Like Mother, Like Son
By Ben Kemp, Cottage Operations Manager
“Of his mother he [U.S. Grant] said that she was the best woman he had ever known; unselfish, devoted to her family, thoroughly good, conscientious, intelligent, of a quiet and amiable disposition, never meddling with other persons' affairs, genuinely pious without any cant, with a strong sense of right and justice; unobtrusive, kind-hearted, and attached to her Church and country. I said, ‘General, you have most of your mother's characteristics;’ to which he simply replied, ‘Yes, I think so.’" -Michael J. Cramer (Brother-in-Law of U.S Grant)
Mother and son typically share a strong natural and emotional bond throughout their lives. Although a mother typically harbors an unconditional love for their child, not all of them express it in the same way. A responsible and caring mother does what she can to prepare her child for the world and at some point is forced to trust in what she has instilled to help guide them through the rest of their life. One such woman whose guidance left a lasting impression not only on her son, but an entire nation, was Hannah Grant.
Hannah Simpson was born near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1798 to a second-generation American family of Scotch-Irish descent. Her father, John, owned enough land to be in good means, but was not particularly motivated to do anything other than farm. Hannah’s mother, Rebecca, died when Hannah was three and she would be raised by her step-mother Sarah. After growing up in Pennsylvania, at 19, Hannah and her family moved out to Ohio. Many would be surprised when, in 1821, she wed a man, Jesse R. Grant, who was not yet well established. Her husband would remember his bride as “an unpretending country girl; handsome, but not vain.” Hannah was described as “serious, steadfast, and supremely reserved.”
In the early morning hours of April 27, 1822, Hannah gave birth to her first son at their small home in Point Pleasant, Ohio. He was a big baby at over 10lbs. When it came time to name the child, Hannah preferred Albert after Albert Gallatin, the respected statesman then serving as Minister to France, but other family wishes would prevail and his name would be Hiram Ulysses.
With her son becoming such a subject of myth and legend later in life, most have overlooked the relatively normal domestic life of the Grant family during Ulysses’ childhood in Georgetown, Ohio. Grant’s childhood was not overly restrictive despite Hannah being described as “careful, and most watchful over her children.” She allowed her son the typical innocent freedoms of youth. Hannah’s stepmother remarked that her daughter “at seven years of age had as much the deportment of a woman as most girls at twenty.” Hannah saw in her oldest son a maturity that matched her own when she was young stating that “He was always a steady, serious sort of boy, who took everything in earnest; even when he played he made a business of it." In addition to Ulysses, the family included siblings Orvil, Samuel (Simpson), Rachel (Clara), Virginia (Jennie) and Mary. Hannah raised her six children over a span of 40 years until her youngest (Mary) married reverend, professor, and foreign diplomat Michael Cramer in 1863. She would later state to a reporter in a rare interview that “it's no easy thing to bring up a family."
While Ulysses was at West Point Military Academy in the early 1840s, the Grant’s moved to a nice brick home in nearby Bethel, Ohio. When Grant returned for a break from the Academy his mother was surprised at his transformation remarking “Ulysses, you’ve grown so much straighter!” The military life was changing her teenage son into a man. It was only a few years later that Hannah, despite her stoic nature, worried for her son during his time in the Mexican War, her husband going so far as to state that “During this time his mother’s hair turned white from her anxiety about him.”
In 1848, Ulysses married Julia Dent and the newlyweds traveled to Ohio to visit the Grant family. Julia was nervous, but found the family welcoming and friendly. Julia’s impression of Hannah was that of “a handsome woman, a little below medium height, with soft brown eyes, glossy brown hair, and her cheek was like a rose in the snow” and added that she was “the most self-sacrificing, the sweetest, kindest woman I ever met, except my own dear mother.” Julia would also meet Hannah’s step-mother, Sarah, whom she described as “sweet and lovely to me” being “quite tall and robust, quite my ideal of a Revolutionary mother.”
Coming from starkly different backgrounds, the Grant and Dent families did not mix well, but Hannah would make an effort at civility for the sake of her son and grandchildren. The next decade would see the young Grant family traveling between military posts and the Grant and Dent homes. Throughout all the turmoil Jesse would note that Hannah’s “steadiness, firmness, and strength of character have been the stay of the family…”
During the Civil War, the elder Grant’s helped care for their grandchildren periodically at their Covington, Kentucky home. In early 1864, Grant visited Covington and his mother, who believed in the righteousness of the cause and the part her son was playing in it, is said to have been concerned with how he would fare against Robert E. Lee. Grant confidently reassured his mother his knowledge of Lee would give him the advantage.
Amid the tragic war of lost sons, Hannah would bury two of her children; Simpson in 1861 and Rachel in 1865, both dying of tuberculosis in their mid-thirties. Grant encountered many desperate mothers during the war years. Some inquiring about the fate of their sons, some coming to retrieve their remains and others looking to nurse them back to health. One of the latter, after being denied passage by military officials, approached Grant about reaching her ailing soldier son to help encourage his recovery. Grant wrote out a pass and when the appreciative woman asked what costs she would incur he stated “It will cost you nothing, madam… A mother who has given her son to the government, the government can afford to carry for free.” Grant knew the sacrifice mothers were making all over the nation and knew the positive effect only a mother could provide psychologically and physically on a suffering son.
Modesty was a prominent virtue in both mother and son. Grant was frequently described as unassuming, unpretentious, and humble. They both preferred not to be noticed or recognized for anything. Echo’s of his mother’s view that “nothing you could do would entitle you to praise, you ought to praise the Lord for giving you an opportunity to do it” likely contributed to Grant’s self-effacing nature. After enduring being on a political platform in front of a Cincinnati crowd due to her son's fame and the corresponding newspaper accounts after the war, Jesse said his wife “can’t be got out to any public place. She says she don’t want to make a show of herself.” She is said to have remarked to her son soon after “Well, Ulysses you’ve become a great man, haven’t you.” There is speculation as to the reasons Hannah never visited her son in Washington DC, even though her husband did. Caution against pride and unwanted attention was probably a large factor. Just as her son avoided and disliked presentations in his honor, his mother stated clearly “we are not a demonstrative family. None of us care a penny for all the demonstrations in the world.” This aversion was likely part modesty and part inherent shyness on both their accounts.
After the death of Grant’s father in 1873, Hannah moved east to be near family, moving in with her daughter Virginia and significantly older husband Abel Corbin in New Jersey. She maintained an active lifestyle which included regular church activities, with her son the President accompanying her to church on occasion. As the final holiday season of his second Presidential term began Grant expressed a desire that “Some time before my term of office expires I want mother to make us a visit” acknowledging his own maturing family he added “The children will all be at home…possibly the last time we will have them all at home together…it may be the last opportunity mother may have of seeing them together.” Hannah for reasons unknown did not make the visit but instead expressed her simple hope that with all the attention her son was receiving he would “so act during the remainder of his life as to command the respect of the people and win the love of all his acquaintances.”
In 1879, upon the Grant’s return to the United States following their two-year world tour Grant wrote Mr. Corbin stating of his travel plans that once back east “one of the first places will be to Jersey City to see Mother and all [of you].” Hannah after acknowledging her son “was always a good traveler…possessed that characteristic from his boyhood, and I do not think he would ever tire of it" still showed the typical concern of a mother stating that her son “and Mrs. Grant will be glad to have a rest. You see, the Europeans like fighting men, and they have been feasting and dining him until I expect the poor boy is clear worn out." Grant would meet his mother’s expectations and visit her at the Corbin home in New Jersey on Christmas Eve that year.
Orvil, whose behavior had caused the family much distress leading to his institutionalization, passed away in 1881. Hannah had outlived three of her six children, but she remained positive, enjoying her remaining children and many grandchildren. Her oldest grandchild, Fred Grant, would remember his grandmother as “one of the most modest and unselfish of women.” During the next few years, Hannah would spend time with her widowed daughter, Virginia. (Mr. Corbin died in 1880) at the Methodist seaside retreat of Ocean Grove a short distance from a cottage U.S. Grant and family occupied in the summers at Long Branch, New Jersey. An aging Grant visited his mother there in a peaceful and quiet place that must have suited them both.
On May 11th, 1883 the day started as usual at the Corbin house on Pavonia Ave. in Jersey City, NJ. Like her son, she liked to stay active and so she woke up, read the paper and went about the house as usual. About noon she suffered sudden chest pains and passed away before the doctor could arrive. The news reached her son and he seemed deeply affected by the quick and unexpected passing of his mother. He arrived and helped his sister Mary arrange the funeral. Grant showed his true appreciation of his mother instructing her pastor to “Make such disposition of the services as in your judgment seems appropriate, but in the remarks which you make speak of her only as a pure-minded, simple-hearted, earnest, Methodist Christian; make no reference to me; she gained nothing by any position I have ﬁlled or honors that may have been paid me. I owe all this and all that I am to her earnest, modest, and sincere piety.”
At the funeral in the Corbin house Rev. John Newman spoke, a gesture that would be repeated two years later on Mt. McGregor for her son. The fitting hymn “How Firm a Foundation” was sung as mourners surrounded the casket covered in black velvet. Surely the foundation she had laid for her son contributed to his ultimate success and she always attributed her firm foundation to God.
Hannah’s burial wishes were similar to her son’s in that she wished to be buried beside her spouse. Jesse being buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Grant accompanied his mother’s remains to Ohio. Ulysses stood with his distraught sister Mary resting her head on his shoulder by the graveside of their mother as the hymn “How Blessed the Christian When he Dies” was sung. The ceremonies in New Jersey and Ohio had been private and simple by request of the deceased, a reflection of the life that she had led.
Hannah left her children and grandchildren an inheritance just as her son would do only two years later. Her most sincere desire was not simply for the health and financial well-being of her children and grandchildren, but for their spiritual well-being. As a devout Methodist she was pragmatic and not flattered by the “glories” of the physical world, but more concerned with eternity. Her husband went so far as to claim “the Methodist church… never had a more devoted and consistent member.” This focus on a God-centered life helps explain her reticence for public recognition and personal praise, as it was robbing Him of credit in her eyes. Although selfish pride was a sin, there was room to take a healthy pride in her children. She admired natural talents such as her daughter Mary’s talent as a painter, but it was virtues that she admired most. A family friend later recalled a remark by Hannah about her son’s generosity: “Ulysses would cheerfully give his last garment to a needy friend.”
Overall, most who knew them agreed that Grant had inherited the disposition of his mother. When you look at images of them you can certainly tell that Grant also inherited some physical features from his mother as well. Grant was shorter than his father and his eyes and nose more closely resemble his mothers’. When comparing mother to son, you can see the same thoughtful perceptiveness and silent determination in their eyes. Some even described Grant as having a maternal or womanly quality in his concern for others. Hannah has frequently been described in biographies of her son as emotionally distant and unaffectionate. While even her son would admit to a friend that “I never saw my mother cry”, having reserved emotions and being callous is not necessarily the same. Grant would exemplify this dichotomy in his own life, being shy and reserved with his emotions, but nonetheless deeply affectionate, generous, and caring. They were both capable of “deep feeling but not demonstrative.” Like mother, like son.
Mother’s Day gives us a moment to reflect on the role of mothers and how they influence and shape the lives of their children. Ulysses Grant never forgot the vital role his mother played in his life and today we can recognize and remember her contribution in molding a fine American who served his nation and family dutifully and honestly, just as his mother taught him.
“General Grant's mother went into a room at a certain hour of each day during the war to pray for her Ulysses. The future of America is in the hands of the mothers. In her office, the mother holds the key of the soul; she it is who stamps the coin of character and it is to her America is indebted for her great men.” -Madison C. Peters
(This post is dedicated to my mother for instilling virtues and values in me that have shaped my life and allowed me to be a positive influence on others.)
Ulysses S. Grant: conversations and unpublished letters by M. J. Cramer 1897
U.S. Grant Association Newsletters Vols. 7&8 1970-71
Grant by Ron Chernow
Under the Guns: A Woman's Reminiscences of the Civil War by Annie Wittenmyer 1895
Grant by Jean Edward Smith 2001
The General’s Wife by Ishbel Ross 1959
Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity by Brooks Simpson 2000
Captain Sam Grant by Lloyd Lewis 1950
General Grant’s Mother Omaha Daily Bee, May 17, 1883
General Grant’s Mother New York Graphic, September 16, 1879
Philadelphia Press, Dec. 19, 1879
Hannah Simpson Grant’s Influence on Ulysses S. Grant by Nick Sacco July 2, 2018
The Story of Ocean Grove by Morris Daniels 1919
Ulysses S. Grant: Politician by William B. Hesseltine 1935
The Inner Life of Ulysses S. Grant by John H. Vincent
American Ulysses by Ron White 2016
The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant 1975
P.U.S.G. Letter from U.S.G to Abel Corbin Dec. 13, 1876
Future of America in Hands of Mothers by Madison C. Peters Mexico Missouri Message., Nov. 04, 1915