Two weeks ago, while walking around Riverside Park, I made it a point to stop at Grant’s Tomb, and snapped as many photographs as I could in my short time there. When I read, then, that the 192nd anniversary of the birth of the Civil War general and postwar President would be held today, I was disappointed I couldn’t make it. But I knew that this post, with this photo, would be all the more appropriate, even necessary.
I was glad to see, in mid-afternoon of that gloriously sunny spring day, that this massive structure, still the largest mausoleum in North America, had attracted a steady, if not enormous, stream of visitors. It wasn’t always this way.
Dedicated in 1897, with diplomats from 26 countries in attendance, the tomb of Ulysses S.Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant had fallen into disrepair nearly a century later. Meanwhile, in Lexington, Va., the tomb of Robert E. Lee and his family had been kept in immaculate condition. The contrast was glaring and scandalous: the history-haunted South honored Lee's life enough to maintain his final resting place with pride, while the man who defeated him—and saved the Union in the process—had been forgotten by the North that benefited from his undaunted courage.
That was the state of affairs until some two decades ago, when a Columbia University law student and part-time tour guide Frank Scaturro took matters into his own hands, after his pleas to the National Park Service to maintain the site had been ignored. The resulting story in The Philadelphia Inquirer angered Grant’s descendants, who threatened to transfer the remains of Ulysses and Julia back to Illinois. The National Park Service then devoted $1.8 million to restoring the memorial, providing for its upkeep, and increasing security monitoring, with the site rededicated in 1997 for its centennial.
“Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” is, as some people think, a trick question, though for the wrong question. It’s not that people other than the President and First Lady are there; rather, it’s that the two of them are not, technically speaking, buried. This being a mausoleum, it’s more correct to say they are entombed here.
After entering the circular gallery inside the memorial, you behold their remains from above, as they rest in twin red granite sarcophagi in an open crypt. (Five busts in niches around the coffins—of Grant lieutenants William Sherman, Philip Sheridan, George Thomas, James McPherson, and Edward Ord—were added by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.) The design was based on another classically inspired one across the Atlantic, Les Invalides in Paris, for another common soldier who became one of history’s most innovative generals.
There was, of course, a rather large difference between the two, and it’s spelled out just below the circular dome atop the building: “Let us have peace,” Grant's 1868 campaign slogan--a reminder that he sought to reunite the two sections after the conflict, rather than, like Napoleon, embroil a continent in bloodshed for a generation.
A number of the explanatory panels around the site implicitly refute the notion that Grant was one of the worst U.S. Presidents. In fact, before the mid-20th century, no President besides Abraham Lincoln moved so decisively to uphold the rights of African-Americans as Grant. The so-called “Reconstruction Amendments” to the Constitution, guaranteeing civil rights for the freedmen, were passed in his two terms.
Grant wanted peace but with justice, and to ensure that result he used the federal government to crack down on the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. The gratitude of the freedmen can be seen in the fact that initial fundraising for the nation’s tribute to the man who saved it came from Richard T. Greener, the first African-American graduate of Harvard. Greener liked to quote the motto of Grant, which serves as well for possibility of self-advancement in the country he loved as much as it did for his astonishing military career: Odon eureso a poieso (I will find a way or make one).