Ulysses S. Grant, An American Herole

Who is Buried in Grant’s Tomb?

Grant's Tomb

I will reveal the true answer to this, one of the most famous American riddles,  if you bear with me and allow me to tell you  what I’ve been learning about Ulysses S. Grant  and  how America, (but especially New York City),  honored him after he died.   And then disgraced him. And then honored him again.

The ups and downs of Grant’s treatment at the hands of us New Yorkers  might be karmically appropriate given that Grant was, as far as I can tell, a herole – a hero and an asshole.

You probably know that Ulysses S. Grant was a famous Civil War general.  In fact, the Civil War essentially ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox , Virginia, in 1865.  This image of the surrender was liberated from the Encyclopedia Britannica

Grant was wildly popular at the end of the war and during the Reconstruction period afterward.  He was elected President for two terms (1869-1877).

This was despite the fact that Grant and his wife’s family had been  slave-owners and despite Grant’s 1862  General Order No.11 that expelled all Jews from Tennessee and  elsewhere in his domain during the war! The expulsion never happened because President Lincoln told him to revoke the order. Later, Grant tried to weasel out of responsibility for the expulsion order – he claimed he signed it without reading it, but, there were actually two prior orders aimed specifically at Jews as well, so I have my doubts.  I checked Grant’s memoirs to see how he discussed the order and surprise – he didn’t mention it at all (although the publisher of my version of the memoirs added a footnote  to explain why Grant shouldn’t be considered a bigot).

On the other hand, Grant did have the coolest campaign slogan EVER – “Let Us Have Peace”.

Then again,  there were A LOT of scandals during his eight years in office.  Grant appointed dicey people  to positions of power and quite a number of his appointees turned out to be corrupt.  Wikipedia has a wonderful list of eleven different scandals that occurred during his terms!  Even his official biography on the White House website alludes to unsavory behavior.

Despite the scandals, Grant remained popular after his presidency ended.  After he stepped down, Grant took his wife Julia on a two year dream vacation to Europe, Asia and the Middle East.  You might enjoy this Stars and Stripes article about the Grants’ visit to Japan.    One very cool thing Grant did was to plant a cedar tree at a temple in Tokyo that is still growing today!

Once they got back to the States, the Grants were pretty much tapped out.  They did buy a house in New York City (because one of their sons lived here) and Grant went into business with a shady Madoff-esque character named Ferdinand Ward.  Ward, the “rascal”,  swindled Grant out of the rest of his money.

No sooner had Grant realized that he had lost all his dough, he learned he was terminally ill with cancer. At the urging of his buddy, Mark Twain, Grant started to write his memoirs and died just a few days after he completed them.  Luckily for his beloved  Julia, the memoirs were a bestseller and earned a lot of money for her to live on.

After spending an interesting afternoon browsing the digital archive of Grant’s papers at Mississippi  State University searching  for Grant’s Will, I finally read that Grant died INTESTATE.   Grant was survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.  Spookily, just as I was writing this post, Grant’s last living great-grandson, Ulysses S, Grant V,  died at age  90 (his grandfather was  President Grant’s youngest son, Jesse). Grant V’s death was verified by his grandson, Ulysses S. Grant, VI in a  short obituary in The New York Times.

Although he didn’t leave a will, Grant really loved his wife.  When he was deciding where he wanted to be buried, he chose the spot New York City offered in Riverside Park, Manhattan, because the city agreed that Julia could be buried with him there (and his alma mater, West Point, didn’t guarantee that).

Now we get to the honoring:

After Grant’s death, the mayor of NYC convened a panel of rich guys to raise funds to build a National Monument to honor Grant here (instead of Washington, DC where there are several other grand presidential monuments).   They held a design competition to design a monument/tomb and the winner came up with a plan to build what is still the largest mausoleum in North America!  The outside is based on an ancient Greek mausoleum and the inside is based on Napoleon’s tomb in Paris.

I visited Napoleon’s Tomb in Paris over winter break – here is a picture I took of his sarcophagus.

Grant’s Tomb is nice, but it’s no Napoleon’s Tomb (which was the grandest resting place I’ve ever seen – more on Napoleon, another herole, in a future post).

Grant’s tomb was finished in 1897 and it became a super-popular tourist destination.  In fact, before World War I, more people visited Grant’s Tomb than visited the Statue of Liberty!

Then the dishonoring came:

During the Depression, the Works Project Administration helped tend to the Tomb, but, later, in 1958, the National Park Service took responsibility for the Tomb and matters really deteriorated.   Grant’s Tomb became a disgraceful shambles during the 1970’s though to the late 1990’s.

The Grant Monument Association itself agrees that things were a mess –   it notes that the Tomb “fell victim to vandalism and apathy”.  Graffiti abounded.

It was Road Warrior times at Grants Tomb.  People camped outside the Tomb and used it for a bathroom.  It became a place to take drugs and drink.  Prostitution flourished there as did animal sacrifice.  People used “explosives” (guns, I’m guessing) to repeatedly blow the beaks off of the granite eagles out in front.

Then came  the honoring again:

In the early 1990’s a campaign to clean up the Tomb began.  Congress got involved (s0me Representatives threatened to move  the Grants to Illinois if the Tomb wasn’t spiffed up) and finally, the Tomb was restored and rededicated in 1997.  It is definitely worth a visit! Here is the official website for directions and opening hours,  in case you want to go.

I’d never been there, but, in February,  my brother, Mike Donsky, Esq. came up to NYC on a case and we were looking for something new to do,  so we took the M5 bus up to West 122d Street to visit Grant’s Tomb.

When we arrived, we noticed the huge, beautiful  church across the street – it is Riverside Church, the tallest church in the U.S.  (It also has the largest “turned bell”  in the world in it’s bell tower.)

We also noticed the multi-colored, mosaic inlaid benches that surround the Tomb.  In 1972 the National Park Service spent a lot of money to erect the benches and some people went ballistic about them.  Haters claimed that the benches are unrelated to Grant and that the abstract mosaics mess with the aesthetics of the Tomb because their style is so different.  Here is a photo I took of them covered with snow.

Mike and I loved the benches  – they look like they belong in Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona.

We enjoyed the interior of the Tomb as well.  When we entered, we noticed a teensy gift shop that sells cool Civil War Army hats and books and postcards.  There were also several Park Rangers who give tours and many educational exhibits and posters. My favorite National Park Service poster was the one with the bad grammar that a visitor corrected:

The main attraction is downstairs though – the two sarcophagi containing Grant and Julia.  Here’s what they look like:

So, if anyone asks you, Who Is Buried in Grant’s Tomb?  The answer is…… No One – Ulysses and Julia are not buried, their sarcophagi  are free-standing downstairs in the mausoleum!

Is further dishonoring  of Ulysses  yet to come?

Perhaps.  The U.S. started printing Ulysses on our fifty dollar bills early in the 20th century.  In the past few years, there has been a movement amongst Republicans to remove him and replace him with….Ronald Reagan! Uh oh.

For a cornucopia of more information on U.S. Grant, you can visit this  Empire Net website.  It plays awesomely patriotic music whilst you browse.

4 Responses to “Ulysses S. Grant, An American Herole”

  1. 1 Dena December 18, 2012 at 8:35 pm

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  1. 1 Happy Birthday Napoleon! « The Dearly Departed Trackback on August 15, 2012 at 4:55 am
  2. 2 My Neighborhood – The Upper West Side, Manhattan | Our Places : How We Commemorate Trackback on April 9, 2014 at 5:24 pm
  3. 3 Happy Birthday Napoleon! | The Dearly Departed Trackback on August 15, 2015 at 1:22 pm

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