Around the World with General Grant

by Eric Byrd

997px-Li_Hongzhang_and_Ulysses_S_GrantIn an ideal library Mark Twain is the author of Around the World with General Grant (1879; handily abridged in 2002). On earth, however, Ulysses Grant commenced his travels before he and Twain were well acquainted, and even if they had been Twain was a famous writer with a schedule of lucrative lectures, not at all what Grant needed and found in the New York Herald's John Russell Young – a pure correspondent, an instrumental journalist whose lively dispatches from the epic world tour (Liverpool to Nagasaki, May 1877 to September 1879) would keep Grant in the domestic eye and impress the American voter (who might be asked to consider an unprecedented third term) with report of the honors European royalty and the picturesque potentates of faraway Asia were showering on the homely ex-president. Young notes that while cruising the Mediterranean aboard an American warship, Grant read and enjoyed Twain's Innocents Abroad.

The Wanderings of Ulysses

840302In 1877: Philadelphia, Liverpool, London; a detour around Paris, where the Third Republic was in its volatile infancy, and where Victor Hugo had issued a poem denouncing Grant as pro-German and crypto-royalist; Brussels, Cologne, Frankfurt, Geneva, Alsace-Lorraine; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle for a gigantic parade of workingmen's associations, Birmingham; Paris, which would become their European base, then Villefranche, Naples, Palermo, Malta. 1878: Alexandria, Cairo, the Nile to Assiout, Abydos, Karnak, Luxor, Thebes, Aswan, and back to Alexandria; Jaffa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Damascus, Beirut, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Gottenburg, Christiana, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna, Munich, Bordeaux, Gibraltar (where a British soldier's daughter young Molly Bloom recalled “the damn guns bursting and booming all over the shop especially the Queens birthday and throwing everything down in all directions if you didn't open the windows when general Ulysses Grant whoever he was or did supposed to be some great fellow landed off the ship”), Vittoria, Madrid, Lisbon. 1879: London, Dublin, Londonderry, Belfast, Marseilles, Alexandria, Suez, Bombay, Agra, Delhi, Rangoon, Penang, Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Macao, Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing, Nagasaki, Yokohama, Tokyo, San Francisco.

Mother Country

Dominic Lieven has written that the Anglo-American solidarity “crucial to the victory of democracy in the twentieth century” could have been impeded, perhaps prevented, by Confederate independence and British recognition thereof. Even after the destruction of the unrecognized Confederacy, however, relations remained sour. There remained the US government's claims for damages against Great Britain, called the “Alabama claims” after the rebel commerce raider built in a British shipyard and allowed to sail by Prime Minister Palmerston. Senator Charles Sumner, Chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, called for $2.5 billion, a sum he knew the British would reject, and declared that in lieu of the cash, Canada would be acceptable. International arbitrators meeting in Geneva would eventually award the US a far smaller sum – $10 million. Sumner was to be the last of the long line of American politicians to threaten invasion of Canada.

Grant called for Anglo-American solidarity throughout his travels – most clearly at the Reform Club in London, where in remarks summarized by Young Grant said that his life “could have no higher aim” than to help bring about “the union of the English-speaking peoples,” and in Glasgow, where he told an audience that he accepted the modest award for damages because peaceful resolution of theAlabama claims was necessary if Great Britain, the United States and Canada were to form “an invincible community of English speaking nations that all the world beside could not conquer.” Readers will associate Churchill with such rhetoric. Churchill's American mother Jennie married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874, the same year that Grant's only daughter Nellie married an English officer, Algernon Charles Sartoris, in a ceremony at the White House. The two met aboard ship. Sartoris is described as “dashing,” though in photographs his heavy beard and moustache, center-parted hair and intense gaze remind one of Rasputin. He turned out to be a drunk and a philanderer. Nellie was wretched and bore him four children.

03716vHenry James was able to observe at first hand this transatlantic waif, lost in English society:

She is illiterate, lovely, painted, pathetic, and separated from a drunken idiot of a husband. The Sartorises don't like her much, but they like her more, I suppose, than they do their disreputable “Algie.” Whenever I see her there is something rather touching and tragic to me in the eminently chubby vision of the daughter of a man who in addition to being a great victorious warrior twice occupied what Hawthorne calls “the most august position in the world”: in a strange land, quite without friends, ignorant, helpless, vulgar, untidy, unhappy, perfectly harmless and smeared over with fifteen colours. (letter to Grace Norton, 4 January 1888)

House of Bonaparte

In Paris, Grant would not visit Napoleon's tomb. He called the emperor “one of the most cruel and selfish men in history,” and was even harsher on the recently deposed Louis Napoleon, “an imitator without genius or merit.” While in Denmark Grant declined to meet the latter's son, the hotspur Prince Imperial, soon to fall, Custerishly, in Zululand. “I have always had,” he explained to Young, “an aversion to Napoleon and the whole family.” They represented precisely the perverse monarchial airs and vainglorious warlordism Grant had always resisted “with republican sternness” – wrote John Keegan – as a general-in-chief who didn't speechify and wore a common infantryman's blouse over a flannel shirt, as a president reluctant to call out the troops (as the beleaguered black citizens of Mississippi discovered during that state's “white rule” coup d'état of 1875), and as a private civilian traveller who whenever possible avoided martial receptions and reviews (though his horsemanship, the sole personal demonstration this subdued man allowed himself, awed the Milanese who watched his direction of Bersaglieri maneuvers).


Just weeks after Lee's surrender in 1865, Grant dispatched his trusted lieutenant Phil Sheridan and a powerful cavalry army to the banks of the Rio Grande, with instructions to destroy the last rebel holdouts in Texas; those holdouts having surrendered before Sheridan arrived, his force demonstrated along the U.S.-Mexico border and secretly supplied guns to Benito Juárez's republican forces. President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward would nix Grant's plan to have Sheridan invade Mexico, join with Juárez, and oust Louis Napoleon's puppet Maximilian I, so-called “Emperor of Mexico”; telling the story of the operation to Young years later, as they strolled Parisian boulevards, Grant revealed that he cherished the idea that the ouster of Maximilian in 1865 would have irreparably humiliated Louis Napoleon, precipitated his fall, and thus spared France defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the bloodbath of the Commune. I think Grant envied Bismarck the honor of having finally destroyed the Bonapartes.

Amidst Ruins

…barbarism overflowing with futures… (Cioran)

At the time distinguished visitors to Pompeii were honored with an excavation in their comfortably seated picnic presence. General Sherman, on his own tour of Europe and the Mediterranean 1871-72, had already seen a disaster-preserved household dug up before his eyes. The head archeologist was horrified when the house chosen for Grant was found to contain no bodies, and he begged to be allowed to try another. A member of Grant's party spoke up – “I say we excavate a beefsteak” – and they went to dinner.


In Young's account Grant is never heard to muse amidst ruins on the decline of empires or the vanity of building. He is progressive and optimistic, exclusively attentive to the competitive potential of foreign economies, educational systems, and war plants – a man on a different planet than, say, Flaubert, the bourgeois-hater who inspected Levantine debris and the eroded effigies of Pharaohs in an ecstasy of fatalism, a delectation of futility; and Grant the traveller little resembles his partner in the destruction of the slaveholders' rebellion and the industrial-nationalist consolidation of the United States, the melancholic and excitable Sherman, he of red beard and wild eye (Whitman remarked on the “Norse make-up of the man”), who wrote a friend from Istanbul:

In treading upon the ashes of dead men in Italy, Egypt – on the banks of the Bosporus, one almost despairs to think how idle are the dreams and toils of this life, and were it not for the intellectual pleasure of knowing and learning, one would almost be damaged by travel in these historic lands.

Grant's and Sherman's impressions of the great world differ as emphatically as their prose styles, their generalship, and their prospects of the future United States.

Grant's style is phlegmatic and platitudinous, officially masked. His phrases are bland, unconsciously epigrammatic, his scenes understated, laconically effective, spooky. Gertrude Stein loved him. Sherman is pungent and vehement. His pronouncements have a villainous candor. He was a theatergoer and Bardolator (his irate criticism disrupted a wartime Hamlet in Chattanooga and Grant had to escort him from the hall) and it shows in his style. He can sound like Richard III, or one of the choleric Roman ranters, scorning the people even as he defends them, though he wisely avoided the way of Coriolanus – when his name was bandied about for the 1884 Republican presidential ticket he growled, “If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve.” If, as Guy Davenport observed, Grant is one of Plutarch's Romans, a poised impassive figure, then Sherman is one of Shakespeare's – deepened, dramatized, shown turbulent.

William T. Sherman 4

During the four-year “carnival of slaughter” Sherman, oppressed by visions of all that could go wrong – the country broken into weak and endlessly warring fiefdoms; coups, caudillos, popinjay pretenders like Maximilian; “the fate of Mexico,” in a phrase – relied, almost religiously, on what he called Grant's “simple faith in success,” his providential certainties. During the war Sherman told another officer that Grant “doesn't give a damn about what the enemy does out of his sight, but it scares me like hell…I am more nervous.” And the nervousness of Sherman's postwar prospect is nothing like Grant's. Quite in character, Sherman crushed Native American resistance in the 1870s even as he privately prophesied a day when “others…will come after and displace us as we have displaced the Indian.”

Sherman's postwar career also differs characteristically from Grant's. Refusing electoral acclaim, and even a Washington residence while General-in-Chief of the Army, he crisscrossed the country, riding the rails as soon as they were laid down. He was one of the customary speakers at veterans' reunions, business picnics, and various civic boostings. He joked that his speeches lacked substance – they were just “a few generalities” encouraging progress and industriousness – and he gruffly told audiences, “I have just made my appearance to satisfy your curiosity.” It was as if the Americans in those years – so many of them settler-veterans in newly conquered fields, homesteaders with little in common besides Union army service – couldn't dedicate a bridge or open an agricultural fair or celebrate one of the little farming and commercial hubs they were so proud to have built without first hearing something from the old eagle, with his fierce eye and scaly talons, embodiment and guarantee of the pitiless force the nation could summon for self-preservation and expansion. Nowadays “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays before the corporate games and fighter jets whoosh over the stadia.

And Sherman sought as much reassurance as he gave. He was anxious to confirm that the far-flung citizenry was holding it together. As a young officer posted to California he had witnessed the individualist frenzy of the Gold Rush, and feared that the motley of peoples would disintegrate during a continental stampede. Sometimes he doubted whether it was all worth the cost. Reminiscing with an old army friend about the days when they were “soldiers battling for the life of a nation,” Sherman wrote, “I sometimes doubt if that nation be worthy of the sacrifices then made, but good or bad I must cling to her fortunes.” Such ambivalence is unimaginable in Grant, who, days from death, and summing up the war in the epilogue to his memoirs, told Americans essentially what he had privately written his wife a week after Lee's surrender, twenty years before:

…our great country…is now beginning to loom far above all other countries, modern or ancient. What a spectacle it will be to see a country able to put down a rebellion, able to put a Million of soldiers in the field, at one time, and maintain them! That will be done and is almost done already. That nation, united, will have a strength which will enable it to dictate to all others, to conform to justice and right. Power I think can go no further.


[T]he task of converting our old Mississippi-raft of a confederate government into a brand-new ten-thousand-ton, triple-screw, armored, line-of-battle ship, is the work of a hundred years. (Henry Adams)

A hundred years? It took thirty-six. 1865 to 1901, say, from Lee's surrender to that of Philippine president-insurgent Emilio Aguinaldo, who was taken into custody aboard the USS Vicksburg — namesake of Grant's victory that gave National forces control of the Mississippi — and carried to Manila to sign an oath of allegiance under the eyes of General Arthur MacArthur, a Medal of Honor winner under Grant at the 1863 battle of Chattanooga, and father of the future proconsul Douglas.

President-grantGrant was an ambitious driver of this work. In his first message to Congress he proposed that a canal be dug through the Panamanian isthmus – over which, as a young officer, he had guided part of a cholera-stricken regiment, en route to the California forts. During his presidency the US took strong holds of Hawaii and Samoa. Grant tried very hard but failed to get Congress to annex the Dominican Republic. The plan for annexation (and eventual statehood) is emblematic of his administration, an odd mixture of executive naiveté and impatience with domestic quandaries (African-Americans were hoped to settle the island in numbers large enough to resolve or at least ease the “Negro Problem,” the phrase for Federal reluctance to enforce civil rights), shady scheming by underlings (agents sent to President Buenaventura Báez planned to snap up prime naval real estate around Samana Bay and then sell it on markup to the US government), and unappreciated strategic foresight (peaceably gaining a Caribbean naval station was an opportunity Grant thought too good pass up; but instead of getting Samana Bay – “without a shot,” or so he hoped – the US Navy got Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, twenty years later, and after a “splendid little war” with Spain).

Avid expansionist though he was, Grant did not during his travels represent an empire, but a “rising” nation whose internal integrity and regional dominance had been only lately conceded by Great Britain and France. Grant mostly approved of British rule of India, but he said the European treatment of China and Japan made his “blood boil.” In letters posted from Tokyo to his daughter and to China's Prince Kung, Grant likened the European powers in Asia to American slave owners. His meetings with Li Hongzhang and with the Meiji Emperor have a collegial feel, full of mutual encouragement and exchanges of advice. Grant warned the Meiji against foreign indebtedness and, less effectually, against Sino-Japanese war. Grant was deeply affected by Noh performances. Donald Keene has written that Grant's advice to Prime Minister Iwakura to preserve the form led to a definite revival.


An 1879 woodblock depicting a performance at which seventy-two geishas danced for Mr. and Mrs. Grant in American flag-patterned kimonos.

The Book

17026828_1_mThe original stout two-volume Around the World with General Grant is a lavishly illustrated atlas-cum-gazetteer, a bestselling fixture of American parlors that allowed readers to glimpse exotic geography and culture over the shoulder, as it were, of a national hero and nominal Everyman. There are views of cities and studies of typical natives. In the illustrations Grant is like a figure of Edward Gorey's; familiar and talismanic, pedagogically repeated: beard, cigar, and frock coat, though his headgear varies – a bowler while strolling cities, a pith helmet in the desert and in the tropics, a glossy top hat in official receptions.