Today In Western History: Ulysses S. Grant Is Born

April 27,

Hiram Ulysses Grant, but more commonly known as Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War leader and 18th president of the United States, is born on this day in 1822.

Ulysses H. Grant, 18th President
Ulysses H. Grant, Civil War Hero and 18th President

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.  It was in the process of joining West Point that his name was changed by accident, and he never bothered to correct it.  Though Grant later admitted in his memoirs he had no interest in the military apart from honing his equestrian skills, he graduated in 1843 and went on to serve in the Mexican-American War, though he opposed it on moral grounds. He then left his beloved wife and children again to fulfill a tour of duty in California and Oregon. 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 Ohio 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, at the encouragement of one of his friends, a hot tempered red-haired fighter named William Tecumseh Sherman, he re-en-listed in the 

US General, William Tecumseh Sherman, scourge of Georgia
US General, William Tecumseh Sherman, Civil War hero and the scourge of Georgia

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. He struggled throughout the Civil War to control the addictions. In 1862, he 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 a Union Army to victory at Vicksburg, Grant caught President 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 a series of epic and bloody battles against the wily Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  

Robert E. Lee, General CSA, Hero of the Confederacy
Robert E. Lee, General CSA, Hero of the Confederacy

It all came to an end, however, on April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.  As a side note, Lee would never tolerate anyone saying anything negative about Grant after this because of the magnanimity of his surrender terms.  The victory solidified Grant’s status as national hero and, in 1868, he was elected to the first of two terms as president.

Grant’s talent as a political leader paled woefully in comparison to his military prowess. He was un-able to stem the rampant corruption of his administration and failed to combat a severe economic depression in 1873.  There were bright spots in Grant’s tenure, however, including the 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 heal U.S. and British diplomatic relations, despite the fact that Britain had offered to supply the Confederate Army with the 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.  He and his wife Julia traveled to Europe be-tween 1877 and 1879 amid great fanfare, but 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, urged on by his good friend, Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, humorist and author
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, humorist and author

He held off death by sheer will, the same sheer will that drove him to success in the war, until he deemed them completed and then died of throat cancer the same day, in 1885.   Julia managed to scrape by on the royalties earned from his memoirs and a pension given her by Congress as the widow of a President.


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Today In Western History: Edward Zane Carroll Judson Is Born

March 20 —

Edward Zane Carroll Judson is born today, in 1823, in Stamford, New York.  He didn’t become well known until 1845, when he founded a sensationalistic magazine in Nashville, Tennesee, called Ned Buntline’s Own. 

Edward Zane Carroll "Ned Buntline" Judson
Edward Zane Carroll “Ned Buntline” Judson

Ned Buntline became the best known of several pseudonyms he used during his exciting career. Buntline’s goal in life was very simple. He wanted to make as much money as possible writing stories that the public would pay to read. He filled the pages of Ned Buntline’s Own with a variety of fantastic and outrageous stories, although he tended to favor nautical adventures. A compulsive womanizer (he was married an incredible seven times), he ended up killing a jealous husband who suspected him of seducing his wife in 1846.  Even though Buntline was only defending himself, some of the townspeople sympathetic to the dead man decided to hang Buntline from an awning post in the town square, but luckily for him, and for history, Buntline’s friends cut the rope before he strangled and he was spirited out of town.  Buntline relocated to New York, where he began publishing his magazine once more. Al-though he had once desired to become a serious writer, he was desperate to make a living so he began to write more for a mass audience. Buntline’s popular adventures were successful beyond his expect-ations, and he penned dozens of melodramatic “shocking” stories over the course of only a few years. By the time he was in his late 20s, Buntline had earned the title “King of the Dime Novels” and was making an excellent living.

After traveling to San Francisco in 1869, Buntline realized he could easily adapt his stock adventure plots to a setting in the American West.  At about the same time he met a handsome young scout and buffalo hunter named William Frederick Cody. Buntline claimed to have given Cody the nickname

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Frontiersman, creator of the Rodeo

“Buffalo Bill,” but Cody later said he earned the name years before as a hunter for the railroads.  It was Buntline’s decision to write a dime novel starring Buffalo Bill Cody made the relatively unknown scout into a national media star. Buntline’s book The Scout of the Plains grossly exaggerated Cody’s western adventures, even making up the entire story and flagrantly manufacturing the details to sup-port the story, but the Eastern public loved the thrilling tales.  Always the promoter, Buntline turned the novel into a play that he staged in Chicago. In 1872, Buntline convinced Cody himself to travel to the city and play himself in the production. Cody was a poor actor, but his participation brought in people and money.  Cody broke with Buntline after a year, but the national fame he had acquired as a result of Buntline’s endless energy and boundless imagination eventually allowed “Buffalo Bill” to create his famous Wild West show. Buntline churned out other western dime novels, and he eventually became the nation’s top literary money earner, surpassing the income of serious authors such as Samuel Langhorne Clemons (“Mark Twain“) and Walt Whitman.  Buntline prized his wealth, but he always remained scornful of his own work. “I found that to make a living I must write ‘trash’ for the masses, for he who endeavors to write for the critical few, and do his genius justice, will go hungry if he has no other means of support.”

One of the other famous legends that was attributed to him was about a set of special guns that he sup-posedly presented to a group of famous lawmen.  The guns were a variation of the famous Colt Peace-maker, but with an extra-long barrel.  This legend was started by Stuart N. Lake in his HIGHLY fiction-

Stuart N. Lake, creator of the legend of Wyatt Earp
Stuart N. Lake, creator of the legend of Wyatt Earp

alized biography of Wyatt Earp in 1931.  The only problem with this enduring legend is that neither  Colt, nor any of the other firearm manufacturers, ever made the extra-long barrel in that time period, and none of the researchers have ever found any proof that the real Wyatt Earp ever owned such a fanciful weapon.  Certainly a 12” barrel would have created some logistical problems for a quick draw, no matter how fast the gun artist was.

Perhaps more than any single writer, Ned Buntline was responsible for creating a highly romantic-cized and somewhat misleading image of the American West as the setting for great adventure and excitement. Buntline died at his home in Stamford, New York, in 1886. He was 63 years old and had written more than 400 novels and countless other short stories and articles.


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