I finished up my run along Riverside Park in Manhattan as I had many previous runs. I went to pay my respects to the general.
No visit to the city seems complete without seeing Grant’s Tomb. Officially known as General Grant National Memorial, it’s the largest mausoleum in North America. The massive marble dome is dazzling, but I don’t go for the architecture.
I just want to be near Grant. To me, Ulysses Grant is as real as anyone else I know. He’s in my head, someone I’ve spent enough time thinking about to have earned a permanent place in my heart.
I know Grant wasn’t a great president, but as general, he helped save America. People in England called Grant, not Lincoln, the Emancipator. He served two terms as president, and created the country’s first national park, Yellowstone.
After Grant’s death, an African American Harvard graduate named R.T. Greener led the fundraising campaign to build this monument. Some 90,000 people from around the world contributed $600,000, what was then the world’s largest public fundraiser. When the memorial opened in 1897, a dozen years to the day after Grant died, a million people attended the parade and dedication.
This hulking mausoleum, which is often empty when I visit, used to attract half a million visitors a year, more visitors than the Statue of Liberty received. I think the masses came for the same reason I do today.
We come to say thank you, to pay our respects to a short and modest man whose stubbornness helped end the Civil War. The man nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender” stood his ground and helped save a country. Some called him a butcher, but America’s first four-star general had his soft side. He ended up at West Point because he couldn’t bear to work in his family’s tannery. He hated hearing the cries of horses about to be killed. Never ate anything with two legs (no chicken for the general. He preferred pancakes.) He supposedly cried after seeing the devastation at the bloody battle of the Wilderness.
I come to Grant’s tomb to see and remember a man who for all his heroism doesn’t seem larger than life. This grandiose neoclassical tomb, with its 150-foot dome, 8,000 tons of marble and granite, including imposing red granite sarcophagi that remind me of Napoleon’s tomb– well, it just doesn’t seem to fit Ulysses. He wasn’t Lincoln, a witty and erudite speaker whose quotes we all know. Grant’s most famous line is achingly simple and still resonates today : “Let us have peace.”
I understand why so many people contributed to this massive memorial built high above the Hudson River on a rocky outcrop, almost like the Parthenon. This weighty monument offered proof that the Union was still standing. It’s a sigh of relief from people desperately grateful for the end of war. This mausoleum is a monument to a man, and a monument to peace. Let us have peace.
Next time you’re in New York, take a moment to pay your respects to the general.