From my seat under the authors’ tent, I look across the paved driveway to the spot on the cottage porch where Ulysses S. Grant often sat in his chair, writing. The chair itself now sits inside the corner room of the cottage—the room where Grant died—but in its place on the porch, an empty rocker marks the spot. Next to it, on an easel, stands a blow-up reproduction of the famous image of Grant in a shawl and stocking cap sitting in that spot, working on his book.
That image of Grant was taken on June 27, 1885. Photographers snapped another on July 20, the day he finished his book, three days before he died. In that one, he sits in the same spot, reading a newspaper. He wears a top hat made of beaver skin and reads through small round glasses. It’s the photo of Grant that appears on the cover of the book I’m here to sign as part of Grant Cottage’s season-ending special event and encampment.
Much activity swirls around me. To my left, a woman in period dress tells the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy who lived in Richmond. To my right, a token Confederate soldier shows off his equipment at the children’s tent while other kids try to catch tossed rings on a pair of sticks as part of an 1860s-era game. Behind me, a modern sutler sells Civil War-era items, including editions of Grant’s memoirs and Phil Sheridan’s, too.
A Union encampment fills a small clearing, and on the opposite end of the lot, a Civil War Navy band plays under a tent. Later, there’ll be a bluegrass band that will play on the cottage porch. Among their period tunes, they’ll slip in Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and the theme from “Rawhide.”
There’s a main event tent, too, where a cadre of living historians representing various Union generals will hold press conferences at 11 and 1, recounting their various battlefield exploits. I’ve seen a Grant, and also a Horace Porter, a Joshua Chamberlain, and a portly Phil Sheridan.
With me beneath the tent are historians Robert Conner and Steve Trimm. Both work as guides at the Cottage, and both are here today to sign books. Bob recently published a biography on Gordon Granger, and Steve wrote the definitive history of Grant Cottage.
Steve also spends a lot of time standing in as Grant—or sometimes as Grant’s son Fred—at living history events at the Cottage. He gets to “be” Grant. It’s little wonder, then, that Steve admires Grant so much, although that wasn’t always the case. He’d had an ancestor killed at Shiloh in the long-ago, and Steve blamed that death on Grant’s “gross negligence” in being ill-prepared for battle.
That entre into Grant’s story led to a transformation in Steve’s attitude: He’s come to admire Grant so much that he serves as a Grant proxy for first-person programs.
Steve’s in his “civilian” attire today, though, filling the role of author. Dozens of people file by the tent to talk with us. By day’s end, more than three hundred visitors will come by—a single-day best for the Cottage.
“Some time, tho, you ought to see the Cottage on an ordinary day,” Steve later tells me. “You know, with an audience taking in a porch chat, small groups touring through the Cottage, and quiet periods when the volunteers get to just hang out on the porch and talk. The routine days, I think, are what keep the volunteers coming back.”
The Cottage is, I’ve come to know, an extraordinary place. This marks my third time here, and each visit has offered me a poignant glimpse into a story I’ve come to love. Steve and Bob—and a dozen other volunteers—are both caretakers of that story, sharing it with visitors who make the trek to the top of Mt. McGregor. I’m a caretaker of that story now, too—and I’m honored to have the responsibility.
Near the end of the afternoon, I slip away from the tent to pay my respects to the general. A small group of visitors waits on the porch for the next tour, but I’m waved in. I squeeze past another small tour group in the entry room, and yet another in Grant’s room where he did most of his writing. In the front parlor, the room where Grant eventually died, another group is spread out on carpet runners that are fighting a rear-guard action to protect the threadbare original.
I make my way to the foot of the bed where Grant died. It sits in the northern corner of the room. A portrait of Lincoln hangs above it, with a portrait of Grant hanging several feet away on the same wall. I could touch the bed if I wanted, it’s so close—but to do so, I think, would be disrespectful. I’m not a tourist here to paw holy relics.
To my right, Grant’s favorite chair sits in its corner. Once, it sat just outside on the porch. There, Grant wrote his book, defined his legacy, and saved his family from financial ruin—monumental tasks for a dying man.
His seat, now empty, invites us to sit a spell—at least metaphorically—and consider that story for ourselves.