The Grants’ Governors Island

Many of America’s leading military figures spend at least part of their careers on Governors Island. Three generations of Grants served here.

The Block House

The Block House

Of all the Grants, Ulysses S. spent the least amount of time on the island. Captain Grant was here for all of a few weeks in the summer of 1852 just before he and the 4th Infantry went to the Pacific. A very pregnant Julia returned to Ohio while her husband lived briefly here in the Block House, which was officers’ housing in 1852. Grant visited Washington DC for a tried period and his trip to the capital coincidentally coincided with the death of Henry Clay. It was out West, far from his family, that he got into his drinking trouble.

Commanding officer's house

Commanding officer’s house

His son Frederick Dent Grant spent the most time here. He did two stints commanding the Department of the East in the 1900s and 1910s. As commander, he lived in this house. The plaque is a who’s who of the late 19th and early 20th century Army. IMG_1410 Here are a few interior shots. The city did a great job rehabbing this structure over the past year. This is also where Reagan met Gorbachev in the late 1980s. IMG_1413 IMG_1414Here is Major General Frederick Dent Grant at a garden party. We know that this image was taken in 1907 or later because the younger lady standing up is identified as Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant III. This was Frederick’s daughter-in-law. Her maiden name was Edith Root and she was the daughter of powerbroker Elihu Root. As Secretary of War in the Roosevelt Administration, Elihu Root returned Fort Columbus to its original name, Fort Jay. We know the photo is from 1907 or thereafter because Edith married Ulysses S. Grant III that year in a big Washington ceremony. 09434r Look closely at the image and you see that it was taken in front of the commanding officer’s house. This is evident because they are situated next to one of the canons, which you can see in the image of the house I took last week. Grant died the same week the Titanic went down in 1912. After he passed on in Manhattan, he was lay in state here in St. Cornelius. His good friend President Taft came to pay his respects.

the Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion

the Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion

10388r And here is his funeral. This is 26 April 1912. I did not know until discussing it with one of the rangers at Governors Island this summer that Frederick had a large funeral procession much the way his father had. Frederick Dent Grant is buried at West Point.

Ulysses S. Grand III as a young officer

Ulysses S. Grand III as a young officer

Last but not least there is Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the Civil War general and son of Major General Frederick D. Grant. Grant was a young officer during the Great War, holding many positions of responsibility at a very tender age. In the 1930s he was part of the II Corps stationed here in Pershing Hall.

Pershing Hall, rear

Pershing Hall, rear view

Pershing Hall, front view

Pershing Hall, front view

This was a difficult time for the American military. Officers such as Grant, Marshall, and Eisenhower toiled away in the 1920s and 1930s for the war that many knew would come. Having been so close to the negotiations at Versailles, Grant III knew that better than anyone. It is interesting to note that he and Edith’s daughter died in March 2014. It’s a good reminder that we are not talking ancient history here.

(the two Frederick Dent Grant images, Library of Congress; US Grant III portrait, Archive of U.S. War Department)

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Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, cont’d

I wrote the post below last summer. This morning, as I often do on Sunday mornings on my way to Governors Island, I stopped in to this church for a few minutes. It is a quiet respite from the city and a place to gather one’s thoughts before the day gets underway. I noticed there were a larger number of flowers spread about. It turns out that today is the anniversary of 1975 canonization of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. IMG_1464 One of the most intriguing things about Lower Manhattan, at least to me, is its juxtaposition of the old, often very old, and the new. Judging by the photograph in the previous post, one could be forgiven for not grasping this. In the midst of all those skyscrapers, however, right there on tip in fact, is the St. Elizabeth Seton Shrine. From afar one cannot see it amidst the much taller buildings, but it is there. Here it is close up, as I took it last week. The skyscrapers are clearly visible behind it. All of this is right across the street from the Staten Island ferry.

Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, 7 State Street

Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, State Street, New York City

Saint Elizabeth was beatified by Pope John XXIII in 1963 and canonized in 1975. In fact, she was the first native born American so designated. Seton was born Elizabeth Ann Bailey in New York CIty in 1774 just prior to the American Revolution. Her family bounced around a great deal during and after the war, living in Pelham, Staten Island, and in different spots in Lower Manhattan. At one time they lived next to Alexander Hamilton at 27 Wall Street. (Hamilton is buried in nearby Trinity Church, in an unmarked grave. ) She and her husband even fêted George Washington, on his sixty-fifth birthday no less. Legend has it that the structure above may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, though evidence proving so has not surfaced. It was used for the Union War effort during the Civil War. Here is the plaque  on the exterior wall. Watson House plaque Many of these buildings were torn down in the mid-twentieth century to make way for office space. That is New York City for you. Here are a few more details. Seton hanging plaque

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

The story is more detailed than I am writing here, but Elizabeth ended up converting to Catholicism, moving to Maryland, and founding the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in Emmistburg in 1809 . She died there in 1824. Those who know their Gettysburg Campaign may know where I am going with this. The First and Eleventh Corps both passed through Emmitsburg hurrying on their way to the battle. The Sisters of Charity, with other locals, gave assistance to the Army of the Potomac in the form of food, rest, and information about the surrounding area. Here is the view of the terrain.

View from St. Joseph's College and Mother Seton Shrine, Emmitsburg, MD

View from St. Joseph’s College and Mother Seton Shrine, Emmitsburg

One of the most touching vignettes about the Battle of Gettysburg is the death of General John Reynolds. Reynolds of course died on July 1st, killed instantly by a bullet to the head. Unbeknownst to his family until just after his death, Reynolds was secretly engaged to a woman named Kate Hewitt. He was even wearing something like an engagement ring, engraved “Dear Kate”, when he died. After his death, Kate Hewitt joined the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg but disappeared mysteriously three years after the war. The Hayfoot and I had wanted to stop here for several years and finally did this past June during the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Campaign. Gettysburg itself is about 6-8 miles up the road. It is an incredible story on so many levels.

Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton's final resting place, St. Joseph’s Cemetery

Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton’s final resting place, St. Joseph’s Cemetery

(St. Joseph’s College image/Mike Rakoski, NPS)


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Sunday morning coffee

It is another early Sunday morning, though I did roll over and sleep in a bit. I figured I’ll get the 10:00 rather than the 9:00 boat. These weekends where I double up on the sites are fun, but they do take it out of you. The crowds were big at the TRB yesterday. It was a combination of the rain and anticipation for the Ken Burns/Geoffrey Ward documentary that starts tonight. Alas, I myself will miss the beginning unless it is streamed online. Such are the hazards of not having a television. I will probably order the dvds and watch at my own pace. I am especially interested to see what they do with part one, which is going to cover aspects of the book I am writing.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of William McKinley and ascension of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency. Roosevelt was hunting and hiking in upstate New York when he received the news. A few sharp tacks even knew this when I threw out the hint yesterday during my tours. In a small irony McKinley died on the anniversary of the Battle of South Mountain, where he had fought as a young officer during the Maryland Campaign in 1862. It would be interesting to know if Burns and Ward knew this and scheduled part one for this occasion.

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, 28 East 20th Street

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, 28 East 20th Street

The resting places of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Hyde Park

The resting places of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

(images/The Strawfoot)


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Bon weekend

3f04112rI am sorry about the lack of posts. It was a busy week. The semester at my college is now in full swing. I also gave a talk at a Civil War roundtable on Wednesday, which took some time to put together. The talk went well and it was a great time. The group may come to Governors Island for a field trip next summer.

Today is the anniversary of the battle of St.-Mihiel. The memory of St.-Mihiel parallels the battle of South Mountain; both were largely overlooked because of the larger fighting at Antietam and in the Meuse-Argonne that took place shortly thereafter. I am hoping that misconceptions like these are changed during the Great War centennial. My news feeds have pulled in quite a bit of centennial coverage from Europe over the past two months. I hope Americans don’t wait for three years for the anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war to start paying attention.

During a Centennial Commission conference call on Wednesday someone mentioned the reconstruction of a WW1 monument right here in Brooklyn. I must say I was surprised and had missed this story entirely. Apparently in the early 1970s vandals desecrated the Saratoga Monument in Bed-Stuy, stripping it of its bronze plaque and selling it for scrap. Such vandalism was not unusual during NYC’s Dark Years. Grant’s Tomb, for instance, was covered with graffiti and even bullet holes in some of the structures on the exterior grounds. If my friend Charles Hirsch were still alive I would have gone with him on an excursion to check out the Saratoga Monument. It won’t be the same but I will still make it out there in October, with pictures and commentary.

It is going to be a bust weekend, TRB tomorrow and Governors Island on Sunday. It should work out well because it is supposed to rain tomorrow and be nice Sunday. There are three more weeks to go in the GI season.

(image/Library of Congress)

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Sunday morning coffee

It was a great day at the Roosevelt Birthplace yesterday. Charlie DeLeo was indeed on hand and gave an entertaining and enlightening talk about his 3+ decades maintaining the Statue of Liberty. His was a unique experience, and due to changes in procedures one that will not be come along in quite the same way ever again. Here are a few pics. In the one photo he is reaching into his hat pulling out the names of the raffle winners of his biography. As you can see, everyone was eager to have their copy signed. Keep in mind that Mr. DeLeo often speaks at schools and other venues. Everyone present yesterday can attest to how special his story is.






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The Amazing Birds of Theodore Roosevelt

Over the summer I made the acquaintance of Margaret Porter Griffin. Ms. Griffin taught school for years and recently wrote a biography of Theodore Roosevelt that focuses on his life from ages eight to eighteen. The title tells you the book’s focus: The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt: The Determined Independent Study of a Boy Who Became America’s 26th President. Recently she sat down to answer some questions.

Cover 2The Strawfoot: How did you get interested in Theodore Roosevelt?

Margaret Porter Griffin: I taught about the Rough Riders in fifth grade history class, and the kids loved TR’s personality. Later I read Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough and had to find out more about him.

What, if anything, surprised you the most about him?

Probably the depth of his understanding of international affairs. It began when he was very young, while traveling through Europe with his family. They spent two complete years in Grand Tours before he turned fifteen. No president before or since has had such a firsthand reference for countries, their relationships and the psychology that goes on among them. Hence the “Big Stick” diplomacy. And this was one of the reasons he was able to facilitate the peace treaty between Japan and Russia.

What was the process of writing the book?

I’d had a fellowship several years ago and chose to study TR as a naturalist. One of the end products was to be a book. I wrote a very nice outline which I never used. At first I meant to write about his whole life. Too big. Then I thought I’d write about his whole life as a naturalist. Still too big. I noticed that more than one author commented about his independent learning. As an educator, I knew that the point where a student takes off and reads to learn is massively important. So I concentrated on the influence to his education of his family, his peers, and his driven interest in the natural world. I wrote one chapter, but with the consuming schedule of teaching, didn’t get any more done until I retired two years ago. Then I got to work using all the research I had in boxes. And I’ve developed a pretty good TR library, too.

Your book focuses on Roosevelt between the ages of eight and eighteen. You yourself taught for many years. Did you classroom experience give you any insights into Theodore?

I taught eleven-year-olds for about twenty-five years, and I think it’s a great age for launching into all sorts of things. I could see how Theodore took off in his independent learning with the encouragement of those around him. My experiences provided insights for my students they wouldn’t have normally had. I used him as the subject for town hall meetings – they saw how he overcame physical frailty as a child. They learned about primary sources from sites like the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, Sagamore Hill, the Elkhorn Ranch, and the Houghton Library at Harvard.

His mother and father influenced him in different ways. What were they like?

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. was a great man, a moral leader, but also a fun-loving father who entirely enjoyed his children. Martha Bulloch Roosevelt was just beautiful, and her family treated her like a porcelain doll. But she was probably one of the best storytellers south of the Mason-Dixon Line (or north, for that matter), where she was born. A friend who knew the Bulloch family thought TR got his personality from his mother. The period I wrote about was before he lost either of them, and it was a very nurturing time. His immediate and extended family was very important to him as he grew.

The library at the Birthplace is clearly a place where Teedie spent much of his time growing up. What were his biggest intellectual influences as a child? What did he read?

Theodore Sr. brought him books to read, important because he was near-sighted – he could only see things close to him well until he was thirteen and got eyeglasses. As a sick little boy sitting on that red, tasseled chair in the library, he loved learning about Livingstone’s travels in Africa and looking at the exotic animal etchings. He also said more than once that the magazine Our Young Folks was instrumental in his childhood, teaching him more than he learned during college. He had several reference books on birds by Elliott Coues and Spencer Baird, which he pretty much wore out. But like all Victorian youths, he read the classics and a lot of poetry. He loved heroes and wanted to be like them. He said he’d read Plutarch’s Lives a thousand times. (I haven’t read Plutarch’s Lives – have you?). He could remember everything he read, too, for all the years he lived. His father’s friends, including John Hay and the major social reformers in New York City, were also intellectual influences.

487px-Smithsonian_Institution_Archives_-_MNH-28191Tell us about the Osborns.

Theodore’s best friend as a teenager was Frederick Sturges Osborn, who lived on Park Avenue but also in the summers at his family’s country home in Garrison, New York. Fred’s father, William, was head of a railroad; his brother, Henry, later was president of the American Museum of Natural History. Theodore and Fred loved nature and birds and had a club with their friends – they really took themselves seriously. They had a constitution and bylaws, and read reports about their expeditions. Thanks to Theodore’s cousin Emlen Roosevelt’s notes in the Houghton Library at Harvard, we know about this “band of bird-lovers and adventurers,” as Henry called them. They took taxidermy lessons and stuffed their own birds. But Fred tragically drowned in the Hudson River when he was sixteen, and Theodore remembered him fondly in his autobiography. I really, really wanted to find Fred’s letters and notebooks, hoping his family might have saved them. I contacted their descendants, who still live in Garrison, and was able to get pictures and more information, but no notebooks. I did find out that his bird collection was donated to the AMNH like Theodore’s was.

Theodore’s story during his formative years was very much a Victorian tale. In what ways did he embody the era? Was he an anomaly in any way?

The Victorians were always classifying things, especially in the natural world. Theodore had one of the greatest bird collections around. Because of his ambitious and serious nature he seemed eccentric to others, but when they got to know him, they usually loved him.

What should people most know about Theodore Roosevelt?

He “kept his eyes on the stars and his feet on the ground,” as he told others to do.

Are there any ideas for future projects?

I recently started a blog,, that sorts through topics about TR I’ve come across during the past dozen years. I really like it, because it allows me to rethink some things and present them in a different way (coincidentally, that’s a great way to retain knowledge). I hope more people will understand more about our twenty-sixth president through it. I’ve transcribed 300 letters between my grandparents during World War I, before they were married. He was a captain in the Army and she a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. The letters are endearing, but at the same time present a picture of life in the early Twentieth Century that I think many will be interested in. I’m going to write a biography of John Joseph Pershing, General of the Armies. He’s one of the people I got off on a tangent studying when I was reading about TR.

The timing for a Pershing biography could not be better with the Great War Centennial underway. I should conclude by noting that teachers can receive the twenty page study guide you have prepared by contacting you through your blog.

(images/the top is the book’s cover and the bottom two whale-headed storks collected in Africa during the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition immediately after he left the White House. Roosevelt had a lifelong interest in nature, especially birds.)



Filed under Interviews, Theodore Roosevelt Jr (President)

The Keeper of the flame is coming to the Roosevelt Birthplace

1623752_796568773696932_4253042670662453745_nIf you are looking for something to do this coming Saturday, here is something special: the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace is hosting Charlie DeLeo. For over three decades Mr. DeLeo maintained the torch in the Statue of Liberty. That meant a 151 foot walk every day more than 2,500 times. Rain, shine, heat, frost. The work had to go on. Talk about a unique perspective on the city, and even the world given the hustle and bustle of New York Harbor. I can’t tell you what a singular experience this should be. And it is free.

We take the Statue of Liberty for granted because it has always been “just there.” It is such a part of our lives that it is easy to forget it is people like Mr. DeLeo who help make it possible. Everyone in the world knows the Lady Liberty.

It is always the right time to visit the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. Mr. DeLeo’s talk is sure to be one of the more unique moments in the history of this historic site. The contact information is on the side here. There is still time to make your reservation.

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