Wife of Union General Ulysses S. Grant
Julia Grant was the wife of Union General and the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. She had great strength of character, shared in the mixed fortunes of her husband, loved and cared for her family, and fulfilled her patriotic duty as First Lady (1869 to 1877). She captured many of her life experiences in her writing, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (1975).
Born at White Haven Plantation west of St. Louis. Missouri, Julia Dent was the daughter of Colonel Frederick Dent, a slaveholding planter and merchant. She grew up there in a typically Southern atmosphere. Julia, the fifth of seven children and the first girl, felt she was pampered by her brothers, but believed she remained unspoiled.
Growing up at White Haven, her family's plantation, Julia fished, rode horses, and played in the woods. Her playmates included slave children; eventually, the girls she played with as a child became her slave servants as adults. Julia attended the Mauro Boarding School in St. Louis for seven years among the daughters of other affluent parents, where she excelled in art and voice.
After returning home in 1844, she met Ulysses S. Grant, "Ulys" as she called him, when he was invited to White Haven by his former West Point roommate, Julia's brother Fred Dent. Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant had been assigned to nearby Jefferson Barracks after his graduation from West Point in 1843.
Ulysses became a frequent visitor at White Haven, where he and Julia enjoyed walks and horseback rides, often dodging her siblings and slaves to be alone. He admired her spirit and she shared his love of horses. Upon learning of his regiment's impending transfer, Grant proposed to Julia, but their marriage was delayed four years by the Mexican-American War, during which they saw each other only once.
Ulysses wrote frequent letters, and returned to White Haven to marry Julia on August 22, 1848. , who disapproved of the Dents' being slaveholders and did not attend the wedding. It was Julia's first trip away from home.
Julia Dent married Ulysses S. Grant on August 22, 1848, at White Haven plantation. Among Grant's attendants was James Longstreet of Civil War fame, who was also Julia's cousin. Neither of their fathers approved the match - hers because Grant's career as a soldier seemed bleak; his because the Dents were slaveholders. They spent their four-month honeymoon in Louisville, Kentucky, and visiting Grant's parents in Ohio, who refused to attend the wedding, though they did come to accept Julia.
The newlyweds left St. Louis in mid-November, 1848, and went to Detroit where Grant joined his Fourth Infantry unit. Upon reaching Detroit, Grant was informed he was instead to report to Sackets Harbor, an outpost in Northwestern New York on the shores of Lake Ontario. While their surroundings in Madison Barracks were quite rough and the weather inhospitable, Julia created a homey atmosphere for her new husband and they spent a happy winter there.
The Grants had four children: Frederick, Ulysses Jr. (called Buck), Ellen (called Nellie) and Jesse. Although Ulysses' army duty took them to the far corners of the nation, Julia returned home to White Haven for the birth of their first child and after the birth of Ulysses Jr. in Ohio. Their last two children were born at the White Haven estate after Grant's resignation from the army in 1854.
Julia's love for her children was constant, and she always made sure to broaden their horizons: through education, the boys' accompanying Ulysses at the front during the war, the children's attendance at White House social functions, and their inclusion on the Grants' around-the-world tour.
When Ulysses S. Grant resigned from the military in 1854, he longed to spend time with his wife Julia and their young children. Since the army no longer provided him an income, he planned to support his family by farming at White Haven. Cultivating the 80 acres given to the Grants as a wedding gift, Ulysses also managed the rest of the land of his father-in-law, Colonel Dent.
With the help of the Dents' slaves, Grant planted crops of potatoes and wheat, cut wood, harvested fruit from the orchards, and tended a vegetable garden. He was so dedicated to his future that he commented to a friend, "whoever hears of me in ten years will hear of a well-to-do old Missouri farmer."
Establishing himself as a successful, independent farmer included the construction of his own house. Grant selected an elevated location about 100 feet from the road and close to his crops. In the fall of 1855, he began cutting, hewing, and notching logs for the cabin. Accustomed to the relative finery of the stone home built by Julia's brother Louis Dent, she lamented Ulysses' decision to build a log cabin, not even "a neat frame house."
The next spring and summer, he set about digging a cellar and setting the stones for the foundation; neighbors and slaves then assisted in the house raising. Grant completed much of the work himself, shingling the roof, building the stairs, and laying the floors. The cabin was divided into four rooms, two upstairs and two downstairs, with a hall running between them on both floors. Julia did her best to decorate the place, but even her standards of refinement could not conceal its rustic nature.
Julia recalled that it was "so crude and homely I did not like it at all, but I did not say so. I got out all my pretty covers, baskets, books, etc., and tried to make it look home-like and comfortable, but this was hard to do. The little house looked so unattractive that we facetiously called it Hardscrabble."
Even though Hardscrabble was the first house that the Grants ever owned, they lived there only three months. At the request of Colonel Dent, Julia and Ulysses returned to White Haven when her mother died in January 1857. The little cabin never again served as their home.
Those days were financially trying for the Grants, but Julia remained supportive of her hard-working husband. She considered herself "a splendid farmer's wife," raising chickens and even churning butter. Except for making a cake once a week, she left the cooking to the slaves.
When the Grants' farm and a job in St. Louis failed, Julia moved with Ulysses and their children to Galena, Illinois, where Ulysses took a job in his father's leather goods store when the Civil War called him to serve in the Union Army.
The General's Lady
As it did for most Americans, the war dramatically altered the Grants' lives. In 1861, Ulysses immediately left to serve in the Union army, and his responsibilities kept him away from home for most of the war. Letters helped to ease the pain of separation, and Julia frequently traveled to her husband's encampments, both alone and with their children.
Grant always needed his wife with him; her steady nature, good humor, and common sense kept him focused and on an even keel. He was apt to fall into moods of uncertainty and depression, and Julia was able to keep his spirits up. After appointing Grant as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, President Lincoln sent for Julia to join her husband, knowing of her good influence on him.
After so many years of hardship and stress, Julia rejoiced in Grant's fame as a victorious general and a national hero. She also served as the financial manager and agent for White Haven in her husband's absence, leasing sections of the farm, collecting rent and consolidating land titles.
Shortly after Grant's narrow escape at the Battle of Belmont, November 6, 1861, Julia and the children made the trip to his headquarters at Cairo, Illinois to visit him. They stayed there through the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson. Grant then asked her to take the children and go to visit his parents in Covington, Kentucky, which she did. While there, she read the extremely negative accounts of her husband's actions at Shiloh. Near the end of June, Grant sent for his family to visit him at Memphis, Tennessee.
Grant was engaged September and October, 1862 in the battles of Iuka and Corinth. In early November, 1862 Grant again sent for Julia who traveled first to Jackson and then LaGrange, Tennessee. Grant soon moved on further south to Oxford, Mississippi and because of traveling difficulties, Julia could not follow immediately.
A few days after Julia's arrival at Oxford, Grant went back north to Holly Springs and she returned there with him. After spending Christmas and the first 9 days of the new year of 1863 there, Grant and Julia moved on to Headquarters of the Department of the Tennessee in Memphis. When Grant began moving down the Mississippi toward Vicksburg at the end of January, Julia stayed behind in Memphis in the Gayoso House, a hotel.
In mid-April 1863, Grant sent for Julia and the children to come to Vicksburg. Julia arrived just in time to witness the thrilling nighttime transport of the troops and ships past the Vicksburg batteries on April 16. On April 23, she left Vicksburg with the three children and went to St. Louis where she stayed with her father.
Julia spent the summer of 1863 on the family property in St. Louis. She said it was not a happy time for her as her neighbors were all Southern in their sympathies. After the fall of Vicksburg (July 4, 1863), Julia traveled there to visit Grant. On August 23 he accompanied her on her way back to St. Louis to place the three oldest children in school.
Shortly after Grant received his commission as lieutenant general, Julia accompanied him on a return trip to Washington, where she was introduced to the Lincolns at a White House reception. From there she returned to St. Louis where she spent the summer of 1864 with her father and children.
Image: General Ulysses S. Grant in June 1864
By the fall of 1864 Grant was situated with the Army of the Potomac and Julia and the children moved east, first trying to find a suitable home in Philadelphia. When nothing was available, she went across the Delaware River to the little town of Burlington, New Jersey, where she found a nice home at 309 Wood Street, and put the children in school.
Arriving late at night on November 18th, 1864 Grant came to visit his family in Burlington, and Julia accompanied Grant when he left for New York City. Mobs of adoring citizens followed her husband everywhere, making casual shopping and enjoyment of the city an impossibility. Julia stayed at Burlington until after the New Year.
In early January 1865, the Grants were presented with a house in Philadelphia, purchased for them by the Loyal Citizens of Philadelphia. They were thrilled with this gift and Grant advised Julia to move there at once, but she spent the winter with her husband in a two-room cabin at City Point, Virginia.
Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. On April 14th, the Grants, with little Jesse, took a train to Burlington. In Philadelphia, Grant was told of the shooting of President Lincoln. With the War over, the family settled down in Washington DC, where Grant was the head of all the armies of the United States. In October of 1865, they purchased a house there.
The war's end, Lincoln's assassination and the turmoil afterwards, propelled the Grants into the spotlight. Given gifts, honors, and even a house in Galena, the years after the war brought fame and prosperity to the Grants. They spent their summers at Long Beach in New Jersey, where they bought a cottage.
In the summer of 1868, Grant was unanimously nominated by the Republican party to be its candidate for the presidency, and was elected President in the fall. Julia Grant entered the White House in 1869 to begin, in her words, "the happiest period" of her life. With Cabinet wives as her allies, she entertained extensively and lavishly. As First Lady, it was suggested to Julia that she have an operation to correct her crossed eyes, but President Grant said that he liked her that way.
During Grant's two terms of office (1869-1877), Julia was an active participant in presidential matters. She attended Senate hearings, read through the president's mail, and met with cabinet members, senators, justices, and diplomats. She reveled in her role as First Lady to the nation, and all accounts reflect the warmth and home-like atmosphere she brought to the White House.
Indicative of this were her afternoon teas and public receptions open to everyone, and the elaborate wedding held in the White House East Room for her daughter Nellie in 1874. Julia also became a grandmother for the first time while living there. She enjoyed her time so completely at the White House that she felt like a "waif" when they left in 1877.
During Julia Grant's eight-year tenure, the White House was restored to the center of Washington's social life. Julia had succeeded in making it both a social center, as well as a comfortable home. Her last act was to prepare a luncheon for the incoming Rutherford and Lucy Hayes on Inauguration Day 1877. She sobbed like a child when she climbed into her carriage to leave.
In May 1877, the Grants embarked on a two-and-a-half year world tour. They met with both the dignitaries and common people of many countries, and visited many exotic points of interest. It was a welcome break from the political turmoil of the presidency, and they were treated as American celebrities. Nearly one-third of Julia's memoirs are devoted to recollections of this trip, clearly a high point of her life. She noted that in foreign countries Ulysses finally got the recognition and respect he deserved.
The Grants returned to the U.S. in 1879, but the high living soon came to an end. The Republicans failed to nominate Ulysses for a third term in office, and their investments in the financial firm co-owned by his son Buck were stolen by Buck's partner.
In a last effort to provide for his family, Ulysses S. Grant signed a lucrative contract to write his memoirs, but by then he was already dying of throat cancer. He finished writing the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant just before his death on July 23, 1885 at Mt. McGregor, New York.
He left behind a poignant note for Julia that was found on his body:
Look after our dear children and direct them in the paths of rectitude. It would distress me far more to hear that one of them could depart from an honorable, upright and virtuous life than it would to know that they were prostrated on a bed of sickness from which they were never to rise alive. They have never given us any cause for alarm on this account, and I trust they never will. With these few injunctions and the knowledge I have of your love and affection and the dutiful affection of all our children, I bid you a final farewell, until we meet in another and, I trust, better world.
Julia was grief-stricken, a state from which she never completely recovered. The profits from Ulysses' memoirs left Julia a wealthy woman, and she lived in homes in New York City and Washington, DC. For the last 17 years of her life, she worked to promote and sustain the memory of her beloved husband.
Image: Julia Grant Statue
In 1897, Julia attended the dedication of Grant's Tomb overlooking the Hudson River in New York City, with President William McKinley at her side. Her many friends and acquaintances included Jefferson Davis' wife Varina, Jane Stanford, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Julia Grant died on December 14, 1902, in Washington DC, from heart and kidney complications, at the age of 76.
The final words of Julia's autobiography show the depth of her feelings for Ulysses S. Grant and the profound effect he had on her even after he had passed away:
For nearly thirty-seven years, I, his wife, rested and was warmed in the sunlight of his loyal love and great fame, and now, even though his beautiful life has gone out, it is as when some far-off planet disappears from the heavens; the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.
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Hardscrabble: The House that Grant Built