- Historic Sites
The Battle for Grant’s Tomb
It might seem that building a mausoleum to the great general would be a serenely melancholy task. Not at all. The bitter squabbles that surrounded the memorial set city against country and became a mirror of the forces straining turn-of-the-century America.
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
There was trouble on other fronts as well. In 1890 the local rivalries that continued to shape national politics, supported by strong antimetropolitan sentiment, exploded in New York’s face. There had always been some ambiguity about where Grant’s Tomb should be. Grant died a resident of New York, but he hadn’t lived there at all before becoming President. Indeed, he came to Manhattan only after returning from his extensive world tour in 1879, a mere six years before his death.
But Grant did make the suggestion himself. In July 1885, knowing he was dying, the general handed his son, Col. Frederick Grant, a slip of paper on which he had written a few sentences. He indicated three possibilities for his grave. Illinois was one because it was there he received his first general’s commission. West Point was a second, but it was not suitable because his wife could not be buried beside him. And New York was the third because, in Grant’s words, “her people befriended me.” New York was eager for the honor, and within days of the general’s death a committee of New Yorkers took Grant’s son on a tour of various burial spots. Family agreement was secured; Mrs. Grant was especially supportive. New Yorkers immediately began to raise money. Not everyone was happy, particularly residents of other cities and states that resented New York’s pretensions. But for the moment they had to accept the inevitable.
Five years later, however, there was room for doubt. Grant still lay in a temporary tomb; distracted by other things and hampered by ineffective leadership, the Monument Association had raised only a third of the necessary funds. Disgruntled Grant loyalists grumbled that their hero was being insulted by a group of lackadaisical New Yorkers. In mid-1890 Preston B. Plumb, a United States senator from Kansas and a Civil War veteran himself, introduced a bill requesting the removal of Grant’s remains to Washington for burial at Arlington Cemetery. One month later, in August, the resolution passed the Senate and its sponsors immediately introduced it into the House of Representatives.
The New Yorkers, of course, were infuriated and resentful. As intense lobbying began, the New York delegation defended the association’s conduct and tried to explain away the delays. The city, after all, had been generous to disaster victims of the Johnstown flood and the Charleston earthquake, and it was outrageous to charge it with apathy. Defenders, including Rep. Rosewell P. Flower, Tammany Democrat and future governor of the state, sprang forward to champion the patriotism, altruism, and compassion of New York. Congressman John Raines, stimulated by the fact that the House resolution requesting removal had been introduced by a Pennsylvania congressman named Charles O’Neill, ransacked history to reveal that “when Pennsylvania was trembling with fear the citizen soldiers of New York rushed to her rescue. Call the role of the regiments who stood for three days at Gettysburg,” Raines cried, “and it would be found that one-third of them were from New York.”
Other New Yorkers joined the battle, one seeing in the resolution attitudes that “savored of a rancorous spirit,” flying in the face of tradition, “something abnormal and monstrous.” Many national heroes—George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Giuseppe Garibaldi—lay buried at their homes. New York had been Grant’s home, and it was absurd to contemplate removal. They added that the Bunker Hill Monument had taken some seventeen years to complete; the Washington Monument, thirty-seven. The Grant delays had been minimal.
Such arguments did not melt the opposition. Resentful or suspicious of New York’s greatness, congressmen from elsewhere insisted that more people would visit Grant’s body if it lay at Arlington. He deserved to be buried within sight of the Capitol. They argued that newspaper sentiment favored removal and added that the New Yorkers defending Gettysburg had also been defending New York. And New York was not the only state to contribute to Johnstown flood victims.
Not since Napoleon’s remains came home to France, said a witness, had a ceremony equaled “in solemnity and importance” the tomb’s dedication.
In the end, after impassioned speeches, the resolution was defeated late in the year by a margin of almost three to one; 92 congressmen supported it, 134 opposed. Democrats were particularly strong in their opposition to removal. But New York took note of its major regional enemies—Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois—and their leading figures, including William McKinley, who had demonstrated how eager they were, “in all matters, to vote against the wishes of the metropolis.” Resentment of the big city would continue to be a factor in American life, as would New York’s contempt for the hinterlands.