The Last Campaign Of Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant left his second term of office as president of the United States in 1877 with his reputation somewhat tarnished, but nevertheless intact. He had occupied the office during one of America’s fervent periods of expansion and concentration of wealth; and the consequential corruption that this expansion engendered had left a prominent mark on his presidency.

While personally honest himself, Grant was a product of the closed world of the military, where the grasping for money and power was more subdued than in the civilian world. He was a battlefield general without peer, but proved himself to be far too trusting, and unable to cope with the shark-infested waters of Washington and Wall Street.

He and his wife Julia then embarked on a “world tour” that would keep them in the public eye, and deplete their savings, for another two years. It must be remembered that in this era, there were no lavish speaking fees for ex-presidents; there were no think-tank directorships, no plum appointments, no lucrative book deals, and no lecture circuits.

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A great general, but not quite suited for business

Presidents had historically always been independently wealthy. Grant had amassed little wealth during his time in office, and in his day there was no pension for departing ex-presidents. Worse still, there existed a rule stating that military officers had to surrender their pensions if they wished to run for political office. So Grant had had to give up that safety net as well.

Thus Grant found himself in the unenviable position, after concluding his world tour, of trying to find ways of making money as a man of fifty-seven with a wife and dependents to feed. His greatest asset was his name: Grant was enormously popular with the public, and his unassuming manner and keen mind made a deep impression on all who met him. Otto von Bismarck, meeting Grant in Germany during his world tour, had been impressed with his American guest’s perceptive mind and quiet confidence.

Grant, frankly, lacked an aptitude for business. He had little sense of money and how it operated, and he was far too trusting when dealing with associates and employees. Worse still, there is little evidence that he was aware of this personal limitation; he should have sought out honorary positions in universities (as did his ex-Confederate counterpart Robert E. Lee) where his name and prestige would have been sufficient consideration for any salary received.

Alas, Grant chose to plunge into the worlds of business and high finance, with all of its attendant risks. These were activities to which he was quite ill-suited.

Grant, financier Jay Gould, and a former Mexican government official named Matias Romero pooled their resources in the early 1880s to found the “Mexican Southern Railroad.” The railroad might have benefitted from the favorable economic climate of the time, but the failure of Congress to implement a free trade agreement with Mexico doomed the venture. The railroad venture ended in bankruptcy in 1884.

But worse events were still to come. In 1883 Grant had been convinced by his son (Ulysses Jr), and his son’s friend, Ferdinand Ward, to start a Wall Street brokerage house. Ward was considered a financial maverick at the time, and promoted himself as the “Napoleon of finance.” He had enough panache and apparent success to seduce the Grant family; on Ward’s assurances, Grant invested over $100,000 of his own money in the venture. This was a huge amount for any man in the early 1880s, and represented just about all of Grant’s life savings.

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Dying of cancer, Grant worked day and night on his writing

Grant himself was not expected to do very much at the offices of Grant & Ward. He had been asked to join because the prestige of his name might attract potential clients. So Grant showed up at his office on Wall Street several times per week, smoking cigars and meeting prominent businessmen. He had long cultivated a serious smoking habit: author Charles B. Flood, in his work Grant’s Final Victory, claims that the ex-president consumed twenty-five Cuban cigars per day.

What the Grants did not know was that Ferdinand Ward was running a Ponzi scheme right under their noses. Ward provided his business partners with fraudulent information and “cooked” books so that the nature of his activities might remain undetected. He would entice investors to give him money, and then illegally use that money as “collateral” for multiple loans. “Investment dividends” were paid out regularly to give the impression of successful management, but this money was simply contributions from other investors. Ward, quite simply, was the Bernard Madoff of the 1880s.

Like all Ponzi schemes, Grant & Ward would eventually collapse. When first told of the news that Grant & Ward had imploded, Grant was in disbelief.  He was left literally penniless. He discovered that he did not even own his own house: the payment of his mortgage had been entrusted to Ward, who had used it for himself. Grant, in despair, at one point even thought of killing Ward, but later stated he had no desire to be imprisoned for murdering so odious a creature.

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Mark Twain helped Grant negotiate a lucrative book contract with an unheard of 75% royalty rate

It would not be long before personal tragedy of another sort would enter the picture. In 1884 Grant had seen his doctor, after complaining of soreness in the throat that would not go away. His physician took a tissue sample from the back of Grant’s throat, and had the sample examined; the growth proved to be cancerous. The lab technician informed Grant’s doctor that “he [Grant] was doomed.”

With his back up against the wall, and with his time on earth rapidly drawing to a close, Grant steeled himself for one last campaign that might provide for his family after his demise. He accepted an offer from the editor of Century Magazine, Robert Johnson, to write a book of personal memoirs.

Similar projects by other Civil War figures had been moderately successful, and with the deaths of Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, Grant himself was the last of the major living figures of the war. Good luck also came from an unexpected source: Grant’s canny friend Mark Twain was able to negotiate very favorable royalty terms with the publisher on his behalf.

All through 1884, then, Grant toiled day and night on his book. During this time, cancer rapidly consumed his body. He was unable to eat anything except the most liquid of foods, and the act of drinking water “was pure agony” akin to “drinking molten lead.”

He did have several assistants to help him with the acquisition of materials and the checking of facts. Yet this was no ghost-written memoir, but the line-by-line product of Grant himself. He was not naturally a literary man, but his prose has a terse and dignified tone that strikes precisely the right chord for a book of this type.

The end closed in quickly. He died on July 23, 1885, only four days after completing the manuscript. It was an incredible feat of willpower and endurance. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was an immediate bestseller, and solved forever the financial problems of the Grant family. Its stature as a historical document and as a work of literature has held steady over the years, and is worth reading even today.

It was Grant’s last campaign, and the most personal of his victories.

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34 thoughts on “The Last Campaign Of Ulysses S. Grant”

  1. “If this war were about slavery I would give my sword to the other side” – Ulysses Grant, slaveholder
    The Feds and their schools (and the History Channel) have conned us about the “Civil War”.
    Read Thomas DiLorenzo (author/history professor at a non-government/private university) who tells the truth about Lincoln (corporate railroad lawyer) and the truth about the un-American and un-Constitutional war for Southern taxes and the corporate war profiteers and their atrocities.

    1. I’m tired of reading this cynical libertarian revisionism. Nothing but conspiracy theory. The fact is that Secession was an open legal question in 1861, but the minute the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter it ceased to be a legal question for lawyers and judges and became a matter of Generals and soldiers to solve.
      The fact is that the confederacy made war rather than trust in lawyers and judges and abiding by the civilized rules of the court. The minute you raise armed rebellion, you lose your legal rights and might makes right. If you’re going to rebel against your sovereign government you’d better win. The confederacy came off light actually.
      I’m sick of armchair constitutional scholars like you misinterpreting and revising history. It’s ignorant, and no, you don’t know better than me or all the historians who have looked into this question.
      Civilized people settle disputes in court, or in the legislative chamber and live with the results even in losing. The Confederates chose war, therefore any previous antebellum legalities were moot. I have as much respect for the Southern soldier as anyone can, but what they did was completely misguided and wrong. Making rebellion is unconstitutional.
      Short of an amendment, whereby 3/4’s of the State Legislatures agree, Secession is now a moot point. The 14th amendment guarantees the right of every US citizen to remain a US citizen regardless of what their State Legislatures may choose, at the pain of Federal military intervention to enforce those rights.

      1. “The fact is that the confederacy made war rather than trust in lawyers and judges and abiding by the civilized rules of the court.”
        Cool conspiracy theory bro.
        Did you get that from wikipedia? Or did you write it?

        1. Whatever man. I have more knowledge of civil war history in my pinky, than you have in your entire brain. Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, all of them would scold you for your ignorance. You dishonor their memory.
          Why don’t you actually go read southern editorials from 1855-1861. They’ll tell you in their own words and Tariffs and taxation were far down on the list of grievances towards the Federal Government.
          The Confederacy was an attempt to set up a libertarian government, and it couldn’t even defend itself properly because the various States wouldn’t cooperate and coordinate their war efforts because everyone was self interested about their own particular piece of dirt and only sent token “expeditionary” forces to Lee and Johnston and his successors.
          I’ve spent my entire life visiting these battlefields and reading memoirs. I know how these men felt. I’ve read their letters home and talked to historians and park rangers who would tear you a new one were you to walk into the visitor center of say Shiloh or Chickamauga and start telling your lies You have a mythology in your head.
          I dare you, go to the visitor center at Shiloh or Corinth, MS and try and spout yoru BS to the historians and reenactors who gather there every year. Go ahead. See what happens. You don’t know dick until you have talked to those guys.

        2. “Whatever man. I have more knowledge of civil war history in my pinky, than you have in your entire brain.”
          Ha! How presumptious!
          I have visited over 45 different battlefields and camps, from Gettysburg and New Market to Natural Bridge!
          The places I haven’t been are mostly west of the Mississippi.
          “Why don’t you actually go read southern editorials from 1855-1861. They’ll tell you in their own words and Tariffs and taxation were far down on the list of grievances towards the Federal Government.”
          The war of northern agression was all about the North having economic control over the Mississippi and the Gulf as well as Cotton production. And who controls the north? Rich yankee bankers. Ha!
          The North has always been an agressive warmongering den of psychopths.
          You are very presumptious and immature. Laughable!

      2. ” trust in lawyers and judges and abiding by the civilized rules of the court.”
        Mr. Dred Scott would like a word with you.

        1. Dred Scott was not a victim of injustice. According to the laws of the day, he was private property, a pack animal no better than a mule, and when your mule runs away, you collect it back. The injustice, according to the laws of the day, was against his owner, not him because he had no rights.
          Yes, the law and morals of the time were relative to our day primitive and cruel. But forced servitude was no strange concept in Europe at the time either. They still practiced 7 year indentured servitude for debt repayment and that indentured servitude still exists in former parts of the British Empire like India. America was neither unique, nor backwards for its day. It simply was another slave holding nation practicing a trade that was to modern eyes, abhorrent and horribly unjust. But we have no right to pass moral judgement against them for having more primitive values and morals. 150 years is a long time to develop and evolve as a culture.

        2. So no injustice can be done if done under the guise of a state sanctioned court?

      3. Gipper, – It was and always will be about money and power. To think otherwise is to ignore the primordial goo inside of every man. To trust in lawyers and judges whose “opinions” are usually at the opposite ends of fact has gotten us where we are today.= Banana Republic.

        1. We if we are a banana republic then we must be the wealthiest banana republic in world history. Why aren’t we 2nd world poor like Russia, or 3rd world poor like Venezuela?

  2. I admire many of the historical leaders of the civil war, not hust because of their acts during the civil war but in the period of time before and after it.
    During the Vera Cruz- Mexico City campaign Lee was one of America’s great action heroes, right up there with the likes of John Sevier, Daniel Boone, and Audie Murphy. That was enough but he was also one of America’s foremost engineers and among the greatest educators in the world of his era. Lee didn’t just trade on his name to get a position. The college was well aware of his stature as an educator from his time as the commandant at West Point. In his remaining years after the Civil War, his efforts presented radical changes to the way college education is given and some of those changes last in American and world universities to this day.
    Grant? He was no Lee but during the Vera Cruz- Mexico City campaign he proved himself an excellent leader and a hard fighter. He was never an educator, and as the article states, he tended to trust people far more than a man in his position could. Grant was never going to be the dean at the college. The man’s constitution simply could not have handled it.

    1. Always tearing down decent men, eh?
      The very first paragraph in your link notes that it was his over trusting of his associates, as well as his dealing with his cabinet as he had dealt with his military associates, that was the cause of most of the scandals, not that he himself was a bad person.

      1. “Always tearing down decent men, eh?”
        Decent? He is and has been consistently rated the worst president in this nations history. There seems to be a new revolution and cultural sjw attempt to portray him as some sort of “good guy”. Figures you would attempt to also protect the drunk lout.

        The very first paragraph in your link notes that it was his over trusting of his associates, as well as his dealing with his cabinet as he had dealt with his military associates, that was the cause of most of scandals, not that he himself was a bad person.”
        Sadly, you miss the point (was it on purpose?).
        It was his lack of leadership and his drunken banality and stupidity that caused great harm to this nation after the war of northern aggression.
        The very fact that you would use the name of Thomas Jefferson in your handle, a Southerner who would have stood for states rights and secession (many great mens grandsons and great grandsons from the first revolution died during the war of northern aggression) and shill for a loser wretch of a man like grant, goes to show your low level of moral intelligence.

        1. You missed *my* point. We can both agree on incompetence, I’d think. Where we differ is that you attribute it to him being corrupt. I state instead it was because he was simply, well, incompetent, but not a bad person. Whether he drank or not is not in question and really is not relevant, I don’t trust men who don’t drink anyway so your criticism is pointless to me.
          Some generals do not make the transition to the Presidency well. I make accomodations for human fallibility. Something you may want to consider instead of sneering “shill!” and “low level of moral intelligence!” and in all ways acting like an “outraged” woman.

        2. “You missed *my* point. We can both agree on incompetence, I’d think. Where we differ is that you attribute it to him being corrupt. I state instead it was because he was simply, well, incompetent, but not a bad person. ”
          Incompetence is deadly for leaders as well as of nations, many great men have stated this.
          Men greater than yourself.
          “Whether he drank or not is not in question and really is not relevant,”
          Sure it is. Why would you presuppose it is not?
          “I don’t trust men who don’t drink anyway so your criticism is pointless to me. ”
          There is a difference between a drunk and an alcoholic.
          Grant was both.

        3. “Some generals do not make the transition to the Presidency well. I make accomodations for human fallibility. Something you may want to consider instead of sneering “shill!” and “low level of moral intelligence!” and in all ways acting like an “outraged” woman.”
          Grant was to blame (monetary policy) for the great panic of 1873 that caused a world wide depression until 1879.
          So I really don’t care what you think, as you have the morals of a woman, or should I say, you don’t have any.

        4. It appears that you have no interest in an actual conversation. Consider yourself disregarded, and I rather regret engaging you in the first place given your snark and chip on your shoulder.
          Won’t read your follow up reply, which I know you will feel compelled to offer to “have the last word”.
          Enjoy.
          Slainte

        5. What is most interesting about first wave feminism is that it was a collusion of other social forces at large that coalesced from social movements.
          One of these was the temperance movement, or in the US, the “Woman’s Christian Temperance Union” which rose to power in 1873.
          So a big part of the early feminist movements seem to have sprung about because of and as a direct consequence from drunken men.
          So maybe there it truth to the saying that modern feminism is just womens shit testing weak men.

        6. We can debate the corruption of Grant’s administration. But the point of the article is to show how men of character respond to extreme hardship. I think it’s important to keep that focus in mind.

  3. Good article. Print & study later time ! We need more articles about the pioneers of their own thing. The Romanians had Emil Racovita, Hanri Coanda, George Emil Palade & my personal favourite Mihai Eminescu who went & pissed all over the political class of 1850 Romania. Ya know, people with REAL BALLS do to their shit !
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    Ya know ?

  4. Well done as always Quintus.
    You keep setting the bar quite high for yourself.

  5. Grant seems like one of the rare few who were born for war. His alcoholism seems to be born from ennui at no other goals but to have the regimen and the goal of winning at all costs which he seems to shoulder as a personal means of evaluation. It seems that a few other parallel his success in history but Grant was as methodical and as timely as any European general that the New world looked too for military direction and tactics. While some compare Lee and Grant as equals or even give the benefit to Lee it seems that Grant was willing to push into areas that Lee was not; with Lee having a very measured and classical form of attack and defence it seems that Grant capitalised on new weaponry. From the little study of the subject and few articles that i have read this is my take. I’m sure many Americans locals have their own take on the war of northern aggression.

      1. Thanks Quintus, i really enjoy your articles. They are not only thought provoking but insightful in the way that they cuts against the grain of modern PC revisionist history.I can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia knowing that pages of history are effectively being cleaned from history are left in the open for a few to reflect on. In some ways it must be very similiar to how the men of the ‘Seige of Baghdad’ felt knowing that they would be the last to know certain parts of history,art and science before it’s destruction to another culture.

  6. American has always produced fantastic generals. I was watching Patton the other day with George R Scott. At the end general Bradley makes a fantastic point “I guess it’s not enough to be good soldiers anymore. We have to be diplomats and politicians and ambassadors. ” it is such a shame that we don’t appreciate the great soldiers of modern times like we do with genghis Kahn or Alexander the great or Atilla the Hun.

  7. quintus… enjoyable read as always. i’m most surprised by the doctors of the time taking a biopsy and examining it histologically for pathology (a technique i assumed was far more contemporary).

    1. Yes, I was too. But this was described right in Charles Flood’s book, which was the main source behind this article. I think modern medicine would have given Grant more time, and might have even stopped the cancer. But who knows?

  8. This is an interesting perspective of a poorly understood historical figure. I would be interested to see an expansion on this era, especially views on Sherman. For while he is still cursed in many places to this day, I think he had a far greater impact (for ill or naught) then he’s been credited with.

  9. Grant was not a battlefield general without peer. He was merely adequate, and the reason he succeeded against the Confederacy was because of his adequacy as compared to the incompetence of the previous Union generals, like Burnsides and McClellan. The reason the war lasted 4 years instead of much less time is that the drastically logistically superior Federal army was led by fools, whereas the Confederate generals had been the best of the United States army before the war. It was a classic example of a smaller, less powerful, better army with better leadership versus a larger, better supplied one.
    As it is said, amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. All US wars since the Civil War have been won via overwhelming force and supply. Even though we have had some brilliant generals and sophisticated strategy since then, we win because we are bigger. Lee was defeated because he was out-supplied. Had Lee been on the Union side, the war would have been over in months not years. Grant was in the enviable position of the man being handed the biggest gun in the fight, and he knew how to use it to an acceptable manner. He did his job, and he did it arguably well, but he was no brilliant general; they all wore grey.

  10. A tangent–
    “Mark Twain helped Grant negotiate a lucrative book contract with an unheard of 75% royalty rate.”
    That’s still unheard of. Royalties for authors — with legacy publishers, i.e. the corrupt oligopoly in publishing that the Big Six represent — are still somewhere near 10% here, now, literally 150 years after those memoirs were published. Not even Stephen King commands that large a percentage of his own books … and yet he still shills for Big Publishing, as do all the Stockholm Syndrome authors who haven’t figured out what “P.O.D.”, “Amazon”, and “self-publishing” mean yet.

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