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Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year

By Charles Bracelen Flood; Da Capo

When he accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant was “the most famous man in the United States, and was on his way to being the most photographed person of the nineteenth century,” writes Charles Bracelen Flood. Less than 20 years later, the former president was desperately trying to finish his memoirs from a wheelchair, as he battled a throat cancer so aggressive that it brought a “blazing pain that even the act of swallowing caused.”

Flood, author of the superb Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, has chosen one of the great profiles in courage from American history and told it splendidly. Grant had little understanding of money. He miscalculated the costs of an around-the-world trip with his wife, Julia, and had to wire his son for $60,000 to continue. He made a foolish investment with a fraudulent investment banker and was wiped out by a Ponzi scheme. But he determined to pay back his creditors and provide for his family with the same relentless fortitude he had shown assaulting Vicksburg and Richmond during the war.

In this he had an indispensable cohort, an erstwhile Confederate soldier turned author named Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. Twain wanted to publish Grant’s memoirs through his own company. They were old acquaintances: Twain was still largely unknown when he met Grant in 1869. When they first shook hands, Twain recalled, Grant stood “with the iron expression of a man who had not smiled for seven years, and was not intending to smile for another seven.” Still, the satirist and the warrior made a devoted team: Twain supervised every detail of writing, editing and publishing Grant’s memoirs, and the general resolutely maintained the grueling pace required. His granddaughter, little Julia Grant, heard people arguing: “The book is killing him.” “No, the book is keeping him alive, without it he would already be dead.” Grant’s family and friends sustained him, but soldiers like the ex-Confederate who sent him “A remittance of $100…in remembrance of his magnanimity toward the South” also did their bits.

Unable to communicate except through messages on slips of paper— “pencil talk,” he called it—Grant finished his astonishing work in less than a year, just three days before he died. At 1,215 pages and 291,000 words, it is arguably the finest book written by an American president. It was also a huge critical and commercial success, restored the family’s fortune and created a monument to his legacy at least as enduring and more revealing than the famed New York City tomb where he and Julia are buried.


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here