Very few people today would recognize the name, “Thomas Lyon Hamer” due to the mere whim of fate. His name should be in all U.S. History textbooks. He should be famous. Brown County, Ohio should have statues and plaques dedicated to him. He even resides eternally in the old cemetery in Georgetown, Ohio; few even here know anything about the man. Some of his descendants still live in the area. Hamer Road in Georgetown is named for him, as is Hamersville, just east of Georgetown. Why could someone who was so important at both the state and national level in the mid 1800’s be so unknown today?
Thomas Lyon Hamer was born in July of 1800, in Northumberland,Pennsylvania. His family moved to Ohio in 1817. Hamer, just 17 years old, then struck out on his own. In what is now Clermont County, Ohio, he began working as a teacher at subscription schools….what could best be explained as tiny private colleges, in modern parlance. While teaching in Bethel, Ohio, Hamer lived with Thomas Morris, an important abolitionist lawyer (and later U.S. Senator). Hamer studied under Morris, became an attorney, and moved to Georgetown, Ohio, the new county seat of Brown County, Ohio. In 1821, he would soon meet another recent arrival to Georgetown: Jesse Root Grant (father of Hiram Ulysses Grant, who would lead the Union Armies to victory in the Civil War and become the 18th President of the United States). Hamer and the elder Grant would become good friends and travel in the same social circles. Hamer had serious political ambitions, as an Andrew Jackson Democrat. At the age of 25, he was elected to the Ohio Legislature. At the age of 29, he was unanimously elected to be the Speaker of the Ohio House. He then proceeded to get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He did well, if unassuming service there, but made one enemy: Jesse Root Grant. Jesse took exception to Hamer supporting most of President Andrew Jackson’s fiscal policies and very loudly renounced his friendship with Hamer. The elder Grant would eventually rue his temper getting the better of him. A few years later, Bart Bailey, whose family lived just up the street from the Grants, flunked out of West Point. Jesse was no fool; this provided an opportunity for him to get a FREE college education for his oldest son, Hiram Ulysses Grant, who was a year younger than Bart Bailey. The only problem was that he had to go through FORMER friend, and Congressman, Thomas Lyon Hamer. Jesse finally swallowed his pride, and wrote to Hamer, who quickly agreed to make the appointment, patching up the friendship.
There was just one problem: if Hamer had ever known the younger Grant’s full name, he had forgotten it over the years in which the two families had not spoken. Jesse’s oldest son was actually named Hiram Ulysses Grant. Hamer thought his name must be Ulysses Simpson Grant, and made the appointment, as such. Thus, Hamer CREATED the legendary propaganda initials of U.S. or “Unconditional Surrender’ Grant. These would be perfect for a Union general who could actually win battles during the U.S. Civil War. Thus, Hamer literally made the famous “ U.S. Grant!”
But what of Hamer, himself? When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Hamer quickly volunteered for service as a private in the 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Within a month, he had been promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers, by his old Congressional friend, James Polk, now President of the United States. At the Battle of Monterrey in September of 1846, Hamer commanded the 3rd division of the U.S Army. His forces were the first to break into the fortified Mexican city, and first to raise the Stars and Stripes there. That flag had been given to him by the citizens of Brown County, Ohio and was the FIRST U.S. flag to fly over Mexican territory in the entire war. That flag, while badly worn with age, still resides in Georgetown, Ohio.
Hamer was reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives while off fighting in Mexico. Sadly, he died of yellow fever, while the army was resting and refitting outside Monterrey, on December 2, 1846. After a military funeral and burial in Mexico, his body was ultimately returned to Georgetown, and a massive funeral was held for him in February of 1847. Hamer’s accidental creation, U.S. Grant, would later write in his 1885 memoirs, that Hamer would have likely become President of the United States, in 1852, if he had lived. My own research, for my pending book on Hamer, agrees. Fate is fickle…and it drastically changed U.S. history.
-Lonnie Griffith, History Instructor