Ulysses S. Grant




William Conant Church Papers, Library of Congress

Colonel James E. Pitman (1827-1894)

In 1849 Ulysses S. Grant was stationed in Detroit for briefly when he was a Lieutenant, and then again for a year from 1850-51. Narratives of Grant during this period are hard to find, however biographer William C. Church was able to obtain the recollections of Colonel James E. Pitman, who was one of Grant's closest friends during the time when they were both officers stationed in Detroit. Following are the Pitman's recollections of Grant as a 27 year old army officer:

Detroit at that time had about 10,000 people, just an ordinary Western town: unpaved straggling, and all full of mischief. U.S. Grant was at that time a familiar figure in Detroit society. A man as well known as any residing in the city at that time. He was thoroughly honest in all things and he was noted for his rugged sense. He and his wife were newlyweds and were living out on Fort Street, a little frame house, covered with wild grapes. It always looked homey and cozy to me, a comfortable place for two young people just married. The cottage he lived in was considered very good. Most of the officers lived in the hotel, all of the unmarried ones in fact, but Grant and his wife had their own little home.

I used to go to the same Methodist church where Dr. George Taylor was the pastor. I think that Dr. Taylor helped Grant a great deal. It was said that he had a long talk with Grant at that time and told him that he could not safely use liquor in any form and Grant acknowledged this and took the pledge and thereafter used no liquor at all in Detroit. I will say that I saw Grant drink, but never saw him intoxicated. He was a gentleman in his habits and instincts. He took his fun or dissipation, you might say, in racing horses. In those days Detroit was a frontier town and all used whiskey freely. Grant drank no more than the rest of the officers, he was not noticeable either way, either for leaving it alone or taking it. They all drank, it was common, expected, the normal habit amongst the officers.

He was social in the way of being where people were rather than entertaining people. His wife was outgoing and Grant came out of his shell in her presence. They were two people who hitched well together, they fit like hand to glove. He was a domestic man to say the least, but he could be very social with people he knew and trusted. The officers and citizens mingled freely and there were a great many social dances and club meetings. Grant was often at these meetings with his wife, who was a little cross-eyed woman. I used to often see him standing around the door looking on. Mrs. Grant liked to dance, but Grant never did. He always brought her and attended to her with great gallantry and tenderness, but of course was forced to stand around and visit on the edge of merriment. He was a very diffident man, very retiring in his habits.

One impression that obliterated all others was the feeling that Grant was just power and will and resolution and unhesitating action. He was that way even as a young man in Detroit. He had a very fast horse at the time, which he bought from Dave Cicotte, and he was a most excellent horseman. In those days he was a very sturdy young fellow, well built. Small, but extremely active and strong and he would whip a man who crossed him or who sold him short cords of wood or who was in any way derogatory towards him.

I saw Grant and his wife at their Fort Street house and I came to know Mrs. Grant very well. She was white, very fair, and had a lovely skin. I used to go there twice a day on some occasions and Grant was very attached, almost, I would say, overly attached to his wife. He used to go out and play cards and his wife played whist (a card game) with him sometimes when we could not rustle up another partner for the game. He was devoted to her completely, there was not a hint of trouble between them at any time.

Grant was more noticeable for his horse racing. The town was full of lively fellows and there were many horses whose owners considered them to be fast; and Grant had that pony from Dave Cicotte. He was in the forefront of any racing that was going on. On Saturdays the whole town seemed to get out on Fort Avenue and every man who had a horse took part. Grant had that little black mare and it was a horse of tremendous speed. He was the best horseman I ever saw. He could fly on a horse, faster than a slicked bullet.

He was also very boyish, said very little, sat in the background, talked very little. He was not gloomy at all, but reticent. I remember one man saying to me, "Is it not singular that the little man Grant is made quartermaster of the regiment?" I replied, "He is no good with papers, but he is hell with a regiment, he knows all about it."

I remember one afternoon, myself and some other officers were passing an auction store and while we stood there the auctioneer put up a bolt of calico and began to plead for someone to make a bid on it. Grant thoughtlessly, in order to help things along, made a bid on it. To his surprise, nobody else bid higher and it was knocked down to him, much to his confusion and our merriment. Now that he had it, he did not know what in the world what to do with it. He did not want to take it home, he knew perfectly well that Mrs. Grant would never wear such a looking calico as this turned out to be, so he walked along with it under his arm and meditated what was to be done. At last he proposed that we play a game of pool for it. We did so and he managed to lose it.

Grant always had an abstract air about him. He would quietly roam about town, all alone, looking at things - that was what he called it, "I am looking at things," he would say. I recall he was very shy in company. At a dinner for Colonel Grayson one evening Grant was called upon to make a toast and this was probably his first attempt at public address. He said, "I can face the music, but I cannot make a speech." That was his admirable reserve and quite in keeping with his character.

Grant was like a trained athlete, who leans listless and indifferent against the wall, but who wakes to wonders when the call is made upon him. I have alluded already that he did not uselessly show his strength, but I know of several occasions when he did not allow himself to be imposed upon. He was very physical when he needed to be, and did not allow bigger men to push him. Yet he was a young man who seemed older than he was by reason of his gravity and his reticence. Among his friends he did all the talking and no man dominated him.

A fter the Grants left Detroit, I did not see him again until 1870 when he was President. I sent my card up and he instantly knew me and called me right in. Thereafter I saw him during his administration with regularity. He used to play ball on the south lawn of the White House. He was generally with his youngest son and he liked to be around the boys. Sometimes he batted the ball, then resume his cigar and walk away. The boys all loved him, he was always kind and gentle.

He used to meet a lady every morning as she was coming out of the Treasury building. He bowed to her and she bowed to him, but never spoke. One day he stepped before her. "See her, why don't you stop and speak to me?"

"But General," she answered, "I supposed you wanted to be alone, and I didn't want to intrude." Grant smiled and said, "Don't you suppose I would rather have people stop and talk with me than let me walk alone?" There is a hint here of Grant's admiration for a pretty woman and also a hint of his essential loneliness. This trait he had even as a young officer in Detroit.



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