The son of an Appalachian Ohio tanner, Grant entered the United States Military Academy at age 17. In 1846, three years after graduating, Grant served as a lieutenant in the Mexican–American War under Winfield Scott and future president Zachary Taylor. After the Mexican-American War concluded in 1848, Grant remained in the Army, but abruptly resigned in 1854. Struggling through the coming years as a real estate agent, a laborer, and a county engineer, Grant decided to join the Northern effort in the Civil War.
Appointed brigadier general of volunteers in 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln, Grant claimed the first major Union victories of the war in 1862, capturing Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. He was surprised by a Confederate attack at the Battle of Shiloh, and although he emerged victorious, the severe casualties prompted a public outcry that could have resulted in driving him from the army. Subsequently, however, Grant's 1863 victory at Vicksburg, following a long campaign with many initial setbacks, and his rescue of the besieged Union army at Chattanooga, established his reputation as Lincoln's most aggressive and successful general. Named lieutenant general and general-in-chief of the Army in 1864, Grant implemented a coordinated strategy of simultaneous attacks aimed at destroying the South's armies and its economy's ability to sustain its forces. In 1865, after mounting a successful war of attrition against his Confederate opponents, he accepted the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House.
Popular due to the Union victory in the Civil War, Grant was elected President of the United States as a Republican in 1868 and was re-elected in 1872, the first President to serve for two full terms since Andrew Jackson forty years before. As President, Grant led Reconstruction and built a powerful patronage-based Republican Party in the South, straining relations between the North and former Confederates. His administration was marred by scandal, sometimes the product of nepotism, and the neologism Grantism was coined to describe political corruption.
Grant left office in 1877 and embarked upon a two-year world tour. Unsuccessful in winning the nomination for a third term in 1880, left destitute by bad investments, and near the brink of death, Grant wrote his Memoirs, which were enormously successful among veterans, the public, and the critics. However, in 1884, Grant learned that he was suffering from terminal throat cancer and two days after completing his writing, Grant died at the age of 63. Presidential historians typically rank Grant in the lowest quartile of U.S. presidents for his tolerance of corruption, but in recent years his reputation has improved among some scholars impressed by his support for civil rights for African Americans.
'"I have long since believed that in spite of all the vigilance that can be infused into post commanders, the special regulations of the Treasury Department have been violated, and that mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders. So well satisfied have I been of this that I instructed the commanding officers at Columbus to refuse all permits to Jews to come South, and I have frequently had them expelled from the department, but they come in with their carpet-sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it. The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel anywhere. They will land at any woodyard on the river and make their way through the country. If not permitted to buy cotton themselves, they will act as agents for someone else, who will be at military post with a Treasury permit to receive cotton and pay for it in Treasury notes which the Jew will buy up at an agreed rate, paying gold." -- Letter to C. P. Wolcott, Assistant Secretary of War, Washington, December 17, 1862.