Badass Writer of the Week: Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant dying and writing in equal measure.

Ulysses S. Grant dying and writing in equal measure.

By Daniel Ford

During our conversation earlier this week, historical fiction author Jeff Shaara mentioned that Ulysses S. Grant had a pretty decent editor for his memoirs.

Mark Twain.

The former general, who arguably saved the Union by winning the Civil War, had the greatest American author as his editor, publisher, and supporter. Does it get more badass than that?

I was telling Writer’s Bone essayist David Pezza this while browsing in Raven Used Books on Wednesday. I was scanning the history section for Grant’s memoirs and instead found a copy of Mark Perry’s Grant and Twain. The book chronicles the relationship between the dying former President and the American man of letters about to unleash The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the world.

I had already emailed Sean Tuohy that I had an idea for an upcoming “Badass Writer of the Week,” however, once this book was in my hands I knew that Grant’s literary badassery couldn’t wait another week. Sean graciously allowed me to satisfy my history nerd tendencies even though I kept the identity of my subject a secret.

Grant was a complete failure outside of the battlefield. There’s not a debate on this, it’s just a fact. He was good at one thing…being a soldier. So it’s no surprise to me that Grant chose to focus on the smashing success that was his military career. However, Rod Paschall, editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, points out in his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Grant’s memoirs that the former general was a “managed alcoholic,” a “voracious reader,” and “cold sober” during his years in the public spotlight.

He didn’t set out to write his memoirs for posterity’s sake. He set his pencil to paper so that his family would be financially secure once he died from the debilitating tongue and throat cancer that was eating him alive. A lifetime of trusting the wrong people, investing money he didn’t have in troubled ventures, and his failures at everything outside of the Army had left him debt-ridden and desperate.

Grant’s writing process wasn’t an easy one. According to Perry, he had major trouble swallowing, difficulty sleeping, and was in a constant state of pain and exhaustion. He didn’t proceed alone though. He had his wife Julie Dent Grant by his side the entire time and Perry writes that Twain would frequently visit Grant in New York City and the two would swap stories. Twain also provided the final push Grant needed to sign a book contract and start writing (What was Twain doing while helping Grant write and publish his words? Crafting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. No big deal).

Grant was constantly waylaid by sickness, continued money trouble, and a reliance on writing in pencil and hours of dictation during his struggle to finish his work. Despite those roadblocks, the end result is a masterpiece of concise and honest prose. It reminds me of Matthew Ridgeway’s account of the Korean War with its vivid reminiscences of major battles, determination to tell the truth about events colored by political and cultural discourse during the intervening years, and its deep belief in American culture and convictions despite mindless bloodshed and political ineptitude. He briskly moves the reader from battle to battle, sharing private correspondence, war orders, and his personal thoughts on victories and defeats.

Conditions need to be damn near perfect for me to write a coherent sentence. I can’t imagine what my writing would look like if I was crippled with cancer and was down to my last chance to provide for my family. Even with an assist from one of the greatest writers to ever live, Grant’s feat is truly remarkable.

Indulge me by reading a few of my favorite passages:

Following the siege of Vicksburg: “In this narrative I have not made the mention I should like of officers, dead and alive, whose services entitle them to special mention. Neither have I made that mention of the navy which its service deserve. Suffice it to say, the close of the siege of Vicksburg found us with an army unsurpassed, in proportion to its numbers, taken as a whole of officers and men. A military education was acquired which no other school could be given.”
Regarding Abraham Lincoln: “He always showed a generous and kindly spirit toward the Southern people, and I never heard him abuse the enemy. Some cruel things said about President Lincoln, particularly in the North, used to pierce him to the heart; but never in my presence did he evince a revengeful disposition—and I saw a great deal of him at City Point, for he seemed glad to get away from the cares and the anxieties of the capital."
At Appomattox Court House: “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."

Grant died three days after finishing his task. His final campaign was a success. His memoirs were a sensation and provided his family the financial means he couldn’t muster during the last years of his life.

Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War

Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War

Following my discovery at Raven Used Books, I stopped into Barnes and Noble to purchase a copy of Grant’s memoirs. The older gentleman at the register held the book in his hands for a long moment.

“Great book,” he said. “You’ve heard of Gertrude Stein, right?”

I nodded, which seemed to have restored some of his faith in humanity.

“Well, this was the book she kept at her bedside. How about that, huh?”

A conversation about Mark Twain and Grant’s writing style followed. He also commented that the edition I bought was perfect for annotation and research. I walked out of that store feeling like the idea for this “Badass Writer of the Week” was predetermined.

Grant’s memoir now occupies a special place on my nightstand, where I imagine it will remain for years to come.