This book is not about Grant’s military campaigns; rather, it concerns his struggle to finish his still-celebrated memoirs before cancer killed him, in order that his wife and children would have an income after he died. It is also a love story: about how so many people adored Grant for his goodness and unwavering trust in them. This made him, tragically, an easy mark for the many who would exploit that trust, but provided enduring inspiration for those who deserved it. At the end of the book, when the author describes how a bugler playing taps at Grant’s tomb caused General William Tecumseh Sherman to begin sobbing, I was sobbing right there with him.
Grant was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and throat in 1884. (Remarkably, considering the long hold tobacco has had on this country, Grant’s doctors quite quickly and confidently attributed the affliction to Grant’s life-long cigar habit.) At the time, Grant and his family were newly impecunious, following a huge financial swindle by his partners in an investment firm. All of Grant’s family had invested there also. It turned out Grant didn’t even own his house; one of his partner’s had offered to take care of the purchase, but had taken the money instead. Grant was furious; he had trusted these men, just as he had trusted so many in his presidential administration who also had succumbed to venality and graft. Grant, throughout his life, conducted his affairs as he had led the Union Army; he found men he thought worthy, delegated tasks to them, and then counted on them to carry out his directives. But too many men lacked Grant’s moral strength. In the end, Grant had no choice but to take care of his affairs on his own.
For the last year of his life, Grant struggled to put together a two-volume memoir that would prevent his family from financial ruin. He was in immense pain and eventually had a tumor the size of “two fists put together” on the side of his throat. He wrote that he was plagued by hemorrhaging, strangulation, and exhaustion. Nevertheless, he carried on valiantly. Three days after he was done with the book, and months after the doctors thought he couldn’t live another day, he finally let go and passed away.
Grant was originally to publish his memoirs with Robert Underwood Johnson, but Mark Twain offered him better terms, and he went with Twain. Nevertheless, he remained on good terms with Johnson and prepared four articles for him that final year in addition to working on his book. Johnson came to see Grant shortly before his death, and later wrote:
“I could hardly keep back the tears as I made my farewell to the great soldier who saved the Union for all its people and to the man of warm and courageous heart who had fought his last long battle for those he so tenderly loved.”
Grant had been heralded for personal bravery in the Mexican War, leading attacks at San Cosme and moving soldiers across the cholera-infested Isthmus of Panama. And of course his valor in the Civil War is more widely known. But those who watched him in his final year contend that his bravest act of all was his perseverance and shear determination to stay alive until his memoir was in place for his family’s future. As one clergyman later said, “the sight of Grant at work while in pain was the finest sermon at which he had ever been present.”
Discussion: Grant was a remarkable figure whose generosity of spirit was rivaled only by Lincoln’s. Following “his simple, gracious, generous treatment of Robert E. Lee and his men at Appomattox Court House,” for the rest of his life Lee never allowed a negative word to be said about Grant in his presence. One of Lee’s great generals, James Longstreet (who also happened to be Julia Grant’s cousin and had been Grant’s best man at his wedding to Julia), remarked at Grant’s death:
“He was the truest as well as the bravest man who ever lived. … Grant was a modest man, a simple man, a man believing in the honesty of his fellows, true to his friends, faithful to traditions, and of great personal honor.”
There is a wonderful story in the book about how both former Federals and Confederates in Congress worked to get Grant’s military pension reinstated (he had to forfeit it when he became U.S. President), even physically turning back the clock in the U.S. Capitol before Congress adjourned so that the bill could be passed before Congress got dismissed.
Both Union and Confederate former generals served as pallbearers.
Evaluation: Although this is a work of nonfiction, under the able hands of the entertaining historian Charles Bracelen Flood, this book is a page-turner that has you not only reaching for the Kleenex box, but aching to get to Grant’s memoir itself, which has been lauded as one of the finest presidential memoirs ever written. (Mark Twain wrote, “General Grant’s book is a great, unique, and unapproachable literary masterpiece.”) I didn’t see this book as a hagiography; it’s really meant to be an examination of Grant’s last year, taken at face value. From historical biographies, we know that Grant was human, and a man of his times. In other words, he had his flaws as do most people. But like Lincoln, he was also a man who could transcend his times and rise above them. I don’t think you can come away from this book with many negative impressions about the last year, at any rate, of one of our greatest public figures.
Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2011