The memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant have long been considered the best ever written by a former military leader or president. Completed mere days before his death in 1885, they were an instant bestseller when Mark Twain published them and are still in print today — more than 150 years after the Civil War began. However, while Grant's war experiences are well known, few know the story behind the book itself.
In “Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Last Year” (Da Capo Press, $17.95), Charles Bracelen Flood explains how Grant's memoirs was the last effort of a dying man to support his family. Shortly after losing all of his wealth in a terrible 1884 scam, Grant learned he had terminal cancer and began to write his memoirs to save his family from permanent financial ruin. As Grant continued his work, suffering increasing pain, the American public became aware of this race between Grant’s writing and his fatal illness.
“I was fascinated by how little had been written about the last year,” said Flood. “In a 14-month period, he first lost all his money in a Wall Street swindle. As he began to write his memoirs in an effort to make some money, he was diagnosed as having cancer of the mouth and throat —the result of many years of smoking cigars. Twenty years after he set new standards of military honor by his magnanimous treatment of Robert E. Lee and his men during the surrender at Appomattox Court House, the entire nation, North and South, joined in wishing him well, and in hoping he could finish his book before he died.”
After finishing his second term in office in 1877, Grant moved to New York City to go into business on Wall Street. The former president was largely disengaged from the company's business, often signing papers without reading them. This proved disastrous, as his partner, Ferdinand Ward, had used the firm as a Ponzi scheme, taking investors' money and spending it on personal items, including a mansion in Connecticut and a brownstone in New York City. Grant & Ward failed in May 1884, leaving Grant penniless. That fall, the former president was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Facing his mortality, Grant struck a publishing deal with his friend Mark Twain and began working on his memoirs, hoping they would provide for his family after his death.
“Grant's famous wartime determination — Lincoln said of him, 'When Grant gets possession of a place, he acts as if he had inherited it' — was fully on display during his final months,” explained Flood. “He spent the last five weeks of his life in a cottage at Mt. McGregor, New York, in the hills above Saratoga Springs. Working hard to finish his book, he told all those around him that completing it was his overriding priority, and told his son Frederick, 'This is now my greatest interest in life, to see my work done.' Pushing himself to the end, he complete his book, and died three days later. Mark Twain learned of his death two hours after it occurred, and wrote in his notebook, 'I think his book kept him alive several months, He was a very great man and superlatively good.'”
A country divided by war had, in unison, come to know Grant as a brave and honest man. More than any other American before or since, Grant, in his last year, was able to heal this — the country’s greatest wound.