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When Grant learned to be brave
By realizing the enemy was as scared as he was
Ulysses Grant had to learn how to be brave. He wasn't born brave, as far as he could tell. Nor did he acquire bravery growing up in Ohio in the third and fourth decades of the 19th century. Bravery wasn't what took him to West Point for his education; rather, his father was looking for a way to get him out of the house and heard that one of Ohio's appointments to the military academy was going begging.
West Point didn't teach him bravery, and neither did it teach him that frequent substitute for bravery: implicit obedience to orders. Grant distinguished himself neither in the classroom nor on the drill field. He performed indifferently in most aspects of the cadet's life except horsemanship, at which he excelled.
In its bureaucratic wisdom, the army assigned this natural horseman to the infantry. His first action came in the war against Mexico. He later recalled his emotions on approaching battle: "A young second lieutenant who had never heard a hostile gun before, I felt sorry that I had enlisted. A great many men, when they smell battle afar off, chafe to get into the fray. When they say so themselves, they generally fail to convince their hearers that they are as anxious as they would like to make believe, and as they approach danger they become more subdued. This rule is not universal, for I have known a few men who were always aching for a fight when there was no enemy near, who were as good as their word when the battle did come. But the number of such men is small." Grant did not count himself in that small number–not at that time. Nevertheless he did his duty honorably and well.
The change in Grant came at the beginning of his second war, the Civil War. He was given a colonel’s command in Missouri and was assigned to track down a hostile force under a man named Harris. Intelligence indicated that Harris and his troops were over a ridge and in the valley beyond. "My sensations as we approached what I supposed might be a field of battle where anything but agreeable," Grant remembered. "I had been in all the engagements in Mexico that it was possible for one person to be in, but not in command. If someone else had been colonel and I had been lieutenant colonel, I do not think I would have felt any trepidation.
"The hills on either side of the creek extend to a considerable height, possibly more than a hundred feet. As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see Harris's camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois”–where he had been living before the war–“but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on."
Grant crested the hill and looked down into the valley beyond. He saw where Harris and his troops had been, by the remains of their campground. But they themselves were nowhere in sight.
"My heart resumed its place,” Grant said. “It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his.”