Simanaitis Says

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HERE’S ANOTHER in my series about U.S. Presidents who demonstratively knew how to read a book and even write one. Ulysses S. Grant’s literary effort involved his friend Mark Twain, a fatal illness and a con man who in a sense precipitated Grant’s authorship. Today, the book is highly respected, even earning a 2016 movie mention.

Ulysses S. Grant, 1822–1885, 18th President of the United States, Commanding General of the U.S. Army, 1864–1869.

After President Grant’s second term in office, he and his wife took a trip around the world in 1877. Then he got caught up with Ferdinand Ward, a young investor, some would say con man. Ward was first known as the Young Napoleon of Finance, and later as the Best-Hated Man in the United States.

The Grant & Ward banking and brokerage firm opened in 1880. It struggled along briefly on the strength of Grant’s name. And then in 1884, it collapsed in a Ponzi scheme of Ward’s concoction.

This left Grant impoverished. His friend Mark Twain suggested that, to ease this quandary, Grant had an important story to tell. And, indeed, Twain helped to publish the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a two-volume work recounting Grant’s military career during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.

While writing the book, Grant was already suffering greatly from cancer of the throat. Adam Badeau, a former staff member, helped with the book, but left before its completion. As the cancer spread through Grant’s body, he continued writing, at times forcing himself to finish as many as 50 pages a day. The manuscript was completed on July 18, 1885. Grant died five days later.

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, by Ulysses S. Grant, Charles L. Webster & Co., two volumes, 1885–1886. Image from Manhattan Rare Books.

His contemporaries’ memoirs tended to be flowery, overblown and occasionally self-serving. Grant’s writing was honest and thoughtful. As an example, here’s an excerpt from his account of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865:

“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….”

Grant also addressed legends that had arose around his leadership. About one, he wrote, “Like many other stories, it would be very good if it were only true.”

He also wrote, “I am not egoist enough to suppose all this significance should be given because I was the object of it.”

He knew death was near when he wrote of his wish for the North and South to live in peace: “I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel within me that it is to be so….”

Twain compared his friend’s work to the classic Julius Caesar’s Commentaries. Gertrude Stein was quoted as saying she could not think of Grant and his book without weeping.

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant: All Volumes, by Ulysses S. Grant, CreateSpace, 2013.

It was announced in 2015 that an annotated edition of Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is being assembled by the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library and Museum located at Mississippi State University.

Genius, starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney, 2016.

The 2016 movie Genius pays a tribute to Grant’s Memoirs. In the movie, when dealing with Thomas Wolfe, a self-indulgent undisciplined author, famed Scribner book editor Max Perkins praises Grant as a model of dedicated authorship. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Tom Sutton
    March 11, 2017

    You may be interested to know I worked with Hap Grant at work. His given name was Ulysses S Grant VIi. :

  2. carmacarcounselor
    March 11, 2017

    Having slogged my way through all the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography (I can’t bring myself to attack the appendices and annotations.) I have some acquaintance with Grants struggles, which Twain describes at first hand. Grant appears to have been a character in a Greek tragedy.

  3. Skip
    March 12, 2017

    Dennis, speaking as a southern man (okay, I moved down south from Boston), I would like to point out that Grant’s memoirs were at least as self-serving as his contemporaries. It has recently come to light that Historians of the Northern War of Aggression (it’s only a Civil War if both parties seek control of the whole) referenced each other in a concatenated manner one after the other. Author A references author B who…. ultimately referenced Grant himself. Many of these independent vectors of stratified references lead to Grant. One source. And that source, just a man, was not adverse to rewriting history to crystallise his legacy and I dare say mask his unfounded personal insecurities. There has surfaced a pattern of behaviour where Grant sacrifices the honour, excellent judgement and service of his own subordinates for his own benefit. Just a man, great in many respects, gracious at Appomattox, but I would suggest no less self-serving than most.

    • simanaitissays
      March 12, 2017

      “Northern War of Aggression”? Geez. I’ll stand with the generally accepted view of Grant’s objectivity and of the term “Civil War.”

  4. carmacarcounselor
    March 12, 2017

    I’d compromise and agree to the term a freind once used, “War for Southern Independence.”

  5. Skip
    March 12, 2017

    I’m afraid my dry (too dry) humour did not convey very well. Regarding Grant, I’ll stand by my reservations on the assiduous veracity of his memoirs. Regarding the Civil War, it had to happen of course to right the evil and despicable wrong. Last week on a long drive home I listened to the post-war writings of Jefferson Davis as part of a Civil War podcast. Or at least tried to. At first, he seemed like an intelligent and well-spoken man, but his view of the world and how he justified it was just astonishing. I just couldn’t take it. It’s hard to believe men once looked at right and wrong in such a perverted manner…..

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