Julia Boggs Dent Grant, hailing from a plantation near St. Louis, was the wife of United States war hero and the 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant. She served as First Lady of from 1869 to 1877.
Quite naturally, shy young Lieutenant Grant lost his heart to friendly Julia; and made his love known, as he said himself years later, “in the most awkward manner imaginable.” She told her side of the story–her father opposed the match, saying, “the boy is too poor,” and she answered angrily that she was poor herself. The “poverty” on her part came from a slave-owner’s lack of ready cash.
Daughter of Frederick and Ellen Wrenshall Dent, Julia had grown up on a plantation near St. Louis in a typically Southern atmosphere. In memoirs prepared late in life–unpublished until 1975–she pictured her girlhood as an idyll: “one long summer of sunshine, flowers, and smiles…” She attended the Misses Mauros’ boarding school in St.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 “Ulys” 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 War deferred the wedding for four long years. 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. The means thus afforded and her widow’s pension enabled her to live in comfort, surrounded by children and grandchildren, till her own death in 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.”
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Julia Dent Grant’s spouse, Ulysses S. Grant.