Ulysses S. Grant was never happier than with his beloved wife and children.
USG & Julia: The Long Courtship
For Second Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, it was truly love at first sight when he met Julia Dent. Her brother Fred had been his West Point roommate. Being stationed after graduation at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, USG took a courtesy ride out to meet Dent’s family, who lived about ten miles from town. The Dents welcomed him warmly, and encouraged him “not to be a stranger,” and the 21-year-old soldier, unaccustomed to close family dynamics, began coming for Sunday dinner every couple of weeks.,
He finally met the eldest Dent sister (four brothers/three sisters, in that order) a few months later, when she graduated from finishing school. She was just shy of eighteen. The attraction between Grant and the plain young woman with the warm personality was immediate. He began coming around more often.
A few months later, Grant received new orders. He was being transferred to the Louisiana Territory – and possibly beyond. He found himself uncommonly depressed by the news, and determined that it was because he did not want to leave Miss Julia Dent. He had fallen in love.
When he asked her to marry him, they decided to have a “secret” engagement instead. She knew her parents would object: they were too young, and a 2nd Lieutenant was not a strong financial prospect.
Their “engagement” lasted for four years, mostly by correspondence, and punctuated by the War With Mexico.
When he returned, he was 26, tanned, battle-hardened and a Captain. A man. She was 22. Old enough to marry.
Despite some private worries that their bonds may have frayed, once they saw each other again, everything fell into place. They married.
Captain Grant and his bride began their mister-and-missus assigned to an army post in Detroit. Little Fred came along in due course. Then they were reassigned to Sacketts Point, NY, a lonely garrison near the Canadian border. But they were happy. Grant even believed that life in the army could be a good future and planned to apply to West Point, teaching mathematics – when there was a vacancy.
But with little “Buck” on the way, Grant was reassigned to the California-Oregon territory. Gold had been discovered in California, and the army needed a presence. The route of choice in the early 1850s was a dangerous slog across the Isthmus of Panama through disease-infested jungles. It was no place for a pregnant woman and a toddler. Julia went back to St. Louis. As soon as USG was settled, he planned to send for them.
The Sad Bad Times
Grant’s misfortunes (and there were several) while assigned out west for the better part of two years, are well known.
He had been given quartermaster duties, and while it undoubtedly gave him great insights into moving armies, he was bored.
As was customary, soldiers were permitted to engage in mild outside business interests. Grant invested a good chunk of his savings into a couple of ventures. Through no fault of his own, they failed and he lost his money.
But perhaps most of all, he was desperately lonely and homesick for the ones he loved best. When a letter finally arrived from Julia, she had enclosed a tracing of little Buck’s hand – the namesake son his father hadn’t seen. It is said that Grant wept. Maybe. He was not a weeper by nature, but no doubt the pain of separation affected him deeply.
He began helping himself to the community whiskey barrel and dipper behind the barracks. Unfortunately Grant was unable to a) control himself and b) hold his liquor. The effect of one or two drinks would become painfully obvious, and usually observed by those who could (and later did) do him harm.
He was finally given the choice: Resign, or be dismissed. He resigned.
A Long Road Home
With practically no money and no companions, Captain Grant began his way back to St. Louis and the wife and babies who would not remember him. Depressed and guilt-ridden for his long list of failures and failings, he was finally forced to wire his father in Cincinnati to “send money” so he could finish his journey. Jesse Grant was so incensed at his son’s irresponsibility, he even wrote to the Secretary of War to have his resignation disregarded. Nevertheless, he sent the money. But the Secretary of War did not rescind the resignation.
Grant had written to Julia, but said little of his ordeal. He merely told her that he had been given leave, and was coming home soon.
It was a forlorn, tired, dusty and sad-eyed Captain who finally rode up the path to the Dent family house. Two little children, about four and two, were playing on the porch. He recognized them immediately and knew they were his. He leaped off his horse and bounded up the stairs two at a time, clutching them, one under each arm, smothering them in kisses.
Little boys, being little boys, squirmed and shrieked at this stranger. Julia, hearing the commotion, came outside to investigate.
Her husband was home.
The Homecoming Decision
A couple of very fine historians have called Julia and Ulysses “soul mates.” This is as good a term as any. They were bound together, and needed each other to function well.
They had no secrets. In a very short time, ex-Captain Grant confessed all his woes to his beloved. His apathy in the army. His business failures and loss of their savings. And, above all, his pain of separation from her. All of which led to the whiskey barrel, and unbearable embarrassment and shame and guilt.
They vowed then and there that they would never be separated again for more than a few weeks. They never were.
Nine months later, their daughter Nellie was born.
Grant, Julia Dent – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant – G.P. Putnam’s, 1975
Korda, Michael – Ulysses S. Grant, The Unlikely Hero – Atlas Books, 2004
White, Ronald C. – American Ulysses, A Life of Ulysses S. Grant – Random House, 2016