American Hero: Why They Gave Him a Giant Tomb

You might not want to read a 1,000 page biography of one of your heroes. After months of reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, I’m more aware of Ulysses S. Grant’s mistakes. But I’m more appreciative of his accomplishments.

A low-ranked graduate of West Point, he served in the Mexican War while later condemning it as “one of the more unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation”. He left the military under a cloud, failed at farming and ended up working as a clerk in his father’s store. When the Civil War began, he took command of some Illinois volunteers and was made a colonel. After a series of victories, Abraham Lincoln made him General of the Army, the army’s senior officer, responsible for directing the Union’s entire war effort. In his final campaign, he outmaneuvered Robert E. Lee and respectfully accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

In 1868, the Republican Party, back when they were the liberals, chose him as their presidential candidate. He served two terms, rare for presidents in the 19th century. His administration was plagued by scandals, but none involved him personally. As president, he oversaw the South’s re-entry into the union while protecting the rights of former slaves. He overcame political resistance in order to suppress horribly violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan. He sought peace with the Indians, admitting that white settlers were often the source of conflict in the West. He was the president who most attempted to reform the South in the process known as Reconstruction (which ended when he left office). As the victor in the Civil War and a popular former president, he took a triumphal tour around the world, was the naïve victim of a serious financial scandal, and wrote one of history’s best memoirs while suffering for months from throat cancer.

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These are some of the final pages of that very long biography. They show what the people who knew him best thought of him:

Characteristically, the dying Grant was stoically concerned with his family’s well-being after he was gone, saying, “I hope no one will be distressed on my account.” . .  At 8:08 a.m. on July 23, 1885, Grant died so gently that nobody was quite certain at first that his spirit had stolen away. . . .

With flags lowered to half-mast across America and mourning symbols swathing the White House, the Grant family conducted a private funeral . . . on August 4. Two days later Grant’s casket began a journey southward from Albany to New York City, where three hundred thousand people filed past the open coffin as it lay in state at City Hall. People descended on Manhattan in record numbers for the public funeral on August 8. They poured on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge, descended from elevated railroad stations, and slipped into the city through Grand Central Depot. The 1.5 million people flooding the city would make it the grandest funeral in New York history. At 8:30 a.m. on August 8, Civil War veterans hoisted Grant’s coffin to a waiting catafalque that had black plumes sprouting at each corner. Twenty-four black stallions, arranged in twelve pairs and attended by black grooms, stood ready to pull the hearse. Twenty generals preceded the horses . . .  Every protocol for a military funeral was followed, including the riderless horse with boots facing backward in the stirrups. The funeral was a vast, elaborate affair, befitting a monarch or head of state, in marked contrast to the essential simplicity of the man honored.

The grandeur emphasized the central place that Grant had occupied in the Civil War and its aftermath. “Out of all the hubbub of the war,” wrote Walt Whitman, “Lincoln and Grant emerge, the towering majestic figures.” Whitman thought they had lived exemplary lives that vindicated the American spirit, showing how people lifted from the lower ranks of society could attain greatness. “I think this the greatest lesson of our national existence so far.”

The procession streamed up Broadway until it reached the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square, where it took on a veritable army of dignitaries, including all the members of the Grant family except for [his wife] Julia, who remained secluded . . . President Cleveland headed an eminent escort that included Vice President Thomas Hendricks, the entire cabinet, and Supreme Court justices. Both surviving ex-presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur, attended. Congress and statehouses across the country emptied out to pay homage, sending fifteen U.S. senators, twelve congressmen, eighteen governors, and ten mayors to pay their respects. From city halls across America, eight thousand civil and municipal officers converged to participate in the march.

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Nobody doubted that William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan would serve as honorary pallbearers, but Julia Grant knew her husband would have wanted two Confederate generals to balance their northern counterparts, so Joseph Johnston and Simon Buckner represented the South. Predictably, northern military units predominated, but the presence of Confederate soldiers touched onlookers. . . . Contingents of black veterans were liberally represented among the sixty thousand soldiers, supplemented by eighteen thousand veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. Rabbi E. B. M. Browne acted as an honorary pallbearer . . . At Grant’s death, Philadelphia’s Jewish Record observed, “None will mourn his loss more sincerely than the Hebrew, and . . . in every Jewish synagogue and temple in the land the sad event will be solemnly commemorated with fitting eulogy and prayer.”

Southern reaction to Grant’s death signified a posthumous triumph. His onetime image as a fierce warrior of the Civil War had been replaced by that of a more pacific figure. As the News and Courier of South Carolina editorialized, “Had his life ended but a few years since, the mourning for the great leader would have been more or less sectional in its manifestation. Dying as he now dies, the grief is as widespread as the Union.” Grant had won over unlikely southern converts. When John Singleton Mosby learned of his death, he was bereft: “I felt I had lost my best friend.” In Gainesville, Georgia, a white-bewhiskered James Longstreet emerged in a dressing gown to tell a reporter emotionally that Grant “was the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.” In southern towns and border states, veterans from North and South linked arms as they paid tribute to Grant’s passage.

Black churches held “meetings of sorrow” that eulogized Grant as a champion of the Fifteenth Amendment and the fight to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. Summing up Grant’s career, Frederick Douglass wrote: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

Church bells tolled and muffled drums resounded as the funeral procession glided past buildings shrouded in black, The New York Times likening the uninterrupted flow of humanity to a giant “river into which many tributaries were poured.” The honor guard of mourners stretched for miles, taking five hours to reach the burial site. . . . 

By midafternoon, in bright sunshine, the funeral cortege reached the small temporary brick tomb at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street. Warships floating in the Hudson River let loose a cannonade in tribute to Grant. A lone bugler blew taps at the vault—the same tune that had floated over Grant’s army camps during the war. As the notes drifted over the crowd, Sherman stood ramrod straight, his body shaking with tears. It was a memorable sight: the bête noire of the South, seemingly impervious to softer feelings, overcome with profound emotion.

A dozen years later, on a cool spring day, with more than a million people in attendance, President William McKinley presided over the dedication of the General Grant National Memorial—“Grant’s Tomb” in popular parlance—financed by public contributions. Leading the fund-raising drive had been the lawyer Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard College, which would have pleased Grant. An opulent domed affair of granite and marble, Grant’s Tomb was the largest mausoleum in North America. When Julia Grant died of heart failure in 1902 at age seventy-six . . . she and Ulysses were entombed together. They lay encased in red granite sarcophagi housed in an open structure much too monumental for these two simple midwestern souls. The mausoleum’s spectacular scale testified to Grant’s exalted place in the nineteenth-century American mind, perhaps rivaling that of Lincoln, and the site soon evolved into New York’s number one tourist destination, drawing half a million people annually.

Perhaps nobody had watched the funeral procession on August 8, 1885, with a wider range of emotions than Mark Twain, who stared down for five hours on the somber pageantry from the windows of his publishing office at Union Square. He would always be indescribably proud to have published Grant’s Personal Memoirs . . .  At the end of the funeral, when the crowds had dispersed, he and William Tecumseh Sherman retreated to the Lotos Club, where they sat down over liquor and cigars to wrestle anew with the mystery of Grant’s personality—a source of never-ending wonder to both men. Sherman always insisted that Grant was a mystery even to himself, a unique intermingling of strength and weakness such as he had never encountered before.

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