Ulysses S. Grant: The Locket Story

  When Ulysses S. Grant met Julia Dent, it was love at first sight.

Grant Meets Dent

Young Lt. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), recently graduated from West Point, was a frequent guest at the Dent home for several weeks before he met their eldest daughter.

Grant had been the academy roommate of Fred Dent. When they graduated, young Dent encouraged Grant, about to be deployed to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis (a popular first assignment for young officers) to call on his family. He assured his pal that he would be welcome.

Once situated at Jefferson Barracks, Lt. Grant duly rode out to White Haven, the Dents’ modest plantation, where Col. and Mrs. Dent embraced him warmly, and told him “not to be a stranger.” Lt. Grant began coming for Sunday dinners. The Dents were a tight-knit and outgoing family, something totally new for Grant, whose own family had a peculiar dynamic: half boisterous, half silent.

Wedding photo of Grant

Perhaps the earliest photograph taken of Ulysses S. Grant, taken after he had graduated from West Point.

Some weeks later, Julia Dent graduated from her St. Louis boarding school and returned home. She finally met her brother’s friend.

Julia was not a particularly pretty young woman. Nor classically educated. Nor witty or talented. But the attraction between her and Grant was apparent from the start. They could talk to each other with complete openness and understanding. Some would call it a simpatico. Some would say soul-mate. Grant began coming to White Haven several times a week.

The Secret Engagement

A few months later, Grant was re-deployed, and found himself uncharacteristically depressed. When he began to think about the reasons for his despondency, he realized that he did not want to leave Julia. He had fallen in love.

He proposed to her, but Julia was hesitant. It was not that she didn’t love Grant. She did. But she knew that her parents, who were fond of the young man as their son’s buddy, would not approve of him as a son-in-law. First off, they were both too young. Julia had just turned eighteen; Grant was only twenty-one. And secondly, Second Lieutenants in the Army were paid meagerly.  The Dents wanted their daughter to enjoy the luxuries of life.

Ulysses Grant could not counter those valid arguments. They were too young; his earning power was small. But they decided to become engaged, and at her insistence, it was a secret engagement. Grant agreed, and offered to give her his West Point ring. Julia again hesitated to accept the ring at that time, so Grant gave her his photograph.

Julia offered the common-for-the-time lady’s love token: a lock of her hair.

Grant encased it in a locket and wore it on a silver chain around his neck.

The Grant Marriage

Grant wore that locket for four years, during which time he saw Julia only once, and for a brief time, but after his service in the War with Mexico, he returned to St. Louis to collect his bride. This time, the young man who rode up the path to White Haven was a tanned, tough twenty-six year old Captain. Old enough to marry. Julia was twenty-two. Old enough to marry.

Grant and Wife

Very few photographs were taken of Julia Grant. Her “wandering” eye problem made her sensitive to the camera.

If they had any trepidations about their love “lasting” through the long separation, it was dispelled very quickly. Whatever feeling they had; whatever bond was between them, their emotions remained strong and true, including the strength of character and unswerving loyalty essential to both of them.

The Dents could find no objections to the marriage, and Ulysses and Julia married in 1848.

They had good times and bad, some wonderfully good, and some horribly bad. But they rode the years through together and inseparably. They had four children, and seldom if ever, had a serious quarrel. He was, according to the Victorian expression, “her all.” And she was his Rock of Gibraltar.

The Ups and Downs of the Grant Marriage

The bad times of the Grant marriage occurred in the early years, when the loneliness of military separation resulted in Grant’s battle of the bottle. After resigning from the army in disgrace, he spent the better part of ten years floundering – with no real vocation or motivation. Or money. Julia Grant (1822-1901) never wavered or complained.

Julia rt. profile

Mrs. Grant usually posed for the camera in profile. This is the photograph usually used from her terms as First Lady.

Grant as President

General Grant, and later President Grant, was photographed many times.

The good times that followed were phenomenal: The premier Union General during the Civil War, the Hero of Appomattox, and finally, a two-term President of the United States. That was followed by a stupendous trip around the world, feted and fed by monarchs who fell all over themselves hosting the most famous man in the world. Julia Grant was delighted by the attention.

Then came the opportunity to partner in an investment company. Grant had no knowledge or experience in investments, but those matters were to be handled by his partner, Ferdinand Ward. It started out brilliantly. Grant became a rich man.

Then came more bad times. Really bad times. Ward was a scoundrel, and the investment brokerage imploded, with General Grant holding the proverbial bag of debts that he insisted would be repaid. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was also diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the throat.

The Death of General Grant

Grant’s wife and children were all with him during his final days. It was a very close family unit.

In a great effort to repay the brokerage debts, provide for his family, and maintain his good name, the dying man wrote his Civil War memoirs, which would be the family salvation.

For the last weeks of his life, during the summer of 1885, he was taken to Mt. McGregor, not far from Saratoga Springs in New York, where it was believed the cooler mountain air might bring him some comfort from his excruciating pain. His family rallied around him, and Julia was never out of earshot.

Only a week after Grant completed the final galley corrections, he died.   Undertakers were called in to prepare his body for the immense funeral and procession that would take place.  It is said that when they undressed him, he was still wearing the silver chain and locket containing Julia’s hair. He had never taken it off.

Sources:

Flood, Charles Bracelen – Grant’s Final Victory:  Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year – 2012, DaCapo Press

Goldhurst, Richard – Many Are the Hearts – 1975, Reader’s Digest Press

Grant, Julia – The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, G.P. Putnam’s, 1975

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/general-grant-in-love-and-war-94609512/

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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