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Grant's Final Battle

The old general was fighting his final battle. Devastated by financial losses that had wiped out a lifetime of savings, and facing a doctor’s diagnosis of terminal cancer at age 63, the great hero of the Civil War had come to the little cottage in Upstate New York to try and regain his health.

Driveway up to Grant Cottage where the former President and Civil War General spent his final days. (Credit: Paulette E. Morgan)

Grant Cottage Historic Site photographed on September 24, 2017 (Credit: Bill Howard Photo)

General U.S. Grant knew he was dying. Accepting the favor of a friend who owned a Victorian cottage in Upstate New York, he traveled by train from New York City to Saratoga Springs in June of 1885. It proved a difficult trip for the old soldier, who now weighed just over 100 pounds and could barely breathe. While traveling along the Hudson River headed north, his wife Julia, had awakened him so he could look out the window of the train car and see the cadets of the United States Military Academy at West Point lined up along the crest of the far ridge and standing at attention as he passed. They were so far away that they could barely be seen, the gray stone buildings of the Academy behind them, a place embedded long ago in Grant’s past.

It had been a long journey. Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio the son of a saddler, Grant had escaped the poverty of his upbringing through appointment to West Point. He was a middling student there, but excelled at horsemanship, graduating 21st out of 39 students with the class of 1843.

Grant performed well in the Mexican War, first as a quartermaster and then on the battlefield, and gained the attention of many who would remember him and further his career. He had never intended to remain long in the military, but after failing at business, he returned. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Grant commanded Illinois state militia forces upon the request of the Governor. His star rose high with the early victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, and soon Grant was on the short list to command the Union armies in the west. As President Lincoln grew increasingly frustrated with the slogging progress of the war in the east, he brought Grant to Washington and gave him command of the army. He would not disappoint.

Grant realized something that few military commanders understood. Geography may be symbolic, but capturing territory would not bring the Civil War to a close. Grant fought with an intensity that brought war directly to his opponent. He was relentless. In the Virginia campaigns of 1864, Grant pursued Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army with a determination that Lincoln thought resembled a dog that would not let go of its adversary’s leg. After a series of hard battles in an area known as the Wilderness, Grant’s army suffered severe losses but cheered their commander when the army reached a fork in the road and continued to march toward the enemy. The pursuit of total victory was the essence of the aggressive Grant.

When the Confederate army was boxed, and Lee asked for terms of surrender, Grant was magnanimous. Meeting with Lee who arrived for the council dressed in his aristocratic finery, Grant wore a battered uniform coat and muddied boots and offered terms that extended dignity to his defeated foe – even allowing Confederate officers to retain their horses and sidearms.

After the war, Grant did something he had vowed never to do; he entered politics. The great general seemed overwhelmed by the demands of Washington and delegated authority to men of far less ethics who embroiled his Administration in scandal. These scandals compromised his Reconstruction and civil rights agenda and marked him as a failed president. When it was all over, he traveled the world and was celebrated by heads of state in such far flung places as Japan and Egypt. This was just before he invested his life savings in a fragile scheme that collapsed and left him penniless. It was the great writer Mark Twain who stepped in to save him, and agreed to help publish his memoirs. It was the book project that brought Grant to the little cottage in Upstate New York – part of the General’s attempts to provide for his family as death approached.

The partnership of Twain and Grant proved both formidable and fruitful. Grant labored long on the book, writing in his usual clear and concise style that would someday remind readers of Ernest Hemingway. His two volume, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, was a commercial publishing success largely due to the ingenious way it was marketed. Across the nation, Civil War veterans loyal to their former commander, went door to door and sold the book by subscription. In the years after Grant’s death, the book generated great wealth for Grant’s family, raising today’s equivalent of about $11 million for his grieving widow, Julia Dent Grant.

Front Room at Grant Cottage with display case featuring notes written by Grant along with a guest book signed by his widow, Julia Dent Grant, when she returned to the home five years after the General’s death.

Grant wrote about 100 pages of the book while at the cottage perched atop Mt. McGregor. He arrived at the cottage on June 16, 1885 accompanied by family and attendants. He would sit in a favorite wicker chair on the front porch of the house, taking advantage of a gentle cross breeze, absorbed in his writing or in reading the newspaper. Those who passed by on their way to and from the hotel just up the hill from the cottage would sometimes be acknowledged by a tip of the hat from the former President. Grant could barely speak. The cancerous tumor in his throat had grown so large that it constricted his vocal chords. He mostly communicated by writing hastily scribbled notes on slips of paper torn from a small notebook. On clear days, his attendants would help him into a specially constructed wheeled carriage chair where he would be rolled along a wooded path to an overlook that allowed a grand unrestricted view that stretched to the far mountains of Vermont. One wonders if the view stirred his old warrior’s heart and reminded him of his military campaigns through the mountains of Tennessee back in 1862 and 1863.

Two leather chairs that Grant used as a makeshift bed. On the side table rests the tumbler he used. A medicinal bottle of cocaine water is perched high on the cabinet to the right.

Every day he labored on the book manuscript or received visitors. Twain visited, as did his old friend and military opponent, Confederate General Simon B. Buckner. The two sat for hours, with Grant slipping notes to his old adversary. Grant had known Buckner for many years in the Old Army. Before the war, when Grant needed money to pay a hotel bill, Buckner had heard of his friend’s troubles and spoken up for him with the hotel management. When Fort Donelson surrendered, it was Buckner who met with Grant and gave up his forces to capture, earning Grant that sobriquet, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Such associations were the cruel nature of Civil War.

Grant finished the memoir in draft just as his health grew even weaker. On July 20, 1885, just three days before his death, he scribbled a note asking to be taken to the overlook one last time. He was brought down to take in the view and then returned to the cottage. Until now, he had been sleeping sitting up uncomfortably positioned between two leather chairs in order to help his breathing. Now a bed was brought down from the hotel and placed in a front room of the cottage. There, on July 23, 1885, Grant passed into his final sleep beneath a large engraved portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

Bed in which General Grant died beneath an engraved portrait of President Abraham Lincoln

After Grant died, his son, Colonel Frederick Grant, walked over to the mantle clock and stopped it to memorialize the time of death. 132 years later, the clock is still fixed at 8:08, a silent witness to Grant’s death. The room and the house, are exactly as Grant left it. Following his death, the house was sealed by its owner in tribute to Grant and his final days. It did not open to the public until five years later. Now owned by the State of New York, the home is open to the public seasonally.

Here at what is now known as, Grant Cottage, the General’s last days are preserved as something of a time capsule. Grant’s drinking glass still sits on the card table. On a wooden cabinet, there is a medical bottle of cocaine water, half-filled, that once provided soothing comfort to Grant’s throat. In one room, elaborate floral sprays sent by the Meade GAR Post in Philadelphia and another by the California millionaire, Leland Stanford, for Grant’s funeral are still on display. A glass case displays the scribbled notes Grant wrote out to family and friends. The cottage is one of those rare places where the visitor can feel the presence of those who have walked its halls in life. The bed where Grant died, the favored chair where he sat, the glass that he drank from, are all surviving relics of the man.

Grant’s tale was a typical American success story. Lifted from poverty by the military, he rose to great heights after a number of reverses, served as the commanding general of the Union Army and then as President, before drifting into financial ruin. Rescued by Mark Twain and his own fame, Grant struggled against adversity in his final days to write a book that would not only save his family, but provide a foundation for solidifying his legacy. Grant’s book is still in print today and numbers among the best memoirs ever published. Here, beneath the shaded trees at Grant’s Cottage, the old general fought a brave fight against time. Visiting Grant’s Cottage provides both insight into that final battle, as well as into the life of an American original whose amazing life journey passed from the modest home of his birth in a small Ohio town, to the battlefields of the Civil War and then the White House, before ending here, in this Victorian cottage in 1885. Grant’s legacy remains an impressive one; his spirit lingers in the halls of this fine historic site.

Original flower displays sent to the cottage for Grant’s funeral. On the table is the array sent by the Meade GAR Post in Philadelphia. On the right is the spray sent by Leland Stanford of California. Period engravings document that the GAR floral display was positioned behind Grant’s head as he lay in his casket during the visitation.

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