Julia Dent Grant
The General’s Lady
By Anne Adams
Many saw young Miss Dent as small, plain and even cross-eyed but to her brother’s roommate she was beautiful. And when they met it was the beginning of a 35 plus year love match that took them both from mid-America to the palaces of royalty by way of the White House.
Julia Boggs Dent was born in St. Louis, Missouri in January, 1826, her father, the self- dubbed “Colonel” Dent, a fur trader turned farmer, and who thought the few slaves he owned made his farm a southern plantation. One of her older brothers was Frederick, who had attended West Point where he’d roomed with a young man named Ulysses S. Grant. After both Frederick and Grant had graduated, the latter was assigned to a post near the Dent home where he soon became a regular visitor. At that time Julia was living in St. Louis after graduating from school and so when Grant first visited, the Dent family was ready to pair him with Julia’s younger sister. However, when Julia returned, plans changed when Grant became enthralled with the newly arrived Dent daughter. Some were prone to think Julia was not exactly beautiful because she had plain features and was also cross-eyed. This meant her right eye wandered, a condition modern specialists call strabismus. However, Grant saw beyond the exterior to love the real person underneath. In the words of one biography Grant realized that “she was lively, modern and possessed an irreverent wit. She was an eternal optimist, engagingly naive and accustomed to being spoiled. Her schooling and experience with the world were limited when Lieutenant Grant came into her life when she was 18.”
However, Julia was already acquainted with Grant from what her brother had told them. As she said in a later interview: “My brother Fred thought the world of Ulysses Grant … he told me that Ulysses was the finest boy he had ever known. He said, ‘I want you to know him, he is pure gold. I have never known him to use a profane or vulgar word in all the time he spent with me; he is a splendid fellow, and just as soon as comes out here to Jefferson Barracks, I want you to meet him.’
Grant, Julia and rest of the family spent the several months riding and walking in the woods, visiting friends, as Grant and Julia became closer and more serious. Finally when Grant’s unit was about to be sent to the Texas border, he and Julia became secretly engaged and would remain so until he returned. A year later when he did they sought Colonel Dent’s permission to marry. However, his approval was not certain since Julia was a favorite daughter and he did not see Grant as a suitable husband for her. Still, Julia coaxed and her father finally relented. When Grant left to face action in the Mexican war he was confident that they would be married when he returned.
Three years later a more mature Grant returned and they were married in August, 1848. Their honeymoon took the newlyweds back to visit Grant’s family in Ohio where they would visit frequently, although Julia would never be close to them since they disapproved of their son’s marrying into a slave holding family.
For the next four years Grant’s military assignments took him and Julia to places like Detroit and then Watertown, New York, though she did return to St. Louis so have her first child Frederick Dent Grant, in May, 1850.
Grant’s next post was Fort Vancouver on the Pacific Coast, a location too distant to allow Julia and the new baby to be with him. She returned to stay with her in-laws in Ohio where her second son Ulysses Junior, but nicknamed Buck since he was born in the Buckeye state, arrived in July 1852. Then Grant was assigned to a post near Eureka, California where he coped with inactivity and homesickness by drinking heavily. Eventually he was forced to resign from the Army.
An impoverished Grant returned to the Dent home, helped along the way home by donations from friends. Once back home he tried to operate a small farm Julia’s father had given them, cutting timbers to build a small cabin. Grant wryly dubbed the place “Hardscrabble” but despite his hard work the farm was not successful, forcing him to work at what he could find to support his family. It was no doubt a shock for Grant’s former fellow officers to see their one time comrade selling firewood on a St. Louis street, a sad stooped figure in an old army coat.
After four years of such deprivation, Julia persuaded a cousin to take her husband into his real estate business, but that arrangement also failed. By this time there were other Grant children: Nellie born in July 1855, and Jesse, following in February, 1858. With a larger family to support, Grant finally appealed to his father who arranged for him to take a job in the family leather business in Galena, Illinois. In May, 1860 the Grant family arrived at their new home to live in a house shared with other family members.
Since Grant had been much more successful in the military than in civilian life, he welcomed the chance to return to the army as the Civil War began. As he advanced in rank and service, Julia and the children accompanied him when possible. The youngsters played in and around his headquarters and Fred the oldest at age 11, became a mascot of sorts outfitted with a miniature uniform, sword and with a pony to ride. It was a preview for the future West Point graduate and professional soldier.
While other officers’ wives also accompanied their husbands, Julia had a unique responsibility as she did so. For her presence offered not just the usual wifely support but she also encouraged Grant to remain sober. She was with him at several battlefields, and was even almost captured after the Confederates destroyed Grant’s supply base and she had to be hidden by sympathizers. When she could not be with Grant, she was with her father’s family in St. Louis or Grant’s family in Kentucky, and as she traveled between Confederate areas to the headquarters of her Union general husband, she had few problems. This may have been because her husband had attracted no controversy by being in politics.
When Grant was promoted to be Commander-in-Chief of the Union Forces, Julia moved with him to Washington to participate in the events of a wartime national capital. With an especially chosen wardrobe appropriate to her husband’s position, in social situations she was friendly and tactful. Other socialites of the time may have considered her ordinarily plain but very pleasant.
As the war came to an end, in April 1865 Julia was in Washington with Grant when they were invited to attend Ford’s Theater with the President and Mrs. Lincoln. Grant was ready to accept the invitation but Julia declined saying their children were waiting for them out of town. While this was true Julia also dreaded an evening in the company of a First Lady who was known for her emotional accusatory and jealous outbursts when she felt her husband was paying too much attention to another lady.
So General and Mrs. Grant were on their way out of town when they received word of the President’s assassination. Grant immediately returned to Washington while Julia remained with her children. After his death, while Lincoln became an almost mythic figure, Grant himself became very popular because of his position and accomplishments. After the war Grant and Julia went on an extensive tour, where she shared in the honors, ovations and gifts from a generous nation. One of these gifts was a house in Galena, Illinois that was to become his official residence. However, the Grants also lived in Washington where she continued to enjoy hosting large receptions and parties. It was a routine she would continue as the Grants entered the White House in 1869. In an era when stylish elegance was the rule, the Grants followed the custom of serving elaborate multi-course dinners in over decorated elegantly furnished gas let salons as they entertained personal as well as official guests.
Julia was an involved and dedicated manager of the Executive Mansion, educating herself about all aspects of the place. Also, Grant and Julia impressed their staff with their deep affection for each other and their family. Grant made it a point to escort Julia to breakfast, and then spent time with her before it was time for him to go to work. During this time oldest son Fred was at West Point then in the army, and Buck was at Harvard or traveling. Jesse was only ten when the Grants entered the White House and only daughter Nellie was developing into a lovely young lady.
Though the Grants wanted Nellie to attend boarding school she became so homesick she soon returned home. Once back in Washington she became part of an active young social set, joining friends in carriage rides, visiting, and in attending receptions and parties. Then when she sailed to Europe she was received and entertained by important and titled people, like Queen Victoria. On the return trip Nellie met and fell in love with Algernon Charles Sartoris, member of a famous British theatrical family. Upon her return Nellie was anxious to marry and eventually the Grants agreed.
Though it was not the first White House wedding of a President’s daughter, it was one of the most elaborate. In May, 1874 the East Room was stocked with white flowers, and under a wedding bell made from white roses and with Nellie clad in an imported $2000 satin veil, the couple spoke their vows. They were whisked away for a honeymoon and a new home in England. However, the marriage proved unhappy and though Nellie tried to make it a success because of their four children, they eventually separated and she returned to the U.S.
Another source of trial for the Grants was the scandals that involved administration officials. However, Julia did not seem to fully comprehend the stress and anguish Grant felt at all that was happening around him. If she was shocked at the conduct of those in the administration it was because it distressed her husband. Also, she considered reprehensible those who exposed or criticized the administration over the scandals. Yet Julia continued to enjoy planning and implementing lavish entertainments. When they wanted to take a break from Washington the Grants could spend time at their New Jersey seaside cottage or accept the many invitations to the fine homes of their personal and official friends. Julia was contentedly looking forward to Grant’s remaining in office for three terms. However, her hopes were dashed when Grant surprised her with his unanticipated decision to not seek that third term. To help ease her disappointment he proposed a world tour after they left office.
The Grants were feted and honored wherever they went as they traveled to Europe, Africa and Asia, and were presented with innumerable gifts and special attention. Just over two years later they returned to their donated home in Galena, Illinois, but all the expensive travel had greatly depleted their funds. Grant wanted to retire to operate the Dent family farm but Julia preferred to continue their active social life. So to accommodate her, Grant agreed to move to New York City.
Friends and admirers had raised the money to present the Grants with an elegant home which also served as a place to display all they had collected in their public lives and from their travels. Their new life was financed by a stock brokerage partnership arrangement operated by their son Buck and a friend with Grant as a background figure. However, the arrangement could not continue and the firm crumbled, sending Buck’s friend to jail and sinking the Grants into debt.
Julia could have collapsed along with their fortune but she did not. They repaid their debts with the sale of their New York and Washington homes, along with the contents. At the same time Grant had an offer to publish his memoirs and he began to work, hoping the profits would ease their debts. At the same time he began to feel the effects of throat cancer brought on by a long-term love of cigars. However, as he worked, while Julia lovingly supervised his care, she did not seem to totally understand how serious his illness was. They moved to a mountain cottage near Saratoga Springs, New York with the hope the fresh air would strengthen the patient. Grant had completed his memoirs just weeks before the end in July, 1885. Julia’s disbelief and shock at his death was so intense she remained at the cottage until after the General’s funeral arrangements so she could retain her composure.
The profits from the sale of Grant’s memoirs enabled Julia to live her final years comfortably and securely as she enjoyed the business and family successes of her children. Fred and his family lived in nearby New Jersey while Buck and his family lived in California for where Julia lived with them for a while. Eventually when Nellie returned to America she and Julia shared a home. Julia wore mourning garb for the remainder of her life and always became teary when veterans shared their admiration of the general. Eventually Julia considered writing her own memoirs but after completing the manuscript she could not find a publisher she wanted to work with.
Julia’s memoirs were finally published in the 1970s and there she described her husband: “He was always perfection, a cheerful, self-reliant, earnest gentleman. His beautiful eyes, windows to his great soul, his mouth, so tender, yet so firm. One must not deem me partial to say that General Grant was the very nicest and handsomest man I ever saw.” She also described her life: “For nearly 37 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.”
Julia Grant, whose greatest fame would come from her association with one of the greatest figures of the 19th century, lived just two years into the 20th century when she died in Washington, in December, 1902.
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”