June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
For many years this oil portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant hung in the lobby of the Grand Union Hotel at Saratoga Springs, New York. During all of those years, while the man and his war and his Presidency grew dimmer in the mist of a half-forgotten past, American citizens presumably lounged past the ornate frame, looked up, vaguely recognized the General, and passed on without remark. The painting was made by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, who became a good friend of the General during the time consumed by the sittings. It was painted to show Grant as he was during the siege of Vicksburg.
As portraits of Grant go, it is a bit unusual. It shows a man careless of military display—he wears a major general’s insignia on a brigadier general’s uniform, one hand is jammed in a pocket, and the other hand holds a cigar instead of the conventional sword. It escapes being just one more picture of a bearded general because the artist did catch the essential Grant: the face with the sensitive, lonely eyes, over a mouth that is hard as a slit in a piece of steel plating. Balling apparently knew the man.
The portrait’s only failing is the one that is common to all portraits of U. S. Grant; it leaves out the overtones. Grant was supposed to be most unromantic and taciturn, but he had lived great pictures, and none of them ever got put on canvas—possibly because no painter ever really saw them or felt them. To paint Grant properly an artist would have to catch some hint of the hopes and ideals that other men put upon him, and although Grant himself understood these, no artist ever did, or could. In a way they were simple enough. Two scenes from the General’s life may illustrate the point.
The first: the evening of April 7, 1865, at the little town of Farmville, Virginia, when the Army of the Potomac was pursuing Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the campaign that ended two days later at Appomattox Courthouse. Reaching Farmville during the afternoon, Grant made his headquarters in a little hotel on the main street and took a seat on the porch, his staff around him, his order book in his hand. When evening came, bonfires were lighted all the way along the village street, and as the troops marched between the flames they saw the General, realized that final victory lay just ahead, and began to swing their caps and cheer. On impulse, some of the men broke ranks long enough to grab burning brands from the bonfires, and as the darkness deepened, there was an informal march-past that was half a grand review and half an impromptu torchlight parade—fires dancing and shimmering the length of the column, flags waving, bronzed young men yelling and laughing and stepping off as if all of the weariness of war had ended. Grant sat there, apparently unmoved, writing and sending off orders and dispatches. Sometime during all of this he wrote a letter to General Lee, calling on him to surrender.
It may be worth remembering that the troops rarely cheered Grant. He was both too remote and too matter-of-fact, and he had none of the little tricks generals use to arouse soldiers to enthusiasm; a newspaper correspondent once dubbed him “the unpronounceable man,” and soldiers like generals who can be pronounced easily. Grant always saw his army as a cross-section of the nation itself, and on this night the marching nation was passing in review.…
The next scene is different, yet with a haunting similarity. It came twenty years later, in July of 1885, at the little town of Mount McGregor, New York, on the fringe of the Adirondacks a few miles north of Saratoga Springs. Grant was coming to the end of the road; he was dying of cancer, he could no longer speak and every waking hour was agony, and he had taken a little cottage here to do the one job that remained for him to do—write his memoirs, so that he could leave some sort of competence for his family.
So once again, on these July evenings, Grant was sitting on a porch beside a dusty road in a small town, a writing pad on his knee and a pencil in his hand, busy at a job of writing, family and staff around him; and once again the nation was passing in review. For although the country by the 1880’s had consigned Grant to the semi-obscurity that is the usual lot of former Presidents, it was deeply stirred by the news of his final illness. During his last days thousands of visitors came to Mount McGregor, by train or by carriage or on foot, and every afternoon long lines of them would walk slowly past his cottage. There were no bonfires now and there was no cheering; now and then Grant would look up and nod, or wave his hand.
Grant was not too matter-of-fact to feel the impact of this. On one of his last days he wrote a little note: “Nothing has touched me more deeply than the daily spectacle of the crowds of people gathering about my door.… I hope I have always treated those who were not on the same side with me, both in the field and in politics, with justice. The men of the South I always looked upon as citizens of our common country.… I can say with truth that I never, even in the midst of duty, had any other feeling than that which one citizen should feel toward another.”
Grant died on the evening of July 23, 1885. That night there was an enormous thunderstorm, the echoes rolling and crashing among the mountains with a sound like the guns of Vicksburg, as if Nature itself were adding its final salute to the salute of the marching thousands.…
Those are the scenes that can’t get into the paintings. It is too bad they have to be left out. We can see the haunted eyes and the determined mouth; the man himself can only be felt.