Review of “Grant’s Final Victory” by Charles Bracelen Flood

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 working on his memoirs

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.”

Famous picture by Matthew Brady of Grant in the Civil War

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.

Rating: 4.25/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2011

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21 Responses to Review of “Grant’s Final Victory” by Charles Bracelen Flood

  1. Patti Smith says:

    I must have this…sounds incredible!

  2. Nymeth says:

    Wow, he sounds like a remarkable man. Such amazing willpower! thanks for bringing this to my attention – it seems to be the kind of non-fiction I love.

  3. This books sounds great. Thanks for recommending it!

  4. I am related to Grant on my father’s side, so he has always interested me. This sounds fascinating.

  5. zibilee says:

    Oh my, this does indeed sound like a fascinating book, and one that I would love to read. I am not much for military history, so I doubt that Grant’s other exploits would interest me, but the story of his immense bravery in trying to write through his illness sounds like it would really affect me. What a thoughtful and erudite review, Jill. Thanks for sharing this with me. I am off to see how I can grab this book.

  6. Going on my Goodreads “to-read” shelf immediately! Although just your review almost made me tear up, so I’m pretty sure I will bawl my eyes out while reading this!

  7. Sweet baby Jesus. What an incredible review and I’m jumping up to mark it on my to read shelf as well. I would have been bawling away in the scene you described also. Isn’t it amazing how heroic a person can be, and then for his own family, the true heroism shines through? To know that he kept going specifically to work on the memoir in order to save his family from financial ruin and that he expired only a few days after he completed it is unbelievably inspiring. I’ll make sure to get my box of tissues out for this one when I read it. I’m tweeting your review out into the world as well.

  8. Alyce says:

    This does sound like a fabulous and heart-wrenching account. I just got a pitch to review this one this morning in my inbox, but I’ve already said yes to way too many books lately. I’ll just have to make note of it for a time when I am in the mood and able to fit it in.

  9. Jenny says:

    I’ve had a really increased interest in presidential history/American history in the past few years. I found myself fascinated by your review of this book and will be keeping both this and his memoirs in mind for later reads!

  10. BermudaOnion says:

    My first thought was that I wouldn’t be interested in a book about Grant but, if this one made you cry, it must be full of emotion. I’ll have to think about it.

  11. Aarti says:

    I LOVE Ulysses S. Grant. I don’t know when I first read about him, but I felt so sad that his amazing generalship in the Civil War was later tainted by his Presidency. The way others fought for him and respected him really speaks volumes about his character, and I am glad this book highlights that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  12. softdrink says:

    I’m not normally a fan of presidential history, but I’m almost finished with Destiny of the Republic and it’s so good (and also sad 😦 . And gross, too…I keep reading about pus pockets while I’m eating).

    So now that I’ve fallen in love with Garfield I might have to see if Grant can replace him in my affections.

  13. Margot says:

    I wasn’t prepared to admire a book about Grant, but you’ve made me want to know more via this book.

  14. Julie P. says:

    This sounds like a non-fiction book that I’d even enjoy. But I bet Booking Pap Pap would appreciate it even more.

  15. Jenny says:

    I was reading a book earlier this year that dealt with this exact subject matter! But it wasn’t very good — the writing was poor and the writer wanted to always be drawing connections between Grant’s and Twain’s lives, no matter how forced. I must read this one instead! I liked the subject matter and wanted to know more.

  16. I’ve always admired Grant and now after reading your review I got all teared up! I want to read this one!

  17. Care says:

    I do enjoy reading books like this; on to the tbr! THanks.

  18. Barbara says:

    I have always admired Grant tremendously. I don’t blame the corruption during his administration on anything but his failure to see how people were using him. I knew this story but hadn’t read this book, and now I will. It also makes me think higher of grumpy old, funny Mark Twain. 🙂

  19. stacybuckeye says:

    Your review alone makes me want to read his two volume memoirs! I am always interested in the men who hold presidential office (ok, I can think of one I would never read a bio for, but I digress…). I’m going to have to look for this one.

  20. Gerald says:

    I only recently heard about this book when Elaine Charles played a segment of the audio book on her radio show The Book Report. You can listen to the archived shows on http://bookreportradio.com.
    I love any history to do with American presidents and will certainly be reading this book.

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