I’ve been working on a research project in collaboration with the Missouri State Archives, and in the course of this research project the folks at the archives came across an 1859 court case involving Ulysses S. Grant and his Father-in-Law that I have never seen before. I wish I could say that the court case provides groundbreaking insights into Grant’s experiences while living in St. Louis (1854-1859) but instead it adds more confusion and mystery to that story.
On August 11, 1858, Philip Rothenbucher loaned $200 to Grant, his Father-in-Law Frederick Dent, and Harrison Long, who I’m unfamiliar with. The promissory note states that “Twelve months after date we, or either of us” promise to pay the loan back at ten percent interest. A year went by and no one had paid back the $200, so Rothenbucher sued at the St. Louis County Circuit Court on September 6, 1859. Rothenbucher wrote a testimony and produced the promissory note signed by Grant, Dent, and Long. Apparently no one on the defense appeared in court, and on September 7 Rothenbucher was awarded $222.40 ( only 1 percent interest of original the note).
But here’s where things get weird.
The St. Louis County Sheriff reported that he successfully executed a writ of summons to Dent and Long to appear in court, but that “the other defendent U S Grant not found in my County.” Dent and Long were therefore held responsible for the $222.40 due to Rothenbucher while Grant was dismissed from the case. I suppose this outcome was also possible because of the wording of the original note states that “we, or either of us” would figure out a way to pay back the debt. What’s weird to me is that Grant was still in St. Louis in September 1859. In fact, he wrote a letter to his father on August 20 reporting that he was waiting to hear back from a Board of Commissioners appointed to select the next St. Louis County engineer, and another to his father on September 23 stating that his application for county engineer had been rejected and that he was unsure about his future in St. Louis. The last letter in Grant’s hand from St. Louis was written in February 1860 (See The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1, pages 350-355 to see these letters).
So where was Grant in early September 1859? I am stumped. In any case, this lawsuit further reinforces the fact that Grant was badly impoverished and in debt by the time his family left St. Louis for Galena, Illinois. Probably no one involved in this case could have expected that Grant would be president ten years later.
Here are the files from the court record. Some of the pages are hard to read:
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.
One of my greatest and most exciting challenges with being a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) lies in interpreting the experience of slavery to the audiences who come to our site. Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law Frederick Dent–the owner of the White Haven estate that is preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service at ULSG–owned upwards of thirty slaves prior to the Civil War. Grant himself also owned a slave named William Jones for roughly one year, although there is a lack of evidence to tell us how and why Grant purchased this slave.
The slaves’ experiences at White Haven play a crucial role in the way we interpret this estate’s history in the years before the Civil War. Someone in my position simply cannot afford to leave out any mention of slavery when providing a historical context for explaining Frederick Dent’s economic prosperity or the privileged childhood of Julia Dent, Frederick’s first daughter and the eventual wife of Ulysses S. Grant. As Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly put it in his recent essay on reparations, “to celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.”
The interpretive staff at ULSG is dedicated to giving an honest and accurate portrayal of slavery at White Haven, and new discussions have emerged among the staff about the possibility of adding a brief two-minute film in the winter kitchen of the estate to tell a story about slavery from the perspective of slaves themselves. There is a belief among some that by adding this film we can do a better job of giving the slaves an interpretive voice that conveys to our audiences the emotions, fears, needs, and challenges these people endured while laboring at White Haven. I don’t want to give too much away because everything is very tentative at this point (and there’s no guarantee the video will be added), but there are several interpretive challenges worth pointing out here.
While we know that Frederick Dent’s slaves freed themselves by running away from White Haven at some point during the Civil War, we have little primary source evidence to help guide our understanding of how the slaves came to this decision. We have no documentation to tell us how the slaves’ interacted with each other or the style of speech they used. Did they use some form of slave dialect to communicate with each other? If so, what form of dialect? Would it be appropriate for this film to have people speaking in dialect? What were the slaves’ concerns, motivations, and choices leading up to their eventual running away from the estate? How can we propose to give the slaves a voice when we have so little documentation to help us define the nature of that voice? Is it appropriate for us as historians to build a “composite” sketch of slavery that is built in part without primary source evidence? Are there people within the St. Louis community we should consult with as we work through the process of creating this film? Is film the most appropriate medium for portraying the slaves’ experiences? Can all of these questions along with the actual experience of slavery be meaningfully conveyed to public audiences in a two-minute film?
These are some of the questions I am currently thinking through as we continue our discussions over this ambitious yet fragile idea of portraying slavery on film. Public historians face these sorts of questions on a regular basis, and I’d love to hear the feedback of others in the comments section.
Starting My Career as a Public Historian
My first week of work with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site is in the books and I think everything went pretty well. Staffing at ULSG is pretty limited right now, so I was quite surprised when I arrived on Sunday, June 1 to find out that I was already scheduled to be on the tour rotation for that day and that I would be working the cash register at various points as well. Since I worked for ULSG as an intern four years ago and again as a seasonal two years ago I was able to pick up on everything pretty quickly, but I definitely need a little more time to get adjusted to life as a full-time Park Guide.
The most important task I perform on a daily basis is giving interpretive tours of the historic home White Haven, a large plantation-style home that was completed in 1816 and owned before and during the American Civil War by “Colonel” Frederick Dent, Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law. Dent’s son–also named Frederick Dent–was a roommate of Grant’s during his time at West Point, and it was Fred Jr. who invited Grant to White Haven after Grant was deployed to nearby Jefferson Barracks upon graduation in 1843. Grant met his future wife Julia Dent at White Haven and would later live in St. Louis (most of the time at White Haven, but not always) with his growing family from 1854 to 1859. Depending on how busy we are and how many guides are on staff I give between two and five tours of White Haven a day.
Public history excites me because I am challenged to work within small spaces and limited time frames. A historian who writes a book has ample space to add fine details, nuance, and context to their historical study, often needing 200 to 400 pages to get out everything they want to say (and sometimes they need even more space). University history professors and middle/high school social studies teachers have sixteen weeks of class periods that last between 50 minutes and three hours to make their points and impart historical knowledge upon their students. Public historians are not afforded these kinds of luxurious time frames and are often forced to work within word limits, character counts, and timed presentations. They’ve got to get to the point and spark the minds of their audiences quickly.
At White Haven I get ten minutes at the beginning of each tour to make my interpretive argument and explain to my audiences why it’s important to think about the history of this site and why it’s important for the National Park Service to be here preserving this area. I need to discuss the Grants’ and Dents’ family life at White Haven before the Civil War, but I’ve also got to talk about the conversations, tensions, and uncertainties that were expressed at the dinner table between Colonel Dent, Julia, and Ulysses about the status of the United States and the possibility of war in the future. And I’ve got to remind my audiences that there were upwards of thirty slaves owned by Colonel Dent whose perspectives were never acknowledged by the Dents but who nevertheless played an integral role in the shaping of the Grants’ and Dents’ family culture at White Haven. I get ten minutes to talk about all of these intricacies!
I have the knowledge and the facts in my head to report the history at White Haven to my audiences during their tours, but I’m still working my way through the creation of a cohesive interpretation that captures the big ideas and themes I want to convey to my audiences. I gradually got more and more comfortable as my first week moved along, and I have no doubt my tours will be even better as I get more experience working with my audiences.
Personal and Professional Adjustments
As I settled into my new job it dawned on me that there two major adjustments to my personal and professional life that I need to work through.
One of the downsides of working outside the academy is that I lose my access to paywalled scholarly journals in repositories such as JSTOR and EBSCOhost. Although my membership with the National Council on Public History allows me access to The Public Historian and a host of other history journal collections up to roughly 2009, there is undoubtedly a lot of scholarly resources that are now gone because I am no longer a student. Several professors told me while I was at IUPUI that too many public history and museum professionals stop reading the newest scholarship when they get full-time positions in the field; I will not be one of these people, but it’s going to be difficult given the problems of access that accompany life as a professional. The problem of time for reading scholarship is also particularly acute to me right now because my current (but temporary) living arrangement in Missouri has me traveling eighty miles round trip to and from work, taking away two hours of time each day that could be spent in other ways. When I get home from work, I’m tired.
Another challenge relates to Twitter. There’s a popular perception in the minds of many users and non-users that Twitter is merely a place for sharing trivial pictures and tweeting about the coffee you had in the morning. For me, however, Twitter is about building connections with other historians and humanists and sharing thought-provoking ideas, articles, and scholarship. As a graduate student I often spent 30 to 60 minutes each morning browsing Twitter as a way to keep up with the news and latest discussions, but now I’m away from the computer for most of my working day. I think that’s a great thing and I love being outside with visitors talking about history, but I hope to maintain a strong presence on social media and a solid connection with fellow scholars and practitioners on Twitter going forward.