When Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Washington to take command of the Union Army in 1864, no one was there to greet him. "Inconspicuous and unrecognized, a travel-stained linen duster hiding most of his uniform, he made his way to the Willard Hotel," Jean Edward Smith writes in his 2001 biography of the Civil War general.
When President Grant arrived in Pittsburgh five years later, something similar happened. The president's train was late, and many people in the crowd gathered at Union Station began to "scatter," according to the Sept. 15, 1869, edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette.
A few minutes later, "the special train came thundering into the depot," the newspaper said. "The President stepped out alone and was not recognized by anyone until he had passed nearly through the depot." At that point, U.S. Rep. James K. Moorhead, spotting Grant, "quietly took charge of him and conducted him to a carriage.
Newspaper accounts disagree on what kind of reception Grant received as he rode from the station on Liberty Avenue to the Monongahela House on Smithfield Street.
The Pittsburgh Daily Post, which billed itself as "The Only Democratic Daily Paper in Western Pennsylvania," claimed that Grant, now identified with the "Radical" Republicans, was snubbed by most local politicians and ignored by the general population. "He must have felt humbled yesterday on his entrance to this ... city," a brief story in the Sept. 15 edition of the Post said. The president's party filled only two carriages, the Post's reporter wrote, and he claimed he had not heard even a single cheer "of welcome from the depot to the Monongahela House."
The Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle and the Gazette, both friendlier to the GOP in their editorial policies, reported that once Grant had been located, 12 carriages were needed to ferry the president, his family and local dignitaries to the hotel. "The crowd at the depot was very large and enthusiastic, and the President was loudly cheered along the route," the Chronicle reported on Sept. 14, the day of Grant's arrival.
The Post also made fun of Grant's shortcomings as a public speaker. On the day of his arrival, the Post provided a mock version of what Grant would say: "Gentlemen of the Committee I thank you for your cordial reception. I came to see your people and stay with you a short time. I like Pittsburgh ..."
The Post's prediction was pretty close. Speaking from the balcony of the Monongahela House to the crowd gathered on Smithfield Street, Grant offered brief thanks for the noisy reception and ended with a joke: "It is unnecessary for me to say more, as many of you cannot hear what I am saying."
The next morning Grant and his family left by carriage to visit relatives in Washington, Pa.
The day after Grant's departure, the Gazette ran a short story based on a familiar trope: that the president had gone unrecognized once again.
As the Grant family headed south, they came up to a "tall lank fellow" who asked when the president was expected to pass by. "Mrs. Grant quickly said, 'This is the president.' " The man by the road was skeptical. "Get along Missus ... that man's good enough, but I'll wait a little longer to see our President. That little fellow won't pass for him just this time."
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-0184. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.