On a recent visit to Galena, I stayed at the Desoto House, the oldest operating hotel in the state. The desk clerk assured me the staircase in the attractive lobby was the same one Presidents Grant and Lincoln had once ascended.
Abe wasn’t president when he stayed there in July 1856, but the speech he delivered from the balcony of the hotel on July 23 might have been a campaign speech for that office. He spoke on disunion and noted it would never be allowed by the Union. A local newspaper reported, “Hon. Abraham Lincoln hits the nail on the head every time, and in this instance he has driven it entirely out of sight.”
Grant hadn’t arrived in Galena when Abe made that speech; he had left the army and was in Missouri living on a farm that had been a wedding gift from his wife Julia Dent’s father. The farm was not a success and the future president supported his wife and four children by cutting and delivering firewood to people. When he met a former acquaintance he had known in the army, he related he was “solving the problem of poverty.”
It was May 1860 when Grant moved back to Galena and went to work for his father, Jesse, as a clerk in his hardware store at a salary of $600 per year. Jesse Grant was a successful businessman and owned a tannery and a number of retail stores.
Galena was one of the larger cities in Illinois in the 1850s, with a population of nearly 12,000. The lead mines had sparked the growth of the city. In the 1840s they supplied most of the nation’s needs for lead. The city was named for the lead bearing mineral, galena.
U. S. Grant’s career as a clerk in the hardware store was brief. Lincoln was elected president in November 1860, and the Civil War began the following spring. From Galena’s population, Grant and eight other men would become generals as a result of the Civil War. Some appointments would be made after the war was over, but Grant and others earned their stars during the conflict.