Wherever General Grant’s body lies, that is national ground.
~Mark Twain, 1885
In 1884, President Ulysses S. Grant thought nothing of the persistent cough and sore throat that had dogged him the last year or two. To a sixty-two year old war hero with a mountain of worries on his back, throat congestion seemed less than trivial.
One afternoon, while snacking on a tray of peaches his beloved wife Julia had left out for him, this mere annoyance became agony. In mid-swallow the normally-stoic Grant shot up from his chair. His eyes grew wide as chicken eggs and he clamped his hand over his mouth. Grant shivered and croaked through his fingers, “I think something has stung me from that peach.”
It wasn’t a sting. The decades of cigar-smoking and heavy drinking had taken its toll in the form of oral cancer.It advanced too far for late 19th-century medicine. Doctors could only offer him pain management: a topical mixture cocaine and chloroform that briefly numbed his throat.
President Grant’s Biggest Fear
It wasn’t the pain Grant feared, or even death. His decades in the military had desensitized him to death. What he anxiously, desperately feared was the uncertain future of his wife, Julia. Never great with money or investments, Grant had struggled to stockpile enough money for them to live on in retirement.
In 1883, his son had partnered to form a brokerage house and, proud of his son’s ambition, Grant decided to invest $100,000, a substantial portion of his nest egg. Months later, they discovered his son’s partner had been a conman and had illegally leveraged the brokerage house’s assets against multiple bank loans. It was fraud and, if left unpaid, might land his son in prison and ruin Grant’s name. Grant attempted to salvage the business by borrowing $150,000 from his friend William Vanderbilt, but it was too little, too late. The business and all the money vanished.
To pay off the debts, Grants sold his entire collection of Civil War memorabilia, including his letters, maps, pictures, and even his uniform. He sold all his properties, including his home. By the time he had satisfied his debts enough to retain his honor, he was dead broke, with no more than $80 to his name. William Vanderbilt, having purchased Grant’s house, allowed the former president to remain there, but Grant had little more than a military pension to live on. Julia had even less
After his cancer diagnosis, Grant now faced the possibility of his wife becoming penniless after his death. For a honorable and devoted husband, it was a horror beyond horror. Instead of succumbing to despondency, Grant focused on staying alive in a desperate bid to provide for his wife. His only hope For financial security was a middling offer from a publishing house for his personal memoirs.Century Company offered him 10% royalties for his memoirs.
Before his diagnosis, he had tinkered with the memoirs, writing here and there, but after the diagnosis, his entire being focused on finishing the mammoth task. Disgusted by the Century Company’s low offer, Grant’s close friend Mark Twain offered an astounding 75% royalty on the memoir. This wasn’t charity. Twain knew Grant’s famed storytelling skills would make for a fine book, and the former president’s reputation had become nearly saintly since his cancer diagnosis. The talent was there, the demand was there…now they just needed the book. That’s the hard part.
Twain had faced similar financial straits years earlier. Bad investments had left him indebted, and Twain embarked on a whirlwind lecture tour to pay his creditors (Twain would do this several times through his career). But that had been Twain’s fault entirely.
Grant had just been too trusting. Too good. Twain offered him a $10,000 advance on the memoirs, but Grant refused the sum, worried it might flop. Instead, he accepted a small advance of $1,000 to live on until the book’s publication. Even while facing an agonizing disease and bankruptcy, his friend’s unwavering honor touched Twain so deeply he had to hide tears.
It was a shameful thing that a man who had saved his country and its government from destruction should still be in a position where so small a sum—$1,000—could be looked upon as a godsend.
~Mark Twain, 1885
President Grant’s Last Stand
A substantial portion of his memoirs consisted of stories he had told dozens or even hundreds of times before. Grant only needed to write them out. Even in perfect health, 99.9% of us would balk at handwriting a few hundred thousand words of prose, destitute or not. Grant, pausing only to douse the bitter-tasting numbing medicine onto the swollen tumor in his throat, did just that. He pursued his writing with the same determination he had pursued and defeated Lee twenty years earlier. When his health permitted, the president wrote over 25 pages a day. When the pain overwhelmed him, he wrote less, and doctors would reinforce the dying man injections of morphine and brandy to dull the pain.
Grant never foundered long and refused higher doses of painkilling cocktails, fearing they might cloud his mind. The president wrote in constant, unbelievable pain and discomfort, the growth restricting his breath to a pinhole. He wrote outdoors and, since he wasn’t strong enough to turn his body, would drape a cloth over his face to block the Sun, moving it as needed through the day (see above picture).
In those dark yet incredible days, friends, relatives, and servants were awestruck by the man’s superhuman resiliency in what must have been horrid pain. Imagine having a ball made of rust and broken glass jammed down your throat so far you could barely breath…and then focusing on the effectiveness of select adjectives. For days, weeks, even months.
When his weakening body could no longer handle the marathon writing sessions, Grant dictated his memoirs to attendants, often his own son. His stamina in this period amazed his doctors then…and even doctors today.
Grant’s Earned Rest
On July 18th, Grant finally finished his volume, approving the final copyediting and sourcing changes made by his son, and immediately sent the 600 pages to the printer. By then Grant had weakened so much that speaking had become impossible. Instead he scrawled out short notes, but eventually that became too laborious. Five days after submitting the book, and assured his wife would be financially secure, Grant died.
His funeral procession in New York City was among the largest in the nation’s history. Two dozen black horses pulled the carriage containing his coffin, while tens of thousands of former and current soldiers escorted it through Upper Manhattan. Windows all over New York were filled with weeping Americans, straining for a glimpse of the procession, which was nearly seven miles long. His body was lain to rest temporarily in Riverside Park while work began on his permanent resting place.
Twelve years later, Grant’s Tomb, officially known as the General Grant National Memorial, was completed. In April of 1897, the Grant Monument Association placed the former president and his wife Julia in the new tomb, which was (and is) the largest mausoleum in North America. A beautiful, ornate structure that, without a doubt, would have embarrassed and humbled the quiet president.
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His two-volume memoir sold hundreds of thousands of copies. A raving success. Julia received nearly half a million dollars in royalties (about $15 million in 2020). Even today, critics praise the book for its clear, unembellished prose, which follows Grant’s life from his youth in Illinois to the end of the Civil War. His memoirs remain one of the most influential and respected non-fiction books in American history.
Author’s (Lengthy) Side Note: In the last few months, the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant has come under fire. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many historians, this contemporary distaste is undeserved.
Was Grant a drunkard?
Drunkard isn’t the right word. Grant was a textbook alcoholic. He did not drink constantly and rarely if ever in public. The taciturn general used alcohol as an escape. During the Civil War, he did drink more frequently, but never while commanding troops. In his off hours, he would hide away in his tent alone, and drink whiskey like a modern junkie.
His devoted subordinates and wife protected him from the public eye during this episodes, but they could not stop rumors. Considering the hundreds of thousands of casualties under his command (necessary to defeat Lee and end the war) alcoholic oblivion provided brief but effective solace. Years later, he would abstain from alcohol completely, although the desire for drink never left him.
Was Grant an anti-Semite?
In 1862, General Grant issued the infamous General Order No. 11, demanding “that no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward from any point. They may go north and be encouraged in it; but they are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them.” It was an order that so surprised those close to the general that it seemed counterfeit. It wasn’t. Shocked, Lincoln himself repudiated the order, and gave his favorite general time to rethink his rash proclamation. Grant did, and spent the next twenty years of his life apologizing for it, long before such a gesture was common. It was a great wrongness that Grant admitted and carried to his grave.
Did Grant own a slave?
Grant disliked slavery, but his wife’s father, an ardent slaveowner, gifted a slave named William Jones to Grant, who needed his father-in-law’s approval and financial help. Grant accepted the “gift” but would not force or even ask William Jones to work. Instead, Grant housed Jones for several months, then restored the man’s stolen freedom. Although the incident contains questionable ethics, Grant is generally seen favorably for one clear reason: although broke and desperate for cash at the time, Grant refused the $1,000 offered to him for William Jones. The buying and selling of humans and the forced subordination disgusted Grant.
Was Grant a corrupt president?
Absolutely not, but while he had been an excellent commander of troops on the field, that skill did not translate into the political realm. His honest, trustworthy nature made him the target of an army of shiftless politicians, spawning corruption throughout the capitol. Honor meant little there. His loyalty was constant, and he would often publicly defend his criminal friends, assuming they were unjustly charged. He was often wrong.
On the other hand, he also installed federal troops in the South, stalling the near-constant acts of violence and murder against former slaves and pushing Reconstruction through, just as Lincoln had envisioned. He squashed the initial rise of the new vigilante group, the Klu Klux Klan, which styled themselves as the “ghosts of fallen Confederates.” It would take the Klan thirty years to reform after Grant’s tireless efforts to wipe them out.
He disapproved of efforts to transplant or swindle Native-Americans (that remains debated by historians today) and made efforts to compensate them fairly for loss of land…mostly. He also ended the second-class citizen standing of civil servants, and, after leaving the presidency, Grant embarked on a world tour that helped establish the United States as an emerging superpower.
President Grant had his successes and failures as president, but he believed his “Failures have been errors of judgement, not of intent.”