If you spend much time on internet Civil War sites, you have likely come across the claim that Ulysses Grant owned slaves and didn’t free them until he was forced to do so by the 13th Amendment. Usually this is coupled with the assertion that Robert E. Lee didn’t own any slaves. These assertions are usually used to buttress the claim that the war was not about slavery. Brooks Simpson commented on this a while back on Crossroads. One point he made, I thought was particularly insightful: “Whether Grant or Lee owned slaves and their connection with slavery is besides the point, because neither one of them played a prominent role in the debates over secession.” Brooks also set the record straight when he wrote that Grant did own one slave ”although he freed the slave prior to the events of 1860-61.”
Today, March 29, is the day in 1859 when the Saint Louis Circuit Court officially entered Grant’s manumission of his slave, William Jones, into the record and affixed the seal of the court. Grant had written out the manumission paper in his own hand.
It is important to remember that this is the only piece of primary evidence available regarding William Jones, particularly in light of what various historians have written about him. William McFeely wrote: “In 1858 he [Grant] hired two slaves from their owners and borrowed one, William Jones, from his father-in-law.”***** The problem with this statement is that the letter McFeely cited from Grant to his father, Jesse Grant, does not specifically say that William Jones was the “borrowed” help. The truth is, we don’t know exactly when Grant acquired Jones, although sometime in 1858 seems likely. Furthermore, although Grant did state in the manumission document that he had purchased Jones from Frederick Dent, he did not specify how much he had paid. Since Grant had little money during the years he was living in St. Louis before the war (in fact, one reason farming doesn’t work out for Grant is that he is always undercapitalized), it seems unlikely that he paid much, if anything at all.
Jean Edward Smith wrote: “The circumstances aren’t clear, but sometime during his last year at White Haven he acquired possession of the young slave Colonel Dent left behind…” And, Smith goes on to say: “When he moved to St. Louis, Grant was initially tempted to rent the man out, but soon decided against it.” It is not at all clear what Smith’s source is for this assertion. Brooks Simpson got it right when he wrote: “Exactly when and how Grant acquired ownership of a slave remain something of a mystery.”
If the circumstances surrounding Grant’s acquisition of Jones are unknown, it is also unclear exactly what Grant’s motivations were for freeing Jones when he did. By late 1858 Grant’s dream of being a Missouri farmer had fizzled out. He had less money than ever, and could certainly have used the $1000-1500 he could have received from the sale of Jones. But, Grant did not sell the man, he freed him. Again, it is interesting to note how historians have interpreted this. In an otherwise excellent guide to Civil War St. Louis, William C. Winter wrote: “Although finances were certainly difficult for the Grants in 1859, the family was not apparently as poverty-stricken as it is often portrayed, for during this year Grant manumitted his only slave…As one modern historian has pointed out, had Grant been in need of money, he could have sold Jones rather than freeing him.” Is it not also possible, if not likely, that no matter what financial straits Grant might have been in, he believed Jones’ freedom was more important?
*****Since writing this post I have gone back and reviewed McFeely and the cited letter. The letter McFeely cited from Grant to his father, Jesse Grant, was actually in reference to this statement McFeely made at the end of the paragraph in question: “When Grant considered joining his father in Covington in 1858, he did offer to defer to Jesse’s judgment as to whether one of the youths owned by Julia should be hired out in St. Louis or brought along to learn to be a blacksmith.” (McFeely, 62) Obviously, this was not William Jones. What McFeely doesn’t say is that in the letter Grant actually wrote: “Mr Dent thinks I had better take the boy he had given Julia along with me, and let him learn the farrier’s business.” Thus, once again indicating that it is Col. Dent who has acual control over the slaves “given” to Julia (see my post on Julia’s slaves). (Grant Papers Vol. 1, 344)
McFeely does not cite the letter Grant wrote to his sister, Mary, on March 21, 1858, which is the actual source of the information that Grant had “hired two slaves from their owners and borrowed one.” The problem is that what Grant actually wrote was: “I have now three negro men, two hired by the year and one of Mr Dent’s, which, with my own help, I think will enable me to do my farming pretty well, with assistance in harvest” (Grant Papers Vol. 1, 340-341). Notice, again that William Jones is not named. Also notice that Grant did not say he hired slaves from their masters. He likely hired ‘free men of color.’ McFeely should have realized this because he, himself, related the stories of Grant ‘overpaying’ these men and being criticized by his white neighbors for doing so.