In the third and final part of the series on Ulysses S. Grant and his Kentucky connections, Kentucky Life spoke to historians about Grant’s time as president and his life after the presidency.
“After Appomattox, Grant retained his position as general in chief and his headquarters were in Washington D.C.,” says historian Charles W. Calhoun. “It must be said that he didn’t find peace there because what the country was witnessing was a great wrangle between President Andrew Johnson and the Republicans in Congress over the question of Reconstruction.”
“Grant was very concerned during the presidency of Andrew Johnson that Reconstruction was not protecting the rights of African Americans,” says James A. Ramage, Regents Professor Emeritus. “He felt that he had to run for president to preserve the freedoms won for African Americans in the South.”
In 1870, Grant and Congress created the Department of Justice and the new office of Solicitor General. Kentuckian Benjamin Bristow was the first person named to that office. Bristow was known as a “blue jay,” a term for a union sympathizer living in a more Confederate-leaning region.
“In that position he was the government’s chief litigator and he was a very good lawyer,” says Calhoun. “He helped fight against the Ku Klux Klan.”
After his presidency ended, Grant took two years to travel around the world, spending time in Europe and Asia. When he returned, he had to find a way to earn a living. Grant’s son and his business partner convinced the elder Grant to invest in a financial operation that turned out to be what is now known as a Ponzi scheme. It left Grant and his wife, Julia, nearly penniless.
Around the same time, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer. His doctors advised him to move out of the city and up to the Adirondacks for the cooler, cleaner air.
“By early 1885, Grant can no longer speak,” says historian Ronald C. White. “He now is writing notes to his doctor. One of them is so poignant. Grant writes to the doctor and says, ‘I realize with every sentence I write, I’m driving another nail into my coffin.’ Grant finishes his memoirs three days before he dies. His doctor said he only lived so he could complete the memoirs.”
Grant’s funeral procession in New York drew 1.5 million people who came to pay their respects. Grant was ultimately interred in Manhattan in the monument known as Grant’s Tomb.