While the Grant Cottage State Historic Site marks the final days of a renowned Civil War leader and U.S. President, it also was the final chapter of a long love story, which seems appropriate to share with readers around Valentine’s Day.
Lying in bed inside the cottage as he drew his final breaths, only days after finishing wartime memoirs that he hoped would support his family after he was gone, Ulysses S. Grant held the hand of his wife as they shared a final gaze.
It was decades from the spring of 1844 when the 21-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant first met 18-year-old Julia Dent, 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 their carriage 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 by asking if she would cling to him for the rest of her life. While the proposal came as a surprise for the young Julia, Grant’s boldness paid off as she agreed to wear his class ring as a symbol of their engagement.
But the coming Mexican-American war would separate them for four long years, inspiring the young officer to express his love in numerous romantically tinged letters to his faraway 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 sentiment 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 and their children.
In some ways Ulysses and Julia were like Romeo and Juliet, representing young people from different worlds on a collision course. 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 two families.
When Grant was in Mexico, he wrote young Julia often with a heartfelt yearning. “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 “Adieu dearest Julia. A thousand kisses for you. Dream of me” as shown below.
With the war finally over, in the summer of 1848 the couple were wed in a small ceremony 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. (Two decades later, Grant helped obtain a Congressional pardon for Longstreet, a prominent former Confederate general who supported Grant in his successful 1868 bid for the U.S. presidency.)
During the next 12 years of marriage, the Grants would endure the trials and separations of an army life, which included postings in upstate New York. 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].” But frequent moves and a separation of almost two years strained Ulysses to the breaking point, prompting him to resign from the Army in 1854 to reunite with 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 1850s.
Conflict again claimed the devoted husband when the Civil War began in 1861. As fighting raged, the rising military star would not forget his wife and children, sending for them to join him in the field 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 assumed command of all Union forces and his 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.”
After the war, Grant served as U.S. president from 1869 to 1877, and Julia would stand by her husband through those tumultuous years, offering advice on important matters at times. At their New Jersey cottage, known as the “Summer White House,” their playfulness would again emerge.
After watching his son Ulysses Jr. bound over the porch railing Ulysses. 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.
The couple’s affectionate manner was always at the surface and was illustrated in another incident on their U.S. and world tour in 1879, when Grant was one of the most recognized Americans in the word. They had returned to the U.S. from abroad and were visiting a mine in Virginia City, Nevada.
At the entrance, 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 after being diagnosed at age 62 with terminal cancer in his throat. The couple had lost most of their money through a corrupt business partner, and Ulysses was determined to write a book about his wartime experiences in hopes that sales would support his family after he was gone. He was aided by his friend, famous American author Mark Twain.
To complete the book, Grant came to an Adirondack cabin in Wilton, Saratoga County, to accomplish his final mission. Throughout his six-week ordeal, Julia was by his side. Pushing through his pain, he finished his book and died on July 23, 1885, only four days after final proofreading of his manuscript.
His resolve secured financial security for his family, who were supported through $450,000 in proceeds from what became a best-seller.
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 after her death in 1902. The two who loved each other so truly in life would now be together for eternity.
Post by Ben Kemp, Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage Operations Manager
More About Grant Cottage
Located immediately below the summit of Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, the cottage and 43-acre site was recently named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.
The cottage is kept as it was during the Grant family’s stay. Open to the public seasonally by the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage, visitors can tour its first-floor original furnishings, decorations, and personal items belonging to Grant.
Tours are scheduled to resume for the season in May 2021. Artifacts on display include the mantel clock stopped by Grant’s son Fred at the moment of his father’s death, and original floral arrangements from Grant’s funeral in August 1885.
Grant Cottage first opened as a historic site in 1890 when it was supported by funds raised by veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The grounds surrounding the Cottage served as a tuberculosis sanitarium beginning in 1914, which in 1945 was converted into a veteran rest camp, until 1960 when it was repurposed and annexed as the Rome State School for disabled children until 1976. The Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage was formed in the fall of 1989 to provide programming and tours, and partner with New York State Parks on site stewardship.
Learn more about the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant which are available online here.
Grant’s preface to the memoirs:
“Man proposes and God disposes.” There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.
Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication. At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of a failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly act of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial, and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, for good or evil; I hope for the former.
In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.
The first volume, as well as a portion of the second, was written before I had reason to suppose I was in a critical condition of health. Later I was reduced almost to the point of death, and it became impossible for me to attend to anything for weeks. I have, however, somewhat regained my strength, and am able, often, to devote as many hours a day as a person should devote to such work. I would have more hope of satisfying the expectation of the public if I could have allowed myself more time. I have used my best efforts, with the aid of my eldest son, F. D. Grant, assisted by his brothers, to verify from the records every statement of fact given. The comments are my own, and show how I saw the matters treated of whether others saw them in the same light or not.
With these remarks I present these volumes to the public, asking no favor but hoping they will meet the approval of the reader.
U. S. GRANT
MOUNT MACGREGOR, NEW YORK, July 1, 1885.