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From 1854 to 1859 the Dents, Grants and an enslaved African-American workforce lived on the property known as White Haven. Follow Ranger Nick and Ranger David on a virtual room-by-room tour of Ulysses S. Grant's St. Louis home, and learn about the people who lived at the White Haven estate.
- [Narrator] Man dressed as Ulysses S. Grant in civilian clothes enters, sits at a table, and removes his hat. A multicolored patchwork quilt hangs in the background.
- Hello, I'm Captain Ulysses S. Grant, late of the United States Army, presently of White Haven, Missouri, near St. Louis, and Jefferson Barracks. I am living at White Haven with my wife, Julia, and my two boys. It is her home since birth, and she was reared here. So when I left the Army, I came back here to take up farming, and we are embarking on a life as farmers. But after 15 years, people asked me why I had left the Army. And I should like to think back a bit, and tell you about the events, the last couple of years of my Army career, and explain to you why I left the Army, what happened to me that couple of years. The war was over, the Mexican War in 1848. Julia and I married in St. Louis in August of 1848. And in the next couple of years, we had assignments in Detroit and Sackett's Harbor, New York, back and forth. We had our first child, Fred, was born on May the 30th of 1850. And we were quite happy. But in the late spring of '52, I received orders to go with the Fourth United States Infantry to the Oregon Territory at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. I wanted to take Julia, but I couldn't, for a couple of reasons. The first reason, most pressing, was that in June of 1852, Julia was heavily pregnant with our second child. And I was to leave on July the fifth, and we knew that it was only days before she would give birth. And we were going by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and that is a green hell of a jungle with mosquitoes and bandits, malaria, bad weather, rampaging rivers, and it was no place for a mother with a newborn. It's a good thing that Julia did not go with us. Because I caught a fever myself on that crossing of the Isthmus. And we lost about a third of the men, women, and children of our command, the Fourth Infantry, in that crossing. Cholera hit us really hard. So it's good that Julia and the children weren't there. Another reason that she couldn't come was I simply couldn't afford a wife and two children on my lieutenant's salary. I was making $480 a year, and even though the government was giving me an increased allotment of $197, that still wasn't enough money to support a wife and two children. So I had high hopes of raising the money while I was there. En route there, my second son, Buck, was born on July 22nd. I found this out after I had arrived at Fort Vancouver. In early October, I got the news. I arrived at Fort Vancouver on September 20th. And shortly thereafter, I got news that on July 22nd, Julia had brought forth another son. And he was called Buck. He's Ulysses S. Grant, Junior, but he was born at my parents' home in Ohio, and he's the only one of our children that was not born at White Haven. But since he was born in Ohio, he was dubbed "a son of the Buckeye State", hence the nickname Buck, and it stuck. Julia resisted that, but to no avail. He has been Buck since birth, and I expect he'll be Buck 'til death. So I had that son, 17 days after I left New York. So it would have been a nightmare to have Julia with me. We made the crossing. As I said, we lost about a third of our command. That trip in and of itself is another tale to tell another time. But on September the 15th, we finally got to San Francisco. And a town, at that time, as I recall, of some 20,000 inhabitants. It had grown almost overnight, from a small village to a town of 20,000 or more, because of the gold rush. Indeed, we were going to the Oregon Territory to serve, essentially, as a police force for the 49ers out there. And I progressed on to Columbia Barracks on the Columbia River. And on September 20th, I arrived at Columbia Barracks. It was a beautiful place, I liked it very much, the scenery. Had a reunion with a classmate of mine, Rufus Ingalls. Ruf and I had a 'hail fellow, well met' time. Several other men that I had served with in the Mexican War, other officers, were there. So I had pleasant surroundings, and pleasant memories. But I was missing my wife, and now I knew, two sons. And that was driving me to distraction. I tried to keep busy, and indeed I kept busy, being the quartermaster, outfitting expeditions and so forth. I even outfitted an expedition for George McClellan. He came through to do an Army survey for a potential railroad route through that area. And tried to keep busy. But every time I got a letter from Julia. And I got about one letter from her for every four that I wrote. But Julia has a condition in her left eye called strabismus. And her left eye is crossed, almost to the bridge of her nose. And so since we have binocular vision, to read or write is a painful exercise for her. Indeed, I read to her a great deal in the evenings before I left, because she likes for me to read to her, and I enjoy reading to her. But it's a good way for her to be entertained and to get her news. But when I got one of her too-rare letters, she would send me locks of the boys' hair. And she would outline their little hands in pencil on the page, and that was killing me. Because as you would imagine, every time I got a letter, the hands, particularly the boy that I'd never seen, the hands were getting bigger. Now that's where I made, it's not an excuse, but it's a reason. I did some drinking, because I did what too many soldiers, indeed, too many people do to self-anesthetize and kill pain. And when I got a letter, particularly one of those letters with the little hand outlines, I would go down to the Sutler, get a gallon of Pop's Cola for 25 cents and drink the pain away. My housekeeper would tell my fellow officers that "I don't think Captain Grant's gonna make it." I had been breveted Captain for bravery in the Mexican War, so I carried the title. And she would say, "I don't think Captain Grant's "gonna make it." Because they would say that you could hear me sobbing outside my cabin, reading those letters. So I was having a difficult time missing my wife and children. Well, I was hanging on in the Army because I hadn't really contemplated another career, another way to make a living, and now I've got a wife and two children. The Army wasn't paying well, but it was steady money. It was all, indeed, I knew as an adult. I'd been involved with the Army since I was 17. And I was writing Julia letters about possibly resigning. I would tell her that every time I think about resigning I think, all I can see is poverty, poverty staring me in the face. But the desire to get back home and see my babies and my wife was becoming stronger than my desire to grit it out and stay with the Army. But I also wanted to stay in the Army because I was hoping to make Captain. We all feel, we read the newspapers from back east. And we all feel there is a war coming. And I felt that I just might need that rank of Captain in the future, it might come in handy. The difficulty was that in our Army at that time, rank was glacial, so slow in coming, somebody ahead of you had to die, either in combat, or sickness, or old age. So it became a lock-step as somebody ahead of you died. As grim as that is, that was the case. And I knew that I was getting close in my positions of ranking and billets that were available. And I made the best of it at Fort Vancouver. Now, I tried several different ways to make money while I'm waiting for a rank to open up for me. And those efforts are a time for us to get together at a later time, and let me regale you with that tale. Because I tried cutting wood for steamers. I tried growing potatoes and corn to sell to the Army and to the miners. I tried selling chickens; they all died, to the businesses in San Francisco. Tried selling ice, that didn't work. I tried any number of activities. Invested in a boarding house, and the fellow took my and our other officers' monies and absconded and we haven't seen him to this day. So everything I tried to do to bring money in, to bring Julia to me, came to naught. And not because I had made a poor business decision, but because circumstances around each of those decisions caused them to go wrong. So I was really frustrated, and after well over a year at Fort Vancouver, I'm still no closer to getting Julia and my children out there with me. But in August of 1853, August the fifth, it was official that I was promoted to Captain. Captain W.S. Bliss had died and opened a billet for me. So as of August of 1853, I was a Captain. With the notification of that promotion though, I received orders to go to Fort Humboldt, in California, and report to Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Buchanan. That concerned me, because Captain, or at that time Captain Buchanan at Jefferson Barracks, Lieutenant Colonel Buchanan, now, and I clashed at Jefferson Barracks, and there was some bad feeling between us, and he was now going to be my commanding officer. So I left Fort Vancouver on September 24th and, to go to Fort Humboldt. I took my time getting there. I had some leave, I did some visiting. And I did not arrive at Fort Humboldt until January the fifth. I started a new year at Fort Humboldt, California. And was even more miserable there than I was at Fort Vancouver. In fact, I got there on January the fifth. In a letter that I wrote Julia on February the sixth, I told her I'm so down about the Army and my situation that I've been considering going 'nolens volens', which is a slang term for desert, just leave. But I couldn't do that. I could not bring myself to do that. But as early as a month after I had gotten to Fort Humboldt, I was already thinking about just leaving. Well, I hung on, and tried to make the best of a bad situation. And there are rumors that I was told to either resign or be court-martialled. There's no truth to that. But that's a time, at another time for us to talk, and I'll elaborate a bit on that. But on April the 11th, I got a letter from the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. And that was my official notification that I was indeed promoted to rank of Captain, regular Army. Now April the 11th was a signal day for me. It was my 10th anniversary of having been a Lieutenant, First Lieutenant. And I, I'd been struggling to try to make the best of it, as I said. But when I got that letter in my hand saying, and it didn't make any difference, I had had the rank several months, but when I got the official letter, from the Secretary of War, I was moved to make the move. And I sat down and wrote a letter accepting the promotion to Captain. And then I immediately wrote a letter resigning from the United States Army. So I secured the rank, and then resigned. April 11th, well I gave the letter, sent the letter for my resignation to take effect on May 31st next, and, or July 31st, I'm sorry, I resigned to take effect July 31st. And the first week of May, I left the fort, Fort Humboldt, and began my trip back to New York City, and Kentucky, my parents' home, and then to White Haven to see my wife and two sons, one of whom I had not seen. And that journey is another tale that I should like to reflect about, and talk with you at another time. That's my story about how I came to resign from the United States Army after 15 years of service. And what I was thinking as I did it. When I left Fort Humboldt, I told my fellow officers, "If you look me up in 10 years, "come to Missouri, and you'll see that I'm a successful "old Missouri farmer." "That's where I'll be, that's what I'll be in 10 years." And I expect we'll have to see. So until we get together again, my friends, I bid you adieu.
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Renowned living historian Dr. Curt Fields portrays Captain Ulysses S. Grant's momentous decision to resign from the U.S. Army in 1854 to start a new life with his family as a farmer at White Haven in St. Louis.
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Listen in as two of White Haven's enslaved African Americans contemplate the possibility of freedom. This short video is shown in the winter kitchen at White Haven, and was made possible with support from Jefferson National Parks Association and the Ed Cook Memorial Fund.
00:00 Musical notes
00:22 TIM: Ulysses S. Grant lived here…and while he’s living here, he’s also living among dozens of African-American slaves.
00:32 The person that would eventually lead to the destruction of African-American slavery…In the 1850s, he’s working side-by-side those same African-Americans that eventually his actions will free in the 1860s.
00:47 PAM: Ulysses and Julia loved this place…this home. Julia talks about it being sunlight and happiness for all who lived here. And yet, there’s this other parallel story that has been in the shadows.
01:05 CHIFFONTAE: Julia knows that there’s slavery here. It’s a big part of her life. But at the same time, she also thinks the house ran itself. I don’t want people to walk away from this site thinking that the house ran itself.
01:23 The conditions they were in…was unjust. It was emotionally cruel. But at the same time, when you say, “oh, that’s so sad and then we move on” -- It doesn’t show the leaps and bounds that people made to get out of these situations…
01:45 Musical notes
01:46 PAM: In Missouri at the time, African-Americans whether they were free or enslaved were not allowed to read or write. And yet we had evidence that they were learning to do that here at White Haven…and hiding those things because they had been underneath the floorboards in the winter kitchen.
02:05 CHIFFONTAE: We talk about how children were playing down here and the importance of reading and writing with the slate pencils. But the African beads…is one of the biggest testaments to how these people were trying to hold on to something outside of and way bigger than the institution that they were in…
02:24 The African beads traveled through multi-generations and made it from Africa to the middle of the country.
02:34 TIM: Grant takes away from this experience a more profound hatred of slavery, which we see in his actions as general and a commitment to civil rights as the 18th President of the United States
02:48 And this is an aspect of Grant that is often forgotten, misunderstood – that he was one of our greatest civil rights presidents in American history.
02:56 Voice of Grant – "My oft expressed desire is that all citizens – white or black, native or foreign born – shall be left free.
03:06 TIM: President Grant risked public backlash by emphatically affirming his unqualified support for the 15th Amendment, a constitutional amendment which guarantees citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous servitude. His actions laid the foundation for future generations.
03:26 CHIFFONTAE: This is everybody’s history. And it is not just a white and a black history either. When people come here, there’s something that they take away. My hope is that they can see themselves in the stories that we tell here
03:40 TIM: There’s nothing quite as powerful in respect to the educational experience … as standing where these great historical figures once stood. By visiting these national parks, visitors have that opportunity…And in so doing, I think we gain a much greater understanding of who we are as a country and who we are as Americans.
04:01 Musical notes
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Ulysses S. Grant was one of the great civil rights presidents in American history. His legacy on behalf of African American citizenship laid the foundation for future generations. Yet in the 1850s, he lived among African American slaves.
00:00 ARLENE: This love story is a hidden part of Ulysses’ Grant’s life.
00:12 Most people focus on his Civil War time and not realize that the strongest support and foundation for his life is his family and his love for his wife.
00:26 woman humming in background
00:28 PAM: A house to me is, you know, a structure – the physical architecture – whereas a home has those emotional connections.
00:36 This is where Ulysses and Julia met, where three of their four kids were born. It was that emotional touchstone for them.
00:44 Musical notes
00:48 KAREN: What we have are the rooms – the physical, tangible connection to the living that went on here.
00:54 But to have something even more personal -- personal thoughts being put down, someone receiving it, reading it, keeping it. I think gets you more directly to the individual, both Ulysses and Julia.
01:13 Voice of Grant- “Kiss our little boys for me, and a thousand kisses for yourself Dear Julia”
01:18 Musical notes
01:20 KAREN: I mean, when a man writes to you – “the last thing I thought of at night was you Julia, um and I dreamed about you!” – it gives you a real sense of an individual’s personality and character.
01:33 musical notes
01:35 Voice of Grant – “without you, no place, no home, can be very pleasant to me”
01:37 musical notes of tension and drums
01:42 PAM: They were separated so often, especially when Grant was on the west coast for two years
01:47 ARLENE: To be that far apart and the mail doesn’t get there very often
01:52 PAM: To think you wouldn’t know for four and a half months that your wife had survived and that you have another child
01:58 KAREN: The unknown can become unbearable.
02:01 Voice of Grant – “I have been separated from you and Fred long enough. And as to Ulysses, I’ve never even seen him!”
02:09 PAM: It’s through those letters that you really get insight into why he was willing to resign in 1854 to come back here to be reunited with his family.
02:18 Musical notes of construction and hammering
02:21 KAREN: In the process of doing the preservation of the home here, a window in the upstairs hall was sagging. They decided to pull the entire window frame, and sash, and everything out. And a portion of a letter came out with it! To have an actual artifact from Grant kept here in the home was pretty, pretty special.
02:43 Musical notes of snare drums
02:46 ARLENE: The family aspect of Grant gave him this foundation…this stability that allowed him to handle some really challenging and difficult times.
02:56 Musical notes of trumpets
02:58 KAREN: It certainly gave him the ability to go and do what he thought was his duty by re-joining the Union Army and stay with that cause
03:08 ARLENE: This place…White Haven…allows us a great opportunity to look into the personal lives of one of this countries’ presidents that was under the greatest of strains and see who he was as a person.
03:27 KAREN: Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan can understand how hard it is to be away from the little things in life that make the day-to-day living good, especially when you have small children and a place you’d rather be.
03:44 Musical notes
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Most people know Ulysses S. Grant as a victorious Civil War general and the 18th President of the United States, but many don't know that he was deeply in love with his wife, Julia. This is their love story, now told at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri.
Last updated: May 21, 2020