When Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs, a small team of researchers helped him check facts and track down details. Now, 132 years after the release of those memoirs, a new team of fact-checkers and researchers has gone to work for Grant to help prepare a new edition.
First published in 1885, Grant’s memoirs have never been out of print. What makes this edition of particular note is that, for the first time ever, the memoirs are fully annotated—and the annotations were compiled by none other than the historians of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University (and published by Harvard University Press).
“There just hasn’t been anything like this done before,” says editor John F. Marszalek, executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. “Every couple of years, someone comes out with a ‘new’ edition, but basically what we’ve found is that publishers are using what we used—the very first published memoirs that Grant himself wrote—[and then] maybe adding a new introduction, but they’re really not doing very much to make the memoirs available to the modern reader.
“I think that’s going to be the big contribution we’re going to make,” he adds. “What we attempted to do, I hope, is to make clear what Grant has already made clear in his writing when he’s talking to the audience he’s writing for. We’re trying to take it and make it clear to a modern audience.”
The project dates back to the editorship of John Y. Simon, the original editor of the Ulysses S. Grant papers. Marszalek paraphrases Simon’s intent: “Once I finish the papers, then the next thing the Grant Association needs to do is come up with an annotated version of the Grant memoirs.” And so, Marszalek says, “Once we finished up the Grant papers, we decided it was time to take that on—and so we did.”
That effort wrapped up 2011. Marszalek, who succeeded Simon as managing editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Papers, then launched the annotation project, eventually recruiting assistant editors David S. Nolen and Louie P. Gallo.
Nolen, a reference librarian working at the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State, joined the team at about the same time he and his wife had a baby. “David has been working on these memoirs for as long as his four-year-daughter has been alive,” Marszalek jokes warmly.
Gallo, meanwhile, joined the team in 2014 as a one-year replacement from the McKinley National Memorial, Library, and Birthplace—and ended up staying. “It’s pretty much been part of my everyday life for the past three years,” he laughs.
Working in tandem, Nolen and Gallo tracked down items and verified facts—what Nolen calls “some of the nuts and bolts kind of digging”—and had to decide where to intervene with some kind of annotation. The result was some two thousand notes that added context, clarity, and depth to Grant’s original manuscript.
“Looking at the memoirs and how far removed we are from their original audience, there’s a sense that there are passages that are fairly inaccessible to a modern reader just because they don’t have the cultural context and the knowledge that readers of the first edition would have had,” Nolen explains, “especially with the Civil War and the major and minor players that Grant mentions kind of in passing. One of the things we wanted to do in the annotation was really comprehensively annotate all of those sections where the modern reader stops and said, ‘Wait, who is that?’ or ‘What is he describing?’”
Nolen says they “didn’t want to interrupt [Grant’s] narrative flow” if they didn’t have to, so they tried to limit themselves to instances “where Grant would be vague—either from the modern reader being distant from the context or where he’s kind of glossing over things to sum up and move on with the story.”
That required a lot of detective work, Marszalek admits: “I don’t know how many times in his memoirs Grant talks about a ‘Mr. Jones’ or a ‘Mr. Smith’ or a ‘Capt. Smith’ or a ‘Dr. Smith.’ And then, of course, how do you find out who this character is? But in most cases, we’ve been able to discover this.”
Gallo says the team tried to identify every single person Grant mentions and give the reader a “brief biographical bit.” As an example, he cites an instance during the Vicksburg Campaign where Grant talks about being stationed at Milliken’s Bend. “And he talks about how there’s this little skiff that came up the river, and there was a man in the boat who had a white flag signifying that he was coming in peace, and he just wanted to talk to Grant,” Gallo says. “We had to figure out, ‘Who was this person?’
“We did some research and figured out this guy was actually an unindicted co-conspirator in the assassination plot to kill Lincoln. And later on, after the war, Grant actually had to testify in front of the commission on the assassination about meeting with this guy. So it’s interesting enough to identify the person, but it’s even cooler to find this deeper connection that he has, not only with Grant but with a significant event in American history.”
Such discoveries are exciting, Marszalek says, because the modern reader “will be able to look at this and learn things that are not available at this particular point, even though the Civil War has been around for a long time.”
At times, the team also intervened with annotations that corrected factual errors, although Marszalek says those instances were few. “One of the stories about Grant is that the memoirs aren’t accurate, that there are a lot of mistakes, that he was building himself up and his friends and others like that,” Marszalek says. “We didn’t find that. One of the things we did find was that he was remarkably accurate.” Grant might round off numbers to 22,000 from something like 21,232, but the editor says, “That’s not important.”
“There are some things where we don’t agree with his interpretation of things,” Marszalek admits, “but that’s his interpretation, and so we don’t try to change that or try to make some kind of point.”
Gallo agrees. “Our goal with this edition was really to just give the readers the facts,” he reiterates. “We tried to stay away from interpretation; we didn’t want to come across as biased.”
The point, says Nolen, was to let Grant speak for himself. “We really wanted to emphasize letting Grant tell his own story because the memoirs are such a good read,” he says. “As you read through it, you really get a good sense of ‘Grant the Storyteller.’”
That storytelling ability was one of Grant’s underappreciated talents, Marszalek says. “People who knew him would say he’s a really quiet guy, but he was such an engaging storyteller,” he says. “He’s interesting. When you got him in a situation where he felt free and able to speak—he was a fascinating, fascinating figure—he was able to do that.”
That sense of engagement came through in Grant’s writing, too. “The thing that really strikes me more than anything else is Grant writes in a very forceful way,” says Marszalek, who has probably spent more time with Grant’s writing than anyone alive. “You read the thing, and he draws you in. He said one time, ‘I am a verb’—in other words, I am an action. And he writes that way. So you read what he’s saying, and you know exactly what he’s saying. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He hits the nail right on the head.”
All the more remarkable is the fact that Grant was in the final throes of terminal throat cancer as he wrote. “The guy is dying,” Marszalek says. “They’re giving him cocaine, basically, to keep the pain down, yet he’s able to come through and write in such a marvelous, marvelous way.”
As Grant worked during those final, painful weeks, his small team of assistants helped assemble what he needed to finish. Of particular help on the manuscript were his sons, Fred, Buck, and Jesse, and his stenographer, Noble Dawson. They pulled maps, verified facts, and looked up information—an effort Marszalek, Gallo, and Nolen replicated for the annotations. “Other than that,” says Nolen, “we really wanted to let [Grant] speak for himself and tell his own story.”
“We tried to annotate it in a way that allows Grant to stand out,” Marszalek says, with Grant’s ideas front and center. “We don’t try to argue with him or convince the audience of any particular point. We present you with the facts as we really did our best to present them, and you go from there.”
For more information, you can read Mississippi State University’s press release.