The Grants in Kentucky
In 2002, when Odd Fellows Hall in Covington burned down, the incident brought to light little known historical facts about the Northern Kentucky community. The 146-year old building had once hosted a victory reception for General Ulysses S. Grant just after the end of the Civil War. Kentucky might seem like an odd choice for the victorious Union Commander to visit after the end of hostilities, but in a sense, Grant was coming home.
Grant’s parents, Jesse and Hannah Grant, had moved to the city in 1853. Jesse had moved his young family around southern Ohio for a number of years, each move making the family more prosperous and prominent in town. The family had lived in Georgetown Ohio while Ulysses was growing up; they moved to Bethel in 1840 and then to Covington just in 1854 just before Jesse’s sixtieth birthday.
The choice of locations might seem peculiar at first, because Jesse Root Grant was a vocal and vehement abolitionist. What else could be expected of him? He’d learned the tanning trade as an apprentice in the Brown household, the same family that begat John Brown of Bloody Kansas and Harper’s Ferry. Jesse Grant’s anti-slavery views were well-known to anyone who spoke to him.
Even so, the family moved South of the Ohio River and set up three story brick house on Greenup Street in the middle of Covington. Jesse had sold his tanning business in Bethel and opted instead to expand into the leather goods. Jesse was a good businessman and wasted no time in making a name for himself in town. In terms of today’s currency, Jesse would have been a multi-millionaire. He was estimated to be the richest man in the state of Kentucky. He was an influence in Covington, even without his son’s fame.
Despite his father’s prowess for making money, Ulysses’ business skills were another matter. He had no head for business. Ulysses had been unable to make a go of it at farming, despite his father-in-law’s gift of land. The younger Grant went to his father, hat in hand, for help in 1854. Jesse was willing to provide a job in the family business, but with one provision. He wanted Ulysses’ wife, Julia, and all four children to stay with the elder Grants while Ulysses worked in Illinois.
Ulysses would not agree to leave his family and returned to Missouri to try to eke out a living. By 1858, he was flat broke. The market worsened with the recession of 1857 and Grant found himself reduced to selling firewood on the street corners. In 1859, Grant made a second request for a job in the family business. This time, no strings were attached to the agreement. Ulysses and his family moved to Galena, Illinois in 1860 to work in the family dry goods store.
Grant was still working there when war broke out the following year. He offered his services to Union Army and quickly made his way up the ranks. His visits to his father’s home were few during the war years, because of the demands of leading an army. However, Julia and their four children stayed in Covington with Ulysses’ parents through most of 1862. The children attended school there, and a number of Union generals, including William T. Sherman and John Rawlins, paid their respects at the Grant home.
In 1865, following the end of the war, Ulysses and Julia returned to Covington to visit Grant’s parents. The town was booming. Due to its proximity to Cincinnati and the North, Covington had been little touched by the conflicts of the past four years. Only once had Covington been threatened with an attack during the war, but that threat had never materialized. A new suspension bridge being built by Union officer John Roebling (who would later build the Brooklyn Bridge) would connect it with Cincinnati over the Ohio River within months.
Jesse Grant had prospered with the town. He’d made a fortune during the war and had become a celebrity as the general’s father. He frequently wrote to the local newspapers including the still-printed Cincinnati Enquirer to tell of his son’s feats in war and to correct any articles that he felt were inaccurate or unkind to his son’s reputation. Jesse arranged for a number of receptions and parades for his son when the war hero returned to Covington in 1865. No mention was ever made of his earlier failures or his father’s request to have the Grants live with Jesse and Hannah in Covington before the war. Indeed, Jesse used to his son’s success to gain a minor Federal appointment as Postmaster General of Covington, a post he proudly held from 1866 to 1872.
One reception for Grant took place at Odd Fellows Hall, which was severely damaged last year in an electrical fire. The second floor boasted an unusual truss system that allowed for a suspended ballroom floor that had no obstructing support pillars. The design was thought to be in recognition of the
Ulysses and Julia were less warmly received by Hannah, Ulysses’ mother. Hannah’s reserve was legendary. When he arrived for that visit in 1865, she greeted him with, “So you’re a big man now.” Pride and arrogance were against the strict morality of her Methodist God. Hannah spent a great deal of time at the First United Methodist Church in Covington where the Grants had a pew. The church had split over slavery in 1846, and it was not a surprise that the Grants followed the abolitionist branch of the church. Hannah’s pious, simple ways meant that she would never visit her son during his eight years in the White House. She was content to have her children come to her for visits. While Jesse was a frequent guest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he traveled there alone. Indeed, the neighbors saw Hannah sweeping cobwebs from the back porch on Greenup Street on the day of Grant’s first Inauguration in 1869.
Jesse made Covington his final home and retained his title as Postmaster General until shortly before his death. He passed away there in 1873. Word was sent to the White House to summons Grant to his father’s deathbed, but Jesse died before his son could make it home.
Jeffrey Marks is the award winning author of the US Grant mystery series. In addition, he has written 3 biographies of mystery authors from the 1940s and 1950s. His latest book was a biography of Anthony Boucher, entitled Anthony Boucher. His website is: