The Civil War General and 18th U.S. President lived in northwest Illinois for only a few years, yet two centuries after his birth his story remains enshrined in his former hometown.
When it comes to Presidential history, northern Illinois appears in many a journey to the White House. Of course, Abraham Lincoln’s connections abound, and Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama once lived here. Zachary Taylor visited during the Black Hawk War. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton grew up in the suburbs.
Then, there’s Ulysses S. Grant, a President and Civil War general who is widely celebrated in Galena, Ill. Although he lived there just a handful of years, they were years of immense consequence in his rise to fame.
Reminders of Grant abound in Galena, a city that’s been so well preserved over its 200-year history that more than 1,450 structures comprise the city’s National Register Historic District. Its historic charm is a big reason why thousands of people visit every year.
“It’s basically an outdoor museum,” says Steve Repp, a local librarian and historian who gives tours to local travelers. “If people of long ago could return and walk along the streets, most of the houses they would see would look very familiar.”
Were Grant to walk these streets, he, too, would recognize his brothers’ leather goods store, the homes where he lived, the site of his campaign headquarters, and the home of his good friend and patron, Elihu Washburne – among many other sites along the way. On the occasion of his 200th birthday, reminders of Grant’s time in Galena live on in many ways.
Lead and Leather
Ulysses S. Grant was born on April 27, 1822, in Point Pleasant, Ohio, a small outpost along the Ohio River roughly 25 miles southeast of Cincinnati. His father, Jesse Root Grant, ran a leather tannery and traced his ancestry to Puritan settlers.
Boastful and ambitious, the elder Grant often found himself at odds with his oldest son, who took after more of his mother’s quiet and even-tempered personality, according to Ron Chernow in his biography “Grant.” Jesse and Hannah were strict Methodists who eschewed drinking and dance, and they were both ardent abolitionists – which sometimes put them at odds with neighbors.
Always pursuing politics, Jesse and his connections gained Ulysses entry into West Point.
A young Grant served in the Mexican War alongside two future presidents, Franklin Pierce and Gen. Zachary Taylor. Collected in battle, ferocious to defend others and generally unassuming, Grant found himself torn between a love for his work and a longing for the woman with whom he’d fallen in love: Julia Dent, whose brother was Grant’s West Point classmate and whose father ran a St. Louis-area plantation.
Grant’s abolitionist parents disapproved of Julia and encouraged their son to come to Galena, where the family maintained a leather goods store.
The Galena area was settled by Indians and white traders before it became a bustling place around 1823. Veins of lead in the hilly terrain made Galena an attractive place for miners seeking their fortune, and it inspired the town’s name, which derives from the Latin term for lead sulphide. More powerful than Chicago at the time, Galena was still enjoying its heyday and the steamboat traffic that enabled its lead to travel up and down the nearby Mississippi River. It was those river connections that attracted the Grants’ business partner to the area in the late 1840s. Hides could be purchased in Illinois, sent downriver to the Grants’ Ohio tannery, processed and returned as finished goods. In time, the family also came to own stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
“They knew Galena had a lot going on, and people would need harnesses, hardware and other goods,” says Repp, who’s written a book on Grant’s time in Galena. “They set up shop there and did very well.”
Grant instead took his own path, choosing to resign from the military, marry Julia and establish himself in Missouri. He tried many jobs, but failure met him each time.
“His two brothers, Simpson and Orvil, were working in Galena, and one of them was pretty sick,” says Repp. “He had consumption, which we call tuberculosis, and he was in failing health.”
Finally heeding his father’s calls and desperate for money, Grant, Julia and their four children – Fred, Ulysses Jr. “Buck,” Nellie and Jesse II – arrived in Galena in April 1860. They rented a modest home at 121 S. High St., a modest three-bedroom home situated on a bluff overlooking downtown and far-off hills.
Repp’s research shows this was a happy place for the Grants, where father would wrestle the children upon his return home from work and read aloud to the family until late in the evening.
The Federal-style brick home today is a bed-and-breakfast where guests can stay for $250 a night. The Grants rented it for about $100 a year – a comfortable amount for a man making $65 a month.
“The census shows laborers were getting $35 or $40 monthly allowances,” says Repp. “Grant was getting $65 and I’m sure there were other benefits with it, because it was a family business.”
The family’s leather store was roughly a five-block walk, entirely downhill. Today, the building at 120 S. Main St. is home to a sock store, and a bronze plaque marks the site. Repp’s research shows that the Grants rented the storefront, part of the cellar, a back room and the entire third floor, in addition to a two-story brick building in back. The Coatsworth building, a Milwaukee cream-colored brick structure, has been lovingly restored and preserved.
“The back part of it was caved in, and they had to totally reconstruct this building,” recalls Repp, who’s lived in Galena since 1979. “This was really the turning point in Galena’s architecture, when people decided to preserve history.”
Just up the hill at 125 S. Bench St. is the Methodist church where the family worshipped. Still an active congregation, the church has marked the Grants’ pew with a flag and plaque.
Marching to War
When he wasn’t traveling the tri-state area on business, Grant worked as the store’s clerk, a position that didn’t excite him, but it did allow him to rub elbows with the locals. Given his military background, many were curious for his take on the nation’s growing sectional strife.
Among the locals Grant befriended were Ely S. Parker, a Seneca American Indian, and John A. Rawlins, a local lawyer. Both became key advisors to Grant during the war. His friendship with Congressman Elihu Washburne would benefit him many times in the years to come.
Abraham Lincoln’s election and the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter sent Galena into a frenzy. Friends turned to Grant and recruited his help in raising local troops. After years of stinging defeats, he had found a new vitality.
While Grant recruited soldiers from the countryside and arranged supplies, Augustus Chetlain, a local glass and crockery merchant, headed up the infantry. It was a ragtag group whom Grant drilled and trained, oftentimes exercising them on the lawn outside Washburne’s home at 903 Third St.
Less than two weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter, the Jo Daviess Guards paraded toward the train station on their way to Springfield and war. The train station today is home to the city’s visitors bureau and a scenic riverside park.
While his friends begged Grant to head up the local regiment, he deferred, instead setting his sights on a higher rank that reflected his military experience. Washburne petitioned Illinois Gov. Richard Yates, who at first deferred but eventually relented. Soon, Grant was called into the Federal army.
In all, Galena raised nine men who would become generals in the Civil War. In addition to Grant, Parker, Rawlins and Chetlain there was also William Rowley, a circuit clerk and sheriff; John E. Smith, a silversmith and jeweler; John C. Smith, a local building contractor; John Duer, a grocer; and Jasper Maltby, a gunsmith who eventually became military mayor of Vicksburg, Miss.
Julia and the Grant children stayed in Galena awhile, supported by the family’s leather store, but as the war dragged on they moved between her family in St. Louis, his family in Kentucky, and Grant’s shifting positions through Missouri, southern Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington.
A War Hero and the White House
As Grant stormed across the south, through places like Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Petersburg, Grant became a celebrated hero. People whispered that he’d be the next president. Businessmen in Philadelphia bought him a fully furnished home. Residents in Galena, never forgetting their friend, presented him a commemorative gold medal and a diamond-hilted sword.
Finally, on April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, all but assuring the end of the Confederacy. The historic moment was portrayed three decades later by painter Thomas Nast, whose work “Peace in Union” now hangs at the Galena and U.S. Grant Museum, located at 211 S. Bench St., in Galena. In addition to highlighting local history, the museum shares many stories of Galena’s generals and Grant’s military service.
Nast’s painting captures a quintessential trait of Grant, whom historians have noted was unassuming even in the most historic of times. While Lee is shown in his finest dress, Grant appears in a more ordinary jacket – just as he looked that day in Appomattox.
“They always said that if Grant were to walk up to you in a crowd, that you’d have to point him out,” says Repp. “He was down to earth, quiet, and that’s just the way he was.”
His victory in Virginia prompted Grant to tour the Eastern and Midwestern states that summer, and he found a hero’s welcome wherever he traveled. On Aug. 18, 1865, more than 10,000 people filled Galena’s Main Street and every window to welcome him home. Cannons boomed and a band played. A triumphal arch stretched from the DeSoto House Hotel to the other side of the street, its banner reading “Hail to the Chief Who in Triumph Advances.”
The crowds followed their hero across the river and up Bouthillier Street to a home purchased by 13 local businessmen who wanted to ensure the Grants had a reason to return. The home is now a state-owned historical site where tour guides explore the family’s lifestyle and recount their story year-round Wednesday through Sunday. Period furniture, most of it once belonging to the Grants, includes family portraits, statues and a personal library.
On the home’s east lawn stands a statue of Julia Grant.
“It was dedicated in 2006,” explains Katherine Walker, a Grant Home tour guide. “Some of the Grants’ descendants were back for the ceremony. There are about 150 descendants that we’re aware of.”
The Grants stayed in Galena until Sept. 12, 1865, and events in Washington would keep them away until August 1868, when Grant returned as his party’s nominee for President. Again, local residents greeted him with a brass band and cannon fire.
Rooms 209 and 211 at the DeSoto House Hotel, 230 S. Main St., became his campaign headquarters, although Grant himself did little campaigning, as was tradition at the time.
“His feeling was that, if it’s meant to be, it will happen,” says Repp. “And he was very quiet. He wasn’t boastful.”
As one of Illinois’ oldest operating hotels, DeSoto House has also welcomed dignitaries including Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who stayed overnight before his Freeport debate with Lincoln in 1858. Historical photos, a walking tour and nods to Galena’s history – including The Generals, a fine dining restaurant – continue to attract tourists.
On the evening of the Nov. 3 presidential election, Grant was at Washburne’s home with a gathering of locals who together watched election returns through a special telegraph line. Late into the night, when it was apparent Grant had won, local papers report he walked home and spoke to well-wishers outside.
The Grants left for Washington two days later.
A Life and Legacy
Galena men followed Grant through his two terms in Washington. Washburne served briefly as Secretary of State before becoming ambassador to France. Parker became the first American Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Rawlins served for five months as Secretary of War before he died of tuberculosis.
Though the Grants maintained their Galena home until their deaths, they returned only a handful of times after entering the White House. Visits in 1871 and 1873 were brief, with Grant telling well-wishers on the latter visit, “Circumstances have changed my destiny, and I have been burdened by the cares of office, so that I have been able to visit you only occasionally,” according to Repp’s research.
The Grants were gone another four years, returning briefly about a month after they left the White House. This, too, was a short visit because the couple were preparing for a worldwide tour through England, Europe, the Vatican, Africa, India and Japan. Mementos from the trip are on display in Galena.
After their trip the Grants came and went, stopping awhile in August 1880 while another presidential election was underway. Two months before, Grant’s supporters had called for a third term, but delegates instead selected Ohio’s James A. Garfield. Meeting with local Republicans at Galena’s Turner Hall that August, Grant was called to the stage.
“I shall return to Galena to cast a Republican vote for President of the United States; and I hope that the city of Galena will cast a Republican vote such as it never cast before,” Grant told the crowd, according to Repp.
The Grants’ final visit to Galena came in May 1883, when they stayed a few nights at the DeSoto House. Ulysses S. Grant died two years later, on July 23, 1885, shortly after completing his personal memoirs. He and Julia, who died in 1902, had taken up residence in New York. Their tomb overlooks the Hudson River in New York City.
Five years after the general’s death, former Galena resident and Chicago newspaper publisher H.H. Kohlsaat presented a bronze statue of Grant to the City of Galena and helped to secure the area at Johnson Street and Park Avenue that’s now known as Grant Park. The statue of Grant, carved by Danish sculptor Johannes Gelert, depicts the general as he would have looked upon his return in 1865. Along the statue’s pedestal is a list of Grant’s major battlefield victories.
Those who want to follow Grant for themselves can still find reminders of his life all around Galena. The Grant Home is open year-round, and tours include a quick overview of the general’s life and work. Grant’s brother Simpson, who died of tuberculosis in 1861, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Washburne’s home is a public historical site. Historical photos are hidden around DeSoto House and found on a Walking Tour brochure. Repp hosts his own walking tours and uncovers local history at the library. There are many more memories of Grant that await.
“Grant leaves a nice legacy here in Galena, in the White House, and in his life,” says Walker. “It was full of so many ups and downs. It’s just amazing.”
Most of the historical information in this article is gathered from the following sources:
• “Ulysses S. Grant: The Galena Years,” by Steve Repp. (Book is self-published. Contact author at Galena library to purchase a copy).
• “Grant,” by Ron Chernow