For Ulysses S. Grant, it had been a long, bumpy, and harrowing trail from Fort Humboldt, California to Galena, Illinois. The threat of Indian attack, as they passed through Indian territory, and a sudden storm on the trail that almost wiped out their wagon train, were expected by a soldier, who had served as a lieutenant in the Mexican war and fought Comanches in Texas before his post at the fort. He was, after all, a hard-bitten soldier who was used to danger and discomfort. With the exception of his wife and children, who had followed him throughout much of his career, he preferred military folks to civilians. After leaving the Army, in fact, he could never fit into civilian life. Without a vocation, he struggled through seven unsuccessful years trying to hold down a job. His father offered him a position in Galena, Illinois, in a branch of his tannery business, but he declined the offer. He had never got along with the family patriarch and, for that matter, his two younger brothers, who shared the business. Instead he attempted farming in his brother-in-law’s property near Saint Louis, Illinois, using slaves owned by Julia’s father. Two years of a half-hearted attempt, his aversion to slavery, farming, and being under his father-in-law’s thumb made him dislike this endeavor too.
Having met with no more success farming than he did in the tannery business, Grant, with his wife and five children, left the farm to work as a bill collector with his wife’s cousin in Saint Louis. Soon, it was apparent to him, that this job he was also unsuitable. Working with debtors, some of who were losing their farms or homes to the bank seemed dishonorable to him. As he told his wife after quitting, at least Mexicans and Indians could shoot back when attacked. Times were hard before the Civil War. Folks, like himself, got along as best as they could. By now, however, Grant was in financial straights. In 1860, while America was embroiled in factionalism between the North and South, he was forced to return to the family business and accept his old job in Grant and Perkins Leather Ship, to sell harnesses, saddles, and other leather goods. In addition to selling, he was also a buyer, purchasing hides from farmers near Galena. After accepting his old job back and moving to Galena with his family, he found himself at a low point in his checkered life.
The thought of returning to his father’s leather goods store, after so many exciting years in the Army, and then failing as a farmer and bill collector, had filled him with depression and dread. The very reason he had taken such undesirable jobs had been to avoid the tannery business; and here he was back in the store. Because of his promise to his wife, who had suffered long years with his military pay, and after repeated job-failures, he had been duty-bound to rejoin the family business. He and his wife now had a small house, garden, and modest coach. A regular paycheck and bank account, which exceeded the level of his Army earnings and savings and the hectic and occasional dangers of military service weighed against the peaceful life of a married man, should have left him satisfied with his life, and yet he was frightfully bored with his day-to-day living, especially this humdrum job. Gradually, during after-dinner brandies, stops at the local tavern, and a large jug of whiskey purchased on the sly, his old habits returned.
One day, after several weeks of lackluster performance as a seller and buyer of leather goods, it became apparent to his father and brothers that he was not cut out for the business. In fact, Grant, in the ideas of his father, didn’t seem to be cut out for much of any kind of work. He continued to drink on and off the job. Farmers selling hides complained that he smelled of whiskey, and on one fateful day, he drank himself into a stupor.
While father and his brothers were out drumming up business, he had been left in charge of the store. Similar to a soldier, he would reflect later, he had been asleep at his post. In wartime, he could have been shot. Had he been caught by father or one of his brothers, he might have been fired… That day, however, he would also recall, the Good Lord had been watching over him. Into his dreamscape, which included patches from his checkered past, he could hear what sounded like a bell ringing. Since the current phase of his dream had brought him face to face with his father once more, the tinkling sound made no sense at all.
“Ulysses,” cried the ghostly specter, “you lazy, shiftless, drunk.”
The bell ringing over the door was followed by footsteps clopping over the wooden floor, but to the sleeper it sounded much like distant thunder. The silhouette of a tall, portly woman against the afternoon sun appeared, unseen by the rest of the world, in the doorway. To this patron of the leather goods store it appeared as if no one was about. Misses Amy Rose Schultz now called out in a lilting but nasally voice “Simpson, Orvil, Jesse, whose minding the store?” His name hadn’t been called out. This was the first time he had been left alone in the store. When there was no reply, she walked over to the counter and hammered the bell alongside of the cash register. Again the bell sounded in his dream but this time much louder.
“I could be a thief and empty your cash box for all you care.” she called into the back room. “Hurry it up. I don’t have all day!”
“What’s wrong with you people?” the ghostly specter cried out in his dream.
The women repeated a previous question, “Whose minding the store?” and then beat on the bell unmercifully.
Because the voice of his father had changed to a woman’s lilting voice, this addition to his dream, as the incessant bell, made no sense at all to him. At this point, Amy took the liberty of searching the interior of the store, puffing and cursing under her breath, until in one corner draped over a saddle, the sleeper stirred. Awakening finally to the woman’s prodding finger, he looked up, through blurry eyes, to a more dreadful specter than even the cantankerous face of his father in his dream.
“Are you drunk, mister?” she asked tactlessly.
The fact that he was, in fact, quite tipsy, was evident. In spite of his predicament, he moved sluggishly, his eyes drooping, hair mussed, and a drool escaping his lip. This time, even in his state of mind, he knew he had gone too far. The fact was, of course, he had only recently taken the temperance oath demanded by his wife and brothers. Now look at me, he thought, giggling foolishly.
“I’m sober as a stone,” he muttered belatedly, staggering to his feet, “who in thunderation are you?”
“Question is, who in tarnation are you?” The woman snarled. “Where’s mister Grant? Where’s his sons?”
“I’m the older brother,” he said, looking around sheepishly the store beyond. “… Ulysses. Everyone calls me Sam.”
“Ulysses,” she snorted, as if unfamiliar with the name, “sounds Greek. Well, I’m Amy Rose Schultz. Your brother Simpson was supposed to repair my saddle harness.” “By the way,” she scowled, “where is he? Where are Jesse and Orvil too?”
“I dunno,” Ulysses scratched his wooly head, “drumming up business, I suppose. Farmers are always selling hides.”
At that moment, he took stock of himself. As Amy stood appraising him, Ulysses, having gathered his wits, scurried into the back room to search for the repaired harness. When he found the harness hanging on one of the cluttered walls, he noticed on the scrap of paper with the name, Mister MacDonald on it, a second title ‘Post Office wagon harness.’
“You the postmaster for Galena now?” he called back.
“Nah, my husband Hank is,” she sighed. “He’s down sick with the shingles. I been called to duty.” “Oh, I almost forgot,” she mumbled, as he returned with the harness. “I got some letters for the shop here.... One came by special courier for a U. S. Grant.”
“That’s me,” he frowned. “Let’s have a look.”
“How much for the harness?” She asked, reaching into a large checkered bag.
Recognizing the stamp on his letter, he gasped and sat back down on his stool. The audacity of the woman was forgotten in a rush of emotion Ulysses had not felt for many months.
“It’s from Governor of the state,” he looked up at her. “What in the blazes would he be sending me official correspondence for?”
“You haven’t heard?” She looked down at him.
“Heard? Oh you mean all that secessionist nonsense in the paper?” He nodded, as he studied the ominous envelope for a moment.
“That was yesterday’s news, Mister Grant,” she shook her head in wonder. “Haven’t you read this morning’s Herald?”
“No,” he admitted, ripping open the letter, “I haven’t had a chance to fetch one yet. What’s it say?”
As the woman reached into her large bag and, with an element of drama, pulled out the morning news, Ulysses had read the opening lines to his letter.
Dear Mister Grant:
In recognition of your past service to the country, I am requesting your assistance in forming a militia to protect our state from possible secessionist violence and, in the event that war becomes eminent, help train our men for service to the union cause...
The remainder of the letter grew increasingly irrelevant as Ulysses glanced up at the headlines of the morning news
“I don’t believe it.” He swallowed heavily. “Those damn fools.”
“Yup!” Amy grinned down at him. “They went and did it.
Suddenly, after years of aimless wandering from job to job after his one-time service to his country during the Mexican War and distant duty in California, he saw this dreadful event as his salvation. His civilian days were over. Ulysses S. Grant would do what he did best: serve his country. After collecting the money for the saddle from Amy Rose Schultz and thanking her profusely for her letter, he made himself a pot of coffee, swore off whiskey once more, and sat staring at the headlines of today’s paper: Secessionists Fire Upon Fort Sumter!
“Good Lord.” He shook his head. “We’re at war!”
The Civil War had begun.