The son of a tanner, Grant showed little enthusiasm for joining his father’s business, so the elder Grant enrolled his son at West Point in 1839. Though Grant later admitted in his memoirs that he had no interest in the military apart from honing his equestrian skills, he graduated in 1843 and went on to serve first in the Mexican-American War, which he opposed on moral grounds, and then in California and Oregon, tours of duty that forced him to leave behind his beloved wife and children.
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The loneliness and sheer boredom of duty in the West drove Grant to binge drinking. By 1854, Grant’s alcohol consumption so alarmed his superiors that he was asked to resign from the Army. He did, and returned to Missouri to try his hand at farming and land speculation. Although he kicked the alcohol habit, he failed miserably at both vocations and was forced to take a job as a clerk in his father’s tanning business.
If it were not for the Civil War, Grant might have slipped quickly into obscurity. Instead, he re-enlisted in the Army in 1861 and embarked on a stellar military career, although his tendency to binge-drink re-emerged and he developed another unhealthy habit: chain cigar-smoking, which probably caused the throat cancer that eventually killed him. In 1862, Grant led troops in the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, and forced the Confederate Army to retreat back into Mississippi after the Battle of Shiloh. After the Donelson campaign, Grant received over 10,000 boxes of congratulatory cigars from a grateful citizenry.
In 1863, after leading the Union Army to victory at Vicksburg, Grant caught President Abraham Lincoln’s attention. The Union Army had suffered under the service of a series of incompetent generals and Lincoln was in the market for a new Union supreme commander. In March 1864, Lincoln revived the rank of lieutenant general—a rank that had previously been held only by George Washington in 1798—and gave it to Grant. As supreme commander of Union forces, Grant led troops in a series of epic and bloody battles against Confederate General Robert E. Lee. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House. The victory solidified Grant’s status as national hero and, in 1869, he began his first of two terms as president.
Grant’s talent as political leader paled woefully in comparison to his military prowess. He was unable to stem the rampant corruption that plagued his administration and failed to combat a severe economic depression in 1873. However, successes of Grant’s tenure include passage of the Enforcement Act in 1870, which temporarily curtailed the political influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Civil War South, and the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which attempted to desegregate public places such as restrooms, “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement.” In addition, Grant helped to improve U.S. and British diplomatic relations, which had been damaged by the British offer to supply the Confederate Army with tools to break the Union naval blockade during the Civil War. He also managed to stay sober during his two terms in office.
Upon leaving office, Grant’s fortunes again declined. Although he and his wife Julia traveled to Europe between 1877 and 1879 amid great fanfare, the couple came home to bankruptcy caused by Grant’s unwise investment in a scandal-prone banking firm. Grant spent the last few years of his life writing a detailed account of the Civil War and, after he died of throat cancer in 1885, Julia lived on the royalties earned from his memoirs.