Grant’s Final Victory – Book Review
Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year. Charles Bracelen Flood. Da Capo Press, 2011. 247 pages, notes, bibliography, index. Paperback. $17.50.
Grant’s Final Victory is Charles Bracelen Flood’s thirteenth book and follows his bestselling Lee: The Last Years and Grant and Sherman: the Friendship that won the Civil War. This work, however, is not about the Union general’s final wartime campaign but his campaign to complete his memoirs before cancer takes his life.
The plague of events that beset Grant after his presidency and retirement to private life may surprise readers. Following his resignation from the army in 1854, Grant was destitute and barely scratching out a living when the war began. The war changed his fortunes, of course, and brought the Grant family enormous fame and wealth.
Following his two terms as president and a two-year world tour, Grant settled in New York and lent his name, and all his remaining wealth, to an investment firm run by Ferdinand Ward. But Ward, in fact, was running a Ponzi scheme using Grant’s name to attract wealthy and prominent investors. Events caught up with Ward, and the firm of “Grant and Ward” went bust in 1884. General Grant, along with many relatives who also invested with the firm, was broke.
The Grant family again was destitute and dependent on loans and monetary gifts to survive; selling off his wartime mementos and real estate to pay back their benefactors, of which there were many. Americans from both the upper and lower classes contributed money to Grant’s cause.
The Century Magazine then approached Grant with an offer to buy any articles he cared to write of his wartime experiences for their Battles & Leaders serial. So impressed were they by Grant’s initial efforts that the article offer became a deal to publish his memoirs—if he chose to write them. By then, Grant had been diagnosed with cancer of the throat and, still recovering from the Grant & Ward debacle, worried how to provide for his wife and extended family after his death. Initially resistant to the idea that anyone would care to read anything he wrote, Grant saw the book offer as a way out of his financial woes, as The Century memoir offer would net him much more money than an article would. He initially accepted the Century offer, but then received a substantially better deal from Mark Twain’s publishing house.
Grant’s Final Victory is Flood’s moving and very intimate account of Grant’s race against time to complete his two-volume memoirs.
Today’s readers may find it difficult to understand the impact Grant had on 19th-century America’s psyche. Grant was the co-savior of the nation, along with Lincoln, but unlike the president, he had an extended post-war life and was long in the public eye. Flood provides an emotional account of the outpouring of sympathy that came from throughout the country when news Grant’s fatal disease leaked out. Rich and poor, Northerners and Southerners (though some of the latter still held a grudge) filled Grant’s parlor with expressions of sorrow, faith, hope, and sadness. Newspapers set up shop in front of Grant’s home, diligently reporting his condition to a breathless readership; some even attempted to bribe house cleaners and/or visitors for news from inside. It was a year that may sound familiar to audiences who were riveted to the O.J. Simpson saga.
Charles Flood is a superb writer. In addition to period newspapers, he tapped the accoundts of doctors, friends, acquaintances, and other sources to weave a three-dimensional tapestry of Grant’s final year of life. The reader learns the look and feel of his New York sickrooms, the torture Grant endures as the cancer slowly strangles him, the grief experienced by his friends and family, and finally, the cool breezes of the Mt. Macgregor resort where the ailing general, unable to speak, pens the final chapters of the book. It is a moving story and one that gives an insight into how appreciated and loved he was by 19th-century Americans. If you are a fan of Grant, as I am, you will appreciate Flood’s treatment of him as an honorable man, faithful husband and father, and determined fighter. If you are not a fan of Grant, you might find yourself mellowing your opinion of him—and cheering him on in spite of yourself.
Neal West is a retired USAF veteran living in Southern Maryland with his wife of 32 years. Mr. West is living history volunteer at Manassas National Battlefield Park, has a BA in American Military History and an MA in Military History, majoring in the Civil War. Neal is a frequent contributor to ArmchairGeneral.com.