Ulysses S. Grant was unquestionably a great and able general, but he was no businessman.
The General’s Last Hurrah
When Ulysses S. Grant retired from two terms as President of the United States in early 1877, he was the most famous man in the world. There had been serious financial scandals during his administration involving cabinet members and even his personal staff. While Grant was never involved in any misconduct, naughtiness was done on his watch. He was tainted. But he was still popular.
Partially to give himself a rest from the near-daily reports of malfeasance, and partly because it was a novelty for him and his wife Julia, they decided to travel. Grant had never been a wealthy man, but he had accumulated some money and could finance his two-year sojourn around the world. It was a party of three-plus. Ulysses, Julia and their teenaged son Jesse – and a journalist John Russell Young, who would crank out thousands (and perhaps millions) of words to provide a running commentary of the Great General in the Great Capitals. It was printed regularly, since Grant was being hosted wherever he went, by Kings, Queens, Emperors and other ruling members of all the important places in the world. He was still front page news.
At the end of two years, partly because they were getting antsy, and mostly because they were running out of money, they came home, only to find that Grant was more popular than ever. Perhaps popular enough for a third term. He made a lukewarm effort in that direction, but it failed.
He was fifty-eight years old. He still needed a job, and Grant, out of uniform, had never been good in the “job market.”
The Great General is a Financier
General Grant had been a great favorite of the rich and famous since his rise to battlefield stardom. While they may have gravitated to him early in his rise because he was “rising,” they grew to truly like him as a man, and perhaps in their own way, considered him a national treasure.
Post-Civil War, there were very few laws on the books about public servants accepting private gifts. Out-and-out bribery was one thing, a box of cigars was another thing, but lavish gifts, such as houses or fine carriages and teams of horses was not considered a blatant no-no. And when the givers of such gifts had names like Vanderbilt and Whitney, they knew how to maneuver around technicalities. And technically, Grant was now a private citizen.
So they were happy to provide a town house for the former President in New York City, where he could be available to party with them. But he still needed a job.
It was his son USG, Jr., always called Buck, who suggested the partnership with Ferdinand Ward, a Wall Street so-called “genius.” General Grant readily admitted that he knew absolutely nothing about finances, but Ward said it did not matter. He would be the one to manage the financial end of things, and General Grant could be the outside “face” of things. He was hoping that the former soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic who had trusted their old commander with their lives, would now be willing to trust him with their money. They did. They did bigtime! With General Grant’s name on the letterhead, money for investments came pouring into the firm, and for two years, handsome dividends were distributed regularly. Ulysses S. Grant was now a rich man. His grown sons had invested in the firm, and they were now rich men. Even Julia invested some of her “pin” money and was doing nicely.
Then the whole thing plunged to its death. Ward had concocted a Ponzi-like scheme (like Bernie Medoff) which is basically a Borrow-from-Peter-to-Pay-Paul affair. Then he cajoled Grant to borrow a substantial amount of money, supposedly as a bridge loan, from his pal, William Vanderbilt. Then Ward immediately fled the country, leaving Grant holding the proverbial bag.
Ulysses S. Grant: A Man of Character
Ulysses Grant was guilty of nothing, except perhaps of poor judgment in business partners. He insisted that he would honor all the company’s debts. If being financially ruined with his reputation in tatters wasn’t enough, the sixty-two year old General learned that he had incurable cancer of the throat. He turned over all his possessions, including deeds to his houses, his gifts-from-royalty, and even his Civil War memorabilia to pay his creditors. He was virtually penniless.
The iconic Civil War general had been approached on several occasions to write his Civil War memoirs, and had always declined, claiming he was not a writer. But other veterans, from privates to generals, were penning their reminiscences and making small fortunes. Grant needed the money, and Mark Twain, who had a substantial interest in a publishing company, offered him an enormous advance. The General agreed. He did not want to leave his family in debt or in want.
With his usual intensity of effort, he plunged into recollecting those campaigns and battles of a quarter century earlier. He corresponded with many of his old colleagues, reviewing their clarification and memories. He pored over the old maps and the old orders. He spent hours at his desk, despite the increasing pain from his cancer. He refused all pain-relieving medication so that his mind would not be dulled. The final galleys were finished only days before he died. When Twain told the dying man that the advance sale had topped $300,000, Grant was amazed.
He may have believed that he “was not a writer,” but Mark Twain (who was a pretty fair one) insisted that the writing was excellent. Bruce Catton, the late historian of the Civil War, once commented that Grant had “the gift of clarity.” In the century-plus years since Grant’s Memoirs were published, nearly every military historian has rated them as some of the finest war memorials every written.
And Mrs. Grant became a very wealthy widow.
Flood, Charles Bracelen – Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year – 2012, DaCapo Press
Goldhurst, Richard – Many Are the Hearts – 1975, Reader’s Digest Press
Young, John Russell – Around the World with General Grant – 1879, American News