Maybe he’s lonely, and that’s why it looks like he’s crying. The green patina on the bronze plaque has streaked with age and rain, creating what looks like tears on Ulysses S. Grant’s right cheek. I’ve known Grant to cry only once—documented by one of his staff members on the evening of May 5, 1864, after the first day of the battle of the Wilderness—but here, at his birthplace, it looks like he’s perpetually in tears. The expression on his face, perhaps meant to show grim resolve in battle, has been downcast by the shape of his mustache into a frown, adding to the sad effect.
The bronze bas relief is set in the bridge abutment of the northbound lane of Grant Memorial Bridge, one of several features that comprise the Ulysses S. Grant Birthplace State Memorial in Point Pleasant, Ohio, situated along the Ohio River about 40 minutes south of Cincinnati. In the southbound lane, another plaque offers the briefest-possible three-paragraph biography of Grant’s life:
Ulysses Simpson Grant was born on April 27, 1822. He was the victorious commander of the Union forces in the finals stages of the war of the rebellion and President of the United States March 4, 1869, to March 4, 1877.
He died at Mt. McGregor, NY, July 23, 1885. His parting message to his fellow countrymen that he served so faithfully was “LET US HAVE PEACE.”
He lies buried in a sepulchre of rare magnificence on Riverside Drive, New York City.
Aside from the bridge, there’s a small Grant Memorial Park on the east bank of the river and, across the street, the house where he was born in 1822. Built in 1817, the one-room house cost Jesse and Hannah Grant $2 a month to live there when they moved in in 1821. Today, the Ohio Historical Society operates the site seasonally.
The house is closed on the day of my visit, a week and a half shy of Grant’s birthday. It’s the sort of spring day that might feel fresh, with just-reddening buds adding highlights of color to the brown branches of the trees, but the clouds, like smoked-gray cotton, stuff the sky above to keep out the required sunlight that would make it cheerful. The grass, already deep green and shaggy, awaits its first cut. The house’s whitewash needs the winter crud washed off.
Grant was born here on this date, April 27, in 1822. As an infant in this home, as Mark Twain once mused, Grant concentrated “his whole strategic mind at . . . trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth.” Thinking about the house in such ways helps humanize it on this empty day. Inside, items that once belonged to the Grants populate the house and help tell the family’s story—something I’d like to someday come back and hear.
Despite the day’s overcast and the closed building, I’m glad I’ve made the trek down here to visit. I’m glad to have paid my respects, but more importantly, I’m glad for the reminder of just how humble Grant’s origins were. The man who would one day save the country in the Civil War, who would serve two terms as president, and who would become the most famous American in the world came from the absolute humblest of beginnings in a tiny speck along the Ohio River.
Who would guess this little white clapboard house would portend a different white house some fifty years later?