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.” 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…”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
 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.
 Ibid, 34.
 Ibid, 36
 Ibid, 82-83.
 Ibid, 83.
 Ibid, 101.
 Ibid, 126.
 Ibid, 131.
 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.