Thanks to Dr. Dan Wohlgelernter for his recommendation to read Ron Chernow’s 959 page tome on Grant, and to Dr. Gary Williams for his impetus to re-visit history and historic figures. It’s fair to say that Ulysses hasn’t been accorded the respect that he deserves among the present day populace. Consider this: Someone posed the following question on Quora:
Why is Grant on the 50 dollar bill when he wasn’t known for anything?
The respondent could only muster up this explanation: “Though his presidential career was known (even in his own time) only for being rather undistinguished, he had been a particularly famous and popular Civil war general.” That was in 2016, a year before Chernow came out with Grant’s tome – not to be confused with Grant’s Tomb. Speaking of which, a brain teaser made the rounds when I was a kid, asking: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” The answer turns out to be no one. Technically speaking, Grant was entombed above ground with his wife Julia, whom he acknowledged as essential to his success.
Chernow writes: “The mausoleum’s spectacular scale testified to Grant’s exalted place in the nineteenth-century American mind, perhaps rivaling that of Lincoln, and the site soon evolved into New York’s number one tourist destination, drawing half a million people annually.” Formally known as the General Grant National Memorial, Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park is considered to be one of New York City’s best kept secrets.
A notable honorary pallbearer at Grant’s funeral was Rabbi E.B.M. Browne. There was great symbolism in this selection, indicating that Grant had come full cycle in atoning for his wartime actions against the Jews. Through “General Orders No. 11“, Grant expelled Jews from the Department of the Tennessee (encompassing parts of Western Kentucky and Tennessee, northern Mississippi, and southern Illinois) for allegedly violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, in the most sweeping anti-Semitic action undertaken in American history. Haunted by this order for the rest of his life, Grant compiled an outstanding record of incorporating Jews into his Presidential administration, one that far out-stripped his predecessors. As documented by Chernow, among his many appointments was a Jew of Sephardic origin with the patriotic name of Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, who fought anti-semitism at home and abroad. Grant made history on June 9, 1876, as the first sitting President to attend a synagogue dedication service, listening to the הַנּוֺתֵן תְּשׁוּעָה prayer in which the Congregation prays on behalf of the welfare of the President of the United States along with its senators and representatives. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Grant with regard to effectively making amends with Jews was penned by Simon Wolf who wrote: “President Grant did more on behalf of American citizens of Jewish faith at home and abroad than all the Presidents of the United States prior thereto or since.”
Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, a kinship I feel with him as I write this from my residence at Point Pleasant – though in New Jersey, and at the Beach – not far from where he would set up shop in Long Branch to run his two term Presidency during summers at the Jersey Shore. Showing a preference for Ulysses, he gradually discarded the name Hiram and a later bureaucratic error granted him the middle initial “S” which he retained to become Ulysses S. Grant. Much of Chernow’s chronicling of Grant’s life was sourced from Grant’s own memoir, a fascinating story in itself in which he collaborated with Mark Twain.
In Chernow’s own words, when interviewed by General David H. Petraeus at the 92nd Street “Y”, the life of Ulysses S. Grant is the perfect prism through which to view the two adjoining monumental periods of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The book examines Grant’s humble origins and the many challenges in his life in a way that I daresay you’ve never read before. I hope that you have the opportunity to read Chernow’s masterpiece but, in the interim, you’ll be entertained and informed by the exchange between Chernow and Petraeus, another illustrious West Point graduate.