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Finishing Well- The Ulysses S Grant Story

Posted by on July 23, 2015 at 1:15 PM

Today is the 130th anniversary of the death of our 18th president, Ulysses S Grant. Here is a blog about the way Grant finished well during the last year of his life. Originally written on May 23, 2012 Posted by on May 23, 2012 at 12:10 AM It was time to finish well. For the last several months, The Army of the Potomac had been chasing and then sieging the Army of Northern Virginia. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate veterans, reduced by desertions, warfare and illness to 53,000 were being chased by Ulysses S. Grant’s 118,000 grizzled Union soldiers. Ever since the Union victory at Gettysburg almost two years earlier, paired with a Union victory at Vicksburg the same July 4th day, most people knew that eventually the North would win the war between the states. How long that would take and how many more lives had to be lost was anyone’s guess. Already, it was far and away the bloodiest period in the 255 years of our time in America. Single day battles had casualty rates higher than the entire Revolutionary War. But now the end was in sight. Had it not been for Robert E. Lee’s cunning and incredible reputation among his men, the war may have ended that July 1863 day at Gettysburg. But here it was April 3, 1865 and the remnants of Lee’s army were hanging on. Lee’s army the previous day deserted their capital of Richmond, and the only hope at this time was to reunite with Joseph Johnston’s western army and hope to hold out in the deep south and regroup. But Ulysses S. Grant, unlike so many northern generals before him, knew how to finish well. Earlier in the spring, one of Grant’s generals sent a message to President Abraham Lincoln saying “ I believe that if the thing is pressed, Lee will surrender”. Lincoln’s immediate reply: “Then let it be pressed.” Throughout the days of early April, Grant chased Lee through such Virginia hamlets as Petersburg, Namozine Church, Saylers Creek and Appomattox Station. On April 7, Grant made his first proposal of peace to Lee, and Lee, although not feeling as trapped as Grant alluded to in his note, asked upon what terms surrender might take place. By April 9, 1865, it was arranged. The two generals who had played cat and mouse for almost four years to the day, would meet at Appomattox Courthouse to sign surrender documents. Here I learned the first lesson of finishing well: 1. Finish gracefully- Grant, as the winning general, could have issued any number of harsh and restrictive conditions upon the surrender. He was known after all as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. This included the arrest of Lee and his main generals for treason against the United States. But Grant, much like his commander in chief, Lincoln, understood the healing that needed to immediately take place between the north and the south. Grant offered a general parole to all confederate soldiers and after asking them to turn in and stack their general weapons, allowed each soldier to keep his private sidearm and horse. Additionally, Grant immediately ordered rations of food to Lee’s army, who according to many accounts, were quite near starvation. Confederate general Edward Alexander, who was eyewitness to the surrender, said this: “ Indeed, Gen. Grant's conduct toward us in the whole matter is worthy of the very highest praise & indicates a great & broad & generous mind. For all time it will be a good thing for the whole United States, that of all the Federal generals it fell to Grant to receive the surrender of Lee." Books have been written about Ulysses S. Grant’s leadership during the Civil War. It is a shame that so few people alive today know who he was. I would say that if I polled 100 people from the street and asked who the winning general in the Civil War was, I would probably get some very funny and yet sad answers. I am sure I would hear Lincoln, I am sure I would even hear Lee. If I asked 100 people who was on the $50 bill, I may get a few more correct answers, but when I pressed and asked what he was known for, I doubt that I would get many correct answers. But we are NOT talking about some obscure figure here. Ulysses S. Grant was the most photographed man in the 19th century. He was the Marilyn Monroe, the Elvis, the, dare I say, Kim Kardashian of his time. His movements were tracked, his endorsement of a product or service ( more on this later) was enough for monumental growth for that business or service. He truly was, particularly after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the most famous man in America. Most people do not know “ the rest of the story” of Ulysses Grant, and so after a relatively long introduction, I want to tell you what really moves me about Grant and his ability to “finish well” After the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States went into a period of what is called “Reconstruction”. It was the re-integrating of the southern states to the northern that was not without its difficulties. Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s death, spent most of his one term fighting with Congress, in fact, being the first president to have impeachment charges brought against him. Only one vote saved him from conviction and eviction from office. So when it became election time in 1868, Johnson certainly was not a candidate. Republican leaders believed that war hero Grant was the answer. The American public agreed and Grant was elected our 18th President with an electoral vote of 214 to 80. A discussion of Grant’s presidency would be too lengthy, but when re-election time came in 1872, Grant again was victorious, this time by a vote of 286 to 66. His second term was marked by fraud and political scandal, but none of this was directed at Grant. As he left the presidency in 1877, he had to beg off a third term and was still considered the most popular man in America. Shortly after leaving Washington DC, the Grants embarked on a round the world trip. What amazed Grant and his family was Grant’s enormous popularity in such far flung places as China, Turkey, and the Middle East. Long before the days of telephone, internet and television, Grant had made a world wide appeal. When Grant returned from his trip in 1880, he settled into a New York City residence and along with his son were initial investors in the financial company Grant and Ward. The Grants were primarily silent investors and the firm was run by Ferdinand Ward and James Fish. As I mentioned earlier, just having Grant’s name attached to the firm allowed Ward and Fish to attract millions of dollars in investments, some by very famous men of the day. Yet, unbeknownst to Grant and his son, Ward and Fish were building an elaborate house of cards, with millions of dollars unaccounted for. On one morning early in May of 1884, Grant woke up feeling confident that if not technically a millionaire, he certainly was well off with a net worth of over 750,000 dollars, a very impressive amount for that time. At 62, he was in reasonable health and could expect that that income and bank account could afford he and his wife Julia a healthy retirement. That one May morning,however, became a horrible May afternoon, when it was discovered that banks were refusing to do business with Grant and Ward because of several hundred thousand dollars in unpaid securities. Within a month, investigations determined that almost 16 million dollars was unaccounted for- an incredible amount of money. Assets were frozen, personal bank accounts drained, and at age 62, Grant found himself with the 70 dollars in his pocket and the 104 dollars that his wife kept in a jar at the house. As the most popular man in the country and despite the fraud swirling around the investigation, it was quickly and unequivocally determined that Grant and his son were victims, not criminals. Although Grant had an office at the downtown offices, it was often just to wile the hours away, take visits from admirers and smoke one of the estimated 22 cigars a day that he would smoke. Offers came in from all quarters to help Grant and his wife and ease the daily day to day burden that this calamity caused. A magazine offered Grant several hundred dollars per article to produce four articles on his wartime recollections. Eventually, they wanted to have Grant put his wartime stories into a memoir for general publication, and even offered 10% of all proceeds. Around this time, Grant began to have trouble swallowing. Certain foods made the back of his mouth feel like he had swallowed fire. By November 1884, after several examinations, it was found that Grant was dying of advanced cancer of the throat. Now, faced with his mortality, nearly penniless and deeply devoted to his wife Julia ( I will blog at a future time on this incredible romance), Grant NEEDED to provide. He needed to FINISH STRONG. Enter Mark Twain. By 1884, Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was one of the most celebrated men in America, surpassed perhaps only by Grant. His insightful, comic lectures could fetch over $1000 a night at a time where $100 was considered a proper honorarium. Without full knowledge of Grant’s impending doom, Twain, who owned his own publishing company, made Grant and his son reconsider the contract that Century Magazine had put forth. Twain made a far more generous offer, 20% of gross sales, $10,000 up front (nearly unheard of at the time) and no expenses coming out of Grants portion of the royalties. Additionally, because there was still some doubt if creditors of Grant and Ward would come after Grant, the contract was made with Julia Grant and therefore untouchable. When Twain found out about Grant’s imminent death, he became not only publisher, but friend and cheerleader. This is the second lesson Grant taught me about finishing well. 2. Finish Heroically -With his son Fredrick pulling out battle maps and editing notes, Grant worked for as much as 7 or 8 hours a day, despite incredible pain. Swabs of cocaine water were applied to give temporary relief. Throughout the winter of 1884-85, Ulysses S Grant relived his glory days of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Richmond and Petersburg. His book was personal, surprisingly well written and gave a humanness to Grant that his stoic demeanor hid. As his condition worsened in the spring of 1885, he resorted to writing in bed, or when a rare good day came, writing in the rocking chair on the porch. He wrote sometimes twenty five pages a day , despite visits from his former soldiers, even confederate soldiers paying respect to the dying Grant. On July 18, 1885, Grant completed the last of the pages. It came to over 900 pages in two volumes. It was well written and interesting. Just five days later, Ulysses S Grant age 63...just 5 days...mission accomplished. As I alluded to earlier, Grant’s romance with his wife Julia is one of the hidden stories of American history. Even those who have more than a passing knowledge of Grant, have not researched the incredible love affair that Grant had with his wife Julia. Their 37 years of marriage is marked by amazing letters ( many preserved), tremendous mutual sacrifice and undying devotion. Here is the third and final lesson about finishing strong from Ulysses S Grant: 3. Finish lovingly- Once Grant found out he was dying, he knew that any proceeds from the publishing of the book would not be enjoyed by him. He knew however that his legacy was a wife of 37 years, four children and 3 grandchildren who lived with him. He knew that their future rested in the legacy he could provide. So how did the book do? It was an immediate success with the American people, ultimately providing Grant’s family with $450,000 dollars in royalties and allowing Julia to lead a comfortable existence until her death in 1902. So much has been written over the years about Grant. As mentioned earlier, he was the most famous man of the late nineteenth century. He was a soldier, yes, and a politician. But most helpful for me all of these years later, he was a leader, a loving family man, an incredible husband and a fantastic finisher. He understood that his LEGACY is what he would most be remembered for, and he worked with selfless strain to insure that legacy for his family. He finished well............

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