General Grant in Singapore

An autograph letter from former president Ulysses S. Grant[1] is a completely unexpected treasure in my grandfather’s box of family papers. The envelope holding the letter is not in Grant’s hand; evidently Rear Admiral Daniel Ammen (1819?–1898), to whom Grant wrote it in April 1879, handed it on to one of my grandfather’s relatives – at a guess, my great-great-uncle Robert Livingston Beeckman (1866–1935), then a boy of thirteen. Coincidentally, another family connection mentioned in the letter is my great-grandfather Steward’s kinsman, Rear Admiral William Edgar Le Roy (1818–1898).

The letter itself is rather a travelogue, although General Grant is at pains to explain his apparent discourtesy to Richard Wigginton Thompson, the Secretary of the Navy. An interesting postscript is Grant’s compliment to Admiral Ammen on his “paper on the [Nicaraguan] Inter-Oceanic canal”[2]: the Panama Canal would not be built for another quarter-century.

Singapore, S[trai]ts Settlement

Apl. 1st 1879.

My dear Adm[ira]l:

After visiting the Northwest of India as far as Delhi we returned to Calcutta, thence to this place. Thus I was deprived of seeing anything of India – the Peninsula – south of the rail-road connecting Bombay with Calcutta, Madras, Ceylon[3] &c., but I have been well repaid.

We took a steamer at Calcutta – the Mail Steamer – for this place making three days’ stop at Rangoon,[4] two at Moulmine,[5] one at Penang[6] and the most of a day at Mulacer.[7] At every place we were entertained at the house of the Lt. Governor or Chief Commissioner. In fact there has not been an evening since we arrived at Bombay that we have not had a dinner party, or else have been traveling, and often parties or receptions after dinner…

I have been very much pleased with Burmah and the Burmese. They are free from the blighting influence of Caste and women have the same rights they do with us. They visit among themselves and among the Europeans and receive visits.[8] The shops are largely attended by women as salesmen and altogether the country is becoming wealthy…

Rangoon is growing so rapidly that any new persons coming to the city to do business would be compelled to build or take a long lease upon a house to be built by some rich native. You will scarcely find a native in the land acting in a menial capacity, as a servant. The servants all come from India proper, mostly from Madras.

At Penang we found a Mail and in it your letter of the 5th of Feby. I was sorry to hear that the Sec[retary] of the Navy felt slighted that I had gone off in advance of Richmond[9] without notifying him. The fact is I never thought of notifying him. The Richmond was to have sailed on the 10th of Dec[ember] and did not get off for a month later. I was forced therefore to go in advance or give up the trip. I had copies of the Secretaries [sic] instructions, his letter to Capt. Burnham and to Adml. Leroy. I duly notified Le Roy of my plans in three several [sic] letters. I have also corresponded with Capt. Burnham & Admiral Patterson[10] & could not think more was necessary.

I had a dispatch from Capt. Burnham from Aden saying that he would be at Galle, Ceylon, probably on the 12th of this month. I have informed him and the Adml. – Patterson – that I shall leave here for Bangkok on the 6th or 7th and the latter place for Saigon, [Indo] China, about the 18th.

From Saygon I will take the first steamer going to Hong-Kong. If the Richmond arrives at Hong-Kong while I am there I will take her to coast up China and to run over to Yokohama. But I begged the Adml. to notify me or Capt. Burnham if it was inconvenient to let the steamer go. I wish you would explain to the Sec. [of the Navy] that I should not have neglected to explain to him my movements if I had thought of it.

Mr. Borie[11] enjoys his trip very much and I think is very much improved since we started. He is in a hurry to get back however. He bids me give his love to you, Mrs. Ammen[12] & the little Ammens.

I will probably be in Japan by the time this reaches you, and expect to spend at least a month, it may be more, there.

With Mrs. Grant’s and my kindest regards to you and all your family, and your brother,[13] I am, as ever,

Faithfully yours,

U.S. Grant

 

Adml. D. Ammen, U.S. Navy

P.S. I read your paper on the Inter-Oceanic Canal with much interest & close attention.

Continued here.

 

Notes

[1] At the time, General and Mrs. Grant were finishing up a world tour which had begun in May 1877.

[2] Published as The American Inter-Oceanic Ship Canal Question (1880).

[3] Now Sri Lanka.

[4] Today Yangon.

[5] Or Mawlamyine.

[6] In Malaysia.

[7] Presumably Malacca.

[8] Meaning that they socialized without restraint.

[9] U.S.S. Richmond (1860), the new flagship of the Asiatic Fleet.

[10] Rear Admiral Thomas Harmon Patterson (1820–1889).

[11] Adolph Edward Borie (1809–1880), briefly Grant’s Secretary of the Navy in 1869.

[12] The Admiral’s second wife, Zoe Josephine Atocha (1836–1884).

[13] Brigadier General Jacob Ammen (1806–1894).

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

4 thoughts on “General Grant in Singapore

  1. What a wonderful historical document! I’ve recently read two excellent and enjoyable biographies of Grant: that by Jean Edward Smith (Simon and Schuster, 2001), and H. W. Brands’ The Man Who Saved the Union (Doubleday, 2012). His reputation has been unfairly maligned, I believe, by the actions of others during his presidency, and Grant deserves far more credit than he gets.

  2. Thank you for sharing this letter. It must have been on this trip that Grant received Ginko seedlings that were planted at Hardscrabble Farm, the site of the Ulysses S. Grant Historical site. The last time I was there, at least one of these trees was still living.

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