Ulysses S. Grant was unquestionably a great general. He was also a great family man.
Ulysses Grant: The Poor Family Beginnings
Financially, Ulysses S. Grant was not born to poverty. It was the family dynamics that were decidedly peculiar.
His father, was a tanner of solid financial means, but he was a bombastic, opinionated man, considered a braggart and blowhard by his neighbors. Hannah Simpson, his mother, was really peculiar. She was a cold, emotionless, silent woman who spent her time tending to household chores and reading her Bible. Dinner conversation was sparse.
Ulysses S. Grant: The Affectionate Dent Connection
When Ulysses Grant graduated from West Point, he was stationed in St. Louis, a common first deployment for new officers. There he met the family of his academy pal, Fred Dent – and they welcomed him warmly instructing him “not to be a stranger.”
Some weeks later, Ulysses met Julia, the Dents’ oldest daughter, recently graduated from a St. Louis finishing school. It was true love at first sight for both of them, and after a four years secret engagement, they would enjoy a particularly warm and loving marriage for nearly forty years.
The Grant Family: The Next Generation
Ulysses and Julia Grant had four children. Fred, their eldest, was born when Grant was stationed in the Northeast. When their second son, Ulysses S. Grant Jr. (called Buck from the start) was about to be born, it was a different story. Grant had been sent to the California territory, and he went alone. The trip across the Isthmus of Panama was much too arduous for a pregnant woman and a toddler. Julia returned to her family in St. Louis, where she would remain for nearly two years.
Desperately homesick and lonely the family he had grown to love deeply, Grant foundered. Shortly after Buck was born, Julia sent her husband a letter enclosing a tracing of the baby’s hand. It is said that Grant wept, and Grant was not a weeper.
He resigned from the Army and returned to Julia. Two more children would be born in short order: Ellen (Nellie) and Jesse.
Ulysses and Julia: The Parents Grant
If Grant foundered in California, he failed even more as ex-Captain Grant, aspiring farmer or businessman. It was not from laziness or fear of hard work. It was that he had no direction or vocation. He also had no luck. For nearly ten years he struggled with little to show for it. Nevertheless, surrounded by Julia and the children, he was king of his castle. Both Grants were unusually permissive parents for Victorian times. Their children were given great freedom of expression and activity – which included freedom from hard study. His son Jesse remembered that during the Civil War, none of the Grant children had much schooling, and nobody named Grant seemed to mind. None were destined to be scholars.
In early 1861, the family had just moved to Galena, Illinois, where Grant had taken a menial position in one of his father’s tanneries. When the Civil War began, the ex-West Point Captain was reinstated in the Union Army, and his rise was the stuff of legends.
His attachment to his family was so strong however, that he insisted they stay near to wherever he was encamped. For four years, Grant’s family were nomads.
The Grant Family: The War Years
Young Fred was eleven when the War began, and Grant took him along. Strange as it may seem today, it was at Julia’s specific urging, Throughout the War, Fred encamped with the Army whenever practicable. Of course, if danger or a battle was imminent, he was dispatched back to his mother, who was never far away.
Julia and children stayed in camp with the General on several occasions and were well liked by the soldiers and staff. Senior officers remember coming into their commander’s tent with the great man on the floor, engaged in horseplay with his sons. They also commented (disapprovingly) of how the boys rummaged through his papers, spilled ink and otherwise behaved like little boys. Nellie, of course, was the little china doll. Neither parent seemed to mind.
The Grant Children: A Postscript
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so they say.
Nellie Grant married a “titled” Englishman at a lavish White House wedding. She was only seventeen, and the marriage was not a happy one.
Fred married a beautiful Chicago heiress. Both Buck and Jesse would also marry well-to-do women. Being the offspring of a Great General and U.S. President was a substantial credential for a son-in-law.
It would be the last years of General Grant however, that would prove the character of all named Grant. Grant’s post-presidential years had started well: a trip around the world, and then, at the behest of his son Buck, a partnership in an investment brokerage, which for a couple of years, boomed.
Grant’s business partner was a scoundrel who had manipulated a Ponzi-like scheme, and left Grant holding the proverbial bag. He was financially ruined. So were his sons and their families, since they had invested heavily. Within months of that fiasco, the aging General was hit with another tragedy: terminal throat cancer.
Determined to repay the brokerage debts and to provide for his family – and to maintain his integrity and good name, he wrote his memoirs. It would be race against the clock. The entire family rallied around, helping with research and correspondence with old comrades. They also greeted the well-wishers who came to pay respects, sparing their ailing father strain of trying to speak.
Julia was never out of earshot. She would later claim she never cried in Grant’s presence. Her tears would be private. She had stood by him through good times and bad, some very good and some horribly bad.
All four Grant children, their spouses and the grandchildren were with him till the end – only a week after he had completed the galleys on his memoirs.
They are considered some of the finest war memorials ever written. And the family made a fortune.
GRANT, JESSE R. – In the Days of My Father General Grant – Harper & Brothers, 1925
GRANT, JULIA – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, G.P. Putnam’s, 1975
KORDA, MICHAEL – Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero, Eminent Lives Series, Harper Collins, 2004.
McFEELY, WILLIAM S. – Grant: A Biography, W.W. Norton & Co., 1981