Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Beautiful Julia Grant

Last week another birthday passed and I entered into the new and exciting world of the 30's! It was with much happiness and delight I received several books from my little family (among the more precious treasures of crayoned birthday cards, construction paper crafts and pretty rocks they found outdoors). Among them is The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant and, to my half-shame at my excitement over it, a somewhat fluffy novel about that most interesting first lady, Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini.

Jennifer Chiaverini has a most readable and interesting writing style and I enjoyed her novel about Mrs. Lincoln last summer. I try to avoid novels but sometimes I succumb - usually to Dickens and Austen - and I must admit I am glad I was introduced to her work. I am really looking forward to reading Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule. But since my birthday I have been reading Julia Grants memoirs and they are absolutely delightful.

I figured it would be a good thing to acquaint myself better with Ulysses Grant and his history, especially considering that we live very near where he grew up. The only history I really know of him is what I have picked up while studying about the Civil War. His life spanned 1822-1885, though, and there is so much more to him than the four years of national conflict in the 1860's. So. Much. More!

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately? Depends on the goal) I picked what may be perhaps the most tedious biography about our 18th president that exists. I thought it would be a good one to read since it was written by his grandson, Ulysses Grant III and the book is certainly full of wonderful excerpts from letters, memoirs and recollections of his personal acquaintances. It is, however, very heavy on the military side of things. I still pressed on, however, and got through. Well, slogged through may be a more accurate term. It was hard. I had to re read a lot of pages, especially before I got interested in the Mexican War. The Civil War was more interesting to me but still became extremely dull after a while. Ulysses Grant III, however, had a brilliant tactic of inserting little colorful, personal, intimate and interesting excerpts into the pages and pages of military maneuvers to bait and hook the most disinterested of readers. I didn't want to miss anything like that, so I read all of the war years and survived it. And actually learned quite a lot, too.

I'm actually still not done with the book. I am into the second administration and looking forward to getting out of the White House and into the chapters about the world tour the Grants took post presidency. I tried very hard to finish the book before starting Julia Grants memoirs but I failed at that attempt. She drew me irrisitably!

I became very interested in Julia Grant because it was evident from the excerpts in the biography of her husband that he was very much in love with his "little wife". We all hear about the brilliance of Grant's military mind, his ruthless pursuit of victory, his demands of "unconditional surrender". Some may know that he was not very interested in being a soldier at all, and did not want to go to West Point. He was quiet, methodical, simple and unassuming. He was modest and very much a family  man. While stationed in Fort Vancouver in the early 1850's, with his wife and two baby sons many long miles away, a Mrs. Sheffield, wife of an officer he boarded with, later remembered:

“. . .oftentimes, while reading letters from his wife, his eyes would fill with tears, he would look up with a start and say, ‘Mrs. Sheffield, I have the dearest little wife in the world, and I want to resign from the army and live with my family.’"

Julia Grant was adored by her husband. The most unhappy periods of Ulysses life were when he was forced to be separated from her. Their first, long separation was the period of their engagement from 1844-1848 and the frequency of letters that he wrote to his pretty fiancee reveal just how in love with her he was. 
Ulysses Grant was four years older than his sweetheart,
younger sister of his West Point classmate, Frederick Dent.
"Now that the war has commenced with such vengeance I am in hopes my Dear Julia that we will soon be able to end it. In the thickest of it all, I thought of Julia. How much I should love to see you now to tell you all that happened. . .don't forget to write soon to your most devoted
                                                                                              Ulysses" - May 11, 1846

"It is now above two years since we have been engaged Julia and in all that time I have seen you but once. I know though you have not changed and when I do go back I will see the same Julia I did more than two years ago. I know I shall never be willing to leave Gravois again until Julia is mine forever! How much I regret that we were not united when I visited you more than a year ago. But your Pa would have not heard to anything of the kind at that time. I hope he will make no objections now!" - September 6, 1846

"Just think Julia it is now three long years that we have been engaged. Do you think I could endure another years separation loving you as I do now and believing my love returned. At least commission and all will go in less time or I will be permitted to see the one I have loved so much for three long years. My Dearest don't  you think a soldiers life a hard one? But after a storm there must be a calm. This War must end some time and the Army scattered to occupy different places and I will be satisfied with any place where I can have you with me. Would you be willing to to go with me to some out-of-the-way post, Dearest? But I know you would for you have said so often." - April 24, 1847

"Mexico is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and being the capital no wonder that the Mexicans should have fought desperately to save it...It is truly a great country. No country was ever so blessed by nature. There is no fruit nor no grain that can't be raised here, nor no temperature that that can't be found at any season. You have only to choose the degree of elevation to find perpetual snow or the hottest summer. But with all these advantages how anxious I am to get out of Mexico. You can readily solve the problem of my discontent Julia. If you were but here and I in the United States my anxiety would be just as great to come to Mexico as it now is to get out." - September 1847

Finally, in August of 1848, Ulysses returned to his faithfully waiting sweetheart and the two were married on the 22nd. The day after the wedding, the newlyweds set out from St. Louis, MO to visit Ulysses' family in Bethel, Ohio. After the visit, the couple prepared to move to Ulysses new post in Detroit. Julia Grant's memoirs describe her feelings about leaving her beloved childhood home, White Haven, and her father.

"We returned home about the middle of October, when my struggle at parting with my father began. My heart was well-nigh broken when the time approached to say farewell. This parting, I felt, was to sever my bonds with home. My first journey with Ulys was only a short one of two or three months and I knew I was to return again, but now I was to leave my dear home and make one among strangers - and then parting with papa! I could not, could not, think of it without bursting into a flood of tears and weeping and sobbing as if my heart would break. This disturbed my husband greatly, as he did not know what to do for me and was very unhappy seeing my distress. The week before we were to leave, papa came into the sitting room where Ulys and I were. Ulys was telling me how troubled he was, and that for years he had been anticipating how pleasant it would be for us to spend our days together, and here at the end of the first two months I was relenting. My father said: 'Grant, I can arrange it all for you. You join your regiment and leave Julia with us. You can get a leave of absence once or twice a year and run on here and spend a week or two with us. I always knew she could not live in the army.' Ulys's arm was around me, and he bent his head and whispered, "Would you like this, Julia? Would you like to remain with your father and let me go alone?" "No, no, no, Ulys. I could not, would not, think of that for a moment."

Their first son, Fred, was born in 1850 and Julia was heavily pregnant when she had to say good bye to her husband again in 1852. He was sent out west to Fort Vancouver and she was staying behind to give birth to their second son, Ulysses Jr, who was born just a few weeks later in Ohio. This would be their last long separation. During the Civil War, Julia and the boys often accompanied Ulysses on his campaigns and they were very much together. She stayed by his side until his death from throat cancer in 1885 and honored and cherished her husband until she died in 1902.

This amazing picture was recently unearthed by Cowen's Fine Art Auctioneers
in Cincinnati, Ohio. Julia Grant is depicted in the early 1850's with little Fred
and  baby Ulys, who was later called "Buckie" or "Buck" because he was born
in Ohio and known as a "Buckeye Baby". This was probably taken
during Ulysses absence while he was posted on the Pacific Coast.
So far, her memoirs have been a treat. They offer a very vivid, intimate look into the personal life of her family and her writing style is very cheerful and with a wonderful sense of humor. Her memoirs were partially dictated, so it does indeed feel as if one is sitting down for a friendly chat with an old friend. I wish I had known her!

Having little boys of my own, I very much liked this quote, which describes several scenes in 1853 during her husbands absence out west.

"As Fred would soon be three years old, I felt anxious to see him in pantaloons and therefore arranged to change his entire costume. He was very proud, and we all were, of our little man. A gentleman bringing letters from Captain Grant was invited to dine with us, and he requested that Master Fred be allowed to dine with him. Fred was, of course, dressed in his trousers. He looked very pretty with his dimpled knees and shoulders - the children's arms and legs were bare in those days. He was seated between the gentleman from the Pacific Coast and myself. He took no notice of this gentleman, but gazed with a look of surprise at a young officer opposite to him, who happened to be dining with us that evening. He suddenly exclaimed: "Mamma, is that ugly man my papa?" Of course this caused some merriment at the officer's expense. Fred was quite pacified when told that it was his papa's friend he was to dine with, not his papa. Soon after he put on trousers, he put his little pudgy hands in his pockets, and, stretching himself up as high as possible, said: "Mamma, do you think my papa is as large as I am?" 

Julia suffered from strabismus, which caused her eyes to be crossed. She seemed very self conscious about this when Ulysses later became very famous during the 1860's. Her memoirs offer a beautiful little peek at the great romance between her and Ulysses, which did not diminish with time.
Ulysses, Julia, and their youngest son, Jesse.
"I had often been urged in my girlhood by Dr. Pope, the most distinguished surgeon in the country at that time, to permit him to make a very simple operation upon my eyes. I had never had the courage to consent, but now that my husband had become so famous I really thought it behooved me to try to look as well as possible. So I consulted the Doctor on this, to me, most delicate subject, but alas! He told me it was too late, too late. I told the General the expressed my regret. He replied: "What in the world put such a thought in your head, Julia?" I said: "Why, you are getting to be such a great man, and I am such a plain little wife. I thought if my eyes were as others are I might not be so very, very plain, Ulys, who knows?" He drew me to him and said: "Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes? I like them just as they are, and now, remember, you are not to interfere with them. They are mine, and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you had better not make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes!" And I never did, my knight, my Lancelot!"

I am not done with the memoirs yet as I find that after a few pages before bed each night I am too tired to continue reading. But I am working my way through and the more I find out about the Grants the more I admire and love this family.

Grant was not popular with many historians during the 20th century because of his scandal-laden presidency. He did not want to be president and did not campaign at all during his first administration. I wish that I had not waited so long to dig under the shallow surface of modern opinion and try to get a better understanding of this man and his family. If it had not been for him it is argued that the Civil War may have had a very different outcome.

This post is getting far too long so I had better think of some way to conclude it. It's just so easy to keep talking about Ulysses and Julia though! ;) I am so excited to live so near to where Ulysses grew up and where he and Julia spent the first few months after their marriage. What a wonderful history we have here.



  1. Sarah, that was very enjoyable! I love reading about First Ladies. Their stories are often very much more interesting than the presidents they married.

    1. They are! I have found each one I have read about very inspirational in many ways. I love Julia since she was somewhat ahead of her time. Her memoirs were written at the end of the 19th century but unfortunately not published til much later. She was, however, the first First Lady who took it upon herself to write memoirs designed to be read by the public at large. Her book really presents a (perhaps romanticized) wide view of 19th century life - while she was born into an affluent family, she experienced the less privileged life of a poor farmers wife and then was thrust a few years later into the White House. What a lot to experience in ones lifetime! I love reading about her adventures and her thoughts about the different things she felt about each situation in her life.

  2. How fascinating! I've never thought to read about Pres. Grant, but he and his wife sound so interesting! Thank you for your excitement! I've often has the idea to read about all the presidents, but including their wives in my study would be great!


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!