Spend enough time with Ulysses Simpson Grant, and he’s very likely to win you over.
That’s what they say about the former U.S. President and Civil War general up at Grant Cottage near the top of Mt. McGregor in northern Saratoga County. They’re expecting they’ll be plenty of new converts to their way of thinking after a three-part docudrama about Grant airs on the History Channel Monday through Wednesday from 9 to 11 p.m.
“The more you know about the guy, he becomes less of a mythological figure and much more human,” said Ben Kemp, operations manager at the Grant Cottage, a state historic site in the town of Wilton where in 1885 Grant spent the last six months of his life finishing his memoirs. “He becomes a very admirable person. People begin to see him in a likable way, and he slowly becomes a person they’d like to shake hands with.”
“Grant,” directed by Malcolm Venville and based on the 2017 best-selling book by Ron Chernow, uses on-camera interviews with historians, including Chernow, as well as extensive dramatic scenes and archival imagery to tell Grant’s story. Justin Salinger portrays Grant during the Civil War in the series, which will air for two hours each night. An Ohio native and West Point graduate who developed a reputation as a butcher and a drunk during the Civil War and a corrupt administrator while in the Oval Office, Grant’s presidential ranking has improved considerably over the past decade, in part because of books like Chernow’s 2017 work. The winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Washington, and also the author whose 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton was turned into a blockbuster Broadway musical, Chernow did history a huge favor when he painted Grant in a different light than many other earlier historians according to Steve Trimm, a volunteer docent at Grant Cottage.
“He was defamed, and what was the Southern character assassination of Grant got embedded as historical fact,” said Trimm, who often portrays Grant as well as other historical figures at the Cottage. “The South kind of outlasted the North in interpreting what the Civil War was all about, and I think most of the first historians were Southern gentlemen. The North said, ‘we’ll let them have the field of interpretation.’ But then modern historians began taking a closer look and it’s really to their credit that Grant is seen in a different light and is rehabilitated.”
Work on the series began back in 2018 when Kemp headed down to New York City to do studio interviews as a Grant expert. Then, during the fall of 2019, a production team headed to Grant Cottage to film some footage and take a close look at the place Grant called home during the last year of his life.
“They spent a full day up here filming but as far as how much they use in the series, who knows?” said Kemp. “The Chernow biography from a few years ago really put us on the map, and we were very excited when we heard they were going to do this film. Of course, the situation being what it is, we can’t open the cottage and allow visitors. Hopefully at some point this summer we’ll be able to allow people to come visit the grounds, but we just don’t know yet when that will be.”
If not for the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Grant Cottage would very likely be hosting a large number of visitors this weekend. Typically open from Memorial Day through Labor Day and then on the weekends into October, the Grant Cottage State Historic Site is owned by New York but is operated by its Friends Group. Former WRGB weatherman Tim Welch is in his ninth year of serving as president.
“We’re the only state historic site that has no state employees,” said Welch. “We are a volunteer organization with three or four part-time employees, and that’s why we have to charge people $9 a pop to take a tour of the place. We raise money in other ways to help keep the place open because it is a very important part of our country’s history. Grant died here, and he was visited here twice by Mark Twain who was encouraging him to finish his memoirs. It’s a great spot.”
Along with the publicity the Grant series will bring to the cottage, The History Channel is also making a significant financial contribution to the site.
“They’re giving us $25,000 in grants and donations for allowing them to film here,” said Welch. “Because of the coronavirus we won’t be able to host so many people this summer, but we’re taking that money and we’re making a promotional video and doing some work trying to enhance our digital presence. We’ve also been tempting fate for a while with this wooden building, so we’re going to get a fire suppression system for the cottage.”
The cottage became a popular destination for history buffs as far back as 1890, just five years after Grant’s death. After being owned by various entities, the state purchased the land right after World War II and turned it into a veterans rest camp. The state had originally planned on closing the cottage in 1985 but public pressure against that move saved the building and The Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage was formed in the fall of 1989.
Saving Grant’s final home was perhaps one of the first steps to reviving his character. While he was a hero to the country soon after the war, his troubled presidency damaged his reputation, and throughout much of the 20th century it was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee who was the subject of many adoring biographies. While Grant’s generalship did help win the Civil War, his troops took heavy losses and at Cold Harbor in the spring of 1864, where he first was tagged with the word, “butcher,” he ordered a charge he himself referred to as “fruitless.” He also did drink, although not as heavily as southern historians suggested, and while his presidential administration was saddled with scandal, Grant himself was shown to be incorruptible and was an ardent supporter of civil rights.
“People who come to the cottage will tell us how they’ve heard all the negatives about him,” said Trimm. “But we here describe him as a different man who was very noble in many ways. Even the southerners who come here are almost always converted. He’s a president and a man who has been misrepresented terribly over the years.”
Kemp’s interest in the Civil War began as a re-enactor soon after he watched Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” back in 1990.
“I knew a lot about the Civil War but when I started showing up at Grant Cottage I realized how little I knew about Grant,” said Kemp, who grew up in Schuylerville. “I started to see him as an individual. I’m not into hero worship, but there are a lot of great things Grant did that point to his character traits; things that we can all emulate. Coming to Grant Cottage opened up a lot of that for me, and that’s our mission here. We want to give people a better and more accurate perspective of the man.”