In December 1864, philanthropist, abolitionist, and Presbyterian educator George H. Stuart made an offer to Ulysses S. Grant. “I incidentally asked him if there was anything I could do for him in Philadelphia.”
“No thank you,” quickly responded General Grant, who was occupied fighting the Civil War.
Then the General paused. “But on second thought, he said: ‘Yes, perhaps you can help me.’” Grant’s wife Julia, then in Burlington, New Jersey, had been “anxious to move to Philadelphia” had been “deterred by the high rates that are asked for houses.”
Could Stuart possibly help “get a furnished house ready for Mrs. Grant?”
The well-connected Stuart immediately reached out to monied friends and associates, including A.J. Drexel, George W. Childs, and Jay Cooke, and “found no difficulty raising the money” – $40,000 in all – the equivalent of more than $633,000 in today’s dollars.
Stuart and a few of his top donors wrote Grant a letter dated January 2, 1865 confirming their plan to buy a house: “It affords us great pleasure to present to yourself and family a house furnished and ready in our ‘city of homes.’ As citizens of Philadelphia, feeling that it would be a high honor to have you a fellow-townsman, we present it as a token of the welcome which our entire city extends to your family while you are still fighting the battles of the nation and which we will most heartily extend to yourself when the war shall be over.”
Ensconced in his sparse cabin at City Point, Virginia, Grant responded immediately: “It is with gratitude and pride that I accept this substantial testimonial of the esteem of your loyal citizens. … I will not predict a day when we will have peace again, with a Union restored, but that that day will come is as sure as the rising of to-morrow’s sun. I have never doubted this in the darkest days of this dark and terrible rebellion. Until this happy day of peace does come my family will occupy and enjoy your magnificent present. But until then I do not expect nor desire to see much of the enjoyment of a home fireside.”
Then Grant got back to the business of war.
Three days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, on April 12th, the group purchased the four-story brick townhouse at 2009 Chestnut Street, furnished it, stocked its dining room with “fine silver,” filled its closets with “snowy linen” and its larders with supplies. When Ulysses and Julia Grant arrived in the city on May 3rd, they had no idea the house was a fait accompli.
Stuart’s committee had arranged for “a handsome luncheon” welcoming the Grants at the house “the purchase of which had been kept as a profound secret from him and his family.” With another of his co-conspirators, Stuart went down to the Walnut Street wharf “to meet and escort General Grant and his family to their future residence. After reaching the house, where they were introduced to the ladies assembled,” related Stuart, “I suggested to Mrs. Grant that she go upstairs and take off her bonnet, which she thought was unnecessary, as they were only going to stay for lunch.”
“When all were assembled in the parlor,” Stuart continued, “I opened a silver case, which had been presented by J. E. Caldwell & Co., and which contained the handsomest engrossed deed that I had ever seen… Standing with my back to the fireplace opposite to General Grant as he sat upon the sofa, I said to him, ‘ Permit me, General Grant, to present you with a deed for this house and lot, from a few of your Philadelphia friends and admirers, with their best wishes that you and your dear family may live long to enjoy this your new home…”
The stunned General “arose seeming quite overcome with the gift, and, thanking us with tears in his eyes… Soon after, we repaired to the large dining-room, where a bountiful repast had been spread with all the delicacies of the season…”
“It will be gratifying for our citizens to know that Lieutenant General Grant will hereafter be a permanent resident of Philadelphia,” declared the Inquirer the following day. “He will vote at our elections, associate with our citizens, will doubtless take an interest in our municipal concerns, and in every sense of the word, will be a citizen of the city of Philadelphia.” And then the newspaper offered good wishes: “May the General’s future life in this city be as happy and peaceful as the past four years of his career have been stormy and tempestuous.”
The next morning, Stuart pulled up to the house in Chestnut Street in an open buggy to introduce the General to his new city. He introduced Grant to Independence Hall, where a crowd gathered, and Fairmount Park, where, as president eleven years later, Grant would ceremoniously open the Centennial Exposition. On this ride, Grant doubtless contemplated ways to thank the city for its generosity.
By mid-July, 1865, Grant had arranged a gift. “In return for the house which I was instrumental in presenting to him,” Stuart later wrote, “General Grant presented … the log cabin in which he had spent the last months of the war.”
This was no ordinary log cabin, according to Adam Badeau of Grant’s staff.
“The last four months of the rebellion . . . were passed by [Grant] within its walls. Here he received the reports of his great subordinates almost daily, and sent them each their orders and their rewards. Here he watched Sherman’s route as he came across the continent to the sea. . . Here he received the President, Gen. Sherman, Gen. Sheridan, Gen. Meade, and Admiral Porter. . . Here the last orders for all these generals were penned before the commencement of the great campaign which terminated the war.”
Where would Philadelphia install such a venerable souvenir? Possibly “one of the public squares of Philadelphia,” suggest one report. “Fairmount Park or Rittenhouse Square will be selected,” said another. Stuart “chartered a vessel to bring the cabin to Philadelphia” and by early August, a crew had re-assembled it on a bluff near Lemon Hill, overlooking the Schuylkill “exactly as it stood on the banks of the James River.”
“We now have in our midst,” reported the Inquirer of August 4th, “…no less a relic of General Grant than the . . . log cabin erected expressly for his head-quarters at City Point, Va. . . . This cabin will, as long as it can be kept together, be an object of great historical interest to Americans, and every visitor to the city will be desirous of viewing it.” Grant’s cabin immediately attracted “hosts of visitors.” Photographers seized the moment. Peregrine F. Cooper offered souvenir photographs individually and “$60 per thousand.” Cooper wasn’t the only photographer to visit Grant’s Cabin, which quickly became a staple of Philadelphia tourism.
[Sources: The Philadelphia Inquirer, “General Grant And Family Take Up Their Residence in Philadelphia,” May 4, 1865; “Presentation of a Log Cabin,” July 13, 1865; “From Fortress Monroe,” July 13, 1865; “Arrival of General Grant’s Log Cabin,” July 15, 1865; “Relic of the War – General Grant’s Log Cabin,” August 4, 1865; “Gen Grant’s Log Cabin,” August 8, 1865; [Advertisement] “A Fine Photographic View of General Grant’s Log Cabin at Fairmount Park, August 19, 1865; “General Grant’s City House,” December 16, 1879; George H. Stuart, The Life of George H. Stuart, Written by Himself (Philadelphia, J. M. Stoddard and co. 1890).]