Ulysses S. Grant




Hamlin Garland Papers, Doheny Library, University of Southern California

Melancthon T. Burke (1831-1919)

Burke was one of the few people who knew Grant well during his year in Galena. Burke worked at Jesse Grant's leather store and was the son-in-law of Ulysses Grant’s aunt Mary. Grant biographer Hamlin Garland repeatedly tried to get Burke to write down his recollections, and after three years finally succeeded, though with the stipulation that they "not be published." Below are Burke's remarks, written in 1896:

The fact is that I am the only survivor of the few who were associated with Grant in the old Grant leather store, and this is the reason why I should now record my knowledge of Grant's Galena life before it is too late. I have often been tempted to publicly contradict many of the absurd Grant stories that have appeared since 1865, but I was always governed by Grant's own view expressed to me on many occasions that it was wise to pay no attention whatsoever to idle fabrications which, though annoying, were beneath his notice. To those of us who really knew Grant in Galena, we know of the utter absurdity of many of the stories told about him.

I first met Grant during the summer of 1841 in my native town of Bethel, Ohio, when he spent his furlough from West Point. He attracted some attention. At that time he was muscular but slim, indifferent and shy, but very friendly to those who knew him. He was "fairish," with sandy hair, stocky and active. He was rather unconscious of his appearance, as if he did not care or think how he looked. Young Grant made many visits to his lady friend, Kate Lowe. He made the ride on horseback 12 miles from Bethel to Batavia. Grant had known Kate Lowe as a cadet, because she was sometimes in New York. I remember distinctly his neat uniform, his erect carriage, pleasant face and his graceful horsemanship.

He made a lasting impression on the village boys principally because he was polite and a very nice young man without a trace of vanity. When on the street he was usually surrounded by a crowd of listeners to whom he freely talked about West Point. He was shy with strangers, but among his friends he was always known as being a very good talker. Jesse R. Grant, his father, was not a popular man at all in the village. He had many enemies, some of them justified. He was loud and bragged a good deal about his son. But there were also many small minded neighbors who were filled with jealousy and envy at Jesse's material wealth. He was the richest man in town, had a piano in the house, had gold spectacles and sent his son to college.

I saw Grant in Bethel again upon his graduation from West Point and when he brought home his bride in 1848. Throughout this time I knew his family well. Most of his family always expressed the opinion that Grant was careless with his salary and ought to be saving his money. I have heard his mother say in her quiet way that "Ulysses would cheerfully give his last garment to a needy friend." She may have seen at that time what it is now a matter of history that Grant's sympathy and generosity were not the least of the elements of his greatness.

Jesse Grant's leather business began in Galena in the early 1850's, and his second son, Simpson, was in charge. In the Spring of 1856 I was sent to the Galena store to take change of the office and in 1859, the youngest Grant brother, Orvil, arrived. I cannot go further without saying that Simpson possessed nearly as many manly qualities as Ulysses. Orvil did not possess them to the slightest degree. Simpson died, a victim of consumption, in the Fall of 1861.

Owing to Simpson's protracted illness, the conduct of the business fell mainly upon me and Orvil. Captain Grant's arrival in April, 1861, was a welcome addition to the store force. It has frequently been stated that Captain Grant occupied an inferior position in the Galena store and at a salary that did not enable him to live comfortably or pay his debts. Nothing could be further from the truth. He lived in a nice house and was able provide the essentials for his family. The Captain's work at the store was of a general nature. He waited on customers, filled orders and occasionally drove out to visit our country customers. He was favored mostly because he was able to weigh and handle the hides, some of which were in excess of 250 pounds. Grant was of great physical strength and I have seen him many times lift a hide that no ordinary man could manage. After tossing and weighing the hides, he would calmly walk over and wash his hands. Then he would resume his common position of reclining in a chair, feet on the counter. He was very relaxed in his habits and stance.

It has been said that Grant had no business sense, and in a way, this is true. He possessed such a high sense of honor himself that he was inclined to trust others. Some customers told him the wrong price of goods and Grant believed them when they were deliberately misleading him. A few experiences, however, along these lines, tended to remedy this virtuous fault. Once when a customer came in to collect a bill, Orvil made an excuse and said, "I wish you hadn't come." Grant was upset that his brother admitted this. "Did you intend to pay the bill?" he asked Orvil. "Yes,' Orvil answered. "Then why do you expose your weakness by saying you wished they hadn't come?"

Orvil's family did not like Mrs. Julia Grant, the Captain's wife. There were many little remarks and acts that I was witness to and which manifestly hurt Grant. He was devoted to his wife and his four children and I have seen him in his home environment on many an occasion. We played cards sometimes and also chess together. Grant always spent his evenings at home. He would eat supper with his family, put on his slippers, play with his children and smoke his clay pipe. He was like a boy himself with his sons and to his daughter, Nellie he was touchingly tender. He read aloud to Mrs. Grant a great deal. He was very sensitive about his wife and children. Most of the friction between Grant and Orvil and Grant and his father came from the fact they did not approve of Mrs. Grant. I have seen the Captain flare up when they made a remark about her that he regarded as disrespectful.

It was in 1860 that Grant made the acquaintance of his greatest friend and later his chief of staff, John A. Rawlins. Rawlins came to the store expressly to meet Grant because he had a pronounced interest in the Mexican War. He knew the Captain was a veteran. Grant was initially shy, but Rawlins seemed attached to Grant immediately, and with his customary zeal. They soon manifested feelings of mutual respect and admiration. Grant's quiet intensity were in marked contrast to Rawlins impetuosity, but they were both deep thinkers and had much in common. Grant's unusual conversational powers easily made him the prominent figure among those who frequented the leather store for the purpose of discussing politics and the turmoil in the southern states. Grant had a certain refinement of manner, even though he was rough in appearance. Rawlins was attracted to Grant from the beginning for his shy charm, his intensity and his background. It is safe to say that no man ever heard Grant utter an oath or repeat an obscene story. He tolerated and sometimes laughed at Rawlins language, which was frequently peppered with many an oath.

Rawlins made his great war speech at the big Galena meeting on April 18, 1861, at which Grant presided. It was probably this speech more than any other thing that influenced Grant to offer Rawlins a position on his staff after he was made Brigadier General. Rawlins came to the store to talk the matter over with me and he expressed his strong belief in Grant's great ability and he predicted he would advance rapidly if given the opportunity. I held the same opinion and being aware of Grant's admiration for Rawlins I urged him to accept Grant's offer of being a member of his staff. Rawlins' belief in Grant's military greatness began before Grant had even been tested, but this should silence the critics who profess to believe that "Rawlins made Grant." As a matter of fact Grant made every Galena man he touched and kept the good old town itself from sinking into oblivion.

After the war ended and Grant visited Galena, he was still the same modest, affable man. He was disinclined to visit the store however and did not come in frequently. He said to me, 'I like Galena, but there is nothing for me to do here. I must have something to do." After all he had outgrown the town and he had but little privacy here. He was always very approachable however, and I have seen him sign many an autograph and smile, a little weary, with a far-away look in his eyes, when people approached him.



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