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Grant’s memoirs succeed historically, financially

On this day (July 23) in 1885, the 18th U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant, died of cancer at Mount McGregor near Saratoga, N.Y.

In June 1885, the Grant family had moved from New York City to a cottage in the relatively peaceful Mount McGregor area in the Adirondacks to allow the seriously sick former president to finish writing his memoirs.

After his presidency (1869-1877), Grant had, with his wife, Julia, and son, Jess, embarked upon an expensive round-the-world tour that took them to Europe, the Middle East, Russia, India, China and Japan. Everywhere, the Grants were royally feted. During their three-year tour (1877-1880), the Grants met and were “wined and dined” by many famous and influential people, such as Queen Victoria, Otto von Bismarck, and the emperor of China.

Returning home in 1880, Grant entered into several business ventures, which – with one notable exception: a profitable investment in a mining company – were largely unsuccessful financially. Particularly devastating to Grant financially was his heavy investment in the New York investment firm of Grant and Ward, in which his second son, Ulysses S. “Buck” Grant, Jr., was a partner.

In 1884, the firm of Grant and Ward declared bankruptcy. This bankruptcy plus the expensive world tour reduced the Grant family to impoverishment.

Having been diagnosed with what was regarded by his doctors as a fatal ailment (throat cancer), Grant resumed the writing of his memoirs. He signed a contract with his good friend Mark Twain to publish them.

Despite unbearable pain, Grant was determined to finish writing his memoirs before he died. The sale of his memoirs, he hoped, would recoup the family’s fortune. He worked feverishly and almost miraculously completed the writing of the “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant” just a few days before he died.

“Personal Memoirs” is an autobiographical account of Grant’s distinguished military career, first as a young officer serving with distinction under Gens. Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott in the Mexican War (1846-1848), and later as the most celebrated victorious Union general (“Unconditional Surrender Grant”) in the bloody Civil War (1861-1865).

The memoirs now are considered one of the best military autobiographies to come out of that war. They remain an excellent primary source for the study of the many significant Civil War battles in which Grant actively participated. These would include Fort Henry and Fort Donelson (1862), Shiloh (1862), Vicksburg (1863), Chattanooga (1863), Wilderness (1864), Spotsylvania (1864), Cold Harbor (1864), Petersburg (1865), and Appomattox (1865).

Surprisingly well-written, the memoirs reveal Grant to have been a resourceful, fiercely determined military commander who was able, during the 1864-1865 War of Attrition in northern Virginia (i.e., the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg), to force his equally able, famous Confederate adversary, General Robert E. Lee, into surrendering April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House.

Happily for Julia and the Grant children (Frederick, Ulysses Jr., Ellen, and Jess), the memoirs were an instant and continuing commercial success. By the time of Julia’s death on Dec. 2, 1902, the Grant family had earned almost $500,000 in royalties. Thus the Grant fortune that had been lost in 1884 with the bankruptcy of Grant and Ward was recovered with interest.

The dying Ulysses S. Grant had succeeded, with the hurried writing of his memoirs, in restoring his family’s financial security.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for talks and workshops on American history. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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