The Final Blow by General Charles King

Long months before the melancholy failure of that ill-omened bank, the General had told Badeau of the fabulous profits the firm was realizing, and Badeau went to their old comrade of the war and White House days—to Horace Porter—and asked that reticent but experienced soldier-citizen his opinion, and Porter solemnly shook his head. Such profits, he said, were impossible in a business honestly conducted. But Grant saw on every side men by the dozen who had started with less than his modest capital and had gathered fortunes in Wall Street. He was so confident in the sagacity and judgment of Ulysses, Jr., that he invested his every dollar with the firm and reinvested every penny of the profits which he did not lavish on his loved ones or on his followers and friends. Like Thackeray's most lovable hero, Colonel Newcome, he thought to share his good fortune with many of his kith and kin and urged their sending their savings to be invested for them by brilliant young "Buck" and his sagacious partner—that wonderful wizard of finance, Mr. Ward. Aside from the chagrin of seeing some of his recommendations disregarded, and certain of his opponents regarded first by Mr. Garfield and later by Mr. Arthur, General Grant was living in those years a life of ease, luxury, and freedom from care as never before he had enjoyed. Julia Dent was as ever first and foremost in his world, but the children were the source of pride and joy unmistakable. Devoted, dutiful, and loyal they unquestionably were, but Grant believed of his first born that he was destined to become renowned as a general, and of "Buck" and Jesse that they were born financiers and business men. As for Princess Nellie, the father's love and yearning for that one daughter of his house and name was beyond all measure. No man ever loved home, wife, and children more tenderly, more absorbingly.

Although widely scattered at the time, this heart-united household had been anticipating a blithe and merry Christmas at the close of the year 1883. When he was alighting from his carriage just before midnight, with the welcoming chimes pealing on the frosty air, the General's foot slipped on the icy pavement, he fell heavily, a muscle snapped in the thigh, possibly one of those injured twenty years earlier, the day of that fateful stumble at Carrollton, and he was carried into the house, never thereafter to leave it in health or strength.

Crutches again, and later a cane, long were necessary. In March, they took him to Fortress Monroe so that he could hobble about in the soft air and sunshine. In April he was back again in Gotham, able to drive his favorite team, but not to walk. On Sunday, the 4th day of May, the wizard partner, Ward, came into their home and quite casually announced that the Marine Bank of New York, in which Grant & Ward had large deposits, needed perhaps one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to tide them over a temporary difficulty. If General Grant could borrow that much over Monday, Grant & Ward would not have to lose a cent; otherwise they stood to lose perhaps fifty or sixty thousand. Of course the lender would lose nothing, said Ward, as there was a million, at least, of securities in the vaults.

The world knows the rest—how unsuspiciously our General called on his friend and fellow horseman, Mr. William H. Vanderbilt, said that he needed one hundred and fifty thousand for a day or so, and came away with a cheque for that amount. For no other man probably would Mr. Vanderbilt have parted unsecured with such a sum. The cheque was promptly endorsed and turned over to Mr. Ward, who took it unconcernedly and then his leave.

Tuesday morning, May 6th, believing himself a millionaire and the brief indebtedness to Vanderbilt already cancelled, Grant alighted at the Wall Street office to find an ominous gathering. "Father, you had better go home—the bank has failed," said Ulysses, Jr., with misery in his eyes, but Grant stayed to investigate. Badeau, the faithful, hastening in at noon, found the old chief seated in the rear office, calm in the midst of stress and storm. "We are all ruined here," he simply said. Ward had vanished, the key of the vaults with him, and when they were finally opened, the boasted "securities" were found to be but shadows. The ruin was complete.

Everything they had—all the beautiful gifts, trophies, souvenirs, even the little houses owned by Mrs. Grant in Washington, and the repurchased Dent property about St. Louis—had to be sold. Grant insisted, though it left them, for the time at least, absolutely penniless. It had dragged down others with them; it involved his honored name in a whirlpool of censure, criticism, and calumny that well-nigh crushed him. Fallen from such supremely high estate, the insults and indignities that beset him now far outweighed the slights and sneers that had been his portion in the days of his earlier humiliation. Over the depths of the misery that had come to him in his old and recently honored age let us draw the curtain. No man on earth could know the suffering it cost him. Only one woman could faintly see. Helping hands there were outstretched to him instanter, and money to meet the immediate need. Then, as the storm subsided and the extent of Ward's villainy and Grant's innocence became known, new measures were taken to provide against absolute want. A trust fund had already been raised. A measure was speedily set on foot to restore to Grant the rank and pay which he had surrendered on assuming the presidency, and a modest competence would thus be insured him and those he loved. There was a home in which to live. They could even spend the summers at the seashore. There were offers of congenial occupation that might have proved mildly lucrative. There was measurable return to hope and possible health. There had never been complaint or repining. To all about him he had been gentleness, consideration, kindliness itself. There was just one cause of new, yet slight anxiety:

All through that summer of '84, while at Long Branch, his throat had been giving him pain, and a Philadelphia physician, examining it for the first time late in September, advised, even urged, says Badeau, his consulting a specialist on returning to town. For a time he took no heed. He was writing now, long hours each day, but at last he called, as further urged by his own physician, upon that distinguished expert, Dr. J. H. Douglas, and that evening calmly admitted that the trouble in his throat was cancerous in tendency. And that this was true, the fact that he suddenly dropped the luxury of all the days that had followed Donelson—his cigar—and the sufferings that followed in November and December proved beyond possibility of doubt....

And meanwhile a nation stood with bated breath and watched and prayed. Crowds gathered about the house and importuned the physicians for tidings. Congress had passed amid scenes of emphatic popular approval a bill restoring him again to the generalship of old—almost the last act signed by Mr. Arthur before leaving, as it was almost the first commission signed by Mr. Cleveland after entering, the White House.

Then presently, for quiet and for better air, as all remember, they bore him to the Drexel cottage at Mount McGregor, near Saratoga Springs, and here, his voice utterly gone, compelled to make his wishes known by signs, compelled to complete the pages of his Memoirs with pad and pencil, our stricken soldier indomitably held to his self-appointed task, once more "fighting it out on this line if it took all summer." Never even at Shiloh, in front of Vicksburg, or in the fire-flashing Wilderness was he more tenacious, determined, heroic, for now intense suffering accompanied almost every move and moment. Physicians were constantly at hand; Fred, the devoted son, ever at his side. Here there came to see him and to sympathize old comrades—even old enemies—of the war days, all thought of rancor buried now. Here, just as thirty years earlier he had hastened to offer aid, came Buckner (and this time unprotesting) in unconditional surrender; for beneath the shadow of that hovering wing the last vestige of sectional pride gave way to fond memories of the old and firm friendship. Here, almost as the twilight deepened into the gloom of night eternal, they bore him the tribute of honor and respect from men whom he had vehemently opposed—foeman-in-chief to the Union, Jefferson Davis, and soldier-candidate and political foe, Winfield S. Hancock. Here they read him letters, telegrams, editorials from every corner of the Union he had striven to weld and secure, every line telling of worldwide sympathy, honor, and affection. Here, almost at the last, he penciled those farewell pages of those fruitful volumes, which, whatever his earlier defects in style, have been declared classic in modern literature. Here, ere the light went out forever, he wrote the pathetic missive, his final words of love, longing, and devotion to the wife whom he held peerless among women, to the children whom he loved with infinite tenderness, and for whose future comfort, even in the face of such persistent torment and impending death, he had labored to the very last.

And then, as he completed the final paragraph—the story of his soldier-life and services—and with faltering hand signed the final letter, he closed his wearied eyes upon the group that hovered ever about him, eager to garner every look and whisper, and so the long fight ended, even as it had begun, almost without a sigh. Apparently without consciousness of pain, certainly without struggle or suffering, surrounded by that devoted household—wife, sons, and only daughter—the greatest of our warriors passed onward into the valley of shadows, and to immortality.

Thirty years have passed since that which struck from our muster rolls the name of our first and foremost general—thirty years, as these pages are given to the light, since that summer day on which, with the highest honors and the greatest retinue ever accorded to American citizen or soldier, the flag-enshrouded casket was borne almost the length of all Manhattan; Hancock, the superb on many a battlefield, heading the league-long procession of soldiery, the world-garnered dignitaries from every state and clime. Amidst the solemn thunder of the guns of the warships moored along the Hudson, the farewell volleys of the troops aligned along the heights, in the presence of the President and cabinet, the supreme court and the diplomatic corps, the governors of nearly every commonwealth, eminent soldiers, sailors, veterans of the Civil War, the gray mingling with the blue, and all engulfed in a vast multitude of mourners, the final prayers were said, the last benediction spoken, and under the shadow of the beloved flag he had served with such fidelity and to such eminent purpose, they laid to rest the honored soldier whose valiant service had secured to them and to their posterity the blessings of union, progress, and tranquility, and whose crowning message to the nation he had restored was the simple admonition, "Let us have peace."

And in those thirty years the people of our land have had abundant time to study and to reflect. Each succeeding year adds to their reverence for their greatest friend, leader, and statesman, Abraham Lincoln. Each succeeding year seems to increase their appreciation of their greatest soldier, Ulysses Grant, and yet it sometimes seems as though in the magnitude of the obstacles overcome, the immensity of the military problems solved, the supreme soldiership of the man has blinded us for the time to the other virtues, less heroic, perhaps, yet not less marked and true, virtues as son, as husband, father, and friend, not often equalled in other men, if ever excelled....

And was not his a marvelous career? Cradled in the cottage, he spoke for years from the seat of the mightiest. Chosen and trained for his country's wars, he loved best the arts of peace. Schooled as a regular, he to the fullest extent and from the very first believed in the volunteer. Ignored by book and bureau soldiers at the start, despite the fine record of the Mexican campaigns, indebted to a Western governor for the opportunity refused him by the War Department, he held his modest way, uncomplaining, asking only to be made of use. One year had raised him from the twilight of a Western town to the triumph of Donelson; two years made him the victor of Vicksburg, the head of the armies of the West; three had set him in supreme command, deferred to even by those who late as '62 had sought to down him; four and the sword of the chivalric Lee was his to do with as he would—the rebellion crushed, the war ended—and then, with our martyred Lincoln lying in the grave ever watered by a nation's tears, small wonder was it that twice the people held Grant long years at their head, and when he had returned, from that globe-circling triumphal progress, in large numbers would again have called him to the White House, an uncrowned monarch, the chosen of sovereign citizens. Was he greater then than in the chain of ills that followed? Tricked by those he trusted, himself unskilled in guile, ruined financially by those he had been taught to hold infallible, and finally confronted by the dread conviction that, though barely beyond the prime of life, his days were numbered—was he ever amid the thunder of saluting cannon and the cheers of countless multitudes so great as when, with the grim destroyer clutching at his throat, he fought for life that through those matchless Memoirs he might earn the means to wipe out every possible obligation and provide in modest comfort, at least, for those he loved and must soon leave to mourn him? In those last heroic days at Mt. McGregor he stood revealed in his silent suffering, the ideal of devotion, endurance, and determination, until, his great work done, his toil and trials ended, his sword long since sheathed, his pen now dropping from the wearied, nerveless hand, he could turn to the Peace Ineffable and sink to rest—our greatest soldier—our honored President—our foremost citizen. Aye, soldier, statesman, loyal citizen he was; and yet more, for in purity of life, in love of home and wife and children, in integrity unchallenged, in truth and honor unblemished, in manner simplicity itself—though ever coupled with that quiet dignity that made him peer among the princes of the earth—in speech so clean that oath or execration never soiled his lips, unswerving in his faith, a martyr to his friendships, merciful to the fallen, magnanimous to the foe, magnificent in self-discipline, was he not also, and in all that the grand old name implies, Grant—the gentleman?