Someone Else than Myself to Live and Strive For
170th Anniversary of the Marriage of Ulysses Grant and Julia Dent
by Ben Kemp, Site Coordinator
On the morning of July 23, 1885, Ulysses Grant was surrounded by his loving family as he took his final breaths. “Mrs. Grant still held the General’s hand…the General opened his eyes and glanced about him, looking into the faces of all. The glance lingered as it met the tender gaze of his companion.” (New York Times July 24, 1885) Julia was now a widow.
Some 40 years earlier in the spring of 1844, 21-year-old Lieutenant Ulysses had first met 18-year-old Julia, the sister of his West Point roommate Fred Dent, while visiting the Dent family in St. Louis. There was an instant attraction between them that was fostered by time spent together. Julia remarked that “Lieutenant Grant… became a daily visitor….He was always by my side walking or riding.”
On their way to a wedding in St. Louis the couple encountered a rain-swollen creek. Julia was ready to turn back, but Ulysses was characteristically confident that he could navigate it. The nervous Julia said as they pulled up to the submerged bridge, “Now if anything happens, remember I shall cling to you, no matter what you say to the contrary.” Once safely across the creek Ulysses turned to Julia and proposed to her by asking if she would cling to him for the rest of her life. The proposal came as a surprise for the young Julia but his persistence would pay off and she would agree to wear his class ring as a symbol of their engagement.
It would be four long years of separation before the couple could be married. During these years Ulysses was maturing as a soldier in the Mexican-American War but was forced to express his love in numerous romantically tinged letters to his fiancée. Ulysses shared a sentiment that would echo across the rest of their lives, writing to his future bride: “In going away now I feel as if I had someone else than myself to live and strive to do well for.” This would define their relationship but perhaps no more so than during his final weeks on Mt. McGregor as Ulysses fought to finish his memoirs to provide for Julia.
In some ways Ulysses and Julia were like Romeo and Juliet. Ulysses had grown up in an abolitionist ripe area of southern Ohio with antislavery parents. Julia, on the other hand, had grown up on a slave-holding plantation near St. Louis, Missouri. Neither of their fathers were keen on the match and for their entire lives there would remain some tension between the families.
Ulysses was committed to the girl he left behind, from Mexico he wrote, “You can have but little idea of the influence you have over me Julia, even while so far away… absent or present I am more or less governed by what I think is your will.” Pining for their reunion he wrote, “I am getting very tired of this war and particularly of being separated from one I love so much." And frequently he ended his letters with sentiments such as “A thousand kisses for you. Dream of me.”
Finally, in the summer of 1848, the long-awaited moment came when Ulysses returned from war. Their relationship had survived the years of forced separation and Ulysses could wait no longer. The couple were wed in a small ceremony on August 22 at the Dent home in St. Louis. Among the groomsmen were three other soldiers who would later fight for the Confederacy, including Julia’s cousin James Longstreet.
Over the next 12 years the couple would endure the trials of an army life. His playful romantic gestures including a letter sent from a nearby town stating, “I find that I love you just the same in Adams [NY] that I did in Sackets Harbor [NY]” helped them cope. Frequent moves and a separation of almost two years strained Ulysses to the breaking point. He would resign to rejoin his wife and two young sons, Fred and Ulysses Jr.. The couple would have two more children, Nellie and Jesse, before the end of the 1850’s.
Ulysses was once again swept away by war in 1861. As the Civil War raged the rising military star would not forget his wife and children but send for them to be with him whenever possible. Ulysses strained to be the consummate family man and was a devoted husband and father. Julia would be his confidant and supporter through the trials of war.
As Ulysses fame grew, Julia began to feel as if she was too plain. She approached her husband on the subject of corrective eye surgery for her cross-eyed (strabismus) condition. He responded with the charming sentiment, “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes? I like them just as they are, and now, remember, you are not to interfere with them. They are mine, and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you had better not make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”
Julia would stand by her husband through the tumultuous years of his Presidency, offering advice on important matters at times. At their Long Branch New Jersey cottage, the “Summer White House” their playfulness would again emerge. After watching his son Ulysses Jr. bound over the porch railing Ulysses Sr. teased his wife, “If you were sitting here alone…and the cottage caught fire, you must be rescued or burn.” “You think so!” Julia replied playfully as she defiantly bounded over the porch railing as easily as her son had done.
That playful manner was always at the surface and was illustrated in another incident on their world tour in 1879. They had returned to the U.S. from abroad and were visiting a mine in Virginia City NV. Here the General made a wager with another gentleman that Julia would not make the harrowing descent deep into the mine. The gentleman secretly informed Julia that her husband bet money she would back out. She resolutely stepped up on the platform surprising Ulysses who questioned whether she really was going down into the mine. Julia uttered a simple “Yes” and Ulysses lost his bet.
The dedicated couple was able to enjoy a few years of happiness with their children and grandchildren before Ulysses entered his final struggle. Throughout his ordeal Julia was by his side, offering the support she gave him throughout their marriage. Ulysses would leave his widow with a final gift, $450,000 from the proceeds of his book that would serve to care for her and the family in his absence.
Years later the widow of the great American Hero would state, “For nearly thirty-seven years, I, his wife, rested and was warmed in the sunlight of his loyal love… and now, even though his beautiful life has gone out, it is as when some far-off planet disappears from the heavens; the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.”
According to Ulysses’ last wishes, Julia would be placed in a matching red granite sarcophagus within Grant’s Tomb in 1902. The two who loved each other so truly in life would now be together for eternity.
Unconditional Surrender: The Romance of Julia and Ulysses S. Grant by Patricia Cameron
The General’s Wife: The Life of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant by Ishbel Ross
The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant