Galena, Illinois, was a village of significance in Ulysses S. Grant's life. He came to Galena with no money and no hope of a promising future; he left Galena a celebrity of the Civil War and the president-elect from Illinois.
Before coming to Galena, Ulysses Grant resigned from the United States Army in 1854 after eleven years of service. He resigned after a threat of court marshal due to a serious drinking problem. He had joined the army after graduating from West Point. Grant had found it difficult to develop skills that would be useful in civilian life.
Hard times began for the Grant family because the family had no place to go once Grant left the army. The Grants found themselves struggling to get along in St. Louis. Ulysses tried several odd jobs such as real estate agent, salesman, and farmer. He failed at all of these. A St. Louis resident whose husband owned the real estate firm Ulysses had worked for, said of him:
He had an exulted opinion of himself at any time. He would walk the streets looking for something to do. He was actually the most obscure man in town ... no one took any notice of him.
In 1860 the Grants lost hope of succeeding in St. Louis. Out of money, Grant went to ask for a job from his father. Jesse Grant gave him a job in his Galena leathergoods store, where Ulysses worked alongside his brothers Orvil and Simpson. They needed the extra help because Simpson had tuberculosis, a disease that was prevalent in the Grant family. The Grants arrived in Galena by steamboat, and the townspeople speculated as to why he had resigned from the army.
Grant worked as a clerk in the leathergoods store earning $800 a year. It was Ulysses's job to total receipts and bills because at West Point he had done well in mathematics. Grant was not very good at remembering prices, and when he worked with customers he often charged them the wrong amount, usually to the customer's benefit.
Grant, his wife Julia, and their four children rented a house on Cemetery Hill for $125 a year. Galena had a population of 14,000 at the time, and the only thing that enabled Grant to stand out from everyone else was his old blue army coat because no one had ever seen anything like it.
In 1860 the news that the Civil War broke out reached Galena. Meetings were held and speeches were given to promote the war. John A. Rawlins, a Galena lawyer, gave a particularly moving speech at the courthouse:
It is simply union or disunion, country or no country. I have favored every compromise, but the day for compromise has passed. Only one course is left for us! We will stand by the flag of our country and appeal to the God of Battles!
As Grant walked from the courthouse he made a decision to take an active part in the war.
Illinois was required to send 4,500 volunteer troops in addition to 225 officers. Galena sent 200 volunteers. The townspeople began to look toward the man in the blue army coat with new respect. Grant became the center of the town's attention; after all, he had served in the Mexican War under Zachary Taylor. Unlike the outcome of the Mexican War about which Grant cared very little, he had strong convictions about the Civil War. His abolitionist parents instilled in him a love of freedom that condemned slavery. He was so appalled by the suffering and oppression of the slaves that he requested a commission in the regular army.
The volunteer army was separate from the regular army. They were able to elect their own officers. The Galena men wanted Grant as their leader, but Grant felt he would be able to contribute more in the role of a regular army officer. He did advise and drill the volunteers in marching and carrying firearms. Grant gave the ladies directions for making uniforms and gave the dimensions for flag making.
Pursuing a position in the regular army, he went to Springfield with the Galena guard. Many people who had political favors coming to them got a high rank in the volunteer army. Galena Congressman Elihu Washburne said that he would help Grant talk Governor Yates into giving him a commanding position. After meeting Governor Yates, Grant ended up filing copy orders and ruling forms for $2 a day. He did not think that he would stay in Springfield long at all. That proved to be correct for on May 3, 1861, Yates appointed Grant to the Twenty-First Illinois Regiment. Grant became a colonel, and his salary was $4.20 a day.
By the end of the war Grant was a three-star general and chief commander of the United States Army; he was the most honored war hero of the North. He was the victor of the battles of Shiloh, Memphis, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Chattanooga. He returned to Galena where he was welcomed as a hero and given a parade. There was one banner in the parade that read, "General, the sidewalk is built." That was in reference to what Grant had once said would be the first thing he would do if he were ever elected mayor of Galena.
Galena had supported and encouraged Grant. If that had not happened Grant might not have emerged as a military hero of the Civil War nor as the eighteenth president of the United States.—[From Barbara Barclay, Our Presidents; John A. Carpenter, Ulysses S. Grant; Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South; J. F. C. Fuller, Grant and Lee; and Gene Smith, Lee and Grant, A Dual Biography.]