In 1844, when Cadet Ulysses “Sam” Grant visited the Missouri home of his West Point classmate Fred Dent, he met Fred’s sister Julia. Grant admitted that, for him, “it was love at first sight,” while Julia showed a definite interest in this shy, sensitive visitor who arrived at their home on horseback, like a “young prince.”
Years later, Julia recorded in her memoirs, “General Grant was the very nicest and handsomest man I ever saw.” In an example of how love can conquer all, Julia and Ulysses grew up in two different worlds.
Julia’s family owned slaves at their White Haven plantation, and her father was a die-hard secessionist at the time of the Civil War; while Grant’s middle-class parents were hard-working abolitionists from Ohio. Julia and Ulysses forged a life-long partnership, despite retaining personal views about the slavery issue that paralleled those of their parents.
In “The Generals Wife: The Life of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant,” Ishbel Ross explains that mutual fondness for horseback riding deepened the attraction between Julia and Ulysses. She was an accomplished rider on her Kentucky mare, named Missouri Belle, while his natural affinity earned him recognition as the best in horsemanship at the military academy.
In addition, the two young people discovered they both enjoyed gardening, and that Ulysses was a farmer at heart. They also shared an interest in drawing; she focused on flowers and landscapes, while he sketched horses.
From observing this young officer during his visits to White Haven, Julia’s mother sensed that Ulysses would one day “make his mark” in this world. Her father, despite concerns about Julia’s suitability to be the wife of an army officer, agreed to their marriage in 1848.
Julia had attended a private boarding school in St. Louis for seven years beginning at age 10, where she studied history, philosophy and mythology; and, having “a sweet little voice,” took instrumental and vocal lessons. She absolutely refused “to look at the multiplication table,” but loved to spend time reading.
Lying on the lawn one Sunday afternoon, Julia remembered, the girls from the school discussed the men they hoped to marry. Julia “declared emphatically a soldier, a gallant, brave, dashing soldier,” and, of course, she got her wish.
Julia gave birth to four children, including Fred in 1850, Ulysses in 1852, Ellen in 1855 and Jesse in 1858. Though considered neither pretty nor witty, Julia thrived on social interaction, while Ulysses was quiet and introspective.
She often accompanied him on assignment during the Civil War years. His staff considered her a stabilizing factor as Grant formulated strategies on the battlefield as general in chief of the Union army.
As First Lady after Grant won the presidential election in 1868, Julia thrived during eight years in the White House. She was unsuccessful in convincing her husband to run for a third term, however, because he had had enough of Washington politics.
After the White House years, Julia and Ulysses travelled around the world for two years. They went as private citizens, yet kings, generals and cabinet officials received them royally in many countries they visited from 1877 to 1879.
Julia wrote in her memoirs (edited by John Y. Simon): “On May 17, 1877 … sailed from Philadelphia for England … wharves along the Delaware [River] were literally lined with people whose shouts filled the air.” They arrived in Liverpool, where the “Mersey [River] was filled with shipping and decked with flags. There was a perfect sea of faces … all looking toward us with kindly or interested expression.”
They enjoyed similar experiences in cities and towns on three continents. Upon return to San Francisco on Sept. 20, 1879, “a procession of ships … escorted us through the Golden Gate to San Francisco.” Julia noted, “From the pier, we drove through vast throngs of people who greeted the General with enthusiastic cheers...”
Julia lived 17 more years after her husband’s death in 1885. In response to the humorous question, “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” — the proper answer is “Julia Dent Grant and her husband, Ulysses.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point