A Confirmed Failure at the Age of 38

Ulysses Grant’s first stint in the military ended early. At the age of 32 he was forced to resign his post as a captain. Binge drinking was suspected. A string of business failures and separation from his young family (he couldn’t afford to bring them to his post in the western US) had surely contributed to his misery.

Back home in St. Louis, the next 6 years were financially trying for Grant, his wife, and 2 children. During that time he failed at both farming and real estate. He was in debt and without consistent income until his father, who owned a leather store, intervened. He was offered a job as a clerk.

Take it or leave it.

Grant was out of options. He took the job, and moved his family to a the quiet northwest corner of Illinois.

At the age of 38, Ulysses S. Grant was a confirmed failure.

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On April 15th, 1861, following an attack on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 volunteers to join the military. Grant, being the only man with professional military experience in his quiet little corner of Illinois, helped rally volunteers and was given a ‘fluke’ promotion to colonel.

As a military commander in the new struggle he found quick success, later being described as a man with “dogged determination and iron will.” His straightforward manner and decisiveness on the battlefield created results.

An unexpected and early turning point in the war came at Fort Donelson where Grant confidently commanded a victory for the Union– and took over 7,000 confederate prisoners in the process.

Grant’s failings– his drinking, his forced resignation, his business muck-ups, his loser job– realities that would crush the desire of many to act, seemed to fade into the background.

His slate clean, and the stakes higher, he continued to make mistakes. Here’s an account of his attack on Fort Donelson, taken from Shelby Foote’s classic The Civil War : A Narrative (emphasis mine):

[Grant] had started behind schedule… men had frozen to death because of a lax discipline which let them throw away coats and blankets in fair weather, that individual attacks had been launched without coordination and been bloodily repulsed, nor that the commanding general had been absent from his post for better than six critical hours while one of his divisions was being mauled, the other two having been barred by his own orders from lending assistance.

[The only thing the public noticed was] the sweep and slam-bang power of a leader who marched on Wednesday …. and received the fort’s unconditional surrender on Sunday. 

By finding the right field of play, and deploying simple and confident instructions to those who needed them, despite many (deadly) errors, he went on to continued success and eventually was the one responsible for forcing the confederate surrender at Appomattox, ending the US Civil War.

He wasn’t done there. Grant’s deeds had made him the most popular man in America. In 1869 he was elected president.

In 8 short years, Grant had gone from a store clerk in northwest Illinois to the presidency of the United States. He spent his two terms in office working successfully to maintain the union he had fought to preserve.

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I love stories of people changing their lives radically through hard work and determination. If you have any other good ones, please share them with me!




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