written by Greg Wolk, Heritage Programs Coordinator
Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822, and the nation is now celebrating the legacy of this singularly unique man. Grant’s Bicentennial brings to mind the literature that grew out of America’s most devastating war. Lew Wallace of Indiana and Ambrose Bierce of that state fought under Grant at the Battle of Shiloh in April, 1862. Wallace received low marks for his performance in that battle. As a writer, his major work opened to mixed reviews in 1880. It was the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Bierce for his part was a prominent author and journalist for decades after the Civil War. An acclaimed short story set in the Civil War, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is one contribution Bierce made to American literary history.
Samuel L. Clemens, known now to the world as Mark Twain, was not with Grant at Shiloh. Quite the contrary, Clemens spent two weeks roaming the area around Hannibal, Missouri with a pro-secession band. No ideologue, he escaped to Nevada at the end of July 1861, courtesy of a stagecoach ticket bought for him by his brother Orion – the ride that inspired Roughing It. Clemens was no soldier, but he was raised in a deeply southern culture in Northeast Missouri, among a slave-owning gentry. Clemens/Twain had two encounters with Ulysses Grant in Washington in the years after the Civil War, but they forged a friendship in 1879 after they shared a dais at a Chicago banquet. Grant was not born into a slave culture – his parents were Ohioans strongly opposed to slavery – but Grant was immersed in it during the years he spent in St. Louis, 1854-1860. Grant, indeed, owned a slave himself. Another characteristic shared by the two: both were unable to hold on to money. Grant’s financial demise was the most tragic, although not entirely a matter of his own making. He invested in a Wall Street financial firm owned by his son and his partner Ferdinand Ward. Ward was a fraud; the company collapsed in May 1884. While the consequences of this played out, in June 1884 Grant was diagnosed with cancer of the throat.
Meanwhile, Twain created a company of his own, a publishing firm by the name of Charles L. Webster and Company. He named it for his niece’s husband, who was Twain’s business manager. Twain had lost a fortune by investing heavily into a new-fangled typesetting machine, and he had soured on his principal publisher. What is more, by June 1884 Twain was finishing the manuscript of his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Anticipating success for this novel, Twain felt it was a good time to form a publishing firm, to reap income that would otherwise go to a publisher. Huckleberry Finn went to press in December 1884. Twain’s company was then already heavily engaged in its second project, the book that would be The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s last great battle played out as he labored through the writing of the Memoirs. He finished his manuscript three days before he passed away on July 23, 1885.
The great conqueror of the Civil War ultimately conquered death itself. The two-volume Memoirs was the best-selling work of non-fiction in American history to that point, garnering for Julia Grant royalties that amounted to $13 Million in today’s dollars. It is rightly ranked near or at the top of military memoirs written in the English language. With the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain conquered twice: In its wake, he was no longer just a “humorist.” Twain’s masterwork is painful to read today, because of Twain’s purposeful and repeated use of a racial slur. It is still “banned” in places as a result. But it is essentially and still Twain’s manifesto against the corrupt culture in which he was raised.
It seems doubtful in retrospect that either of these great works would have been produced but for the collaboration of these two men.
The best-selling work of American fiction in the Nineteenth Century was not one of Mark Twain’s celebrated books. That distinction belongs to Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur.
Missouri Humanities celebrates the Bicentennial of Ulysses S. Grant with a touring exhibit called “Ulysses Grant’s Missouri.” It is currently on display at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in suburban St. Louis. During the month of June 2022, Missouri State Archives hosts the exhibit at its headquarters in Jefferson City.