Return to the Grant House

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Return to the Grant House


With another successful re-enactment of the Battle of Richmond, we are reminded of the critical role Kentucky played in the Civil War. The war has many connections with the county beyond the August battle. Here is an article from some years ago recalling connections of a more personal nature.

We have before mentioned the Grant House and of the overnight stay there by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in January of 1864. The house, then called the Merritt Jones Tavern, was located in the Big Hill area. My understanding is that the house no longer stands. If you wish to see a picture of the Merritt Jones Tavern as it was during the Civil War, see the back cover of “Glimpses of Historic Madison County, Kentucky” by Jonathan Truman Dorriss and Maud Weaver Dorriss, published in 1955. Grant’s room was on the first floor with a separate porch. The house sat about 10 miles east of Richmond on the road to McKee (now Route 421).

I have always had a personal interest in this place because my maternal grandfather, Jarvis Jackson Johnson, was on guard duty there the night Gen. Grant came through. Johnson was from Meadow Creek in Whitley County. In late 1863, he ran away from home and walked to Livingston where he joined the Union army. He was 16 years old. His first duty post was guard duty up on the Wilderness Road at Big Hill. He was a private with the 47th Kentucky Infantry Regiment.

My grandfather was on guard duty around nine o’clock at night when Grant’s party appeared. He challenged the general, and Grant commended him for his military bearing. Grant said, “Well done, son.”

Johnson did not recognize Grant as he traveled incognito in a well-worn officer’s field uniform and did not look the part, often having to be pointed out as a general of the federal army to strangers. The next morning, my grandfather was told he had challenged and spoken with Gen. U.S. Grant, famous for his many victories in the western military area (the trans-Mississippi valley, western Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky).

The general was on his way from Nashville via Knoxville and Chattanooga to Lexington. Grant spent the night at the Merritt Jones Tavern — hence the name “Grant House.” The general had planned to command the campaign for Atlanta, but President Lincoln brought him to the east and General William T. Sherman took over the march “from Atlanta to the sea” in the west. My grandfather spent the rest of the war in Lexington and Camp Nelson. Upon discharge from the Union army, he returned to Whitley County.

I am indebted to John E. Anderson, onetime owner of the house, for some of this information. Berea College, I believe, owned the property at one time. You could see the traces of the old Wilderness Road nearby. In another U.S. Grant-Madison County connection, Curtis F. Burnham of Richmond was First Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Grant administration from 1875 until 1876.

This then is the story, as told by my grandfather, Jarvis Jackson Johnson, to my mother, Susan Kathryn Johnson (Engle) and her siblings, about his venture to far away Madison County, as they sat around the fireplace in the old homestead in Whitley County.


Dr. Fred Engle




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Dr. Fred Engle, “Return to the Grant House,” Madison's Heritage Online, accessed May 29, 2023,