AS LITTLE RAY PEEKED UNDER the American flag attached to President Grant’s pew earlier this month, I began a new process of understanding the complicated man who made my hometown famous — a Civil War general some dubbed “the butcher” and a man remembered also for his devotion as a husband and father of four children.
This year marks the sesquicentennial of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) at the village of Appomattox Courthouse, Va.
As the nation looks over its shoulder to see this military man and two-term 18th president more clearly through 150 years, I just drive from my home in Colorado back to where I grew up in Galena, Ill., to visit my folks.
Galena is Grant’s ground zero.
From here, he and eight other generals headed to distant battlefields beginning in 1861 when the town’s population was about 12,000 residents.
We still see him at every turn in our community, which now holds steady at about 3,400 residents.
A statue of Grant stands in his namesake city park, a green spot along the Galena River where I once played in the fountain and later attended Easter sunrise services.
There he stands again with his generals to shake Lee’s hand in Thomas Nast’s 9-foot by 12-foot “Peace in Union” oil painting that hangs on the second floor of the Galena Historical Society and U.S. Grant Museum.
However, as of late my thoughts wander more toward where Grant sat — where he reposed and recharged.
We see his dining room table and chairs on display with other furniture and artifacts in the hillside brick home our town gave the Grant family following his Civil War victory.
Yes. We gave him a house, and a nice one with a view at that.
He sat down with his family there to enjoy dinner every evening.
Every Sunday morning, the Grants sat in a pew I noticed after my three boys scampered up the steep narrow steps to the sanctuary of the First Methodist Church on Bench Street.
We arrived there on a Monday afternoon in early June for a week-long afternoon vacation Bible school.
Ray in five minutes spotted the small American flag posted on a pew left of the pulpit about eight rows back.
A college-age church member and VBS volunteer told me that they tag that pew with the flag because they know without a doubt that the Grants used it.
In those days families apparently rented pews the way city folks rent parking slots, and the church kept the records.
Of course, I already knew this was Grant’s church.
I probably knew that since I attended VBS there as a child in the 1970s , a girl already steeped at school in local Grant history.
But I pictured the past better after seeing this little flag under the pew arm and studying a blurry black-and-white photo in the foyer that shows the church festooned with bunting and a giant “Welcome” sign posted during Grant’s homecoming parade in 1865.
The Ohio native’s youngest child, Jessie, was just 2 when the family boarded the paddle-wheeler in St. Louis that brought them up the Mississippi River to Galena in April 1860.
Grant, then 37, came to town to work with two of his brothers in the family’s leather goods store. His wife, Julia, was 34, and their three other children were Frederic, 10; Ulysses, 8; and Nellie, 4.
A very different world ensconced those kids.
How glad Grant would be to know that 150 years after the high point of his service to this country my little boy, Ray, 5, would enter his church as a visitor and find a special friend in a member — a dark-skinned girl about his age adopted from Haiti by a local family.
Grant supported the 15th amendment to the constitution, which during the Reconstruction era allowed former slaves to vote.
Before the second term of his presidency ended in 1877, he also supported the Enforcement and Civil Rights acts of 1875 to give more freedoms to blacks that included the right to peaceful assembly and entrance to certain events.
It was a start.
And we are nowhere near a finish.
But it spoke to me that Ray ran his fingertips over this girl’s neatly braided corn rows with beads, and then she giggled as they clasped hands. Happy Fourth of July, America!
Pam Mellskog can be reached at email@example.com or 303-746-0942. For more photos and stories, visit Mommy Musings online at http://mellskog.pmpblogs.com/.