- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

On May 6, 1884, Ulysses S. Grant finally must have known the feeling of complete defeat that Robert E. Lee had experienced at Appomattox. Grant awoke that morning believing he was a wealthy man, only to learn later in the day that he was a virtual pauper after the collapse of Grant & Ward, the Wall Street brokerage house in which he had invested all his savings.
Grant & Ward had been formed as a partnership in 1881 by Ulysses S. (Buck) Grant Jr. and Ferdinand Ward ("the Young Napoleon of Finance"). It was Ward who actually ran the business and who seemed to have that golden touch.
The senior Grant bought his way into the firm with $100,000 and saw his investment balloon in value, at least on paper. Only a few days before the firm collapsed, the general told his wife, "Julia, you need not trouble to save for our children. Ward is making us all rich."
It was all smoke and mirrors. Ward was inflating the firm's assets, pledging the same securities as collateral against multiple loans and using the proceeds to pay inflated dividends to his investors. When the bubble burst, the balance sheet at Grant & Ward showed only $57,000 in assets against $16-plus million in liabilities.
The swindle earned Ward a trip "up the river" to Sing Sing prison, and Grant wasn't much better off. At one point, he and Julia had only about $200 in cash between them. They survived through the sale of some small properties and the kindness of strangers and friends.
That summer, while staying at their cottage on the New Jersey shore, the other shoe dropped. Grant experienced the first indications of the throat cancer that would claim his life. In her memoirs, Julia Grant told how her husband bit into a peach and then complained that he thought "something has stung me from the peach." He rinsed his throat again and again but said the water hurt him like "liquid fire."
Typically, the stoical old soldier refused to seek medical help until late October, when "his pains finally became so frequent and so acute" that Mrs. Grant persuaded him to see a doctor, according to Adam Badeau, his secretary and former military aide. The specialist's preliminary diagnosis was cancer, although the nature and the seriousness of the illness did not become general public knowledge for another three months.
In the meantime, Grant had launched a new career by agreeing to write a series of articles for Century magazine about four famous Civil War battles, for which he was to be paid $500 apiece. The articles were well-received, and the magazine began negotiating with Grant to publish his memoirs. He began working on them without waiting for a contract, knowing his time was short and wanting to provide for his family after his death.

Enter Mark Twain
At this point, in November 1884, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) entered the picture and attempted to sign Grant for his own newly formed publishing company. Some have branded Twain a "pirate publisher" for this effrontery, but his interest was more than just commercial.
He was a great admirer of the general's and believed Century was exploiting him by offering its standard 10 percent royalty. He noted that the magazine had registered substantial gains in subscriptions after the Grant articles and had paid the author a relative pittance.
Twain offered Grant 20 percent of sales or 70 percent of profits. Grant chose the latter because, he told Twain, he didn't want to make money if the company lost money on his book.
The contract was signed at the end of February 1885, but Grant's condition had deteriorated, and there was considerable doubt that he would live long enough to finish the book. Badeau noted that the war hero and former president no longer could sleep in bed because "a sensation of choking invariably attacked him in that position." Instead, he "slept in a large easy chair with his feet in another, propped up by pillows, wearing a dressing gown and his legs swathed in blankets."
Grant's doctors now issued daily bulletins, and crowds of the concerned and curious maintained a constant vigil outside the general's New York home on 66th Street just off Fifth Avenue. The newspapers, too, closely followed every development. Typical was the March 1, 1885, New York Times story, which carried this deck of headlines:
SINKING INTO THE GRAVE
GENERAL GRANT'S FRIENDS GIVE UP HOPE
DYING SLOWLY FROM CANCER
WORKING CALMLY ON HIS BOOK IN SPITE OF PAIN
SYMPATHY ON EVERY SIDE
At the end of March, Grant's health declined sharply, with fits of severe coughing and vomiting. Expecting "to die within 48 hours," he surrounded himself with family. He was markedly better in April, however able to go for drives, dine with the family and continue writing, now racing against time to finish the book. Indeed, the book project and his determination to see it through became his primary reason for living.
In early May, Grant parted company with Badeau. Badeau had moved in with the Grants the previous fall to do research for the general and provide editorial assistance, but apparently he thought of himself as something more. He was the author of a well-regarded three-volume military history of Grant, and he felt that his contributions to the memoir were being undervalued. His displeasure probably was the source of a New York World article in mid-April that identified Badeau as the true author of the Grant memoirs.
Another factor in the split was money. Orders for the book were pouring in as thousands of subscription agents (door-to-door salesmen, many wearing their old, faded Union blues) fanned out across the country. Badeau felt he was entitled to a larger slice of the pie, especially because he knew Grant's memoirs would depress sales of his own books.
On May 2, Badeau stated his terms in a letter to Grant, and three days later received his marching orders from the old soldier: "I have concluded that you and I must give up all association so far as the preparation of any literary work goes which is to bear my signature." Grant's son Fred replaced Badeau as his chief assistant.
Although his condition continued to worsen, Grant worked steadily and began dictating parts of the book to speed the process. Julia Grant noted that the "General's memoirs occupied every leisure moment. He even wrote at night sometimes when sleep would not come to him. He worked on and on in his labor of love, his health gradually failing."
As summer approached, Grant accepted the invitation of Joseph Drexel to use his "cottage" at Mount McGregor, N.Y., near Saratoga Springs. On June 16, the Grant party left New York City aboard William Vanderbilt's private railroad car for the arduous journey to the Adirondacks. The general had only five weeks of life remaining.
At Mount McGregor, Grant became a tourist attraction, spending much of his time on the cottage's wraparound porch reading, writing and receiving visitors. Thousands of Union veterans came with their families in hope of catching a glimpse of their old commander, and he periodically acknowledged this solemn parade of admirers with a nod of his head or a wave of his hand. Historian William McFeeley noted that the porch became "as photographed as any in American history."
"He seemed to rally for a while in the cool mountain air," Julia Grant wrote, "and our hopes revived." He wrote on and on. He finished his book about July 19. "His work was done, and to our dismay he grew rapidly weaker and weaker, and on the morning of July the twenty third, he, my beloved, my all, passed away and I was alone, alone."
The general had made sure that Mrs. Grant would want for nothing after his death. "The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant" not only was a critical success but a best seller as well. On Feb. 27, 1886, two months after the presses began rolling, Twain handed Julia Grant the largest royalty check ever written up to that time $200,000. Eventually, she received between $420,000 and $450,000 and was able to live comfortably until her death in 1902 at age 76.
Grant's almost superhuman effort to complete his memoirs with the whole country looking over his shoulder wiped away any lingering bad memories of his White House failures and the more recent debacle of Grant & Ward. In the last year of his life, he was the "old" Grant, the stubborn commander who had put backbone into the Union cause, after assuming overall military command, by declaring at the Battle of the Wilderness, "I intend to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."
Once again, Grant had stayed the course, and only when the battle was won did he retire from the field.
John G. Leyden writes from Davidsonville, Md.


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