By Al Ronzoni
Ulysses S. Grant’s ghost visited the Upper West Side April 17, when the Sons of Union Veterans Oliver Tilden Camp No. 26 hosted a birthday party for the former U.S. President at Grant’s Tomb, 122 Riverside Dr. The celebration had special significance this year because it coincided with the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, which catapulted Grant to international fame and the White House.
The proceedings began when a Union bugler blew notes announcing the arrival of a flag-bearing color guard. The keynote speaker was Sons of Union Veterans Larry Clowers, in the role of General Grant, which he has played for over 22 years. A resident of Pennsylvania, Clowers has appeared in over 3,500 reenactments. Clowers was drawn to history as a child in California and his imagination was fired by trips to Disneyland, where his father worked. He started taking part in historical reenacting in 1957 as part of an Indian War cavalry unit. He progressed to portraying historical figures before finally settling on Grant.
“As a young man, Grant led a largely undistinguished life, and later, when he became famous, was accused of being a drunkard, butcher and the worst president in U.S. history,” Clowers said.
Despite this, he said that the former president was driven by two primary instincts: concern for his family and love of country. He noted that during the war, General Grant was driven by one purpose, ultimate victory, even if the cost in lives was great, because it would bring the quickest end to the bloody conflict. Clowers said of Grant’s presidency that the black community revered him for his support of civil rights (Grant was the first president to sign a civil rights bill) and his suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. With regard to the financial scandals and economic depression that plagued his second term, Clowers said Grant’s greatest weakness was misplaced loyalty to friends appointed to high office who abused his trust.
Other speakers included Oliver Tilden Camp Commander George J. Weinmann, decked out in a Union uniform, and Patrick Falci, an actor and performing historian from Rosedale, Queens, who played the Confederate General A.P. Hill in the 1993 film Gettysburg. Conspicuously out of his rebel gray uniform because he was “taking the day off” from playing General Hill, Falci began his remarks by exclaiming how wonderful it was that the federal government had not shut down, which would have prevented the celebration from taking place , since Grant’s Tomb is run by the U.S. National Parks Service. Echoing the view of many historians, he identified the Civil War as the seminal event that led the country on the path to true nationhood.
“Before the Civil War, Americans said the United States are,” Falci noted. “After the Civil War they said the United States is.”
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War was established 1881 as the successor to the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army Veterans’ organization. The Oliver Tilden Camp, one of two in downstate New York, was created in 1884 and is named for Captain Oliver Tilden of Morrisiana, the Bronx. When the war came, he formed Company E of the 38th New York Volunteer Infantry. Tilden was killed at Chantilly, Va., on September 1, 1862, and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Today, the Sons of Union Veterans membership consists of descendants of soldiers, sailors or marines who served honorably during the Civil War, or “associate members” without a veteran ancestor.
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