Of all the participants in the American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs were perhaps the most widely printed and distributed. His counterpart Robert E. Lee died before he could write one line of his memoirs. We only have his letters to understand his actions during the war.
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while he was still in office and we only have letters and official document to explore and understand his actions during the war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government in 1881. Davis completed A Short History of the Confederate States of America in October 1889 but died shortly after its publication. After her husband died, Varina Davis completed his autobiography, publishing it in 1890 as Jefferson Davis, A Memoir.
So it’s apparent that the highest-ranking official of the victorious Union to write about the war remains Ulysses S. Grant. In addition to his military service, Grant, of course, was elected President of the United States in 1868 and served two terms. He had forfeited his military pension when he assumed the Presidency, but Congress subsequently restored Grant to the rank of General of the Army with full retirement pay.
After he left the Presidency in 1877, Grant and his wife Julia took a trip around the world which left them short of money. At loose ends, Grant ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1880 but lost to former subordinate James Garfield who was assassinated in September 1881.
The Grants moved to New York City in 1881 to go into business with his son, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., and a young investor, Ferdinand Ward. Ward was described by his great-grandson Geoffrey Ward as “a very plausible, charming, unobtrusive, slender person with a genius for finding older people and pleasing them, which he learned early on.”
Initially, the firm was very successful using the combination of Grant’s name and Ward’s skills to amass a large amount of money. At one point Grant bragged that he was worth $2, 500,000. But it soon became clear that the business was simply a Ponzi scheme. Ward raised money from investors and rather than investing it he spent it on personal items. Grant & Ward failed in May 1884, leaving Grant penniless.
In the fall of 1884, Grant had been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Realizing that his time on earth was limited and concerned about the financial future of his wife, Grant signed a deal with his friend Mark Twain for his memoirs.
Grant was assisted of Adam Badeau, an author who had served on Grant’s staff during the war. Badeau left before the project was complete, over a with Grant and his family about his monetary compensation and writing credit credited for his research, editing and fact checking. After Grant’s death, Badeau settled with Grant’s heirs for $10,000, or about $250,000 in 2012 dollars.
Grant wrote furiously every day, sometimes writing 25 to 50 pages a day. All of this while suffering greatly from the advancing disease. In June 1885, as the cancer spread through his body, the family moved to Mount MacGregor, New York, to make Grant more comfortable. Propped up on chairs, and too weak to walk, Grant worked to finish the book. Friends, admirers and even a few former Confederate opponents made their way to Mount MacGregor to pay their respects. Grant finished the manuscript on July 18th; he died five days later.
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is a two-volume set. It is unique in that Grant’s antebellum life and his Presidency are given brief mention. The focus of the book is Grant’s Civil War service. It is apparent that he thought that to be of primary importance in his life’s work.
Grant wrote of his belief that the Mexican War, during which he performed with bravery and daring, was an unjust war whose aim was the spreading of slavery.
For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.
His observations of his wartime service are clearly written and honest to a fault. Where he was unsuccessful in battle, Grant makes clear who was to blame, either himself or his subordinates. His memoirs are a sharp contrast from contemporary Civil War memoirs, which tended to reflect the Victorian fondness for elaborate (and sometimes overblown) language.
Grant was a shrewd, intelligent, and effective writer. He portrayed himself in the persona of the honorable Western hero, whose strength lies in his honesty and straightforwardness. He candidly depicts his battles against both the external Confederates and internal Army foes.
His account of the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox is particularly notable for its attention to detail.
When I had left camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats. I had my staff with me, a good portion of whom were in the room during the whole of the interview.
What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us …
We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting, and said that he had asked for this interview for the purpose of getting from me the terms I proposed to give his army.
Grant ended his memoir with the following statement about the effects of war on the country.
I am not egotist enough to suppose all this significance should be given because I was the object of it. But the war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end. I commanded the whole of the mighty host engaged on the victorious side. I was, no matter whether deservedly so or not, a representative of that side of the controversy. It is a significant and gratifying fact that Confederates should have joined heartily in this spontaneous move. I hope the good feeling inaugurated may continue to the end.
After Grant’s death Mark Twain conducted an extensive and unique sales campaign for the memoirs. The press and public had followed Gran’s race to complete his memoir throughout the last year of his life. Twain compared it to Julius Caesar‘s Commentaries. Twain conducted a marketing campaign that targeted military veterans.
Ten thousand agents canvassed the North, following a script Twain had devised; many were themselves veterans who dressed in their old uniforms. They sold 350,000 two-volume sets at prices from $3.50 to $12 (depending on the binding). Each copy contained what looked like a handwritten note from Grant himself. In the end, Grant’s widow Julia received about $450,000 (greater than $10 million in 2009 dollars).
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is still in print some 128 years after its original publication. It can be purchased or downloaded in digital form for as little as $.99 on Amazon.com.