Cadet Grant at West Point

by Ulysses Simpson Grant

IN the winter of 1838-39 I was attending school at Ripley, only ten miles distant from Georgetown, but spent the Christmas holidays at home. During this vacation my father received a letter from the Honorable Thomas Morris, then United States senator from Ohio. When he read it he said to me, “Ulysses, I believe you are going to receive the appointment.” “What appointment?” I inquired. “To West Point; I have applied for it.” “But I won't go,” I said. He said he thought I would, and I thought so too, if he did.

Besides this argument in favor of my going to West Point there was another very strong inducement. I had always a great desire to travel. Going to West Point would give me the opportunity of visiting the two great cities of the continent, Philadelphia and New York. This was enough. When these places were visited I would have been glad to have had a steamboat or a railroad collision, or any other injury happen, by which I might have received a temporary accident sufficient to make me ineligible, for a time, to enter the Academy. Nothing of the kind occurred, and I had to face the music.

A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the army even if I should be graduated, which I did not expect. The encampment which preceded the commencement of academic studies was very wearisome and uninteresting. When the 28th of August came − the date for breaking up camp and going into barracks − I felt as though I had been at West Point always, and that if I staid to graduation, I would have to remain always. I did not take hold of my studies with avidity, in fact I rarely ever read over a lesson the second time during my entire cadetship. I could not sit in my room doing nothing. There is a fine library connected with the academy, from which cadets can get books to read in their quarters. I devoted more time to these than to the books relating to the course of studies. Much of the time, I am sorry to say, was devoted to novels, but not those of a trash sort. I read all of Bulwer's then published, Marryat's, Scott's, Washington Irving's works, Lever's, and many others that I do not now remember. Mathematics were very easy to me, so that when January came, I passed the examination taking a good standing in that branch. In French, the only other study at that time in the first year's course, my standing was very low. In fact if the class had been turned the other end foremost I should have been near the head. I never succeeded in getting squarely at either end of my class, in any one study, during the four years. I came near it in French, artillery, infantry and cavalry tactics, and conduct.

During my first year's encampment, General Scott visited West Point, and reviewed the cadets. With his commanding figure, his quite colossal size and showy uniform, I thought him the finest specimen of manhood my eyes had ever beheld, and the most to be envied. I could never resemble him in appearance, but I believe I did have a presentiment for a moment that some day I should occupy his place on review, although I had no intention then of remaining in the army.

At last all the examinations were passed, and the members of the class were called upon to record their choice of arms of service and regiments. I was anxious to enter the cavalry, or dragoons, as they were then called, but there was only one regiment of dragoons in the army at that time, and attached to that, besides the full complement of officers, there were at least four brevet second lieutenants. I recorded, therefore, my first choice, dragoons; second, infantry; and got the latter.

Having made alternate choice of two different arms of service with different uniforms, I could not get a uniform suit, until notified of my assignment. I left my measurement with a tailor, with directions not to make the uniform until I notified him whether was to be for infantry or dragoons. Notice did not reach me for several weeks, and then it took at least a week to get the letter of instruction to the tailor, and two more to make the clothes and have them sent to me. This was a time of great suspense.

Two incidents happened soon after the arrival of the clothes, which gave me a distaste for military uniform that I never recovered from. Soon after the arrival of the suit I donned it, and put off for Cincinnati on horseback. While I was riding along a street of that city, imagining that everyone was looking at me, with a feeling akin to mine when I first saw General Scott, a little urchin, bareheaded, barefooted, with dirty, ragged pants held up by a single gallows, turned to me and cried, “Soldier! will you work? No, sir-ee; I'll sell my shirt first!”

The other circumstance occurred at home. Opposite our house in Bethel stood the old stage tavern where man and beast found accommodation. The stable-man was rather dissipated, but possessed a sense of humor. On my return I found him parading the streets, and attending in the stable, barefooted, but in a pair of sky-blue nankeen trousers, just the color of my uniform trousers, with a strip of white cotton sheeting sewed down the outside seams in imitation of mine. The joke was a huge one in the minds of many people, and was much enjoyed by them; but I did not appreciate it so highly.


Grant, Ulysses Simpson, “Cadet Grant at West Point ,” The Romance of the Civil War, New York: The McMillan Company, 1903

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