One of the most interesting persons in American history was mentioned several times on television over the last weekend. It was interesting to me in that one segment described how this man spent the last several weeks of his life, and where.
Hiram Ulysses Grant – General, President (elected twice!), horse breeder and finally writer.
Interesting thing about Grant, when he was appointed to West Point the paper work was wrong – he was told he had to go by the name on the paper work or go home. Hiram U became Ulysses S; the S was for Simpson, his mother’s maiden name. Hiram Ulysses Grant became Ulysses Simpson Grant.
Grant’s career at West Point was not stellar. He passed, but was not a “model” cadet. He graduated 21st of 39. Almost half the cadets who entered the same year he did dropped out. His classmates called him Uncle Sam, thanks to his initials. After graduation, he was still referred to as Sam by those who knew him at West Point.
After graduation, he was sent West and found himself in the 4th US Infantry Regiment. During the war with Mexico, he was assigned to Quartermaster duties and still found himself in a position to distinguish himself in combat.
Several years after the war, and after several moves to various posts, he resigned his commission so he could be with his wife and their growing family. Seemed a good idea. Except things did not go as planned. The farming did not work so well, neither did the other jobs he tried.
It seemed luck was not with him. Nothing went right. He could not make money no matter what he did.
Then something happened.
Abraham Lincoln was elected President and States began seceding from the Union. The next April, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. Grant offered his services to the Governor of Illinois as an officer of Militia. He was made a Colonel of Volunteers. His world, and ours, changed.
After some minor assignments done well, we found himself promoted to General of Volunteers – then forced the “unconditional surrender” of Fort Donelson. At Shiloh, a couple of months later, he turned disaster into victory simply by refusing to be beaten. The next year, he besieges and takes Vicksburg, which surrenders on 4 July, 1863 – the day after Pickets Charge fails at a place called Gettysburg. The fall of Vicksburg cut the Confederate States in two. This was a significant achievement and shift in the war’s momentum.
In the end, he forced Lee to surrender by “retreating forward” – when setbacks were encountered, instead of withdrawing to a secure base to regroup as his predecessors had, he resupplied and regrouped where he was and then advanced. He proved unstoppable.
In 1868 he was nominated as candidate for the Presidency. He did not campaign. He won in a landslide. After two terms, he left office and went on a grand around the world tour. He becomes a silent partner in Grant & Ward, where his son and another fellow manage to lose all of Grant’s savings, as well as massive amounts of money others entrusted them with.
In May of 1884, he has less than $200 to his name. His debts were crushing. He also begins having pains in his throat and neck.
In September, 1884 he is diagnosed with throat cancer. So, what happens next?
When everything is gone, what do you do?
Grant, quite literally, had nothing left. He gave his military service mementos, including uniforms, swords, decorations – everything, to a creditor in lieu of $150,000 he borrowed to try and save the business – which was promptly absconded with by the Ward in Grant & Ward. He had no home to retire to. His wife, Julia, had no money of her own, everything had been invested and lost in the business. They were destitute in terms that people today have no idea of the meaning.
Safety net? There was none.
What could be done?
Grant had been approached by publishers many times to write his memoirs. Until the fall of 1884, he had put them off saying he was not a literary person. An admirer, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), called on him on hearing that Grant might sign a contract for his memoirs. He intervened and saved Grant from one more horrific mistake. Instead, this admirer wrote up his own contract to publish Grant’s memoirs through his own publishing house. When Samuel Clemens talked with people about writing, they tended to listen.
Celmens’ publishing house promised a flat fee as a guaranteed payment and some 75% of the royalties from book sales. This was unheard of at the time.
Grant wrote his memoirs in long-hand. After writing the first volume – yeah, the first volume – he began dictating the second volume for them to be transcribed and reviewed. What does that mean? It translated to between ten and eighteen thousand words A DAY that he wrote or dictated. Very little revision was needed (which I find amazing.)
As the cancer progressed and he was too weak to speak, he resumed writing. When he finished, he was barely able to work more than a couple of hours a day. He finished his memoirs on July 19, 1885. He died at 8:06 AM, July 23, 1885.
His memoirs sold some 300,000 copies. Julia, his widow was paid $500,000 in 1885 dollars. Millions in today’s money.
Grant failed in business. He failed in much of what he did outside of war. He found he had one more mission in life, and he had something to say.
He said it and reestablished his family’s fortunes (literally.)
He remained a simple man through his triumphs and in the depths of his worst moments. While at the pinnacle of military power, he dressed simply and had a minimal staff. He ate what the soldiers ate. not out of personal stores. When under artillery bombardment, and a staff officer suggested he move to a safer location. He suggested that a battery of their own artillery be brought up to deal with the Confederate artillery. Where he stood, he could see the battle lines, and did not want to lose that sense of awareness of what was really happening.
There is one recorded instance that I am aware of where Grant actually lost his temper. Crossing a bridge, a teamster (wagon driver) was whipping mules pulling a wagon because they had stopped half way over the bridge. Grant threatened the man with being whipped himself for mistreating animals in such a way. In one account it is said Grant had him tied to a tree to be flogged. I don’t know if that is accurate or not.
When his Army of the Potomac heard the news of Lee’s surrender, they began firing their cannons in celebration. Grant ordered that stopped. He did not want to crow over his defeated, yet valiant enemies. He had just accepted the surrender of the man who had been his superior in Mexico, and had always treated him with respect. Maybe that had something to do with it.
Or maybe Grant really was a man of that order.
There is a relationship to software testing. That discussion is for another day.