Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The heroism of Ulysses Grant

Grant's Final Victory, Charles Bracelen Flood

Ulysses Grant has become something of a hero of mine, second only to Abraham Lincoln.  Not because of his presidency, which is generally considered one of the worst in American history, with the corruption that was so rampant in the Gilded Age.  A man of honor, Grant himself had no part in the corruption, but it was his administration and ultimately his responsibility.  Yet whatever the failings of his presidency, it was his part in winning the Civil War and preserving the Union that made him a hero, his military genius a perfect match for Lincoln's political genius.  Grant understood his duty as a soldier: to prosecute the war to the best of his abilities, under the direction of the Commander in Chief.  Unlike Lincoln's other generals, he didn't spend time complaining, shirking, or bragging.  He just got the job done.  In the middle of the war, when rumors began to circulate that Grant was drinking heavily, Lincoln reportedly said, "I can't spare this man. He fights."  To Lincoln's great relief, Grant also repeatedly refused to meddle in politics, rejecting any suggestion that he run for president in 1864 to replace the increasingly unpopular incumbent.

Earlier this year, I read Grant's Personal Memoirs, an account of his life up to the end of the Civil War.  I knew something of the background of the book, which was completed only days before his death in 1885.  In Grant's Final Victory, Charles Bracelen Flood tells the dramatic story of how the Memoirs came to be written, and by the end of his book I had an even greater admiration for Ulysses Grant.

In 1884, Grant and his son Ulysses Junior were partners in the New York investment bank of Grant and Ward.  The senior Grant, who understood little about banking, contributed mainly the prestige of his name.  This lack of knowledge would cost him deeply, both in money and reputation, when it was discovered that the firm's other partners were running what was basically a Ponzi scheme.  The firm crashed in early May, and the Grant family lost everything.  There was no pension for former presidents in those days, and Grant had no source of income.  Influential friends like William Vanderbilt began trying to raise funds, and ordinary people sent contributions, but Grant's pride made him unwilling to accept charity.

At this opportune moment came an offer from the Century Magazine for a series of articles on his war-time experiences.  To his surprise, Grant found that he enjoyed writing, and that he had a gift for clear, concise prose.  Writing could be a source of income, and a distraction from his difficult situation.  Even more than his financial worries, Grant's health had become a concern, with continuous pain in his mouth and throat.  In October of 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and tongue. Realizing he was facing death, Grant decided to write his memoirs, hoping to make enough money from them to repay his debts and leave his wife, Julia, in comfort.

He was considering a contract with the Century Magazine publishers when Mark Twain came to visit him.  Twain, who had briefly served in a Confederate militia unit before deserting, had a great admiration for Grant.  Already a popular writer, Twain had recently established his own publishing firm to put out his books.  When he heard the terms that the magazine was offering Grant, Twain found them almost insulting.  He knew the book would be a best-seller, and he wanted it for his own house, but he also wanted Grant to have the best terms possible.  He eventually talked Grant into signing with him, on generous terms.  At the time, he did not know about Grant's illness.  When he learned of it, he did not withdraw his offer, though there was some doubt that Grant would live long enough to finish the manuscript.  Twain's confidence was more than repaid when he read the first sections of the manuscript and knew it would be a masterpiece.

As his illness progressed, Grant was now in a race with death.  With the same courage and iron will he had shown during the war, he worked on, at times refusing medications that might cloud his mind.  Eating and drinking were so painful that he frequently went without even water, which weakened him.  Often unable to speak, he was reduced to writing notes, some deeply revealing: "The fact is that I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is any thing that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three."

On July 20th, Ulysses Grant put down his pencil; his book was finished.  That afternoon, his condition suddenly worsened, and three days later he died.  His state funeral in New York drew more than a million people, with both Union and Confederate generals serving as honorary pallbearers.  Royalties from his book eventually brought Julia Grant over half a million dollars, and the Memoirs are still in print.

This a compelling story, and Charles Bracelen Flood tells it well.  In the sections that cover Grant's writing of the Memoirs, he weaves in anecdotes from Grant's past, including a description of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, so the reader learns something of Grant's life.  I greatly enjoyed Charles Bracelen Flood's earlier book about Grant, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, as well as his 1864  Lincoln at the Gates of History.  I have also read Julia Dent Grant's memoirs, which she began writing two years after her husband's death, but which were only published until 1975.  They are of course very different from her husband's.  For one thing, she writes about their life after the war, including his terms as president, and describes a world tour they took in 1877 when they were treated like royalty everywhere they went.


  1. The Grant memoir was available as a free download, and I read the first bit a few months ago and then got distracted. It has a great reputation, and your comments here make me want to try again.

  2. It was a challenging read, but in the end a very rewarding one. His "Conclusion" is a moving meditation on what America has been, and can be. I do wish, though, that I'd had an atlas with me as I read, to better follow the battles.

  3. I'm sad to say that I don't know very much about Grant, but he sounds like a fascinating man. I think it is admirable that he persevered in the face of death to finish his book and to leave his wife debt-free. I'd like to learn more about his life.

  4. One review said that Grant only succeeded at two things in his life, saving the country and writing this book - though I'd add being a loving husband and father. This book might be a good introduction, because it gives an overview of his life through the writing of the Memoirs. Or there are Julia's memoirs, which are quirky and charming.

  5. Grant's second term as President was marred by corruption--which had nothing to do with him. He was perhaps naive--but always personally honest.

    However, current scholarship does not find his Presidency a failure. He pursued Reconstruction & tried to ensure rights for former slaves. For which Southern-leaning historians sought to blacken his record. The losers wrote some of the history of that War & they preferred that gentlemanly traitor, Bobby Lee....


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!