You are here

General Grant and His Single Slave

Among the arguments which attempt to prove that the Civil War was not about slavery appears the accusation that Ulysses S. Grant was a slave owner who refused to free his slaves until the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment. Often, this is said to imply that if the military leader of the United States himself owned slaves, then the war could not possibly have been about slavery. 1See J.A. Richardson’s Defense of the South, which we’ll quickly look at later. Though even that logic is shaky, let’s take a look at Grant’s dealings with slaves.

Grant's boyhood home in Ohio.
Grant’s boyhood home in Ohio.

Young Grant and Slavery

Grant’s father, Jesse, was fully against slavery, writing for the Castigator, an abolitionist paper out of Ripley, Ohio. His father claimed that he refused to live in slave states because of his views, wishing to raise his family on free soil. Jesse’s connection to abolitionism is pretty clear, though somewhat tangential. He was not a radical abolitionist, but, more than likely, a pretty typical fellow who happened to be against slavery. 2William S. McFeely Grant: A Biography (W.W. Norton & Company, 1981, 12. After raising the family, Jesse and Grant’s mother, Hannah, moved to Kentucky.

Though Grant, living so near the Ohio River, dealt with slaves on a regular basis, there seems no evidence to suggest that he was anything but neutral on the slavery question. There was a rumor that Grant, when a cadet at West Point, got into a fight with Fred Dent over the question of slavery, but there’s little evidence of that.

This was, however, Grant’s introduction to the Dent family. Julia, whom Grant would soon wed, was Fred’s sister. While the Grants owned no slaves, the Dents owned at least eighteen. When Ulysses and Julia began courting, Grant and her father engaged in heated discussions. These were not, apparently, concerning slavery, but the politics of the day. The Dent patriarch was a Jacksonian Democrat, and Grant, like his father, was a Whig. 3Brooks Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) 16, 20.

Grant and the Dents

When Ulysses and Julia married in 1848, they traveled from military post to military post for four years. In 1852, when Grant was sent to the west coast, Julia, being pregnant, moved back in with her family near St. Louis. Two years later, Grant resigned from the military and began his civilian life with Julia in Missouri.

The Dent home - White Haven - near St. Louis, Missouri.
The Dent home – White Haven – near St. Louis, Missouri.

The Grant household was located only a mile and a half away from the Dent plantation. It was here where he first personally benefited from slave labor. His neighbors, most likely including Julia’s father, brought their slaves to assist Grant in building his house.

Not only did her father give Julia the land, but also three or four slaves. It’s unclear whether he loaned them to her or actually transferred ownership of them to her. Either way, he seemed very particular about making sure it was she alone, and not the couple, who held the land and the slaves. The reason seems never to have been stated. Stories abound of Grant working the fields and hauling the wood, side-by-side with the slaves he did not own. 4Walter Stevens Grant in Saint Louis (The Franklin Club of Saint Louis, 1916) 26, 37.

In 1857, Grant took over management of the Dent plantation, and now had all of the slaves under authority (though not ownership). Because most of the slaves were not field hands, two additional slaves had to be rented from their nearby owners. In this position, Grant was a failure. After the war, one of Grant’s former neighbors recalled that he “was no hand to manage negroes. He couldn’t force them to do anything. He wouldn’t whip them. He was too gentle and good tempered and besides he was not a slavery man.” 5Hamlin Garland Grant’s Life in Missouri, appearing in McClure’s Magazine, Volume 8 (1898) 518.

Julia’s four slaves remained enslaved to her until the Emancipation Proclamation. After that, at least one – also named Julia – remained as a paid servant. They traveled together to visit Grant at Petersburg in 1864. 6Julia Dent Grant The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Southern Illinois University Press, 1975) 83. It’s possible that the slaves remained under Julia’s ownership up until Missouri outlawed slavery on January 11, 1865.

Ulysses and Julia's first home, built with the help of rented and loaned slaves.
Ulysses and Julia’s first home, built with the help of rented and loaned slaves.

The Freed Slave of Jones

Though Julia’s slaves, by her father’s wishes, were not actually Grant’s, Grant did acquire a slave from his father-in-law around 1858. Just how he came to own William Jones, a thirty-five year old mulatto, is unknown, though he may have actually purchased him. However it came to be, the ownership soon ended. Grant manumitted William about a year after he began owning him. On March 29, 1859, Grant wrote “I do hereby manumit, emancipate & set free said William from slavery forever.” 7Ulysses S. Grant The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: 1837-1861 (Southern Illinois University Press, 1967) 347.

The reason Grant manumitted Jones rather than sell him is unknown. Such a slave could have fetched for him upwards of $700 – a sum of money that cash-strapped Grant could certainly have used. Instead, he gave him his freedom. Neither he nor Julia wrote anything more about Jones.

From this point until the end of the war, Grant owned no other slaves. Through his life, he only owned a single slave – Jones. The other slaves on the couple’s farm belonged to Julia. Those on his father-in-law’s plantation, belonged to the Dents. Grant could not legally free any of them.

A mezzotint print of the Grant family in 1867.
A mezzotint print of the Grant family in 1867.

What conclusion can be drawn here? Though Grant was clearly not a die hard abolitionist he had this to say in an August 30, 1863 letter to Elihu Washburne:

“The people of the North need not quarrel over the institution of slavery. What Vice-President Stevens 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. I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called antislavery; but I try to judge fairly and honestly; and it became patent to my mind, early in the Rebellion, that the North and South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without slavery. As anxious as I am to see peace established, I would not, therefore, be willing to see any settlement until this question is forever settled.” 8Grant to Washburne, August 30, 1863, as printed in 1868: For the Republican Campaign (New York: American Literary Publishing, 1868) 32.

But could Grant’s dealings with slaves, and even his ownership of William Jones, actually mean that, as J.A. Richardson argued in his 1914 Lost Cause classic, Defense of the South, the Confederacy was not “fighting for slavery”? Richardson attempted to show that because some cherry picked Confederate officers were not slave owners, and that some equally cherry picked United States officers were, that the war was not one over slavery, calling it “a false issue.”

This is, of course, a ridiculous notion completely bereft of logic. It’s one that even Richardson seems not to fully believe. In the paragraph immediately following the mention of Grant owning slaves, he admits that “if the South defended slavery it was because she could not defend her firesides, her legal and inherent rights, without defending that institution so closely associated with these rights.” 9J.A. Richardson Richardson’s Defense of the South (A.B. Caldwell, 1914) 381.

Grant's hand-written declaration of manumission for William Jones.
Grant’s hand-written declaration of manumission for William Jones.


References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.