Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Something Worth Knowing

A couple of weeks ago I made an exciting discovery, uncovering another son of our earliest Willett ancestor, Ebenezer Willett, 1798-1863. Samuel Willett was heretofore unknown to either myself or my genealogist friend and distant Willett cousin, Joyce. I found him using a database I hadn't seen before called New York'sTown Clerk's Registers of Men Who served in the Civil War. This is the only record I have found that clearly states the names of the parents of the veterans as well as the regiments in which they served and other various bits of information.

After I shared the information with Joyce, she went digging further and found some other information about our newly found uncle, including an obituary for Samuel's daughter Isabelle in The Schenectedy NY Gazette on October 31, 1934. This led me to today's story, which I consider one of the most interesting stories I've found to date. Here is an excerpt from that obituary:

Isabelle Willett Bardin, 83, daughter of the late Samuel Willett, Civil war Veteran who was body guard for President Grant....

As soon as I read that I knew there was a story there somewhere, and as it turns out, boy, was I right about that.

Samuel Willett, son of Ebenezer and Nellie Langdon Willett was born in 1820 New York City. He was married first to Elizabeth Bond. Their two children were Caroline and Ebenezer. Soon after Ebenezer was born, Elizabeth must have died, although we are still researching that. We think this is the case because  in 1850 Samuel has a new wife named Isabelle. He and Isabelle would have 2 daughters, Ida and Isabelle.

Samuel was a bootcutter by trade. He lived with Isabella and his children in the town of Argyle, NY in Washington County which is north and east of Albany, near the Vermont border. While he was living there, the Civil war broke out. Samuel lost his father, Ebenezer, in 1863 and in December of that year he enlisted with the Union Army and was mustered out with in a few weeks. Six days after he enlisted, his young son Ebenezer also enlisted. Together they would serve with the 16th New York Heavy Artillery, H Company.

Left behind with his wife Isabelle, were daughter Caroline, now a young woman of 20, her sisters Isabelle 10 years old and Ida, just a baby. The men of the family had left them behind to fend for themselves keeping the home fires burning while hoping they'd return safely. And, so they did. I didn't find any heroic accounts of Sam's military career during the war and in August of 1865 they were both mustered out as privates and returned to the family, continuing their lives. But it wouldn't be the last time Samuel left his family behind.

After the war, Samuel and Isabelle moved around some, residing in Troy, Albany and a couple of other towns in that area. Samuel continued to work as a boot maker and Isabelle continued to raise her daughters. The war was in the past and became a memory in New York, as time went on. Sam became an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union veterans.

GAR Medal
"The great captain of the Union's salvation", as General Ulysses S. Grant was sometimes called, was elected president and served two terms from 1869 to 1877. His wasn’t the most successful presidency according to what I have read. His cabinet appointments were questionable and corruption was rampant in his administration. Although he had his loyal supporters, many of whom served under him in the war, his bid for a third term was lost and Garfield won the nomination. Grant went on a world tour where he was greeted by many with adoration and by all accounts enjoyed himself after a difficult two terms.
President Grant

Grant moved his family to New York City upon returning from his world tour and entered into business with his son and another businessman named Ferdinand Ward. However, he wasn't any better at choosing business partners than he was at choosing his cabinet, because Ferdinand had been running a Ponzi scheme and in 1884 the brokerage firm of Grant and Ward failed. Ferdinand was arrested and sent to jail. Grant’s fortune was gone.

That same year, in the fall, General Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer. Depressed, without fortune he agreed to write his memoirs in order to make some money to replenish the family coffers. Samuel Clemens would be his publisher.

He began writing his memoirs in late 1884. But his health deteriorated rapidly and his physician, Dr. Douglas, knew that the heat of the city that summer would be too much for the ailing former president. He found speaking difficult and he was weakened and in great pain. The doctor took advantage of an offer made by his friends the Drexels who had a cottage available for the General in Saratoga on Mt. MacGregor.
Drexel Cottage

This move to Mt. McGregor was covered with daily reports in all of the newspapers of the day. There are day by day accounts of the General’s daily activities and updates on his health that began on the day of his arrival.

On June 16, 1885 according to the New York Times, ‘General and Mrs. Grant arrived at the
Drexel Cottage on Mt. McGregor along with his eldest son Colonel Frederick Dent Grant, his wife and 2 children Julia and US Grant, 3rd; Mrs. Nellie Grant Sartoris, the General’s daughter; Jessie Root Grant, his youngest son, with his wife and daughter Nellie. Dr. Douglas, Mr. Dawson, General Grant’s stenographer; Harrison Terrell, his colored valet and Henry McSweeney his nurse.’
Grant and his family on the porch of Drexel Cottage 1865

The Times goes on to report:

 “A tent was pitched this afternoon near the building, which will be occupied during the General’s stay by a veteran who has offered to do guard duty for his old Commander.”

From the book “The Captain Departs” by Thomas Pitkin and John Simon

“When the train arrived at the little platform…there was a hospital cot waiting for the General, but Grant ignored this and started walking up the hill toward the Drexel Cottage. He tottered only a little way, however, passing under an arch which welcomed “Our Hero” and let himself be carried in a rattan chair. He walked up the steps of the cottage with the sole assistance of his cane…After resting a while on the porch, where Mrs. Drexel was to receive him, he went inside and Harrison changed his clothes. He came out again in top hat and black coat and sat for hours until the mosquitoes drove him in. Sam Willett, an Albany G.A.R. veteran mounted guard before his door, telling reporters that he would stay on duty until the general left the mountains.”

Sam Willett had left his family again to serve the General. I don’t know if this was a hardship for the family. Surely with Sam away, no boots would be made or sold to the town folk. Certainly he would be needed at home. Isabella in her early 60s now would need him there to help her. His children were gone from the house by then, except for Ida who was just about 20. She probably had no memory of the first time her father went off to serve his country. But Sam had a loyalty to this man that was not to be equaled. Perhaps he viewed him as a sort of father figure, having lost his father just before he left for the war. Or, perhaps he knew him personally.

On June 30, 1885 The Albany Evening Journal reports:
General Grant in the field.

Something Worth Knowing

“Comrade Samuel Willett of Albany who guards General Grant’s cottage is every inch a soldier. He sleeps in a tent which the general manager…has had pitched about two rods from the cottage. Comrade Willett is a sturdy, thick set man, with bright blue eyes. His hair is grizzled and his face is smoothly shaven. “The first time I saw General Grant” Comrade Willett said to the Journal representative today, “was at Williams Wharf, Virginia and he taught me somethin’ worth knowing” ejaculated the old soldier as his ample breast heaved with pride. I enlisted with the Sixteenth Heavy Artillery, Company H, which left Troy, NY in December of 1863. The next spring, while I was doing fatigue duty helpin’ loadin’ black oats, three bushels to a bag, General Grant walked quietly down alongside of us. The boys began a’cheerin’ and I jined in. ‘Twas mighty hard work, shoulderin’ them oats the way we were doin’ it.”
How to Shoulder a Bag of Oats

General Grant looked at us a while and finally said “Boys, I’ll show you how to shoulder a bag of oats without so much trouble. And he explained to the officer in charge of the work that by having two men place the bags on the shoulders of the men who carried the bags up the hill they’d get there with less effort. After that, twas only boys’ play to carry the bags. I’d go to war today if I got a chance. I’ve done all kinds of guard duty. The doggondest worst thing I ever guarded was ten Army mules. They would kick and fight an’ bray all night. The smallest thing I ever guarded was 15 cents worth of old crude iron bits.” Comrade Willett is positive General Grant is the ‘greatest general in the world’. “Well, he kin out-flank and out-general the best of ‘em” is one of Willett’s favorite expressions when referring to Grant’s ability. Mr. Willett is hale and hearty and 66 years of age. He is proud of his charge. At General Grant’s request, he does not wear an Army uniform.”

In another article in the Evening Journal, the reporter writes:

The Guard’s Rheumatism is Gone

Comrade Samuel Willett of Albany who guards the cottage occupied by General Grant has suffered from rheumatism for many years. He says the “air” at Mt. MacGregor is curing him. “This is just the place for the old hero,” ejaculated Comrade Willett today, “and it’s just the place for me, too. If I get rid of this rheumatism, I’ll be as spry as I was nigh on 20 years ago when I enlisted in the Army."

Sightseers and reporters made the trip up the mountain daily by bus or train hoping to catch a glimpse of the family and the General.

From the book “The Captain Departs”:

Now and then Grant, sitting on the porch on sunny afternoons, writing or reading the newspapers, would look up and nod or wave his hand. Sam Willett, the G.A.R. veteran who had constituted himself Grant’s guard and had pitched a tent behind the cottage, spent part of his time playing with the Grant grandchildren and Dr. Douglas’s two little girls, and the rest keeping unwanted visitors away. Usually no one attempted to reach the porch, but he posted himself at the foot of the steps to prevent it.”

Dignitaries and friends made the trip to visit the General when he was first at the cottage. Samuel Clemens visited numerous times, assisting him with his memoirs, although it was said that Grant was such a gifted writer that there was almost no editing to be done. But, General Grant faded quickly while he was occupying the Drexel Cottage that summer. Each day his activities became more and more difficult and his voice became lower and lower.
The last photo of Grant on the porch of the cottage.

General grant finished his memoirs on July 19th when Samuel Clemens read what he’d written those past few days and declared it completed. Seeing how his friend’s health had deteriorated helped him make that decision . The General asked that his book be read aloud to him, but he took a turn for the worse and that request was never honored. From that day on he was in horrible pain, able to communicate only by writing on a pad of paper he kept with him, if he could summon the energy to scribble a note. His family remained near him and tried to persuade him to eat, but he could not.
Sam Willett courtesy of the Grant Cottage State Site.

While Sam kept guard outside, on the 23rd of July, early in the morning while the grandchildren still slept, the General passed away, with his wife and children at his bedside. How sad Sam must have been at the news. The sobs he heard from within the cottage as the General’s wife grieved must have tugged at the old soldier’s heart.  How he had loved his old Commander.
Grant's Death mask

The undertaker was called for and he prepared the body for burial while it was laid out on the kitchen table in the cottage. An artist was called to make a death mask. The family had decided to delay moving his body from the mountain until funeral arrangements could be made. The decision whether to bury him in New York or in Washington hadn't yet been made and it would take time to decide and then prepare his burial place. 

July 29, 1885


The electric lamp under the flag-draped canopy in the cottage parlor cast a soft light upon the body of General Grant in his coffin. It lies as if in peaceful sleep. The arms cross the breast in natural repose. Only the wasted hands recall his pain. The face is calm. It shows no signs of where the disease crept. There is fullness in the outline and nothing of the death pallor. The hair is combed so that the gray scarcely appears. Bunches of white are in the beard, but it is trimmed as of old. The lips are speaking lips, slightly parted, yet with no space between them. Death has made the face younger by ten years. The body is clothed in broadcloth. Above the buttons of the Prince Albert coat a gold stud glistens. There is a plain gold ring on the little finger of his left hand. The stud and the ring are the only jewelry. White stockings show above the tops of patent leather slippers.

As the days went by, “Another fine Sunday came and with it trainloads of visitors, some of whom hoped to get into the Grant cottage, but most of whom were content to walk buy or gather on a nearby knoll. The family remained in seclusion, except that in the afternoon they were joined by reverend Dr. Newman and Mrs. Newman for devotional services.

In the rear of the cottage, screened from public view, the veteran Willett amused the children. He had constituted himself the children’s playman, and protector. There were still three of them at the cottage: “Colonel Fred’s little boy, aged four, named after his grandfather; Julia, his sister, nine, pretty and demure; Nellie, Jesse Grant’s little girl, a bright pretty child of three.” The old soldier, who had served three years under Grant, had become quite expert in the handling of children. He had rigged up for them swings and a croquet ground, a summerhouse thatched with boughs and leaves, “and there they play every day.” From The Captain Departs

The General's body was placed on a train at the little platform at Mount MacGregor. Samuel Willett, is sure to have been there, escorting his beloved General to the train. Standing at attention, perhaps saluting his Commander one last time, he stood watching the train until it was no longer in sight.

SamWillett 1885

Ulysses S. Grant Home Page
The Grant Cottage
Excerpts from The Captain Departs


Susan (Nolichucky Roots) said...

I am officially a huge fan! I've loved all your posts, but this is beyond fabulous.

I know war changes men - it should. And I'm sure the devotion to one's leader, the gratitude is great. This is so touching and yet I'm trying to imagine how his own family felt. Wonderful, wonderful story. Thank you.

Susan (Nolichucky Roots) said...

I'm running out of adjectives to use for your posts. I don't want to be effusive - actually I do. This is an amazing piece on so many levels.

Such a clear a demonstration of the power of wartime experiences on men - the loyalty and devotion. Amazing. Yet I cannot help but wonder what his own family felt...

Heather Kuhn Roelker said...

I concur, great post! This is a perfect example of one of the stories that make "the hunt" so exciting!