By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved
On April 6, Mel Maurer, Chris Fortunato, and I went to Georgetown, Ohio to attend the ceremonial rededication of U.S. Grant’s boyhood home. Georgetown is just east of Cincinnati, about four and a half hours’ drive from Cleveland.
We arrived to find a large tent set up in the backyard of the home; a dozen Civil War-era replica flags snapped in the breeze. Burt Logan, the Ohio Historical Society’s executive director, and Mike DeWine, Attorney General of Ohio, made some dedicatory remarks, as did several local bigwigs, and then it was time to tour the house. It is two stories tall and, after a multimillion-dollar restoration project, looks great both inside and out. The house was built in 1824 for U.S. Grant’s father, Jesse Grant, when the future general was just two years old. “Sam” Grant lived there from 1824-39, when he left for West Point; the family moved away the next year. The house changed hands several times over the years and was eventually in danger of being razed when it was bought by John and Judy Ruthven, local benefactors, who eventually donated it to the Ohio Historical Society. It is now run by the U.S. Grant Homestead Association and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1985. We saw, from an OHS sign, that we were parked on the nearby site of the long-gone Grant tannery, and had the pleasure of meeting former CWRT President Jon Thompson’s brother, Jerry, and his wife, Louella.
The only piece of furniture in the house original to the Grant family, we learned, is a black horsehide couch in the parlor. There is a seated but moving and talking simulacrum of a young U.S. Grant (a bit creepy, I thought) in one room, who will describe memories from his childhood depending on whether you touch a brass compass, book, apple, or wallet on a table before him. After leaving the house (you can see it all, including a small gift shop, in half an hour), we took some time to walk around downtown, and saw the Grant statue on the courthouse square. The statue was dedicated last August.
One of the reasons we went to Georgetown was to see Ed Bearss, noted historian, author, and longtime honorary member and good friend of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. We had the chance to speak with him briefly at the Grant home. Bearss took the stage that afternoon at the Gaslight Theater, a somewhat run-down auditorium (truth be told, the whole town looks a bit rundown) not far from the courthouse, after a rousing Civil War sing-along. A local historian, in introducing Bearss, noted that he found 280 Google entries for his own public appearances, but 880,400 for Bearss, and that Bearss had even more now than last year. “I think he’s starting to pull away,” he joked. This was Bearss’s fifth visit to Georgetown, and he spoke about President Lincoln’s close cooperation with Generals Grant and Sherman during the Appomattox Campaign in the last days of the war. He discussed how, after Lee’s surrender, the President invited the General and Mrs. Grant to join the Lincolns for an evening’s entertainment at Ford’s Theatre. Mrs. Grant could not stand Mrs. Lincoln, though, and speedily decided it would be better to visit family in New Jersey, so the general had to give his regrets to Mr. Lincoln. Bearss wryly said, “U.S. Grant may have commanded a million and a half men, but he wasn’t the boss of his household.”
Mel, Chris, and I also visited the Grant Schoolhouse, a subscription school which the young Ulysses attended from 1827-38. It was rebuilt in 1926 and is now an OHS property. It included reproduction watercolors by then-West Point cadet Grant, including Horse and Wagon, Indians Bartering, and River Scene/Cityscape. They were not bad, but Monet and Bierstadt obviously had nothing to worry about. The schoolhouse includes several small displays about Grant’s boyhood, and a plank bench thought to date back to his school days.
Grant was born in Point Pleasant, about thirty miles to the west, but by the time we arrived there after Bearss’s speech late that afternoon, the house of his birth – even smaller than his boyhood home – was unfortunately closed for the day. We took a look around outside anyway. There is a small park nearby overlooking the Ohio River, and a modern bridge with miniature cannons and a brass plaque depicting a rather glum Grant in a beat-up old hat (“He looks like he’s going to rob a liquor store,” Mel said, and he was right).
It was a long day on the road for the three of us, but a good one. Anyone interested in Ulysses S. Grant, talented general and troubled President, should go see Ohio’s three Grant historic sites sometime.