New-York Historical Society

What does the ‘S’ in Ulysses S. Grant stand for?

Photo of Ulysses Grant taken at the time of his appointment as Lieutenant General  of all the Armies of the Republic in 1864. PR 52 Portrait File

Photo of Ulysses Grant taken at the time of his appointment as Lieutenant General of all the Armies of the Republic in 1864. PR 52 Portrait File

You might expect to hear this kind of question in a game of Trivial Pursuit, and if you’re inclined to say “Simpson”, you’re right – sort of.

In truth, Simpson was not part of his name at all and that’s on the authority of the man himself. On June 23, 1864, Grant wrote to Congressman E.B. Washburn with an explanation, politely noting, “In answer to your letter of a few days ago asking what ‘S’ stands for in my name I can only state nothing.” Yes, it’s largely inconsequential minutia, and one wonders why a congressman queried the commander-in-chief of the army over it while civil war ravaged the nation  but it’s also a reminder that even the simplest historical questions are often not so simple.

Grant to E.B. Washburn, June 23, 1864. AHMC - Grant, Ulysses

Grant to E.B. Washburn, June 23, 1864. AHMC – Grant, Ulysses

Grant goes on to explain that the misnomer originated from the congressman who assisted his application to West Point. According to Grant, Senator Morris of Ohio had erroneously named him as “Ulysses S. Grant.” Simpson was Grant’s mother’s maiden name and the name of his brother, but had never been in his own. In fact, he was baptized Hiram Ulysses Grant, though known from the very beginning as “Ulysses.”

It seems the last straw was his diploma and commission from the academy, both of which were issued with the erroneous “S.” Apparently, Grant tried to rectify the problem but his efforts to have the S excised from West Point records proved fruitless, so he resigned himself to signing his name that way.

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Grant to Washburn, June 23, 1864. AHMC – Grant, Ulysses

With the benefit of historic hindsight, though, the “S” seems less mistake than prophecy.  After Grant’s spectacular victory at the 1862 Battle of Fort Donelson, his initials were said to stand for “Unconditional Surrender,” in honor of his demand for the same from the confederate forces.  The nickname stuck, and Grant continued to live up to it, until finally, on April 9th, 1865 — 149 years ago today — Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, effectively ending the civil war.

2 Comments to What does the ‘S’ in Ulysses S. Grant stand for?

  1. Noma's Gravatar Noma
    January 8, 2015 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for clarifying this. In fact, there are 2 additional letters — to Julia — in which Grant re-asserts that “the ‘S’ stands for nothing.”

    But, it seems to be a hopeless battle. Here’s a popular little Quiz: “Which President’s name contains all the vowels in the alphabet? Answer: Ulysses Simpson Grant.”

    And, of course, the error will be perpetuated in eternity by the Library of Congress cataloguing system, which lists him as “Ulysses Simpson Grant.”

    ************

    However, I am wondering about one detail which is mentioned above: “In fact, he was baptized Hiram Ulysses Grant, though known from the very beginning as ‘Ulysses.'” I know that Albert Dean Richardson says that Grant was “baptized” Hiram Ulysses Grant, but other sources do not agree. And therein, I believe, lies part of the problem.

    Grant was never baptized in his early years, and this was a great concern to Julia by the time that Grant lay apparently dying in April 1885. It so happened that there was a charlatan ecumincal vulture, eager to enhance his business by adding Grant to his repetoire. The man was the Reverend John Newman. At the moment when Grant lay, apparently dying, he took advantage of Julia’s sentimental nature and baptized the sleeping man. Seizing a palmful of water from a basin, Newman dashed it over Grant’s head, proclaiming, “I baptize you Ulysses Simpson Grant!”

    (You can read this account in Jean Edward Smith’s excellent biography, “Grant.”)

    So the confusion was reinforced by this one egotistical preacher. When Grant awoke and saw the basin, he realized what had been done. Jesse Grant recalls that Grant gave Julia the gentlest reprimand that this had been accomplished — in opposition to his expressed desires. He said to her, simply, “I am surprised.”

    Reverend Newman, needless to say, made the most of his conquest. But Grant’s sons and Grant’s friend Mark Twain were appalled at Newman’s intrusive and self-serving actions.

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