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Grant's West Coast Years

Matt Beiermann
Civic Memorial High School, Bethalto

The West Coast was where Ulysses S. Grant suffered, became discouraged, and gave up on the army. This is hard to imagine now; for he later became president of the United States. In the early years of his marriage, the army ordered him to the Pacific Coast. His journey took him across the Isthmus of Panama, to San Francisco, up the Columbia River, and south to a new outpost. From the middle of 1852 to the summer of 1854, Grant was stationed in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Grant's unit, the Fourth Infantry, received orders in 1852 to move to New York in preparation for its assignment to the Pacific Division headquarters. On July 5, 1852, the Fourth Infantry departed from Governors Island, New York, for the Isthmus of Panama. On July 16 it reached Aspinwall, which was the starting point of the isthmus crossing. The regiment was split into two parties that took separate routes. Grant led one group—which consisted of civilians and all those who had taken ill—to Cruces where mules were to be available for transportation. But the contractor could not supply animals or guides. That summer the men endured terrible weather, cholera, and inadequate shelter. The regimental baggage was exposed to rain and became soggy and unusable. Grant sent the escort company to Panama City and stayed behind with the sick until everybody could be moved. His party reached the Pacific on July 25. The Fourth Infantry departed from the isthmus and dropped anchor in Benicia in August 1852.

Grant faced an official hearing at the close of his Benicia duty. On September 4, 1852, a board of survey assembled, "to investigate and report upon the losses and damages of public property," that occurred in Panama under Grant's charge. Almost $1,350 worth of clothing and equipment was lost or destroyed. Grant officially reported on that loss. The board found no fault with Grant. Also during his Benicia duty, Grant was charged with a minor infraction of military regulations. Rumor had it that Grant was drunk, tried by a military court, and jailed overnight.

The Fourth Infantry left Benicia on September 14, 1852. The regiment was ordered to establish posts and protect the settlers in Northern California and Oregon from Indian uprisings. Grant's unit landed at Columbia Barracks on September 20, 1852. Grant liked Oregon despite its expense.

Between October and December 1852, Grant kept busy with his duties and attempted to make some money. He bought cattle, hogs, and a horse for himself. He leased a piece of land about a mile from the barracks. He, along with fellow captains, cleared and fenced the land in order to plant potatoes and oats. On May 15, 1853, he was ordered to Benicia to testify in a court-martial case. While at Benicia, he took out a lease for some space in the Union Hotel. He and several others planned to convert that area into a billiard room and club. The hired manager departed with the funds; thus, the venture failed. When Grant returned to Columbia Barracks, he found that the river had flooded and wiped out his farmland and crops.

Grant was promoted to full captain on August 9, 1853. He was to report to Fort Humboldt, California. He did not like Fort Humboldt nor its commanding officer. Life at the fort was boring and dreary. His four months there were dull and greatly affected him. Military duties there included the protection of settlers from hostile Indians and holding prisoners. Off duty, he visited with friends, went to Eureka to play pool or cards, or wrote to his family. He would also ride his horse, Elipse, over the countryside and into the woods, jumping over logs for fun.

Grant resigned from the army. On June 2, 1854, Jefferson Davis, who was Secretary of War, endorsed Grant's resignation. Grant resigned for several reasons. His promotion reminded him that advancement in the army during peacetime was slow. He was extremely lonely. The cost of living was too high to bring his family to the West Coast. His salary was inadequate. He was not well; he suffered from migraine headaches.

He left Humboldt Bay on May 7, 1854, for San Francisco. He had several thousand dollars invested in business interests in San Francisco. One debtor had vanished, another was short, and funds due to him from the army had not arrived. He left San Francisco on June 1 and arrived in New York harbor on June 25. The first thing he planned to do was to collect money owed to him. His experience of chasing debtors in San Francisco was to be repeated. Grant had to send home for money so that he could return to Missouri. He arrived in Missouri in August 1854. Thus ended Grant's time in the West.

Here is an interesting episode in the life of a later prominent man. He would direct the Union to military victory in the Civil War and use his popularity to become a two-term president of the United States.—[From Bruce Catton, U. S. Grant and the American Military Tradition; Charles G. Ellington, The Trial of U. S. Grant, The Pacific Coast Years 1852-1854; and Lloyd Lewis, Captain Sam Grant.]

24 ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 1993


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