By George Brown
Growing up, I was not a reader; and it is no wonder. As best as I can recall the only publications to be found in our home were these three: a Bible (which was seldom read), school textbooks, and, lastly, publications Mom picked up at the grocery store, like “The National Enquirer, “Romance”, and “True Detective.” Mom told us lots of stories but, as was no doubt true with her parents when she was a little girl, she did not read to us. The truth is, I much preferred to be outside playing, which I explains the abundance of exciting adventures I recall from childhood, such as those I’ve shared about the old oak tree in Half Acre Woods.
During my working years I occasionally – but not often – read books on topics other than management styles or professional leadership. Mostly these were books about Revolutionary and Civil War era characters, sometimes with an eye to their management and leadership styles. Now retired, I still prefer to be outside, hiking and discovering new “Half Acre Woods” adventures, but with the abundance of time now available I am also discovering new adventures through the pages of good books. I thought I would take a few minutes to share a couple of these adventures with you from volumes I am currenrtly reading.
My dear wife (a bookworm since infancy), knowing my above mentioned reading interests, purchased as a gift the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. These volumes are, respectively, about 750 and 950 pages long, so this has been a daunting undertaking for a nonreader like me. Nonetheless, I’ve completed Grant’s Memoirs (hardly putting it down after turning the first page) and am well into Sherman’s.
The two stories I share here are not about their leadership and accomplishments as Generals during the “Great Rebellion”, but about interesting experiences of their youth. Much is known locally about Grant’s birth and boyhood in and around Clermont and Brown Counties. A lesser known story provides an enjoyable insight into his personality as a youth. This insight is captured in a letter Grant wrote to his cousin, Mckinstry Griffith, a few months after arriving at West Point at the age of 17.
“Dear Coz – I was just thinking that you would be right glad to hear from one of your relations who is so far away. I have put aside my Algebra and French and am going to tell you a long story about West Point…I slept for two months upon one single pair of blankets, now this sounds romantic and you may think it very easy. But I tell you what coz, it is tremendous hard. Suppose you try it by way of experiment for a night or two. I am pretty sure that you would be perfectly satisfied that is no easy matter. But glad am I these things are over. We are now in our quarters. I have a splendid bed and get along very well. Our pay is nominally about twenty eight dollars a month, but we never see one cent of it. If we want anything from a shoestring to a coat we must go to the commandant of the post and get an order for it…We have tremendous long and hard lessons to get in both French and Algebra. I study hard and hope to get along so as to pass the examination in January. This examination is a hard one they say, but I am not frightened yet…The fact is if a man graduates here he is safe for life…I mean to study hard and stay if it be possible. If I cannot- very well – the world is wide. I have now been here about four months and have not seen a single familiar face or spoken to a single lady. I wish some of the pretty girls of Bethel were here just so I might look at them…If I were to come home now with my uniform on, the way you would laugh at my appearance would be curious. My pants sit as tight to my skin as the bark to a tree and if I do not walk military, that is if I bend over quickly or run, they are very apt to crack with a report as loud as a pistol…Give my very best love and respects to all my friends, particularly your brothers, Uncle Ross & Sam’l Simpson. You must also write me a long, long letter in reply to this and tell me about everything and everybody including yourself. If you happen to see my folks just tell them that I am happy, alive and kicking…Your cousin, U.S. Grant.
I think this letter reveals the homesickness of a 17 year old young man who longed to hear news from home and, although concerned about whether he would succeed at West Point, tried to put on his best face to show he was doing just fine.
I find it interesting that, in the 1830s and 40s, young men went off to college at such an early age. Sherman, arrived at West Point in 1836 at the age of 16, and was already a junior when Grant arrived in 1839. Grant, not long after graduation, went off to fight in the Mexican War. Sherman, “frustratingly”, as he described it, missed the war, spending the 1840s serving first in Florida, then South Carolina, and finally in the territory of California, which, although controlled by U.S. military forces, was technically an occupied Mexican territory until the Mexican War ended.
In his Memoirs Sherman describes in considerable detail his service in the California territory, which was scarcely inhabited before the gold rush of 1849. Of special interest to me was learning of Sherman’s personal role in the initial discovery of gold in California. He describes his involvement thusly, “I remember one day, in the spring of 1848, two men, Americans, came into the office and inquired for the Governor [military appointed Colonel Mason]…My attention was directed to a series of papers unfolded on the table, in which lay about a half ounce of placer-gold…I touched and examined one or two of the large pieces…I said that, if this were gold, it could be easily tested…I took a piece in my teeth, and the metallic lustre was perfect…I then called…[for]…an axe and hatchet…took the largest piece and beat it out flat, and beyond doubt it was…a pure metal…That gold was the first discovered in the Sierra Nevada, which soon revolutionized the whole country, and actually moved the whole civilized world.”
Yes, the memoirs of these illustrious Ohioans are immensely interesting, even fascinating, and I heartily recommend the reading of both.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Yvonne, live in Jackson Township.