General Grant Comes to Round Lake
Author: Paul Perreault, Malta Town Historian
Ulysses S. Grant is usually given little attention in modern history textbooks. While credited with being a successful general in the Civil War, he is faulted as a failed president and bankrupt businessman. Like all historic stereotypes, this one contains some truth but overlooks many fascinating aspects of the man.
Grant was a brilliant soldier, perhaps the first “modern” general whose tactics are still studied at West Point. He was a very faithful husband and father. He spent his last tortured days while dying from throat cancer attempting to provide for his family’s financial future. Finally, he was a public man, beloved by his own generation, next only to Lincoln and Elmer Ellsworth. From Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, until Grant’s own death in 1885, he was first in the hearts of his countrymen who saluted him as the savior of the union.
Like other military leaders turned politicians, Grant had the habit of appointing people to responsible positions and then not exercising close supervision. This habit resulted in lots of leisure time for Grant but also many scandals during his two administrations. A portion of that leisure time was spent in our area. As much as I would like to claim that the Grants came specifically to visit Malta, and only occasionally dropped in on Saratoga, I am afraid the opposite is true. However, in order to reach Saratoga they passed through Malta on the Saratoga and Rensselaer Railroad. The R&S (later part of the Delaware and Hudson system) maintained stations at both Round Lake and Eastline (near the corner of Eastline Rd and Rt. 67), so we can feel pretty confident that our forbearers got a glimpse of the Grants as they passed through.
Grant visited Saratoga at least five times that I know of. The first time was in July, 1865, just months after Appomattox and while he was still General in Chief of the Army. After the rigors of the war, the Grants, accompanied by their children, took an extended vacation through the Northeast. It turned into a triumphal procession. After reviewing the cadets at West Point, he came to Saratoga on July 4 and was greeted at the Rensselaer & Saratoga depot by huge crowds who followed him to the Grand Union Hotel. The hotel had just built an adjoining opera house and the owners convinced the General to attend the opening. Oil paintings of the general were hung from the balcony, flanked by red, white and blue bunting. An elaborate reception and grand ball followed.
His next visit took place during the first week of September, 1869. –in the first year of his term as President. On Sept 3, General and Mrs. Grant held a grand reception in the Grand Union Crystal Parlor. Among the guests were the Cornelius Vanderbilts and two prominent local attorneys who would receive appointments to important positions. James McKean was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Utah Territory while George Batcheller was appointed to the International Tribunal and later Consul General to Portugal.
He next returned to our area on July 28, 1873, while on a combined political trip and vacation throughout New England and New York. Accompanied by his daughter Nellie and son Jesse, but not Mrs. Grant, the party arrived at 10 PM by special train from Lake George and was greeted by an immense crowd. A reception was held the following day in the Congress Hotel Ballroom. As soon as the doors were opened, the crowds came pouring in and for hours a steady procession greeted the President... After the reception, he rode out to Saratoga Lake, had an early supper, and left town by 7PM. He might have stayed longer but needed to catch up with Mrs. Grant to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
In July, 1874, the Grants spent close to two weeks in our community and they definitely made the rounds. George Batcheller hosted a reception and ball in honor of the Grants at his new home at 20 Circular Street in Saratoga. Today, the home still stands and is a beautiful bed and breakfast. The President was also welcomed at a reception in Congress Hall where an estimated 5,000 people welcomed him. After five hours the doors were closed and the crowd turned away so that the General could enjoy a cigar with friends. Later events would prove that he would have been better off to continue shaking hands and forgo the cigar.
As exciting as is a visit from a sitting president, the event that really got the attention of area people in the community that summer was the “Great Intercollegiate Regatta” which was held on Saratoga Lake. Harvard, Yale, Columbia Wesleyan, Dartmouth, Williams, Cornell, Trinity and Princeton competed in the most popular sport of the day –six man sculls. Viewed by over 25,000 people, the event caused the New York Times to state, “We can scarcely remember an event not involving a war which has occasioned so much excitement.” The entire front page of the Times that Sunday was devoted to race coverage. Interest was so great that John Morrissey, owner of the Saratoga Race Course, declared, “There will be no racing during Regatta Week.” Fortunately, for the “high rollers” Morrissey and other bookies were taken bets on the regatta.
The race was postponed several times due to rough waters and when finally held, the President had a previous commitment in another part of our community. On that day, President Grant and wife Julie made a whirlwind tour of the Methodist Camp Meeting at Round Lake. He arrived on the morning train and detrained at the new R&S passenger station at the western entrance of the campgrounds. He spent some time at the Bishop’s cottage meeting with dignitaries and then was escorted to the preacher’s stand where he was introduced to the crowd. After enjoying a sermon on Power and Assurance, he ate dinner, held a short reception for the public, and departed back to Saratoga. He was probably convinced to make the visit by the Rev. John Newman, a spiritual advisor to the family who had been associated with many of the founders of the Round Lake Camp. By coincidence, Rev. Newman is buried in Hudson View Cemetery in Mechanicville, near the resting place of Col. Elmer Ellsworth.
Grant’s final visit to Malta was a much sadder occasion. On June 16, 1885, fatally ill and broke, Grant traveled to Mount McGregor in Wilton seeking relief from the effects of his throat cancer and to write his memoirs in the hope that they would support his family after his death. The house now known as Grant Cottage was offered to the Grant family for their use when the General’s condition became known. Although he only survived until July 23, the book was completed and proved to be both a literary and financial success. The royalties providing his wife security for the rest of her life.
On August 4, 1885, Grant’s body made its final passage through Malta by special train on its way to the State Capital in Albany and eventually to New York City. As the train traveled through Malta on the Delaware and Hudson tracks (now the Zim Smith Trail), many a Malta veteran stood along the tracks and offered a final salute to “the great captain of the Union’s salvation.”