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First Lady Biography: Julia Grant

Julia Boggs Dent Grant

Born: January 26, 1826 - White Haven Plantation, St. Louis County, Missouri

Died: December 14, 1902

Father: "Colonel" Frederick Dent (1786 – 1873)

Mother: Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent (died 1857)

Ancestry: English

Siblings: Julia was one of eight children: 4 boys and 4 girls

Physical Description: Short, rather stocky, with dark hair, with dark hair and brown eyes, a prominent nose and a cast in one eye that gave Julia a determined look. The cast caused her to be "wall-eyed"; that is, to see one object and another at the same time. Never a pretty woman, some called her plain, but she had a sparkle, charm and a ready smile that lightened her rather heavy features.

Religion: Methodist (her maternal grandfather, John Wrenshall, was a Methodist minister

Education: Julia’s mother came from a cultured background. Because of this, she made sure all of her children, even the girls, were educated. Julia grew up in wealth and was educated at the local school run by John F. Long. She did well, except for Roman numerals. Later she attended the Mauro Boarding School for seven years, where she enjoyed literature but disliked mathematics. After returning home in 1844, she met the young Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed at the nearby Jefferson Barracks. He was a classmate of Julia’s brother, Frederick Dent, and became an admirer of Julia’s.

Husband: Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822 – 1885)

Courtship and Marriage: Colonel Dent made it clear from the start that he hoped his daughter would marry someone able to provide her with comfort. This was something Grant could not offer on a soldier’s pay. Even so, by the time his regiment was ordered to Louisiana, he and Julia were informally engaged, unbeknownst to Colonel Dent. After a year’s delay, they finally told him and won his very reluctant permission to marry. The Mexican War again delayed their marriage. At the successful conclusion of the war, the young couple was married on August 22, 1848. Among Grant’s attendants was James Longstreet of Civil War fame, who was also Julia’s cousin.

Age at Marriage: 22 years, 208 days

Personality: A cheerful person, Julia loved people. She also loved being the center of attention. No other woman in our nation’s history loved being First Lady as Julia Grant did. An ardent admirer of fine things, Julia reveled in the dinners, receptions, State Dinners and the pomp. At the core of it all, it was a heady feeling after so many years of uncertainty, poverty (after her marriage to Grant), and the carnage of war. Grant always needed his wife with him; her steady nature, good humor and common sense kept him focused and on an even keel. He was apt to fall into moods of uncertainty and depression, and Julia was able to keep his spirits up. After appointing Grant as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, President Lincoln would send for Julia to join her husband, knowing of her good influence on him.

Children:

1. Frederick Dent Grant (1850 – 1912)

2. Ulysses S. Grant (1852 – 1929)

3. Ellen (Nellie) Wrenshall Grant Sartores Jones (1855 – 1922) – married in the White House in 1874

4. Jesse Root Grant (1858 – 1934)

Years Before the White House (1848 – 1869): The years before the Civil War were filled with pain, hardship and difficulties for both Grant and Julia. The first four years they lived in Detroit and Sackett’s Harbour in New York, where Julia learned to cook and kee[ house. She enjoyed the social whirl of army life. In 1850 and 1852, she gave birth to two sons, Frederick and Ulysses, who was called "Buck" because he was born in Ohio. Julia was staying with her in-laws in Ohio at the time, while her husband was serving in the army on the Pacific Coast. This would be Julia’s only connection to Ohio, other than that it was her husband’s birthplace. After a two-year separation, the Grant’s were reunited. They faced hardships, however, since Grant had resigned from the army. Julia’s father Colonel Dent, although facing financial difficulties of his own, gave them land to farm. They called the land "Hardscrabble". The Grants had little success in farming the land, and the Panic of 1857 brought financial ruin to the farm. Dent’s plantation failed as well. By 1860, the Grants were living in Galena, Illinois where Grant was working for his father in the tanning business. The Civil War gave Grant his chance at success. However, Colonel Dent supported the Confederacy and refused to speak to his son-in-law. Julia remained faithful to her husband. She spent as much with him as she could; in fact, unlike most officers, Grant insisted that Julia be with him. Once he was named Commander of all the Union forces in 1864, Julia found herself the center of attention – something she grew to love. The war’s end, Lincoln’s assassination and the turmoil afterwards, propelled the Grants into the spotlight. Given gifts, honors and even a house in Galena, the years after the war brought fame and prosperity to the Grants. Grant’s election to the presidency in 1868 was a certainty – Mary Lincoln’s snappish remark to Julia some years earlier about becoming a First Lady was about to come true.

First Lady (1869 – 1877): After a long line of four-year (or less) First Ladyships, Julia Grant would be the first First Lady to serve 8 full years since Elizabeth Monroe. With the help of the socially prominent wife of the Secretary of State, Julia Fish, Mrs. Grant made her way through the pitfalls of White House life with ease. Her male servants wore dress suits and white gloves. She ordered new rugs, furniture and gave the White House a thorough cleaning. Smoking was forbidden, except for the President’s cigars and, with the help of an excellent cook, dinners took on an opulence and splendor rarely seen before or since. Wine flowed and the meals sometimes lasted four hours. There were Tuesday afternoon receptions given for "any and all" and when asked about "colored visitors", Julia replied, "Admit all." However, behind Julia’s back, her staff denied entrance to the colored visitors. The china ordered by Mrs. Grant, with a yellow border and flowers in the center, still remain among the handsomest in White House history. The two younger Grant children, Jesse and Nellie, had a grand time in the White House. Nellie’s wedding in 1874 to an Englishman, Algernon Sartoris, was among the most elaborate in White House history. The Grants spent their summers at Long Beach in New Jersey, where they bought a cottage.

Julia Grant fueled the rumor mill with a story that she helped her husband in the Fiske-Gould attempt to corner the gold market. Julia’s brother-in-law was involved in the Fiske-Gould situation. Grant wanted to curb the attempt. He dropped a hint to Julia to write to her brother-in-law’s wife and ask her to persuade her husband to drop out of the speculation. Grant arranged the sale of the government gold and ended the panic. Julia supposedly got a bribe for her intervention. Julia’s attempts to influence her husband on political issues, however insistent, were rarely listened to. She thought she had more influence than she did, and history has proven her belief to be wrong. She had little or no influence in the policy of the Grant’s administration.

Grant’s wise decision not to run for a third term met with Julia’s sullen disappointment. Knowing his wife as well as he did, Grant kept the letter announcing his decision not to seek re-election a secret.

During Julia Grant’s eight-year tenure, the White House was restored to the center of Washington’s social life. Julia had succeeded in making it both a social center, as well as a comfortable home. Her last act was to prepare a luncheon for the incoming Rutherford and Lucy Hayes on Inauguration Day 1877. She sobbed like a child when she climbed into her carriage to leave. No one ever left more reluctantly than Julia Grant.

Last Years: After leaving the White House, the Grants took a two and a half year world tour. They had a grand time. From meeting Queen Victoria to being greeted in China, the Grants loved every minute of their trip. The Grants returned from Europe in 1879. They had been missed by the American public and were very popular, and their presence was in demand. However, by the 1880 convention, where Grant hoped to win a third term, the luster of the Grant name had faded somewhat. Failing to win the nomination, Julia and Ulysses moved to New York where unwise speculations on Wall Street left them in financial devastation. Diagnosed with incurable throat cancer, Grant spent the last years of his life writing his memoirs in the hope that they would bring in enough money to support Julia. Ulysses death on July 23, 1885 left Julia overcome, lost and frightened. After several years, supported by the extremely successful sale of Grant’s memoirs, Julia returned to Washington where she lived in comfort as a "Grand Dame". She also wrote her own memoirs – the first First Lady to do so – but she never published them. They were finally published in 1975. She cultivated friendships with Frances Cleveland, Caroline Harrison and even with Edith Roosevelt.

Death: December 14, 1902

Age at Death: 76 years, 322 days

Burial: Grant’s Tomb, Riverside, New York

Legacy: A strong, capable woman, Julia Grant had intelligence, drive and humor, but she rarely ventured into a more prominent role as First Lady. She wanted to have more influence, but her husband rarely listened to her, preferring her to take care of only domestic matters. She was a wonderful helpmate to her husband: supportive, calming and humorous, but, outside of their marriage, Julia was denied any real political role in her husband’s life. If for no other reason, Julia Grant was unique in that no one enjoyed their stay in the White House as much as she did, received as little censure as she did, or left it as sadly as she did.