Galena, Illinois

Ulysses S. Grant’s postwar retreat is not the only reason to visit this restored Victorian showcase

Grant moved to Galena in 1860. The town, known as the "outdoor museum of the Victorian Midwest," boasts landmarks including Grant's post-Civil War mansion and Main Street. (Photo courtesy of flickr user _Gavroche_)
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Sculptor John Martinson, who moved to Galena from Wisconsin in 1979, works in a studio not far from downtown. To display his outsize pieces (including a 22-foot-high replica of a Tinkertoy construction, its steel beams painted violet, yellow and green), Martinson turned two acres of land just off West Street into a sculpture park. His soaring installations are sited amid tall trees, footpaths and a gurgling stream. "Galena is a real pretty area, with bluffs and hills and old 19th-century architecture," he says.

"That adds to your creative process."

Galena's past seems to lurk just below the surface. When the Galena Historical Society wanted to enlarge its lead-mine exhibition a few years ago, curators there made a surprising discovery—a lead-mine shaft dating back to the 1830s lay just a few feet from the society's 1858 Italianate mansion. "It was a happy coincidence," says director Nancy Breed. To take advantage of the find, society officials built a footbridge from the mansion to the shaft. Now sheathed in plexiglass, it's the centerpiece of the new lead-mine installation. Among the society's collection of Grant memorabilia are amusing trifles—a cigar butt discarded by Grant and picked up on the street by a Galena boy—as well as a large cache of Grant's letters documenting his war campaigns.

Grant, commissioned a colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment in 1861, left Galena a year after he arrived. He quickly rose up the ranks, rewarded for his leadership and skill as a tactician, qualities that would earn him the admiration of President Lincoln, who in 1862 declared: "I cannot spare this man—he fights." After the war ended in 1865, Grant returned to Galena as general in chief to be greeted by 20,000 cheering citizens and a towering arch over Main Street, emblazoned with the message, "Hail to the Chief Who in Triumph Advances."

The town elders presented the returning hero with a fully furnished mansion. It too has changed little over the years. A portico fronts the red brick, Italianate building; a white picket fence demarcates the half-acre property. Inside, more than 90 percent of the furnishings date back to Grant's tenure, from a massive 15-pound family Bible to delicate Haviland china. Even the general's favorite chair, a green velvet wing back, still stands next to his cigar caddy. (Grant's nicotine addiction was severe; he is said to have begun smoking cigars, perhaps 20 a day, to mask the stench of corpses on the battlefield.)

Grant lived in the house only briefly—he decamped to Washington in September 1865 to help oversee the rebuilding of the South; he would become secretary of war in 1867. But Galena served as his 1868 Republican presidential campaign base. Grant set up headquarters in the DeSoto House Hotel on Main Street; on November 3, 1868, he awaited ballot results at the home of his friend, Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne. Election night was chilly and wet. The men sat by a fire in the library as early returns were reported by Western Union. Shortly before 1 a.m., the final votes were tallied: Grant had won by a hair, besting Democrat Horatio Seymour by 306,000 votes.

Grant and Washburne celebrated with several aides—the group, reported the Galena Evening Gazette, was "merry as a marriage bell." The president-elect then stepped outside, where scores of supporters and the town's Lead Mine Band greeted him with cheers and patriotic anthems. "I leave here tomorrow," he told the crowd. "But it would give me great pleasure to make an annual pilgrimage to a place I have enjoyed myself so much." Grant kept his promise: he continued to visit Galena until his death at age 63 from throat cancer in 1885.

Writer Ulrich Boser lives in Washington, D.C. Photographer Layne Kennedy works from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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