The General Grant National Memorial, commonly called Grant’s Tomb, is the largest mausoleum in the United States. It honors the memory of Ulysses S. Grant, head of the Union armies in 1864 and 1865 and president of the United States from 1869 to 1877.
General Grant National Memorial
Riverside Drive and 122d Street
New York, NY 10003
ph.: (212) 666-1640
Web site: www.nps.gov/gegr/
Superintendent, General Grant National Memorial
26 Wall Street
New York, NY 10005
It is difficult now to imagine the incredible esteem in which Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was held in the Union states between the Civil War and the beginning of World War I. He and the martyred President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) were almost universally viewed as the two men who had personally restored national unity and honor. Despite scandals created by members of his government during his eight-year service as the eighteenth president of the United States (1869 to 1877), the American public never held Grant personally responsible for the problems in his administration. The posthumous publication of his Personal Memoirs (1885), which he completed just before his death on July 23, 1885, reinforced the accepted belief that he was a heroic figure who had served America well during his long military career, which extended from 1843 to 1868, and during his eight years as president. He died from throat cancer. Contemporary reports indicated that he reacted stoically to his inevitable and painful death. His inner courage further increased the public admiration for General Grant.
Although Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio, his adopted state was New York. He had extensive connections with New York State; he attended the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, from 1839 to 1843, and he moved permanently to New York City after his presidency ended in 1877. He entered business in Manhattan and was very well respected throughout New York City. In October, 1884, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. At that time, doctors could do very little to treat cancer (chemotherapy did not exist), and it was obvious that General Grant would not live long. In June, 1885, General and Mrs. Julia Dent Grant went to Mount McGregor in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, where he died on July 23, 1885.
The public mourning was appropriate for a fallen military hero and president. His body lay in state first in the capitol in Albany and then in City Hall in New York City. The three living presidents–Grover Cleveland, Chester Arthur, and Rutherford B. Hayes–and over one million spectators viewed the funeral procession from Fourteenth Street to Riverside Park on 122d Street, where he was buried. Contemporary reports indicate that this funeral procession, with sixty thousand marchers, lasted five hours. The only funeral procession comparable to it was the funeral procession twenty years earlier for Abraham Lincoln.
Soon after General Grant’s death, a need was recognized for an impressive monument to honor the memory of such a respected military leader and president. General Grant had been buried in a temporary tomb in Riverside Park on August 8, 1885. John Duncan, a leading American architect of that era, was hired to design an appropriate mausoleum. The General Grant National Memorial was formally dedicated in the presence of President William McKinley and Grant’s widow Julia on April 27, 1897, which would have been Grant’s seventy-fifth birthday. At that time, his coffin was moved from its temporary tomb into a sarcophagus in Grant’s Tomb. Next to General Grant’s sarcophagus is an identical sarcophagus in which his wife Julia Grant was buried on December 21, 1902.
An impressive ceremony was held on April 27, 1997, to rededicate this memorial to an American hero who is still greatly respected more than one hundred years after his death. During the decades immediately after its dedication in 1897, this shrine to a war hero was visited by very large numbers of Americans, and thousands of people still visit Grant’s Tomb every year. According to the National Park Service, which is responsible for maintaining this national memorial, almost 100,000 people visited Grant’s Tomb in 1996. There is a visitors’ center next to the mausoleum, which explains to visitors the importance of Ulysses S. Grant’s role as president and military leader.
A monument as massive as Grant’s Tomb was very expensive to build. This one was financed by contributions by ordinary American adults and children, who admired him so much that they recognized the need to honor this military and political leader who had done so much to preserve the republic. As designed by John Duncan, Grant’s Tomb is a very impressive building whether seen by visitors to Riverside Park itself or by passengers on the tourist boats which circle the island of Manhattan. There is a large plaza in front of the mausoleum itself. To the right and the left of the front of Grant’s Tomb are two large flag poles. From one hangs a four-star flag to honor Ulysses S. Grant, who was a four-star general. The American flag hangs from the other pole. The exterior of the monument is made of gray granite, and the interior is made of white marble. This mausoleum is set on a square base, each side of which is ninety feet long. Three sets of steps lead to the entrance of the mausoleum. On the sides of the first level of steps are two large granite eagles, the traditional American symbol. On the second level are six massive Doric columns which support the front of this monument.
On the third level are two large bronze doors, which are open during operating hours. Each massive door is 16 feet high and 5.5 feet wide. The solemnity of the entrance definitely creates the impression that the visitor is about to enter a place of reverence. The circular dome on the top of this monument is supported by twenty-four Ionic columns in a circle. The dome itself rises 150 feet above the level of the plaza. An interior staircase allows visitors to reach the dome. The exterior of Grant’s Tomb is massive and very impressive. It is not surprising that it is still considered one of the most beautiful landmarks in New York City.
The interior of Grant’s Tomb is equally magnificent. Everything inside creates an impression of solemnity and serves to remind us that General Grant’s most significant accomplishment was as a military leader who won the Civil War and restored national unity and peace to the entire United States. The interior marble stairway leads to two different levels. As a visitor walks down toward the crypt, where the sarcophagi of General and Mrs. Grant are located, he or she sees rooms on whose walls are displayed maps for major Civil War battles in which General Grant participated. In each room are battle flags to honor Union soldiers from different states who fought under General Grant during the Civil War. The states honored in these trophy rooms are Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana, Missouri, and Wisconsin. The American flag is proudly displayed at the top of the stairway, flanked by the state flags of Ohio and Illinois. These two state flags were chosen because Ulysses S. Grant was born in Ohio, and he lived for some time in Illinois.
The crypt itself is circular. Visitors view the sarcophagi of General and Mrs. Grant from above, standing behind a circular balustrade, a railing supported by beautifully carved supports. The sarcophagi themselves are located equidistant from the floor of the crypt and the top of the balustrade and in the center of the crypt. The two gray and maroon sarcophagi rest on a base of the same color. The base and the two sarcophagi are all made from Wisconsin porphyry, which is a hard rock, usually red maroon in color. It has been estimated that each sarcophagus weighs nine thousand pounds. On the top of the left sarcophagus, the words “Ulysses S. Grant” were carved in 1897 and the words “Julia D. Grant” were added in 1902 after her death. The beauty of the sarcophagi and the simplicity of the inscriptions on them indicate to visitors that this is a solemn site for Americans because it is a visual reminder of the incredible sacrifices made by Americans during the Civil War, in which more Americans died than in all other wars combined.
In the niches in the outer walls of the crypt are busts of five Civil War Union generals and fellow West Point graduates. The generals honored along with General Grant are Generals Philip Sheridan, William Sherman, James McPherson, Edward Ord, and George Thomas. All five generals served under Grant’s command during the Civil War. The visitor gradually comes to realize that this is not simply a national monument to honor the memory of Ulysses S. Grant but also a monument designed to honor all Union soldiers who fought and died during the Civil War.
On the walls in the Memorial Room are several paintings depicting major battles of the Civil War, including Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. Other paintings depict Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox on April 10, 1865. There are also bas-relief statues, i.e. statues which barely protrude from the wall, depicting important scenes in the military and political careers of General Grant. Inside the monument also are several allegorical statues and paintings depicting such images as the tree of life, a military helmet, which represents his service in both the Mexican and Civil Wars, an olive branch to symbolize the peace which Grant restored to the United States, and a laurel wreath, which refers to his death. Outside the mausoleum are two trees surrounded by an iron fence. A plaque by the fence indicates that the ginkgo tree and the Chinese cork tree were gifts from the Chinese government. These trees were planted just one month after the dedication of Grant’s Tomb.
A visit to Grant’s Tomb produces unexpected reactions. A naïve tourist might think that Grant’s Tomb is little more than another historical landmark in a city filled with important historical buildings and landmarks, but Grant’s Tomb is very different from other presidential gravesites, which simply honor the memory of the president who is buried beneath the tombstone or monument. Grant’s Tomb pays homage not only to General and Mrs. Grant but also to all who sacrificed and died during the Civil War in order to restore national unity. The presence of busts honoring five Union generals serves to remind visitors that Grant would never have won decisive battles during the Civil War without the guidance of fellow generals and the heroism of soldiers who fought and died under their command. A visit to Grant’s Tomb, like a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, helps people to understand the enormity of the sacrifices of those who risked their lives in the service of America.
Carpenter, John A. Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Twayne, 1970. Laird, Archibald. Monuments Marking the Graves of the Presidents. North Quincy, Mass.: Christopher, 1971. Lamb, Brian. Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb: A Tour of Presidential Gravesites. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. Ross, Ishbel. The General’s Wife: The Life of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1959. Woodword, W. E. Meet General Grant. New York: Horace Liveright, 1928.