MOREAU — Tim Welch walks up a steep slope toward a 19th-century cottage in the woods and tells the story of how “the man who won the Civil War” came to write his memoirs there.
The war had ended two decades before, and Ulysses S. Grant had contracted throat cancer and lost all of his money, about $200,000, in a Ponzi scheme, begins Welch, the president of the Friends of Grant Cottage, the volunteer-run nonprofit that operates the state-owned historic site.
Mark Twain suggested Grant write the memoirs, and he promised to publish them and give Grant 75 percent of the profits, “which was an unprecedented royalty deal at the time,” Welch says. Grant, our 18th president obliged, and Twain gave him a $25,000 advance.
Over the next year, Grant “feverishly dictated” his Mexican War and Civil War memories, Welch says as he continues toward the cottage, which is dwarfed by remnants of the closed Mount McGregor medium-security prison. He left his New York City brownstone and arrived at the cottage with an entourage of family, friends, servants and doctors on June 16, 1885— six weeks before his death on July 23.
“By the time he got up here, he was so sick, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t talk … but he still had to finish the second of two volumes,” Welch says, now at the top of the hill, the yellow cottage’s porch in front of him. “And Mark Twain came up here and was trying to hustle him along, because he wasn’t going to have the time to finish. But he did finish — three days before he died — and he sat right in that chair.”
He adds: “Within the next year, his wife got payments from Mark Twain equivalent to 11 million dollars in today’s money.”
About 5,500 people visit the cottage every year to see the commanding general of the Union’s final home, which today includes the bed where he died and floral arrangements still intact from his funeral. Welch said the Friends’ group works to not only preserve the memory of Grant, but rehabilitate it, “and straighten out this notion that somehow he was a bad general, or he was a butcher, or he was somehow inferior to [Robert E.] Lee.”
The ideas were advanced by University of Virginia historians who, in the interest of bolstering the reputation of Lee, the Confederate commander from Virginia, “suggested that the only reason that Ulysses S. Grant won the Civil War was because he had more men and material,” said Welch, calling Lee the South’s “marble man — he was so puffed up.”
By contrast, Confederate memorials — whose place in public venues are being debated anew at the national level — were not erected to straighten out a distorted telling of American history, he said.
“These Confederate statues, most of which were actually put up in the 20th century — not the 19th century, when the Civil War occurred — were put up in order to sanctify Jim Crow laws and the perpetuation of legal slavery,” said Welch, who teaches mass media communications and public relations at SUNY Oneonta. “A lot of these statues … were there to celebrate the white supremacy that existed in the Southern states, and for that reason, maybe these statues don’t belong in the town square — maybe they belong in the town museum.”
The debate over Confederate statues hit a fever pitch when, on Aug. 12, a woman was killed and 19 others were injured during a riot of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., which erupted in response to the city’s plan to remove a statue of Gen. Lee. The memorial had stood prominently in the city since 1924.
President Donald Trump has since defended Confederate statues, calling their removal foolish and suggesting George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would be next.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” the president wrote on Twitter.
Welch’s approach to the argument was in line with that of Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who said the building of Confederate statues went hand-in-hand with the enforcement of Jim Crow segregation laws.
“They were intended as a celebration of white supremacy when they were constructed,” she said in a prepared statement. “As recent rallies in Charlottesville and elsewhere illustrate, they are still being used as symbols and rallying points for such hate today.”
In her statement, Meeks said there are hundreds of Confederate monuments in 31 states, which are far flung and include Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Montana.
“We should always remember the past, but we do not necessarily need to revere it,” she said.
Welch said many people view history as “something that they can cherry pick from, to pick what they want to advance their own political agenda at a particular time.”
He said he’s concerned with keeping alive the memory of “the man who saved the Union, and the great story that he has to tell about that segment of American history.”
“I just hope that history doesn’t become hostage to people’s short-term political goals, because we can learn a lot from history, and it puts what we have today in an important context,” he said.
Welch admitted that Grant had his flaws and “wasn’t a particularly good president,” but he called him “one of the most noble human rights presidents,” citing his work to try to end the Ku Klux Klan.
Asked how Grant compares to Trump — who doubled down in defending the rights of the white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, who included KKK members and neo-Nazis — Welch said, “I’m gonna stay away from that.”
“History really requires a period of reflection,” he said. “Donald Trump is rewriting his own personal history, for better or worse, almost every day.”