The “Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” covering Grant’s years as commanding general of the Union Army during the Civil War and his two-term presidency, has been justifiably acclaimed as one of the best books of its genre, on a par with Julius Caesar’s “Commentaries.” The back story of the memoirs - a cancer-stricken man writing to stave off financial ruin for his wife - makes his work even more compelling. It is this story that drives Charles Bracelen Flood’s “Grant’s Final Victory.”
When Grant finished his second term as president in 1877, he was arguably the most popular person in America, respected even by his wartime adversaries. But his financial future was dim, for he had surrendered his claim to a military pension when entering the White House. In an act of grace, admirers led by financier J.P. Morgan gave Grant and his wife $100,000 to enable them to settle in New York, and created a trust that would pay $15,000 a year for life. Grant’s son married into a wealthy family as well.
Unfortunately, the military genius Grant had displayed on the battlefield did not extend to financial affairs. Hence, he was an easy mark for promoter Ferdinand War, “The Young Napoleon of Wall Street,” and his partner, James D. Fish. They persuaded Grant to invest all his own money, and much more from his daughter-in-law’s family, in a firm named Grant & Ward. Displaying fake balance sheets, Ward and Fish convinced the gullible general that his original investment of about $100,000 had quickly grown to “nigh on to a million.”
In fact, Ward and Fish were running a Ponzi scheme. (Perhaps we should update the term to a “Bernie Madoff scheme”?) The fund went bust, with investors out $16 million. Grant, who had no role in operations of the fund, was left broke.
What could be done to keep his wife from ending her days in poverty? Immediately after his presidency, Grant had rejected offers to write a memoir. But the loss of his fortune brought second thoughts. Century Magazine, among the nation’s most popular journals, persuaded him to submit four articles as part of a series of memoirs by Civil War generals, for $500 each.
The magazine’s gifted 31-year-old associate editor, Robert Underwood Johnson, was disappointed with Grant’s first submission on the battle of Shiloh, which he found “substantially a copy of his dry official report of that engagement.” But in their conversations, Johnson realized that Grant was a natural storyteller. Johnson offered suggestions worth heeding by any writer.
“I told him that what was desirable for the success of the [article] was to approximate such a talk as he would make to friends after dinner, some of whom would know all about the battle and some nothing at all, and that the public … was particularly interested in his point of view, in everything that concerned him, in what he planned, thought, saw and did ….” Century then persuaded the general to convert the articles into a full book.
Fortunately for Grant, his friend Mark Twain read the book contract before he signed it. As Twain commented, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Century offered a royalty of 10 cents per book sold; further, it wanted to deduct from Grant’s payments “his book’s share of clerk hire, house rent, sweeping out the office, or some such nonsense as that.” Because the books were to be sold by prepaid subscriptions rather than through stores, the prospects for profit were awesome. Demonstrating his faith in the project, Twain offered Grant $100,000 on the spot, saying he would publish it himself.
After negotiations with Century overseen by Twain, Grant received 20 percent of gross sales, plus a $10,000 advance (not a customary practice at the time) for living expenses while he wrote the book. An exultant Twain envisioned that the royalties “will make the largest check ever paid an author in the world’s history.”
But Grant immediately faced another problem. A nagging cough and soreness in his throat made even drinking water excruciatingly painful. He was diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer - perhaps the result of the 24 daily cigars that had long been his regimen. Grant did have research assistants, but he wrote every word in the book. He commenced work in early September 1884; on July 20, 1885, as Twain related, “he put aside his pencil and said there was nothing more to do.” Cancer killed him three days later.
The two-volume book contained 291,000 words in 1,215 pages, including a 77-page appendix containing Grant’s final wartime report. By Mr. Flood’s calculation, the old warrior wrote 750 words “every painful day.” About 300,000 copies of the two-volume set were sold the year of publication, and Grant’s widow received $450,000 in royalties (about $10 million in 2011 dollars).
Charles Bracelen Flood burnishes his reputation as a top-notch historian with the poignant story of the last year of a gallant American hero. Grant’s performance under adversity makes for an inspiring story.
Joseph C. Goulden’s expanded edition of “Spy-Speak: The Dictionary of Intelligence” will be published by Dover Books in January.