On July 1, 1884, editors of Century Magazine received a much-anticipated envelope from former president Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had agreed to write four articles for the magazine about his wartime experiences, which would kick off an upcoming series of first-person accounts penned by the surviving “great figures” of the conflict.
Grant was, of course, the preeminent surviving figure of the war, and his prestige would lend much credibility to the overall project, which editor Robert Underwood Johnson called “our important historical enterprise.” The magazine had much riding on the project and anticipated a huge boost in circulation. Eventually, the collected essays would be bound together as Battles & Leaders.
Grant’s contributions would eventually cover Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and the Wilderness, with his first entry—Shiloh—due at the beginning of July.
“Every editor will sympathize with our dismay when, on July 1, we received from the General an article on the battle of Shiloh which was substantially a copy of his dry official report of that engagement,” Johnson later wrote. No one wanted to read a rehash of material already available in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion—and no one wanted to be bored, either. Johnson cringed at “the blight of the deadly official report, which . . . is lacking in the personal touch that makes a great battle a vital and interesting human event.”
“The General, of course, did not realize the requirements of a popular publication on the war,” Johnson said, “and it was for me to help him turn this new disaster of Shiloh into a signal success.”
With Grant’s draft tucked into a pocket of his jacket, Johnson paid a personal visit to Grant. “[W]ithout letting him know of its unsuitableness to the series, I managed to draw him into a description of the engagement,” Johnson recounted. “General Grant, instead of being a ‘silent man,’ was positively loquacious.”
Grant spoke “rapidly and long” of the battle of Shiloh and “in the frankest manner” addressed its most controversial aspects. There was “no cocksureness, no desire to make a perfect record or live up to a later reputation,” Johnson said. Instead, Grant “revealed the human side of his experience.”
All the while, Johnson jotted notes. These, he told Grant, “were typical of what was essential in depicting the battle.”
Grant, who took a quite impersonal view of the vent, “seemed astonished at this,” Johnson recalled. The editor elaborated:
I told him that what was desirable for the success of the paper was to approximate to such a talk as he would make to friends after dinners, some of whom should know all about the battle and some nothing at all, and that the public . . . was particularly interested in his point of view. . . .
The thought had never occurred to Grant, but he agreed to give the article on Shiloh one more shot—and he took to the project with gusto. Within days, he sent a revised version to Johnson and set to work immediately on the Vicksburg article.
While the second version required a few tweaks, Johnson was thrilled with Grant’s effort. One of Grant’s assistants “made a few single-word corrections of no importance, such as ‘received’ for ‘got,’” Johnson said, “by no means an improvement on the General’s Saxon style.”
The result, the editor declared, “was the admirable article that first appeared in the Century for February, 1885.”
Johnson’s recollection are quoted from his memoir, Remembered Yesterdays (Little, Brown, & Co., 1923).
For more on the larger story of Grant’s writing, you can check out my book Grant’s Last Battle: The Story Behind the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Savas Beatie, 2015).