In 1962, our family visited Washington, DC for the first time. It was a happy time for us because we were caught up with the spirit of the New Frontier. Our parents, ardent Democrats, had voted for John F. Kennedy. I was just barely a teenager. My father gifted me with JFK’s book, Profiles in Courage.
We stayed at the Willard Hotel for a few days. I smelled some smoke in the lobby but in those care-free days everybody smoked including my father, a three pack-day smoker. There has been a hotel at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue since the first structure was erected in 1816. The present 12-story structure, designed by famed hotel architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who also designed the Plaza Hotel of New York, opened in 1901.
During his presidency, Ulysses S. Grant habitually would walk two blocks every evening from the Executive Mansion, as the White House was then formally known, to the Willard Hotel. There, in the lobby of the hotel, where he had often been a guest, Grant relaxed with glasses of brandy while he smoked his favorite cigars.
People waited to speak with Ulysses S. Grant as he relaxed for the evening smoking and drinking at the DC hotel. They became known as ‘lobbyists’. After his passing, visitors and employees at the hotel claimed they could occasionally detect a whiff of President Grant’s cigars.
Ulysses S. Grant, the leading Union General, was considered the greatest American on the Union side after Abraham Lincoln for preserving the Union through his generalship. America made him the highest ranking general ever after George Washington. Although denounced as “Butcher Grant,” his loss of lives was a lesser percentage compared to other Union and Confederate Generals. He was popular with his troops because he would not retreat whether he won or lost unlike previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac. He then served as president of the United States from 1869 to 1877.
Southern apologists attacked his reputation so declined. But remember he still beat Lee. Alleged that southern historians dominated the writing of the Civil War and managed to damage the reputation of Grant. On the other hand, this may be a case of Peter Principle where Grant like Sherman should have turned down the presidency.
Ron Chernow in his biography argues that Grant as president had a decent record as president despite some scandals. His administration was notable for its defense of human rights. He fought for black rights while trying to reconstruct the South fairly. His administration denounced persecution of the Jews in Romania.
To this day, I wonder if I had smelled the presence of Ulysses S. Grant or even JFK himself who used to smoke cigars also at the hotel when he was a US Senator. I wonder if I had an opportunity to get a whiff of ghost history?