Julia Dent Grant (1826 – 1902)
Julia Dent Grant was the wife of Ulysses S. Grant. He was the general of the Union Army during the Civil War. He served two terms as president of the United States after the war. Julia was very close to her husband and left an important record of her life with him in her autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant.
Julia Dent was born in St. Louis on January 26, 1826. She was the fifth of seven children and the first girl of “Colonel” Frederick Dent and Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent. Her siblings were John, George, Fred, Louis, and Nellie. Her father was a pioneer merchant and slaveholder who purchased one of the first big steamboats. He moved his family from St. Louis to White Haven, a farm ten miles south of St. Louis, when Julia was ten years old. There Julia fished, rode horses, and played in the woods. Slaves farmed the Dent’s thousand-acre estate on Gravois Creek.
From the age of ten to seventeen, Julia went to a boarding school in St. Louis. She left the school in 1843, the same year her brother Frederick graduated from West Point, the military academy in New York. Frederick invited his roommate, Ulysses S. Grant, to visit White Haven. Julia and Ulysses met and enjoyed each other’s company. They liked taking long walks and riding horses together. Although Ulysses proposed to Julia in 1844, they were not married until August 22, 1848, because of his military service in the Mexican War.
Marriage and Children
Together Julia and Ulysses had four children: Frederick, Ulysses Jr. or “Buck,” Nellie “Ellen,” and Jesse. In 1854, Ulysses retired from the army in order to be home with his family. They lived and farmed eighty acres in Missouri on land given to Julia from her father. Ulysses also managed the White Haven farm that still had slaves.
The Civil War brought Ulysses back to the army and separated him from Julia. They wrote letters to each other throughout the war to ease the pain of being apart. During this time, Julia took over managing their farm and taking care of business matters. Whenever it was possible, Julia traveled to meet her husband at various military camps. Sometimes she brought along their children and her slave Jule. Julia was the person Ulysses could trust with his concerns. She offered him political advice. She even encouraged him to invite President and Mrs. Lincoln to visit them at the war front.
First Lady of the United States
Five years after the war ended, General Ulysses Grant was elected president of the United States. He served two terms from 1869 to 1877. Julia Grant was a very active first lady and called her years in the White House “the happiest period” of her life. She participated in official matters by attending Senate hearings, reading the president’s mail, meeting cabinet members, senators, justices, and diplomats. She enjoyed hosting events at the White House, including the wedding of their daughter Nellie in 1874. She was sad when Ulysses’s term was over and it was time to leave.
Julia’s spirits were lifted by a two-year world tour she took with her husband and son Jesse. They were treated as American celebrities. When they returned to the States, Ulysses became sick. He worked steadily to write his memoirs before dying in 1885 of throat cancer. Because of the popularity of his writings, Julia was left a wealthy woman. She lived in New York City and then Washington, D.C. for the next seventeen years of her life.
During her final years, Julia worked hard to promote the memory of her husband. In 1897 she attended the dedication of Grant’s Tomb with President McKinley at her side. She also wrote her own memoirs, completed in 1897. Because she couldn’t agree with an editor, her memoirs were not published during her lifetime. They were finally published in 1975.
Julia Dent Grant was the loving and dedicated wife of America’s eighteenth president and the commanding general of the Union forces during the Civil War. She ended her record of their years together with the statement, “The light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.” She died on December 14, 1902, at the age of seventy-six. She is buried next to her husband in Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park, New York City.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O. et al, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 344–45.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies, 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1893. Vol. 1:187–88.
Grant, Julia Dent. The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant. New York: Putnam, 1975.