Friday, March 22, 2013

Around the world with General Grant

Around the World with General Grant, John Russell Young. Michael Fellman, editor.

Ulysses Grant's second term as President of the United States ended in March of 1877.  He couldn't return to his most successful job, in the Army, and there was no clear role for ex-presidents to play (which is true today).  Though he thought of running again for a third term, it was much too soon to start campaigning (which I wish were true today).  Grant and his wife Julia decided it was the perfect time to travel.  Three months later, they sailed from Philadelphia on the U.S. warship Indiana.  Travelling with them was their youngest son Jesse and a party of friends that included John Russell Young, a correspondent for the New York Herald.

The Grants set out to tour Great Britain and Europe, but they had no definite plans, and in the end they just kept going.  Over the next two and a half years, they circumnavigated the globe.  Their travels took them to Scandinavia, Egypt, Palestine, Russia, India, Burma, Singapore, Vietnam, China, and Japan, before they finally headed home, sailing east across the Pacific to California.  John Russell Young traveled with them for most of the tour.  He filed some stories with his paper during that time, which he later collected and expanded into a two-volume work, published in 1879, a year after the Grants and their party returned home.  The edition I read is a one-volume abridgement from the Johns Hopkins University Press, edited by Michael Fellman, a professor of history at Simon Fraser University.

The original two-volume edition is available through Google Books, and I may download it someday.  I'm curious about what was cut, and why, in abridging and editing.  Professor Fellman doesn't discuss this in his notes, which seems a strange omission, particularly in a work from a university press.  I'd like to know what criteria were used.  Based on what is included, I suspect a lot of descriptions of scenery got cut, but also observations on the people, individuals and societies, that the Grant party met.  Without knowing how the original was abridged and why, I prefer to see it for myself, even if it turns out to be as dense as Anthony Trollope's two-volume North America.

Abridgements aside, I found this book very interesting and informative.  As I've mentioned before, I enjoy travelogues, particularly from the 19th century, though this incredible tour is in a class of its own, at least among Americans.   In its pomp and circumstance, and in its sometimes leisurely pace, it reminded me of Emily Eden's Up the Country.  I had already read Julia Grant's account of the trip in her autobiography, and Young provided an interesting contrast.  At times I was also reminded of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, which coincidentally General Grant read while traveling.  But the similarities are in the American expectations and reactions rather than in the humor, which can't match Twain's. Young seemed to have the ex-President's dignity constantly in mind.

Grant is pretty consistently ranked among the worst of American presidents, and even  some of his staunchest friends were relieved when his term of office ended.  But whatever the disappointments of his presidency at home, he was given a hero's welcome wherever he traveled, honored both as the great victorious Union general and as the former president.  For many of the countries, he was the first American president ever to visit.  Everywhere he went, people packed the streets, organized massive receptions, built arches of flags and flowers to display his picture, sent him addresses and gifts of all kinds.  They also organized military reviews for the General, which was the one thing he avoided whenever he could.  He and his party were the guests of Queen Victoria at Windsor and the Emperor of Japan in Tokyo.  (The accommodations and transportation offered by the U.S. government and their hosts around the world made this trip possible for the Grants, who were far from rich.)   The General played billiards with the Maharajah of Jeypore, whose polite determination to lose to his distinguished guest was defeated by Grant's poor skill with a cue.  There were long conversations with Otto von Bismarck and a private audience with the newly-elected Pope Leo XIII (Young assured his readers that the visit had nothing of a "religious character"; Grant was in no danger of conversion).

It was fascinating to read of the honors Grant received, and impossible not to feel a twinge of envy.  I did not know, for example, that when a VIP visited Pompeii, the officials would excavate one of the sites in his or her honor.  Union Generals William Sherman and Philip Sheridan, who had already visited, had their sites, and of course their commanding officer must have his as well.  Unfortunately, the "Grant house" yielded nothing more exciting than "two or three brass ornaments, [and] a loaf of bread..."  When the Grants traveled by boat up the Nile, their personal tour guide was the renowned Egyptologist Emile Brugsch (Radcliffe Emerson would have had something severe to say about the access he gave them to various sites).  In Athens, the Parthenon and the entire Acropolis were illuminated in Grant's honor, for a private night-time visit.

For me, the real fascination of the book came in the second half, as the Grants sailed east from India.  There are more descriptions of the Asian than the European countries.  And on the long boat trips, Grant talked over his Civil War experiences in great detail.  In the conversations Young recorded, he analyzed his fellow generals, fought over the campaigns of Shiloh and Vicksburg, and told the story of Lee's final defeat and surrender at Appomattox.  As Professor Fellman notes, Grant was "discursive and casual," not to mention "candid and even salty."  It's an interesting contrast to the more formal tone of his classic Personal Memoirs, published shortly after his death in 1885.

While he was dismissive of Robert E. Lee and George McClellan, General Grant had a great admiration and respect for Abraham Lincoln.  The Grants were scheduled to go to Ford's Theater with the Lincolns on April 14th, but they made their excuses after an unpleasantness with Mary Lincoln.   The Lincolns took a carriage ride together than afternoon, during which Lincoln spoke about his plans after his second term ended in 1868.  He wanted to travel to Europe with their sons, and he hoped to visit Jerusalem, hopes that were of course ended that night.  Perhaps only a visit from Abraham Lincoln could have outshone Ulysses Grant's.  But in the end, whatever his popularity abroad, Grant couldn't win the nomination for another term.


  1. I wouldn't have thought that this was something I wanted to read, but your review makes me think otherwise. It sounds so fascinating and surprisingly funny! Grant's visit to Egypt does seem like something from an Amelia Peabody book, with hilarious results.

  2. I can't read about anyone taking a dahabiyah up the Nile without picturing Amelia & Emerson!

  3. Not the sort of thing I would normally read but it does sound interesting so maybe one day I might pick it up.

  4. You read the most interesting books, Lisa! What an amazing trip this must have been and a great way to stay busy after leaving the presidency. Was there any concern about Grant's security while on the trip?

  5. Cat, unfortunately they had to give up plans to visit Australia & New Zealand after the US Navy ship that was supposed to take them was delayed too long.

    Anbolyn, I hadn't thought of security! There was always a company of local soldiers, and usually some of the crew from whatever ship they were traveling on, but I think they were more a guard of honor than security - and also crowd control, I guess. Certainly nothing like you see today - not even Secret Service back then.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!