Julia Dent Grant was born with an eye condition medically called strabismus. People called “cross-eyed.”
JDG: A Plain Child
Strabismus is a common anomaly, and today, it is quickly and successfully corrected in very early childhood. But in the 1830s, when Julia Dent Grant (1826-1901) was growing up, that technology was in the far distant future.
Little girls, if they are plain, usually know it by the time they are eight. Julia was plain, along with having a wandering eye, and she was aware of it early on, but it never stopped her from being personable and warm-hearted. Bottom line: she was popular with her peers, and would always make friends wherever she went.
What Julia wasn’t, however, was academic. She spent several years at a St. Louis finishing school, but was never more than an “indifferent” student, by her own admission. Her eye problem understandably caused chronic eyestrain from close work. She learned to read and write and do arithmetic, of course, and even sewed a little and played the piano – but she was never tasked with pushing the scholastic envelope. If she preferred reading novels to Plutarch, sobeit. In the 1830s, academic achievement for women was not a necessity.
Julia’s Secret Engagement
Julia Dent, was newly graduated and barely eighteen when she met Second Lt. Ulysses S. Grant, recently graduated from West Point. He had been a roommate of Fred Dent, her older brother, and it was love at first sight. The shy Grant found his soul-mate in the plain young woman with the warm heart and engaging personality. They could talk easily, and had an immediate affinity of heart and mind. From that point on, he only had eyes for her.
Only a few months later, Grant was re-assigned and was desolate at the thought of parting from the young woman he had come to love. He asked her to marry him.
Julia loved him, but knew there would be family obstacles. At eighteen, she was too young, and at twenty-two, so was he. In addition, Second Lieutenants were not financially stable, and prospects were poor at best. Grant could not refute those objections, so they decided to wait, and keep their engagement a secret. They did not know it at the time, but their “understanding” would last four years.
Grant wrote regularly. Julia was sporadic. Partly because of her eye condition, and partly because of her disinclination for letter writing, she wrote perhaps one letter to his five. With postal delivery still in primitive stages, the lag between letters could be weeks. Once the war with Mexico began, the lag-and-distance was even longer.
When Grant returned from Mexico, he was twenty-six, and a battle-hardened captain. Julia was twenty-two and old enough. Their affinity still held. They married.
Mr. and Mrs. Grant
Ulysses and Julia Grant were one of the true love stories among First Families. Three years into their marriage, however, Grant was assigned to the California-Oregon Territory shortly after the Gold Rush. It was not a place to bring a pregnant woman and toddler, so Grant went alone. Julia returned to St. Louis to be with her family.
The two-year separation was agonizing for Grant, who adored his wife and the children he barely knew. Once he returned, the Grants would never again be separated for more than a few weeks.
By the time of the Civil War, photography had progressed considerably, and everyone could afford to have a picture taken on occasion. Julia was well aware of her lack of beauty and her “wandering eye,” and frequently referred to herself as Grant’s “plain little wife.” The few photos she ever had taken were always taken in profile, since she had no control over her eye muscle that would not behave.
It was her left eye that was affected, although several of her photographs indicate that a right eye might be the culprit. This is merely because the photographic negative has been “flopped.”
The First Lady’s Eye
By 1864, USG became the general of the Union, and an instant celebrity. Plain or not, eye problem or not, so was Mrs. Grant. As a shoo-in candidate for President in 1868, they were a hugely popular First Couple. The White House, which had spent eight years of curtailed society due to the Civil War and the unpopular presidency of Andrew Johnson, was now ready to glitter in accordance with the Gilded Age. Both Grants’ photographs and cartes d’visite were in high demand, and Julia had spent decades ducking the camera.
With all the social contacts available to them, they had occasion to meet some prominent medical men. In the forty years since Julia’s girlhood, there had been substantial advances in eye surgery. Mrs. Grant was now advised that her strabismus problem could be surgically corrected successfully, easily and with little danger.
Julia was interested. She consulted a few eye specialists who concurred: the problem muscle could be repaired. She decided to undergo the operation, and made the arrangements to go to Philadelphia, said to have the finest medical experts in the country. She packed her bags.
Grant’s “Eye” Love You
The decision for eye surgery was Julia’s alone. Grant seldom interfered with her personal choices. But this particular decision unsettled him.
Shortly before the First Lady was about to leave for Philadelphia, she received a short note from him.
I don’t want to have your eyes fooled with. They are all right as they are. They look just as they did the very first time I ever saw them – the same eyes I looked into when I fell in love with you – the same eyes that looked up into mine and told me that my love was returned…
Julia unpacked her suitcase and cancelled her appointment.
She never had her eye repaired – or complained about it again.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Foster, Feather Schwartz – Mary Lincoln’s Flannel Pajamas and Other Stories from the First Ladies’ Closet – 2016, Koehler Books
Grant, Julia Dent – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant: (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) – 1975, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Ross, Ishbel – The General’s Wife – Dodd, Mead, 1959