Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The General Grant Tree

Ulysses S. Grant

Although there is no information about White House Christmas cards sent out by Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, and his wife, Julia, the Grant name has been connected with two important events involving Christmas itself. During his first presidential term in 1870, the former General in Chief of the Union Army signed into law the bill that had been introduced by Illinois Congressman Burton Chauncey Cook, making Christmas a legal holiday. The bill also declared that New Year’s Day, the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving Day would also be national holidays.


The other significant Christmas-related event involving Ulysses S. Grant was the naming in 1867 of a giant sequoia tree as the General Grant Tree (this took place two years after the end of the Civil War and two years before Grant was elected president). Located in California southeast of Yosemite National Park, in what is now called Kings Canyon National Park, the approximately 2,000-year-old tree today measures almost 270 feet high, 40 feet across its base with a circumference of 108 feet. In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the huge sequoia the “Nation’s Christmas Tree.” Three decades later, President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed the tree to be a national shrine and a living memorial to those who gave their lives serving the United States. Each Christmas, a wreath is laid at the tree’s base to honor the United States’ fallen war heroes.

Grant’s ascension to the presidency from his roots is an interesting and eventful saga. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio, he was the son of Jesse Root Grant and Hannah Simpson Grant. As a youth, he attended schools in both Ohio and Kentucky and also worked on his father’s farm tending to the family’s horses.


When Grant was 17, his Congressman, Thomas L. Hamer, nominated him for admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. An average student who specialized in horsemanship, Grant graduated from the Academy in 1843. Following a two-year stint on the southwestern frontier in Louisiana and Missouri, Grant fought in the Mexican War under the commanders General Zachary Taylor and General Winfield Scott. Although he was cited for bravery, Grant later wrote in his memoirs he felt the war was unjust in that it was waged by the United States against much weaker Mexico, purely to gain land for the purposes of extending slavery.


The Georgetown, Ohio boyhood home of President Grant, where he celebrated many Christmas holidays before enrolling in the United States Military Academy at West Point.

After the end of the war in 1848, Grant married Julia Boggs Dent, the sister of his West Point classmate and friend, Fred, whose life he had saved during the war. Over the course of the next 10 years, Ulysses and Julia would be blessed with their four children. His career in the army, however, was not a happy one. Grant served at posts in Michigan, New York, the Washington Territory, Oregon, and California. Since his salary was so low, Grant had to leave his family behind. Although he had reached the rank of captain, Grant suffered from depression because of isolation and homesickness. On July 31, 1854, he abruptly resigned from the Army, purportedly because he was found drunk while on duty and was threatened with possibly being court-martialed.


For the rest of the decade, Grant tried to support his family with various occupations while living near St. Louis, Missouri, and then in Galena, Illinois. He tried his hand at farming and working as a bill collector. Towards the end of 1857, the family was having such a difficult time financially that Grant had to pawn his watch and chain in order to purchase Christmas presents for his wife and children. It was while he was working as an assistant at his father’s leather shop in Galena in the spring of 1861 when the Civil War broke out. Grant excelled as a recruiter, and showing great leadership ability, he was quickly promoted to brigadier general that summer.

Grant distinguished himself in battles in Tennessee, prompting President Lincoln to exclaim, “I can’t spare this man. He fights!” Grant’s successes continued with the capture of Vicksburg in Mississippi, a victory that gave the North control of the Mississippi River, and proved to be a turning point in the war. Subsequently promoted several more times, Grant as supreme commander of all Union forces oversaw other generals’ strategies in the South and West as well as leading the campaigns in the East and forcing the main southern Army led by General Robert E. Lee to flee Richmond, the Confederate capital. Showing respect and caring, Grant accepted Lee’s surrender with fair and generous terms at Appomattox Court House in Virginia in April of 1865.


Grant remarked in his memoirs that the end of the war made him feel “sad and depressed” since he could not feel happy about defeating an enemy who had “fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause.” Days after the surrender, sadness was brought forth again as Grant had to be a pallbearer at the funeral of assassinated President Lincoln.

Most historians will agree that Grant was the perfect person to head the Union armies at the time when he did and that his career as a general was the apex of his public life. Following the war, Grant was made a full general by President Andrew Johnson and oversaw the demobilizing of the Union Army and the implementation of the Reconstruction period. Grant’s popularity as a war hero was so huge that at the Republican Convention in 1868, he was unanimously nominated for the office of President of the United States. Unfortunately, Grant’s ability as a politician left a lot to be desired.


The 270-foot high General Grant Tree located in California's Kings Canyon National Park. President Coolidge named the giant sequoia the "Nation's Christmas Tree" in 1926.

There is no information available concerning how the Grant family may have celebrated the Christmas holiday. Exchanging White House Christmas cards was not yet a standard practice and there is no mention of a White House Christmas tree being displayed in the executive mansion.


President Grant’s administration was filled with many men who were unsuited for the positions to which Grant named them due to the fact that he appointed personal friends and former army colleagues, who in general, were dishonest, corrupt, and/or totally unqualified. His own lack of skill dealing with the problems of Reconstruction and his indecisiveness regarding the economic issues which led to the Panic of 1873 did not help his prestige.

The biggest failures of his administration, however, involved the several scandals which ultimately reflected on the President himself, even though he was not personally involved in any of them. The Black Friday Scandal of 1869; the Whiskey Ring Affair in 1875; the Credit Mobilier Scandal involving Grant’s first Vice President, Schuyler Colfax; and the Sanborn incident linking his Secretary of the Treasury, William A. Richardson, to a tax collection scheme were all blights on his administration. Regardless of how corrupt or ineffectual things became, Grant unwisely remained loyal to his friends and to his political contributors who served themselves well rather than the President and the nation. Upon leaving office in 1877, he wrote to Congress, “Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”


After leaving the presidency, Grant and his family traveled around the world, finding that his popularity from being a war hero surpassed his regard as President of the United States. He privately was considering another run for the presidency in 1880 but ultimately – and wisely – lent his support to James A. Garfield, who was elected the 20th President. Grant’s political career had come to an end.


In 1881, former President Grant and his family moved to New York City where they had purchased a home. For income, the Grants lived off of money friends had raised for them. Unfortunately, the family’s entire portfolio was invested in a banking partnership whose funds were swindled, causing the Grants to be (as they were 25 years before) without financial resources. In addition to the family’s dire financial plight, it was also around this time when Grant found out that he was suffering from throat cancer. To compound the family’s problems, on Christmas Eve in 1883, the former president injured his hip after slipping on a sidewalk that was covered with ice. He quickly contracted pneumonia and suffered from boils and bedsores during his confinement.


In 1885, Congress voted to reinstate Grant’s full general ranking along with providing a decent salary. While terminally ill, Grant had been moved to Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, New York for health reasons, and this was where he spent his last days working on his memoirs, writing his recollections in longhand since he was unable to speak because of the cancer which was killing him. The well-received publication earned the family more than $450,000.

Ulysses S. Grant died on July 23, 1885 at Mount McGregor. His body, as well as Julia’s, lies in the large mausoleum called Grant’s Tomb, overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. (source: White House Christmas Cards)

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