General U.S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs: The Mark Twain Connection

Few people have left so indelible a mark on the United States of America as did Ulysses S. Grant. Like George Washington, Grant led the people of this land both in time of war and, subsequently, as president of the country. His two presidential terms (1869-1877) were marred by widespread charges of corruption within his administrations. In stark contrast to his record as president, Grant’s accomplishments as Lieutenant General and leader of the Army of the Potomac in the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) assured his fame.

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 Lt. General U.S. Grant at Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1864

The appointment by President Abraham Lincoln of Grant as Commanding General of the entire Union Army in March of 1864 signaled the end of the president’s White House horrors with previous commanding generals who refused to carry the battlefield fight to Robert E. Lee and his confederate army. The list of  prior commanders whose reticence and caution so vexed Lincoln numbers four, beginning with George McClellan and moving rapidly through Burnside, Hooker, and Meade. In Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln finally found his general, one “who would fight.”

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  The personal memoirs of Gen. Grant (1885) and Gen. Sheridan (1888)

Grant’s personal memoirs, published in 1885 by Mark Twain and his publishing company, Charles L. Webster & Co., tell the story of his later military career while revealing the qualities as military commander which so endeared him to Lincoln. Anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” will appreciate the extent to which Lincoln not only intently followed the detailed progress of the war, but also personally “steered” its conduct during the long leadership vacuum prior to Grant’s arrival as commanding general. Lincoln would often don his shawl and amble out of the White House into the cold darkness of late night, headed for the nearby army telegraph office to monitor the latest news from the front. With Grant firmly in command, Lincoln was finally able to see hope for the outcome of the war and the union cause.

The Gettysburg address of 1863 spotlights Lincoln’s masterful talent for brevity and directness in his communications. Grant was that way, as well, as evidenced by his memoirs. None of the flowery prose, so prevalent at the time, is found, within. Instead, one finds tautly written, detailed accounts of what happened during Grant’s participation in the Mexican-American War of 1846 and the momentous battles of the U.S. Civil War – the costliest, bloodiest war in our nation’s history. Despite his ultimate success as Commanding General of the Union Army, Grant had some terrible moments.

On page 276 of volume 2 of his memoirs, Grant confesses:

“I have always regretted that the last assault on Cold Harbor [Virginia] was ever made….At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy losses we sustained.”

Indeed, seven thousand union soldiers were killed in one hour on June 3, 1864, during the frontal assault on Lee’s fortified positions. The soldiers, viewing the entrenched enemy they were about to storm and recognizing their dim prospects, wrote their names on slips of paper and pinned them to their uniforms.

Although Lincoln’s confidence in Grant never wavered, others were not so worshipful. Mary Lincoln, the president’s wife, called Grant a “butcher,” but who is to judge such a man placed in such a difficult circumstance. No successful military commander can yield to timidity in battle resulting from excessive concern about his troops, it seems. I suppose this old adage applies to would-be military commanders: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” One might add: “If you do go in, be prepared to be badly burned…and severely criticized.”

Lincoln and Grant understood each other. When Grant refused a request from his command chain within the administration to displace a portion of his entrenched troops during a critical siege, Lincoln backed him writing:

“I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible.”

While Lincoln was careful to let Grant “run the Army,” he was clear and direct as Commander-in-Chief when necessary. In the final days of the war when Grant and General Phil Sheridan were chasing Lee toward his surrender at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln telegraphed Grant in the field while the president was staying at Grant’s City Point, Virginia, army headquarters:

Lieut. Gen. Grant.                                       City Point, April 7, 11 AM  1865

 “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” A. Lincoln

And press it, Grant and Sheridan did. Lee surrendered his confederate army two days later, on April 9.

Grant Hears From General Sheridan on March 12, 1865

Here is a letter, hand-written and signed by General Grant on “Headquarters Armies of the United States” stationery just three weeks before Lee’s surrender. It is marked “Cipher” (meaning to be sent by telegraph) and addressed to Lincoln’s Secretary of War, E.M. Stanton, in Washington. In it, Grant reports to the War Department on the condition of Sheridan’s mounted command as they chase Lee and his army to the final encounter at Appomattox. It is an important “war letter,” one with the latent power to transport its reader back to the dramatic, closing days of our nation’s worst war. A typewritten transcript follows.

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I purchased this letter many years ago from a well-known dealer in such manuscripts, or “autographs,” at a time when I was gainfully employed and the value/price of significant documents such as this was much lower than on today’s collecting market.

Here is a legible transcript of the above letter. Note that the “White House” reference is a location along the James River, not the presidential residence.

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It is fascinating to find direct reference in Grant’s memoirs to the incident and “the scouts” which brought news of Sheridan’s location and condition to Grant – as detailed in Grant’s letter on the 12th of March.

On page 427 of Volume 2, Grant wrote:

“The other consideration was that General Sheridan with the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was operating on the north side of the James River, having come down from the Shenandoah. It was necessary that I should have his cavalry with me, and I was therefore obliged to wait until he could join me south of the James River.”

“Let us now take account of what he was doing. On the 5th of March I had heard from Sheridan. He had met [Jubal] Early between Staunton and Charlottesville and defeated him, capturing nearly his entire command. Early and some of his officers escaped by finding refuge in the neighboring houses or in the woods.”

“On the 12th I heard from him again. He had turned east, to come to White House. ….I had supplies sent around to White House for him and kept the depot there open until he arrived….Sheridan had about ten thousand cavalry with him, divided into two divisions commanded respectively by [General George] Custer and Devin….His cavalry was in as fine a condition as when he started, because he had been able to find plenty of forage. He had captured most of Early’s horses and picked up a good many others on the road.”

It is quite clear that General Grant had my letter of his in hand as he wrote his memoirs in 1884/85. The details of the letter are clearly set forth in that section. The very fine condition of the letter itself (written for cipher transmission to Stanton) supports the contention that the letter, along with many others, was carefully filed away for years after the war. The quality of Grant’s recollections reflects the likelihood that he had a large cache of important documents at his disposal.

In General Sheridan’s 1888 personal memoirs, also published in identical format by Mark Twain’s company, Charles L.Webster & Co., Sheridan highlights the incident, as well and stresses its importance.

On page 120 of Volume 2, Sheridan recalls:

“I made Columbia [Virginia] on the 10th [of March, 1865], and from there sent a communication to General Grant reporting what had occurred, informing him of my condition and intention, asking him to send forage and rations to meet me at the White House…”

“It was of the utmost importance that General Grant should receive these despatches without chance of failure, in order that I might depend absolutely on securing supplies at the White House; therefore, I sent the message in duplicate, one copy overland directly to City Point by two scouts, Campbell and Rowan, and the other by Fannin and Moore, who were to go down the James River in a small boat to Richmond, join the troops in the trenches in front of Petersburg, and, deserting to the Union lines, deliver their tidings into General Grant’s hands. Each set of messengers got through, but the copy confided to Campbell and Rowan was first at Grant’s headquarters.”

This is history as it is meant to be learned and experienced. Could we not find a way to incorporate such an approach to teaching U.S. history in the schools? Youngsters would enthusiastically embrace learning our history if we could!

The Ultimate Tragedy of Ulysses S. Grant

Grant and his wife Julia embarked on an extended around-the-world adventure after leaving office at the end of his second presidential term, in 1877.  The trip was costly, requiring Grant to start an investment business with his son, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. and a young partner named Ferdinand Ward. Grant essentially did little more than lend his famous name to the new enterprise called “Grant and Ward,” and he remained distant from business details, often signing papers without reading them. By 1884, Grant found himself penniless thanks to the shady business practices of his partner and his own detached attitude. Grant and Ward had failed in May of 1884, and Grant found himself headed for financial ruin. That fall, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, a fatal diagnosis in those days. Likely, the years of cigar smoking coupled with his affection for whiskey took their toll.

Under the most adverse conditions imaginable, Grant heroically embarked on a plan in the fall of 1884 to provide for his wife and family after he was gone. His friend, Mark Twain was to publish the general’s wartime memoirs in return for a handsome royalty for Grant’s family. Grant worked feverishly and heroically on this project under the most severe deadline of all, his soon-to-come death. He was assisted by a former aide on his staff, Adam Badeau, who helped with many of the tasks required to organize and research materials. Friends and even former battlefield foes stopped by to pay their respects as he raced the calendar. Now confined to his wicker chair and writing up to fifty pages a day despite constant pain and discomfort, Grant finished his memoirs on July 18, 1885. Five days later, he was gone. He had won his final battle.

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Grant’s memoirs were a smash sales success for both Mark Twain’s company and for Grant’s wife and family. Within a few short years, the threat of poverty had been swept aside in light of the reportedly $450,000 of royalty payments his heroic efforts had generated for Julia and the children.

Historians with a literary bent have long lauded Grant’s personal memoirs as perhaps the finest major military account ever written – not only for its candor and its thorough revelations, but for its literary merit, as well.

That is indeed high praise for the former rough, unassuming young West Point cadet, class of 1843, who ranked an undistinguished 21 out of 39 in his class. A point of interest and comparison: Grant’s ultimate foe in the battle between North and South was the regal and supremely competent Robert E. Lee, West Point class of 1829. Young Lee graduated second in his class and accumulated one of the finest records seen at West Point since its inception in 1802. Besides excelling in all academic subjects, he received not one conduct demerit throughout his four years at the Point, a feat rarely duplicated. One who also received no demerits was George Mason, Lee’s extraordinary classmate who just edged out Lee academically for top spot in the class of 1829.

I have a special fondness for my copy of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. When I reflect upon the grand events of Grant’s life, it strikes me that the most heroic thing he ever did occurred not on any battlefield, but in that wicker chair as he bravely battled those most formidable of foes, the onslaught of father time and our ultimate mortality.

One added postscript: Grant’s friend and benefactor, Mark Twain, was at the peak of his powers after successfully publishing Grant’s memoirs in 1885. Within five years, he, like Grant, would be in danger of losing it all – even his beloved Hartford, Connecticut home – because of foolish investments and bad business decisions.

Lincoln: His Eloquent Words

                       

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Have you seen the recent movie, Lincoln? I appreciated its portrayal of Lincoln’s gentle humanity and folksy wisdom which remained always apparent even during the enormous burdens of his presidency. My first real acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln occurred in early 1967 while Linda and I were living for a brief time in Maryland.  On one of our first sojourns into Washington, D.C. to see the sights, Linda and I found ourselves in the Library of Congress one evening in February – probably the last stop of the day. The Library was deserted and very quiet as we made our way up to the mezzanine level. There, we split up to explore a bit. I will never forget my shock and amazement as I sauntered up to investigate an inauspicious looking wall with several items modestly displayed behind simple plastic protective shields.

I approached the first item which was at eye level, my nose literally inches from the display. To my amazement, I found myself staring directly at one of the most famous original documents in our country’s history, Lincoln’s handwritten Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863. Written in ink on Lincoln’s familiar embossed “Executive Mansion” stationery were the immortal words he spoke that afternoon at the public dedication of the battlefield cemetery. It was here that so many of the dead from the epic battle four months earlier were interred. What I was viewing that evening was not a facsimile copy, but the actual first-draft document completed in the Gettysburg home of David Wills. According to historians, it most likely is the document he held in his hands as he delivered the address. The second page was written in pencil, additional testimony to the belief that the address was composed on short notice and completed only the night before the event or even the next morning.

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After a long while, I pried my eyes from this historical treasure which was so inauspiciously presented on the wall to look all around me. There was only one other person within view in all directions and that was a security guard laconically looking off into the distance, perhaps some fifty yards away. My eyes returned to the wall, and I stood there for a very long time reveling in my quiet good fortune; I fully appreciated the unique opportunity to experience such an exclusive and intimate acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln. Finally, I went to find Linda: “Linda, you have got to see this…..!” I will never forget that evening and that experience.

The Gettysburg Address deserves its reputation in literary circles as one of the finest, most eloquent expressions ever recorded. All I know is that I cannot personally come up with a better candidate. And this experience that evening at the Library of Congress was certainly the seminal event which inspired me to investigate Lincoln and the Civil War and to study that part of history in some depth.

As I soon discovered, Lincoln had an uncanny ability to express himself directly using an economy of words which radiated a simple eloquence. One sees it not only in his great speeches, but in the mundane day-to-day communiques to his staff, in his replies to any number of favor-seekers, and even in his humorous musings. Lincoln’s hand-written correspondence is immense and well-documented. One must sample these often quickly-crafted examples to fully appreciate that the Gettysburg Address was no “fluke.” I have never encountered anyone who communicated more beautifully in all respects. His direct memo style could serve as the perfect  template for today’s busy executives. How a prairie boy from Illinois acquired that ability is hard to fathom. Lincoln himself estimated his entire formal schooling at one year, more or less. The Library of Congress has his early Kirkham’s book of grammar which he reputedly devoured and which apparently served as his entry point to eloquent expression. Is there any better example of hunger and determination fueling success than that of Lincoln?

Excerpt: Gettysburg Address

“….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…..”

Another fine example of Lincoln’s power of expression was his letter to Major General Joseph Hooker appointing him commander of the Army of the Potomac during very dark moments of the war – despite reservations:

“….I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders.  ….And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.

                                                         Yours very truly,

                                                                A. Lincoln”                                     

Alas, Hooker could not measure up to Lincoln’s entreaties for victories and was ultimately relieved of duty. He carried this letter with him long afterward, explaining, “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son. It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.”

And, in a different vein, here is Lincoln’s response to eleven year old Grace Bedell who wrote Lincoln late in the presidential campaign of 1860 :

 “…I have got four brothers  and part of them will vote for you anyway and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you; you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.”

Lincoln replied on October 19, 1860 that he had never worn whiskers and asked, “Do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?”    Within a few months, Lincoln sported the beard with which he is so identified.                                                  

Postscript: It has been many years now since such an up-close-and-personal experience as I had with Mr. Lincoln that evening was a possibility. Today, security and preservation demands require much more caution and a more formal, distant presentation of such priceless documents. I understand that perfectly well while mourning the reality that today’s youngsters will not be able to have the same serendipitous and intimate experience that I had. The good news is that these priceless documents will assuredly survive for many more generations given their improved care.

For anyone wishing to learn more about Lincoln, I can provide book suggestions depending on your specific interest.