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Ulysses S. Grant’s Philadelphia

Detail. Grant’s Cabin. Lemon Hill Drive and Sedgley Drive, East Fairmount Park, February 21, 1950 (PhillyHistory.org)

Philadelphians did all they could to welcome Julia and Ulysses Grant to their newly-adopted city.

Not long after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Grants moved into the townhouse at 2009 Chestnut, a gift of, as Julia referred to them, “a number of strange gentlemen of Philadelphia” who spared no expense outfitting the place.

As we saw in our previous post, Grant thanked the city’s generosity by making an unusual gift:  the log cabin in City Point, Virginia where he directed the final months of the Civil War. Both the General and Julia had fond memories of the place, which also served as the family’s temporary home. According biographer Ron Chernow, “When Julia joined [the general there] …she domesticated the rough-hewn cabin…and took her meals on equal terms with his officers. She brightened up the table by draping a makeshift cloth over it and had a way of cheering the men with her vivacity and attending to anyone who was ailing.”

“I am snugly nestled away in my husband’s log cabin,” she once confided to a friend.

It must to have been a fond reunion, then, when the family, newly settled in Philadelphia, took the two-mile carriage ride from their new townhouse to Lemon Hill Drive in Fairmount Park where the cabin had been reassembled, log-by-log and brick-by-brick.

Grant’s Cabin. Lemon Hill Drive and Sedgley Drive, East Fairmount Park, February 21, 1950 (PhillyHistory.org)

But even without the presence of this “oversized souvenir,” as Thomas Hine would later call it, the Grants really had hoped to stay in Philadelphia.

“I have a horror of living in Washington,” the General privately admitted “and never intend to do it.” But, as Chernow relates, living in the District of Columbia “proved inseparable from high command.  [Grant] fantasized about living in Philadelphia and commuting to the capital weekly.” But “upon occupying the house in May [1865] Grant discovered he had woefully underestimated the time he had to spend in Washington. Predictably he became a prisoner of his heavy workload and Julia, after four years apart from her husband, hated being stranded in another city.”

The Grants also underestimated the cost of upkeep. And in November 1865, after only a few months in their Chestnut Street mansion, they “rented out the Philadelphia house … and relocated to Washington, decorating their new home, with furniture from Philadelphia.” For the next twenty years they rented out the Philadelphia house, finally disposing it in 1885 at auction.

Meanwhile, Grant’s cabin, which the Inquirer predicted would be “an ornament to Fairmount Park” and “an object of great historical interest to Americans” remained an attraction until it, too, lost its allure.

“In the 1940s and 1950s,” we learn from archaeologist David Orr, “ the cabin barely survived the threats of fire and vandalism; by the 1970s, correspondence between the National Park Service and the City of Philadelphia … culminated in a letter requesting the transfer of Grant’s Cabin to the National Park Service to relocate it to its original City Point site.”

“The 117-year-old cabin, rotting and scarred with graffiti,” reported The New York Times, “has been difficult for the city to keep secure.”

“It is a blessing it is going,” admitted John McIlhenny, historian for the Fairmount Park Commission, which voted in 1981 “to give the building to the National Park Service. I am certainly glad it’s going home” said McIlhenny. Once again a demolition crew numbered each log and chimney brick and cut “the larger pieces of the building…along the rafters and joints, so that they could be put on a truck.”

”We had to throw a lot of rotten stuff on the trash heap,” admitted Henry Magaziner, the historical architect. But what could be saved was shipped back to Virginia and “re-erected slightly askew” on its original site, as not to disturb archaeological assets.

Cabin used by General U.S. Grant during the Siege of Petersburg at City Point, VA. (Wikimedia.org)

Is Grant remembered in Philadelphia today?

About a mile from the former site of Grant’s Cabin, at the intersection of Kelly Drive and Fountain Green Drive, stands a monumental equestrian statue by sculptors Daniel Chester French and Edward C. Potter.

French, according to the Inquirer, selected the site “himself after a careful consideration of many available spots in the park.”

Grant, Kelly Drive at Fountain Green Drive, March 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

“We endeavored in the figure of Grant to give something of the latent force of the man, manifesting itself through perfect passivity,” said French. “The expression is sober thoughtful,” observed the Inquirer. “The spectator fancies that the man is pondering over some stupendous military maneuver. The work is rather restful than dramatic, a quality which gives to the bronze representation some small suggestion of that reserved force which was—according to those who know him best—the secret of Grant’s mysterious power over this troops.”

“If the statue impresses the beholder by its force as having character and stillness,” said French,” it will have fulfilled its mission.”

In 1896 the statue was cast in fourteen sections at the Bureau Brothers Foundry, 21st Street and Allegheny Avenue. And on April 27, 1899, it was ceremoniously unveiled.

Today (the day of this post) is 121 years after that dedication and 198 years since the birth of Ulysses S. Grant.

[Sources: Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017); David G. Orr, “Cabin in Command, The City Point Headquarters of Ulysses S. Grant,”  chapter in Huts and history : the Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment During the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier, David G. Orr, Matthew B. Reeves. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, [2006]); David Gerald Orr, “Work in Progress: The City Point Headquarters Cabin of Ulysses S. Grant,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 1 (1982), pp. 195-199; Thomas Hine, “Cabin Used by Gen. Grant Being Repatriated to Va.” The Inquirer, Sept 11, 1981; “The Grant Statue,” The Inquirer, September 26, 1897; “Gen. Grant’s Philadelphia House. The New York Times, May 11, 1885; “Grant’s Civil War Cabin Set to Move,” The New York Times, September 13, 1981.]

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