This past weekend a college buddy of mine, Marc, came up to Albany from New Jersey to pay a visit with his son, Jeremy. The last time Marc, a Marine Park native, was in Albany was 1983 and he does not remember ever being inside the Capitol. So a personal tour was necessary not only as an educational stop for Marc but also for his 13-year-old son.
In the lobby of the state Capitol is a brass plaque commemorating the time, 127 years ago, when Ulysses S. Grant lay in state for more than 15 hours as 80,000 mourners passed by the coffin to pay their respects to the 18th President of the United States.
Grant lived the final five weeks of his life in a friend’s cottage at Mount McGregor, near Saratoga Springs. He died from throat cancer on July 23, 1885. It took 12 days for his body to be prepared for burial and a special train transported the coffin to Albany. In the process, an elaborate bier to support the coffin was set up to receive the remains. The funeral procession of dignitaries included Governor David Hill and members of the State Legislature.
During this tour with my friend and his son, I hearkened back to the time a couple of years ago when I visited the Jewish Museum in Philadelphia and learned about another side of Grant.
It was one of the most blatant official episodes of anti-Semitism in 19th Century American history, namely General Order No. 11, which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.
On December 17, 1862, Grant angered Jews and non-Jews when he banished Jewish families from his military zones. He carelessly gave the order in an effort to stop the illegal southern cotton trade. President Abraham Lincoln, however, rescinded the order but allowed Grant to remain in command.
Prior to the order being rescinded, a group of Jewish merchants from Paducah, Kentucky, led by Cesar Kaskel, dispatched an indignant telegram to Lincoln, condemning Grant’s order as an “enormous outrage on all laws and humanity … the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it.” Jewish leaders organized protest rallies in St. Louis, Louisville and Cincinnati, and telegrams reached the White House from the Jewish communities of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
Kaskel arrived in Washington on Jan. 3, 1863, two days after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. There, he conferred with Adolphus Solomons, an influential Jewish Republican. Then he proceeded to the White House with Congressman John Gurley of Cincinnati. Lincoln received them promptly and studied Kaskel’s copies of General Order No. 11 and the specific order expelling Kaskel from Paducah. The President promptly ordered Grant to revoke the order, a request that was carried out three days later.
From that moment on, Jews across the country knew Lincoln was their friend. On January 6, a delegation met with the President, who told them: “To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad.” He drew no distinction between Jew and Gentile, the President said, and would allow no American to be wronged because of his religious affiliation.
Grant, who served as President for eight years, was largely credited with winning the Civil War after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox. He was a graduate of the Military Academy at West Point and served in the Mexican–American War.
Another New York connection with Grant, an Ohio native, was his Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish. Fish served as a governor and U.S. senator from New York prior to the Civil War. Under Grant, Fish implemented International Arbitration, settled the Alabama Claims with Britain and avoided war with Spain over the Virginius Affair. Grant’s attempted annexation of the Dominican Republic failed. His response to the Panic of 1873 and the severe depression that followed was ineffective. More than any other President, Grant had to respond to Congressional investigations into financial corruption charges in all federal departments.
In 1880, he made an unsuccessful bid for a third presidential term. His memoirs were a critical and popular success. Historians, until recently, have given Grant’s presidency the worst rankings; his reputation, however, has significantly improved because of greater appreciation for his enforcement of African-American voting and citizenship rights during Reconstruction.
On August 5, 1885 Grant’s remains were taken from Albany to Manhattan’s Morningside Heights for a funeral and burial in a National Memorial overlooking the Hudson River.
Grant’s memoir, which he wrote dying in upstate New York, was published by Mark Twain. It is considered among the greatest of military memoirs and the two volumes were an immediate bestseller.
Grant wrote until the last month of his life to leave a legacy for his family after being defrauded a year earlier of his estate. He is forever immortalized on the fifty-dollar bill.