Over the past few days I’ve observed at least three postings on social media perpetuating an old, hackneyed claim about Ulysses S. Grant that has resurfaced in force. I suspect that its resurgence is partly due to a heightened uncertainty about the appropriate place for Confederate iconography in U.S. society that has mobilized some Confederate apologists into a fighting position on the front lines of history. This claim about Grant goes a little like this:
U.S. Grant had several slaves who were only freed after the 13th amendment in December of 1865. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, Grant stated that “Good help is so hard to come by these days.”
As Abraham Lincoln argued in 1862, “don’t trust everything you read on the internet,” and this claim is patently false despite its seemingly wide acceptance online. Here’s why.
Prior to the Civil War Grant lived with his wife Julia and their four children in St. Louis, Missouri, at his father-in-law’s White Haven plantation estate from 1854 until 1859. At some point during this experience Grant obtained a slave named William Jones. The sole document we have confirming Grant’s ownership of Jones is a manumission paper freeing Jones on March 29, 1859, written in Grant’s own hand:
How, when, and why Grant obtained a slave are all unknown, although Grant’s mentioning of Frederick Dent suggests that he most likely purchased Jones from his Father-in-law (Grant also had a brother-in-law named Frederick Dent who was serving with the U.S. Army in the western frontier at this time. The brother-in-law could have sold Jones to Grant, but these circumstances suggest that it was unlikely). Grant never mentions Jones in any correspondence or in his Personal Memoirs, so we don’t know his thoughts on this matter. What happened to William Jones after his emancipation is also a mystery lost to history.
There are literally no other pieces of historical evidence to suggest that Grant ever owned slaves at any point after 1859. The quote about Grant not being able to find any good labor is a complete fabrication and you will not find it in his edited papers or any newspapers from the time. It’s simply not true.
That is pretty much the heart of the matter regarding Grant’s alleged ownership of slaves during the war, but I believe there is other evidence that can further advance us towards a conclusive answer.
Grant’s wife Julia grew up in a household that benefited from slave labor, a fact that Julia acknowledged and romanticized in her own Personal Memoirs. Julia claimed in her Memoirs that her father gave her legal title to four slaves to be used for her benefit, and no competent Grant historian would doubt that she and the entire Grant family benefited from their labor during their St. Louis years. There’s no evidence to suggest that Julia ever held legal title of a slave, however, suggesting that they were always her father’s slaves. Furthermore, Julia muddled the historical record in her recollections. She incorrectly claimed that “her” slaves were in her possession until the Emancipation Proclamation (p.88), but the Proclamation did not apply to Missouri, which was not in active rebellion at the time of its issuance in 1863. Additionally, Missouri voluntarily abolished slavery in a January 1865 state convention, before the 13th Amendment was passed, AND Julia contrarily stated elsewhere in her Memoirs that the enslaved people at her Father’s plantation ran away at some point during the war. All of this information indicates that “her” slaves–in actuality her Father’s–were not in her possession by the end of the war or the passage of the 13th amendment.
What is key here is that in any case, regardless of Julia’s recollections more than thirty years after the war in her Memoirs, General Grant was away fighting the war and had no legal ownership of any slaves during the Civil War. The enslaved people in St. Louis at White Haven were Frederick Dent’s property all along.
Frederick Dent, however, ran into serious financial troubles and struggled to maintain ownership of White Haven and his enslaved people by the time of the Civil War. Dent wrote up a bill of sale during the war for some of his enslaved people. Grant, writing from a camp in Corinth, Mississippi, on May 16, 1862, received word of these struggles and mentioned to Julia that:
Your father sent Emma [Julia’s sister] a bill of sale for the negroes he gave her. To avoid a possibility of any of them being sold he ought to do the same with all the balance. I would not give anything for you to have any of them as it is not probable we will ever live in a slave state again but would not like to see them sold under the hammer.
Grant expresses concern about Frederick Dent’s slaves being confiscated and possibly broken up to be sold at a slave auction to pay off debts. He suggests that Dent write a bill of sale to Emma for all of his slaves instead of the four he originally sold to her. And, importantly, Grant states his intention not to invest any of his own money in his father-in-law’s slaves because the likelihood of his family moving back to a slave state is slim to none. Through this letter it’s apparent that by 1862, Grant–regardless of his own views about slavery at that point in the war–had no intention of investing any funds to become a slaveholder again.
Given this evidence, why is it claimed that he owned slaves until December 1865? By arguing that Grant didn’t care about slavery’s demise and that he even owned slaves himself during the war, the people who buy this narrative are trying to spread the idea that slavery had little to do with the pretext or context of the Civil War. The claim has little merit, however, because regardless of Grant’s personal views towards slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War, he played no role in the political debates over secession or slavery that precipitated the conflict.
Update, 8/24/2016: A passage in this letter from Grant to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne on August 30, 1863, further demonstrates that Grant did not own slaves during the war until the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865, nor did he even have intentions of doing so. By 1863 he believed slavery was dead. To wit:
The people of the North need not quarrel over the institution of Slavery. What Vice President Stevens [sic] acknowledges the corner stone of the Confederacy is already knocked out. Slavery is already dead and cannot be resurrected. It would take a standing Army to maintain slavery in the South if we were to make peace to-day guaranteeing to the South all their former constitutional privileges.