(We’ll get to the answer, but groan….just groan.)
This week the History channel aired a 3 part documentary series on Ulysess S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States. Running 6 hours in total it was chock full of the wonderful facts that you’d want in a documentary.
- He didn’t actually have a middle name that began with S.
- Kids called him useless. That was mean, and a bit funny.
- His family growing up were anti-slavery abolitionists and he married into a slave owning family. His actual family was *not happy.*
- He started the Department of Justice.
- He wrote his memoirs under great duress while suffering from cancer at the end of his life.
- At the time of his death, he was the most popular American in the world.
The documentary is based on Ron Chernow’s 2017 tome on the president who has ended up with a bad rap as being a drunk who did not care about the masses of soldiers who died while he was the Union General during the Civil War. If the success of Hamilton has showed us anything, it’s that Chernow is really good at taking someone who history has maligned or ignored, and turning them into an approachable hero. That seems to be the overarching goal of this series. In true form with the current vibe of people with good sense, it also takes a nice little jab at the Lost Cause school of thought which sought to reimagine the Confederacy and the South as a noble cause. Leonardo DiCaprio is the executive producer and more likely names like Ta-Nehisi Coates and General David Petraeus offer commentary throughout. If you are actually going to devote six hours to this, just know, that like any good media on the Civil War, you will spend way more time than you want involved in military history. Personally, battle history can border on being a bit of a snooze fest. However, if you are going to look at battles, the Civil War is kind of the place to get happy- Antietam; Sherman’s March; Gettysburg; Vicksburg; Wilderness! Seriously, go get jazzed.
For those of us that stuck around because we are into the useless Grant (ha!) facts listed above, digging into the annals of your personal memory gives you some perspective. As someone who is into the idea of historical memory, I could agree with the repeated fact that Grant’s remembered as a drunk. But honestly, I had trouble placing him elsewhere in historical memory except for the fifty dollar bill.$ Then my good good New Yorker sense kicked in and took me back to the oft-repeated random riddle, “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” Monuments after all, are art, and since we can’t think of any fun Grant art, this will have to do.
Forgive my ignorance for the remainder of this post. I knew it was a riddle, but I never paid it much mind. Apparently it comes from an old Groucho Marx bit, and guess who wasn’t around to be the target audience for that joke? I thought the object lesson was supposed to be that Grant’s Tomb is uptown. If you’ve moved through that part of Manhattan, you’ve likely seen it. My most vivid memory is parking not too far away for a graduation ceremony, but otherwise it’s one of those large monuments that you can kind of just past and not pay too much attention.
Located at 122nd Street and Riverside Drive in New York, NY the General Grant National Memorial is currently maintained by the National Parks Service. According to their site it is the largest mausoleum in the United States. It was designed by John H. Duncan who is also responsible for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. Construction on the tomb was completed in 1897 according to my detailed Wikipedia research. There are classic ionic columns and ever-present Guastavino tile featured inside. Facts that may surprise native New Yorkers who did not take a school trip to the tomb– you can actually go inside when it’s not the middle of a pandemic. And there you will find the answer to the cringiest riddle of them all.
No one is buried at Grant’s tomb. That’s it. That’s the joke. Grant is not even buried, as it’s a mausoleum. However, he and his wife Julia, are entombed above ground as sarcophagi in the crypt. kw
A more recent art addition to a visit to Grant’s tomb would include a 17 bench public art project entitled The Rolling Bench. God bless the 1970s. The project was by artist Pedro Silva and architect Phillip Danzig and features the art of school children. It was completed over a 3 year period. The benches and the mausoleum don’t match, but it’s lovely for historical periods to speak to each other. Precious. Just precious.
$–> Grant was a president, but Hamilton was not and ended up on U.S. currency. Everything points back to The Wire. Plus points if you know the scene I’m referencing. (tip–> I’m still in the middle of season 2).
kw–> Sarcophagi is the plural of sarcophagus. Kanye may be the only person to have rapped that word.