by Ben Kemp, Grant Cottage Site Coordinator
As General Grant faced terminal illness, the one thing that warmed his heart and gave him hope for the future was the outpouring of support he received daily. The support came in the form of letters, telegrams, resolutions printed in newspapers, and occasionally personal visits.
One group of professionals was meeting in Saratoga, NY on June 16th, 1885, as the ailing Grant changed trains on his journey to the nearby mountain-top resort on Mt. McGregor. The New York State Pharmaceutical Association, as many organizations did, held their convention in Saratoga that year.
Up at the Drexel Cottage as Grant’s caregivers were treating his throat with topical applications of cocaine water, the pharmacists were at their convention in the city below discussing the need for further research of the new medical substance. “…as this article of Cocaine is now of universal interest something should be done to ascertain a better knowledge of it than we have at present.”
They discussed the complexity and fickleness of 19th century drug prescriptions. “Fashion seems to control prescribing as it does the latest style of hat or bonnet. There is an ebb and flow to the popularity of every drug be it good or bad. When good it is overdone for a spell then allowed to rest after which it comes up again with a fairer appreciation of its merits.”
Grant himself playfully mused about his “forced” education in medicine during his illness.
“If I live long enough I will become sort of a specialist in the use of certain medecines [sic]… I ask that you keep these notes very private lest I become an authority on the treatment of diseases. I have already to[o] many trades to be proficient in any.”
On the third and final day of their convention, the pharmacists stopped their agenda to pass a resolution for the man they knew to be struggling on the nearby mountain.
I wish to call a halt in our proceedings and bring you out for a moment to consider something apart from the business which has brought us here… In our daily lives we are so constantly absorbed in its details as to almost forget that we are citizens… I wish to recall to your minds that we are citizens of a great commonwealth and a greater country…. We enjoy with others the benefits of freedom and the wise and great institutions which our fathers established. In common with all Americans we are debtors to those who averted the division of this great country and preserved it intact… there passed through this village yesterday on a special train the chief of those brave men to whom we are debtors himself now and for months past battling with the unseen foe that conquers all mankind. He has been brought by his Physician to the neighboring resort of Mt McGregor in the hope of regaining the health and strength so nearly gone. I have prepared a resolution for transmission to our distinguished countryman and move its adoption and transmission.
Saratoga NY - June 18th 1885
To: General US Grant - Drexel Cottage Mt McGregor
The New York State Pharmaceutical Association in convention at Saratoga congratulate you on the happy improvement in your surroundings and express an earnest hope that it may lead to your complete and speedy restoration to health.
It seems to me inasmuch as all here probably will acknowledge General Grant to be the greatest living soldier that it would be no more than right that we should all rise to our feet in honor of this resolution I would ask you gentlemen all in favor of sending this dispatch please rise. (every member rose)
(Proceedings of the Pharmaceutical Society)
Grant responded to the outpouring of support on his behalf, “My expected death has called forth expressions of the sincerest kindness from all the people of all the sections of the country…All societies passed resolutions of sympathy for me and petitions that I might recover. It looks as if my sickness has had something to do to bring about harmony between the sections… Apparently I have accomplished more while apparently dying than it falls to the lot of most men to be able to do.”
A secretary of the Pharmaceutical Society, Clay Holmes, added the following eulogistic passage before the printing of the "Proceedings of the Pharmaceutical Society" that year. Holmes was a man not unfamiliar with human suffering, witnessing as a young man the condition of Confederate prisoners of war at the infamous prison camp in his hometown of Elmira, NY.
Since this report was prepared for publication General Ulysses S Grant has succumbed to the fell destroyer and today lies waiting the last sad rites which will consign his mortal remains a prisoner to mother Earth. The nation is clad in mourning. The whole world pauses to shed a tear over the departure of the most noted man of the century, the hero of many battles, the only man who from the lowest position has passed through every grade of military life honoring each as he occupied it to the Chair of State where he ruled in peace even as in war tempering justice with mercy. After having received all the honors his own country could confer upon him he visited foreign lands where the Crowned Heads vied with each other in paying honor to the greatest hero of the age, something never before known in the history of the world. We mourn with his bereaved widow who sat on the piazza bathed in tears as we passed Drexel cottage her heart filled with gratitude for the expression of sympathy extended. Dear Lady When you and your noble and honored family have all passed over the dark river and been forgotten in the lapse of time yet will the name of your honored husband and the father of your children be green in the memory of his countrymen. Centuries shall pass and still the name of Ulysses S Grant will be handed down to posterity as the greatest soldier and most illustrious conqueror the world ever saw.
CLAY W HOLMES
Elmira NY August 1, 1885
Many people of the late 19th century were able to come together in support of the man who had contributed so much to their country. A man whose life and career had touched them all gave them a desire to acknowledge his effect on their lives and for the man himself to know their appreciation and support. The declarations of the Pharmaceutical Society and the thousands of others gave a dying man hope for the future of his beloved country and for the cry of his heart: “Let Us Have Peace.”