Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2012-028
10 May 2012
Review by Terence Parker, Salisbury, UK
Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Last Year
By Charles B. Flood
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2011. Pp. xvi, 288. ISBN 978–0–306–82028–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 19th Century, US Civil War, Biography Print Version

Charles Bracelen Flood—Harvard graduate, journalist, and author of a dozen previous books—has traveled widely and written extensively about the American Civil War.[1] He is also a successful novelist,[2] who has occupied prominent positions in both writer organizations and academe.[3] The title of this book emerged, perhaps, from the remarks of Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of the The Century Magazine, when he visited Grant shortly before his death: "I could hardly keep back the tears as I made my farewell to the great soldier who saved the Union for all its people and to the man of warm and courageous heart who had fought his last long battle for those he so tenderly loved" (209, my emphasis). Grant's last victory was the completion of his Personal Memoirs, the proceeds from which would restore his family's financial security.

Ulysses S. Grant was a quiet-spoken, rather shy, unassuming "man of the people" (2), whom the Civil War forged into an American hero. Rising from obscurity to become commander-in-chief of the Northern forces, he subsequently served two terms as president (1869–77) during the tumultuous Reconstruction period. After Lincoln's assassination, Grant pressed harder than any other to achieve his final Civil War aims: a united America and the abolition of slavery. This determination, together with his uncompromising, straightforward approach to problems, gained him great respect but many enemies. The latter adopted the term "Grantism"[4] to denote "despotic government by one man." Later, as various financial scandals came to light, the term came to encompass cronyism, nepotism, political patronage, and greed, even though none of the corruption involved Grant directly. It is interesting to note that The Iron Lady (2011),[5] a semi-biographical film about Britain's first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, has awakened a similar controversy surrounding "Thatcherism," that is, "despotic government by one woman."

In Grant's Final Victory, which covers the last eighteen months of the general's life, Flood thoughtfully examines many aspects of "Grantism" and highlights the sterling qualities that enabled Grant to overcome catastrophic loss of income and overwhelming ill-health. It offers insight, too, into nineteenth-century medical practice, the horrors of smoking-related throat cancer and its (still far too common) behavioral causes.

The narrative begins as Grant and his wife, Julia, return from a two-year, ostensibly private, world tour during which they had met, among others, Britain's Queen Victoria and Germany's "Iron Chancellor," Otto von Bismarck. On each occasion, Grant had been treated with considerable respect as one of the "most popular representatives of the United States ever to travel abroad" (2). After returning to New York, he resumed the business career which provided his principal income. He had surrendered his Army pension on becoming President, a legal requirement later rescinded by a grateful nation.

Grant's straightforward, trusting nature prompted criticism during his presidency and proved disastrous in his business career. Indeed, his widely acknowledged probity and habitual trust in others proved a boon to his business partner, Ferdinand Ward, who might best be described as a nineteenth-century Bernie Madoff. The investment banking firm, "Grant and Ward," was closely associated with New York City's Marine Bank, one of the first "merchant banks." Grant and his extended family had placed almost every cent they had in these two institutions, unwisely trusting in Ward's seemingly outstanding business acumen (he was known as the "Young Napoleon of Wall Street" [6]). Ward’s Ponzi scheme—which paid interest out of invested capital—rested upon three foundations: blatant misrepresentation, concealment of data, and investor confidence (sustained, sadly, by Grant’s association with the firm). Grant's obvious naïveté prompted considerable criticism when, in early May 1884, the firm of Grant and Ward and the Marine Bank collapsed into bankruptcy (39). A month later, as Grant and his family struggled with their sudden penury, Julia observed him experiencing sudden pain as he ate a peach: "[Ulysses] rinsed his throat again and again. He was in great pain and said the water hurt like fire" (73). It was at this moment that Grant's last battle really commenced.

Grant's final opponents were financial adversity and an aggressive cancer, both of which Flood describes in precise, often tear-inducing detail, particularly when his source is Grant family testimony. Very moving, too, are the responses of sympathetic, often very young strangers to Grant's deteriorating health. A letter from Winnie C. Debell of St John's, Michigan, reads:

I am a little girl…. I read such a nice story about you [in Harper's Young People magazine]…. I shall send you a birthday card and it will truely [sic] be a present from me. I shall buy it with the money I have earned. Mama says it is not a real present if you ask papa for the money to buy it with. I shall put my name on it so you will know it is from me for I suppose you will get a great many. Good bye dear General Grant. I love you very much and wish I could do something to make you well. (167)

Winnie was the home-schooled daughter of a lawyer, but poorer children in the custody of the New York Children's Aid Society were equally moved: "We know how you are every day [General Grant], because all of our boys are either news-boys or boot-blacks, and the news-boys of course read it in the paper…. I am an Italian girl … but there are … some German, some Irish, and some colored children, but we all love you, and pray for you, with all our hearts and souls" (166).

Throughout his tenacious struggle, Grant enjoyed support from every age group, every social class, including British Royalty (150), and both Union and Confederate veterans. People sent sums of money, large and small, to aid his financial recovery after the collapse of Grant and Ward; and, much later, the Democratic Speaker of the House, Samuel J. Randall, choreographed the passage of Senate Bill 2530 to ensure that Grant regained the military pension lost when he first became president (136). He pre-dated the bill and set the Senate clock back twenty minutes! Selfless and unassuming, Grant regarded financial gifts as loans to be repaid at the earliest opportunity, a policy he put into practice as soon as possible (123).

That said, it was allies rather than resources that ensured Grant's final victory. His principal ally—after early assistance from Century's Robert Underwood Johnson and a later betrayer, Adam Badeau (171)—was Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), author of Huckleberry Finn and erstwhile Confederate deserter (97). Unknown to both persons, Grant had commanded the Union regiment that prompted Lieutenant Clemens's flight! Later, during his presidency, Grant had met the then famous Twain, now keen to offer Grant his expert assistance as an author/book publisher. Encouraged by Twain, Grant began his memoirs and his very obvious literary talent emerged.

Grant's secretary, Noble E. Dawson, usually transcribed his dictation, then read it back to him for any necessary corrections: "General Grant dictated very freely and easily. He made very few changes and never hemmed and hawed. Mr. Mark Twain was shown the manuscript of the first volume during one of my dictation sessions with the General. Mr. Twain was astonished when he looked at it and said that there was not one literary man in one hundred who furnished as clean a copy as Grant. The General's sentences rarely had to be revised in any way" (130).

Twain gave precise and broad-ranging advice on a number of matters: how to optimize initial sales of the book—by subscription; how to avoid Canadian pirating of the book—lock up the proofs; how to avert production hold-ups—buy up paper stocks and printing/binding capacity well in advance (137–39). As an aside, worldly-wise Twain remarked to his publisher-relative, Charles Webster: "If these chickens should really hatch … General Grant's royalties will amount to $420,000…. [I]n silver coin at $12 per pound it will weigh seventeen tons" (104). This proved to be an underestimate; Julia Grant received more than $600,000 (174).

Flood fully exposes Grant's ever-deteriorating physical condition and the fast approach of the grim reaper. After learning, first, of Grant's "sting when he ate a peach" (73), we read of the alarmingly delayed build-up of concern, followed by lengthy medical diagnosis, which led to this eventual grim exchange of words in November 1984:

Dr. Shrady (a specialist, after noting biopsy results): "This [unnamed] patient has a lingual epithelioma—cancer of the tongue."
Dr. Elliott (Grant's personal physician): "This patient is General Grant."
Dr. Shrady: "Then General Grant is doomed" (87).

Stings in the mouth evolved relentlessly into searing pain as Grant swallowed liquid; and then more obvious oral growths appeared. His life began to be seriously affected: speech became more difficult and treatment necessarily more invasive. While increasingly evident to intimates, his perilous situation did not become common knowledge until 1 March 1885, when the New York Times carried the headline "GRANT IS DYING." Other papers soon offered similarly grim disclosures: "DYING SLOWLY FROM CANCER; GRAVELY ILL; SINKING INTO THE GRAVE; GEN. GRANT'S FRIENDS GIVE UP HOPE" (131). In the weeks that followed, the peace of the Grants' residence in New York (3 East Sixty-Sixth Street) was shattered by the swarm of reporters ringing the house.

Flood also examines the unfortunate lifestyle that brought Grant to such a state. Up until February 1862, he had been a rare pipe smoker but frequent tobacco chewer (111). In that month, his much-publicized "Unconditional Surrender" requirement of a Confederate commander at Fort Donelson made him well-known. Following an attack there, he accepted a cigar from his naval colleague, Andrew H. Foote,[6] which he was still carrying when called upon, later, to repel a Confederate assault. The cigar was noted by a reporter, whose flattering newspaper article prompted patriotic northerners to send Grant over ten thousand cigars, most of which he struggled to give away (111). The cigar gifts continued even into his retirement. Each morning, his partner, Ferdinand Ward, placed twenty-five Havana cigars on Grant's desk, the number he had smoked every day for many years (8). The habit was hard to break. Almost a year after the first "sting," he gave in to a craving while reminiscing on the anniversary of the Appomattox surrender (151). Indeed, immediately after his fateful diagnosis, Grant had continued to smoke cigars, albeit fewer. Later, in November 1884, on medical advice, he surrendered his cigar case to a horse-breeder friend, Mr. Goldsmith, after enjoying what he declared to be his "last cigar" (110).

The book, which starts with Grant's triumphant return from his world tour, ends with a full description of his triumphant funeral cortège:

The planning for the parade required that several thousand carriages be used. The military escort commander had commandeered every horse and every carriage available from the stables of Manhattan…. Many well-off citizens volunteered the services of their horses, carriages and coachmen…. [Gen. Henry] Shaler had … to feed more than forty thousand troops into the line of march … to the music of … two hundred bands and fife and drum corps. They would be part of eighteen thousand members of the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic]; every post in the nation was to represented, and they would be led on horseback by the flamboyant Major General Dan Sickles who lost a leg in the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg. (240)

A funeral train had earlier carried Grant's coffin down the Hudson past West Point, where "First Captain John J. Pershing"—later of World War I fame—ordered the "Present Arms." Eventually, at the graveside, as "Taps" rang out and a cannon salute boomed over the Hudson, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was to be seen "standing at rigid attention, convulsively sobbing" (247).

Grant's Final Victory offers valuable insights into Grant, his immediate family, his associates, and, above all, the social mores of late nineteenth-century America. Divided into eighteen short chapters, this well-written, interesting book deserves a broad readership.

[1] Notably, Lee: The Last Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981; rpt. 1998), Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), and 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009).

[2] His first novel, Love Is a Bridge (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953) was a NY Times bestseller.

[3] He has been president of the PEN American Center (1969–71) and has taught literature at Sophia University in Tokyo.

[4] Coined originally by Sen. Charles Sumner in May 1872 to distinguish between Grant's approach and what some saw as a different Republican Party approach.

[5] Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

[6] Misidentified by Flood as Samuel Foote.

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