“Better Late Than Never"

April 23, 1892

Therber [?]

“Better Late Than Never"

New York City, Celebrations/Honors; Symbols, New York City;

Grant, Ulysses S.;

New York City;

Father Knickerbocker. "Well, I suppose I have been a little slow in this matter; but now I mean business."

This Harper's Weekly cartoon depicts Father Knickerbocker, the personification of New York City, finally committing himself to finishing the delayed construction of Grant's tomb.

During the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant demonstrated his military prowess as a highly successful general and (in 1864-1865) as the commander of Union forces.  In 1868, he won the first of two terms as president of the United States (1869-1877), during which he oversaw the implementation of Reconstruction and negotiated the Treaty of Washington (1871) with Great Britain.  A series of administration scandals in his second term has harmed his standing as president with many professional historians, but he remained extremely popular and esteemed by most Americans (at least in the North) during his lifetime.

In 1881, Grant moved to New York City and invested in a brokerage firm run by his son, Ulysses S. Grant Jr., and Ferdinand Ward. The firm went bankrupt in 1884, and Ward was incarcerated for illegal business practices. Left virtually penniless, and battling terminal cancer, Grant supported himself and his family through a cash advance on his autobiography.  He completed the memoirs shortly before his death on July 23, 1885.  Grant's body lay in state for three days before journeying in a six-mile-long funeral procession through New York City, where it was respectfully observed by an estimated 1 1/2 million mourners.  Harper's Weekly ranked Grant with Washington and Lincoln as "one of the three great heroes of the republic."

Grant's remains resided temporarily in a vault at Riverside Park.  In 1886, the city's Parks Department authorized a permanent gravesite and memorial in the park near 122nd Street.  Harper's Weekly approved of the selection as "a commanding site for the grave of the great commander."  In the most extensive fundraising campaign of its day, the Grant Monument Association collected $600,000 from 90,000 individuals and groups from all over the nation and around the world.

The Grant Association chose architect John Duncan to build his design for a neoclassical structure, featuring Doric columns, a 150-foot-tall domed rotunda, and bas relief of scenes from Grant's life.  The interior was to contain two sarcophagi, for Grant and his wife, while on the exterior was inscribed Grant's slogan from his 1868 presidential campaign:  "Let Us Have Peace."  Setbacks in its construction may have provoked the trivia question:  "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?"  The answer was "no one" until its completion in 1897.  On the 75th anniversary of Grant's birth, April 27, 1897, over a million spectators on the specially-declared state holiday attended the parade and dedication service for the tomb, including Mrs. Grant and President William McKinley.

Grant's tomb (where Mrs. Grant was also buried in 1902) is the largest mausoleum in North America and the second largest in the Western Hemisphere.  It was the most popular tourist attraction in New York City until World War I, and still draws an annual total of 100,000 today.  In 1959, the National Park Service assumed its administration.  Over the years, the site fell into such a state of disrepair and neglect, marred by graffiti and frequented by drug addicts, that Grant's descendants threatened to remove the bodies.  Nearly $2 million were allocated for restoration, and a rededication ceremony was held on April 27, 1997, a century to the day after its original dedication.  

Robert C. Kennedy

“Better Late Than Never"
December 6, 2023

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