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Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb? by Susan Claffey

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 9, Number 5

Answer: No one.

The General Grant National Memorial overlooks the Hudson River in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, near Columbia University. Grant's Tomb (as it is commonly called) is both the final resting place of General Ulysses S. Grant and a memorial to his life and accomplishments. His wife, Julia Dent Grant, also is entombed—not buried—there.

Why New York City? Because, after his Presidency, Grant lived in Mount McGregor, NY, until his death from throat cancer on July 23, 1885—four days after completing his memoirs. On August 8, 1885, more than a million people attended the funeral procession, which was seven miles long and lasted five hours. It featured Confederate and Union generals riding together, President Grover Cleveland, the Cabinet, all the Justices of the Supreme Court, and virtually the entire Congress.

Almost immediately, a public foundation formed to fund a memorial. Within just two years, approximately 90,000 people from around the country and the world donated more than $600,000 to construct Grant’s tomb. At the time, it was the largest public fundraising effort ever. As a side note, the Washington Monument was funded in a similar way, starting in 1833, but the cornerstone was not laid until 15 years later, on July 4, 1848. The Civil War and politics further delayed the project, and so it languished for another 40 years. It was President Grant who signed the legislation that ended the political bickering and brought construction of the Washington Monument under government funding and control.

Designed by architect John Duncan, Grant’s Tomb was completed in twelve short years and remains the largest mausoleum in North America. Over one million people attended the parade and dedication ceremony on April 27, 1897, the 75th anniversary of Grant's birth. The dedication parade, led by President William McKinley, was almost as large as Grant’s funeral parade two years earlier.

Despite the fact the site is part of the National Park Service system, it was soon neglected and by the 1990s, it was in a severe state of deterioration and disrepair. It was then that Columbia University law student and part-time tomb tour guide, Frank Scaturro, rose to action. He wrote unsuccessfully to supervisors at the National Park Service, so he went public. He contacted the Philadelphia Inquirer and members of Congress with his story about the dismal conditions at the tomb. He caused a furor among Grant's descendants and the Illinois state legislature, who threatened to have the remains of President and Mrs. Grant moved and re-buried in Illinois. This embarrassed the Park Service into spending $1.8 million to restore the memorial, provide for its upkeep, and increase security monitoring. When the work was completed, a re-dedication was held on April 27, 1997, the centennial of the original dedication, as well as the 175th anniversary of Grant’s birth.

The granite and marble domed monument consists of a main lobby overlooking a lower sanctuary above the tombs. They are guarded by busts of Civil War generals Sherman, Thomas, McPherson, Sheridan, and Ord. Mosaics surround the interior dome, depicting Grant’s victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, in addition to "Victory" and "Peace" by J. Massey Rhind. The dome’s oculus permits natural light to bathe the twin red granite sarcophagi of the President and Mrs. Grant. The monument’s design was based on that of Les Invalides in Paris, where Napoleon is buried, and uses the same red granite as that of Napoleon’s tomb.

Our thanks to Ms. Susan Claffey for this article. Susan is Director of Contracting for Group Services of America’s Blood Centers, holds an MBA, and is past president of the Civil War Roundtable of the District of Columbia.

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