John and his two sisters are the children of Julia Grant Griffiths. Julia (named after her maternal great-grandmother) was the daughter of Ulysses S. Grant III, the eldest son of Frederick Dent Grant, Ulysses S. Grant’s eldest son. Or, laid out a little more directly:
Ulysses S. Grant –> Fred Grant –> Ulysses S. Grant III –> Julia Grant Griffiths –> John Griffiths
Griffiths recalled a photo of the family seated on the front porch of Grant Cottage in upstate New York, taken during Grant’s last days. “There are two children seated in the front of that photo,” Griffiths told me. “One of them, a little boy dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, I knew very well. That was my grandfather.”
The other child was Griffiths’s great-aunt, Julia Dent Grant, who later went on to marry into Russian nobility. As Princess Cantacuzène, she wrote a detailed account of her grandfather’s last days as part of her memoir, My Life Here and There.
“My grandfather always wore a slight frown in those days, which grandmama would smooth out in passing with her tiny, beautiful hand,” Julia wrote of those last months. “He always gave her a smile then, and the cloud of trouble for the moment was raised.”
Young Julia’s brother, Ulysses III—John Griffiths’ grandfather—was three at the time the photo was taken. In 1949, Ulysses III returned to Grant Cottage as an adult to revisit the scene of his grandfather’s last days.
Griffiths, as a child, visited the cottage shortly thereafter. “I have only been to Grant’s Cottage once and it was back in the early 1950s,” he told me. “So, I don’t remember any thing about it, except that I think that my mother, two sisters, and I had our photo taken on the front steps.”
Talking with John, I’m struck by something his great-aunt wrote about their famous ancestor. “Only the eyes glowed or grew deep with humor and intensity . . .” she recalled, saying they “reflected sentiments and responded instantly with sympathetic light to what was going on round him.”
John, beneath the wide brim of his tall sun hat and nearly buried under his own beard, had those same sorts of eyes: alive, expressive, intense.
I often meet the descendants of soldiers who fought in the war, but not often do I meet the descendants of specific people I’ve written about. I’ve had a descendant of Stonewall Jackson hear me tell the tale of his last days, and now I’ve had a descendant of Grant hear me tell the tale of his last days. These are meaningful connections to me, linking my work back to the very real people who lived those poignant stories that I love to share so much.
Grant (and Jackson) should not exist to us today as the marble men history sometimes remembers them as: they were fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
And their family stories are still very much alive.
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Griffiths, who now lives near Fredericksburg, Virginia, was profiled by the local newspaper, the Free Lance-Star, back in 2009.