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Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 1)

Old State House Museum - Monday, January 07, 2019

Admittedly, for the first century of Arkansas’s statehood, our state was not what one would call a “must visit” destination for either the occupants of the White House, or for that matter, those who sought it. So it would take some very unique personalities to put the Natural State on the destination map for those who held the nation’s highest office.

Ulysses S. Grant, by 1880, had already spent most of the previous two decades as America’s most recognized national hero since George Washington. After graduating from West Point, Grant led units in the Mexican-American War, then rejoined the Army after a brief retirement after the Civil War broke out. After spectacular successes in Kentucky, Tennessee (most notably in the Battle of Shiloh) and the siege of Vicksburg, President Lincoln promoted Grant to General-in-Chief of all the Union Armies.

After the war ended, he served as Army Chief of Staff during Reconstruction. After two terms as president, he declined to run for a third term in 1876, and he and his wife embarked on a world tour. Returning to the United States, he sought to return to office in 1880, but failed to win his party’s nomination. In one of the efforts to build support, he embarked on a nationwide tour which led him on April 15, 1880, to Little Rock. It was his first visit to Arkansas either as a soldier or a politician. He spoke at Concordia Hall (the property is now part of the Central Arkansas Library System campus) and stayed at the Capital Hotel during this visit. He had hoped that as the first Republican Presidential candidate to win Arkansas’s electoral votes, in 1868 and 1872, it would help his comeback, but he failed to win his party’s nomination.

However, not everyone was thrilled to have the former commander of the Union Army in Little Rock. There is a story that when Grant was parading down Main Street, some Little Rock women, possibly mothers or other family of Confederate soldiers, sat in chairs with their backs to the parade route in an expression of contempt for the former president. Also, there is another tale, as described in an article in the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture, which was that the Capital’s larger than normal elevator was built to allow Grant to take his horse up to his room. That is not true; the oversize elevator was added during 1980s era renovations. But it still appeared to have been a very successful visit, and a major milestone as the state moved away from the immediate postwar period. The former President and General-in-Chief died on July 23, 1885, and Grant Street in Little Rock and Grant County (Sheridan) are named in his honor.