When he died at age 63 in July, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant ended one of the longest public vigils in American history.
The beloved former president and Civil War hero maintained his dignity despite a final year that included the loss of his entire net worth and a terminal case of throat cancer. Grant capped those arduous last months by willing himself to compose and edit his memoirs, pounding out nearly 300,000 words at the same time he was in agony from the cancer.
The subsequent publication of Grant’s memoirs by his friend Mark Twain rescued the general’s widow from financial ruin when it became a best-seller.
Charles Bracelen Flood recounts this fascinating coda to a remarkable life in Grant’s Final Victory, a brisk, well-told history of the former president’s final months and days.
Grant endured and defied unspeakable pain in his last year of life. Bracelen Flood quotes from a letter sent by Grant describing his attempts to drink water: “If you can imagine what molten lead would be going down your throat, that is what I feel when swallowing.”
In the summer of 1884, just weeks removed from the collapse of a Wall Street firm he had affixed his name to, his wife, Julia, and other family members grew concerned over Grant’s failing health. It wasn’t until months later, when Grant’s personal physician returned from a trip abroad, that he finally submitted to an exam and learned the grim prognosis.
So bad was the pain that Grant required steady doses of cocaine and water applied to his tongue and throat.
His condition was torturous, but not unexpected. During the Civil War, Grant discovered cigars and became a prodigious smoker. On the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness, he smoked 20 cigars. He maintained his smoking habits in the White House and beyond.
Even after his diagnosis, Grant didn’t immediately give up cigars. Only the threat of not finishing his memoirs convinced him to quit.
The other partner in Grant’s investment firm, Ferdinand Ward, absconded with Grant’s fortune and those of many of the firm’s clients, all without the former president having the slightest inkling until it was too late. Grant had entered into the venture at the urging of his son Ulysses Jr., but Ward was the investor who drove the enterprise.
In May of 1884, Ward’s fraudulent scheme collapsed. At the time, Grant & Ward had $17 million worth of liabilities and assets of less than $70,000.
In a letter to his niece, Grant wrote, “Financially the Grant family is ruined for the present, and by the most stupendous frauds ever perpetrated.”
Bracelen Flood, who has written extensively about the Civil War, demonstrates a keen understanding of Grant and other major figures without bogging the story down in excessive detail. The author’s command of details and anecdotes shines throughout, from accounts of medical treatments to the fate of Grant’s presidential and military memorabilia.
Grant was ruined. Soon enough, he would learn that he didn’t even own the house he and his family thought they had purchased at 3 East 66th Street. Instead, the Grants learned that Ward, who had also played a lead role in that transaction, had again lied, negotiating a mortgage that allowed Ward to pocket $50,000 of the purchase price.
Ailing and humiliated, Grant reconsidered a proposition he had declined on earlier occasions: writing about his military life, and particularly his days leading the Union army. Soon enough, he agreed to four magazine articles for The Century magazine. Bolstered by the deft editing of Robert Underwood Johnson, Grant soon came to enjoy his work. With some guidance from Johnson, his early, dry accounts sprang to life, filled with detail but without distracting hyperbole.
From New York to Long Island and finally to the upstate cottage where Grant died, Bracelen Flood offers a vivid portrait of Grant racing death to complete his memoirs and ensure stability for the family he will soon leave behind. Twain, Robert E. Lee and William T. Sherman are among those with extended appearances in this account, but none overshadow Grant, a decent, honest man devoid of self-pity.
For those who may think of Grant as a successful general who faded from view after a presidency filled with scandals, Bracelen Flood provides a forceful reminder of the admiration and love Grant evoked.
In addition to the 1.5 million people who attended his funeral in New York, Grant warranted a 68-page obituary in The New York Times. Bloomingdale’s sold more than six miles of black crepe the day he died.
And, of course, his two-volume memoirs became popular and acclaimed as soon as they were published, allowing his beloved Julia to live in comfort years after his death. With that, Grant made one of the most courageous exits in American history.
Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s book section.