by Ben Kemp, Site Coordinator
National Nurses Week is just wrapping up, and it’s a good time to highlight a couple of individuals who helped care for General Grant during his final months. It was in the fall of 1884 that Grant went to throat specialist Dr. John Douglas and received the news of his potentially fatal malady of throat and tongue cancer. With the progression of the disease it was not long before Grant’s health had declined to the point where he required regular assistance in his everyday activities.
The first to answer the call was someone who was already part of the Grant household, their African-American valet Harrison Terrell. Although not officially trained in nursing, Harrison, having developed into a close trusting relationship with the General, took on the task. Helping him dress, bathe and eat were just some of the daily chores for Harrison.
As Grant grew weaker, he eventually needed round-the-clock care. For this, a trained nurse named Henry McSweeny (his name is also spelled McQeeney or McSweeney in various accounts) was brought in to assist Harrison in caring for the General. To differentiate the two, Henry was referred to by the press as the “white nurse,” while Harrison received the prefix “faithful.” In April of 1885, The New York Evening Post described Henry’s involvement:
“Henry, the white nurse, had nearly sole care of the General last night. The members of the family got a good night's rest, and the doctors who remained in the house during the night were also able to get a little sleep…The nurse… had charge of the sleeping patient. Henry is a professional nurse who was introduced to the General some time ago… He showed such skill in his work that the General became much attached to him, and has retained him to attend to his personal wants. Henry said this morning that the General had a good night's rest, and awoke this morning bright and cheerful. He talked with him for some time and seemed to be in very good spirits.”
From all accounts these two men provided the General with dedicated care. They saw the worst of what he had to endure and were those closest to him in the most trying of moments. Grant expressed his gratitude for those that cared for him in the following letter to his doctor…
“I am thankful for the providential extension of my life to enable me to continue my work…see for myself the happy harmony…between those engaged but a few short years ago in deadly conflict…to hear the kind expression towards me…from all parts of the country…They have brought joy to my heart if they have not effected a cure. To you and your colleagues I acknowledge my indebtedness for having brought me through the “valley of the shadow of death” to enable me to witness these things.”
He wrote “faithful” Harrison the following letter of recommendation:
“I give this letter to you now, not knowing what the near future may bring to a person in my condition of health. This is an acknowledgement of your faithful services to me during my sickness up to this time, and which I expect will continue to the end. This is also to state further that for about four years you have lived with me, coming first as a butler, in which capacity you served until my illness became so serious as to require the constant attention of a nurse, and that in both capacities I have had abundant reason to be satisfied with your attention, integrity and efficiency. I hope that you may never want for a place.
Grant displayed his witty humor and playful relationship he shared with Harrison one day on Mt. McGregor as Harrison was pulling the General to the Hotel Balmoral in a bath wagon wheelchair. Harrison under the burden made reference to feeling like a draught horse, to which Grant scribbled on paper the response “For a man who has been accustomed to drive fast horses this is a considerable come down in point of speed.” Harrison played along replying that at least the slower speed was safer, to which the General wrote “My horse will not run away uphill.” They enjoyed a laugh together.
Harrison and Henry shared quarters within the Drexel Cottage in the room adjacent to Grant’s bedroom so that they would always be near. A bell was provided the General to ring for assistance. Harrison continued to take the day shift as Henry took the night shift, together with the physicians, providing Grant 24 hour care in his final days.
Harrison and Henry were both attending to their patient to the end. Henry responded to the General’s final request when he uttered “water” by wetting a towel to place on his lips for relief. Soon after this they both watched as their patient and friend breathed his last on the morning of July 23, 1885.
After his patient had passed, Henry helped the eldest Grant grandchild Julia, then nine years of age, construct an oak leaf wreath. The wreath was placed on the General’s breast and accompanied his remains to his tomb, a symbol of the love of his family and also the bond between patient and caregiver.
The short time Henry had with the General had impressed him deeply as he returned to the cottage annually for many years. Cottage caretaker Martha Clarke later remembered that:
“General Grant’s nurse, Henry McSweeny came [to the cottage] several times during our earlier years here and always spent his whole time between trains in [the] cottage and Mr. Clarke had long talks with him about General Grant’s life here. Henry McSweeny was a tall, fine looking, well poised man and was without question very fond of General Grant. He told of the intense suffering of General Grant in his last illness and showed much feeling himself, although it had been at least five years after the General’s death before we saw his nurse. We saw him several times as he came year after year.”
Harrison, who had started life in slavery in Virginia, used his letter of recommendation to work in Washington DC. He lived long enough to watch his son Robert become the first African-American Justice of the Peace in Washington DC before eventually losing his life to a tragic fall in 1906.
Nurses are individuals that put the needs of others before themselves, something Grant was known for and appreciated in others. It’s important to recognize the vital role that nurses play in all our lives working in relative obscurity but playing a crucial part in some of the toughest times of our lives.