"I want it kept from my family ..."

John Hartwell

Forum Host
Aug 27, 2011
Central Massachusetts
Ulysses Simpson Grant died on July 23, 1885, in Wilton, N.Y., after a long, agonizing struggle with throat cancer. He was only 63 years of age. Barely three weeks previously, he had written the following brief letter to his physician, Dr. J. D. Douglas. The text here is from Anecdotes and Reminiscences of Gen'l. U. S. Grant, "compiled by an old soldier" (identified as Frank Harrison)(1885).

"I ask you not to show this to anyone, unless the physicians you consult with, until the end. Particularly, I want it kept from my family. If known to one man the papers will get it and they (the family) will get it. It would only distress them almost beyond endurance to know it, and, by reflex would distress me.
"I have not changed my mind materially since I wrote you before in the same strain. Now, however, I know that I gain strength some days, but when I go back it is beyond where I started to improve. I think the chances are very decidedly in favor of your being able to keep me alive until the change of weather towards winter. Of course there are contingencies that might arise at any time that would carry me off suddenly. The most probable of those is choking. Under the circumstances life is not worth the living.
"I am very glad thankful to have been spared this long, because it has enabled me to practically complete the work in which I take so much interest. I cannot stir up strength enough to review it and make additions and subtractions that would suggest themselves to me and are not likely to suggest themselves to any one else. Under the above circumstances, I will be the happiest, the most pain I can avoid. If there is to be any extraordinary cure, such as some people believe there is to be, it will develop itself. I would say, therefore, to you and your colleagues, to make me as comfortable as you can. If it is within God's providence that 1 should go now, I am ready to obey his call without a murmur. I should prefer going now to enduring my present suffering for a single day without hope of recovery. As I have stated, I' am thankful for the providential extension of my time to enable me to continue my work. I am further thankful, and in a much greater degree thankful, because it has enabled me to see for myself the happy harmony which so suddenly sprung up between those engaged but a few short years ago in deadly conflict. It has been an inestimable blessing to me to hear the kind expression towards me in person from all parts of our country, from people of all nationalities, of all religions and of no religion, of Confederates and of National troops alike, of soldiers' organizations, of mechanical, scientific, religious and other societies, embracing almost every citizen in the land. They have brought joy to my heart, if they have not effected a cure. So to you and your colleagues I acknowledge my indebtedness for having brought me through the valley of the shadow of death to enable me to witness these things.
"U. S. Grant."
"Mt. McGregor, N. Y., July 2, 1885."
Jan 24, 2017
What a heart rending letter @John Hartwell , and thank you so much for sharing.

To see into the mind of Ulysses S. Grant at this most troubling and traumatic time of his life gives us further insight into the man.

He is generous in his thoughts towards others, and also practical, his Memoirs being one of the things uppermost in his mind, but is also prepared to have his suffering alleviated at any time.

Interestingly, it's not often, or at all, we hear Grant speak of God, but here he mentions such, at least in terms of providence.

I can also understand his not wanting his family to know, or via the press finding out, as their distress then would become his distress.

Thank you again for sharing.
Jan 14, 2018
Adirondacks-New York
Grant certainly was vividly and painfully frank with his physicians as he knew they already understood the physical torment and disturbing physical symptoms he endured. He did make efforts to shield his family from the stark truth, though with daily medical dispatches from the newspapers and private consultations with his physicians they were fairly well informed of his condition. Hope for a recovery was essentially abandoned by the time the family moved to Mt. McGregor, though they attempted to stay positive through the grim situation. Although Grant truly appreciated the care of his physicians there was also a part of him that desired that they let him go. He knew their efforts, in addition to helping him complete his work, were also prolonging his agony. After a bout of depression and a couple of near death experiences in late winter, Grant revived, turned more resolute and re-focused on his efforts to complete his memoirs.

He was open with his doctors to the very end, hoping their study of his case may help another sufferer at some point writing "I think it a duty to let the physician know...my feelings. It may benefit some other fellow sufferer hereafter." He implored his physicians for information on the progress of his disease and took an active interest in monitoring it himself. He gave graphic notes to the physicians such as "I feel weak from my exertions last night in throwing up." and "About an hour ago I coughed up a piece of stringy matter about the size of a small lizard." He learned to monitor his vitals and the effects of the medications he received which including morphine injections and a topical cocaine solution. He wrote to his doctors "I feel worse this A.M.... My mouth hurts me and cocaine ceases to give me the relief it once did. If it's use can be curtailed I hope it will soon have it's effect again." Writing somewhat humorously at one point "If I live long enough I will become sort of a specialist in the use of certain medicines if not in the treatment of disease."

Just after arriving on Mt. McGregor Grant made it abundantly clear to Dr. Douglas he was no longer interested in simply being "kept alive." He wrote a note to Douglas stating:

"There cannot be hope of going far beyond this time. All any physician...can do for me now is to make my burden of pain as light as possible. I do not want any physician but yourself but I tell you so that if you are unwilling to have me go without consultation with other professional men, you can send for them. I dread them however, knowing that it means another desperate effort to save me, and more suffering."

He wrote to a Catholic priest who visited him in response to prayers on his behalf:

"I am a great sufferer all the time, but the [prayers from all denominations] are a compensation for most of it. All that I can do is to pray that the prayers of all those good people may be answered so far as to have us all meet in another and a better world."

On June 23 Grant wrote:

"I said I had been adding to my book and to my coffin. I presume every strain of the mind or body is one more nail in the coffin."

Grant wrote to physician Dr. Shrady that medical treatment was simply "postponing the final event...I am ready now to go at any time. I know there is nothing but suffering for me while I live."

By July 16th, with his memoirs finished, a tired Grant wrote Douglas:

"I feel sorry at the prospect of living through the summer and fall in the condition I am in." "My life is precious of course to my family and would be to me if I could entirely recover. There never was one more willing to go than I am... I am not likely to be more ready to go then at this moment."

Dr. Fordyce Barker, Dr. Henry Sands & Dr. George Shrady were Grant's physicians during his illness. Grant's main physician Dr. John Douglas due to his extended care for Grant was forced to close his practice. Although he was compensated by the Grant family to some degree he ended up never regaining his strength and died nearly penniless seven years after Grant.


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