Lately I have been saying goodbye to New York City—to bagels and bridges and underground tunnels and my sleepless college years. I have eaten my last halal dinner in Riverside Park, and I’ve stopped at the Met to give my last regards to Joan of Arc. Some night before I move this month to Washington, DC, I will take the Staten Island Ferry for the last time in a circle, lean over the rail and watch the Statue of Liberty rise, come close, and then recede.
I am saying goodbye to the places I know. But I had never yet been inside Grant’s Tomb, a national monument to the Civil War general and U.S. president located by the Hudson River at 122nd Street. This in spite of the fact that I graduated from Grant High School in Portland, Oregon, and then from Columbia, where I lived for four years just a few blocks west of the general’s resting place. You could say that I owe Ulysses S. Grant—who died 131 years ago today—my education, among other things. It felt wrong to leave New York without paying my respects.
Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb? No one, as the punchline goes, since Grant and his wife are entombed—not buried—in sarcophagi, raised on a dais, and watched over by the busts of Civil War generals. A/C clatters in the shadows. Sun haloes the neoclassical dome. The murals high on the walls show victories: Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Appomattox. The inscription on the marble facade reads, “Let us have peace.” This, in 1868, was Grant’s presidential campaign slogan. As the park ranger explained to me: Having won the Civil War as the “Unconditional Surrender” general, Grant ran on a platform of black civil rights and reconstruction, promising, essentially, to make America whole again.
Richard Rubin, writing about Grant’s Tomb in the July 1996 issue of The Atlantic, confessed that his favorite exhibit at the monument was the guest register:
Of course, it's not the kind of thing you tend to notice immediately in a classical mausoleum with two eight-and-a-half-ton sarcophagi of Wisconsin red granite, five scowling bronze busts, and a pair of seventeen-foot-high wood-and-bronze doors. [But] I’d hate to think what would happen if the Parks Department ever gave up on the guest register. At the very least, some local denizens would lose a place to record thoughts, ideas, or merely the fact that they are still alive.
Two decades later, the guest book is still there by the door, with the same brief comments: “Great general of the Civil War.” “Beautiful and humbling.” “WOW.” The day I went, July 15, a couple from Nice, France, had signed the register. Five thousand miles from the tragedy unfolding in their city, they stood in the tomb among the draped flags and murals and wrote, in French, “Very beautiful place to remember.”
“I am deeply sad,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2010, after reading the memoirs that Grant finished in his last days, before he died of throat cancer on July 23, 1885:
Toward the very end (when this picture was taken) he could no longer talk and was in constant pain. Knowing that, death is always in the background for the reader. But having Grant acknowledge death is breath-taking. There is so much there—a twice elected leader of the most advanced nation in history. A tanner’s son, failing at so much, turned savior of his country. A slave-holder turned mass emancipator. The warrior transformed into a warrior-poet, and to the last embracing the hare-brained scheme of black emigration.
It’s all just too much. I am a black man, and God only knows what Grant would have made of me in that time, or in this one. I asked myself that question so many times while reading that I made myself ill. I don’t care to ever hear it again. Grant is splendid to me, and I am sick of keeping score.
Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? No one. There’s a deep sense of loss in this joke—as if the monument this country built to the hope of its healing were empty; as if we break, over and over, even after fighting so hard to stay whole.
But then again, that’s what America does. We’re a nation of contradictions. As one of Ta-Nehisi’s readers wrote six years ago:
I’m an Army officer in Afghanistan, and the best of us here learn what made Grant such a good soldier, which is that we have to be hard and kind and stubborn and conciliatory and embody all sorts of contradictions in order to get from here to there. Grant was the best officer and citizen the Army has ever produced, in my view, in large part because he embodied all the contradictions that come with the United States. Grant neither had nor claimed any big answers, but he was a thoughtful, observant American who did his best as he understood it literally till the day he died.
“Let us have peace,” says Grant’s Tomb. Who’s buried there? No one. That kind of hope doesn’t die.