By Dan Ursu
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved
If you believe, as I and many others do, that the Civil War would not have been won by the North but for U.S. Grant, then a visit to his boyhood home in our own State of Ohio at Georgetown, about ten miles north of the Ohio River and 40 miles east of Cincinnati, will be inspiring, informative and worthwhile.
I made the trip on March 11, 2017 in conjunction with renowned Civil War historian Ed Bearss’ presentation to the U.S. Grant Homestead Association “Grant in the Wilderness” in Georgetown’s historic Gaslight Theater. This venue has become virtually a Mr. Bearss annual pilgrimage to Georgetown this time of year.
On a sunshiny but brisk winter day sans snow, the small town was certainly evocative of what it must have been like during Grant’s childhood. In his Memoirs Grant states “I was born on the 27th of April, 1822, at Point Pleasant, Clermont County, Ohio. In the fall of 1823 we moved to Georgetown, the county seat of Brown, the adjoining county east. This place remained my home until the age of seventeen, when in 1839, I went to West point.”
Smartly preserved, the two-story red brick home itself sits a few blocks from the town square at a slightly lower elevation relative to the square. It is open to the public. As told by Ulysses, his father Jesse R. Grant “carried on the manufacture of leather and worked at the trade himself” at the tannery, a stout, white structure that is now a private residence across the street, easily visible but not open to the public.
Quite apparent from the visit: Ulysses himself did not enjoy tannery work at his father’s business. Paradoxically, scholars assert that his work at the family business created a lifelong aversion to bloodshed – ironic in light of his future role in command of Union Armies at many of the most violent battles of the Civil War. He was labeled by some of the press and other critics of the time as a “butcher.”
On view in Grant’s home are the original quarters and bedroom where the family slept, as well as a later addition in which Ulysses had his own bedroom. His father Jesse was in Grant’s words “from my earliest recollection, in comfortable circumstances, considering the times,” and the home is furnished and decorated with period objects reflective of that standing. A visitor can easily imagine sitting in one of the rooms in the early 1800s on the south side of the home and looking through windows at the scene of the tannery’s prosperous business activity unfolding across the street.
Two other themes of Grant’s early life stood out as part of visiting the home. First, U.S. Grant as a boy thoroughly enjoyed horses and became an expert equestrian – that being one of the only distinguishing features during a mostly lackluster academic career at West Point. In wartime, his personal mount figured prominently in at least two battles. At Belmont, Grant was courageously the last man at the end of an organized retreat as his troops evacuated down steep banks to the Mississippi River onto awaiting steamboats. Grant skillfully maneuvered his sliding horse bottom down on the bank and onto a single, narrow wooden plank – and then at a trot into the waiting vessel – all within firing range of Confederate General Polk and his troops. On another occasion, during an intense rainstorm at the start of the Battle of Shiloh, muddy footing unfortunately caused his mount to collapse and fall heavily on Grant’s foot. The injury necessitated that the General be on crutches for the remainder of the battle.
Second, young Grant also enjoyed the nearby Ohio River, escaping there for recreation whenever he could elude his duties at the tannery. He also must have observed the many commercial vessels using this all-important transportation artery of the time. I have been involved in many a discussion at our Roundtable on Grant’s prowess in amphibious operations and his strategic understanding of the use of rivers to his military advantage. This advanced level of skill was exceptional and unique for a non-naval military officer of the time. One cannot discount that his frequent boyhood trips to the Ohio River might well have subconsciously embedded this later war talent into his psyche.
A statue of U.S. Grant proudly overlooks the town square where the North’s most important General and future 18th President must have passed on foot innumerable times. The statue is modest but impressive, much like the man himself.
Most of what can be seen in the Georgetown area related to U.S. Grant is nurtured by the previously mentioned U.S. Grant Homestead Association. The organization can be further explored online at www.usgrantboyhoodhome.org. If you visit Georgetown, check ahead as times vary when Grant’s home is open.
U.S. Grant Boyhood Home Rededicated
Sources: (Click on any of the book links to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, Fort Sumter to Perryville, 1958; Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York, NY.
Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S .Grant & Selected Letters 1839-1865, 1990 edition; Library of America, New York, NY.
Wiley Sword, Shiloh: Bloody April, 1974, reprinted 1983; Morningside House, Inc., Dayton, OH.