Grant’s Tomb: More Than A Landmark
Written by Leo Bevilacqua
History is everywhere in Morningside Heights, if you choose to explore it. Today, Bwog writer Leo Bevilacqua shares his impressions of Grant’s Tomb, a national memorial dedicated to Union General and 18th President of the United States.
EDIT, 6:20 PM: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that President Grant signed the 18th Amendment; he actually signed the 15th Amendment.
Besides Low Library, there’s another neoclassical rotunda that looms in Morningside Heights. Grant’s Tomb, which holds the remains of former president Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia Dent, stands despite signs of age. Constructed two years after Low Library in 1897, this structure bears a striking similarity to the architecture of the then-developing Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University.
As a general in the Civil War, Grant fought to consolidate the Union. As the 18th President, he passed the 15th Amendment, which granted the right to vote no matter “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It is fitting that such an impressive figure in American history would deserve such an impressive tomb.
However, the location, New York City, feels like an odd choice for an Ohio native and a resident of Wilton, NY upon his death. Julia Dent, his wife, clarified the choice by remarking:
“Riverside was selected by myself and my family as the burial place of my husband, General Grant. First, because I believed New York was his preference. Second, it is near the residence that I hope to occupy as long as I live, and where I will be able to visit his resting place often. Third, I have believed, and am now convinced, that the tomb will be visited by as many of his countrymen there as it would be at any other place. Fourth, the offer of a park in New York was the first which observed and unreservedly assented to the only condition imposed by General Grant himself, namely, that I should have a place by his side.”
Julia Dent’s affection for her husband is also exemplified in her memoir, which went unpublished until 1975. In 1902, upon her death, her sarcophagus was laid next to her husband’s in the tomb. Most memorials may seem to be a relic of a forgotten time, but this memorial doubled as a tomb is imbued with meaning and passion. It’s fitting that Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired the musical, will tackle Grant in his upcoming book.
On April 27th, a group gathered in front of the imposing structure to celebrate the 195th birthday of the former president. An Antebellum-themed band blared while uniformed soldiers from West Point marched and transported the audience of children, unsuspecting students, and professionals back in time. New York is a city that paves over its past for the most part, so moments of interaction with the past are rare. New Yorkers need their history in order to bring them into closer proximity to those historical giants that were once alive and who walked the same city streets.
This memorial tomb, which chooses to recognize Grant’s tenure as general rather than president, highlights this legend’s humanity and humility. It is hard to view the grand, magnificent building without thinking of the celebrated general that openly wept at the funeral of his old friend, Abraham Lincoln uttering, “[he was] the greatest man I had ever known.” In a time of political turmoil and darkness, places like Grant’s tomb afford an opportunity of hope and inspiration for what can be.