U.S. Grant and His Volunteers
by Ben Kemp, Grant Cottage Site Coordinator
As we celebrate National Volunteer Week, it’s a good time to acknowledge how volunteers shaped Grant’s life and career, and how they still preserve his legacy today.
When Ulysses Grant offered his services to the United States army at the outbreak of the Civil War, the former regular army officer did not immediately receive a commission. Determined to do his duty in a time of crisis, Grant began organizing volunteer soldiers for the state of Illinois. His professionalism impressed the Governor and he was appointed Colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry regiment. The regiment consisted of about 1000 average citizens, most with no prior military experience, who were nonetheless willing to risk all to preserve the Union. Grant would, by the end of the war, rise to command over a million such volunteers. The sacrifices and valor of these ordinary citizens turned soldiers would leave a lasting impression on Grant and he would spend the rest of his life supporting and advocating for those that had fought and preserving the memory of those who perished.
In his final days at Mt. McGregor it would be a former soldier who once again volunteered to serve his old commander. Sam Willett, a local veteran, heard of Grant’s situation and offered his services as a sentinel to guard the Grant family's privacy during their stay at Mt. McGregor. Sam was about the same age as Grant, in his early sixties, and stayed in a tent near the Drexel Cottage. Sam showed a kind-heartedness and devotion to duty, hallmarks of a dedicated volunteer, as he screened visitors and watched over the Grant grandchildren during the summer of 1885. Sam stated he would “stay on duty until the General left the mountains.” It was easy to overlook Sam’s role in the greater saga that unfolded in Grant’s final days, but his role was still an important one. With the distraction and disruption of a myriad of visitors, Grant would have had a difficult time trying to complete his memoirs. The role that Sam played would not have been lost on his old commander. Grant truly understood that on his final mission, as well as those during the Civil War, it was the dedication of the millions of volunteer soldiers completing the menial and often mundane daily tasks that were the true key to success. Sam recalled his only meeting with Grant during the war and it illustrated his commanders’ appreciation of the common soldier’s duty. As Sam and his fellow soldiers were slowly unloading heavy bags of oats from a ship, Grant showed up unexpectedly to advise the men saying “Boys, I’ll show you how to shoulder a bag of oats without so much trouble.” He showed them how to more effectively unload and transport the bags, saving them time and energy in the process. It was these instances that endeared Grant to the volunteers under his command and showed that he understood each soldier’s contribution to the cause.
Since Grant passed away in 1885, the cottage has been sustained by dedicated individuals including many volunteers . When it looked as if the cottage would be forced to close to the public in the 1980’s, a group of concerned citizens formed a volunteer organization known as The Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage to keep it open. The Friends, with its dedicated staff and volunteers, have preserved and interpreted the site for the last thirty years, helping the public to better understand and appreciate the legacy of U.S. Grant. All tasks that volunteers do onsite are important, as Grant himself understood, and thousands have been involved in the effort over the years donating their time selflessly. It would simply not be possible to operate the cottage without volunteer support.
I know Grant would have been grateful for the work being done by the individuals who continue to donate their time to preserving history. The preservation of history is the preservation of who we are. As President Teddy Roosevelt stated, “We…realize what the mighty dead did for the nation, what the dead did for us who are now living. Let us in return try to shape our deeds so that the America of the future shall justify by her career the lives of the great men of her past. Every man who does his duty as a soldier, as a statesman, or as a private citizen is paying to Grant's memory the kind of homage that is best worth paying.”
This week is an opportunity to acknowledge all those who have helped maintain and interpret the history of this special place known as Grant Cottage. To acknowledge with gratitude the indispensable part that volunteers, both past and present, have played in preserving our shared heritage for future generations. Volunteers are those that feel a sense of duty to others, who enjoy giving of their time and sharing what they have for the benefit of others. They form an essential part of the fabric of our community helping to keep our civic institutions sustainable and strong. Most volunteers are not looking for special recognition but they deserve it nonetheless as they set a good example for future generations.