The “Emerging Civil War Series” Series: Grant’s Last Battle

It’s a pretty nerdy thing to admit, but I loved writing a book about a guy who was writing a book. That the guy was Ulysses S. Grant, and the book his personal memoirs, and that he was writing it as a way to save his family from financial destitution after he was swindled by a business partner, and that he was suffering from terminal throat cancer as he wrote—wow, what a story.

I made that previous sentence intentionally long—53 words—because Grant had so much high drama packed into his last 15 months. And that’s not even considering the supporting cast, which featured Mark Twain, William T. Sherman, William Vanderbilt, and even P. T. Barnum, colorful figures all.

At the core of all that high drama, though, is a deeply compelling story about family and duty. Yes, he might’ve once been the man who saved the Union, the president of the United States, and the most famous man in the world, but at the end of the day—and at the end of the story—he’s a devoted husband trying to provide for his wife before death takes him. He’s under the ultimate deadline, and he fights to the end for the best of all reasons.

That we have been able to, for 140 or so years, benefit from the fruits of his work has certainly been a significant boon to the field of Civil War studies. The Grant renaissance that’s been underway for the past two decades or so has brought renewed interest and attention to this long-neglected American hero, too.

I came to first know Grant, really know him, by working on the battlefields at Wilderness and Spotsylvania. From there, in my academic life, I began to study him more closely as a writer. That let me come at him from two different but related angles—after all, he writes about his war experience—and each shed light on the other.

When I finally decided to write about these closely interrelated aspects of Grant’s life, I found myself drawn into my own story. I creep into my book every so often with a first-person reflection or musing. That very much reflects my own process for coming to understand and appreciate Grant. As I wonder aloud about aspects of the story, it opened me up to approaching the story and the characters with empathy. That proved helpful in appreciating Grant as a human rather than as a “marble man,” and as importantly, it helped me better understand the book’s antagonists, Ferdinand Ward and Adam Badeau, so that I could better flesh them out.

Throughout the process, the folks at Grant Cottage (now a national historic site) were exceptionally generous with their time, energy, and resources. Grant Cottage, which sits atop Mt. McGregor in Wilton, NY, is where Grant died after finishing his book just days before. It’s a sublime place that lets you experience the last six weeks of Grant’s life in immediate and up-close ways. The wonderful folks at the Cottage have been throwing open their doors for me for years now, and I am grateful and humbled by their hospitality and kindness. (Find out how you can support the Friends of Grant Cottage here.)

Spending time at the cottage as I finished the book was essential. I believe in walking in the footsteps of the history I write about, and I know I could not have done true justice to this story had I not gone there. (Tag along on one of my visits in this video.)

One of the most profound aspects of Grant Cottage sits on the cottage porch just outside the room where Grant died. Almost every day, he sat in a wicker chair in that very spot and worked on his memoirs and read the newspaper. The original chair now sits on the opposite side of that wall, inside the death room, and a replacement chair made of sturdier wood sits outside in Grant’s spot. The docents invited me to sit in the chair in Grant’s spot, and for me, at that moment, the whole project came home. It was transcendent, and it was joyful.

Read Grant’s memoirs if you haven’t. They still hold up today. Visit Grant Cottage if you haven’t. Visit his tomb in New York City and his former homes in St. Louis and Galena and his boyhood home in Georgetown, OH. Read his words and walk in his footsteps. Come to understand his humanity. If you do, Grant’s last battle becomes all the more relatable—and all the more poignant.


Grant’s Last Battle: The Story Behind The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
by Chris Mackowski
Savas Beatie, 2015

Click here to read more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and an author bio.

Click here for ordering information.

Click here for the audiobook, read by the author.

Watch Chris’s presentation about Grant’s Last Battle from the 2021 Virtual ECW Symposium.

11 Responses to The “Emerging Civil War Series” Series: Grant’s Last Battle

  1. Just saw a great documentary about Grant’s presidency and his no-less-heroic efforts to advance African American equality and reconstruction. New information for me. His renaissance extends to that period also.

    1. I was just talking to a friend about this the other day: Grant’s rehabilitation as a general and his rehabilitation as a president have taken place at different paces. Reconsideration of his presidency is finally starting to catch up!

    1. The problem with Varney’s book (not Barney’s) is that it was full of inaccuracies.

      John Marszalek oversaw the publishing of an annotated edition of Grants memoirs. It was noted that that the memoirs were remarkably accurate for the most part.

    2. I like Frank’s book, which offers a lot to think about. I think it demonstrates that Grant was susceptible to a lot of the same foibles and human jealousies all of us experience.

      1. Dr. Mackowski,

        Yes, Dr. Varney’s book demonstrates Grant’s foibles and human jealousies, but the Personal Memoirs (and almost every Grant biography) don’t do the same. Many of the most obvious inaccuracies, personal attacks, and unfounded arguments in Grant’s two volumes are accepted with little or no qualification.

        Two outstanding examples are Grant’s claims in the Memoirs that he was not surprised at Shiloh (in a back-handed way, however: “It also seems to me to settle the question as to whether there was a surprise”) and that, at Chattanooga, “The plan of battle was for Sherman to attack the enemy’s right flank, form a line across it, extend our left over South Chickamauga River so as to threaten or hold the railroad in Bragg’s rear … Hooker was to perform like service on our right. … Thomas, with the Army of the Cumberland, occupied the centre, and was to assault while the enemy was engaged with most of his forces on his two flanks.

        Both of these are false, but how does the Complete Annotated Edition respond to such untruths? Not a word of disagreement. The same is true for a myriad of lesser misstatements.

        The history of the American Civil War has been seriously distorted by reliance on Grant’s unreliable Memoirs, and reasonable individuals should openly admit it.

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