Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a Plantation Narrative

Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a Plantation Narrative

Julia Dent Grant holds the unique distinction of being the first in a line of distinguished First Ladies to have written a memoir. Following the death of her husband Ulysses S. Grant in 1885, Julia Grant began contemplating the idea of telling her own life story and sharing insights into her long, loving relationship with the nation’s most famous American at that time. Completed before her death in 1902 but not published until 1975, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant have proven to be a crucial resource for historians looking to understanding her early life experiences in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Grant family’s personal dynamics.[1]

Studio portrait of Julia Dent Grant seated.
Julia Dent Grant during the American Civil War. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While providing unique insights into Julia Grant’s life as a Civil War general’s wife and First Lady, the Memoirs also capture a complex, deep relationship with the institution of slavery during her childhood. Growing up at White Haven, a plantation owned by her father Frederick F. Dent, left an indelible impression on Julia Grant’s mind. She carried this impression with her to old age and used her memoir to reconstruct life at a place where “our people were happy” and “the comforts of slavery” made life enjoyable.[2] Seen in this light, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant serve as a plantation narrative.

As Grace Elizabeth Hale, David Blight, and other historians have demonstrated, this popular literary genre at the turn of the century aimed to recollect, celebrate, and educate readers—particularly young White Southerners—about the positive aspects of slavery and life in the South before the Civil War. Julia Grant’s recollections contain a subtle but important difference from most of this literature in that she did not express support for a Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Her husband, of course, was on the other side of that battle literally and figuratively. It is nevertheless clear that Julia viewed slavery as a positive good that brought order, stability, hierarchy, and happiness to all. In her view, the enslaved laborers at White Haven were satisfied with trading their freedom for food, clothing, and a comfortable place to stay. “My beloved and honored father . . . [was] the kindest of masters to his slaves, who all adored him . . . [he] was most kind and indulgent to his people, too much so perhaps,” she argued.[3]

Viewed on its merits as an accurate representation of slavery, the Memoirs are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Julia’s recollections provide a small glimpse into the lives of White Haven’s many enslaved people, thirty of whom were owned by the Dent family in 1850. Readers learn of Mary Robinson’s “loaves of beautiful snowy cake, such plates full of delicious Maryland biscuit, such exquisite custards and puddings, such omelets, gumbo soup, and fritters,” all of which “were mammy’s specialty.” They learn of Old Bob, who would “get religion” and “go away down in the meadow by the big walnut trees nearly half a mile off and pray and sing so we could hear him distinctly on our piazza.” And they learn of annual Christmas and Easter festivals and occasional corn shuckings where White Haven’s enslaved population “would invite all of the colored people from far and near, and, after greetings had passed and they had something to drink, they would gather around sometimes two or three hundred strong, and word, song, and chorus would begin.” In the absence of enslaved perspectives of life at White Haven, Julia Grant’s recollections become a primary source for establishing some sort of understanding on this subject.[4]

Photograph of home with fence
The White Haven estate in 1860. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

On the other hand, the Personal Memoirs are clearly a romanticized apologia for slavery that must be taken with a grain of salt by scholars and public historians interpreting her life at many Grant family homes across the country. Julia’s “personal truth”—what she perceived and believed about slavery—must be placed in conversation with the “forensic truth” of slavery documented in a wide range of historical scholarship. While Julia Grant may have been sincere in her expression of overly positive views about slavery at White Haven, one cannot simply take her word at face value because other voices are silent.

One example of relevant scholarship that can be paired with Julia Grant’s recollections is Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. Jones-Rogers brilliantly deconstructs the process by which White women were groomed from an early age to possess authority over enslaved Blacks within their environment. As Jones-Rogers describes it, these White women were “mistresses in the making.”[5] One could argue that a fundamental aspect of The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant lies in how the book serves as an account of Julia’s own evolution into a mistress at White Haven.

Some of Julia Grant’s earliest recollections were rooted in demonstrating authority over White Haven’s enslaved people. She described how she and her sisters “always had a dusky train of from eight to ten little girls of all hues” who, “if they were very neat,” were allowed to play with the Dent daughters in the woods. “Dear old black Kitty” served as Julia’s nurse, available at all times to attend to her needs. When Charles, Bob, Willis, William, and Jim wanted “a little tobacco, whiskey, money,” or a chance to see their wives on other properties, they went to Julia for help in bribing her father for permission. Julia seemed to relish this authority, remarking that “these dear old black uncles always brought to me pet rabbits, squirrels, and all the prettiest birds’ eggs they found. The first ripe strawberries, the reddest apples, and their first melons were [always] brought to ‘Miss Julia.’” And while Julia and her siblings enjoyed the benefits of education, family time, and refined living at White Haven, the enslaved domestic workers “attained the dignity of white aprons with gay bandanas around their heads making picturesque and becoming turbans,” a sign of their rising to their natural station within White Haven’s hierarchy.[6]

Julia Grant’s connections to slavery continued into adulthood and even into the Civil War. Although she never legally owned any enslaved African Americans, at one point she was “gifted” four enslaved laborers from her father for her own family’s benefit. From 1854 to 1859, Ulysses and Julia Grant and their children lived at White Haven and benefitted from the labors of Dan, Eliza, John, and Julia (sometimes referred to as Jule). Although the Grant family was living in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the Civil War, Julia reclaimed possession of Jule in late 1861 during a visit back to St. Louis. Jule accompanied Julia Grant and her children for most of the Civil War during their many travels.[7]

Despite Julia Grant’s best efforts to follow her father’s “kind and indulgent” ways with the enslaved people in her midst, the American Civil War soon intervened to change this power dynamic. Perhaps sensing that change was in the winds, Julia sadly recalled that “the young ones [at White Haven] became somewhat demoralized about the beginning of the rebellion.” By early 1864, the remaining enslaved people at White Haven took matters into their own hands and ran away for good. Jule pursed a similar course of action by running away from Julia Grant during a trip through Louisville, Kentucky, in January 1864. “I regretted this as she was a favorite of mine,” she lamented.[8]

Julia Grant tried to accept the realities of emancipation after the war. An 1880 letter from General Grant suggests that she came to believe that slavery was wrong. Upon taking the role of First Lady, she recalled in her memoirs that she gladly welcomed people of all colors to visit the White House during reception days, perhaps the first time such a state of affairs existed at the Executive Mansion. “No colored people called,” however, suggesting to Julia that they showed “themselves modest and not aggressive.” Her statement was revelatory. As journalist Ray Stannard Baker would later suggest, “Many [White] Southerners look back wistfully to the faithful, simple, ignorant, cheerful, old plantation Negro . . . they want the New South, but the Old Negro.”[9] The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant embody Baker’s observation and serve as a nostalgic celebration of “the Old Negro.”

 

 

[1] Julia Dent Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), 17-26.

[2] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 34.

[3] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 34, 42; Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 43-120; David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 211-254.

[4] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 39-42. Mary Robinson and Mary Henry, two formerly enslaved women at White Haven were interviewed by St. Louis papers after Ulysses S. Grant’s death in 1885. However, the white editors of these interviews were most interested in publishing accounts of Grant’s experiences in St. Louis. Unfortunately, readers gain very few insights into enslaved experiences at White Haven from these interviews. For Robinson’s interview, see untitled article, St. Louis Republican, July 24, 1885, republished online at “An Interview with Mary Robinson, Formerly Enslaved at White Haven,” National Park Service, March 11, 2020, accessed June 20, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/articles/an-interview-with-mary-robinson-formerly-enslaved-at-white-haven.htm; for Henry’s interview, see “She was Mrs. Grant’s Mammy,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 22, 1900. See also Robert E. May, Yutide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019).

[5] Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 1-25.

[6] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 34-42, 73-74.

[7] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 80-83; for Julia Dent Grant’s travels during the Civil War see, “Julia Dent Grant Chronology,” National Park Service, January 21, 2021, accessed June 21, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/julia-dent-grant-chronology.htm

[8] Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 34, 83, 126, 131.

[9] Ulysses S. Grant letter to Garibaldi Ross, September 11, 1880, in “Ulysses S. Grant States that the Grants Consider the Institution of Slavery Unjustifiable, In a Letter to a Young Boy,” Raab Collection, 2021, accessed June 21, 2021. https://www.raabcollection.com/us-grant-autograph-slavery; Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, 175; Baker quoted on in Hale, Making Whiteness, 85.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

7 Replies to “Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a Plantation Narrative”

  1. Thanks Nick for the valuable essay on Julia’s Memoirs. I use part of it for one of my talks about the importance of the women in Grant’s life. I find her an interesting subject because of her upbringing as a southern belle, yet she had the ability to remain silent during many of her husband’s conversations to end slavery during the war. As you know she also strong willed and would stand up for her family and father. One thing that I still find ironic is that Lincoln and Grant, two of the most important people in power that secured the union and helped end slavery, both married wealthy southern women. That is one of the dichotomies that makes this research so interesting.

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