Did Julia Grant Own Slaves?

     As might have been expected, my post on Ulysses Grant and William Jones drew a comment alleging that Grant’s wife, Julia, owned four slaves. It is also often alleged that these slaves were not freed until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Part of the reason for this widespread belief is that Julia herself wrote about and talked about these slaves all her life as if they were hers. As we shall see, she referred to them several times in her own Personal Memoirs, always claiming they were hers. It is therefore certainly understandable that historians would take her at her word. Unfortunately, one of those historians, as Brooks Simpson pointed out in his comment, was the late John Y. Simon, who had edited Julia’s Memoirs for the initial publication in 1975.

     One of Simon’s endnotes read: “Since Missouri was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, Julia’s slaves probably remained her property until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.”[1] First, slaves in Missouri were freed by the state in January 1865 before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Second, the slaves had already apparently freed themselves by walking away during the war. Third, despite Julia’s statements of ownership, there is no evidence that she ever held legal title to any enslaved people. 

     Julia Boggs Dent was born in St. Louis in 1826. Her father, Frederick F. Dent (known as Colonel Dent, despite a lack of military experience), had migrated from Maryland to St. Louis in 1817, made some money as a merchant in the fur trade, and in 1820, purchased a sprawling 850 acre farm in the countryside just southwest of the city. Col. Dent had pretensions of being a southern aristocratic planter gentleman and considered the farm he dubbed “White Haven” to be his plantation. Col. Dent owned as many as thirty slaves which were usually evenly split between White Haven and his St. Louis city residence. For Missouri, this was a considerable number. Col. Dent and his wife had seven children who lived to adulthood. Although Col. Dent considered White Haven a plantation, it always operated more like a family farm. There was no overseer, and if Julia is to be believed, the slaves were treated well by her father.

     “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 all vegetables, bacon, beef, and, of course, poultry. I think our people were very happy. At least they were in mamma’s time, though the young ones became somewhat demoralized about the beginning of the Rebellion, when all the comforts of slavery passed away forever. My father was most kind and indulgent to his people, too much so perhaps…”[2]

     Several of these enslaved people were children in the 1830s and 40s, which Col. Dent “gave” to Julia and her siblings. They grew up together, frolicking about White Haven.

     “I had my nurse, dear old black Kitty, and Nell [Julia’s younger sister] had Rose, a pretty mulatto. Besides we always had a dusky train of from eight to ten little colored girls of all hues, and these were allowed to accompany us if they were very neat. We would wander by the brookside, catch minnows with pin-hooks – or try to. I, being of a provident nature, required these little maids to each carry a bucket to bring home my captives. Sometimes I would catch a minnow, sometimes two or three.”[3]

     Julia was the first daughter born to the Dents after their having four sons. As Julia herself acknowledged, she was adored by her father who indulged her, and she in turn adored him. It should come as no surprise then, that Julia, having been raised in this atmosphere, (she remembered the White Haven of her youth as being near heaven on earth), and having been taught that slavery was the natural order of society, would have a difficult time adjusting her beliefs to fit those of her husband, who had been taught all his life that slavery was morally wrong. And yet, from the moment they married, there is no indication that the issue of slavery ever was a bone of contention between them; perhaps because Ulysses did not make it an issue between them, even while having heated discussions with his father-in-law on the subject while living at White Haven in the years before the war.

     In 1860, after giving up on the idea of being a Missouri farmer, Ulysses moved with Julia and their four children to Galena, Illinois, where he went to work in his own father’s leather goods store. In her Memoirs Julia wrote:

     “We… hired out our four servants to persons we knew and who promised to be kind to them. Papa was not willing they should go with me to Galena, saying the place might not suit us after all, and if I took them they would, of course, be free, ‘and you know, sister, you cannot do without servants.’ There is not one word of truth in the statement made by a late chronicler of General Grant’s life that he ever offered to sell one of these dear servants of mine, nor in the statement that one of these girls was left with, or given to, Mr. Long for debt…Eliza, Dan, Julia, and John belonged to me up to the time of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.”[4] 

     This is where John Simon’s note comes into play. Also, first, her father’s assertion that she could not do without slaves is obviously not true, because as a young bride in 1848, she had already lived in Michigan and New York without slaves. Second, as Simon pointed out, the EP did not cover Missouri. But, most important, note that despite Julia’s claim that these slaves “belonged” to her, she acknowledged that her father would not allow them to be taken to Galena, indicating that it was he who actually had control over them. Nevertheless, by the time of the war Julia had re-united with at least one of these slaves, because she also tells us:

“When I visited the General during the war, I nearly always had Julia with me as nurse.”[5]

And in 1862:

     “We remained with the General until September when we returned to the North, leaving the three older children with their Grandfather Grant. I went to Louisville and boarded with my aunt. From there, I took my cousin, a charming girl, Jesse, and my colored nurse Julia on a two week visit among the General’s relatives and old schoolmates in Ohio, who were most kind and hospitable.”[6]

    One must wonder what Grant’s anti-slavery family must have thought about Julia bringing her slave for a visit. And, it is interesting that either Julia persuaded her father to let her take the nurse with her (and it never took much persuasion from Julia to get her way with her father), or her father did not know Julia was taking her into a free state, or her father by this time had simply given up trying to hold on to his slaves. Whatever the case, Julia would later have a tinge of regret at having taken her nurse-slave away from Missouri because in 1863:

     “At Louisville, my nurse (a girl raised at my home) left me, as I suppose she feared losing her freedom if she returned to Missouri. I regretted this as she was a favorite with me. However she married soon afterwards.”[7]

     Notice that Julia did not specifically name this nurse as the slave ‘Julia’ but it seems likely that she was. Throughout Julia’s writings there is a strong sense that she considered these slaves as part of her extended family. They, of course had their place, but, Julia always showed concern for their well-being.

     By 1864, on a return visit to White Haven, Julia wrote:

     “I was happy to be home, busy putting my house in order, and hoped soon to have a visit from my husband. Our colored people had all left, but their places were readily filled by German and French men and women, who were most excellent substitutes.”[8]

     This would seem to indicate that the Dent’s enslaved people had taken advantage of the chaos of the war and the lack of supervision at White Haven, and had simply left. At this time there are no known records to indicate otherwise. We do not know where most of them went, although Mary Robinson, the Dent’s slave cook, gave an  interview published in the St. Louis Republican newspaper on July 24, 1885, in which she said of Grant: “He always said he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.”

     None of the foregoing, of course, would prove that Julia did not hold legal title to her four “servants.” But, there is no known record that Col. Dent ever legally transferred ownership to Julia. In addition there is a letter sent from Ulysses to Julia from a camp near Corinth, Mississippi, dated May 16, 1862, in which he wrote:

     “Your father sent Emma [Julia’s other younger sister] a bill of sale for the negroes he gave her. To avoid a possibility of any of them being sold he ought to do the same with all the balance. I would not give anything for you to have any of them as it is not probable we will ever live in a slave state again but would not like to see them sold under the hammer.”[9]

      By 1862, Col. Dent’s fortunes had seriously declined, and Grant was likely worried that the Dent slaves might be taken and sold to pay debt or taxes. Here is primary evidence that Julia was not the legal owner of the enslaved people she claimed were hers prior to 1862, and there is no evidence that her father ever complied with Grant’s request. It is also a window into Ulysses Grant’s character; that with all he was dealing with in the spring of 1862, he would still concern himself with the welfare of the enslaved people at White Haven.     

To read more on Julia Grant and slavery at White Haven see here and here.

[1] John Y. Simon, ed., The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975), endnote, 88.

[2] Ibid, 34.

[3] Ibid, 36

[4] Ibid, 82-83.

[5] Ibid, 83.

[6] Ibid, 101.

[7] Ibid, 126.

[8] Ibid, 131.

[9] John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant Vol. 5 April 1 – August 31, 1862 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973), 123-124.

11 thoughts on “Did Julia Grant Own Slaves?

  1. Excellent as usual, Bob. Your articles are always very clear and straight-forward, and I always feel much better informed for having read them.

  2. As always, a well-written and interesting article.

    The evidence shows that Dr. Simon made a mistake in regards to the supposed slaves of Julia, and he should have been more careful when editing this section of the book, but Julia definitely did not make it easy for Dr. Simon; this is not the only event in her memoirs in which she incorrectly remembered the actual facts, contradicted herself, and/or was ambiguous in detailing an event. For me, her book was quite tedious. That being said, there are bits within the book that are great for one looking to better understand Whitehaven and the Grant/Dent family connection to it.

    What interests me the most is Julia’s ostensible surprise at her servants leaving when the opportunity arose. She and her father both claimed that they treated his (Frederick Dent’s) slaves like family, even entertaining the possibility that they were too kind and indulgent with them. I wonder if they really ever believed that blacks could ever want freedom or if they had the capabilities to enjoy freedom responsibly.

    I also wonder what Julia and Frederick Dent thought about moving the slaves away from their families in Maryland to Missouri, or what the slaves thought about having only one door to go in and out of the house, or what it was like knowing that Julia was able to go to finishing school while the slaves had to hide the fact that they were learning to read and write in secrecy after the state of Missouri banned such practices for slaves in 1847.

    The Dent relationship with slavery at Whitehaven could be used to better understand the role of slavery in antebellum America. I think it is an extremely fascinating exploration into the views of many whites towards slavery during this time. The contradictions are epic; slaves were considered property and sold on a frequent basis, often without regard to the slaves’ familial ties to other slaves, yet at the same time also “treated like family” by the white slaveholders.

    • Nick,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment; you raise some very important points. I think it is important to remember that slave experiences varied widely from region to region, state to state, farm to plantation; even differing between house servants and field hands on the same plantation, and other various occupations. Therefore Julia’s experience and memories could well be much different than someone raised elsewhere. Having said that, no matter how well treated the slaves at White Haven might have been, it was still slavery. Julia, just like many slaveholders, rationalized the structure of the society in which she was raised.
      I don’t know how anyone could have thought freedom was unimportant to slaves, especially considering how many tried to run away, but in the case of White Haven, we don’t know of any who did try to run away until the war came. I don’t think we know how, or if, slaves were disciplined at White Haven. I don’t think we even know if any Dent slaves were ever sold; although, it seems very likely that, Julia, who was no stranger to the city, would have seen slave auctions with all the horrors that those entailed.
      I think your idea that they didn’t think blacks were capable of enjoying freedom responsibly is an accurate assessment of many, but that is just another rationalization.
      In the larger scheme of things, how important is what Julia thought about slavery? Is it a reflection on her husband? Those who want to bring up the fact that Grant owned a slave, or that Julia had slaves, generally do so because they think this is evidence that the war wasn’t really about slavery. It’s not.

      • I think you’re right on mentioning the fact that the slaves’ experience throughout the country varied widely. I make sure to clarify to many visitors that Frederick Dent did not run his “plantation” in the traditional sense in which there was one staple crop like Tobacco or cotton; there were many crops grown there. On a less frequent basis I also mention that the slaves had a wide variety of jobs at Whitehaven, from working the farmland to various domestic jobs. Based on geography Dent’s St. Louis plantation was fairly different from a plantation in the deep south, so that’s my bad if I went too far with my generalization in the last comment. Obviously slavery operated on many different levels throughout antebellum America.

        In the larger scheme of things, Julia’s views on slavery probably don’t mean much, and just like many people after the Civil War, her views evolved over time. She openly welcomed blacks as equals to the White House if I remember correctly, so obviously some of those views on slavery changed as she got older.

        I agree with the bit on Grant, and I find it particularly humorous when some try to rationalize that “both Grant and Lee had slaves” to make some larger statement about the causes of the Civil War. While the fact that Grant had one slave for a year is inescapable and tough to understand for me personally because of his vocal opposition to slavery for most of his life, to compare that to Lee’s experience gets us nowhere to understanding the causes of the war. Lee’s experience was so different than Grant’s in that regard, it’s nearly impossible to find any similarities in their experience with slavery (at least what I’ve learned so far). Furthermore, Grant realized from the beginning of the war that the cause of the war was the “doom of slavery.” Grant was MUCH less attached to the institution than Lee.

  3. So if grant could have lived in a slave state he would have kept them on? also looks like he wanted a bill of sale so he could get the proceeds and legal title

    • Rob,

      I think you should read Grant’s letter a little more carefully. He tells Julia flat out that he doesn’t want her to have legal title. Personally, I think he knows that Julia already considers some of them “hers” and so he added the part about not living in a slave state as a convenient way of not getting her upset about it. But, it is also pretty clear that he cares enough about the Dent slaves that he doesn’t want to see them go through the indignity of an auction and be sold away to who-knows-where.

      • Bob, there’s another way to interpret Grant’s statement; that is, suggesting to Julia that she too request the bill of sale from her father for her slaves so they would not be mistakenly sold as part of her father’s estate.

        • Jeff,
          I don’t see how it can be interpreted that way. Grant wrote that Col. Dent gave a bill of sale to Emma and should “do the same” with the rest. He’s telling Julia to have her father give a bill of sale to Emma not to Julia herself.

  4. Wow, fantastic article, Bob, and just the information I was looking for — Grant and the slaves in his family. I was planning to write a novel on Grant covering this issue, and there are painfully few truly historical fictive works out there for him. I want to make mine with as much fidelity to history as I can. So I greatly appreciate your essay, which is very analytical and detailed.

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