This country suffers no shortage of heroic tales. For the Union soldier who served under Ulysses S. Grant, there certainly was no greater leader. Often referred to by detractors as “a butcher” for the wake of Union dead left after his victories, he took the fight to the Confederacy. After the Wilderness campaign in 1864, where 17,000 Union soldiers died in just a few days, Grant unlike all the Union generals before him refused to lick the Federal wounds and retreat across the Rapidan River to resupply and reorganize. Instead Grant famously turned his massive columns not North, but South towards the heart of the Confederacy. Towards Richmond. Those that have studied the Civil War are familiar with the iconic story, as war whoops, hat waving, and wild cheering echoed across the forest. There was no doubt that The Army of the Potomac, which had suffered a barrage of whippings by General Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy, was under new leadership.
It was moments like this, and not Grant’s largely unspectacular two terms as president, where one can understand why his funeral procession was seven miles long. Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelin Flood is not a book about his time as commander of the Union or president, but the fascinating and heroic tale of his race against time to publish his memoirs and save his family from financial ruin.
In 1884, Grant was embroiled in one of the first famous Ponzi schemes on Wall Street, and his son’s partner at Grant & Ward, an investing firm, bankrupted the company and fled. Grant and his entire family was wiped out. Grant wrote his niece, “Financially the Grant family is ruined for the present, and by the most stupendous frauds ever perpetrated.” He was personally embarrassed having lent his name and prestige to the company. Doubtless many assumed it was on firm footing with the hero of the Union watching over it. In reality, Grant had little knowledge of the day to day operations of the firm.
Soon after the scandal, Grant was diagnosed with terminal mouth and throat cancer. He was said to partake in an average of 20 – 25 cigars a day. He rushed to write his personal memoirs of the Civil War. Before his financial destruction, he was on record as having little desire to write his own account of the war. Grant eventually settled on an agreement with his friend Mark Twain that would give his widow Julia 75 percent of the profit of the book sales.
As he toiled away with his pen, sometimes writing as many as 25 – 50 pages a day, The New York Times and publications across the country offered daily updates on Grant’s condition. His suffering was immense. His throat had to be constantly swabbed with cocaine to relieve the pain. As the illness progressed, it literally began to suffocate him and he would often wake at night in a panic, trying to gasp for air. Just swallowing was especially agonizing.
Grant received an abundance of personal letters and well wishes from North and South. He felt his illness was helping to further heal the sectional divide and noted as much. The author notes Grant was especially touched by a letter by A.M. Arnold from Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. Arnold wrote:
I hope that you will allow one, who, when but a boy, laid down his arms at Appomattox and gave his allegiance to the Union, to express his warmest sympathy for you in your hour of affliction. Dear General, I have watched your movements from the hour you gave me my horse and sword and told me to go home and “assist in making a crop” – I have been proud to see the nation do you honor . . .
May the God who overlooked you in battle and who has brought you this far give you grace to meet whatever He has in store for you. And may He restore you to health & friends is the fervent prayer of one who at 15 years of age entered the lists against you and accepted the magnanimous terms you accorded us at Appomattox.
Grant had his share of well wishers in the South because of the respect he showed for General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and the brave men of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant also later intervened on Lee’s behalf when President Andrew Johnson and others in the federal government wanted to arrest Lee and have him tried and hung for treason.
Grant, a lifelong Methodist, was not particularly known for devoutness. Nearing death he spent more time with his Methodist pastor and was baptized for the first time in his life. Flood suggests that Grant may have at times kept his pastor at arms distance because he thought he might have been being used by the clergyman so the minister could cement his own notoriety as Grant’s pastor. Grant refused public communion near his death, writing his pastor:
I would only be too happy to do so if I felt myself fully worthy. I have a feeling in regard to taking the sacriment [sic] that no worse sin can be committed than to take it unworthily. I would prefer therefore not to take it, but to have the funeral services performed when I am gone.
As Grant declined he was moved to a cabin in upstate New York where the climate better suited his illness and suffering throat. He sat on the porch working feverishly to complete his memoirs. Former generals and military men paid their last respects, and Grant mostly communicated through notes by now. Well wishers often walked by his cabin and if they were fortunate Grant would tip his cap to them or raise a hand. One minister upon seeing Grant writing on his porch while suffering in such agony expressed that the image was “the finest sermon at which he had ever been present.”
Grant died three days after completing his memoirs in 1885. He dedicated the publication to the “American soldier and sailor.” When it was suggested that maybe he should change the dedication so that it read “the Union soldier and sailor,” he declined. The healing of the nation was always on Grant’s mind and at the conclusion his optimism shined as he stated his belief that the healing would continue. As Grant peacefully departed this life, his son stopped the clock at 8:08. The hand of the clock still remains fixed on that time in the cottage where Grant passed away. The cottage is Wilton, NY is heavily visited today and is an enduring symbol of Grant’s courageous life and death.
The well wishes poured in for one of the most beloved leaders in American history. Church bells across the country chimed 63 times, one for each year of Grant’s life. The former Confederate General James P. Longstreet called him “the soul of honor,” adding that Grant “was the highest type of manhood America has produced.”
While his funeral was epic affair of state, it clashed with the humility that Grant would cast in his memoirs. Often memoirs of great generals or statesmen are puffed up affairs, but Grant’s work would be forever known as a chronicle that praised the men around him, with the attention focused not on himself but the battles and conflict. The chronicles avoided flowery speech and was straightforward and honest, much like many of the fellow Midwesterners Grant led. Flood has written a powerful story and helps the reader to see why Grant was so loved even through faults and poor choices. It could be easily said that no American in the 19th Century was more admired than Grant and did more to save the country.