By Jillian Risberg
As Union general he led the United States to victory over the Confederacy during the American Civil War and served two terms as the 18th president. This enduring American hero, commemorated with the largest mausoleum in the free land — takes center stage in award-winning author Louis Picone’s third book, Grant’s Tomb: The Epic Death of Ulysses S. Grant and the Making of an American Pantheon.
“It started off for me as a fascination with the tomb and from there I discovered the (compelling) story in his final battle to write his memoirs,” Picone says. “I had always admired Grant and felt he didn’t get a fair shake in history and for years was regarded as one of the worst presidents. Thought there was a great story there that hadn’t been told before.”
According to the author, for years that Southern lost cause narrative really defined Grant and in presidential pollings until the mid-90s he was considered fourth from the worst (below Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan).
“You couldn’t have a righteous Southern cause and still have Grant as a hero,” he says. “Grant’s reputation during the Civil War: butcher, lucky and a drunk. As president he was stupid and corrupt.”
For the book, Picone interviewed Frank Scaturro, who has a life-long fascination with Grant.
“In all my research of presidential places, I’ve rarely seen where a private individual has done so much, without any ulterior motive to save a presidential site as important as Grant’s Tomb,” says the author of Scaturro, at the time a student at Columbia, which is blocks from the general’s resting place where the young man volunteered and ultimately wrote the mayor, governor and president a 325-page report about all the horrors that occurred there.
From the mid-60s until it was restored in the mid-90s by the National Park Service, Grant’s Tomb was a seriously dangerous — and constantly vandalized, crime-ridden location. There were congressional efforts to move the tomb, the family wanted to but it was amazing what that patriotic citizen pulled off.
It took 12 years to build, and once the tomb was completed in 1897 it was the number one tourist attraction in New York City. More people went there than the Statue of Liberty.
It’s now a distant public memory except for the Groucho Marx joke, ‘Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?’
“Anyone who has been to Grant’s Tomb you know it’s uptown on the outskirts of Harlem, in the Morningside Heights area,” Picone says. “The fact that so many people made the journey and went there (makes it) even more impressive.”
As president, Grant was an effective civil rights executive who created the Justice Department.
“There were definitely scandals in Grant’s presidency; he trusted too much in people who didn’t warrant that trust, who had betrayed that trust,” says Picone. “What he did during Reconstruction was a noble effort. The KKK started to form and use violence and intimidation to suppress the free slaves who were trying to exercise their civil and voting rights.”
Grant sent the military down south, thousands were arrested and the KKK was decimated.
“It didn’t rise again until the early 1900s,” the author says Grant’s reputation is being re-evaluated as a Civil War hero (150th anniversary since the Union’s victory) — but also as a president.
Picone says Reconstruction is a huge part of Grant’s legacy.
“He ran on a platform advocating for native American rights; was a great statesman and probably the first president to use international courts to solve a Civil War issue with England over the sinking of a ship, the Alabama that was potentially going to fester into another war with England,” says the author.
It was seen as a revolutionary move that predated the United Nations by 70 years.
Grant had this interesting trajectory of his reputation and Picone parallels it to the tomb because when Grant died and towards the last years of his life, even 20 years later, he became perhaps the most popular man in America, even the world.
“Beloved by both the North and south; in the generation after the Civil War when the country was still greatly divided,” the author says. “Grant, as a person and Grant’s Tomb became an important site for reconciliation and reunification.”
With the country so divided over systemic racism during the past year Grant as a unifying figure couldn’t be more timely.
“It probably became the only site in America where you’d have Confederates, unions go to pay their respects, white Americans, African Americans, Democrats and Republicans, men and women,” says the author. “He could appeal to all factions of the country. There was nobody else like Grant and no other site like Grant’s Tomb in that regard.”
He was put on a pedestal alongside Washington and Lincoln, as among the men who saved America, according to Picone.
“His reputation was sky high the generation after he died,” the author says. “But with the rise of the Confederate Lost Cause mythology that brought these Confederate monuments to the narrative (in the early 1900s); the ‘Birth of a Nation’ movie which drove a lot, Grant’s reputation started to crater and Robert E. Lee’s skyrocketed.”
Monuments have come under such scrutiny, including Grant’s Tomb — which the author writes about.
“It kind of lined up almost perfectly with what was happening in history but definitely wasn’t the intention,” says Picone. “One thing I hadn’t considered is next year will be 200 years since Grant was born. That, and Grant’s special on the History Channel last year and the re-evaluation of the Reconstruction Period, there’s this renewed focus on Grant.”
The author has spoken widely on the topic of the presidents and places we commemorate them. He is an adjunct professor of history at William Paterson University.
“History and presidential history came to me later in life,” Picone says, adding his 15-year interest quickly became an obsession.
He maintains a nine-to-five job as an IT professional, but is thrilled the new book is connecting with people.
“The response has been wonderful; it’s inspiring them to learn more about Grant, visit the tomb; that’s been the best part for me,” says the author. “Grant has risen from fourth from the bottom to now number 20, the highest he’s ever been in these rankings. I think Grant’s Tomb is a testament to that.”