We all hope to show courage in some form during our lifetimes. We are seldom required to do so in dramatic fashion. For most of us, it’s limited to the courage required to put bread on the table or to put our children through school.
Ulysses S. Grant had shown great courage on the battlefield in the Mexican War. Afterward he struggled with near-poverty, dressing shabbily and working long days at Hardscrabble – 60 acres of Missouri farm land his father-in-law gave to Grant’s wife, Julia. Just before the Civil War, Grant had been reduced to going hat in hand to his father, accepting employment as his father’s store clerk in a last-ditch effort to keep his family above water.
Then came Fort Sumter. The rest, as they say, is history. Grant, of course, went on to rise to the rank of commanding general over all the Union armies and in 1868 was elected as the country’s 18th President.
Between his times of military service and occupation of the White House, Grant had struggled to achieve some form of financial security. In early 1884, he smiled at the thought that he had finally gotten the knack of finances or, at the very least, had met someone who had the knack. On paper, Grant was almost a millionaire.
In the early 1880’s, Ulysses, Jr. (“Buck”) partnered with a young wizard of Wall Street, Ferdinand Ward, to form the investment house of Grant & Ward. Ward had the charm and apparent investing talent that drew many wealthy clients. Adding the Grant name to his business did not hurt. All of the Grants bought in. The former general and President saw double-digit returns between 1881 and 1884.
But just like many victims before and since, the Grant family ultimately realized they had bought into a pyramid scheme. The jig was up in May of 1884. Ward could no longer cover his loans and his clients were left with nothing.
Grant, who previously had resisted writing articles for the magazine Century about some of the great battles of the Civil War, no longer had any choice. He wrote articles about Shiloh and Vicksburg for $500 each. The Century’s subscriptions and advertising business increased dramatically.
Grant was prepared to write his memoirs for a 10% royalty when his friend Samuel (“Mark Twain”) Clemens learned about the arrangement. Clemens was aghast when he heard about the small fee Grant had received for his articles and persuaded Grant to negotiate better terms before signing a contract for his memoirs. Grant ultimately reached an agreement to allow Clemens’ publishing company to publish the memoirs, and went to work.
In October, 1884, a physician gave hints that Grant’s horribly sore throat probably was due to cancer. Grant did not falter. He had to provide something for his widow. At the invitation of industrialist Joseph Drexel, Grant spent the spring of 1885 at Drexel’s rambling cottage in the Adirondacks. On July 22, he completed his over 200,000-word memoirs. He died the following morning.
He had done what he must to provide for his widow. In the fall of 1886, Clemens presented Julia Grant with a royalty check of $200,000 (equivalent to between five and six million dollars in 2014 currency). Another $250,000 in royalties would follow. Between Grant’s perseverance and Clemens’ good timing, Julia Grant could spend her remaining years in comfort.
Grant’s military talents are beyond dispute. His Presidency – perhaps not. But as a man in the really hard times, when events did not turn his way, he soldiered on, doing the best he could for his family. In the end, his perseverance and, finally, one turn of good luck in the form of Mark Twain, won out. He provided for the woman he loved his entire adult life. This is the Grant I admire the most.
Brands, H.W. The Man Who Saved the Union. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2012.
Mark Twain Project. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Smith, Jean Edward. Grant. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
See also The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (reprinted by Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, Connecticut).