Ulysses S. Grant is best remembered as the Union commander who finally defeated Robert E. Lee, and as a two-term President of the United States. His Personal Memoirs has become one of the most famous and widely read of military texts, and is a staple of anyone interested in the American Civil War. In Grant’s Final Victory, author Charles Bracelen Flood describes how personal tragedy and financial ruin shaped the creation of the Memoirs, as a dying man sought to provide for the future of his family.
The post-bellum period is rightly receiving increasing attention from scholars, as efforts are made to try and understand the impact the conflict had on the later lives of those who lived through it. There was perhaps no veteran better known than Ulysses S. Grant. Flood, the author of books such as Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War and Lee: The Last Years begins his narrative in 1884, when the world of Ulysses S. Grant began to unravel. Having failed to win a third Republican nomination for President in 1879, Grant had embarked on a World Tour (which included a visit to Ireland) before returning to the U.S. and becoming involved in an investment banking firm named Grant & Ward. The future seemed bright as the business grew and money seemingly flowed in. Financial worries for the General and his family seemed a thing of the past.
Although not particularly savvy when it came to financial markets, Grant placed his trust in James Fish and Ferdinand Ward who were experts in the industry. Everything collapsed for Grant when it was revealed that the operations of the firm had been a financial swindle by these two men, leaving Grant, and much of his extended family who had also invested, penniless. To compound the situation Grant learned soon afterwards that he was suffering from throat cancer, with only slim prospects for survival. Despite the good-will of the thousands of veterans who had served under him, the spectre of his family being left without financial security following his death haunted Grant.
Throughout most of his post-war career Grant had refused to write memoirs or provide personal accounts of his service. His changed circumstances altered that, and Grant set to work at a feverish pace to produce the book that would provide for his family when he was gone. Flood’s narrative of the great man’s final year of life is filled with a sequence of events and cast of characters that make this book difficult to put down. They include Grant’s loving wife Julia, who supported her ‘Ulyss’ to the end, Mark Twain, who published the Memoirs and befriended the General, and William H. Vanderbildt, one of the wealthiest men in America who showed great kindness to the family following their financial disaster.
The author has successfully mined personal and print media accounts which allow the reader to follow Grant through these final months. The conqueror of Lee spent his last weeks in a house on Mt. McGregor in upstate New York, taking advantage of the clearer air to complete his work (interestingly, among the small group of family and staff that accompanied him was a maid who’s discretion with the press regarding Grant’s illness earned her the title of ’the tight-mouthed daughter of the Emerald Isle’). Flood documents the dying man’s final, incredible efforts to finish the Memoirs, as his health continued to fail. He completed his 291,000 word, two volume book on 20th July, less than a year after he started writing. Only days later, on 23rd July 1885, the 63 year old died- having accomplished what he set out to do.
Grant’s Final Victory presents a different side of Ulysses S. Grant to the one we witness in books that chart his Civil War exploits. Here is a man stoically facing his own mortality, trying to deal with the betrayal that financially exposed him and his family. His response was to produce one of the finest pieces of literature of his day, and one which achieved its goal of providing for those closest to him. Charles Bracelen Flood brings this story to life, and opens up for us a new perspective on Ulysses S. Grant.
*I am grateful to Da Capo Press for providing a review copy of this book
References & Further Reading
Flood, Charles Bracelen 2011. Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year. 288pp.