by Thomas M. Pitkin
When the Century Magazine late in 1883 began planning a comprehensive series of articles on the Civil War by leading participants, General Grant was naturally approached first, through his former military secretary and biographer, Adam Badeau. Grant was not interested. Six months later, after the failure of the Wall Street firm of Grant & Ward had left the General in serious financial straits, Century tried again. He was still reluctant, but after the Society of the Amy of the Potomac, at its annual meeting in Brooklyn in June 1884, elected him its president in a scene of great enthusiasm, he showed interest. He wrote the Century Company that he would he glad to have them send someone to discuss the matter with him.
Robert U. Johnson, editor in charge of the war series, called on Grant at his cottage in Long Branch, N. J., and the General undertook to try his hand at some articles. The first one, on Shiloh, arrived in the Century office at the beginning of July. It was received at first with jubilation. Grant had been captured, and his example would no doubt influence other generals to participate in the series. But the article proved to be pretty much a copy of Grant’s objective report on the action, with which they were already familiar. Johnson took it back to Grant and diplomatically explained
[pg. 2] to him that what they wanted was his own personal experience, with all the anecdotal material he could dredge up from memory. The General proved an apt pupil, and rewrote the Shiloh article completely. It appeared in Century the following February.
As soon as Grant started writing, Johnson began dreaming of getting a book out of him. The Century Company was already planning a large book on the Civil War, to follow and incorporate the series of articles. “Now that Grant is in the humor of writing,” Johnson suggested to Richard Watson Gilder, the senior editor of the Century Company, “would it not be worth while to think of getting him to write a book of his war experiences for subscription to go along side of our book …?”1 Gilder thought well of the idea, and so did Roswell Smith, the company’s president. Smith noted, however, that the business office should be consulted as to whether such a book would sell.2 The editorial staff was enthusiastic, but Smith was cautious.
Meanwhile, Grant was going ahead with his first draft of an article on Vicksburq. Johnson visited the General at Long Branch on July 22, and reported at length to Gilder. His letter, which seems not to have been used before, except as Johnson himself condensed bits of it in his Remembered Yesterdays, may be worth quoting at length. It reveals a number of things about Grant at this time, about the impression he made on one who had not been particularly an admirer of his, and about his family. It also shows that the General had already decided to write a book after the articles were out of the way, a point that Johnson later managed to forget.
I spent all this morning with Gen. Grant at Long Branch. I reached his house about 9:00 & was surprised about 9:30 to hear breakfast announced [pg. 3] but after a trivial half-hour with Mrs. Sartoris (who is a very pretty & gentle sort of person, & Mrs. Fred. Grant, who is one of the best Western types)3 I resumed the siege. You will be glad to learn that the General enjoys writing–since he is still lame & needs diversion4–had already formed the intention of writing a 450-page book on his campaigns next winter. He has been urged to this by Mr. G. W. Childs5 and Phila. friends one of whom is a publisher. Nothing was said however about publication & he said that he would not publish it without letting us have a chance. He told me a great deal about Grant & Ward. He thinks Fish6 a deliberate swindler as well as Ward, who “violated the confidence of everybody.” Will Ward & “Buck” Grant7 were great friends & Ferdinand played it on Buck by selling him a $5000. “flour note” (whatever that may be) for $500. & then just before its falling due renewing it with another until in order to cover up the fraud he got Buck to go in with him. Of course the Grants knew nothing of this. He spent most of the time on Shiloh and Vicksburg, telling me a lot of picturesque details which I seized upon at once & made him promise to put in. He will put the whole Wilderness Campaign in one paper which we can supplement at any point with “fighting” if it needs it & will write a fourth paper shorter on the Surrender including new material. The Shiloh will be 6 or 7 pages, Vicksburg nearly 25, Wilderness perhaps at a guess 16 and the Surrender 6. Thus we get 4 articles of 54 pp. total length for $2000. They will appear at long intervals apart too. The Wilderness is thus covered in one issue even if we have two or three brief supplementary papers on Spotsylvania & Cold Harbor. Thus the series will be shortened, having some of the best of the wine at the last. Grant thinks Sherman could be got to write in one paper Dalton to Savannah & I think he will help us to get it. Grant’s Vicksburg will be done (first draft) this week! (I wonder if McClellan will be so prompt.)
It looks as though Grant was an underrated man by his enemies. He is of a very affectionate, transparent, & very humorous nature–always the twinkle in the eye. He spoke with great frankness of his affairs saying “We are all paupers now” & of men, saying of Hooker that he was a man of no brains, scruples, or decency & that no woman was free from his importunities, left alone with him. I gave him the cue to popular writing & he has the boldness of his opinions & if he will only write out what he thinks & knows he can make a book that will outsell Blaine’s–which by the way is solemn commonplace patchwork without fire or variety–Addison & treacle, on tap.8
I feel confident that we can get Grant’s book if we shall want it….9
The editors continued to urge taking the book. Clarence C. Buel, Johnson’s colleague on the Civil War series, telegraphed to Smith that the book was not as much of a speculation as it seemed.
[pg. 4] The material as it appeared in the magazine “would help to keep up our ‘boom,’ with the soldier audience, and it would still have vitality–as a subscription book.” Grant had no other income at the moment than the $500 apiece for the Century articles, he told Smith.10 But Smith wired back that it was “bad policy for author to accept advances, but would make advances on completion &.”11 Gilder told Smith that Grant was the most “taking” card that the Century Company had ever had. “With all his faults & shortcomings he continues to be the most eminent and interesting of living Americans.” He thought that they could hardly have too much of him in the magazine, and “the book, especially as it would be framed in our hands, would be a most important contribution to human history–a book ‘not for a day but for all time.'”12
Roswell Smith went to Long Branch in September and he and Grant, as the luncheon guests of George W. Childs, discussed a book contract. A good impression seems to have been made on both sides, and Smith wrote to Gilder, referring to Grant, “When the book is ready he is to come to us with it.”13 Grant had certainly been impressed, and thought the Century Conpany would be the best publisher, but he had made no committal, he wrote Badeau afterward.14Smith knew of Grant’s poverty, but had obviously offered no advance. After his return to New York, Grant did come to the Century Company office and tell Gilder that he wanted them to have the book.15 Probably by sheer coincidence, he went the same day to consult a specialist about a nagging pain in his throat. The book and the pain were with him to the end.
The Century Company proceeded to draft a contract in a rather leisurely fashion. Before it was signed, Mark Twain, who had recently set up his own publishing house under the name of Charles L. Webster & Co.,
[pg. 5] entered the picture and took the book away from Century. Johnson never forgave Twain for this, especially after Johnson had to cut the Vicksburq article that Grant had written under his coaching for the Century, and give the best part of it to Webster for use in the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. There is an envelope of slightly scorched letters among the Robert U. Johnson Papers in the New York Public Library with the following label:
Office Correspondence in June & July 1885 between R.U.J., C.C. Buel, R.W. Gilder & F.H. Scott relating to the War Series, especially Grant’s Vicksburg half of which (the preliminary campaign) The Century Co. gave back to him at his request, prompted by C.L. Webster & Co. Mark Twain’s firm for whom Mark gobbled the book which Grant had promised to us. R.U.J. was in the Catskills.16
1. Robert U. Johnson to Richard Watson Gilder, July 1, 1884, Richard Watson Gilder Papers, New York Public Library.
2. Roswell Smith to Gilder, July 8, 1884, Gilder Papers.
3. Mrs. Sartoris was General Grant’s daughter Nellie. Mrs. Frederick Grant, born Ida Honore, was a sister of Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago.
4. Grant had injured his leg in a fall on the ice the winter before, and never recovered entirely.
5. George W. Childs, Grant’s next-door neighbor at Long Branch and publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger.
6. James D. Fish was the president of the Marine National Bank, the failure of which brought down the firm of Grant & Ward.
7. Buck was the nickname of Ulysses S. Grant, Jr.
8. The reference is to James G. Blaine, Twenty Years of Congress: From Lincoln to Garfield, the first volume of which had recently been published.
9. Johnson to Gilder, July 22, 1884, Gilder Papers.
10. Clarence C. Buel to Smith, August 24, 1884, Robert U. Johnson Papers, New York Public Library.
11. Smith to Gilder, August 24, 1884, Gilder Papers.
12. Gilder to Smith, August 29, 1884, Johnson Papers.
13. Smith to Gilder, September 9, 1884, Gilder Papers.
14. Adam Badeau, Grant in Peace. From Appomattox to Mount McGregor. A Pereonal Memoir (Hartford, 1887), 563-564.
15. Rosamond Gilder, editor, Letters of Richard Watson Gilder (Boston and New York, 1916), 123.
16. Letters June 29-July 22, 1885, chiefly between Johnson and Buel, Johnson Papers.
[pg. 6] NEWS NOTES *** Thomas M. Pitkin, author of the article printed above, is retired from the National Park Service where his area of supervision included the General Grant National Memorial (Grant’s Tomb). His publications include Grant the Soldier (1965), an anthology covering Grant’s career through the Civil War. He is now preparing a narrative account of Grant’s last days. *** The Ulysses S. Grant Association has received a grant of $12,000 from the National Historical Publications Commission covering the current fiscal year. *** At a Grant Association board meeting, held in May, T. Harry Williams, a vice president of the Grant Association, was elected chairman of the editorial board to replace the late Allan Nevins. Harris Rowe, an insurance executive of Jacksonville, Ill., and a trustee of Southern Illinois University, has been elected to the board of directors of the Grant Association. As a descendent of Illinois Civil War Governor Richard Yates, Rowe is renewing an old family connection.