Ulysses S. Grant earned applause in the North for his generalship during the Civil War, and even the deep respect of former enemies because of his generosity at the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his hard-fighting, haggard veterans at Appomattox, Virginia.
But the great military hero had no head for business, as he had proven in civilian life between the Mexican and Civil Wars, and again as U.S. President from 1869-1877, in an administration rent by corruption in which he had no hand but which occurred on his watch.
Nonetheless, after years of post-presidential financial uncertainty, he had every reason to believe that he had finally secured a large, comfortable nest egg for his retirement with his beloved wife, Julia. Partner in the apparently successful investment firm Grant & Ward, he went to bed one night in May 1884 thinking himself a near-millionaire only to awaken to find his accounts gutted and himself penniless.
With investors, he had been victimized by two partners who had been running a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. He was humiliated and despondent. “I have made it the rule of my life to trust a man long after other people gave him up,” he told an associate. “But I don’t see how I can ever trust any human being again.”
But the man who had once promised that he would “fight it out along this line” with Lee if it took all summer picked himself up and took up his pen to produce in a single year a two-volume, more-than-1200-page military memoir that is considered one of the finest ever written. He reclaimed both his fortune and reputation, and he accomplished this in the face of debilitating terminal cancer that was presented only weeks into his task.
Historian Charles Bracelen Flood documents Grant’s awe-inspiring achievement in his deeply affecting, often urgent “Grant’s Final Victory,” which yields many personal insights into the taciturn, hard-to-read hero. A key figure in the narrative is American author Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”), who arrives on the scene with terms from his own publisher generous enough to assure the financial success of Grant’s book once it is completed.
The men had been friends since 1879, when at a banquet in Chicago during the reunion of veterans of the Union Army of the Tennessee the former Rebel Twain “fetched” up Grant with a humorous toast that convulsed the previously impassive general with laughter that infected the entire room.
Twain came to admire Grant deeply, a story well told in Mark Perry’s worthy 2004 “Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America.” (While Grant was writing his war memoirs, Twain was also penning “Huckleberry Finn.”) That relationship is less central in Flood’s more detailed account of Grant’s last year, and while the authors differ on some details, their books are essentially complementary.
In one respect, Flood’s account is superior, in recording the “near miss” between Grant and Twain when they were on opposite sides in the first weeks of the Civil War. Twain was the second lieutenant of a ragtag company of Missouri State Guard volunteers who just missed engaging then-Colonel Grant’s 21st Illinois Infantry near the former’s hometown Hannibal, Missouri.
And while the face Grant presented to the public could be difficult to assess, Flood’s many poignant examples and anecdotes demonstrate the mutual affection of Grant and his family. His children and grandchildren adored him. During his final Christmas celebration, the latter frolicked around him, prattling and making “preposterous attempts at jokes,” Grant laughing—the scene “a delicious morsel of sweet in the midst of so much bitter care,” according to a witness.
During his final weeks writing as he wasted away in a mountain cottage near Saratoga Springs, New York, he still accepted some visitors, including the former Confederate general whose surrender at Fort Donelson had earned Grant the moniker “Unconditional Surrender.” But most welcome were the interruptions of family.
He died only three days after finishing his work. Most affected was little Julia—named for her grandmother—who set about making a homemade wreath that she set on her grandfather’s coffin. She was upset at how quickly it faded, but her father assured her it would be varnished and buried with her grandfather. Indeed, her humble offering alone was placed on the coffin when it was entombed.
Meanwhile old friend Twain wrote in his notebook: “I think his book kept him alive several months. He was a very great man and superlatively good.” (Martin Northway)
“Grant’s Final Victory”
By Charles Bracelen Flood
Da Capo Press, 304 pages, $27.50