Ulysses S Grant and Me

The Greatest General Ever

I have a thing for Ulysses S. Grant. I am not sure how I fell into this rabbit hole but I am sure it had something to do with Father Abraham (that’s Lincoln). I love Lincoln for many reasons. He was funny and wise. He loved his boys and yet they died breaking his heart. He was given a task that no mortal could really solve and he did the best he could only to pay for it in the end. I have read many biographies about Lincoln and Grant would show up as his favorite general. Well, if U.S. Grant was Lincoln’s favorite general, there must be something there. So I started reading about him.

Grant’s reputation has been tainted for a century largely because of the revisionist history of the Lost Cause. He beat Robert E. Lee so he had to be villanized–the story is that he was a drunk who did not care about his men and corrupt and incompetent as President. But now historians are taking a deep dive and it is clear that Grant was perhaps the one of the greatest tacticians in war, his troops loved him, he was modest, humble and probably too trusting of his friends. He was the President who pushed Reconstruction and tried hard to carry out Lincoln’s hope to rebuild the South and give former slaves the freedom they deserved and to ensure they had their full rights. That did not go over too well in the South, as you can imagine. He was the first to deal with the Ku Klux Klan. He put them down with military might.

Grant was small in stature and he had little patience for school. So he did not do well at West Point. He had two talents–he was a horse whisperer. His relationship with horses was legendary. He could ride any horse, even the most difficult. His favorite was a beautiful war horse named Cincinnati. He was know for eschewing military clothes, favoring the garb of a private. When he travelled to Washington to see Lincoln, he did so by himself without much fanfare. Once he showed up at the Willard Hotel, acting like an average guy just after Lincoln had named him Lieutenant General of all the armies. He was trying to check in but he had no reservation. They were giving him the run around as if he were a pauper trying to get an expensive room. Someone suddenly realized it was Grant and murmurs went through the hotel that the General was in the lobby. He was mobbed by well wishers.

After he finished two terms as president, he went on a world tour and was feted wherever he went. His tactics as a General were studied worldwide.

For a lot of reasons after his presidency, he was perpetually in need of money. He was never very good at business. But he was a good writer and he was convinced to write his biography. Mark Twain learned about this and sought to publish the book himself. Being an admirer, Twain wanted to make sure Grant got as much money as possible from the deal. Grant went to work writing. But the worst thing happened. Grant developed throat cancer, likely driven by the cigars he constantly smoked. (He puffed day and night.) He eventually died a horrible and painful death from throat cancer. Twain got the book published and it is considered one of the best military biographies ever written. I’ve read it. It is clear and concise, as you would expect.

So I am kind of a fan.

In April, we went to New York to see a concert at Radio City Music Hall (Matt needed to seen A-ha, a band from his youth what I am not really familiar with but that is a different essay).

With an afternoon free, Matt asked me if I wanted to go to Grant’s Tomb. Well, hell yes! So we taxied to Harlem–122nd and Riverside Drive. Officially known as the General Grant National Monument, this is the largest mausoleum in North America.

Grant Monument
Inside dome
Lee’s surrender

Both Grant and his wife, Julia, are buried there. The tomb spent years in a decrepit state, graffiti covered and neglected. It was restored in large part due to the work of Frank Scaturro. As a college student at Columbia University, Scaturro volunteered to be a guide at the Grant Monument. He found it to be in serious need of attention and began a solo effort to have the Park Service and Congress fund a restoration, the most important being to secure the place from vandals in off hours. He eventiually prevailed.

But even now, we found a monument in serious need of attention. The plaza in front needs serious work, many stones are loose or broken. The building looks like it needs a good cleaning all the way around. There is a horrible art project from the 1970’s that may have seemed like a good idea at the time but really needs to go. And for our purposes, the monument is not handicapped accessible so I had to carry Matt’s knee scooter up the stairs.

When we arrived, a ranger was talking to two women about Grant and the Civil War. I started listening and nodding along. Then I joined the conversation. Three women gabbing about Grant and Lincoln. It was nerdy and fun. It turned out that these two women did not know each other. They happened upon each other in the building both interested in what the ranger had to say. We talked and talked that poor ranger’s ear off until it was time to close the place. We helped him close up and walked away still talking.

One of the women mentioned that the bicentennial of Grant’s birthday was coming up and there was going to be a big dinner in his honor. I said, well, let’s just look that up on the old internet. And I found it in about one minute. The Grant Monument Association was throwing a party–a dinner and “colloquy” between General David Petraeus, and Ron Chernow and Ron White, both Grant biographers. (The Grant Monument Association was originally responsible for getting the monument built. It was rekindled by Scaturro when enough people agreed the monument needed repairs, protection and just some TLC. I have since joined.)

I looked at Matt and asked whether we could get back to NYC to go to the dinner. It would be a weeknight. He said we would make it work. So I bought tickets to the dinner and we were set. We said goodbye to the ladies and went on our way.

Two weeks later, April 27, it was time to celebrate Grant’s birthday. There was a wreath laying ceremony and celebration to be held at the monument in the morning, and then the dinner would be later that evening. We caught the early train to NYC and cabbed it up to the monument.

We took our seats. The monument was bedecked in the colors.

“Let us have peace” are words Grant spoke in his inauguration address.

As we waited, a woman from NYC’s public radio asked to interview us about why we were at the ceremony. We told her we were from DC, which impressed her greatly. We travelled all that way to celebrate Grant’s birthday? Yes. She asked us what our feelings were about the fact that Grant did not have a great record on race. I proceeded to give her the history of President Grant including his fight to preserve voting rights for former slaves and his taking on the Klu Klux Klan. She did not know any of this. She asked how I learned all this and I answered, “I read books.” I mean, geez. What kind of question is that?

The ceremony began and we were entertained with a military color guard, speeches by politicians, generals, and Grant’s great-great-grandson, Ulysses Grant Dietz.

After the proceedings we were getting some snacks and we saw one of the women, Dakota, from our first visit. We waved and asked, do you remember us? She could not believe we came back and we were going to the dinner! Too hilarious.

Me, Matt and Dakota

We said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. The dinner was to be held at the Union League Club, one of those old school men’s clubs that has been around since the 1800’s. This club was formed as a break away group when the original Union Club refused to denounce the Confederacy. 

Just for fun here are the rules on “decorum”:

  • WEEKDAYS
  • On weekdays, until Friday at 4:00 pm, jackets are required for gentlemen and appropriate equivalent dress is required for women throughout all areas of the Clubhouse. Athletic shoes, hats, flip flops, cut off or short shorts, tank tops, or crop tops are not permitted anywhere in the Clubhouse or Terrace Café, at any time throughout the year. Jeans are not permitted on weekdays. Ties are required only during dinner hours in the Mary Murray Room and Lounge and at evening committee events, except where the event announcement states otherwise. Jackets may be removed when playing billiards. Blazers and ties are available for members and guests to borrow while visiting the Clubhouse. Starting at 4:00 pm on Friday through Sunday evening jackets are not required but are encouraged.

  • SATURDAY & SUNDAY
    Members and guests are expected to dress in a manner respectful of the membership and the Club. Collared shirts are required for men, and jeans and trousers must be in good condition.

  • MEMORIAL DAY THROUGH LABOR DAY
    On Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day members and guests may wear dress (e.g. Bermuda style) or golf shorts in the Clubhouse. Jeans are also permitted on Friday evenings starting at 4:00 pm, between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

  • OTHER
  • Members are at all times responsible for ensuring that their guests are aware of and comply with the Club’s dress code. Private event hosts may, at their discretion, permit “business casual” attire in those rooms rented exclusively for their event. Jeans are not permitted. Hats and coats must be checked in at the Coat Room on the Ground Floor or kept in overnight rooms.Hand luggage is not permitted in the Union League Café, Bar & Lounge, Main Dining Room, Mary Murray Room, or Main Lounge. Members and guests going to or from the outside to overnight rooms, the Fitness Center, or squash courts are not required to comply with the dress code but are expected to be respectful of the Clubhouse, the membership and our guests. Proper attire is to be maintained in the Presidents’ Room. Jackets may be removed upon entry.
https://www.unionleagueclub.org/yourvisit

You know, when I read this code I think, hey, I wish more places had rules like this. This is the way people used to dress. No more. I am so sick of seeing people in shorts and t-shirts in the theater and in restaurants. It is so not approriate. But that is the basis of another post.

So off we went to the Union League Club to have dinner and see a colloquy. 

The dinner was populated with what looked liked elderly men, military types, and young West Point cadets. At dinner we had three cadets at our table. In the old Stephen Colbert fashion, I asked if Grant was a great general or the greatest general. They did not get the joke. I am afraid to think they were too young to remember. But the cadet did admit that Grant was a fantastic general. I can’t say I remember the dinner itself. I think the food was good for a banquet kind of dinner. Mostly it was about watching General Petraeus ask questions. 

Talking Grant

It was interesting to listen to the historians discuss Grant but I did not really learn anything new. But hey, I was there just to celebrate his birthday. We need more attention to be paid to Grant. I will do my best. 

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