As a barometer of the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant as an American leader (hero) the fate of his tomb in New York City is perhaps the most accurate measure. The largest mausoleum in North America, when it was built in the late 19th century in Riverside Park, both tomb and hero were at the height of their renown.
In its first few years, the building was the top tourist attraction in New York City, getting more than 500,000 visitors a year and beating out the new Statue of Liberty. And the man it honored was ranked with Washington and Lincoln as one of America’s three top figures.
Later, both the monument and its subject started to decline in reputation, as trends in both history and NYC real estate (and crime) shifted. Perhaps the low point for both was the early 1990s, when Grant was considered one of the four worst presidents and the tomb had become a rundown site that attracted few tourists but many drug addicts and prostitutes.
Louis Picone’s Grant’s Tomb: The Epic Death of Ulysses S. Grant and the Making of an American Pantheon tells the story well of how a few people brought the Grant monument back into good condition and good repute, just as Grant’s own reputation as a historical figure was on the rise.
Today, led by Eric Foner, Ron Chernow and other historians who have taken a new look at both the man and the Reconstruction era in which he governed, Grant is now ranked in the top half of presidents and near the top of American military leaders.
Likewise, members of the Grant family along with one dedicated attorney in NYC, Frank Scaturro, who fell in love with the monument while an undergrad at Columbia and made it his person mission to get it restored, have helped the Park Service bring the tomb building and grounds to its former glory during the last 25 years.
Scaturro and his group are even considering exciting new additions, like a statue of Grant on horseback that was formerly imagined but never built due to lack of funds. Picone makes a good case why any patriotic American should want this work to move forward.
I think Grant’s reputation should rise even higher, and his tomb and monument should again become a top spot for Americans and people from around the world to visit.
Given that Grant saved the Union during the Civil War, he’s surely one of our three top military leaders, along with Washington and perhaps Eisenhower. And since Grant became America’s first president dedicated to civil rights, vigorously standing up for Black Americans to vote and participate in politics across the South and crushing the KKK and other domestic terrorist groups with federal troops, Grant deserves to be ranked in the top ten presidents.
In an era of Black Lives Matter, what Rev. William J. Barber II has called America’s Third Reconstruction, we need the example of Grant as a white ally for multiracial democracy today more than ever!
Aside from his overall decency as a human being (so modest, so compassionate, so loyal) and his very American life story of rising from a failure in business to a military hero when the right moment came, Grant deserves to be much better known and much better appreciated.
As the 200th anniversary of Grant’s birth approaches in April of 2022, Picone’s engaging and exhaustively researched book is perfectly timed to help in this necessary work.