On January 26, 1826, Julia Dent was born to parents Frederick and Ellen Dent in St. Louis, Missouri.1 One of seven children, Julia grew up at her family’s plantation, White Haven. There, she interacted with and was served by enslaved servants.2 From age ten to seventeen, Julia attended Misses Mauros’ boarding school in St. Louis, studying literature, history, philosophy, and other subjects.3
In 1844, Julia met her brother Fred’s roommate from West Point: Ulysses. S. Grant. The two fell in love and became engaged – however, they were largely separated during Grant’s military service in the Mexican-American War. They finally married on August 22, 1848.4 For the next several years, Grant’s military career meant relocation and separation, until his resignation from the U. S. Army in 1854. Their family also grew in the 1850s to include four children: Frederick, Ulysses (“Buck”), Ellen (“Nellie”), and Jesse.
A homecoming for Julia, the Grant family accompanied her back to Missouri to live at White Haven on land given to them by Frederick Dent.5 At their White Haven cabin, Hardscrabble, the Grant family managed and benefitted from enslaved labor. However, financial struggles led the Grants to relocate several times in subsequent years; first, to St. Louis in 1859 and then to Galena, Illinois, in 1860.6 Only a year later, the outbreak of the Civil War disrupted their lives again. Julia often traveled with Ulysses through battle-ridden cities across the United States as he rose in the ranks, eventually becoming commanding general of the Union Army.
Few were as enthusiastic about Ulysses Grant’s 1868 presidential candidacy and election as Julia, who relished her time as first lady. Julia entertained lavishly at the White House, from receptions and small gatherings of Union Army officers to elaborate dinners for foreign guests and politicians. This included the first State Dinner, which honored King Kalakaua of the Kingdom of Hawai'i.7 While in the White House, the Grants also launched a major Gilded Age refurbishing to prepare for First Daughter Nellie Grant’s 1874 wedding in the East Room, installing new gas chandeliers and Renaissance Revival furniture.8
Julia was devastated to leave the White House, but another adventure awaited. In 1877, the Grants embarked on a two-and-a-half-year tour of the world which included stops in India, China, Japan, Egypt, Russia, Greece, and more.9 But the years that followed were difficult and painful. Ulysses Grant fell victim to a scheme that left him bankrupt.10 Soon after, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. To ensure financial stability for his wife and family, Grant wrote his memoir before his passing in 1885; fortunately, they provided a small fortune for Julia.11
In the final years of her life, Julia Grant penned her own memoir—the first first lady to do so—although they went unpublished until 1975.12 Julia Grant died on December 14, 1902; she is entombed alongside her husband at the General Grant National Memorial in New York City’s Riverside Park.
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