Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Indomitable and Fun-Loving Julia Dent Grant

Monument to Mrs. Julia Dent Grant in Galena, Illinois.

This statue of Julia Dent Grant, I believe, shows the vitality of the beloved wife of President and General Ulysses S. Grant. Because she was afflicted with strabismus (lazy eye), she never permitted her picture to be taken head-on, but always turned her head to the side. The sharp features of her profile and the 19th-century propensity to put on a serious face for the photographer have combined to leave us no photograph that captures the spirit of Mrs. Grant, a woman who was known then and ever since as the necessary source of strength for the great military commander.

Some may think that a man who was prone to alcoholism, who left home for long periods of time for Army duty, who was practically incapable of earning a living when not on active military duty would not a good husband make. But Julia, according to her own telling in The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant and as confirmed by her children, never had any problem with or criticism of General Grant, and they led a full married life, raising four children, moving from home to home over the course of decades, and achieving what was by all accounts an enduring and affectionate relationship that was a joy to them both. Grant, says her children, was never happier than to be at home with his wife and their offspring. Mrs. Grant dictated these memoirs for her grandchildren, and it was only in 1975, 73 years after her death, that they were published.

Despite her dour photographic poses, her book shows Mrs. Grant was a very lively person, embracing both life and people. She, as her husband, loved company and the occasion of having company. But in contrast to Grant, who she said was generally a quiet man in social gatherings, she appears to have been quite a talker, and one gets the impression that during their world tour after Grant left the White House, she kept up a running narrative of their adventures as they were happening. She may have been a "plain Jane," as she says of herself, and quite small in stature, but her personality was ashimmer with warmth, vibrance, and enthusiasm.

The Dent plantation, White Haven, where Julia was born and spent many months when her husband was away.

Julia Dent was born in 1826, the fifth child of a slave-owning family in Missouri. According to her memoirs (and of course we may hesitate to believe everything she says), she never knew a harsh word from her parents, was indulged in terribly, and enjoyed a childhood of bliss that anyone would envy. She recalls playing with her sisters and children of slaves in the woods all day and encountering all kinds of wild and domesticated animals. Her descriptions of the antebellum life at the Dent home, White Haven, are so charming, that the antebellum sections of Gone with the Wind seem social realism in comparison. Everyone was happy in this household, including the slaves--although their prompt departure from the Dent plantation upon the Emancipation Proclamation puts this somewhat in doubt.

Julia met Ulysses Grant, a friend of her brother's, in 1844, and they swiftly became friends thanks to Grant's continual efforts to be by her side. They went for long walks and horseback rides together, as Grant opened up in the warmth of her sunny soul. When he proposed, she was startled, she says, because she had never thought of him in that way and declined. But when he went away after his proposal, she missed him, and upon his return they became engaged, marrying in August 1848, after Grant returned from the Mexican War.

Julia Dent had pluck. She recalls one childhood day when she and her little sister wanted to pick some wild clematis that grew in a meadow on the other side of a flooded creek. At the time, Mrs. Grant relates, she had echoing in her mind the words of her preacher: "If ye have faith even as a grain of mustard seed, ye may move mountains and walk on the waters."
I informed Nell of my determination to make the crossing on the deepest and smoothest place, reminding her of what the preacher said about faith. She was much alarmed and timidly asked, "What is faith, sister?" In great superiority, I replied: "Little goose, believe that you can and you can."... I stepped out on the water and plunged in up to my armpits. I was surprised and looked back at Nell with a frightened smile. I went on, however, to the other side and scrambled up the bank--crushed flowers, dead butterflies, and wet little girl.
Wet or not, Miss Dent's can-do spirit must have surely struck a chord in Ulysses S. Grant.

Hardscrabble, one of the many domiciles in which Mrs. Grant lived during the iterant years of her married life.

From the genteel life of White Haven, Mrs. Grant found herself living with her husband and young children in a log-and-mud soddered home, which Grant built in Missouri as a homestead. This house 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 decided to call it Hardscrabble.”

She showed the same domestic spirit when she arrived at the White House in March 1869:
"I found the White House in utter confusion. I felt greatly discouraged, but after a few weeks things began to assume an appearance of order, ... and by autumn the house was in beautiful condition. After much thought and fatigue, I at last had the furniture arranged in suites, so that each room would have its own set. I found it scattered widely in the upper chambers. Chairs and lounges were recovered; the hall carpets, which were much worn and so ugly, I could not bear to look at them, were replaced."
Under her direction, the White House not only became a domicile suitable for the President of the United States, but also the social center of Washington, as Julia hosted constant dinners and other events during her eight years there. She sobbed all afternon the day she and her husband left the White House--I think not only because she would miss her life there but because she had lived there the longest with Grant. She thought of it as her real home and opened it up for grand hospitality to all Americans, including, she was emphatic, to African Americans.

Ulysses S. Grant is one of the military leaders I admire the most. As I was reading about him recently and about the strength he took from his wife, I decided to find out what kind of person she was. Her memoirs give us a glimpse of Grant in home life and of her devotion to him. Mrs. Grant of course comes under attack from today's feminists because she made no attempt to break through the boundaries in which society and her marriage had placed her--although she was her husband's confidante and wanted to be informed. With her sharp nose for danger, she saved Grant's life when he was targeted as part of the assassination plot against Lincoln.

There is no doubt that Ulysses Grant thoroughly enjoyed her. Here she relates a story of the final leg of their trip round the world:
We had a delightful sail up the coast of Portland; that is, we had a pleasant party, but the sea was rather rough. I remember how the ship tossed and pitched. I said to the Captain: "I fear you have not placed your ballast as it ought to be. You should have it distributed more widely." The General [Grant] was surprised at this speech and said: "Really, Mrs. Grant, I was not aware that you know how to ballast a ship." "Nor do I," I replied, "but if you will remember, when we were coasting along the Spanish shore, the ship behaved exactly like this one. It careened over and returned with a thud. Well, I heard two Englishmen talking about it and they said the ballast was too much in the center of the ship and it was very dangerous." The Captain said: "There is a great deal in what you say, Madam, and as soon as we get into port I will see that all is made right."

Julia Dent Grant (fourth from left) and Ulysses S. Grant (fifth from left) after a descent into a mine in Virginia City, Nevada. "The General made a wager with Mr. Mackay that I would not venture down the shaft. I came out all equipped for a descent into its gloomy depths and was just about to reconsider when Mr. Mackay said to me in a low tone, 'Don't give up going. The General has bet money that you would back out.' I calmly stepped on the platform. The General looked surprised and said: 'We descend one thousand seven hundred feet. Are you going?' 'Yes,' I said, with a look of reproach and triumph. So the General lost his wager when he bet against me."


Anonymous said...

ahhh...that made my day, thanks

Linda said...

Dear Anonymous,
Am so happy to hear that--hat's off to Mrs. Grant!