Portrait of the 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. (1822-1885) (Courtesy of the National Archives/Newsmakers)
He was one of America’s most celebrated heroes.
He died 127 years ago this week. And the crowd at his funeral is still remembered as one of the largest in New York’s history.
Ulysses S. Grant, the first person to reach the rank of general of the Army, was entombed in Riverside Park. And, later, his tomb was dedicated as a permanent resting place for Grant and his beloved wife, Julia. They loved New York and Julia chose the location for their final resting place.
Why did the Grants love New York? Historian Harold Holzer told me: “Grant was a very modest man. He liked his privacy. When he left Washington after his presidency, he was the most famous man in the world. New York offered him the kind of background he needed. He was saluted and honored -- yet he was absorbed into the largest city without too much fuss. He traveled around the world for two years, was celebrated and given gifts everywhere but, then, on his return to New York, his privacy was respected.”
Author Mark Twain was Grant’s good friend. He spoke out in defense of Grant when the former president was engulfed in a scandal involving the securities firm of Grant and Ward. Ferdinand Ward, a con man who ultimately served time in Sing Sing prison, drew Grant into his firm. Grant was an innocent victim. Ward was the Bernie Madoff of a Ponzi scheme born long before either name was known.
Mark Twain cursed Ward “with all the profanity known to the one language I am acquainted with”and “odds and ends of profanity drawn from the other two languages of which I have a limited knowledge.”
Grant was the hero of the Civil War. He was the commander Abraham Lincoln was looking for after many months of a fruitless search to find the right general. “I can’t spare this man -- he fights,” said Lincoln. And yet Grant was a modest man who hated war and bloodshed. When he accepted the Republican nomination for President in 1869, he declared: “Let us have peace.” And those words are inscribed on his tomb and, ironically, on the ceiling of New York’s City Council, the scene of many a raucous political debate.
Grant’s tomb is the largest in America. It was built from 8,000 tons of granite, with Massachusetts marble for the floors. More than 90,000 people donated $600,000 for the project.
He spent his last day at a cottage in Saratoga County. He had throat cancer and was determined to finish his memoirs before he died, so proceeds from that book would provide for his family. On July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States and hero of the Civil War, took a last look from his room on Mount McGregor and died.
On the long train trip down to New York all America saluted him. More than a million people attended the funeral. President Cleveland, the Cabinet and leaders of the Congress were there. Old enemies from the Civil War, generals who fought the major battles on both the Confederate and Union sides, rode together in the same carriages.
He wrote his own epitaph in four words: “Let Us Have Peace.”