HISTORY is MORE than just names and dates

Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant: A Phenomenal Friendship, Part 1

         U.S. Grant

In the summer of 1884 former president Ulysses S. Grant screamed out in pain after he took a bite from a peach. Something was wrong with his throat. At first, his wife Julia thought he was scratched by the peach’s pit or that he was stung by a bug. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Months later, after Julia convinced him to see a doctor, Grant discovered that he had throat and mouth cancer. The family was devastated by the news, but in usual fashion, Grant decided to fight. He knew that he did not have much time to live, which meant that he had to find a way to provide for his family after his death. His problems were exacerbated by failed business investments. The only solution was for him to write his autobiography. He was approached by multiple publishing companies who were interested in producing his memoirs, but at the eleventh hour, Grant met with one of America’s most famous authors, Mark Twain.

Samuel Clemons aka Mark Twain, 1867The story of Twain and Grant began much earlier than 1884. In 1869, Samuel Clemons,who was writing Huckleberry Finn at the time, was invited to the White House to meet newly elected president Ulysses S. Grant.  When he entered Grant’s office, Clemons was nervous immediately. He wrote,

”General Grant got slowly up from the table, put his pen down, and stood before me with the iron expression of a man who had not smiled for seven years, and was not intending to smile for another seven. He looked me steadily in the eye- mine lost confidence and fell. I had never confronted a great man before, and was in a miserable state of funk and inefficiency. The Senator said: “Mr. President, may I have the privilege of introducing Mr. Clemens?” The President gave my hand an unsympathetic wag and dropped it. He did not say a word, but just stood. In my trouble I could not think of anything to say… There was an awkward pause, a dreary pause, a horrible pause. Then I thought of something, and looked up into that unyielding face, and said timidly: “Mr. President, I-I am embarrassed, Are you?” His face broke- just a little- a wee glimmer, the momentary flicker of a summer-lightning smile, seven years ahead of time- and I was out and gone as soon as it was.”

Mark Twain

Ten years later, Clemons, who had changed his name to Mark Twain, was a speaker at the reunion of the Army of the Tennessee in Chicago with Grant in attendance. Again, Twain met personally with the former president, but this time Grant played the comedian. Twain wrote, “We shook hands. There was the usual momentary pause and then the general said: “I am not embarrassed, Are you?”

In his impromptu speech, Twain alluded to future presidents who were just babies in their cradles.  The New York Times from November 15, 1879 detailed Twain’s humorous speech:

“In still one more cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind, at this moment, to trying to find some way to get his big toe into his mouth, an achievement which, meaning no disrespect, the illustrious guest(Grant) of this evening turned his attention to some 56 years ago; (Twain turns to Grant) and if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.”

Twain wrote there was a “shuddering silence” which was quickly broken up by Grant’s laughter. He said,

“Grant sat through fourteen speeches like a graven image, but I fetched him up. I broke him up, utterly! He told me he laughed til the tears came & every bone in his body ached… And, do you know, the biggest part of the success…lay in the fact that the audience saw that for once in his life he had been knocked out of his iron serenity.”

Twain was one of the few people who could make Grant break character. It was clear that Grant admired Twain. The relationship Grant fostered with Twain brought the two together, later, when he decided to write his memoirs.


Stay tuned for part two of this post, when I will be detailing how Twain and Grant teamed up to published Grant’s memoirs.

 Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year, (Philadelphia: DeCapo Press, 2011).


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9 thoughts on “Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant: A Phenomenal Friendship, Part 1

  1. William Underhill on said:

    After Grant ate that peach in early June of 1884 at his cottage in Long Branch, N.J,
    the pain persisted so that Julia asked him to see a physician which he died. He saw a doctor who was vacationing nearby whose name was Da Costa. Da Costa did not make a diagnosis but advised him to see his own physician. Grant’s regular doctor, Fordyce Barker, was in Europe for the summer and didn’t return until October. When Grant returned to New York City he went to see Dr. Barker. When Barker examined Grant’s throat he knew it was serious and sent him to Dr. John H. Douglas, a throat specialist. It was Douglas who made the diagnosis that it was cancer although a biopsy wasn’t done until February of 1885 to absolutely confirm it. By that time the cancer had progressed way beyond the possibility of surgery.
    But in June of 1884 Grant hadn’t begun to write his Memoirs nor had he begun to write articles for Century Magazine.

    • I appreciate your comment. However, I never stated that Grant was writing his memoirs before June of 1884. He was “writing” articles, with the assistance of Badeau. before the peach incident. He started after the collapse of Grant/Ward in May. Although he had not signed with Century, he was approached by them and others earlier in the year.The time from right after the peach incident, until he sees a doctor, Grant is writing. Flood writes, “Although Grant occasionally experienced considerable pain, he continued to write in his house on the Jersey shore. As I stated, after Grant found out about his fate, his main priority was to write his memoirs. Also, he knew his fate well before February of 1885.

      • William Underhill on said:

        I respectively disagree with some of your assertions. I don’t know what your source is that states that Grant with the assistance of Badeau was “writing” articles prior to the commencement of Century Magazine articles. I checked Thomas Pitkin’s, “The Captain Departs”, and he asserts that Badeau only began to assist Grant after he started the Century articles. After the collapse of Grant and Ward, Grant was not writing articles of any kind. Grant was well into the Memoirs when we saw Dr. Douglas in November of 1884. Learning that it was terminal cancer, his only goal was to complete the Memoirs. Of course, he knew his fate before February of 1885. We could go back and forth on this for a long time and I really do not wish to detract from your excellent article on the Twain-Grant relationship. I enjoyed it very much.

      • Here are the exact sources:

        Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year, (Philadelphia: DeCapo Press, 2011), 75.

    • Also- In the next post, I will explain in full detail the issue we are discussing .

  2. David J Gill on said:

    Something about cancer was said by the doctor at that first examination, exactly what was not recalled. Did the doctor fail to emphasize the importance of immediate action? Why was Grant, even while suffering with pain, so passive about something so potentially serious?

    Acquiring the means for financial security was a constant concern after he left office, but he was swindled by his son’s investment partners, in large part, because he was in every way a passive investor despite putting his entire fortune at risk. He should have demanded oversight and not relied on promises. And the same willingness to trust the untrustworthy blinded him to the corruption in his administration. Were his repeated early failures at multiple business ventures the result of the same passive disinterest.?

    But as a field commander and as a commanding general he was anything but passive. He demanded the latest intelligence on the enemies movements and made sure he got it. He seemed to sense the enemies next move. He judged his subordinates carefully and avoided trusting them too much. His awareness, his control and his grasp facts on the battlefield elevated him to command of all Union forces. He was a military genius on the battlefield, but in life it was like Cold Harbor over and over again.

  3. David J Gill on said:

    My thoughts are based on reading one or two biographies only,so you likely make a good point. But isn’t the contrast between Grant’s insight and total control in the theater of war and other aspects of his life extraordinary and hard to explain?

    And thanks for the reminder on part 2.

    • Not really. Grant wasn’t passively disinterested. That’s a little crazy a reach. He had a ‘ babe in the woods ‘ aspect to his personality which ill suited both politics and finance. Twain knew it. ” His aggravatingly trustful nature. His genuineness, simplicity, modesty, diffidence, self-deprecation, poverty in the quality of vanity.”
      ( letter to Henry Ward Beecher after Grant’s death )

      And oh Lord, the Badeau controversy- that it has become one elsewhere has traceable roots. Not sure it will be the hoped for shattering revelation regardless- Grant has a place in History forever. I’m afraid Badeau does not.

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