Monday, April 27, 2009

Who's buried in Grant's tomb?

Yesterday we hosted “Butternut and Blue” at the shop. It was the first of our “genre days” for the year. This one focused on the Civil War. There were re-enactors and black powder musketry firing in the parking lot (complete with a skirmish between Confederate and Union regiments), a talk and book signing by historian/author Scott Mingus, Sr., a sing-along of period songs led by Kent Courtney and a Jeopardy-style game testing general knowledge of the war. A fun time was had by all.

The question for the final round in the game was “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” I’ve posted the entire game on our facebook page.

Now, the question is interesting in itself. It was first made popular by that great American philosopher Groucho Marx on his game show You Bet Your Life. Groucho would ask the question, supposedly an easy one, to make sure each contestant would win something.
No one was ever to walk away empty-handed from a meeting with Groucho.

But it is a trick question. Grant’s Tomb is a mausoleum and, as such, no one is actually BURIED there. In a mausoleum, the remains are above ground. They are entombed, not buried. So the correct answer is that no one is buried in Grant’s tomb. However, both President Grant and his beloved wife, Julia Dent Grant, are entombed there. (Groucho would accept, "no one", "Grant", "Mrs. Grant" and all varieties of the above, as correct answers to the question.)

The story of Grant’s Tomb is an interesting one, too. There is such a place, of course. It is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is open to the public and staffed/maintained by the National Park Service. This is fitting, since Grant signed the bill establishing the first national park (Yellowstone) in 1872.

Grant’s Tomb was constructed using private funds raised by subscription. More than 90,000 people—mostly Americans, but many from countries around the world—contributed to the fund. Pennies, nickels and dimes flowed in and some $600,000 was raised. That’s a staggering amount (it comes to more than $12,750,000 in 2009 dollars).

Quite a tribute to this man.

It is hard for us to imagine how big a hero he was. Today we have “superstars” and people who are famous for being famous. That simply wasn’t the case then. The only real form of mass communication was the newspaper, and at the time of Grant’s death in 1885 most newspapers didn’t have images; some published line drawings or etchings, but that was about it. (Photos didn’t start to appear with any regularity until the early 1900s.)

But Grant was a hero; the only one to rival his popularity was George Washington. He was certainly bigger than Lincoln in his day.

Grant, not Lincoln, was viewed as the savior of the Union. “Look at the flag. If there are more than 34 stars there, thank General Grant.”

Before the war, he wasn’t that much of a soldier (although he did distinguish himself during the War with Mexico). He was drummed out of the service because of repeated instances of intoxication. The then went on to became not-much-of-a- farmer and not-much-of-a-tanner. After the war he became not-much-of-a-President.

But he did have one talent that no one else seemed to have: he could beat Bobby Lee. And that was a hellova talent.

His funeral procession through the streets of New York City was more than seven miles long, and included 3 Presidents and virtually every member of Congress and the Supreme Court. His pall bearers included Union Generals William Tecumseh Sherman (a close personal friend from before the war) and Philip Sheridan and Confederate Generals Joseph Johnston and Simon Bolivar Buckner (another close personal pre-war friend).

All this is timely because (1) we hosted "Butternut and Blue" yesterday and (2) today is the birthday of Ulysses Simpson Grant.

Happy birthday, General. And thank you.


  1. Kathy and I visited there when we went to New York last year. She made some kind of joke, and I said, "Don't be irreverent in Gran'ts tomb!" The park ranger turned around and said, "Why not? He was!"


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