A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Galena and the General

Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress / Public domain
Wikimedia Commons

You'll find it just over the Mississippi, next door to Dubuque. The rolling hills all around hide the place, so when you drop down into Galena, Illinois, it feels like a discovery. It’s a 19th century gem where 85 per cent of the buildings are restored and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Galena, Illinois, the whole of it, is a museum.

Nine Civil War generals once called the place home--not bad for a stop on the river. Eight of them you'll have to Google, but the 18th President of these United States, 1869-1877, is a name you’ll recognize. His presidency is probably less memorable than his command of the Union Army during the Civil War. General Ulysses S. Grant fought Robert E. Lee and took sword at Appomattox, and promptly, boldly, and respectfully gave it back. As a warrior, he was a generous man.

As a commander he was indefatigable, as a strategist determined, relentless and disciplined. But when the smoke cleared, he championed charity and grace that was much harder for others to give than it seemed to be for him. He faced the horrors of war head on just as he faced peace once the war’s canons went silent. A lion and a lamb somehow co-existed in the soul of Ulysses S. Grant. Go figure.

Late in life, when he was suffering from throat cancer, President Grant became a writer when Mark Twain convinced him the world could be a better place if he’d sit down and record his memories. That was a dumb idea, but Twain wouldn't take no for an answer. When a few of Grant’s published essays brought rewards, Twain made offers he couldn't refuse. U. S. Pres number 18 put just about every bit of what strength he had left into the story of his considerable legacy. 

Not long before those memoirs were finished, the New York World published a story that claimed Grant's memoirs were entirely ghost written. While Grant's friends may be asserting that it's his work, the piece said, a nation should not be fooled by the "false idea. . .that he is a writer. He is not." 

In his massively detailed biography of U. S. Grant, American Ulysses, Ron Chernow refutes the charge by describing how hard Grant worked to finish that memoir, even though he was dying. 

Seems to me you need only to read a letter Grant wrote to the grandmother of James Birdseye McPherson, the second-highest ranking Union officer killed during the war. McPherson died at the Battle of Atlanta, and when General Grant, his boss and friend, heard the news, he fell hard into deep and reverent sadness. McPherson was beloved by his troops, a close friends. 

Our nation grieves for one so dear to our nation's cause. To know him was but to love him. It may be some consolation to you, his aged grandmother, to know that every officer and every soldier who served under your grandson felt the highest reverence for his patriotism, his zeal, his great, almost unequaled ability, his amiability and all the manly virtues that can adorn a commander. 

And then this: "Your bereavement is great,' he wrote, "but cannot exceed mine."

That's not just gorgeous style, that’s heart spilling hurt over the page.

Frederick Douglas, the most prominent African-American of his time, said this of our 18th President: "To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. . .He was accessible to all men. . .The black soldier was welcome in his tent, and the freedman in his house." 

If, like me, you thought President U. S. Grant was a hard-nosed general who never escaped the shadows of a bottle, a dim-witted President who didn't drain the swamp when he dang well should have, just drop by Galena, Illinois, sometime, a darling and remarkable old place; visit Grant’s home, spend an hour at the museum--little Galena has a thousand reasons to be proud of its most famous native son.

As do we.


Support for Small Wonders on Siouxland Public Media comes from the Daniels Osborn Law Firm in the Ho Chunk Centre in downtown Sioux City, serving needs of clients in real estate transactions; business formation and guidance; and personal estate planning. More information is available on Facebook or at danielsosborn.com.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
Related Content