Julia was born on January 26, 1826 to Frederick and Ellen Wrenshall Dent. She grew up on a plantation near St. Louis in a typically Southern atmosphere where she was surrounded by the plantation’s enslaved community. Although she considered enslaved children playmates during childhood, she learned to manage enslaved workers, assuming control over them in adulthood.
In memoirs prepared late in life—unpublished until 1975—she pictured her girlhood as an idyll: “one long summer of sunshine, flowers, and smiles.” She attended the Misses Mauros’ boarding school in St. Louis for seven years among the daughters of other affluent parents. A social favorite in that circle, she met Ulysses Grant at her home, where her family welcomed him as a West Point classmate of her brother Frederick; soon she felt lonely without him, dreamed of him, and agreed to wear his West Point ring.
Julia and her handsome lieutenant became engaged in 1844, but the Mexican-American War deferred the wedding for four long years. They were finally married on August 22, 1848. Their marriage, often tried by adversity, met every test; they gave each other a life-long loyalty. Like other army wives, “dearest Julia” accompanied her husband to military posts, to pass uneventful days at distant garrisons. Then she returned to his parents’ home in 1852 when he was ordered to the West.
Ending that separation, Grant resigned his commission two years later. Farming and business ventures at St. Louis failed, and in 1860 he took his family—four children now—back to his home in Galena, Illinois. He was working in his father’s leather goods store when the Civil War called him to a soldier’s duty with his state’s volunteers. Throughout the war, Julia joined her husband near the scene of action whenever she could.
After so many years of hardship and stress, she rejoiced in his fame as a victorious general, and she entered the White House in 1869 to begin, in her words, “the happiest period” of her life. With cabinet wives as her allies, she entertained extensively and lavishly. Contemporaries noted her finery, jewels and silks and laces.
Upon leaving the White House in 1877, the Grants made a trip around the world that became a journey of triumphs. Julia proudly recalled details of hospitality and magnificent gifts they received.
But in 1884 Grant suffered yet another business failure and they lost all they had. To provide for his wife, Grant wrote his famous personal memoirs, racing with time and death from cancer to publish with author Mark Twain. The royalties from the book and her widow’s pension enabled her to live in comfort, surrounded by children and grandchildren, till her own death on December 14, 1902. She had attended in 1897 the dedication of Grant’s monumental tomb in New York City where she was laid to rest. She had ended her own chronicle of their years together with a firm declaration: “the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.”
Click here to learn more about the formerly enslaved household of the Grant family.
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