"Flood has chosen one of the great profiles in courage from American history and told it splendidly."
— American History
Shortly after losing all of his wealth in a terrible 1884 swindle, Ulysses S. Grant learned he had terminal throat and mouth cancer. Destitute and dying, Grant began to write his memoirs to save his family from permanent financial ruin.As Grant continued his work, suffering increasing pain, the American public became aware of this race between Grant’s writing and his fatal illness. Twenty years after his respectful and magnanimous demeanor toward Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, people in both the North and the South came to know Grant as the brave, honest man he was, now using his famous determination in this final effort. Grant finished Memoirs just four days before he died in July 1885. Published after his death by his friend Mark Twain, Grant’s Memoirs became an instant bestseller, restoring his family’s financial health and, more importantly, helping to cure the nation of bitter discord. More than any other American before or since, Grant, in his last year, was able to heal this - the country’s greatest wound.
On Friday, May 2, 1884, a carriage drawn by a team of two fine grey horses pulled up in front of the United Bank Building at 2 Wall Street in Manhattan. A coachman dismounted; with some difficulty, he helped his employer, a beefy man with a short grey beard, arrange a pair of crutches and step down to the sidewalk. Moving painfully as the result of an accident that occurred four months previously, the man approached a door that led to the offices of the investment banking firm of Grant & Ward. Men tipped their hats as he passed, paying their respects to sixty-two-year-old Ulysses S. Grant, the general to whom Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House nineteen years before, and the man who subsequently served two terms as president. At this moment Grant was the most famous man in the United States and was on his way to being the most photographed person of the nineteenth century.
That Friday in May Grant stayed busy at 2 Wall Street in his usual fashion. Although a full partner in Grant & Ward, he came in only three days a week and worked in a separate small office upstairs, primarily in his additional capacity as president of the Mexican Southern Railroad Company. (He reached this second floor by means of a hydraulically operated elevator, an invention coming into use in the downtown office buildings.) The objective of this venture was to build a line south from Mexico City to Guatemala; despite his best efforts for this Mexican partnership, including two trips to Mexico, Grant never succeeded in bringing the enterprise to fruition. He did, however, come to admire Mexico, whose soldiers he had fought against during the Mexican War, and whose beautiful landscapes he had ridden through at that war’s end.
Grant’s progression from the presidency to this office in Wall Street was far from predictable. In March of 1877, at the end of his two terms in the White House, Grant and his wife, Julia, set off on a trip around the world that would last for two years. Grant was a fundamentally shy man despite his years in the American public eye. The Grants thought of themselves as sightseers—private citizens taking an extended vacation after his many years of military and civilian public service. Yet in nation after nation, they found themselves the focus of enormous interest. Wherever they went, crowds gathered to see them. It became clear that Grant, although an unofficial ambassador, was one of the most popular representatives of the United States ever to travel abroad. Although the crowds who flocked to see him knew nothing about his background, they seemed to sense that this son of the successful operator of a small tannery was a man of the people. At the same time, throughout Europe the Grants were honored and entertained by royalty and other prominent personages. In En ¬gland, they spent a weekend with Queen Victoria at Windsor Palace. In Rome, they met with the newly installed pope, Leo XIII. During their visit to Berlin, Prince Otto von Bismarck—Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” of whom Grant said, “He is no doubt the greatest statesman of the present time”—spent two hours in his office at the Radziwill Palace discussing world affairs with Grant, treating him with great respect as a military and national leader who possessed firsthand knowledge he was eager to acquire. Bismarck knew a highly organized and compartmentalized mind when he encountered one; describing the way Grant handled the topics that arose at their meeting, he said, “I saw at once that he knew his subject thoroughly, or else he avoided it completely.”
Eventually the Grants continued on from Europe to Egypt, India, and the Far East. After visits to China and Japan, during which Grant so impressed the leadership of both nations that they entrusted him with what proved to be the successful settlement of a boundary dispute involving the Ryukyu Islands, the Grants crossed the Pacific on the liner City of Tokio to return to the United States. As they came ashore in San Francisco in September of 1879, they received an immensely enthusiastic welcome, but as was so often the case with the Grant family, a unique personal story hid behind the headlines. As reported by their twenty-one-year-old son, Jesse, who had come west to be reunited with them: Father and mother were at the Palace Hotel when I rejoined them, and mother was the first to hasten to greet me. “If your father asks if there is anything peculiar about his articulation, pretend not to notice it,” she urged, after the first breathless greeting. And then mother went on to explain that father’s Japanese servant [shipboard steward] had accidentally thrown overboard his [dental] plate with two teeth attached, and since this loss he frequently whistled in his speech.
True enough, father almost at once asked me if I noticed anything peculiar about his speech, and I promptly answered no, to his evident relief.
Grant and Julia then began some months of traveling and living in various places in the United States. This period of Grant’s life ended in June of 1880, when his backers at the Republican National Convention in Chicago failed in their clumsy, complacent attempt to make him their party’s presidential candidate for a third time. (At this point in his life, Grant was ambivalent concerning a third term, but Julia would have enjoyed returning to the White House.) That resulted in the nomination and subsequent election of Republican James A. Garfield, a man Grant characterized as “not possessed of the backbone of an angleworm.” (However Garfield might have turned out as a president, he was assassinated ninety days after his inauguration and was succeeded by his vice president, Chester A. Arthur.)
Ulysses and Julia were then drawn to New York City by its magnet of money and success. Grant was a man who knew real poverty during his pre–Civil War years—at one point, having resigned from the Regular Army to avoid a court martial for being drunk on duty, he peddled firewood from a wagon on the streets of St. Louis. In Manhattan, however, he found that he had powerful friends who remembered and revered him as the victor of Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, and as the man who set new standards of military honor by his simple, gracious, generous treatment of Robert E. Lee and his men at Appomattox Court House. (For the rest of his life, Lee never allowed a word against Grant to be spoken in his presence.) Grant’s rich admirers, including J. P. Morgan, raised $100,000 to help the couple settle in New York. In addition, they were supposed to receive $15,000 a year from a $250,000 trust that a group of his supporters had raised for him in the autumn of 1880, when it became clear that the botched attempt to make him the Republican nominee had ended his political career. The money was invested for the Grants in the Wabash Mainline Railroad, but the Grants received only $18,000 from the entire arrangement, because that company went into default in 1883.
The Grants’ second son, Buck—thirty-year-old Ulysses S. Grant, Jr.—was already in New York. Educated at Exeter, Harvard, and the Columbia Law School, he began working in New York several years before his parents arrived there. He spent part of his time in a New York law practice with the well-known attorney Stanley Elkins. Three years before this, Buck had also begun to work in Wall Street with two men of finance, Ferdinand Ward and James D. Fish, the latter no relation to Grant’s secretary of state Hamilton Fish.
On November 2, 1880, Buck married Fanny Chaffee, the daughter of United States Senator Jerome B. Chaffee of Colorado, who had made a fortune in mining, banking, and speculation in western lands and now had two houses in New York. The wedding was in one of those houses; six days after that, Grant and Julia rented Chaffee’s other house, and Buck and his bride, Fanny, moved in with them.
About the middle of 1881, the Grants decided to settle permanently in New York and sought a house of their own. For $98,000, they bought a townhouse at 3 East Sixty-sixth Street, a spacious four-story reddish-brown limestone structure with big bay windows, just east of the great Fifth Avenue mansions that overlooked Central Park. Julia later wrote, “It was a much larger and a more expensive house than we had intended (or had the means) to buy, but it was so new and sweet and large that this quite outweighed our more prudential scruples.” With it came a life that included household servants, a carriage, horses, and a coachman.
Grant would not have become a partner in the firm of Grant and Ward had it not been for his son Buck, whose connection with Ward and Fish gave Grant the opportunity to make significant amounts of money. Despite his having been president, Grant had emerged from his two terms in the White House in March of 1877 with relatively little money saved from his army pay and presidential salary, that salary being $25,000 a year until his last year in office, when it became $50,000. In that era, despite the many great fortunes being made and spent, presidents did not receive pensions for their service. (Grant’s parsimonious father, Jesse, was reportedly furious when Grant ran for president because a civilian office holder could not receive a military pension.) Much of Grant and Julia’s modest net worth consisted of a few small houses and parcels of land in places where they had lived, and they had an income of $10,000 a year from rental properties.
Grant had little understanding of money. On their trip around the world, he had miscalculated the cost of their months of first-class travel through Europe. They ran out of money in Venice and were able to continue on to the East only because of $60,000 sent to them by Buck, who was making far more than his father ever had.
To become a partner with Ward and Fish, each of whom had put up securities they valued at $100,000, Ulysses S. Grant placed $100,000 into their then-small investment firm. Buck’s father-in-law, Senator Chaffee, gave Buck $100,000 so that he could also become a partner, and he followed that with another $400,000 as an investment for himself. Thus Ulysses S. Grant’s name became linked with the financial reputation of thirty-year-old Ferdinand Ward, a handsome, charming man known as the “Young Napoleon of Wall Street.” Ward’s meteoric rise in that moneyed world, and the people he met on the way up, demonstrated the possibilities of the nineteenth-century American business scene. It all began for Ward when he came to Manhattan from the small town of Geneseo near Rochester in upstate New York and met and married Henriette Green, whose father was an officer in New York City’s Marine Bank. Through that connection, Ward met the respected president of the bank, James D. Fish, a sixty-five-year-old man who had begun his business career on Manhattan’s waterfront at the age of twenty-two. With a partner, Fish had rented an empty store and started what became one of the Port of New York’s largest dealers in ship’s supplies, selling everything from candles for lanterns to anchors and chains. As a service to ship captains, who often arrived in port with considerable amounts of cash, Fish would give them receipts for their money, lock it in a safe, and use it as his business needed it. “These deposits,” he later wrote, “amounted in the aggregate to thousands of dollars, and although left with us for safe keeping, were a convenience to us, as they obviated the necessity of our borrowing money to carry on our business.”
For the next thirty-two years, Fish was in effect both a merchant and a banker; in 1873 he withdrew from the shipping supply firm and started what he appropriately named the Marine Bank. When Fish met the up-and-coming Ferdinand Ward, he loaned Ward the money to buy two seats on the city’s produce exchange. Ward made a profit on that and also successfully speculated in the stocks of elevated railway companies, the predecessors to subways. When these four men—Ulysses S. Grant, his son Buck, Ward, and Fish—became the four equal partners in Grant & Ward, this combination of fame and financial reputation attracted hundreds of investors, including many sophisticated ones. (Henry Clews, a prominent stock exchange figure who knew both success and failure on Wall Street, observed that Ward attracted “some of the richest financiers,” who were “chiefly induced by promises of high rates of interest and large profits in various ventures.”) At a time when stock dividends averaged 5.5 percent, the dividends of 40 percent or more that Grant & Ward began to pay out were remarkable, all the more so because the Brad-street rating service annually gave the firm its highest ranking for financial security.
Despite his being at Grant and Ward, Ulysses S. Grant remained naïve about matters of money, and his principal contribution to the business boiled down to his partners having the use of the immense prestige his name conferred upon the firm. Thus he had time on his hands in his upstairs office. His friends often dropped in to see him: occasionally, using a small room behind his own office as a dining room, Grant would have a restaurant send in a meal. Among his companions were famous soldiers such as his flamboyant Civil War subordinate General Philip Sheridan, who since the autumn of 1883 had been the general in chief of the United States Army, replacing Grant’s principal Civil War subordinate William Tecumseh Sherman. Among the political operatives often to be found in his inner circle was his lawyer Roscoe Conkling, the former United States Senator from New York who had botched the effort to make Grant the Republican nominee in 1880. Samuel Clemens, known by his pen name Mark Twain and nationally famous for his Tom Sawyer and other books, was also a frequent visitor. Eleven years earlier, with a collaborator named Charles Dudley Warner, Twain had published a satirical novel, The Gilded Age, which portrayed the dramatic economic fluctuation and rampant political corruption by which this dynamic era in American life became known.
Ulysses S. Grant knew little of what happened to the money that poured in—Ward would later say that Grant was in the habit of signing papers without paying much attention to what they were. Nonetheless, while Grant understood that he was not one of Manhattan’s financial titans, the ledgers of Grant & Ward showed that in three years his initial investment of $100,000 had grown to $750,000 in his personal account. Other members of his family had entrusted their money to the firm, and Grant had reason to feel that the 25 percent share he held in a partnership that now recorded an overall capitalization of $16 million probably made him worth “well nigh to a million,” as he put it, at a time when a household servant earned twenty dollars a month.
Ward, who left twenty-five Havana cigars on Grant’s desk every morning that he came in—the same number that Grant had smoked every day for many years—said of the little gatherings that took place in Grant’s office, “The topics of the day were discussed and the most intimate social relations existed. The General seemed to enjoy . . . [himself] as he sat in his familiar chair and smoked his cigar. He was so hearty and genial in his manner that no one could fail to like him and feel drawn toward him. And not only did he show this side of his character to men of influence and promise, but even to those more lowly in station he was ever polite and pleasant.” At other times, Grant was to be found in his office penning letters to friends and associates from his days in the army and in Washington, and he was always available to sign anything endorsing the operations of the firm. Every three or four hours Ward would come in with papers for his signature; George Spencer, the firm’s young cashier, said that on Fridays Grant would sign as many as fifty assorted letters and other documents.
In the world outside his office, Grant enjoyed being among New York’s rich men, who saw in his military victory for the Union the same kind of vision and determination that had brought them success in their different fields. His friend William H. Vanderbilt, president of the New York Central Railroad and the son of the legendary railway entrepreneur “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, said of Grant, “He is one of us.” Julia loved Manhattan’s social life and remarked on “how regally New York entertains.” Of the many dinners and receptions they attended, she observed, “In our journey around the world I saw nothing that excelled them in magnificence or elegance.”
Seeing the millions of dollars now recorded in the ledgers of Grant & Ward, Grant began to mellow. Although those closest to him had always known him as a warm but reserved man, people in general now saw less of the grave, resolute public figure of earlier years. He had been trained in adversity. After he left the pre–Civil War army Grant had failed as a farmer and realtor before losing a job as a surveyor for lack of the right political connections. On December 23, 1857, he had pawned his gold watch for twenty-two dollars to buy Christmas presents for Julia and their children. Now, even though the stock market was having a bad year, he was able to give Julia $1,000 a month to spend as she pleased and asked for no accounting of it. He felt sufficiently affluent to contribute $5,000 to a fund to begin building the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty was to stand when that gift from France to the United States would be shipped across the Atlantic in sections to be assembled and erected on Bedloes Island in New York Harbor. Always devoted to those closest to him, he gave each of his four young granddaughters bonds worth $2,500 as presents at Christmas of 1883. According to the memoirs Julia later wrote, this family prosperity caused Grant to tell her this, in her description of a conversation they had just before these days in early May of 1884.
Julia, you need not trouble to save for our children. Ward is making us all rich—them as well as ourselves—and I have been thinking how pleasant it would be for us to make our impecunious friends (several of whom we were then helping) independent, get them comfortable little homes, and make them allowances. I would like to, and I am sure it would be a great pleasure to you.
As Grant entered and left the office during these spring days, he was on crutches because of a severe accident that had occurred some four months before, on Christmas Eve of 1883. Starting to enter his carriage on the way to make a holiday call, he reached up to give his coachman a present in the form of a roll of bills. As he did, he slipped, crashed to the icy pavement, and thereafter was confined to bed. In a time of uncertain orthopedic diagnoses—the X-ray would not be invented for another ten years—he may have suffered from a fractured hip. Another possibility, expressed by a man who knew him well and said that a surgeon was called in for consultation, was that “the injury was thought to be a rupture of a muscle in the upper part of the thigh . . . any quick or sudden movement of the limb was so painful that the General was unable to move in his bed without assistance: he did not leave it for weeks.” Grant gave his own estimate of his condition in letters: on January 21, 1884, less than a month after the accident, he dictated a letter to a friend in which he told him, “I have not been able to leave my room since, nor to dress myself”; and on February 27, two months after the accident, he said in another dictated letter, “I think the injury that I received from my fall has been well this last six weeks, but we have had a very horrid winter here, and it has given me what I never had before in my life— the rheumatism, and it has settled in the injured leg . . . and is very painful and prevents my being able to walk except with crutches.” Occasionally he would use only one crutch, or a cane. During that winter he also came down with what he described as being the inflammation of the chest cavity known as pleurisy.
So, late in the afternoon of Friday, May 2, 1884, Grant left his office and went home in his carriage as a man still feeling some physical pain, but nonetheless a man at peace with the world.
Halfway through the following Sunday morning, May 4, Ferdinand Ward came to see Grant at his house. Ward passed through rooms that he described as being “laden with curios and rich gifts— the spoils of the Grants’ tour around the world—which practically converted them into a museum.” Grant greeted his young partner pleasantly; he thought of him as his son Buck’s contemporary and friend and as the gifted financier who was steadily increasing the Grant family’s assets.
Ward quickly revealed the purpose of his visit. He told Grant that the treasury of the city of New York had withdrawn so much of its money from the Marine Bank over the weekend that, unless $400,000 could be raised on this Sunday, the Marine Bank would not be able to open its doors for business on Monday morning.
Grant knew that city treasuries were sometimes suddenly faced with unexpected large expenditures, and he knew that his and Ward’s partner, James D. Fish, was president of the Marine Bank— but he thought of that bank as being an entirely different repository of funds. “Why are you concerned about the Marine Bank?” Grant asked.
“We have six hundred and sixty thousand dollars on deposit there,” Ward answered. “It would embarrass us very much if the bank should close its doors.” He went on to say that he had been able to round up commitments for $250,000, but if Grant could not come up with an additional $150,000 before the following morning, Grant & Ward would be in trouble.
Grant digested this news and soon left his house, telling Ward he would come back with whatever funds he could raise. In his carriage, he began going to the mansions of his rich friends, trying to find someone who on this Sunday would write a check to Grant & Ward for $150,000 because he asked him to do so. After calling on several men who received him politely but declined to help, he arrived at the home of his friend William Vanderbilt—a palatial house that extended the entire block of Fifth Avenue between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets. As anyone who ever read one of Grant’s wartime orders knew, he could explain a situation with great clarity and brevity, leaving no doubt about his expectations. Vanderbilt had the same ability. As soon as Grant set forth the state of affairs, he replied: “I care nothing about the Marine Bank. To tell the truth, I care very little about Grant and Ward. But to accommodate you personally, I will draw my check for the amount you ask. I consider it a personal loan to you, and not to any other party.”
Asking for nothing as collateral, Vanderbilt wrote the check, and Grant returned to his house, where a grateful Ward thanked him, took the check, and left. Grant believed that when the word went through Wall Street the next morning that Vanderbilt, a man with an estimated worth of $200 million, had given him $150,000 to cover a shortfall, everything would be all right.
On Monday, May 5, that assumption seemed to be correct. Ward told him that he had deposited Vanderbilt’s check at Fish’s Marine Bank. Grant spent the day uneventfully, and went home in the afternoon.
Tuesday, May 6, was different. When Grant arrived at 2 Wall Street late on that sunny morning, he saw a group of angry men milling about the doors of Grant & Ward. Inside he found his son Buck, who was in his shirtsleeves and vest, trying to talk to several people at once. Buck turned to him and said, “The Marine Bank closed this morning. Ward has fled. We cannot find our securities.” (Buck said soon thereafter that his first words actually were, or included, “Father, everything is bursted and we cannot get a cent out of the concern.”) Without a word, Grant entered the elevator and went up to his office. He stayed there, alone, waiting to learn the extent of this emergency. The firm’s cashier, George Spencer, caught a glimpse of him as he sat with his hands gripping the arms of a chair, his face expressionless.
The above is excerpted from "Grant’s Final Victory" by Charles Bracelen Flood. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.