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Graduation Day: Ulysses S. Grant and the West Point Class of 1843

rolling green hills with U.S. flag and stone monument in foreground.
Painting of West Point by George Catlin, circa 1827

U.S. Army

Graduation is a time-honored tradition: a chance to celebrate important educational accomplishments and to reflect on the memories and friendships made throughout years of hard work. Way back in June 1843, twenty-one-year-old Ulysses S. Grant graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and entered the "real world" as an officer in the United States Army. Of those who survived the rigorous four years at West Point in the class of 1843, Grant graduated 21st out of 39 cadets. Although he aspired to a position in the cavalry, his class ranking destined him for service in the infantry instead. Upon graduation, Grant began this new chapter of his life with the 4th U.S. Infantry at Jefferson Barracks, a military post in St. Louis, Missouri.

Long before he was the famous General who won the Civil War, Grant was known in the army as a brilliant horseman. Before his class undertook its graduation ceremonies, Grant was offered the chance to show his riding skills to the Corps of Cadets as well as spectators during the graduation proceedings. One cadet remarked, "it was as good as any circus to see Grant ride." During that day's graduation exercises Grant mounted York, a horse many in his class wouldn't dare ride. Grant showed no signs of fear and was not intimidated. As his classmates, dignitaries, and spectators looked on, the riding master Sergeant Herschberger "strode to the jumping bar, lifted it higher than his head, fixed in place, then facing the class barked, ‘Cadet Grant!’"

A new student at the Academy, James B. Fry (who later became a Union general too) described a slender little cadet dash from the ranks on a big sorrel, wheeling and galloping down toward the far end of the hall. He described Grant as he "turned York, and then the two of them came thundering down toward the bar, faster, faster-then into the air and over." In Fry's words, "it seemed as if man and beast had been welded together." After the crowd saw this feat of horsemanship, all Sergeant Herschberger could say was "well done sir, class dismissed." Ulysses S. Grant began his career as an officer in the U.S. Army on that note. According to early Grant Biographer Albert D. Richardson, the height of Grant’s jump was a record that stood at West Point for twenty-five years. By that time Grant would be known for much more than horsemanship.

Grant reflected on his graduation from West Point later in life during his presidency. Grant wrote in 1871 that he would "hail the day he left public office as the happiest of my life, except possibly the day I left West Point, a place I felt I had been at always and that my stay had no end." Of the thirty-nine West Point cadets who graduated in 1843, four died in the Mexican-American War. Fifteen became Union Generals during the Civil War and three served as Confederate Generals during the war. Ironically, all three Confederate Generals from the class of 1843 were from northern states. Nevertheless, Ulysses S. Grant and his classmates could have never anticipated their future roles in shaping American history the day they graduated from West Point.

Last updated: May 31, 2020