Historical Perspective: The first president to put Martha’s Vineyard on the map

A victorious Civil War general, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the first Civil Rights Act.

President Ulysses S. Grant (seated, right) with his wife standing behind him. At left is General Babcock, his wife and niece; in center, Babcock's sister-in-law. The Bishop Haven Cottage on Clinton Ave. looks much the way it did when Grant visited, 140 years ago this summer. — Courtesy MV Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by current dates or events. This latest installment draws from an article “When Grant Took the Island” by Arthur Railton in the Dukes County Intelligencer (vol. 29, no. 1, August 1987).

Well before the highly publicized visits to Martha’s Vineyard of President Barack Obama, and before him, President Bill Clinton, 140 years ago another visiting president created a wave of excitement that generated headlines across the country and put Oak Bluffs, then a little-known resort community, on the map.

Ulysses S. Grant rose from poverty and obscurity to become the commanding general of Union forces during the Civil War and secure the victories President Abraham Lincoln so desperately needed to keep the Union and his presidency intact. On March 4, 1869, Republican Grant was elected as the 18th president of the United States.

President Grant was adamant that recently freed slaves enjoy the same rights as all Americans. He used federal troops to protect “freedmen” from the Klu Klux Klan and supported the Fifteenth Amendment, which stipulated that no state shall deprive any citizen of the right to vote because of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” And on March 1, 1875, he signed the Civil Rights Act, described by historian H. W. Brands (“The Man Who Saved the Union, Ulysses Grant in War and Peace,” Doubleday, 2012) as “the most ambitious affirmation of racial equality in American history until then, a distinction it would retain until the 1960s.”

One year before he signed that landmark bill, President Grant visited Martha’s Vineyard where he enjoyed a fireworks display, Illumination Night and the adoration of thousands.

“It was nothing compared to the way he took Richmond, but when President Ulysses S. Grant visited Martha’s Vineyard for three days in 1874, he did, indeed, take it over,” Arthur Railton wrote in the his account of the president’s visit for the Dukes County Intelligencer. “Crowds numbering as many as 30,000 at times put on a stunning public display of affection for a President who, in the middle of his second term, was on the brink of a series of shocking scandals …

“The trip, which seems to have been planned in secret, probably had political motivation. Grant was being urged by some supporters to ignore the no-third-term tradition and run again in 1876. He seemed tempted to do so and his wife, Julia Dent, was eager that he run, as were some of his Cabinet.”

The New York Herald, in an editorial, suggested that President Grant might be trying to win over the Methodists, who “were congregating in Wesleyan Grove on Martha’s Vineyard for their annual camp meeting that August in 1874 and the President’s pastor, Rev. Dr. O. H. Tiffany of the Metropolitan Methodist Church in Washington, was there. It was he, the newspapers wrote, who had invited his famous parishioner to join him.”

A quiet bow

Although Mr. Grant did not have the luxury of speedy travel in a helicopter, he did get around, visiting Wellfleet, Hyannis, Nantucket, and Naushon over the course of his visit.

President Grant and his party traveled on a special three-car train placed at the disposal of the President by the Old Colony Railroad, which serviced Cape Cod. They also traveled on the steamer River Queen, an Island ferry since 1871.

“The River Queen docked at the Highland Wharf, which had been built in 1871 by the Methodists so they would not have to disembark at the Oak Bluffs Wharf and pass through the temptations offered in that ‘unholy’ summer resort. A horse-drawn trolley ran from the Highland Wharf directly into the Campground, delivering the faithful unsullied.

“Awaiting the President was a gaily decorated trolley car drawn by six gleaming black horses. The Vineyard Gazette described the arrival: ‘Immediately on arriving, the party entered one of the Vineyard Grove cars, drawn by six horses and appropriately decorated for the occasion, and, followed by a numerous concourse of carriages and pedestrians, proceeded to Clinton Avenue. On reaching that point, so great was the press, notwithstanding the five or six thousand who were congregated in and about the grandstand, that there was some difficulty in extracting the party from the cars; but they finally succeeded in effecting an escape into Bishop Haven’s cottage, where they might recruit a little before appearing to the people. . . . an immense bouquet composed wholly of the most elegant rosebuds and green attracting much attention. (Aug. 28, 1874).’”

“The Grants were given a half hour’s respite before being escorted on foot the one hundred yards or so to the Tabernacle, then a huge canvas tent, where thousands had assembled for the occasion. The regular afternoon services had been sparsely attended as most of the faithful had witnessed the President’s arrival. The regular evening service had been cancelled. The Methodist newspaper, Zion’s Herald, described the scene this way: ‘Even calm Presiding Elder Talbot flushed a little in the face, as he mounted the stand under the canopy and introduced the President of the United States, not to worshipping, but applauding thousands.’

“Grant did not speak after his introduction, instead, ‘as usual he responded with a quiet bow.’ The Vineyard Gazette gave a few more details of the occasion: ‘. . . the space under the canopy and for rods around was one dense mass of eager humanity, such as probably was never known here before. . . Amid a perfect burst of applause, the President was presented, bowing in response to the enthusiastic salutations of the multitude. . . After the singing of “America,” the party returned to Bishop Haven’s cottage. . . [where] the President again appeared a moment on the cottage balcony and then withdrew and was seen no more till six o’clock, when he dined at the Central House.’

“The Gazette reporter may have missed a good story. The New Bedford Mercury reported that after returning to the Haven cottage, the President slipped out to make a private and relaxing visit: ‘The President called at the cottage of Alderman J. H. Collins of Cambridge on Merrill Avenue, and indulging in a quiet smoke, under the admiring gaze of some 20 spectators. . . the crowd didn’t get wind of this movement, which was effected by a neat little bit of backdoor strategy.’”

On the map

“After dining at the Central House, the President and Mrs. Grant were driven around the Campground and, outside it, along the streets of Oak Bluffs to enjoy the Illumination, that display of Japanese lanterns which is today a Campground tradition. It had been introduced six years earlier by the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company outside the Campground, but in recent years, it had spread to Clinton Avenue, within the hallowed area.”

On his last night on the Vineyard, President Grant was the guest of honor at a supper hosted by J. W. Harper of the publishing house, Harper Brothers of New York. “The affair was held at the famed Sea View Hotel, the newest and finest hotel in Oak Bluffs, overlooking Nantucket Sound. It was, no doubt, an elegant affair.”

The following account reveals that in some aspects, presidential visits have not much changed.

“After the supper, another reception followed, this one given in Grant’s honor by Holder M. Brownell, manager and later owner of the Sea View Hotel. It was described vividly by the reporter from the New York Herald: ‘. . . [present were] several hundred ladies and gentlemen, the latter appearing in full dress and the fair sex in the choicest and most elegant toilets which a refined taste or a craving desire for display could possibly conceive. . . those who were not favored with cards of invitation contenting themselves by crowding the corridors and piazzas of the mammoth hotel and peeping through the windows for a glance at the Executive lion. There were thousands of these coming and going all the evening and the scenes outside were scarcely less enlivening and brilliant than those inside. The rustic policemen who were on duty found their authority was not respected and early in the evening they surrendered to the multitude. . . probably not less than a thousand ladies and gentlemen were presented to the President ….’”

Mr. Railton said that the Methodist clergy left the reception about the same time as the President because right after Grant’s departure, “the guests began what was called the ‘hop,’ with dancing going on until after midnight.

“It was, without doubt, the Sea View’s finest hour. It was much more than that: it was overwhelming proof that Oak Bluffs had made it into the big time as a summer resort. Laudatory articles appeared in the major newspapers of the country each day describing the Presidential visit and most mentioned the physical charm of the Vineyard. The weather was superb during the entire three days and the reports praised the loveliness of this delightful seaside paradise. In a year of economic depression, such publicity must have buoyed the spirits of the directors of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company who were having some difficulty selling their building lots. The Presidential visit had put Oak Bluffs on the front pages of America and they began to dream of replacing Newport as the East Coast’s finest summer resort.”

The following day, Sunday, the Big Sunday of Camp Meeting, as the final day was traditionally called, President and Mrs. Grant attended the morning service and then boarded the Monohansett, bound for New Bedford. The President said nothing upon departing.

“He bowed slightly, waved to the crowd, and with Julia on his arm walked up the gangplank. The steamer pulled away, the crowd dispersed and life on the Vineyard returned to normal.”

Highlights of President Grant’s Civil Rights Efforts

Following an unrelenting spate of violence against freed slaves and Republicans, Grant explained his use of federal authority to enforce the law in the southern states and argued for Civil rights legislation:

“To the extent that Congress has conferred power upon me to prevent it, neither Ku Klux Klans, White Leagues, nor any other association using arms and violence to execute their unlawful purposes can be permitted in that way to govern any part of this country; nor can I see with indifference Union men or Republicans ostracized, persecuted, and murdered on account of their opinions, as they now are in some localities. I now earnestly ask that such action be taken by Congress as to leave my duties perfectly clear.”

President Grant commented after he signed “An Act to Enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment,” also known as the Klu Klux Klan Act:

“It is my earnest wish that peace and cheerful obedience to law may prevail throughout the land and that all traces of our late unhappy civil strife may be speedily removed. These ends can be easily reached by acquiescence in the results of the conflict, now written in our Constitution, and by the due and proper enforcement of equal, just, and impartial laws in every part of our country.”

President Grant reached out to the North and South in his first inaugural address:

“The country having just emerged from a great rebellion, many questions will come before it for settlement in the next four years which preceding administrations have never had to deal with. In meeting these it is desirable that they should be approached calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride, remembering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained.”

As a general and president, Grant was a man of few words and used the following speech often:

I rise only to say that I do not intend to say anything. I thank you for your hearty welcomes and good cheers.”

General Grant on war:

The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”