NOT the least surprising development of the latest war in this country was the man who ended it. This was not, or at least it ought not to have been, owing to anything more than the personal peculiarities of the result; for the exigencies of the contest on the side of the Union were so great, and our resources in military leadership were so scant, that it was inevitable its chief hero ought to be a man comparatively, if not absolutely, insignificant before. General Scott was our only first-class officer at the outbreak of the Rebellion, and his advanced age and his infirmities, as well as the conviction impressed by the uniform teachings of history upon all reflecting minds that every great crisis must furnish its own controlling actors, made his supremacy merely nominal, till the first battle of Bull Run swept it away entirely. There was a tradition, indeed, in military circles, that Scott’s brilliant campaign in Mexico was mach more largely due than the outside public were aware to his Chief of Staff, whose admirers even went so far as to claim that he was the real hero of that successful invasion. Many at the North looked to see him wielding the forces summoned for the suppression of the Rebellion. He proved, however, not to be above the miserable Southern weakness of “going with his State,” which took him out of the lists of genuine heroism forever. The problem, then, of eventual military pre-eminence on the Union side was not unlike that which some good public moralizers are so fond of impressing upon us. The future President of the United States, they tell us, is at this moment playing in the streets; and we cannot doubt the fact, though we know it is utterly useless to scour the country for the purpose of guessing which particular boy it is that is destined for the White House.
The lot fell, as the world knows, upon Ulysses S. Grant. Though it appeared capricious in comparison with his former estate, yet, as the result of his actually established merit, it followed as logically as a demonstration of Euclid, and as practically as an engineer’s experimental verdict upon a new piece of ordnance. We venture to say that no commander of ancient or modern times ever won his fame more honestly, by a clearer, more thoroughly tested and more enduring title, than General Grant. In the first place, there was nothing about the man calculated to wrest a snap judgment in his favor either from the army or the people. He was not dashing in mind or manners; his personal appearance was not such as to awaken the least suspicion that he was above mediocrity; he was as plain as an untutored Westerner and as reserved as an educated Yankee; while of prestige he had absolutely nothing. A West Point education and service in Mexico were all that secured him appointment in the army. Thenceforward he made his own way; his only political support being one faithful Congressman, who was kept busy in shielding him from detraction, and would have failed after all, had it not been for a President eminently just and patient. But long before Grant reached his meridian, he had the loyal country so far, and only so far, favorable to him that it was prepared to appreciate military worth wherever it might he found. Indeed, the people at that time hungered and thirsted for military merit, hoping to see their great armies, commanded by the most promising officers in succession, decimated, without making any apparent headway toward the suppression of the still-augmenting Rebellion. Neither they nor the government had any prejudices springing from party sources or elsewhere, which interfered in the least with their recognition of the coveted reinforcement of effectual general-ship. All the Union officers in the field, wanting that, would have been set aside to make room for any drummer-boy that had chanced to show it. For this very reason then, and no other, this obscure Illinois colonel was advanced rapidly to the head of our forces, and crowned with a title expressly created in token of his unprecedented achievements. He was tried in every serviceable capacity; as an executive officer under the direction of others, in independent movements, in combinations, in dashes, in protracted sieges, as a strategist, as a tactician, on the offensive,—never on the defensive, however,—in the West, at the East; against all the Rebel generals, from Floyd up to Lee; in all gradations of rank, from colonel of volunteers up to Lieutenant-General holding finally in his hands the control of a million of soldiers, driving all our armies abreast, and directing in person the death-blow of the Rebellion. In all these positions and spheres he was invariably and gloriously successful. General Grant’s military reputation, then, is that about him which is of itself palpable to all mankind, fixed and secure. Whatever he may have seemed before he won it, whatever he may have been, is nothing to the point in this respect. We may resort to his early record under the curiosity naturally inspired by the reflex light of his glory in the field, or to seek glimpses of that which was to come; but nothing that our search may reveal can affect the reality and solidity of his military fame.
The truth is, however, the narrators of General Grant’s early life present us nothing but a pleasant, hazy background for the grand portrait now so familiar to the civilized world. They succeed in showing that a graduate of West Point, named Ulysses S. Grant, was kept alive till the fortieth year of his age, when the Rebellion broke out; and that is about all they can do. We are not overlooking Grant’s service in the Mexican War. It was meritorious, it was honorable to the second lieutenant, who was promoted to a brevet captaincy; but it was simply the average career of an average cadet. Those who knew him best, then and there, with their wits sharpened by the suggestions of actual service, were as utterly unsuspicious of his pre-eminent capacity as those brilliant Congressmen who strove to effect his removal for incompetency, even after the capture of Fort Donelson. The remainder of his ante-rebellion career may be easily run over as follows: He spends two years on garrison duty at Detroit, where he is remembered only for his superior horsemanship; thence he goes for a few months to Sarkett’s Harbor; in 1852 he is transferred to California, where, in association with other officers, he leases a club billiard-room, which enterprise fails; in July, 1854, he sends in his resignation, in accordance with a previous intimation that it would be accepted, remarking to a friend, as he does so, ”Whoever hears of me in ten years will hear of a well-to-do old Missouri farmer”; from 1854 to 1858 he is a Missouri farmer, but not well-to-do, for he fails continuously to make both ends meet; at the opening of the year 1859, he becomes a member of the firm of “Boggs and Grant, Real Estate Agents, St. Louis”; fails of success again, having failed in the mean time to obtain the situation of county engineer; in 1860 he is established as a clerk in his brother’s leather store at Galena, Illinois, on a salary of six hundred dollars per annum, raised to eight hundred dollars when the war broke out in the year following.