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Ulysses S Grant Comes to Town

Ulysses S Grant comes to Portsmouth, NH / Library of Congress Image

Was he the best antidote to the ills of the Civil War or one of the worst presidents in history? One Portsmouth newspaper called Grant "a man of simple honesty and sincerity". Another labeled him "surly, cold and indifferent" and drunk. What people saw as Grant visited NH, was pretty much what they wanted to see.



Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was the fourth 19th century president to visit Portsmouth, New Hampshire after James Monroe, James K Polk and NH-born Franklin Pierce. After the Civil War, locals were sharply divided on Grant’s presidency. Was the 18th president a drunken dullard or a capable Reconstructionist leader? That depends on which Portsmouth newspaper one read when Grant breezed through town in a luxurious Pullman car with 200 members of his entourage. A Civil War hero, General Grant had almost been with Lincoln that fateful night at Ford's Theater. Instead he went on to become a two-term president, defeating NH notable Horace Greeley in his second term. Grant's famous tomb in New York City is the largest mausoleum in the country and Grant still has a large devout following among history buffs. Grant's latest fictional incarnation was played by actor Kevin Kline in the movie version of "Wild, Wild, West." The film, like most of Grant's presidency, was not a hit with most critics. -- JDR

October 1871

By Ray Brighton

General Grant during the Civil War / Library of CongressAs is still often the case, presidential visits to Portsmouth, NH are just "whistle stops" as the chief executive moves on into Maine from the nation's capital. President George Bush used Portsmouth's military airfield as his own landing spot for regular visits to nearby Kennebunkport, Maine. And so it was back in 1871 when President Ulysses S. Grant zipped through on his way to Maine.

On October 17th President Grant was heading to the opening ceremonies for the European and North American Railroad. City officials under Mayor Joseph B. Adams gathered at the City Building (site of Bank of America in Market Square today) at 9:30, then headed to the railroad depot. Mrs. Grant, the president's daughter Nellie and more than 200 others were in the official party. The train was made up of two Pullmans, a smoking car, a baggage car and a passenger car. All this was drawn by the "splendid engine America." Surprisingly, neither of the two daily papers, the Chronicle and Portsmouth Times, devoted much space to the event -- and it's from the Journal of October 21 that most of the story comes.

CONTINUE to read about US GRANT

PRESIDENTIAL VISIT IN 1871  (continued)

The Pullman Arrives

President GrantShortly after 10 am, the special train puffed into the station, and the Marine Band played "Hail to the Chief". Grant appeared on the rear platform of the last car to a roar of applause from the assembled citizenry. Then it was Mayor Adams' proud moment to introduce President Grant. After that there were five more minutes of hand shaking. The Journal let its cup run over describing the makeup of the train:

"Aside from the other fine decorations of the cars the salon, which the presidential party occupied, was fitted up in the most magnificent and captivating style. It had the appearance of a perfect bed of roses. Festoons of bunting hung pendant in the most artistic manner, blending the red, white and blue, from the center of the salon, while large bouquets of choice flowers hung in the apex. Also trailing vines dotted with tuberoses and rose buds gracefully looped, encircled the mirrors and the air itself was heavy with the breath of choice blossoms."

On Grant himself, the reporter wrote:

"Those who had the privilege of a close inspection of the chief magistrate must have been convinced that his was the face of a man of simple honesty and sincerity, yet with all that subtlety of power and reticence which simple but strong natures oftimes possess. Admirers of republican simplicity of manners ought to be content with the president, for there seems to be no want of quiet dignity and gravity about him, and those accustomed to study human nature will readily see him to be a man of remarkable will, strength of character and compactness of brain. His face is one of the best answers to the calumnies and detractions which his Democratic opponents frequently bring against him."

The Journal goes on to list the key government secretaries, military generals and railroad magnates in the presidential party. The party were joined here by ex-Governor Goodwin and a delegation of officials from the Navy Yard. As the train reached Portsmouth bridge a salute was fired from the battery. At Kittery, just across the Piscataqua River, the president was welcomed to the "Pine Tree" state by General James A. Hall. Between this city and Portland dinner was served in the forward car for the general company, while an elegant repast was served for the president and his suite in his private car. The only stopping place was Berwick Junction.

The Opposition View

Grant's visit was not altogether ignored by the other local news media. The Times, a completely unreconstructed Democratic paper, let loose a jibe or two. And even by the low standards set by George Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign, the Times was a little rough:

"However unworthy of respect and veneration U.S. Grant may be as a man, we are sorry that any should fail to pay proper respect to the President of the United States. Hence we regret that any persons were provoked by his stupid appearance as he stood on the platform of the car at the depot, to make insulting remarks in his hearing. If Grant does look as though he had been drunk for a week, and act, in a surly, cold and indifferent manner toward the people who throng to see him, still it is wrong to treat him as other men should be treated for such conduct. Remember that he is president, and properly regard his high office."

President Grant came back through the city three days later but without even a pause. However, on August 16, 1873, Grant again whistle-stopped in Portsmouth bound for Augusta. President Grant arrived on the new Pullman car "Mystic" with the usual dignitaries and his children Miss Nellie Grant, (who was dressed in a plain black traveling suit), Ulysses and Jesse. Decked out again in flowers, the train had made the trip from Boston in an hour and 26 minutes. The president bowed to the crowd from the rear of the train – and that was all we got.

By Ray Brighton. Edited by

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Rambles About Portsmouth, by Raymond Brighton, Portsmouth Marine Society, Peter Randall Publisher, 1993 Reprinted by permission of the publisher.© 1994 Portsmouth Marine Society

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