Illustration of Ulysses and Julia Grant in front of the slave quarters at White Haven

At the beginning of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant wasn’t an abolitionist, admitting that his beliefs were “not even what could be called antislavery.” By August 1863, he had changed his mind, writing, “Slavery is already dead and cannot be resurrected.”
Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress

In late January 1864, an enslaved woman named Jule liberated herself in Louisville, Kentucky, while en route to St. Louis. She had been traveling with her mistress, Julia Dent Grant, the wife of Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant. “At Louisville,” Julia recalled in her memoirs, “my nurse (a girl raised at my home) left me, as I suppose she feared losing her freedom if she returned to Missouri. I regretted this, as she was a favorite with me.”

It was bitterly cold in Louisville on the day Jule left Julia. The Ohio River had blocks of ice in it. Even at this late date in the Civil War, slavery remained legal in Kentucky, so she may have crossed the river into the free state of Indiana. How the petite, “ginger-colored” Jule, as another woman enslaved by Julia’s family later described her, found work and housing after freeing herself from slavery is unknown. But Julia reported that Jule—also called Julia or Black Julia—got married soon after her escape.

Jule’s legal status at the time wasn’t entirely clear. Julia believed the four people she enslaved—she had three others back in Missouri—had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, but that wasn’t accurate. In January 1864, slavery was still legal in Missouri, a loyal state not affected by the proclamation. It’s also likely that these people remained the property of Julia’s father, Frederick F. Dent, who resided in Missouri and had never bothered to provide his daughter with a bill of sale.

Historians usually refer to these individuals as “Julia’s slaves,” but any decisions relating to them would have also been Grant’s responsibility. Under feme covert, a doctrine governing married women’s legal rights and responsibilities, a wife needed her husband’s permission to make a contract in Missouri. “General Grant was a slaveholder, too,” Julia told a reporter in 1899. “Indeed, we owned slaves ourselves when the war began; our house and field servants were slaves, and so was the nurse who was rearing our children.”

Jule’s flight in January 1864 might have marked the end of the Grants’ direct involvement with slavery. It’s coincidental, but symbolic, too, that the enslaved nurse who cared for the major general’s children during the hardest days of the war disappeared across the icy Ohio River into obscurity at exactly the same time he was being celebrated as the savior of the Union, shortly after his victory at the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863.

Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Dent Grant with their four children, Jesse, Ulysses Jr., Nellie and Frederick, in front of their cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1870

Ulysses S. Grant, Julia Dent Grant and their four children in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1870. The two Black men in the background are unidentified.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From the time of his marriage to Julia in 1848 through Jule’s escape in 1864, Grant materially benefited from the institution of slavery. Between 1854 and 1858, he worked as a farmer at White Haven, an 890-acre estate near St. Louis that was owned by his father-in-law, Dent. There, enslaved laborers helped him tend his fields, cut wood for market and even build him a house called Hardscrabble. An enslaved cook prepared meals for his family. And Jule, of course, cared for his children.

In 1857 and 1858, Grant assumed responsibility for overseeing all of the enslaved people at White Haven. A few years later, when Grant and Julia moved north to Illinois, they hired out their enslaved people in return for annual payments, which were used to support the now-retired Dent.

Slavery was a horrific, morally repugnant institution, yet Grant never publicly criticized it in the years before the Civil War. One of the most peculiar stories of the conflict is the fact the soldier who played such a crucial role in destroying slavery also profited immensely from the practice up until the penultimate year of the war.

Hardscrabble, the log cabin built by Ulysses S. Grant and enslaved people at White Haven

Hardscrabble, the log cabin built by Ulysses S. Grant and enslaved people at White Haven

National Park Service

In the 1850 census, Dent reported enslaving 30 people, who assisted with farm labor and household duties at White Haven. Dent grew wheat, Indian corn, oats and Irish potatoes. He also raised pigs, hogs, cattle and chickens. Lovely orchards stood near the main house.

Perhaps the most highly valued member of the White Haven enslaved community was Mary Robinson, the family cook. She was responsible for feeding roughly 40 people on any given day—an enormous undertaking requiring her to oversee several other enslaved laborers while also managing an extraordinary variety of tasks, from tending kettles in her kitchen to preserving meat for future consumption to securing ingredients for popular dishes.

Describing the meals at White Haven, Julia later wrote, “Well, mammy, Black Mary, was an artist.” She added, “Such loaves of beautiful snowy cake, such plates full of delicious Maryland biscuit, such exquisite custards and puddings, such omelets, gumbo soup and fritters—these were mammy’s specialty.” Based on Julia’s account, Robinson seemed qualified to be a head chef at a leading restaurant in St. Louis or some other big city. But the state of Missouri didn’t allow for such opportunities at the time.

White Haven

The White Haven estate

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

From her white enslavers’ perspective, an enslaved woman like Robinson was supposed “to sustain their lives and livelihood while relinquishing her own,” writes historian Tiya Miles in All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. “She would also have been an intimate, a caretaker as well as a dependent, which made the nature of this relationship between owned and owner enmeshed and corrupt.”

In 1900, another enslaved woman at White Haven, Mary Henry, gave an interview about Grant and Julia to a local newspaper. Speaking with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Henry said, “When [Julia’s] children were born, they were handed to me as they came into the world, and it was my hands that first put on them the clothes that my hands had made.” Born at White Haven, Henry was only a year or two older than “Miss Julia,” as she called her mistress. The two were companions when they were young, though Julia didn’t hesitate to exert her authority whenever she wished.

The nurse Jule became the most visible person enslaved by the Grants during the Civil War. Born and raised at White Haven, she’d served as Julia’s nurse and maid for over three decades. “When I visited the general during the war,” Julia wrote, “I nearly always had [Jule] with me as a nurse.” Jule traveled thousands of miles with her mistress and was a familiar presence in the various Union camps where Grant was stationed. Early in the war, a Union critic of Grant’s said he preferred military leaders “without secesh”—short for secessionist—“wives with their own little slaves to wait upon them.”

Ambrotype of H.E. Hayward and his enslaved nurse Louisa, circa 1858

Ambrotype of H.E. Hayward and his enslaved nurse Louisa, circa 1858

Missouri Historical Society

Jule nursed all four of the Grants’ children and held primary responsibility for taking care of the youngest, Jesse Root Grant II, who was born in 1858, during the first six years of his life. “My own nurse was a slave,” Jesse later wrote in his memoir. “This did not impress upon me a sense of ownership. All my life I had been accustomed to persons around me who were either slaves or servants. The distinction between these in my mind was that I loved the slaves. They belonged to me and I to them. We were of the same family.” Jule may or may not have felt like a part of the family. But when given a chance to escape her servitude in 1864, she seized it.

A few years before Jule’s self-emancipation, in 1859, Grant freed, apparently without compensation, a White Haven enslaved laborer named William Jones. It’s not clear why he did so. It’s tempting to view Jones’ manumission as a symbolic act of defiance in a slave state on the eve of the Civil War. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t support such a view. Grant and Julia continued to enslave four other individuals, whom they would eventually hire out in return for cash after they moved to Galena, Illinois, in 1860. Almost 20 years earlier, in December 1838, Julia’s unapologetically pro-slavery father, Dent, freed a 28-year-old enslaved man named Robert Green. It’s also unclear why he did so. Dent and Green may have had a pre-existing arrangement. Or perhaps Green had a health problem that prevented him from working at White Haven.

Manumission document for William Jones, written in Ulysses S. Grant’s handwriting on March 29, 1859

Manumission document for William Jones, written in Ulysses S. Grant’s handwriting on March 29, 1859

Missouri Historical Society

In the years directly preceding the Civil War, the number of enslaved people granted their freedom in Missouri was low. In one county, not a single enslaved person was manumitted in 1859. St. Louis County, where White Haven was located, was different. In 1831, only 3 enslaved people were freed there, but by 1858, the number had grown to 49. The number of free African Americans in St. Louis County also increased from 1,470 in 1850 to 2,139 in 1860. In general, more opportunities existed for free Black people in St. Louis than in the rest of Missouri on the eve of the war. Nevertheless, these individuals faced many legal prohibitions and were viewed as a threat by their white neighbors. “This contempt for and fear of the free Black,” wrote historian Harrison Anthony Trexler in 1914, “was the chief reason for the limited number of manumissions in all of the Southern states.”

In Missouri during the 1850s, enslaved people couldn’t own property or move about freely. They also faced harsh punishments for a wide variety of transgressions. Every Black person was presumed to be enslaved unless proved otherwise. The status of free Black people in Missouri was only marginally higher than that of the enslaved, and their status became more uncertain in 1857, after the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. In the ruling, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney argued that Black people—whether free or enslaved—could not be citizens under the Constitution, adding they could “therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”

Slavery in St. Louis was extremely brutal and cruel. In 1859, the pastor Galusha Anderson recalled seeing enslaved people chained together and marched through the streets after being bought “in different parts of the state, by speculators, as one would buy up beef cattle, and were kept in the pen to be sold to the good people of St. Louis and of the surrounding towns and country districts; and those not thus disposed of were bought by slave dealers for the New Orleans market.”

A group of men gather outside of Lynch's office and slave pen in St. Louis in 1852.

A group of men gather outside of Lynch’s office and slave pen in St. Louis in 1852.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Grant, who had been raised in an antislavery household, might have privately objected to such practices. In 1908, his sister-in-law Emma Dent Casey wrote, “Although I know that he was opposed to human slavery as an institution, I do not think that he was at any time a very rank abolitionist or that he opposed it so violently that the acceptance of Julia’s slaves had to be forced upon him.” Grant’s father, Jesse Root Grant, had been disappointed by the fact that his eldest son married into a family of enslavers. “Ulysses,” he once declared, “when you are ready to come North, I will give you a start, but so long as you make your home among a tribe of slave owners, I will do nothing.”

At the beginning of the Civil War, Grant wasn’t an abolitionist, later admitting that his beliefs were “not even what could be called antislavery.” By August 1863, soon after his great victory at Vicksburg, he had changed his mind, writing, “Slavery is already dead and cannot be resurrected.” That same month, he informed President Abraham Lincoln that he fully supported the commander in chief’s policy of raising Black troops, telling him, “They will make good soldiers, and taking them from the enemy weaken him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.” It’s ironic that a man who had personally profited from slavery before and during the war had evolved into a leading agent in the destruction of that wicked institution.

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