A Privilege to be Appreciated
By Ben Kemp Grant Cottage Operations Manager
Typically historic events are chronicled in books and newspapers for researchers to sift through later. Sometimes though they get a personal glimpse from an ordinary bystander who gives their impression of an event in a private way, like a personal letter to a family member. This gives them valuable insight into the psychological effect the event had on the common person of the time. Recently a letter surfaced at auction with some content that helps highlight the final days of mourning for Ulysses Grant in the summer of 1885 before he was entombed in Riverside Park in New York City.
The writer only signs his name as “Hollis” and lists 116th East 78th Street in Manhattan as his address, less than a mile from the Grant home at 3 East 66th Street. He is writing to his brother over the course of two days about witnessing the arrival of Grant’s remains to New York City and his reaction to the obsequies.
He starts at 8:15AM on August 6th stating:
“The thrilling scenes witnessed here yesterday [Aug. 5th] on the arrival of the funeral train bearing the body of the dead hero were more impressive than pen can describe. This day’s Herald describes to a good degree their effect on the human mind. It was my privilege to see the whole paraphanalia [and] to the last day of my life will they appear vividly to my imagination.”
Hollis goes on to mention the impressive eulogies given by two members of the clergy, whom many turned to in times of mourning for their elegant, healing and hopeful words. Their popularity made some of these clergymen celebrities in their own right.
“Canon Farrar’s eulogy on Grant delivered in Westminster Abbey is above all praise. His utterances thrill my very being as does some of Parson Newman’s in his inimitable sermon delivered on Mt McGregor.”
Both Reverend John P. Newman (1826-1899) and Frederick Farrar (1831-1903) had given their eulogies on the same date, August 4th. Newman gave his on the porch of the Cottage on Mt. McGregor in the Adirondack foothills of New York and Farrar gave his 3500 miles away in London.
Newman, who had spent a good deal of time in the final months with the Grant family, delivered an eloquent eulogy that lasted over an hour as he lauded Grant’s achievements and character. The powerfully moving and evocative oration deeply impressed Hollis as he and all Americans watched a man’s life turn into a legacy.
Farrar was a member of the clergy of the Church of England and Archdeacon of Westminster in 1885. He was notable for his role in securing a place of burial for Charles Darwin upon his death in 1882 at Westminster Abbey and giving a sermon at the funeral. The fact that Hollis was writing about the services held at Westminster Abbey in Grant’s honor on Aug. 4th certainly illustrates the speed at which news was traveling by 1885. The papers reported that the “The funeral address delivered by Canon Farrar, was most impressive and listened to in almost breathless silence.” He made mention of Grant visiting the Abbey on his world tour some eight years before and “said he desired to speak simply and directly, with generous appreciation, but with no idle flattery of him whose death had made a nation mourn.” His speech touched on the immediate happenings as well as Grant’s place in American history: “Today we assemble at the obsequies of the great soldier whose sun set while it was yet day, and at whose funeral service in America tens of thousands are assembled at this moment to mourn with the weeping family and friends. Upon a bluff overlooking the Hudson his monument will stand, recalling to future generations the dark page in the Nation's history which he did so much to close.”
Hollis and pretty much every citizen of the City of New York at the time knew Grant would be interred in a tomb at Riverside Park. After much speculation and debate in the papers over the place of burial, Mrs. Grant decided on Riverside Park. Hollis commented in his letter perhaps with a touch of pride that New York “city may well be proved of having provided a resting place for the remains of such an illustrious a man.”
Hollis, like many Americans, foresaw a lasting legacy for Grant: “Not in all human history has there been exhibited such profound feeling and high regard as is now and will be down through the ages as the name of Grant elicits throughout Christendom.” He looked forward to having a memorial to a man he so admired in his own city. “To visit his tomb on the banks of the noble Hudson shall be a privilege to be appreciated.”
As Friday, August 7th dawned Hollis picked up his pen and continued his letter after reading the papers “I learn there was a throng of people marching all around the City Hall Park awaiting their turn to see the face of the dead hero. I have not yet seen it. This is a dog day morning.”
Hollis shares his age as 75 and Grant’s passing at 63 brings a powerful reminder of his own mortality to mind, “The close proximity to my seventy-sixth birthday reminds me that my earthly days are fast being numbered.” Like Grant in his final year Hollis made use of a cane, now its use seemed to weigh on him a bit more, “I sometimes walk the streets and avenues with a stick or cane it is then I feel ‘the growing old’” Amid discussion of everyday life Hollis turns a bit nostalgic and laments that the “…days of yore, will come no more…” but as in the case of Grant they will “linger on memory’s sheen.”
In the next section of his letter, dated 11:45AM on August 7th Hollis describes his attempt to see the body of U.S. Grant at City Hall 5 miles away from his home in lower Manhattan:
“I have just returned from the City Hall around which there are dense crowds six or eight abreast surging their way to the coffin of the dead. Finding it would consume from two to three hours time to reach the bier I gave it up and came up on the cars.
Almost as if to atone for an unsuccessful attempt to see Grant Hollis writes:
“Of course our Flag draped in black hangs suspended from one of the upper windows on the top story of our house. The finale comes tomorrow after which you may expect what remains to be told.”
Regrettably, the letter ends here, without a description of Grant’s grand funeral on August 8th. We can only assume that Hollis turned out with over a million others to witness the amazing spectacle of honor. Hollis promptly mailed the letter at 2:00PM on August 7th to his brother with it arriving in Athol, Massachusetts the very next day. What Hollis does leave us with is a poem written on the day of Grant’s death July 23rd, which he claimed would be published in at least one paper. In its simple lines, one can get a glimpse of how Americans saw their hero struggle with his final illness. The admiration for Grant only increased due to his suffering which was covered in extensive and graphic detail in the papers. Through his poetic words of empathy mixed with admiration, we can start to understand why Hollis and many others would find it a “privilege to be appreciated” to simply stand at Grant’s Tomb and ponder his legacy.
The valiant hero’s come to be
The object of our sympathy;
To the grim monster he did yield
As ne’er he hath on battlefield.
With battles fought, and victories won,
His earthly toils at length are done;
His passport to the better land
Has been received within his hand.
His struggle with mans greatest foe,
Brought pain that he alone could know;
The record he has left behind
Vainly we seek elsewhere to find.
Our loss, all nations will deplore-
Since this brave hero, is no more;
The victors crown he now may wear
Which the redeemed shall ever share.
His fortitude and power of will-
Sustained him, through the direful ill;
This fort of life he did defend-
Even unto his sad journey’s end.
N.Y. July 23rd 1885
The Memorial Services Abroad - Bismarck Weekly Tribune 8/7/1885
At Westminster Abbey – An Impressive Memorial Service – Canon Farrar’s Funeral Sermon - The Indianapolis Journal 8/5/1885
Letter & Poem from Hollis to his brother 8/6/1885-8/7/1885