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Master of the Sword and Pen: The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant

The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant are considered by many to be one of the finest works of American literature ever produced. The memorable words of the great soldier and statesman hold even more significance when one considers the tragic conditions that ultimately led him to put pen to paper. In the words of Grant biographer Ron Chernow, “Seldom, if ever, has a literary masterpiece been composed under such horrific circumstances.”

Long before his rise to glory as the top Union commander who won the Civil War and his time in office as the 18th President of the United States, a period in which he kept the reunited nation at peace while protecting the freed slaves, Ulysses S. Grant was a man accustomed to a life of hardship. After dedicating himself to his country in war and in peace, life once again handed him a series of savage blows, but this time, those hits were more crushing than ever before.

From working as a clerk at his father’s store and struggling to obtain a commission upon the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Ulysses S. Grant rose to improbable heights, eventually being named General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States with over a million men under his command and masterminding the Union’s ultimate victory over the Confederacy. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In May 1884, Grant and many of his family members lost their life savings as a result of the duplicity of Ferdinand Ward, a financier whom Grant had entered into a partnership with. As Chernow puts it, “Ward turned out to be literally the Bernie Madoff of his day.” A month later, Grant began to experience burning pain whenever he swallowed anything. In October, he learned from his doctor that he was afflicted with throat cancer. Terrified that he would die and leave his beloved wife Julia destitute, the legendary general summoned all of his remaining strength to fight the last great battle of his life with the power of the pen.

After the Civil War was over, many of the prominent figures who had shaped the conflict could hardly wait to write their memoirs. U.S. Grant was not one of them. As Chernow writes, he “was content to march to his grave in dignified silence, letting his extraordinary wartime record speak for itself.” It was only after he was left broke and diagnosed with cancer that Grant finally agreed to pen his memoirs in order to ensure that his wife and family would have financial security after he was gone.

Enduring pain so severe that even something as simple as trying to swallow food or water left him in terrible agony, Grant sometimes toiled over his manuscript for up to six hours a day. It was a race against time for him, and as Chernow records, he “pumped out 336,000 words of superb prose in a year.” As Grant’s throat cancer continued to progress, he was eventually forced to dictate his words. After he lost his voice, he continued to relentlessly work, scribbling messages on thin strips of paper.

As Chernow describes this photograph, "Less than a month from his death, a stoic Grant pens his Personal Memoirs," writing on the porch of his final residence at Mount McGregor, New York. Chernow also notes that the muffler around Grant's neck concealed "a tumor the size of a baseball." (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Perseverant until the very end, Ulysses S. Grant won his final battle, completing his manuscript on July 16, 1885, just one week before his death. The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant went on to sell a record-breaking three hundred thousand copies in two-volume sets. Julia Grant eventually received around $450,000, which Chernow writes was “an astonishing sum for book royalties at the time.”

In his last act, U.S. Grant had indeed triumphed, leaving his beloved wife with financial security for the remainder of her days. His work is still considered the golden standard of military memoirs. To this day, Grant’s words continue to speak to us.


Grant by Ron Chernow.

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