Ulysses Grant: Writing and dying – in public view

October 19, 2017 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

His memoir was eagerly awaited by the public while he was still writing it.

His death, for several months before it occurred, was tracked almost daily by the newspapers of the time.

Both occurred at the same time in the spring and summer of 1885.

Ulysses S. Grant (watercolor and line)

For more than a century after his death, the presidency of Ulysses Grant rated barely one-star with most historians. His generalship had been a major factor in defeating the Confederate forces of the South during the American Civil War and thus preserving the Union. He had been honored as a hero of the republic and had been swept into the presidency by an adoring public in 1868.

But he was a political neophyte, and some of the men whom he appointed a president betrayed him with their avarice. Grant was an honorable man. No one has ever believed that he personally benefitted from the graft that occurred during his administration. But he assumed the honor of his friends, something he should not have done.

In the past few years, historians have reassessed Grant and found him to be more than just an honorable neophyte. His actions in support of voting rights for blacks and against the actions of the Ku Klux Klan have led current biographers to cast his presidency in a more favorable light. Ron Chernow’s recently published Grant has given the general many benefits of doubt he rarely ever received. (Chernow’s book was reviewed in the New York Times by former president Bill Clinton, which makes the review fascinating in itself.)

Grant’s life had been filled with extraordinary acts and events. During his post-presidency, Grant had tried to do what he had always done — live a quiet life and gain financial security for his family. He had vowed many times that he would never write his memoirs because he believed that no one would be interested in them. Indeed, for a time, he might have been correct in that assumption.

But by the 1880s, situations had changed. There had been a revival of interest in the Civil War, and many of the participants were publishing books or magazine articles about their experiences. In 1885, one of the major surviving participants who had never been heard from was Ulysses Grant. His personal situation had also changed. Grant had been involved in business dealings that had gone sour, and he was in debt. He had to do something to relieve the debt and secure his family’s future.

Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), a friend of Grant, had urged Grant to write his memoirs for some several years, and when the time was ripe for Grant, Clemens offered him a contract that would guarantee his wife’s future security. At around the same time, however, Grant began to feel a scratchiness in his throat. He had rarely been without a cigar for much of his adult life, and the habit was catching up with him. His doctors eventually concluded that what was causing his discomfort was a tumor, that it was malignant, and that it would get worse — much worse.

The New York Times story about Grant’s illness on March 1, 1885, four months before he died. The story is a highly detailed — and not always accurate — account of the president’s condition and activities.

Grant began working on the memoirs in his Wall Street office in New York City in late 1884 and continued there through the spring of 1885. Word had gotten out that he was writing his autobiography, and newspaper reporters latched onto the story. Grant had become a revered figure in America — even in many parts of the South — and what he had to say about the war stoked speculation and anticipation.

Grant had a couple of research assistants who provided him with the documents he needed. He found the writing somewhat easier than expected, and he was able to make substantial progress. But the pain in his throat grew, and he got weaker, especially within such a busy environment as New York City. Grant moved to his house near Saratoga. He tried various treatments to relieve the pain, none of which were satisfactory. He received visitors and visited with family. 

Through it all, he continued to write.

It was as if he willed himself to live until he could satisfy himself that he had finished the memoirs. When that finally happened, he took his leave from his family and died on July 23.

The memoirs were hugely successful both with critics and with the public. Historians have praised them for their simplicity and straight-forwardness. Grant’s unadorned and unassuming writing style mirrored the way in which he presented himself throughout his life. Here is the section where he describes Robert E. Lee in his meeting at Appomattox Courthouse to accept the surrender of the Confederate Army in April 1865.

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us …

Great dignity and power exist in such writing. In that, Grant won a final victory.

His memoirs, published in two volumes, became an immediate best-seller and ultimately netted the Grant family $450,000 (about $12 million in today’s dollars). They are highly valued by historians and have been in print since they were first published, more than 130 years ago. Grant did all of this, as he had done much of his adult life, in public view.

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