I learned about Ulysses S. Grant in grammar school like any other US kid. I knew he was the Commanding General of the North during the Civil War, and that he later became President of the United States of America. Other than such details as where the peace treaty was signed, how he accepted General Robert E. Lee’s surrender and some details of his presidency, those are all the facts I knew about him in my youth.
Those and one other – he is buried in New York City.
I can’t tell you how many times I passed the monument bearing Ulysses S. Grant’s final resting place in my life. I remember my father asking my sister and I in a sing-songy voice “Whooo’s buried theeeeeeeere?” each and every time we passed it. My sister and I would reply “President Grant.” I also recall my father always promising to take us there one day, but since each time we passed it we were either in a rush to get somewhere or tired and on our way home, we just never got around to it. He did always tell us that it was a beautiful building and it certainly did look like it from the window, despite the depressed surroundings of the late 70′s and early 80′s.
It wasn’t until I married the hubby that I learned more about Ulysses S. Grant the man. And it wasn’t until last week that I visited his tomb. Today, to me, he strikes me as a sad and noble figure. He may not have been as poetic a soul as I would like to think, and I am aware of some of his more notable shortcomings now- not the stuff that you teach 4th graders necessarily – but I am still sad when I think of him, even with his successes. But the tomb is fitting tribute to a man with great achievements and great struggles.
We decided to visit his tomb on the way back from our visit to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. (You can read about that here http://www.mommylogue.com/2011/08/an-intrepid-visit/) The truth is that it had been on our radar ever since we started actively visiting National Park Service sites. Of all the states and major cities playing host to National Park Service sites, NYC has very few, with Grant’s Tomb being one of less than ten. It took us two years to get around to it, but we did it.
The building is magnificently beautiful, and only in slight disrepair despite the current state of our economy. The grounds were beautiful and safe. There was one Park Ranger on duty in the building when we arrived, but we encountered three others during our time there. When we first arrived that building was all but empty, but within 10 minutes one camp bus arrived and then a tour bus. There was no doubt in my mind after that day that this monument is busy and visited, and I am happy for it. Growing up it always looked somewhat abandoned, but today it is not.
Two features surprised me. The first were the sarcophagi. I did not expect to see them; I’d anticipated a marker on a marble wall. Instead there were two beautiful wooden sarcophagi bearing the President’s and his wife’s remains on the bottom floor, which could be viewed from above. Visiting below I saw that the circular walls surrounding them bore the busts of his most important Civil War generals. When I first saw the sarcophagi I thought they reminded me of that of Napoleon in Les Invalides. We learned later that they were actually designed as imitations. I am glad for that. What is also notable about the burial site is that his wife is buried with him. My husband pointed it out surprised and I didn’t understand why. I thought all US Presidents were buried with their wives. We had just visited FDR’s home the month before where he had been buried with Eleanor. (You can read about that here http://www.mommylogue.com/2011/07/springwood/) But apparently, President Grant was the first US President to have been buried with his wife and it was at his request.
The second surprise to me was the overlook. When the hubby asked where he might be able to get his National Park Service Passport stamp, the Ranger on the site explained that we would need to cross the street and take the stairs to the side of the overlook, also a part of the monument and park. I have watched many overlooks (no pun intended) over the Hudson River disintegrate throughout the years, so I expected a run down shelter at best. What we found was a beautiful cement and wooden structure. Sure enough following the stairs around the overlook we found the National Park Service office which also housed a mini education center (and a very clean bathroom!).
After so many times seeing it as a child, it was well worth the visit.