freedom as soon as he could. Ulysses told an unbelieving neighbor. “I don’t know why a black skin may not cover a true heart as well as a white one.” The slave, William Jones, was worth $1,500 and setting him free was a strong message of how Grant felt about slavery.
Ulysses tried his hand at rent collecting for Julia’s cousin but often gave back the rent when the renters told him how much the money was needed for something else. Ulysses had a kind heart all his life. He was a romantic. At West Point the library records show he rarely read military works by Napoleon or other great generals preferring the romance novels of James Fennimore Cooper.
One day in St. Louis Ulysses attended an auction of a day laborer’s mule. The mule had been taken to pay a judgment found against the man. Grant bought the mule for $50 and gave it back to the man. This didn’t satisfy the court because the mule had not changed possession and seized the animal. The crowd saw what Ulysses had done and no one else would bid the next week so Grant bought the animal for $5 and again gave it to the original owner. Again the mule was seized and a week later Ulysses bought it for $1 and told the man to take it to another county and trade it for another mule but that too failed and the mule was seized again. Ulysses finally remarked, “I am going to have that old mule even if I have to buy it once a week all summer!”
Nothing would save the Grant farm and in March of 1860 Ulysses, Julia, the four children, and a few possession headed to Galena, Illinois so that Ulysses could take a job as a clerk in his father’s leather store. Ulysses’ bosses would be his two younger brothers.
Ulysses was not a good salesman but was always very good at mathematics so was placed in charge of the accounts and seemed to fit into life as a businessman. Ulysses bought a fashionable house and the family for once seemed to have no financial worries.
Ulysses joined the Masonic Temple and made friends that would soon be crucial to his future. John A. Rawlins would soon become Grant’s Chief of Staff and Elihu B. Washburne, the powerful Republican Congressman, would be Grant’s greatest supporter.
At night Ulysses was the perfect family man. He wrestled with the boys, talked with neighbors on the porch, and later as Julia knitted he read books and the terrible articles in the newspapers of the war clouds forming over America.
When the South fired on Ft. Sumter, April 12, 1861, two companies of volunteers formed in Galena. Elihu Washburne convinced Ulysses to drill the recruits. When the companies marched out of town on April 25 in brand new uniforms a slight, slouching figure in civilian clothing followed the procession. Citizen Ulysses S. Grant would not follow for long; soon he would lead himself and others toward their destinies.