When I kick around ideas for hist-fic novels, I try to look for watershed moments in history around which to build my story. I focus on the Gilded Age because of so many unsung pivotal points at that time in history. The Schombürgk Line, for example, is set during the Venezuelan Boundary Dispute, when the British slowly came to view the United States as a force with which to be reckoned. In that vein, I take note of an important anniversary that falls on this day: exactly 150 years ago, Ulysses S. Grant took command of the United States Army. Although it outsized and outgunned its Confederate adversary, the army had suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the southerners, thus prompting President Abraham Lincoln to gamble on the reputedly boozy warrior who graduated in the bottom half of his class at West Point. Grant was even promoted to Lieutenant General (three stars), a rank unfilled since 1798.
While a vast majority of academic historians (few of whom ever led armies in battle or countries at peace, for that matter) have dubbed Grant’s presidency a failure, the opinions are more diverse with regard to his military leadership. I think an honest assessment would be that he had some instinctive gifts as a warrior, but that he also made a few colossal boners. Phil Leigh, a longtime Civil War aficionado, wrote this in the New York Times:
While Grant’s mistakes should not be denied, neither should his excellence be minimized. At Donelson and Shiloh his confidence turned the tide after initial setbacks. Vicksburg was a brilliant campaign, and when sent to the East he did not retreat from Lee’s army even when tactically beaten. When necessary he could rise to the occasion. After Lincoln’s assassination, radical Republicans urged that Robert E. Lee be tried for treason, thereby potentially starting a wave of executions. Grant ended the matter by telling President Andrew Johnson he would resign if the surrender at Appomattox, which included de-facto amnesty for Lee and his soldiers, were not honored.
Whatever our prejudices, it is safe to say that Grant had his moments. Things did, in fact, get better after he took charge, so there is at least positive correlation in his favor. Still, what fascinates me most about Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant, he changed his name to Ulysses S to conform to an error on the West Point plebe roster) was his warrior doggedness at the end of his life. It is a testament to his character as a man and, interestingly, as a writer.
I recommend Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelen Flood to any reader who wants to see character and grit in action. As president, Grant trusted untrustworthy men who awarded government contracts to a railroad in exchange for kickbacks. This lapse in judgment tainted his administration with scandal and earned him the “failure” moniker by the tenured eggheads. It goes without saying that I think their verdict is unbalanced but the fact remains that good character does not necessarily translate into judging accurately the character of others. As much as it hurt his presidency, Grant’s tendency toward misplaced faith hurt him personally in 1884, when he was picked clean by his business partner, Ferdinand Ward, leaving the former president financially bankrupt. Ward was later convicted of grand larceny and promptly shipped off to Sing Sing prison.
As if losing all his hard-earned money was not enough of a jolt, Grant was soon thereafter informed by his doctor that he had cancer of the mouth and throat. Knowing his days were numbered, Ulysses Grant resolved not to leave his family penniless. What he lacked in business acumen, he possessed abundantly in personal honor. Loath to rely on compassionate friends for food and shelter, Grant accepted an offer from Century magazine to pen a series of articles about his Civil War experiences. He soon discovered a latent way with words, and gave serious consideration to the magazine’s offer to publish is memoir in full. Enter his friend, Mark Twain, who lent his own publishing arm to the endeavor, advising Grant of greater profitability in the venture. This time, Grant trusted the right person.
|Ulysses S. Grant writes his memoir while dying of cancer.|
As his pain and discomfort grew over the following weeks and months, Ulysses Grant refused to let up on the project, racing the clock of mortality to complete the book. When rest and relief were at their most seductive, the ex-president and general became all the more determined to work through his agony and finish. He did so…four days before his death. From Flood’s account:
The moment marked the end of an amazing effort. He had begun writing his Memoirs at the beginning of the previous September and was ending his work almost exactly a year later. The printed two-volume book would contain 1,215 pages of text and 291,000 words. This included a seventy-seven page appendix consisting of Grant’s report written at the end of the war concerning his command of the “Armies of the United States” during 1864 and 1865. In an added instance of symmetry, Grant had submitted that report to Secretary of War Stanton on July 22, 1865—just two days short of twenty years before this day he finished his Memoirs. Subtracting those seventy-seven pages, written when he was in good health, in the past year he had written an average of seven-hundred and fifty words every painful day.
That many words may sound modest to some professional writers, but try writing 750 words while suffering in the throes of bodily torment. This was an amazing act of love for his wife and children as well as a shining example of personal discipline. Commissioned a century and a half ago to end the War Between the States, Ulysses S. Grant was beginning to live a life that grew exponentially in value. That value paid off handsomely when Twain published Grant’s Memoirs in 1885. His family was financially secure for life because the former president understood the connection between self-sacrifice and reward.
Lesson learned, General. Thank you.