Grant’s Tomb: The Epic Death of Ulysses S. Grant and the Making of an American Pantheon

  • By Louis L. Picone
  • Arcade
  • 344 pp.
  • Reviewed by James A. Percoco
  • August 6, 2021

An engrossing look at the fight to memorialize the former president’s final resting place.

Grant’s Tomb: The Epic Death of Ulysses S. Grant and the Making of an American Pantheon

In Josephine Tey’s 1951 murder mystery, The Daughter of Time, the protagonist, Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant, remarks, “The truth of anything at all doesn’t lie in someone’s account of it. It lies in all the small facts of the time; an advertisement in a paper, the sale of a house, the price of a ring.”

Louis L. Picone has proven himself to be a detective on par with Tey’s hero. His Grant’s Tomb is deeply researched, accessible, and gets to the truth about the largest crypt in the nation and its famous occupant, the 18th president of the United States.

Picone begins with a moving account of how Ulysses S. Grant spent his final days writing his memoir — with the help of Mark Twain — in a cottage in Upstate New York. We feel the great man’s life ebb as his body succumbs to the throat and tongue cancer brought on by his ubiquitous cigar smoking. Doctors had limited options for treating the former commander-in-chief, but they did their best to keep him free of pain. Picone writes:

“On June 16, 1885, as the temperature in New York City approached 100 degrees, an emaciated Grant emerged from his home at 8 a.m., bundled in a wool cap, coat, and scarf. This was the first time many reporters had seen him since the announcement of cancer several months earlier. ‘His body is wasted almost to a skeleton and the bones of his hands and wrists show through the tightly drawn skin,’ a journalist for the Salt Lake Evening Democrat grimly reported.”

Grant breathed his last on July 23, 1885. The task of where to bury him fell to his wife, Julia, and son Fred. To the consternation of many, the nearly impoverished family chose an area of upper Manhattan called Riverside. The decision caused a national scandal. Many prominent folks argued that Grant should be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, while others believed he should be interred in his home state of Illinois. Picone demonstrates that such “monument wars” were not new to American history. In the end, the family’s wishes prevailed.

After the funeral, Grant’s coffin was placed in a temporary vault adjacent to the plot of land where a huge memorial was to rise. It would remain there for 12 years while the fundraising arm of the project languished. Here, Picone masterfully tells what otherwise might have been a mundane pecuniary tale.

Most Americans at the time believed Grant was deserving of something magnificent, and architect John Hemingway Duncan was tasked with designing it. He envisioned a monument akin to the ancient mausoleum of Herculaneum, with an interior modeled on Napoleon’s Tomb in Paris’ Les Invalides.

The project stalled, however, until the reins of the Grant Memorial Association were turned over to the late president’s good friend and Civil War aide-de-camp, Horace Porter, who was able to pull together disparate, feuding factions and get the effort back on track. Picone argues that Porter was singlehandedly responsible for getting the job done.

Once completed and opened to the public, Grant’s Tomb quickly became New York City’s biggest tourist attraction. In 1906 alone, 607,584 people visited the site to pay homage to Grant and Julia, who’d been laid to rest beside her husband in 1902. The site also became a location for the country’s nascent movie industry; early filmmakers, Thomas Edison among them, used the tomb as a backdrop in several silent movies.

Yet as the 20th century marched on and firsthand recollections of the Civil War faded, Grant’s Tomb fell out of favor, as did the man himself. Picone maintains that history has slighted Grant, whom he sees as a champion of Reconstruction Era reforms aimed at helping newly freed enslaved persons, and a proponent of legislation taking on the Ku Klux Klan.

Nevertheless, the Myth of the Lost Cause began to rule American memory, and the Grant Memorial Association had difficulty maintaining the monument. In 1959, the National Park Service assumed control of the site, yet the tomb continued to deteriorate, eventually becoming a haven for drug dealers and the homeless.

But the tale doesn’t end there. Today, against all odds, Grant’s burial site is again a well-tended — and well-attended — tourist destination. For Picone, the hero of this story is Columbia University student and National Park Service volunteer Frank Scaturro, who, in 1991, launched an effort to rehabilitate the memorial:

“He raised awareness of the deplorable conditions and crusaded for much-needed repairs and security. No single person deserves more credit than Frank for the restoration and resurgence of Grant’s Tomb.”

And perhaps no one deserves more credit than Louis Picone for telling the tomb’s story so ably. Grant’s Tomb is a book to be savored by anyone with an interest in American history. In fact, it just might inspire you to make your own pilgrimage to New York to discover for yourself, as Groucho Marx once quipped, “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”

James A. Percoco is the history chair at LSG: The School for Advanced Studies in Ashburn, Virginia, and the author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments.

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