Now I Lay Me Down
By Ben Kemp, Grant Cottage Operations Manager
All artifacts tell a story, the deathbed of General Grant in the parlor of Grant Cottage is no exception. The bed is a subject of fascination to visitors not only due to its famous occupant but the nature of the bed itself. It offers a glimpse into the sleep technology of the late Victorian era and into the final moments of a famous life. We often take sleep for granted as an automatic necessity of daily life. Those who are forced to go with little or no sleep develop a better appreciation for its vital importance.
Ulysses would have spent his childhood on a rope bed. The age-old phrase of “sleep tight don’t let the bedbugs bite” originates from having to tighten the ropes on the bed to keep the mattress from sagging. The bedbugs might come in from the straw used in packing the mattress. With the advent of better mattress materials and spring mattresses by the middle of the 19th-century rope beds started to be phased out.
The Mexican War would have made the young Grant accustomed to sleeping in all conditions. Later in the Civil War General Grant would have had a variety of beds depending upon his headquarters. If in a home he may have use of an actual bed, but in the field, he would have typically used a cot. His son Fred recounted the headquarters tent he shared with his father before Vicksburg in 1863: “My father sat at his little desk. That was all there was in the tent, except his cot and my cot; and the bottom of his was broken, and he had to stretch his legs apart when he slept in it to keep from falling through.” Fred would conclude that as a result of his military experience his “father possessed an iron constitution, and he always slept well.” Grant himself stated that if he could not sleep it was “a most unusual circumstance.”
During his Presidency and subsequent world tour, Grant would have experienced many different types of sleeping arrangements, some very luxurious, some rustic bivouacs on ship decks. While in the Gulf of Siam (Thailand) in 1879 Grant and his party witnessed a marvel of engineering in the form of a portable bed. One of the party, Adolph Borie, Grant’s Secretary of the Navy had purchased the “extraordinary machine… called a portable bed, which is unlike anything civilization has ever known in the shape of a bed. It comes together and unfolds, and is so intricate… I do not think any of us really understand the principles upon which it is constructed. But in the evening… servants parade the bed on deck and chatter over it a little while, and it becomes sleepable.” On this worldwide journey, Grant and his party would also encounter Buddhist monks who slept sitting upright, something Grant would have to grow accustomed to himself.
Grant’s “iron constitution” would succumb to his final illness and he started to have trouble getting to sleep. One of his doctors, George Shrady, tried an unorthodox approach for his patient. He later related the scene in Grant’s New York City bed chamber as he directed the General on how to sleep: “‘imagine yourself a boy again. When a youngster, you were never bolstered up in that fashion, and every bed was the same. Now, curl up your legs, lie over on your side, and bend your neck while I tuck the cover around your shoulders.’ Apparently, the idea struck him pleasantly, as was shown by his docile and acquiescent manner. Lastly, I placed his hand under the pillow, and asked him if he did not feel easy and comfortable. As he apparently desired then to be left alone, I could not resist the temptation to pat him coaxingly and enjoin him ‘to go to sleep like a boy’… In a few minutes… the tired and heretofore restless patient was peacefully and soundly asleep. He rested as he must have done when a boy… and as the result of his ‘boy-fashion of sleeping,’ seldom afterward was there any need for anodynes until the last days of his sickness. He told me subsequently that he had not slept with his arm under a bolster and his knees curled up under his chin in that way since he first went to West Point, forty years before.” Grant’s ex-staff member Horace Porter commented on the condition of his friend after visiting him in early 1885 “The thing from which he has suffered most of late is insomnia. When I was with him… I said it seemed strange that he should suffer from that, as he had always been a remarkably good sleeper. I reminded him that on the field, no matter what the weather or how heavily charged he might be with responsibilities, sometimes with a battle on his hands for the next day, I had seen him drop down in the mud and rain and be sound asleep in two minutes. He meant always to get eight hours' sleep. He said it was a strange thing to him that he could not sleep, and that he regretted nothing so much.” Dr. Shrady said his patient’s “sleep was often disturbed by dreams, but they were the reflex of his physical conditions. At one time an extra pain in his throat gave him the impression of having been hit in the neck with a cannon-ball. On another occasion, he dreamed of being choked by a footpad on a lonely road.” Grant wrote to his publisher Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) about the effect of insomnia on his book project “I could do better if I could get the rest I crave.”
After a choking incident in March of 1885, the patient was relegated to two leather chairs for sleep. Grant was forced to sleep in an upright position that made it difficult for him to get rest and the chairs became symbolic of his uncomfortable struggle with his disease. Pillows were used to provide some added comfort but required continual adjustment to stay in place. Sleep became more and more difficult as his cancer progressed and sometimes he could only get rest with the assistance of morphine. Towards the end Dr. Shrady watched his patient endure sleepless nights of suffering, recovering only through dozing spells in the mornings. Though he appreciated the doctors care, he wished they had allowed him to go earlier when he had come close to death which felt to him as if gently falling asleep.
Grant traveled by train to Mt. McGregor, NY in his leather chairs and they were placed in his room inside the cottage. A cot occupied the room as well but was more often for the occasional use of his caregivers or family as they cared for him. The cool air of the mountain seemed to offer some relief to a patient who claimed that when “In health I like a cold room to sleep in. Even if water freezes in the room I sleep well. Mrs. Grant also sleeps with a window open the coldest nights.” Now the weakening Grant was alternating between perspiring and shivering, covers having to be adjusted frequently in order to try to get some rest.
The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of a new sleep technology, the folding bed. This space-saving bed style was designed to allow maximum use of space while offering an acceptable way to entertain females in a room that contained a bed. The precursor of the Murphy Bed and the sleeper-sofa, folding beds came in a variety of models that when folded up represented other common types of furniture. Some of the models even served a dual purpose as writing desks. Advertisements of the time touted the versatility of the beds that were “Substantial, yet so light a child can open and close it with ease.”
At some point, the folding bed that now resides in the cottage parlor was brought down from the Hotel Balmoral a few hundred yards away to the parlor of Grant Cottage. When folded up it is designed to look like a writing desk but does not actually function as such. It’s of wood frame construction with metal mechanical parts and a cloth mattress with a quilt on top. It appears short in length but would have accommodated the 5’ 8” General.
Dr. Shrady remembered his passing as “the calm death he had hoped for, a gentle and gradual falling to sleep. The weary anxious night had passed, the rays of the morning sun stole quietly into the death-chamber; but at last, there was another morning for him, another light, glorious, infinite, immortal.” There are various symbols of eternal rest in the cottage; in the dining room there is a pillow made of flowers sent by the Meade Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Philadelphia, in the parlor on Grant’s favorite wicker chair rests a wreath with a bow which reads “At Rest,” on the wall of the parlor is a devotional which has scriptures about being sustained on a bed of sickness and a request to “Let me gently rest.”
As the interior of the cottage became uncomfortable with the summer heat, the patient and his chairs were moved into the parlor for a better atmosphere. Aware of his family’s need for rest at about 10:00 PM on the night of July 21st the General heard his family on the porch outside and asked Dr. John Douglas to “Tell them to retire. I wish no one to be disturbed on my account.” Grant’s condition became precarious in the early hours of July 22nd and Dr. Douglas sent word to Grant’s other physicians and to Grant’s son Ulysses Jr. to take the next train available to Mt. McGregor. He administered a brandy injection to the flagging patient to allow time for his son to arrive. By the afternoon of the 22nd, the family members were all present and Grant’s oldest son Fred asked his father if he would like to lie down. His father consented and he was transferred from the veritable prison of his chairs to the comparative comfort of the folding bed. His family surrounded him there offering comfort and support in his final hours until the final moment came in the morning hours of July 23rd.
The bed still remains a fixture in the parlor of Grant Cottage. It’s faded, stained and yellowed quilt a testament to its age. Though its most famous occupant has long since moved on, his story still lives there, the place where a loving family looked down upon the man who meant everything to them as he drifted off to his final peaceful slumber.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my Soul to keep,
If I should die before I 'wake,
I pray the Lord my Soul to take.
The Captain Departs by Thomas Pitkin 1973
Grant as His Son Saw Him. An Interview with Colonel Frederick D. Grant about His Father. by A. E. Watrous. McClure’s Magazine - May 1894
General Grant’s Last Days by Dr. George Shrady 1908
Around the World with General Grant by John R. Young 1879
General Grant’s Last Stand by Horace Green 1936
Grant’s Final Victory by Charles B. Flood 2011
Many Are the Hearts: The Agony & Triumph of Ulysses S. Grant by Richard Goldhurst 1975
The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant