Sunday, April 25, 2021

Are You a Reluctant Writer? So Was U.S. Grant!

by Dr. Craig Von Buseck @CraigVonBuseck

Military memoirs were the rage in the decades following the Civil War. Some were credible, making a helpful contribution to the history of the war, like the memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman, James Longstreet, or Philip Sheridan. But many were self-serving vanity pieces that minimized the faults of the commander, embellished his accomplishments, and took potshots at political enemies.

Raised by his Methodist mother, Hannah Grant, to carry himself in humility, Ulysses S. Grant found many of these memoirs distasteful. So when his friend, Mark Twain, tried to convince Grant to write his memoirs for his new publishing house, Charles Webster and Company, the general rebuffed him like he did every other attempt by publishers to secure his book. 

“Oh, I’m not going to write any book,” he told a Saint Louis reporter not long after leaving the White House. “There are books enough already.”

But then his investment firm, Grant & Ward, was destroyed by an unscrupulous business partner in a massive Ponzi scheme. Grant was left penniless and was forced to reconsider Twain’s offer. In addition to being nearly bankrupt, the general was also concerned with how he was viewed by the general public in the wake of the Grant & Ward swindle. 

When it seemed things could not get any worse, they did. On June 2nd, 1884, Ulysses took a bite of a peach and immediately shot up from the table in tremendous pain. “Oh my,” he exclaimed, “I think something has stung me from that peach.” The pain continued and finally on October 22nd, Grant went to see a doctor. 

During the examination, Grant could read the verdict in the doctor’s facial expression. “Is it cancer?” the general inquired. Sadly, the answer was yes, and the disease was incurable. Now penniless and dying of cancer, Grant immediately set out to write his memoirs in order to secure the financial future of his wife. He eventually agreed that the book would be published his friend, Mark Twain.

Putting pen to paper, Grant discovered that he thoroughly enjoyed the writing process. Having fully grasped the advice given by editor Robert Underwood Johnson of the Century Magazine, Grant added this thoughts, feelings, and other personal touches to bring the human dimension to the battlefield stories. Drawing on his powerful memory and official battlefield reports, Ulysses worked for several hours every day. 

To keep his mind sharp for the research and writing, the general refused to take morphine during the day, enduring terrible pain for more than a year in order to complete the mammoth writing project. The only relief he received was when he sprayed his throat with cocaine water – but that was only temporary.

This year-long struggle to complete his memoirs was both a labor of love and a race with death. For Grant, it would be his final battle.

Twain was initially motivated to secure Grant’s memoirs because of the anticipated financial bonanza. But when he read the completed first volume, he realized the book was a literary and historical masterpiece. 

Twain concluded that Grant’s writings were on par with Caesar’s Commentaries. “The same high merits distinguished both books—clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike and avoidance of flowery speech. General Grant’s book is a great, unique, and unapproachable literary masterpiece. There is no higher literature than these modern, simple memoirs. Their style is flawless—no man can improve upon it.”

As he pressed forward, the struggle for Grant was no longer simply to provide an income for his family after the bankruptcy of Grant & Ward. The writing of his memoirs gave him reason to soldier on in ways he could not have imagined when he began. As his body weakened, Grant became aware of how his writing gave him a reason to continue living.

Grant’s doctors recognized Grant’s rapid decline, but still believed it was important for him to focus on the memoirs as he was able. “When he forced himself to write or dictate he was thus able to distract his attention from his condition,” Dr. George Shrady recalled. “Hence every encouragement was given him to do as he pleased in such regard.”

The general completed his book four days before his death. More than 1.5 million Americans attended his funeral in New York City, including Mark Twain who viewed the solemn procession from his office windows near Union Square. He considered the publishing of Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant as one of his greatest accomplishments. “I think his book kept him alive several months,” Twain wrote when he heard the news of Grant’s death. “He was a very great man and superlatively good.”

Grant’s Personal Memoirs became the second highest selling book of the Nineteenth Century. Mark Twain eventually delivered to Julia Grant profits from the book in the amount of $450,000 – equivalent to more than $10 million today. The book is now considered a treasure of American literature and one of the greatest military memoirs in history.

Like Ulysses S. Grant, you may be hesitant to write, feeling that you are not fully equipped for the task. I pass along this important lesson I have learned: if God calls, He equips. If you sense God calling you to write, do what is necessary to prepare yourself and then get to work completing your heavenly assignment with the help of the Holy Spirit. As I wrote in my column last month, the world needs to read what you are called to write.

I tell the story of Grant’s final years in detail in my new book, Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant. Order your copy at


Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author and the Managing Editor for Learn more at


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this amazing part of our history.

  2. This is so fascinating and encouraging. Thank you, Craig!

  3. Loved your post! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Craig, this was such an encouragement to me today. I've struggled recently with several debilitating physical problems, but thankfully not cancer! Writing has kept me sane. I've begun a new series set during the Civil War, so this is even more apropos. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. A very informative and interesting post about Grant's reluctance to write! And yet how well he wrote. an encouraging post, for sure!