In April of 1852 Lt. Ulysses S. Grant and eight companies of the 4th Infantry Regiment assembled with their families on Governors Island in New York Harbor. Passage to Panama was secured at the last minute on the SS Ohio, a steamship of the U.S. Mail Steamship Co. and the ship left port on July 5th. Arrangements were also made for the regiment, its equipment, supplies and dependents to cross the isthmus and board a Pacific Mail Steamship to California. From the outset things went wrong. The Ohio already had booked a large number of passengers and the addition of the 700 persons of the 4th overcrowded her and proved increasingly uncomfortable in the summer heat and worsened in the tropics.
After eight days the Ohio arrived in the port of Aspinwall, founded in 1850 as the starting point for the Panama Railway. Here rain would pour down so hard that streets were under eight to ten inches of water. People went from place to place on raised wooden walkways. Then a blazing sun would appear. This alternating pattern of rain and sun happened a number of times each day. From the town the soldiers took the yet unfinished Panama railroad as far as the Chagres River. They were ferried upriver in boats that held 30-40 people. Six natives would put one end of a long pole against the river bottom and walk toward the stern along a plank at the edge of the craft thus pushing the boat upstream at about one mile an hour. It was slow progress to the jungle village of Gorgona where the regiment would disembark and take mules and horses overland to the town of Panama on the Pacific coast..
But they soon found that the promises of transportation made in New York could not be met. The large number of passengers on the Ohio overtaxed the capacity of the Panamanians to provide the needed mounts. While there were enough animals for most of the soldiers there were none for the supplies and equipment. Lt. Grant, with one company of troops, soldiers with families, tents, mess camp kettles and other gear, was sent to Cruces, a town a few miles farther up the Chagres River, to work out a solution. But in Cruces there were still no horses or mules and for days none appeared. Then cholera broke out. Men died by the hour. Grant was forced to find animals from the locals at more than double the original price. A third of those with him in Cruces died. In Panama City the steamship Captain refused to sail until the threat of cholera was gone. The regiment was delayed a total of six weeks and lost around one-seventh of those who had sailed with them. Finally, in early September, the 4th Infantry Regiment arrived in San Francisco.
Arriving at last in San Francisco after an arduous and deadly trek across Panama, Ulysses S. Grant spent several days in the city where he observed the steamships that arrived every afternoon from Sacramento or Stockton filled with miners, gold in their pockets, looking for a good time. The waterfront teemed with men of good character and glib tongues who were more than willing to show these miners the places to go for that good time in return for drinks and a meal. California could be a shock for someone who had spent his savings to cross the continent by wagon or paid even more for a steamer to Panama and a second steamer here. Whatever money was left was quickly eroded by prices many times higher than in the east. Often men were forced to find work before theyd ever had a chance to dip a gold pan in a cold mountain stream.
Grants unit was soon moved to the Benicia Barracks along the Carquinez straight between San Pablo Bay, the large bay just north of San Francisco Bay, and the Suisun Bay, into which flowed both major rivers of gold rush transportation, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin. Established in 1847 as a home for the 2nd Infantry and the 3rd Artillery Regiments the area now held the first supply depot in the west and had recently been renamed the Benicia Arsenal. It remained in operation until the 1960s.
From Benicia Grant was shipped north to the Columbia Barracks next to the Hudson Bay Companys Fort Vancouver along the Columbia River in the Oregon Territory. The fort had been built in 1824 by the fur trading company as its western outpost and was linked by a chain of forts across Canada all the way to the headquarters at York Factory along the Hudson Bay. Here Grant noted how vulnerable the local tribes were to measles and small pox, treating themselves in traditional fashion by a hot sweat bath in a specially made lodge followed by a dip in ice cold water. Invariably those stricken quickly died. But when a doctor at the fort set up a special hospital for them and treated their illness in a more scientific manner almost every one recovered.
In July 1853 Lt. Grant was promoted to Captain and placed in charge of a company headquartered at Humboldt Bay. It was here, in the northwest of California that the logging operations that supplied the massive building going on in San Francisco and other Gold Rush towns was undertaken. The towering redwood trees were felled, sawn into planks and shipped south on a number of lumber schooners, but in order for Grant to get there he had to sail first to San Francisco then take one of those schooners north to his new command. While in San Francisco again he notes in his journal the large number of eating, drinking and gambling houses located along the waterfront, now mostly abandoned piers in areas that may have been partly filled in with sand from the nearby dunes. Grant points out that there are places where the walks are broken and a man with perhaps too much to drink might fall through and drown without anyone the wiser for it. Whatever happened to Grant during this stay in the city we may never know, but not long after his arrival at Humboldt Bay he resigned his commission rather than face trial for what was likely an alcohol related offense. He soon returned to the east.
Posted 18 June 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.