By Ben Kemp, Cottage Operations Manager
One of the things that many of us take for granted is our ability to communicate orally. We converse freely without a thought to losing that ability or how we would adjust. Some are forced to face that reality either from birth or through injury or illness. For Ulysses Grant, it would prove to be just one more thing for him to adapt to and overcome.
Many thought Grant a silent man, but his friends and family knew otherwise. Although shy and quiet around those he did not know well, he opened up to those closest to him. They described him as a great storyteller and capable conversationalist. His voice was described as “soft, deep, and distinct, and his speech deliberate, quiet, and even toned.” An event, mixed with other misfortunes in his last year, would cause a dramatic change and force Grant into silence.
A beleaguered Grant visited throat specialist Dr. John Douglas in his New York City office in October 1884. In addition to a hip injury and financial ruin, he had been having nagging throat pain since June but had delayed getting a thorough examination. Dr. Douglas inspected his patient's throat and when finished, Grant looked at him and flatly asked: “Is it cancer.” Douglas, unable to keep the truth from his patient, told him that it was a serious epithelial tumor at the base of his tongue. The doctor tried to throw in a positive note that it was sometimes curable. Grant realized he had a new foe, one that he did not fully understand but would have to learn to cope with, especially facing the pressing duty to care for his families’ future.
A man who had spent years composing military reports and issuing clear concise orders was now taking on a new and monumental task. Writing a 1,200 page manuscript of his life while struggling against cancer. By April of 1885, his weakness coupled with a desire to accelerate the project led him to employ stenographer, and fellow Civil War veteran, Noble Dawson. Dawson described Grant’s dictation and deteriorating vocal condition:
“After I came [in April 1885] he began to dictate, and he continued this as long as he was able to do so. As he went on his voice became weaker and weaker, and toward the last, I had to take my seat very close to his, and he whispered his words in my ear while I took them down in shorthand.”
The cancer in Grant’s throat and mouth affected his voice more and more as time went on. Sometimes he would have a good day and be able to speak more clearly, other days he would be reduced to communicating by writing on slips of paper. The normally reserved man would be forced to leave a paper trail in his last months. His final thoughts expressed to his doctors, friends, supporters, family, and the public would be immortalized on these slips of paper. It is these handwritten notes that give us an intimate glimpse into his mind during a time of great distress. They illustrate the admirable character traits that defined him, but also his raw humanity. They also give us a rare first-person experience of him as a conversationalist.
The man of great poise and inner strength showed two sides towards the end. One side was expressed in his frank, pragmatic, and graphic notes to his physicians. He hoped that his descriptions of his condition may perhaps aid some other sufferer. His notes to family, friends, and the public show another side, showcasing a more optimistic and hopeful tone. The man that had been sensitive to others feelings all his life, was now putting on a front to ease the anxiety of his family and the public. The notes also show a man of practicality, but with a witty and humorous side. They show a man engrossed in his final duty of writing, but also a man still willing to spend quality time with his family and friends.
In mid-May the resolute Grant summed up his situation to Dr. Douglas in a note stating, “A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer, I signify all three.” He was resigned to his fate, but willing to do whatever it took to press on for the sake of his family, whether it be dictating in a whisper or writing until his hand became weak.
His doctors witnessed his failing voice in the final weeks. Dr. Shrady described the decline:
“When I visited the General for the first time at Mount McGregor…His voice…although not entirely gone, was guttural, of harsh tone, and very indistinct, except when he used it in a deliberate and studied whisper. Even then he could not always make himself understood. He became much worried over this affliction, and was constantly hoping that it would grow less under the influence of the changed climate. In order to give every opportunity for improvement in such direction, he carefully avoided speaking as much as possible, and would often write on his pad in answering questions rather than otherwise run risk of a set-back. This practice made his remarks necessarily short, but always to the point.”
Grant remained resolved to fulfill his final task. He wrote to his son Fred that it was his “great interest in life, to see my work done…” adding that even after he passed to “not let the memory of me interfere with the progress of the book.” Dr. Shrady remembered that his patient “would attempt to unburden the weight on his mind through the medium of pencil and paper.” “He always wrote as he spoke, in the simplest possible manner, but there is much in these messages that would bring tears to the eyes of the most stolid. Often there is tragedy in every word.” Shrady preserved a couple of the notes and later wrote “How much he suffered is shown by the terse statements made on some of the slips I have…” such as “‘My days are long and miserable, except when I am employed. An hour of reading or writing also tires me...’ and ‘I am having a pretty tough time of it, and I suffer acute pain.’”
For his family and the public, he tried to use a more positive tone. One note from the consummate family man states “Tell Jesse to come down in fifteen or twenty minutes and play cards with me.” He directed the family in a practical but hopeful tone to “Do as I do. I take it quietly. I give myself not the least concern. If I knew the end would be tomorrow I would try to get rest in the meantime. As long as there’s no progress [of the disease] there’s hope.”
He used his “pencil talk” as he referred to it, to converse with former enemy Simon Buckner and to thank the many praying for him around the country. He dutifully wrote down final plans for his burial place and bequests. He warned the doctors of his impending end and kept his doctors informed of his condition in honest and sometimes disturbing graphic detail. Dr. Shrady added that his patient “…did his writing on a small paper pad that he carried in his pocket. The size was about one and a half by three inches.” And that “He evidently preferred a lead-pencil to a pen as giving him less trouble, and as obviating the constant interruption of dipping for ink.” Those instruments; the writing pads, pencil and pen still reside in a case on the wall of his bedroom in the Cottage, testaments to his will to continue.
Despite impressive clarity in his writing, Grant did not exhibit the cleanest of handwriting or spelling. Dr. Shrady commented that: “Although his delicate hand would hold his pen with easy suppleness and graceful poise, his handwriting, was in no means a work of art. It was inclined to be rapid and jerky, as if the mechanical execution was irksome. Thus he would often omit crossing his t's and dotting his i's and would occasionally spell incorrectly.” Grant in modest playfulness wrote to Dr. Douglas “I will have to be careful about my writing. I see every person I give a piece of paper to puts it in his pocket. Someday they will be coming up against my English.”
Stenographer Noble Dawson described the last vestiges of Grant’s voice and his perseverance in the final weeks: “His last dictation was on the 22nd of June, 1885. After this, he would sit with his pad on his knee near me, and would write down his ideas... He was very weak, and his hand grew more and more trembling as he neared his death… his voice got lower and lower as he went on. At last, it was a mere whisper and then it stopped altogether…In writing his book, he used a yellow manila legal pad with blue lines and he wrote with a pencil. The work tired him very much, and at the end, he was only able to scratch down his ideas.” On June 23rd, Grant faced the reality writing to Dr. Shrady "I do not suppose I will ever have my voice back again at all." There was a sadness in losing the “soft, kindly voice” and “the same voice…that had made armies move and cannons roar.” To Dr. Douglas, the exhausted patient wrote “I said I had been adding to my book and my coffin. I presume every strain of the mind or body is one more nail in the coffin.”
In late July, Grant put down his pencil, he was finished writing. To Dr. Douglas, he wrote “My life is precious of course to my family and would be to me if I could entirely recover. There was never one more willing to go than I am…There is nothing more I should do to [the book] now, and therefore I am not likely to be more ready to go than at this moment.” After a previous near-death episode He had confided to Dr. Shrady that he was not afraid of death but welcomed it saying “I was passing away peacefully and soon all would have been over. It was like falling asleep. I am ready now to go at any time. I know there is nothing but suffering for me while I do live.”
His friend and publisher Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) would be impressed by his friends’ resourcefulness and resolve…
“And his fortitude! He was under sentence of death last Spring. He sat thinking, musing, for several days, nobody knows what about, then he pulled himself together and set out to finish that book, a colossal task for a dying man. Presently his hand gave out. Fate seemed to have got him checkmated. Dictation was suggested. No, he could never do that, had never tried it, too old to learn now. By and by - if he could do Appomattox - well... So he sent for a stenographer and dictated 9,000 words at a single sitting!... Then he lost his voice. But he was not quite done, however. There was no end of little plums and spices to be stuck in here and there. And this work he patiently continued a few lines a day, with his pad and pencil till far into July, at Mt. McGregor. One day he put his pencil aside and said he was done - there was nothing more to do…I could have foretold the shock that struck the world… days later.”
The many notes that General Grant wrote in his final months were largely saved by those who received them whether family or friends. Some were kept in private collections, some published, and others donated to institutions and archives. The Friends of Grant Cottage and The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation were able to add a poignant original note to the collection recently. This note, now on display for the first time at Grant Cottage, details Grant’s reflection on his condition and the benefit of the climate on Mt. McGregor. It reads:
"The atmosphere here enables me to live in comparative comfort while I am being treated or while nature is taking its course with my disease. I have no idea that I should have been able to come here now if I had remained in the City. It is doubtful indeed whether I would have been alive. Now I would be much better able to move back than I was to come at the time I did." Signed "U.S. Grant" and dated "June 30th / 85."
Grant faced his financial ruin, his suffering, and finally the loss of his voice with characteristic resolve. To the end, he showed that he could adapt and overcome the odds. They may just seem like insignificant little slips of paper to some, but to those that preserved them and to those that view them to this day, they can speak volumes of a man that soldiered on in silence to fulfill his final duty. Perhaps more notes will be found and made public, giving us the chance to hear a muted voice from the past share his struggle and give us pause to take note of the simple things we take for granted.
Grant’s Last Stand Philadelphia Inquirer February 6, 1894 by Noble E. Dawson
The Selected Letters of Mark Twain Harpers 1982
Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Flood 2011
The Captain Departs by Thomas Pitkin 1973
Grant & Twain by Mark Perry 2004
Grant’s Last Stand by Horace Green 1936
General Grant’s Last Days by Dr. George Shrady 1908