The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

May 12, 2013

Grant’s final victory: His memoirs


A recent essay in The New York Times focused on famous people who kept working as they were clearly dying. They seemed to want to write one … last … thing before death silenced them forever.

Book critic Dwight Garner noted that Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert delivered more than 400 film reviews during his final year (Ebert died in April).

In her last six years, while dying from a blood disorder, Nora Ephron wrote two books, two plays, 100 blog posts and directed a movie. Christopher Hitchens churned out essays, reviews and a book as his life ebbed away.

But the best example, to me, was the dying Ulysses S. Grant — hero of the Civil War and two-term president of the United States. Grant never considered himself a writer; he wrote his memoirs to bring cash, security and dignity to his survivors.

His two-volume memoirs are still considered among the best military literature ever written. He finished them just before he died of cancer in 1885, at age 63.

“The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun,” he wrote to a doctor shortly before he died. “A verb is anything that signifies to be, to do, or to suffer. I signify all three.”

Grant’s life was filled with a dizzying series of highs and lows. His childhood in southern Ohio was typical, with one exception: he won an appointment to West Point. Grant graduated in 1843, 21st in a class of 39.

During the Mexican War, he showed courage in combat but became a sullen, solitary drinker. Later, he was swindled out of his life’s savings and sent to frontier duty in Oregon and California.

Lonely and homesick for his wife and children, he resigned his commission in disgrace in 1854.

By 1858, Grant was selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis and borrowing money from any acquaintance who would still speak to him.

The Civil War changed everything. It gave Grant action, focus and a venue for his dogged genius. He was named a brigadier general in 1861. By 1864, he commanded the nation’s armies, and proceeded to bludgeon the Confederacy with a relentless war of attrition.

In 1865, the conqueror saved the Union. Three years later, Grant was elected president.

After his scandal-plagued presidency, Grant made and lost a fortune. Terminally ill with throat cancer, he began writing his memoirs, which focused on his military career. Furiously writing up to 50 pages a day, unable to speak or eat, he finished just five days before he died. By then, he had wasted away to less than 125 pounds.

The 350,000 sets sold brought his widow $450,000 — more than $10 million today.

It was Grant’s final victory.

“The fact remains and cannot be dislodged that General Grant’s book is a great, unique and unapproachable literary masterpiece,” said Mark Twain, his friend, adviser and publisher. “There is no higher literature than these modest, simple Memoirs. Their style is at least flawless, and no man can improve upon it.”

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at