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U.S. Grant's Money Problems

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This article originally published on our Home Page in March 2012


Battle of VicksburgClearly, Grant deserved the appointment, as he had up to that point won some 17 battles, imprisoned over 150,000 Confederate soldiers, opened up the Mississippi River for Union traffic, and cleared the entire state of Tennessee. In simple terms: he set the Civil War game board up for a final Union victory.

When he achieved his rank of Lieutenant General he received along with it a pension that Congress granted to him… provided of course that he stayed in the Army and served until his retirement… and then went into retirement as a reserve Officer.

Few could have imagined that instead of retiring Grant would end up running for President. And, of course, since at that time an individual could not be an active Officer in the Army at the same time that they were running for President, Grant ended up resigning his rank.

Vicksburg landingWhile few, including Grant, thought anything of this simple act, on the sidelines a close friend of Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman was watching and noticed this little slip. He immediately knew that by resigning his rank instead of simply retiring, Grant would be barred from being able to collect his pension.

Students of history will know that Grant went on to serve as President, being elected by a landslide in 1868. In 1872 he was again elected to a second term. After his second term, as a successful man and modestly wealthy, Grant spent two years touring the world with his family, after which he then returned and entered into business in New York City.

The qualities that Grant brought to Generalship did not transfer well to business. The firm he became associated with was named Grant & Ward, and was considered one of the darlings of Wall Street. Unfortunately, it overextended itself, practiced dubitable activities, and the Ward half of Grant & Ward even went about mismanaging the funds the firm received, to the point of illegality. On May 4, 1884, the firm collapsed into bankruptcy.

Subsequent investigations, both then as well as down through the ages, have shown that Ulysses S. Grant neither knew anything of nor was involved in any of the illegal activities of Grant & Ward. Grant’s partner Ward was the guilty party. Within a few months of the firms collapse he was arrested, charged with fraud, and found guilty. He spent 6 years in prison for his efforts.

A young Mark TwainGrant in the mean time suddenly found himself penniless, embarrassed, and suffering from both a wounded pride as well as a growing cancer of the throat that would end up killing him within 15 months.

It cannot be said too finely, Grant was in real trouble. The Homeric-like heroic life of the man that (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln) single handedly saved the Union, had gone from the proverbial hero to zero literally overnight. Sick, on the edge of dying, Grant had absolutely no way of supporting his wife after his death, nor paying for their cost of living while he was still alive.

Almost at the very last minute two people came to his rescue. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) befriended Grant and both encouraged and worked with him to help him capture his remembrances and pull his memoires together for publication. Because Clemens knew a bit or two about publishing, he was able to promise Grant that if he managed to succeed in writing his memoires before he died, Clemens would be able to get them published, market them, and collect enough royalties in the process to pay to either Grant or his wife at least $200,000. True to his word, Twain saw to it that Grant’s memoires were published, and that all of its royalties were paid… to the extent of over $450,000 being paid after Grant’s death to his wife Julia.

William Tecumseh Sherman, a man whose caricature fit his character to a tee, watched this whole scenario play out. And while he hoped that Twain would succeed, he realized that if Grant died before his memoires were in publishable form, he would die in penury. Sherman, with a pockmarked face, never seen smiling, ramrod straight, disciplined, direct, forceful, remote, with a voluble temper, and plagued by self-doubt, was nevertheless beyond true to his friends. An old West Point classmate of Grant’s, Sherman thought that it was a shame that the U.S. government wasn’t coming to the aid of this most important of America’s heroes.

General Sharman, AtlantaTo help change things, Sherman, who was quite vocal about his dislike for politicians, set about personally lobbying the House of Representatives to reinstate Grant’s military pension. While he put his all into it, somehow Congress was simply too preoccupied with other matters to consider the financial health of a great General who was literally on his death bed. Then, when it finally did decide to consider the matter, it found itself in a situation where it was forced to go into recess and not address the matter, because of the requirement that Congress could not be in session during the inauguration of a new President (Grover Cleveland). This set up a problem, because if Congress was not able to act before it went into recess, it would likely never act, as a new Congress would be seated, and by the time it would get around to acting Grant would be dead.

Sherman, frustrated and angry at the incompetence and lack of principles of the congressmen he met, mounted a frontal charge against the senators and representatives involved, just as he had done at Shiloh. Twisting elbows and letting his temper run, he manhandled congressmen into their chambers and pushed Samuel J. Randall, the Democratic Speaker of the House, to reintroduce the bill (Grant—S. 2530) that had been set aside, but this time for a vote.

General Grant before his deathEven so, things did not move fast enough and at the end of the day on March 3, 1885, the House recessed without having considered the matter. The next day, March 4, was to be the inauguration day for the new President, Grover Cleveland, and with Congress in recess Sherman was sure all had been lost.

But that wasn’t the end. Having made Sherman a promise that he would do his best to get Grant a pension, on the day of Grover Cleveland’s inauguration, with Sherman pushing from the background, Randall reconvened the House and ordered the clerk to date all business that might be transacted that day as having been done on the previous day, March 3. With little consideration for the gathering crowd getting ready for the inauguration at noon, Randall ran around the Capital buttonholing representatives wherever he could find them, dragging them back into the chamber for a vote.

Quickly moving the House through its parliamentary paces, and using the power that comes with being the Speaker of the House, he garnered the votes needed to pass the bill, and set in motion an effort to hold a vote. However, before a vote could be taken a challenge was mounted by a Republican claiming that the bill could not be considered until a prior matter was dealt with (an election dispute from Iowa that caused the Iowa Republican representative to claim that he was the rightful winner and not the Democrat that had been certified by the State).

Randall thought all was lost, as did Sherman. Amazingly, the Republican who had not been certified (James Wilson) rose and announced that he would withdraw his objection to the Iowa election result if the House would immediately move to consider Grant’s bill. In effect, he was turning his seat over to the Democrat who had been certified instead of himself, in order to gain a pension for someone he considered an American icon.

General U.S. Grants MemoiresHis announcement was met with astonished silence by the congressmen assembled. No one had ever seen such a gesture. Within a few seconds all present jumped to their feet and began to applaud. Applause broke out throughout the chamber and carried on for minute after minute. And yet while this salute to their compatriot raised good cheer and respect, as it carried on, so did the clock’s tick. Cleveland’s inauguration was scheduled for noon, sharp… and if the vote was not over and certified by then, Grant’s bill would fail to pass.

As the noise in the chamber continued, the clock moved to within a minute or two of noon. A clerk, recognizing that all of Randall’s efforts were about to be for naught, ran from the front of the chamber to a side closet, gathered a ladder, set it up against the clock wall, climbed to the clock, and set it back twenty minutes.

With moments to spare, everyone returned to their seats, the vote was taken, and was found in Grant’s favor. Seconds after the last name was called and the vote received, the clock began striking noon. Quickly, Chester A. Arthur, the outgoing President, as well as Samuel J. Randall, the outgoing Speaker, pushed the representatives from the chamber out onto the inauguration platform and Grover Cleveland was sworn in. While the world watched, Cleveland became President of the United States, 20 minutes later than he should have been.

News reached Grant at his home in New York City in the early afternoon on that same day. With a smile on his face, as a newly reinstated Officer of the U.S. Army, he turned to his wife Julia and said simply “I am grateful the thing has passed.” She smiled back at him and said “Hurrah, our old commander is back.”

As for Sherman, while few would recognize it as such, this battle was won just like all the others he commanded… with sheer guts, determination, and no quarter being given to the enemy.

The next morning Grover Cleveland made the reinstatement official by signing Grant’s commission. As a reinstated Lieutenant General, Ulysses S. Grant earned a salary of $14,500 each year, with his wife being provided an additional $5,000 a year. Best of all, because the reinstatement was made retroactive to the date on which Sherman first petitioned for it, nearly a year earlier, Grant was able to receive back pay that held him and his wife financially secure until his death on July 23, merely four and a half months after the vote.




Sources used in the writing of this article include:

Grant and Twain; by Mark Perry, Random House, 2004.

Memoires of William Tecumseh Sherman; New York, Library of America, 1999.

The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant; John Y. Simon, ed., New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.

Grant In Peace, from Appomattox to Mount McGregor: A Personal Memoire; Badeu, Adam; 1881 (Hartford: D. Appleton).


This page originally posted 1 March 2012 

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