As the clock atop the Adams County courthouse struck 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 20, 1867, a steam engine chugged into the Gettysburg Train Station, just north of the town’s central square. Gettysburgians were alive with excitement at the news of the locomotive’s arrival on this “interesting day,” noted a reporter for the borough’s Republican newspaper, the Star & Sentinel.
“At an early hour, flags were flung to the breeze, the streets were lighted up with strangers and the busy crowd teemed with expectation,” the paper continued. “Visitors came in from all parts of the county, and many from neighboring counties to see the great Captain of the age”—Ulysses S. Grant.
Yet the United States armies’ most celebrated soldier—Grant—was not present at that occasion. Rather, he was a thousand miles away, laying siege to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Seven months later, on March 9, 1864, Grant was promoted to command all U.S. forces, and obtained the rank of lieutenant general; with the addition of a third star to his epaulettes, Grant had earned a rank previously held only by George Washington. A little more than one year later in the spring of 1865, Grant led the Army of the Potomac to victory against Robert E. Lee’s dilapidated ranks, effectively ending the Confederate rebellion.
Despite the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, and the war’s subsequent conclusion in May, Grant remained general-in-chief (earning a fourth star in the process), and oversaw operations throughout the former Confederacy during the early years of postwar Reconstruction. Notwithstanding his apparent opposition to both wings of the Republican Party—the anti-civil rights platform of President Andrew Johnson on the one hand, and the congressional Radicals on the other—Grant continued to dutifully fulfill his obligations throughout 1865, 1866, and 1867, and kept a close eye on insurrectionary and racial tensions throughout the South.
With his long list of civic and military responsibilities taking up the vast majority of his time and attention, June 1867 marked Grant’s first opportunity to visit the ground around Gettysburg which had been dedicated, consecrated, and hallowed by the Union dead—and the illustrious words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863—four years earlier.
Aside from Grant, the most notable person present was Pennsylvania Gov. John White Geary, who was himself a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, having served as a major general in command of a Union Twelfth Corps division at Culp’s Hill. Geary, declared the Star & Sentinel, was a “worthy Soldier who so faithfully and fearlessly discharges the high duties of the Executive Office in our State.”
In addition to Grant and Geary, others present at the hotel included Isaac B. Gara, deputy secretary of Pennsylvania; J. Robley Dunglinson, Geary’s private secretary; members of the Committee of Arrangement of the Board of Commissioners of Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery; and “several ladies,” according to the Star & Sentinel.
From the first day’s battlefield, Grant’s party “rode out to Cemetery Hill,” according to the Star & Sentinel. There, reported The New York Times, “the party visited the battle-field and cemetery, and on their return partook of an entertainment given to them by the Commissioners.”
Throughout his battlefield tour, Grant was joined by several Civil War veteran officers, including Geary; Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford, who commanded the Fifth Corps division of Pennsylvania Reserves during the Battle of Gettysburg; and Bvt. Brig. Gen. Horace Porter, a Medal of Honor recipient and Grant’s aide-de-camp.
The following morning, June 21, the assemblage completed “their examination of the entire field,” reported the Star & Sentinel, though no definitive route or itinerary appears to exist. Sometime that day (or perhaps the evening before), Grant, Geary, Crawford, and Porter posed for an image captured by Gettysburg photographer C.J. Tyson in front of the National Soldiers’ Homestead Orphanage on Baltimore Street. On either side of the generals, dozens of children are visible; all of them lost their fathers and were made orphans by the cruel hand of civil war.
Despite its brevity, Grant’s presence in Gettysburg over roughly 24 hours made an indelible impression upon the town and its people for some time.
“The occasion was one of great interest,” opined the Star & Sentinel, “as it enabled all our citizens to see the great soldier who had the honor of giving the last deadly blow to the Rebellion, and whose name is enwrapped with the whole history of the war.” In turn, the paper added, Grant “expressed great gratification at his visit.”
Though Grant reportedly expressed interest in attending the dedication ceremony for Soldiers’ National Monument—which was slated to be completed and unveiled on July 4, 1868—the project was eventually pushed back one year, to the summer of 1869. Unfortunately, due to a conflicting schedule for Grant that summer—who, as of March 1869, became the nation’s 18th president—he did not return to Gettysburg.
Appropriately, however, Grant and his running mate, Schuyler Colfax, received the hearty presidential endorsement of the Star & Sentinel in 1868. In its Oct. 9 issue, the paper opined that Grant and his associates “are honest men and will carry out Republican principles….Union men of Adams County, think over this matter, and talk about it to your Democratic neighbors.”
Additionally, the Star and Sentinel declared Grant’s and Colfax’s electoral victory the “Victory of Justice and Right!”; “A Second Appomattox!”; the “Surrender of the Rebel Army North & South!”; “Reconstruction Vindicated!”; and “The Second Rebellion Closed!”
“THE great Presidential struggle has ended in a glorious triumph of Republican principles and a complete crushing out of the new Rebellion,” the Star & Sentinel concluded. “Treason has met its second Appomattox. The men who saved the Republic are determined to rule it, while Rebels and Rebel sympathizers take back seats.”
Grant, “the great Captain of the age,” was now the great president of the land, and Gettysburg—his host a summer earlier—was indeed proud.
Interestingly enough, it is worth noting that just one day prior to Grant’s arrival, the Star & Sentinel reported on a recent Gettysburg visit by Schuyler Colfax, who was the wartime speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and would eventually become vice president in the Grant administration in 1869.
In a letter to the New York Independent, Colfax wrote that during his battlefield tour he “felt an indescribable sadness stealing over me” as he “stood on the ground sanctified by the patriot blood that had flowed here so freely to save our imperiled land from destruction.”