Over at the American Presidents Blog, Jennie W. posted an entry stating that Julia Dent Grant, the wife of Ulysses Grant, owned several slaves, who were not freed until 1865 when Missouri abolished slavery. The post asserted that Ulysses, as Julia’s husband, was the true owner of and had the right to free the slaves, and had failed to do so.
As an admirer of General and President Grant, I decided to look into this. It didn’t sound right – or at least I hoped so.
There are, indeed, a number of sites that state that Julia owned slaves. For example, the official website for the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site at White Haven (the Missouri plantation owned by Julia’s father, “Colonel” Frederick Dent) states that “[d]uring Grant’s management of the farm he worked side by side with Dan, one of the slaves given to Julia at birth,” presumably by her father.
However, it turns out that there is reason to question this. Julia’s father, Colonel Dent, lived until 1873. It certainly seemed possible that, if Julia acquired her slaves as a “gift” from her father, that gift amounted to an informal loan of or right to use the slaves, rather than a formal transfer of title. Question 5.8 of a “Civil War FAQ” points up precisely this possibility. Lest you think I’m hiding anything, here is the entire paragraph relating to Grant (most of which concerns the single slave that Grant owned and freed in 1859):
“2. In 1858, while attempting to make a go in civilian life as a farmer near St. Louis, MO, U.S. Grant acquired a slave named William Jones, probably from his father-in-law, although the record is not entirely clear. In March, 1859, Grant gave Jones his freedom despite the fact that Grant desperately needed the money he might have recovered by selling him. Grant's wife, Julia, had the use of four slaves as personal servants; the record is unclear as to who held legal title to them (it could well have been Julia's father). In her own memoirs, Julia states that these were freed at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation.
"Sources: _Captain Sam Grant_, by Lloyd Lewis; _The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant_, by Julia Grant; _Let Us Have Peace, etc._ by Brooks D. Simpson.”
I do not vouch for the FAQ and cannot tell you for sure whether Julia really owned -- i.e., held title to -- her slaves. I can tell you that the issue appears to remain an open one.
In the picture above, the front row consists of Ulysses, Julia and Colonel Dent.