By Amber Holst of Concierge Preferred
Nestled in a hilly corner of Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River, the quaint city of Galena is an ideal place for a long weekend getaway. But beyond its idyllic views, the town also has plenty of sites to interest history buffs. Much of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places; in fact, 85 percent of the town falls within the Galena Historic District. And no visit would be complete without exploring the former home and haunts of one of American history's biggest figures: President Ulysses S. Grant.
While his years in Galena weren’t many, they followed his journey from a store clerk to Union general in the Civil War to being named 18th president of the United States. So if you’re looking to steep yourself in American history, and to step back in time, here’s your guide to Grant’s Galena.
Before Ulysses S. Grant led the Union Army to victory and helped guide the nation through Reconstruction during his two terms as president, he was—as he has admitted—somewhat unsuccessful at business. After brief stints working in both real estate and farming in the St. Louis area, Grant moved his wife and four children to Galena in the spring of 1860, one year before the start of the Civil War, taking his father up on an offer to work as a clerk in the family’s tannery business.
Upon arrival, the family of six rented a red brick house with emerald-green shutters on Bouthillier Street. The home was designed by William Dennison and constructed in 1860 and looks virtually unchanged today. Fun fact: The Grant’s rented the home for approximately $100 a year.
Julia and the kids remained at the home during the Civil War, as Grant was off climbing the ranks of the U.S. Army and orchestrating such monumental victories as the tide-turning Siege of Vicksburg. When he returned to Galena in August 1965, the town's citizens purchased the home and presented it to Grant as a gift for being a war hero. Though he spent a limited amount of time at the residence, he used the home as his official address during the election, his presidency, and even through his retirement.
The house is managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency as the U.S. Grant Home State Historic Site and is open for tours Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. There’s a suggested $5 donation for adults and $3 for children.
While his father’s shop Grant & Perkins no longer exists, you can get a glimpse into Grant’s leather shop-working days—and so much more—at the 6,500-square-foot Galena & U.S. Grant Museum. Located about a mile from the Grant Home, the museum has a one-of-a-kind collection that includes everything from one of Ulysses S. Grant’s cigar butts to 3-D holograms and a plethora of exhibits related to Galena’s early history. The museum also sheds light on subjects such as the geography of the region and its history as a steamboat destination to a busting 19th-century boom town.
Make sure to spend time perusing the American treasures relating to the Civil War, including Thomas Nast’s famous 1895 painting, Peace in Union—9 feet tall and 12 feet wide—and the flag that Galena soldiers raised over Vicksburg after capturing it. Videos and touchscreen kiosks help you learn along the way (and do a good job of keeping kids engaged).
Visiting in April? The museum throws an annual Grant birthday celebration that takes place the weekend before April 27 (his birthday) that offers fun activities for kids, battle reenactments, and even an old-time pie auction.
Given Grant's successful leadership in the Union army, many people felt he could help restructure and bring balance to the country again. Thus, in 1868 Grant embarked on a presidential run, establishing his campaign headquarters at the DeSoto House Hotel.
And it was in the library of the Elihu B. Washburne House where Grant learned the news of his historic election. A noted Galena attorney, Elihu B. Washburne served as a political adviser to Grant (and to Abraham Lincoln before him) and later as the U.S. Ambassador to France. (Note: The Washburne house is only open seasonally—May through October—for tours.)
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