By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2005, All Rights Reserved
Ulysses S. Grant, his wife, Julia, and their family had always enjoyed their annual vacations at their summer home on the beach in New Jersey. However, the summer of 1884 would be different from all the rest. As they moved there in June of that year, Grant was no longer president, nor was he any longer a wealthy former president. This time Grant had not come here to relax but rather to seriously consider his future. How was he to recover from the financial ruin brought on by the failure of the firm – Grant and Ward – to which he had lent his name and much of his fortune? (Although the firm appeared to be successful for several years, it was in fact a financial sham – a swindle perpetrated by the firm’s unscrupulous partner, Ferdinand Ward, on bankers, investors and the Grant family. The firm collapsed in scandal and debt in May 1884 leaving the Grant family in financial ruin.)
Although Grant had never wanted to write anything – especially not anything about his life and war experiences (Grant said he did not like to retrace his steps – a superstition since childhood), preferring to leave that to others, now he felt he had no choice – he would not accept the many offers of financial help. He would save his family with his words – his memoirs. Unsure of his writing ability – he had only written military orders, reports and dispatches as a general, and reviewed others’ writings as president – he didn’t know how to start and where to find a publisher. And then as he stood with Julia in their pantry on June 2nd to have some fruit, he bit into a peach and cried out in pain. He told his wife that as he swallowed he had an “almost unbearable pain” in his throat – but then the pain was gone. In mid June, Robert Johnson, associate editor of Century Magazine visited Grant to see if he could get him to write some articles for a new series to be written by Civil War participants. Grant had turned him down earlier that year, but now, after he explained his financial crisis to Johnson, he agreed to write articles on Shiloh, Vicksburg, Wilderness and Appomattox. Johnson said after this meeting, “Grant gave me the impression of a wounded lion.”
Later that month the pain in his throat recurred more and more, especially when he ate. Concerned, Julia had him seen by a doctor in Long Branch. The doctor noted that Grant’s throat was inflamed and wrote a prescription for him – advising him to see his family doctor immediately. However, his family doctor was in Europe so Grant delayed a visit – his pain then seemed to again subside. Grant went to work almost immediately with the help of his son, Fred, as his researcher, and soon produced the Shiloh article. However, his first draft read like a battlefield report. With the guidance of Johnson, who explained in more detail what he was looking for – a conversational, insightful, anecdotal style, Grant rewrote Shiloh and began his work on Vicksburg. Johnson was pleased with the new work noting that it “portrayed a confidence and had a style now that brought readers into his narrative – his added anecdotes gave special color to his work.” Grant, who had found writing to be a chore, now found it enjoyable.
As pleased as Johnson and the Century Publishing Company were with Grant’s articles, they were even more interested in eventually publishing his memoirs. Grant was seriously considering Century as his publisher by the 1st of October when he returned to New York City to continue his article work and to finally see his doctor.
His visit to his doctor quickly led to an appointment with a throat specialist. This doctor concluded immediately that the inflammation in Grant’s mouth and throat was “cancerous, malignant and likely to kill him – and it was spreading.” The specialist saw multiple problems: three small growths on the roof of the mouth, a swollen gland on the right side of the mouth – the main source of the pain – an ulcerated tonsil, and most serious, a carcinoma at the base of his tongue. The specialist knew that it would gradually spread into Grant’s throat, infecting it, enlarging it and making it almost impossible for him to eat and eventually to even breathe. A later analysis of the specialist’s findings by another doctor concluded, “The general is doomed.” The doctors also knew that Grant would go through periods of “excruciating pain, spells of exhaustion and would die within a year.” (Among other things, Grant was told to limit his cigar smoking too. A few weeks later he lit a cigar and announced that it would be his last.)
Grant was not surprised by the diagnosis. Once the doctors had confirmed his suspicions, he went immediately to the Century Company to arrange for the publication of his memoirs. He was bankrupt, in personal debt and mortally ill – now the Lion would plan his last campaign – the writing of his memoirs. Before a final deal was made with Century, Mark Twain, a casual friend of Grant’s, told Grant that the Century offer was fair but that he could do much better for him financially as his publisher. “Strike out that 10% (Century’s royalty offer) and put in 75% of net returns,” Twain told him. Grant signed with Twain.
While Grant visited his doctor twice a day (by streetcar) to have his swollen tongue swabbed with a muriate of cocaine and other medicines to help relieve his on-going pain, he put together his team of assistants – his son Fred, his friend, Adam Badeau, one of his closest aides during the war and as president and, later a stenographer. Badeau had already published a three-volume account of Grant’s war time years. His valet and close friend, Harrison Tyrell, his African-American servant was also said to “have done as much as anyone to ease Grant’s suffering and enable him to write his memoirs.”
Grant, wearing a knit cap, shawl and scarf around his neck keeping him warm, began his work in earnest in November in a small room on the second floor of his house. He worked at a small desk filled with notes on the research by his assistants and other notes he made to himself as reminders. One reference book used was The Memoirs of W.T. Sherman. At first before becoming too weak, he wrote in longhand and made revisions after editing by Fred and Badeau. He reviewed his work at the end of each day and planned the next day’s work. Although it was demanding and physically tiring work for him, he took great pride in what he was doing and sometimes read passages he particularly liked to Julia.
Grant planned to work first on his background, then his major campaigns and finally indexes and battle maps. His battle against time became even more apparent as the cancer continued to weaken him – milk twice a day was much of his nourishment. He could no longer hide his pain – just swallowing caused a burning discomfort – he told a friend that drinking water was “like swallowing molten lead.” Sprays to ease his pain helped but only for a short time, and his food beside milk was soup and oatmeal. His throat was also closing and he often had difficulty breathing, but on he worked through the winter – only conceding to give up the streetcar trips for visits by his doctor. He would write for hours without a break, going days without water rather than to feel the pain drinking it would cause.
He began to have trouble sleeping in December. This weakened him even more. By the end of the month he was weary, depressed and unable to work. Julia wrote to Sherman for advice. He told her that this was just Grant’s style – he would always go silent in a time of crisis – especially when things were very bad. “Don’t worry,” he said, “he will soon emerge from his funk.” In January, his doctors told Julia that Grant was going through the end of life process of accepting his own mortality and, knowing Grant, he would revive and fight to continue living as long as possible.
At this time the world did not know of Grant’s illness, but word of it was gradually getting out. Sherman, who had visited Grant and realized what the bankruptcy had done to his family, put together with some financiers a nest egg of $150,000, but Grant politely declined the money. Sherman, however, would not give up and immediately went to work to have Grant reinstated in the regular army on its retirement list as a Lt. General so he and then Julia would receive pensions. (Grant had resigned from the army and had not retired.) While the Senate passed a bill to do this, the House would not.
Grant’s mood and strength improved by the end of January and he began to work again. While the first reports of Grant’s illness had him “doing well,” the fatality of his condition became known in late February, and by March 1st The New York Times printed a bold headline declaring that “Grant is Dying.” Reporters from papers across the country were soon set up near Grant’s house for what was called a “death watch.” The police were eventually needed to control all the people that gathered on his street. His doctors then began to issue bulletins on his health. Sherman persisted in his campaign for Grant’s reinstatement, and after much work, the House passed a bill reinstating him at the very last hour of its congressional life at noon on March 4th. The bill was then rushed to the Senate, where the Senate’s clock was literally turned back nine minutes to allow the Senate to remain in session and to vote to pass it. The out-going president, Chester Arthur, signed it immediately, delaying the inauguration of his successor by 20 minutes. The official commission papers were presented to new president Grover Cleveland for his official signature by Robert Lincoln, outgoing secretary of war. (Grant would receive a pension of $13,500/year, and upon his death Julia would receive $5,000/year.)
The eventual widow’s pension for Julia did much to relieve Grant’s mind and now he focused on his writing, interrupted occasionally by many old friends stopping by to briefly pay their respects. Twain visited often, serving as friend and sounding board. The first volume of the memoirs was completed in March, and Twain hurried it to his printer. He compared Grant’s work to Caesar’s “Commentaries,” saying that “high merit distinguished both books- clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice towards friend and foe alike, scholarly candor… ”
Grant continued his work, but a choking and coughing fit that almost killed him (during which he accepted Baptism) slowed him down. Defying the odds, he recovered some strength and returned to his writing – pausing on April 9th to take a few puffs on a cigar with doctors’ permission to celebrate the anniversary of Lee’s surrender. He celebrated his 63rd birthday on April 27th with a refreshing carriage ride in Central Park. Grant’s articles had also started to appear in Century Magazine and were well received – its subscriptions increased 40% over six months in part due to Grant and its series on the Civil war. (After Badeau left Grant around this time, when Badeau’s various demands were not met, an item appeared in a paper falsely claiming that Badeau wrote the memoirs – Twain wanted to sue but Grant just denied the claim – “The composition is entirely my own.”)
By May, as he devoted more and more time to his writing, Grant’s neck became even more swollen and he could hardly talk or even swallow. The cancer had spread into the back of his throat and into his jaw – “literally eating him alive.” The pain kept him awake, and he worked through many nights – “I could do better,” he said, “if I could only get the rest I crave.” He finished his “rough draft” of Volume Two on June 8th – almost a year from the time he first considered writing his memoirs. Twain wanted to take the work to the printers immediately but Grant refused, saying he had to go over everything to be sure it was right and to add a few more of his “plums and spices.”
Grant’s doctors recommended the cooler air of the Adirondacks to the family for the summer, so they moved to a cottage on the Balmoral Hotel 12 miles from Saratoga. Crowds gathered in New York to say good-bye to the family. Grant tried to enjoy as much as possible his time at the cottage – seeing a few nearby sights and continuing his work on polishing his memoirs while his health declined even more. He finally put his pencil down for the last time on the afternoon of July 19th, saying to his stenographer in a soft, raspy voice – “the book is finished.” So was his life – he died three days later at 8:08 the morning of July 23rd. Starvation was the official cause of death.
The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, Volume I was published on December 10, 1885, becoming a best seller – as was Volume II. A few months later Julia received her first royalty check – for $200,000. The family would eventually receive between $500,000 and $1,000,0000. The great Grant, “The Wounded Lion” had won his last campaign!
Note: Many of the facts for this article were taken from the excellent book, Grant and Twain: The Story of an American Friendship by Mark Perry.
Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.