One of the greatest love stories is the marriage of Ulysses and Julia Grant. Their love for one another overcame their upbringing differences, physical separations due to Grant’s army career and meteoric rise to fame, among many challenges, but their love reinforced their belief in importance of family.
I’ve discovered in the midst of a neighboring suburb, a historic site, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, to be a hidden gem.
I was curious to learn more about our 18th president but I was moved by a story of vulnerability of love and the courage it took to live it.
Julia Dent was born into a family of slaveholders in Missouri, a pivotal border slave state in 1826. Her father, Frederick Dent, taught his children that slavery was the proper relationship between whites and blacks. The Dent’s residence, White Haven in St. Louis, was a flourishing city in the 19th century making the Gateway City a bustling and diverse community.
Ulysses was born and raised in the free state of Ohio in 1822. His father, Jesse Grant, instilled in young Ulysses the belief that slavery was morally wrong. Jesse made a decision never to visit White Haven because of Dent’s slavery-owned lifestyle, including when the young couple decided to marry in 1848.
The arguments that divided the Dents and Grants were common in homes across the country and would lead up to the civil war.
While a student at West Point Academy, Fred Dent wrote his sister about a fellow student Ulysses Grant, “I want you to know him, he is pure gold. I want you to meet him.” They met in 1844. Ulysses started visiting Julia at her family’s home in White Haven. Following graduation, the army assigned him to an infantry in Jefferson Barracks, south of St. Louis.
A loving side note: Julia’s pet canary bird died. Ulysses made a yellow coffin then having 8 fellow academy classmates holding a funeral service.
In April, the young couple made an exclusive commitment before he left for Louisiana to prepare for service in the Mexico American War. Julia shared an intense dream that her love would somehow return within days, wearing civilian clothes. And he did!
Grant took a leave after being separated for 4 years in service, to prepare for their wedding. After they were married in 1848, Grant returned to the army, serving in the West Coast and after several years, he resigned from the service in 1854, went to St. Louis and built a home, ‘Hardscrabble’, because he missed his family.
A loving side note: Julia was born with strabismus (crossed eyes) never comfortable with surgery but now that her husband was becoming famous, she considered having the surgery. Ulysses objected: “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes? I like them just as they are, and now remember, you are not to interfere with them. They are mine and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you better not make any experiments , as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”
It was here, at Julia’s family home, White Haven, that they met and courted in the 1840’s and then raised a family and farmed the land in the 1850’s.
The couple lived in many places due to Grant’s military career, especially in the Civil War, but their emotional attachment to White Haven remained strong, and they purchased the home from Julia’s father in the 1860’s. Years later, they left it with a caretaker but never to return after his presidency.
At the beginning of the Civil War while Ulysses was preparing troops and campaigning, Julia left her children with relatives and stayed with her husband, covering more than 10,000 miles in 4 years just to be with her husband. Julia’s presence lifted her husband’s spirits and confidence. When Lincoln appointed Grant Commander of the Union, the president sent for Julia to join her husband, aware of the positive effects she had on him.
When Ulysses S. Grant became the 18th president, Julia was thrilled to be First Lady, enjoying a full array of events and became a popular hostess. She was the first First Lady to be recorded on film. Julia prided herself to be a staunch defender of woman’s rights. She demanded respect along with being loyal to her responsibilities and her love for her family.
Later in life, Julia and Ulysses settled in New York City after a 2 year world tour in Europe.
Unfortunately, all of their money was lost in a bad investment scheme and the Grant’s were reduced to poverty.
Shortly afterward, Ulysses developed the throat cancer that led to his death in 1885. In his dying days, Grant completed his personal memoirs which left Julia and their children financially secure. Another example of his deep family commitment.
In Ulysses Grant’s career: West Point graduate, first assignment at Jefferson Barracks, quarter master in Mexican American War, became Lt. General under President Lincoln’s term, being in charge of the Union war effort then having no political experience, serving two terms as 18th President of the United States and much more. All the while, Grant having a loving devotion to his wife Julia and their 4 children, a genuine affection for family and friends and a deep concern for humanity and an important leader in this country.