One of my favorite discoveries came toward the end of my journey. I had long known that young Cadet Ulysses S. Grant’s personal account book was housed at the Huntington Library, not far from where I lived. I confidently called the library and excitedly inquired about seeing it, but I was informed that because I did not have a PhD, I would not be allowed to see it. This was the first time this ever happened to me! It occurred to me that Ulysses S. Grant would not have been allowed to see his own account book! And neither would his wife, Julia. However, the whole experience turned out to be beautiful, after all.
It took six months of waiting, but I obtained permission to purchase a microfilm of Cadet Grant’s account book. The big day arrived, and my whole family went to the Glendale Public Library to view the microfilm on one of their machines.
Well, it turned out to be more special than I had imagined, for there on his list of personal items purchased in his first year at West Point, was a pair of dancing shoes!
Ulysses S. Grant was known all his life for not being able to dance. On the dance floor, he was referred to as the “clumsy General Grant,” which only endeared him to me all the more.
His friends at West Point said they never remembered seeing him at a dance, or even saw him in anybody’s house! Yet, he had the desire to meet girls at the “cotillions” held at West Point for such purposes.
There is also an entry for a “cotillion ball” and a “dancing master,” but these only appear once, during his first year at West Point. He must have given up, and yielded the dance floor to his more gallant Southern comrades.
Young Cadet Grant wrote to his cousin, McKinstry Griffith, that “I have now been here about four months and have not seen a single familier face or spoken to a single lady. I wish some of the pretty girles of Bethel were here just so I might look at them.” (Bethel is a small village near his hometown, in Georgetown, Ohio.)
This shows that the young man from Ohio yearned wistfully for romance, not knowing that his own romance would be the most heart-rending and world-altering love story in American history.
I cherished my discovery of his dancing shoes, especially because I had never seen them mentioned in any of the more than hundred books I had read. I felt it was a tender secret, waiting there for me, which spoke to me of his fragile hopes and dreams, and gave me a sweet new insight into his heart.
THE GENERAL'S DANCING SHOES