Julia Grant (1826-1902) was an American first lady (1869-77) and the wife of the American Civil War general and 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. A devoted wife, Julia Grant often joined her husband at his military postings, including several trips to the front during the Civil War. For Julia, unlike many of her predecessors, her husband’s election to the presidency was a happy occasion, and she was a popular and well-respected hostess. The Grants’ fame reached far beyond the United States, and the couple traveled extensively after leaving the White House. Julia Grant was the first first lady to pen her memoirs, although they remained unpublished until nearly 75 years after her death.
Julia Grant: Early Life
Julia Grant was born Julia Boggs Dent on January 26, 1826. She was the fifth of seven children born to “Colonel” Frederick and Ellen Wrenshall Dent. Raised on the White Haven plantation approximately 12 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, she enjoyed outdoor activities such as fishing and riding horses. The future first lady was well educated, attending the Mauro Boarding School for seven years and taking a liking to literature. She painted an idyllic picture of her upbringing in her memoirs.
Her future husband, Ulysses Grant, was a classmate of Julia’s older brother Fred at West Point. Ulysses Grant met his bride-to-be at White Haven early in 1844, where the two rode on horseback and walked the grounds together. He proposed a few months later. However, the two kept the engagement hidden from Colonel Dent, who was unhappy with Grant’s meager pay as a soldier.
The two wrote letters to one another, including an 1844 note where Grant poked fun at the error Ohio Congressman Thomas Hamer made when he inadvertently added an “S” as Grant’s middle initial in his nomination letter for West Point: “Find some name beginning with “S” for me,” he joked to Julia, “You know I have an “S” in my name and don’t know what it stands for.”
Grant finally asked Dent for permission to marry Julia in 1845 and received approval, but the outbreak of the Mexican-American War delayed the wedding until August 22, 1848.
Julia Grant: Marriage to Ulysses Grant
Given 80 acres of land by her father as a wedding gift, Julia embraced the role of farmer’s wife in the 1850s. However, the process of turning the farm into a profitable venture proved difficult from the early stages and was rendered virtually impossible following the Panic of 1857. By 1860, the family was forced to move to Galena, Illinois, where Grant worked in his father’s leather goods store. The outbreak of the Civil War changed their fortunes, as Grant’s success as Union commander eventually provided a Julia with a more comfortable lifestyle.
Julia Grant and Ulysses Grant had four children: Frederick Dent Grant, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. (known as “Buck”), Ellen “Nellie” Grant and Jesse Root Grant.
Julia Grant During The Civil War
The American Civil War began in April 1861. Ulysses Grant volunteered for the Union cause and became a colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteers. Later that summer, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) made Grant a brigadier general.
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Grant earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant” after winning a major victory over the Confederates in the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee in February 1862. In July 1863, Grant’s forces captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, a Confederate stronghold, earning him a promotion from President Lincoln. Grant was appointed lieutenant-general by Lincoln on March 10, 1864 and given command of all U.S. armies.
Julia Grant visited her husband’s encampments often, sometimes traveling alone and sometimes with their children in tow, who were watched over by her slave, Jule—an interesting choice for the spouse of the leader of the Union Army fighting to preserve the Union and abolish slavery.
Letters between Julia Grant and her husband show she was a trusted confidante for him, and Grant even invited President Abraham Lincoln, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and their son, Tad, to visit him at the front at Julia’s suggestion.
The Grants narrowly escaped death five days later when they declined an invitation from the Lincolns to attend a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865. That was the night Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
Julia Grant in the White House
Ulysses Grant was sworn in as the 18 president of the United States on March 4, 1869. He’d ran as a Republican with running mate Schuyler Colfax as Vice President. His first order of business was overseeing Reconstruction, a lengthy and often controversial process.
Julia Grant was an active first lady. She not only attended Senate hearings, but met with cabinet members, senators, diplomats, and justices alike. She read the president’s mail and was renowned for her hosting—a valuable skill in the Gilded Age. She hosted afternoon teas and public receptions at the White House and even held a wedding for her only daughter, Nellie, in the White House’s East Room in 1874.
Well-liked for her spirit and charm, Julia was not considered a traditional beauty. Described in some circles as “plain,” she was also slightly cross-eyed and squinted a lot. Julia wanted surgery to correct the condition before her husband convinced her it wasn’t necessary. Regardless, the first lady reportedly always insisted on being photographed in profile so her eyes wouldn’t draw so much attention.
The Grants left the White House after two terms in 1877, embarking on a world tour that May where they were greeted as international celebrities.
Julia Grant’s Death
Despite all the success and fame, they enjoyed as the first family in the 1870s, the Grants again faced monetary difficulties after failed business investments. Seeking to provide a cushion for his wife, Grant worked on his memoirs despite suffering from throat cancer, completing a mere week before Grant’s death on July 23, 1885. Published by Mark Twain, the erstwhile president’s book was a huge hit, and Julia lived out her final years in comfort in Washington, D.C., surrounded by friends and family. Julia Grant died of kidney and heart failure on December 14, 1902 at the age of 76. Julia Grant’s memoirs were not published in her lifetime. They first appeared in print in 1975 under the title The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).