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Grant, Julia (1826–1902)

Grant, Julia (1826–1902)

First lady of the United States from 1869 to 1877. Born Julia Boggs Dent on January 26, 1826, in St. Louis, Missouri; died on December 14, 1902, in Washington, D.C.; fifth of eight children of Colonel Frederick Dent (a planter) and Ellen (Wrenshall) Dent; married Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822–1885, president of the United States, 1869–1877), on August 22, 1848, in St. Louis, Missouri; children: Frederick Dent Grant (1850–1912, served as police commissioner of New York City and ambassador to Austria-Hungary); Ulysses Grant, Jr. (1852–1929, became a prominent lawyer in Republican affairs); Jesse Root Grant (1858–1934, became a lawyer and wrote a book about his father); Ellen Grant , known as Nellie (1855–1922, who married Englishman Alger-non Charles Frederick Sartoris, son of Adelaide Kemble , at the White House in 1874).

One of eight children of a wealthy Missouri planter and slaveholder, Julia Dent was born in

St. Louis, Missouri, in 1826. She was raised on a 1,000-acre estate and educated in the classics at a private school. When her brother's West Point roommate, Ulysses S. Grant, visited the Dent estate, Julia captured his heart almost immediately. Three months later, they were engaged, much to the dismay of Julia's father, who saw little promise in Ulysses and could not imagine his favorite daughter living on some barren army out-post. The wedding was postponed for four years while Grant fought in the Mexican War and Julia battled at home to win her father's approval. Vows were finally exchanged in August 1848. A four-month honeymoon included a trip to see Grant's parents in Ohio, who had not attended the wedding ceremony because they disapproved of the Dents for being slaveholders.

Julia followed Ulysses to forlorn army posts in St. Louis, Detroit, and New York, managing her husband's meager wages and attempting to ward off his growing drinking problem. When he left for Pacific Coast duty, she returned to White Haven, Missouri, to care for their young family. Without her influence, Ulysses often slipped off the wagon. After one of his frequent binges, when he was reprimanded by his commanding officer, he abruptly resigned his commission. Returning home, he found it impossible to eke out an adequate living, either from farming or in a job with his father's tanning business. The family was often in despair. At one point, Ulysses was cutting and selling firewood to keep food on the table.

The start of the Civil War probably saved the family from financial disaster and Grant from obscurity. He joined the Union army, and Julia moved the family to City Point to be near his headquarters and to provide Ulysses with the moral support he had come to depend upon. She contributed to the war effort by tending to the wounded and sewing uniforms. There are stories told of her dislike of Mary Lincoln, who often accompanied President Abraham Lincoln when he visited the troops. (It may have been Julia who refused Lincoln's invitation to the Grants to attend Ford's Theater on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865, the night Lincoln was shot.) By the end of the war, Ulysses was a general and a national hero, which largely assured him a bid for the presidency. He won the election of 1868.

Julia referred to her eight years in the White House as "a feast of cleverness and wit," but it was a difficult time for her husband. Politically naive, Grant surrounded himself with corrupt appointees. During the first administration, his own brother-in-law was exposed as a participant in Black Friday, when speculators sought to corner the nation's gold market. Later, Grant's private secretary was charged with participation in the Whiskey Ring, and the secretary of war resigned when it was revealed that he had taken kickbacks. Stock-exchange failures and the Custer massacre added further woes. Despite it all, the Grants were popular, and there seemed to be little resentment over the lavish way they spent money.

The Grants undertook the complete remodeling of the White House. In 1873, Grecian columns were added to the facade with an assist by the Army Corps of Engineers. Inside, Julia chose the plush furnishings, gilt wallpapers, and immense chandeliers of the Victorian era. If the setting was formal, Julia's day receptions were known for informality and inclusiveness. "Chambermaids elbowed countesses and all enjoyed themselves." Wives of senators and Cabinet members took particular delight at being included in receiving lines, although Julia may have had a practical reason for pressing them into service. A condition called strabismus—an imbalance of the eye muscles—caused her right eye to wander uncontrollably, affecting her vision, and she needed help to identify visitors who were coming through the line.

For formal state dinners, Julia replaced the army quartermaster in the kitchen with an Italian steward. Weekly state dinners were described as Continental feasts, which included 25 courses and imported French wines. The banquets were followed by 15 minutes of socializing in the Blue Room, after which the Grants retired and guests were free to leave for their own beds, or for a long walk to ward off indigestion.

At the end of her husband's second term, Julia reluctantly left the White House so as not to "prevent others from enjoying the same privilege." The Grants traveled extensively abroad, where there were received like royalty. Returning to New York, Ulysses undertook another disastrous business venture with an unsuccessful brokerage firm which left the couple bankrupt. In his final years, dying of throat cancer and fearing for his wife's well-being, Grant once again turned to the military. Racing to write his memoirs of the Civil War years, he finished just weeks before his death in 1885. The volumes sold well, leaving Julia financially secure.

In her final years, Julia traveled and attended Grand Army of the Republic events honoring her husband. She befriended Varina Howell Davis , widow of Jefferson Davis, and supported Susan B. Anthony and the suffragists. She also attempted her own book but did not find a publisher in her lifetime. Julia Grant died in 1902, age 76, and is buried with her husband in Grant's Tomb in New York City. Her book, finally published in 1975, attempts to vindicate her husband of any dishonest dealings during his presidency.

sources:

Healy, Diana Dixon. America's First Ladies: Private Lives of the Presidential Wives. NY: Atheneum, 1988.

Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maple-wood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

suggested reading:

Grant, Julia D. The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant). Edited by John Y. Simon. IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

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