My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.
- first sentence of Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
"Man proposes and God disposes"
- Preface to Personal Memoirs; written by U.S. Grant, July 1, 1885
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 20, 1885 Ulysses S Grant laid down his pencil and quietly murmured that there was nothing more to do. It was his last campaign. Like his other great campaigns, Vicksburg (December 1862-July 1863) and the Overland (May 1864-April 1865) it had been long, arduous, marred by occasional setbacks but nonetheless achieving its goals and ending in triumph due to its commander's unflagging persistence. Grant's objective at the start of the campaign in the summer of 1884 had been to provide his family with financial stability after learning that the man he had trusted with his financial future was a con artist and had left he and his family financially ruined and being diagnosed with the terminal throat cancer that would slowly, and painfully, kill him the following year. The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant sold more copies than any non-fiction book in America during the 19th century other than the Bible, providing his family with financial security and continuously remaining in print for the past 130 years. It was a triumph dearly purchased as Grant died three days after its completion.
- U.S. Grant, handwritten note, July 1885
This post was originally going to focus on the contents of the memoirs with a little background on the writing of the book but instead THC's next post will be on the book itself. With the recent publication of Grant's Last Battle by Chris Mackowski, a brief (127 pages with plenty of photos), lively and touching account of the general's last year we'll first talk about that final campaign using Mackowski's book as a primary source and one THC highly recommends you read.
(Cover photo taken on day Grant completed his book)
After completing two terms as President in March 1877, Grant and his wife embarked on a world tour during which he was treated as a celebrity everywhere he visited. Settling in New York City upon his return he began efforts to support his family. At the time former Presidents did not receive a pension and the general had given up his military pension in order to become President. His efforts appeared to pay off through his partnership in an investment firm with young financial wizard Ferdinand Ward. Using Grant's name to raise funds and Ward's investment acumen the firm had great success and Grant and his family prospered. The problem was that while Grant was the "face" of the firm he had no financial acumen himself, having failed in every other business venture before the Civil War and prior to meeting Ward. Unfortunately, Ward was running a Ponzi scheme using funds from new investors to pay fabulous returns to older investors. Think of him as the Bernie Madoff of the 1880s.
It all blew up in early May 1884. Grant thought he was worth a million dollars; he was actually worth nothing and his adult children lost most of their net worth. This is how bad it was: in the days before the collapse of the firm, Grant had solicited a $150,000 investment from William Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius Vanderbilt and one of the wealthiest men in America. When news of the fraud spread, Vanderbilt offered to forgive the debt but Grant refused, offering instead the deed on his luxurious brownstone mansion in Manhattan. It was only at this point that Grant discovered that Ward, to whom he delegated the handling of his personal finances, had mortgaged the property! Ward eventually served six years in Sing Sing prison and became known as "the best- hated man in the United States".
Although Vanderbilt paid off the mortgage and tried to forgive the debt Grant adamantly refused as a matter of honor until Vanderbilt agreed to take Grant's memorabilia from his Presidency and world tour in payment. Once the agreement was reached, Vanderbilt promptly notified the Grant family that:
All articles of historical value and interest, shall at the General's death, or if you desire it, sooner, be presented to the government at Washington, where they will remain as perpetual memorials of his fame, and the history of his time.(Vanderbilt from wikipedia)
To survive the Grants sold their properties in Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia as well as the general's home in Galena, Illinois and his wife's family estate in Missouri.
What happened next showed the high regard many former soldiers and many citizens held for the general. Donations began to come in from the public, sometimes a dollar or five dollars, sometimes more. Mackowski tells of Charles Wood of Lansingburgh, New York who sent $500 with a note reading "My share due for services ending about April 1865". The contributions (he turned some substantial ones down) and reception he received from veterans everywhere overwhelmed Grant. Wood eventually sent another $1,000 and over Wood's protests Grant repaid it before his death with the proceeds from magazine articles he'd written. Wood donated Grant's payment to charity.
Before this crisis Grant rebuffed all proposals to write his memoirs. Now the situation was different and he began writing some articles for Century Magazine while commencing a longer narrative and beginning contract negotiations with the magazine's publisher. By the summer Grant was writing several hours a day, six days a week, assisted in the editing and organization of source documents by his eldest son and another aide.
While he wrote that summer, the general, who smoked twenty cigars daily, was increasingly nagged by a sore and sometimes very painful throat; swallowing water would sometimes "burn like fire". Finally, in late October he saw a doctor; the diagnosis was swift - advanced throat cancer, usually fatal. To the financial pressure to complete the memoir was added the element of time - could it be completed before Grant died?
(Twain from wikipedia)
On November 19, 1884 Grant and his son Fred were in the library of their home in New York City about to sign the contract with Century Magazine for the memoir. There was a third person in the room, Mark Twain, who had become a good friend of the general during the past few years. Twain, a publisher as well as author, had some acquaintance with the terms proposed by Century and asked Fred to read him the terms of the contract. After listening, Twain announced he would provide much better terms to publish the book. Grant resisted at first citing his long negotiations and that he did not want to be considered "a robber of a publisher" but at Fred's urging he decided not to sign the Century contract and consider a proposal from Twain. Although the contract with Twain was not signed until February 1885 it was so much more favorable financially to Grant that it would eventually provide more than ten times the amount the family would have received from Century.
Even then, Grant refused the $50,000 advance offered by Twain, accepting only a $1,000 signing bonus prompting Twain to write:
It was a shameful thing that man who had saved his country and its government from destruction should still be in a position where so small a sum - $1,000 - could be looked upon as a godsend.The accumulated weight of the financial pressure (and even more so the personal embarrassment of the fraud itself) along with the cancer diagnosis took its toll and by early December, Grant was in a state of depression and doing little writing. One of his aides wrote of watching him sit silently in his chair for hours that "It was like a man gazing into his open grave". But as always before, Grant began to pull himself together as he grimly determined to complete his task.
His spirits were boosted by a visit at Christmastime by his great friend William Tecumseh Sherman. The close bond they established during the war had last into peacetime. As Sherman remarked:
Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.As the new year dawned, the general was in increasing pain but was back writing feverishly, sometimes up to 10,000 words a day. It now seemed the book would be completed and Twain was astonished at the quality of the writing, remarking that very few sentences required editing in any way.
Another demonstration of respect for Grant came from the U.S. Congress, probably encouraged by news of the generak's cancer finally reaching the public at the beginning of March, which triggered another avalanche of public attention and letters to the Grant family. As far back as 1881, former Confederate General Joseph E Johnston, now a congressman, introduced a bill to restore Grant's military pension ($20,000 a year, a huge sum in those days) which had failed. Now in the waning hours of the Congressional session and just before the inauguration of President Grover Cleveland another bipartisan effort was being made. In the rush of business it was difficult but on March 2 the House passed the bill and on March 3, after a Senate clerk moved the clock back twenty minutes, the Senate passed the bill just before official adjournment at noon and after his delayed inauguration which had been scheduled for noon President Cleveland signed it as one of the first acts of his administration.
Among those leading the effort was another former Confederate General, Raleigh Colston who wrote Grant that he would:
be gratified to know that those whom he treated generously in the day of their sorrow remember him gratefully in his hour of tribulation.Grant suffered a medical crisis in late March which reporters were told he might not survive but once again he bounced back.
On June 16 in order to escape the summer heat in New York City he and his family took a train north, eventually arriving at a cottage on Mt McGregor, recently purchased by the industrialist Joseph Drexel who offered it to the family, about nine miles from Saratoga, New York at the southern end of the Adirondacks. Before leaving, there was one last tribute. On May 30 the route of New York's Decoration Day parade was diverted to pass Grant's house on East 66th Street. As the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic neared, Grant pulled himself up from his chair and slowly moved to the window. Mackowski writes of that moment:
Grant "slowly and painfully" raised his hand in salute. A hush fell over the crowed. The army passed. Grant watched them go, knowing he was soon leaving them.By the time he reached the cottage, the general's voice was gone and in the remaining weeks he was reduced to speaking in a soft whisper. That is when he began communicating by note, including the quote used in the opening of this post. In those weeks he was doing some final writing (including the preface, the start of which is quoted above) and reviewing and editing galley proofs. One of his notes regarding the revisions reads:
I have been writing up my views of some of our generals, and of the character of Lincoln & Stanton. I do not place Stanton as high as some people do. Mr Lincoln cannot be extolled too highly.(Grant cottage, from aboutfamouspeople)
As news spread of Grant's new residence visitors began to swarm the area. Sam Willett, an Army of the Potomac veteran, who had enlisted in 1863 at the age of 45 and who lived in Albany, appointed himself guard for the Grant's and with their approval set up an old army tent near the cottage, put on his old uniform kept the tourists moving along. Grant's grandchildren often played in his tent.
Willett from thehuntforhenrietta)
But many visitors did make it in to see Grant. Twain was there in late June and reported "The old soldier battling with a deadly disease yet bravely completing his tasks, was a figure at once so pathetic and so noble . . . "
Another visitor was Simon Bolivar Buckner an old army friend who, when Grant left the army in 1854 loaned him the money to return to Illinois. In 1862 they found themselves on opposite sides when Buckner accepted Grant's terms of unconditional surrender at Ft Donelson. Grant gave Buckner money to help him during his time as prisoner.
On July 9 it was the turn of Charles Wood, who made the large donations to Grant in 1884. According to Warren F Broderick's article "I owe you this for Appomattox": U.S. Grant's Mystery Visitor at Mount McGregor, Wood was a brush factory owner who did not serve in the Civil War but had two brothers who had, one of them dying in the war. Wood lunched with the Grant family and the general gave him several notes reading:
I am very sorry that I am unable to converse even in a whisper. I am reclining in bed as long as it rests me this morning, because yesterday I had a very trying day. My worst hours, most painful ones, are from 4 to 7 in the afternoon. Yesterday we had a number of particular friends call and stay through those hours. I had to converse incessantly with my pencil.It is hard even at this distance to read of Grant's pain and suffering in his last months but it makes his determination all the more remarkable and the quality of his writing astonishing. His self-effacement lasted until the end. As he lay dying in his bed underneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging above him one of his last whispered remarks was "I don't want anybody to feel distressed on my account".
About the close the Mexican editors called in a body and delivered a speech in Spanish that had to be translated and spoken in English. I replied. My speech was read in English, then translated and spoken in Spanish. Then there was a second speech and reply. By this time I was nearly exhausted. I am badly off this minute, because the doctor has been dressing my mouth, and that is always painful.
I feel very thankful for the kindness you did me last summer. I am glad to say that while there is much unblushing wickedness in the world there is a compensating grandeur of soul. In my case, I have not found republics are ungrateful, nor are the people.
Grant's funeral procession on August 8 in New York City was witnessed by more than one million people. There were 60,000 participants in the march, the New York Times reporting:
As far as the eye could measure the avenue were massed the regiments in their brilliant uniforms their guns glistening in the sun, their colors draped, and their slow steps keeping time to the music of many dirges for the dead.(funeral process from pbs)
President Cleveland placed one of Grant's favorite corps commanders, Winfield Scott Hancock in charge of the proceedings. Among the honorary pallbearers were two Confederate generals, Simon Buckner and Joseph E Johnston.
Joseph Drexel offered the Mt McGregor cottage to the Federal government which refused it. He then turned to the veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic which raised funds and kept it open until it became a New York state park.
The first volume of Grant's Memoirs, covering his life from childhood through the Vicksburg campaign, came out on December 1, 1885 and the second volume on May 10, 1886.