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 the audiobook, read by the author.
Watch Chris’s presentation about Grant’s Last Battle from the 2021 Virtual ECW Symposium.