The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture

By Alice Fahs; Joan Waugh | Go to book overview

Ulysses S. Grant, Historian

Joan Waugh

His troubles began on a festive holiday. Christmas Eve in 1883 was cold and rainy, and by late evening the sidewalk was frozen in front of Ulysses S. Grant's house on 3 East Sixty-sixth Street in New York City, not far from Central Park. Stepping out of a rented carriage, Grant slipped on the ice and sustained a painful injury. As the formerly robust general struggled to regain his health, another blow struck. In May 1884 he learned that Grant and Ward, an investment firm that held his fortune, had failed. Aged sixty-two, Grant was penniless.

Friends and supporters rallied around Ulysses and his wife, Julia. He was able to keep his residence but little else. In desperation he agreed to write an account of the battle of Shiloh for Century Magazine. He did it for the money at first but found that he liked the task. He decided to write more articles. One thing led to another, and before he knew it he had signed a book contract. A brief period of happiness ensued, but fate once again intervened. In the summer of 1884 Grant bit into a peach and was immediately seized with a terrible pain in his throat. A few months later his doctors confirmed the worst: he had a fatal throat cancer. Most men would have abandoned an ambitious writing project at such a time. Not Grant. Famed for his quiet determination on the battlefield, he decided to finish the manuscript before he died.

Through many months of indescribable agony Grant painstakingly recorded his role in the history of the great conflict. His family's financial future depended upon the successful completion of the books, and he would not let them down. But the writing also took on a special urgency; he felt an obligation to tell what he knew to be true about himself, about the war, about the United States. "I would like to see truthful history written," declared Grant. "Such history will do full credit to the courage, endurance, and ability of the American citizen soldier, no matter what section he hailed from, or in what rank."1

Grant wrote those words just a week or two into July 1885. In mid-June

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