On Writing Grant’s Last Battle

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Part one of two

In the fall of 2012, I had the opportunity to speak to the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. Grant’s work to write them was literally a race against death. Swindled by business partners and suffering from terminal throat cancer, he needed to finish his book before he died in order to save his family from destitution.

It was the ultimate deadline.

If a Hollywood scriptwriter made that up, no one would believe it. But it happened. For real.

The story always fascinated the storyteller in me because of the highly dramatic situation and high stakes. There’s tragedy, pathos, and honor. There’s also an amazingly brilliant cast of colorful supporting characters: Mark Twain, William T. Sherman, P. T. Barnum, and William Vanderbilt, just to name a few.

And at the center of it all is the enigmatic, often-maligned Grant: diligent, thoughtful, dignified—and suffering terribly.

I became interested in telling this story after doing some work on Grant’s memoirs as part of my doctoral studies. Part of my work focused on Civil War-related literature, and Grant’s memoirs stood out as a great example because of their high literary quality and their enduring power as memoir.

My talk to the roundtable gave the opportunity to really wade into the story in a much more intimate way. It helped me fall in love with the story even more deeply.

The following spring, I had the opportunity to give the talk again to the Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York. By that time, I felt like I was really onto something. I knew I needed to tell this story in a deeper way.

That was about the time Kris White and I were getting the Emerging Civil War Series up off the ground. Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg had recently come out, and we were prepping the next two volumes, Season of Slaughter: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson. The marketing department was asking us what was next.

I pitched Grant’s Last Battle, and publisher Ted Savas bit. We worked up a cover, drafted some promotional text, and started talking about a fall release.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial had other plans, however.

Soon an opportunity arose to work with Lee White on a Chickamauga book in time for the 150th of the battle. Then we had Dan Davis and Phill Greenwalt’s Bloody Autumn—not directly 150th-driven but certainly related to some plans Phill had for the 150th.

Then the Overland Campaign hit, and we had titles related to that. And then the chance to do a new treatment of Chancellorsville. And on and on.

And on.

The Sesquicentennial ended—ending along with it our mad dash to publish 150th-related books. I caught my breath, wrapped up work on another passion project, Strike Me a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna, and then finally, FINALLY, turned my eye toward Grant.

I set the anniversary of his death—today, July 23—as my deadline. I wanted to try and have the book out by the 130th anniversary.

I dusted off my notes and all the research I’d been accumulating and started sifting through it. I started gathering more. To really warm up, I gave the Grant talk to kick off the season for the Civil War Round Table of Buffalo, NY.

I wrote a lot. I read a lot. I talked to a lot of people. The folks at Grant Cottage, where Grant died, were especially helpful.

And in the end, I got to write the book I wanted to write—the book I’ve wanted to write for a long time.

The finished product showed up on my porch Wednesday, July 15. It had been a loooooong day at Stevenson Ridge, but seeing the boxes of books breathed new life into me late at night.

I beat my deadline by eight days. Grant beat his by less than three. And his stakes were SO much higher!

On July 20, he set his pencil down and announced that he’d made his last corrections. He was done. To celebrate, he took a ride in a special mobile chair down to a scenic overlook, but the ride exhausted rather than invigorated him. He never bounced back. His already-weak condition worsened, and the next two days saw a slow descent into dissolution.

A portrait of Lincoln hung over Grant’s sick bed. On the morning of July 23, as Grant faded away, The New York Times reported the scene:

The outer air, gently moving, swayed the curtains at an east window. Into the crevice crept a white ray from the sun. It reached across the room like a rod and lighted [the] picture of Lincoln over the deathbed. The sun did not touch the companion picture, which was of the General.

Moments passed in silence.

“The light on the portrait of Lincoln was still sinking,” the Times continued;

presently the General opened his eyes and glanced about him, looking into the faces of all. The glance lingered as it met the tender gaze of his companion. A startled, wavering motion at the throat, a few quiet gasps, a sigh, and the appearance of falling into a gentle sleep followed. . . . He lay without motion. At that instant the window curtain swayed back in place, shutting out the sunbeam.

It was 8:08 a.m., July 23, 1885—a Thursday, just like today.

My thanks go out to those round tables for letting me share this story with them, and to Ted Savas for letting me share the story with you.

2 Responses to On Writing Grant’s Last Battle

  1. Well, that’s at least one book I’m bringing home from the symposium!! Probably others. Already warned my wife. Congrats Chris. A great story to tell of a great American.

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