Who Lived in Grant’s Home?

You remember Groucho’s old joke that he tossed like a softball to contestants on You Bet Your Life: Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb? Marx accepted “Grant,” so they could win, but the answer was “no one,” since Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, are entombed in sarcophagi and not buried in the earth.

There are at least eight sites preserved in memory of Grant, including his birthplace, boyhood home, residences before and after the Civil War, and the Tomb in New York City. The National Park Service recommends several other sites to history buffs as well.

One of the homes Grant owned is 10 miles southwest of St. Louis, on the bluffs over the River. Now it is a National Park Service site with a sign out front that says, “This place belongs to, and is preserved by, the American people.” The house, which Grant and his family lived in before the War, two outbuildings, and an enormous barn are all original, and there is a small visitors’ center.

The reason for the “American people” sign, I suspect, is that next door is Grant’s Farm, “the 281-acre ancestral home of the Busch [beer] family, named for Ulysses S. Grant who originally worked a portion of the land.” It has an “animal park,” shows, a petting zoo, and a two-story log cabin US Grant built in 1855 and called “Hardscrabble.” “A-B InBev” keeps Clydesdales there. The St. Louis Zoo tried to buy it all, but one of the Buschs fought them.

I continue to be reminded of the Midwest’s deep connections to the Civil War. Writer Lance J. Herdegen even asks, “Did the Midwest Win the Civil War?”, pointing out that the Midwest provided wheat, corn, oats, livestock, dairy, ore, wood, salt, and cured leather for the Union. Its factories made war materiel, and shipyards in St. Louis and Cairo built Union ironclads. Three-quarters of a million men from the Midwest served—one in eight residents, from a variety of backgrounds. “The 15th Wisconsin was composed almost exclusively of Norwegians, 115 named Ole,” Herdegen says.

I think of this smaller portion of the Midwest, in particular, as one of the cradles of the Civil War. Illinois alone provided Lincoln, John Hay, John Nicolay, and 14 Union generals, including John Logan, John Schofield, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant, Sherman, and even Robert E. Lee lived in St. Louis at times.

(I count Twain in the Midwestern Union, too, though he was a Confederate soldier for two weeks. He and his band of Missouri Guard irregulars disbanded in part because they heard a Union colonel was sweeping through northern Missouri with a regiment to destroy them all. [The colonel was US Grant, and of course he and Twain became friends and publishing partners later in life.] Twain deserted and lit out for the territories for the rest of the war. But Huck, in 1884, ties the Midwest and the lower River by its action, and lets the child of the town drunk achieve moral clarity on slavery.)

US Grant was born in Ohio. He came to the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis in 1843, after graduating from West Point. The family of his friend at the Point, Frederick Dent, lived on an 850-acre farm, called White Haven, five miles from the Barracks. Grant began riding there, sometimes five days a week, to see Dent’s family, or, more accurately, his sister Julia. In 1848 they married.

Grant got stationed elsewhere, and in 1850 Julia returned to her father’s farm to care for first one and then another child. Grant became depressed and resigned from the army to be with his family in 1854. They lived at White Haven until 1859, when they decamped for Galena, Illinois, for work.

Grant’s father-in-law, Frederick Dent, owned more than 30 slaves, who worked his two properties. (Even with slave labor, Dent could never quite make a go of it.) Grant, whose family was abolitionists, briefly “acquired ownership” from Dent of one slave, named William Jones, who he set free in 1859—as soon as he could afford to do so, according to an NPS Interpreter at White Haven.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Missouri, since it remained in the Union, but the state amended its constitution January 11, 1865, to abolish slavery. The other enslaved men, women, and children at White Haven had already walked away by the end of the war.

Small sites (like this now 10-acre farm and clapboard house) are necessary to our understanding of ourselves, and deserve all the resources we can afford as a nation. National Park Service writers and historians have done a good job with exhibits at White Haven, and there is quite a lot to be learned about the individuals who worked as slave labor in the winter- and summer-kitchens, the fields, orchards, and woods of White Haven—painful irony—sometimes alongside US Grant.

Truthful historical interpretation is key. Grant writes in his memoirs about ways to commemorate our national sin and consequent upheaval:

 

I would not have the anniversaries of our victories celebrated, nor those of our defeats made fast days and spent in humiliation and prayer; but I would like to see truthful history written. Such history will do full credit to the courage, endurance and soldierly ability of the American citizen, no matter what section of the country he hailed from, or in what ranks he fought. The justice of the cause which in the end prevailed, will, I doubt not, come to be acknowledged by every citizen of the land, in time. For the present, and so long as there are living witnesses of the great war of sections, there will be people who will not be consoled for the loss of a cause which they believed to be holy. As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.

 

As the inscription in Grant’s Tomb reads: “Let Us Have Peace.”

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