Ulysses S. Grant




Mende, Elsie Porter. An American Soldier and Diplomat, Horace Porter. NY: Stokes, 1927

Elsie Porter

Elsie was General Horace Porter's (1837-1921) daughter. Porter was General Grant's aide during the Civil War.

I was a tiny child when my father began to give me a share in his feeling for the Chief. Many a Sunday afternoon during the winter and spring of 1883-4, clutching tightly to my father's forefinger, I marched with him to a house on East 66th Street. A dark wooden staircase brought us to the door of a good-sized library, lighted by one window. There, in an armchair by the fireplace, a cane and a table of papers and magazines at his side, sat an elderly man with head and shoulders drooping a little wearily.

If asked today (1927), how tall he was or whether his hair and beard were turning gray, I could not answer; I know only that his hair was still thick and grew well on his forehead. What I remember distinctly are his eyes, his voice, and his hands. He had a way of suddenly looking up and fixing his eyes upon you. They were the finest feature he had, true and searching but never hard; they were of a deep gray-blue, and had sometimes a questioning look almost like a boy's. His voice had a clear, carrying quality which was agreeable to hear; it was never loud. He spoke very distinctly, and used such simple words that his talk was easy for me to follow.

Sometimes he told a story or spoke of the days when he and my father first knew each other; he could be amusing, in his quiet, dry way. More often he listened to my father's talk, leaning forward in his chair, his elbows on the arms, his cane held loosely in his right hand, his eyes fixed intently upon my father's face. As he sat there, I used to watch his hands; they were well-shaped, with fingers somewhat long and tapering, and he had an expressive way of using his index finger of his right hand. Sometimes, in the midst of the conversation, he would draw me gently away from my father and hold me beside him, stroking my hands and my hair.

W hen my first shyness had worn off, the General won his way to my heart by inquiring after my dolls, and the next time I came he even remembered their names. One day, leaning heavily on his cane, he took me to a large glass case and showed me the wonderful swords, medals and trophies within. At first I did not realize that all these glittering objects had been presented to him personally. Then, on my asking him why these people across the ocean gave him such beautiful things, he laughed, said something about its being a "notion of theirs," and referred me to father. When father told me that that the General had commanded great armies, fought desperate battles, and been President of the United States, my awe and admiration increased tenfold.

At Elberon, New Jersey, General Grant's summer place was not a half-mile from ours, and I frequently played there with his grandchildren. To a small piece of land nearby he had given the appropriate name "the Wilderness." A small clearing had been made at one end of the wood, where we erected the swing and the seesaw. Here we played for endless joyful hours.

Occasionally the General came down and watched the fun. When one child climbed too adventurously, he or she was peremptorily ordered to a lower branch. We were not to swing too high or to seesaw too hard. He always looked out for the little ones in the party. He made once a remark which immediately aroused my interest...he spoke about some other Wilderness. What followed I didn't understand, a remark about three hard days. "Glad to see it a children's playground." I ran after the General's retreating figure. I was no longer quite so afraid of him, and putting my hand in his, keeping well away from his bad leg, I asked, "Was there ever another Wilderness than ours?"

An expression half comical, half sad, came into the General's eyes when he heard my question. "Yes," he answered, "There was another Wilderness many years ago. Your father had some pretty hard work to do in it. And I was glad he was along. You ask him to tell you the story of 'our Wilderness.' He's a better story-teller than I am."

But as weeks went by I realized that the General was graver and more silent than he used to be in New York and for days at a time we did not see him at all. He seemed to be always writing, and we children were told not to make too much noise. Once I heard him say, "Oh, leave the children alone. Let them have a good time, they can't bother me." His health already undermined by the terrible cancer to which he succumbed, old and penniless, Grant sat stolidly day after day, at his desk or in his armchair, on the piazza overlooking the ocean (I can see him now as I write), a little huddled figure, his pencil racing over his pad, writing against time.

When winter came my father and I continued our usual Sunday afternoon visits to him. The visits were shortened; often I was not allowed in the room - a bitter disappointment. When I did see General Grant, he had aged greatly; the face was utterly weary, and deeply lined. Only the eyes had not changed; they were still young and glad to see us when we entered the room. He made no attempt to rise from his armchair, but his eyes and the warm grasp of his hand told us how welcome we were. He had great difficulty in speaking. Instead of the funny old-fashioned white collar and little black tie which was always crooked, he wore around his neck a silk handkerchief.

Sometimes he couldn't raise his voice above a whisper. Father talked about every conceivable thing he thought might interest him. The Chief listened for a few moments, then his face relaxed, his eyes lost all expression, and he leaned back in his chair exhausted. There were days when he was better, his voice clearer; then he would point to the pile of closely written papers lying on a desk, get up, shoulders and head forward, shuffle the papers until he found what he wanted, and sign to my father to read it. They would comment and talk, the General's face for the time resuming its old expression of interest.

On one of the occasions when I was allowed in his room, he held out his hand to say goodbye. I mumbled something, looked up into his clear, kind eyes, tried to speak, and followed my father to the door. Turning round for an instant, I saw him sitting back in his armchair, head bent on his breast, eyes perfectly listless. I never saw him again.



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