On this day July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, a two-term president of the United States, Lieutenant General of the Union armies, world traveler, author, and Wall Street victim died at Mt. McGregor, New York. Instantly newspapers around the country lamented his death, and August 8, 1885 was decided as the date of his funeral and declared a national day of mourning.
For months, U.S. citizens had been anxiously following news of Grant’s battle with throat cancer and his race to finish his memoirs before his death. Numerous people around the country had sent well wishes and poems honoring Grant to his family. Every slight sign of improvement in his health was taken as a hopeful and even sure sign of his recovery. One overconfident composer even wrote a song celebrating Grant’s return to health. But the months of updates made it clear that Grant was slowly dying.
Upon first hearing his diagnosis, Grant knew he was going to die. Over the next months, he tried to conceal the depth of his increasing pain from his family, often spending the nights pacing in agony only to tell his family the next morning he had slept well. In the last months of his life, Grant could not eat, drink, or talk without experiencing extreme pain. He had difficulty breathing and swallowing, so spent his nights and days sitting up in with his legs up on a second chair to prevent suffocation. He communicated through notes. He wrote his memoirs, hoping to secure his family’s financial security through its royalty check while worrying constantly that he would not succeed. He finished them and died four days later.
The nation and the world let loose a maelstrom of grief. Memorial services were held not only in the United States but also in Mexico and Westminster Abbey in London. His funeral in New York City was the largest funeral in nineteenth century United States history with a procession stretching seven miles. Every year after, further memorial events were held on the anniversary of his birth and death and on Memorial Day. On April 27, 1897, Grant’s tomb in Riverside Park, New York City was dedicated in front of one million spectators and dignitaries from around the world. Modeled on the Mausoleum of Halincarnassus, the tomb was 150 feet tall and cost over $600,000 (at 1885 rates) to build, making it the most expensive publicly funded memorial of its time and still the largest mausoleum in the United States.
The depth of love and sorrow for Grant makes little sense to us today. If Americans even know who Grant is, they most often consider him a drunkard, a butcher, an anti-Semite, and, at best, an incompetent politician and investor if not an outright corrupt one. And like any part of memory and legend, there is some fire to this smoke. In most cases, these were actions Grant deeply regretted.
But we have forgotten the traits that made individuals around the world in 1885 love Grant. He did not desire war and constantly affirmed his statements that the Mexican American War was an unjust, unnecessary war for empire. Yes, he fought, but he fought to restore the Union and tried to restore the peace by providing amicable terms of surrender. As president he sought to reconcile the North and South while also protecting the rights and citizenship of newly-freed African Americans. As president and a world traveler, he promoted arbitration instead of war to resolve international conflict. He treated individuals with respect and deeply loved his family. He was far from perfect, but he regretted his errors and tried to correct them and to do what was right. He was continually knocked down only to pick himself up. To his contemporaries, these traits made Grant a hero, a member of a great American triumvirate along with Washington and Lincoln. Perhaps we should try harder to remember all of Ulysses S. Grant.