The controversial topic of U.S. Grant and slavery is a popular one for debate. It is also an issue fraught with peril, since we are examining slavery through the
lens of the 21st century. Frequently this defeats the discussion before it has begun. Though slavery is odious today, it did not carry this stigma to those who
used slave labor in the civil war era. Below are some common questions relating to Grant and slavery.
Did Grant's Family Own Slaves?
No. Grant's father, Jesse Root Grant, was an abolitionist Whig who detested slavery. In 1868 Jesse
wrote, "I was never technically known as a abolitionist," but his actions said otherwise. When he was a young tanner, Jesse's boss was Owen Brown, the father of antislavery zealot, John Brown. The
father of Grant's best boyhood friend, Daniel Ammen, was one of the more noteworthy abolitionists in the Ohio town where Grant grew up. It is interesting that during the Civil war, Julia and her four
children spent considerable time with her father-in-law at his Covington, Kentucky home. Julia disliked Jesse, but remained in Covington in order to be closer to Grant, who was operating in
Tennessee. Julia had at least one of her slaves with her on these occasions. How Jesse reacted to this situation is unknown, but he could not have been pleased with this arrangement.
When did Grant First Encounter Slavery?
Grant grew up across the river from Kentucky and it is
possible he witnessed scenes of slavery as a young boy and teenager. However, he first had an intimate view of slavery when he began courting Julia Dent, in the Spring
of 1844. Grant was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, and Missouri was a slave state. Julia and her family lived on a pseudo-plantation called White Haven, where Grant conducted much of his courting.
Julia's father was the cantankerous Frederick "Colonel" Dent, a man who owned 18 slaves and spent his days lounging on the veranda of his home, pontificating about
the merits of the Democratic party. Julia painted a moonlight and magnolia vision of her childhood in her Memoirs and left no doubt that she saw nothing evil in the institution of slavery. When Grant married Julia in
August, 1848, his parents did not attend their wedding. In all probability, the fact that Julia Dent's parents were slave owners was the cause for their conspicuous absence.
Did Grant's Wife Own Slaves?
Yes, for periods in her life, Julia Dent Grant owned four slaves, Eliza, Dan, Julia and John. Whether she held title to them or her father retained ownership is still unclear. As a teenager, her personal
slave was "black Julia." When she married Grant, she went north to various army posts, and had to do without her "servants," as she euphemistically called her slaves. For the first 4 years of her
marriage, her slaves remained in Missouri. From 1853-1863, Julia continued to use four slaves, whom she mentions specifically in her Memoirs. They were all house "servants," and took turns
attending to Grant's children, cooking and cleaning. Mary Robinson,
served Mrs. Grant for many years.
White Haven, the Dent home
In a March 12, 1859 letter to his father, Grant made it plain that Julia was unable to do without her chattel. He wrote, "Julia and the children are well. They will not make a visit to Kentucky
now. .. with four children she could not go without a servant and she was afraid that landing so often as she would have to do in free states, she might have some trouble." Yet Grant told
Mary Robinson, one of the Dent slaves, that if he was the owner of White Haven, he would give freedom to all the family slaves.
When the Grant family moved to Galena, Illinois in 1860, Julia reluctantly left her property in Missouri and had to make do with one paid servant, Maggie Cavanaugh. Incredibly, Julia brought
along one of her slaves on all of her visits to Grant's headquarters during the civil war. When Julia was with Grant, their youngest son, Jesse, was in the charge of "black Julia," the slave that Julia had
used since her girlhood.
With the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Julia's four slaves were set free. It is
claimed in the footnotes of her Memoirs that they were not freed until December, 1865, with the passage of the Thirteenth amendment, but this doesn't concur with other primary sources of the
period and Missouri's slaves were freed in January, 1865. Grant himself noted that on a visit to White Haven in 1863, Julia's slaves had already scattered and were no longer on the plantation. On
extended visits to Petersburg, in 1864, Julia brought along a hired German girl to tend to 6 year old Jesse.
Did Grant Own a Slave?
Yes. For a brief period in 1858-9, Grant was the owner of a 35
year old mulatto man named William Jones. The details surrounding the ownership of Jones are still murky. We do know that Grant wrote to his father on March 21, 1858, "I have now three Negro
men, two hired by the year and one of Mr. Dent's." On October 1, 1858 Grant wrote again to his father: "Mr. Dent thinks I had better take the boy he has given Julia along with me, and let him learn the
farrier's business. He is a very smart, active boy, capable of making anything, but this matter I will leave entirely to you. I can leave him here and get about three dollars per month for him now, and more
as he gets older."
Grant freed William Jones on March 29, 1859, though he could have sold him for approximately $1,000. At this time Grant was in
significant financial straits, but was unwilling to sell another human being under the hammer.
What Did Grant Have to Say About Slavery?
Grant never claimed to be an abolitionist like his father. At the beginning of the war, he was still a
Douglas Democrat, though his views changed as the war progressed. He was willing to live around slaves in order to placate his wife and to assist with labor he needed done around his St. Louis farm.
Still he was exceedingly gentle and kind to all the Dent slaves. Some reported that he paid them better wages than white men earned in the same region. Louisa Boggs, an astute family chronicler
and St. Louis neighbor, said that Grant refused to punish the slaves and would never have whipped them. Albert Richardson, an early Grant biographer, wrote, "He was too kind hearted to enforce
unpaid and reluctant labor with severity." Eventually Grant came to realize that slavery was "the cause and pretext of the Rebellion" (June 2, 1865). He said much the same thing in the conclusion of
his Memoirs. Grant's feelings about slavery evolved steadily and at the end of his life he regarded it as an imposible evil.
Here are some Grant quotations relating to the topic of slavery:
"In all this I can see but the doom of slavery. The North do not
want, nor will they want, to interfere with the institution. But they will refuse for all time to give it protection unless the South shall return soon to their allegiance." - April 19, 1861, in a letter to
his father-in-law, Frederick Dent.
"My inclination is to whip the rebellion into submission,
preserving all Constitutional rights. If it cannot be whipped any other way than through a war against slavery, let it come to to that legitimately. If it is necessary that slavery should fall that the
Republic may continue its existence, let slavery go." - November 27, 1861, in a letter to his father.
"I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery, but I try to judge fairly and honestly and it became patent in my mind early in the
rebellion that the North and South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without slavery. As anxious as I am to see peace established, I would not therefore be
willing to see any settlement until the question is forever settled." - August 30, 1863, in a letter to Elihu Washburne.
"As soon as slavery fired upon the flag, it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to
slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle... there had to be an end to slavery." -In a conversation with Bismarck, 1878.
"The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to
slavery. For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that "A state half slave and half free cannot exist." All must become slave or all free, or the state will go
down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time, but since the war is over, reviewing the whole question, I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true." - U.S.
Grant, in his Memoirs, 1885.
Sources used: The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1 (John Y. Simon, editor, 1967), The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant Volume 2 (John Y. Simon, editor, 1969),
The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 3, (John Y. Simon, editor, 1970), The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 4 (John Y. Simon, editor, 1982), Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War
and Reconstruction, 1861-68 (Brooks D. Simpson, 1991), Grant: A Biography (William S. McFeely, 1981), Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (U.S. Grant, 1885), The Personal Memoirs
of Julia Dent Grant (1975, editor John Y. Simon).
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