From “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant”
The four sons of Frederick Fayette Dent, patriarch of White Haven, were all born between 1816 and 1823. Dent purchased the property in 1820. All four died before the coming of the twentieth century; George, the last to go in 1899. The world and America were vastly different places at the end of their lives than the world and the America they had been born into. Their famous brother-in-law, Ulysses Grant observed in his Memoirs that “the country grew, rapid transit [railroads, telegraphs, and steamboats] was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before.” And, of course, there had been wars; wars for territorial expansion and a great war that had tested, as Abraham Lincoln so famously said, whether a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. Grant said “our republican institutions were regarded as experiments to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our Republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it.” The Civil War settled on the battlefield the question of secession, though “states’ rights” and the proper role of the federal government remained contested. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution radically altered definitions of freedom and citizenship.
The prologue to the movie Gone With The Wind read:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called The Old South…Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their ladies fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind.
Historians have rightly condemned this romanticized vision of the “Old South,” yet this is exactly how many Americans chose to remember their past. Julia Grant chose to remember White Haven in ways not dissimilar. She adored her father, and admired her older brothers. In her Memoirs she wrote, “My four dear brothers, John, George, Fred, and Louis, were brave fellows, and to my mind and also papa’s and mama’s were heroes.” The Dents and their slaves were, for the most part, in Julia’s memory one big, happy family. It can be argued that Missouri, a border state, and especially St. Louis with its mix of cultures, was never the “Old South,” and White Haven certainly wasn’t the mythical Tara. As I’ve written before, White Haven never operated like a deep south plantation. For one thing, there was no cotton. Nevertheless, there were Masters and Slaves, and Frederick F. Dent, by most accounts, liked to think of White Haven as his plantation and himself as a southern aristocratic gentleman. Historian Eugene D. Genovese once wrote:
The planters [before the war] commanded Southern politics and set the tone of social life. Theirs was an aristocratic spirit with values and mores that emphasized family and status, had its code of honor, aspired to luxury, leisure and accomplishment. In the planters community paternalism was the standard of human relationships, and politics and statecraft were the duties and responsibilities of gentlemen. The gentleman was expected to live for politics and not like the bourgeois politician, off politics.
The planter typically recoiled at the notions that profit is the goal of life; that the approach to production and exchange should be internally rational and uncomplicated by social values; that thrift and hard work are the great virtues; and that the test of wholesomeness of a community is the vigor with which its citizens expand the economy.
The planter was certainly no less acquisitive than the bourgeois, but an acquisitive spirit is compatible with values anti-ethical to capitalism. The aristocratic spirit of the planters absorbed acquisitiveness and directed it into channels that were socially desirable to a slave society; the accumulation of land and slaves and the achievement of military and political honors. Whereas, in the North people were impelled by the lure of business and money for their own sake, in the South specific forms of property carried with [them]the badges of honor, prestige, and power.
This description of planter mentality is compatible with accounts of Frederick F. Dent (except, perhaps, the notion of thrift). Dent had worked hard, made his wealth as a merchant, and at White Haven “aspired to luxury, leisure and accomplishment.” As Julia recalled:
He did not like the mercantile business after he had once enjoyed the repose of country life. He once said to me when I asked him why he did not remain in business in the city: “My daughter, the Yankees that have come west have reduced business to a system. Do you know that if a man wants a loan of a few thousand dollars for a few days –God bless you! – they want a note and interest. This was not so in my time.”… Papa found this place [White Haven] and the life so delightful that he gradually gave up all occupation and passed the summer months sitting in an easy chair reading an interesting book, and in the winter, in the chimney corner beside a blazing hickory fire, occupied in the same way.
Someone, of course, had to do the work required to live in the mid-19th century; tending the crops and livestock for food, the cooking, the laundry, even keeping that blazing hickory fire going in the winter. It is likely, however, that to Frederick Dent’s paternalistic way of thinking, it was he who was taking care of the enslaved people, not the other way around. This is reflected in Julia’s memory:
Most of our old colored people were from Virginia and Maryland, and papa used to buy for them great barrels of fish – herring from that part of the country. Molasses, tobacco, and some whiskey (on cold, raw days) were issued regularly to them from the storehouse, and then they had everything the farm produced, such as vegetables, bacon, beef, and, of course, poultry….[My father] was the most indulgent and generous of fathers and the kindest of masters to his slaves, who all adored him. I call back the memory of those Christmas holidays and Whitsuntide festivals, the weddings of those poor people…, the fine suppers the master and mistress always gave them on these occasions.
Julia’s very turn of phrase is interesting – everything the farm produced – as if “the farm” could produce anything without the labor of the enslaved.
At some point, Frederick F. Dent had acquired the military title of Colonel, and would be known as Colonel Dent the remainder of his life. By some accounts he had served in a militia during the War of 1812, though not as an officer, so the title was apparently honorary. Still, it comports with Genovese’s mention of military honors among planter gentleman. Frederick F. Dent was also very involved in politics, even though he never ran for office. When he died in 1873, one newspaper report noted he “was always called upon to preside at [local] political meetings. He persistently refused to accept office, though often asked to do so. He was always a staunch democrat, and boasted that he had voted for every democratic President since he had attained his majority, except Buchanan, of whom, for some reason, he did not approve. He almost invariably came to Washington to attend Presidential inaugurations.”
Genovese stated that “in the South specific forms of property carried with [them] the badges of honor, prestige, and power.” Certainly, the “form of property” Genovese is referring to is slaves. “Southern honor,” though, is a subject that has been much written about by historians and social scientists. A blog post at The Art Of Manliness, outlined Southern honor thus:
The code of honor for Southern men required having: 1) a reputation for honesty and integrity, 2) a reputation for martial courage and strength, 3) self-sufficiency and “mastery,” defined as patriarchal dominion over a household of dependents (wife/children/slaves), and 4) a willingness to use violence to defend any perceived slight to his reputation as a man of integrity, strength, and courage, as well as any threats to his independence and kin. Just as in medieval times, “might made right” in the American South. If a man could physically dominate or kill someone who accused him of dishonesty, that man maintained his reputation as a man of integrity (even if the accusations were in fact true).
Southerners brought these concepts of honor to Missouri; one only needs look to the history of Bloody Island in the Mississippi River near St. Louis. “Young boys were encouraged by both their parents and the community to be aggressive and manly, and to fight to defend one’s honor from an early age [and] that even if you got creamed, simply showing your willingness to fight demonstrated your manhood.”
This is the culture and environment in which the Dent brothers were raised. None of them stayed at White Haven to achieve the planter gentleman status that their father aspired to. In fact, their father’s dream of being a planter gentleman was crumbling long before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, and their brother-in-law Grant’s attempt at making a go at White Haven only further showed the futility of such a dream. Each of the four brothers were individuals in their own right, and they made individual choices and lived individual lives. Nevertheless, when they left White Haven they, no doubt, took with them distinct ideas regarding family, politics, white superiority, martial manliness, class entitlements, and honor learned in their childhood. Though they would often live far apart, their lives remained entwined. In addition, in her book, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, Rebecca Edwards wrote:
Pre-Civil War Americans had expected most people to become independent craftsmen, shopkeepers, businessmen, or farmers, an ideal that in the early republic had undergirded confidence in the independence and virtue of the citizenry. Permanent paid employment was widely derided as “wage slavery.” Over the course of the post-Civil War decades, however, debate over the legitimacy of wage work faded. For most workers the key issues came to be not the fact that they were wage earners but whether they enjoyed decent hours and working conditions and whether they could live comfortably on their pay.
None of the Dent brothers ever became “wage slaves.” They became military officers, lawyers, business owners, plantation lessees, politicians, and government agents in various capacities. And, when the opportunities arose, they would often try to use their relationship to their famous brother-in-law to their advantage. Julia wrote that when her father died he “left a large and, I think, most worthy family to lament him.” She likely knew when she added the qualifier “I think,” that her assessment would be a matter of historic debate. Yet, theirs is a distinctly American story.