On this day in 1826, future First Lady Julia Dent Grant is born. Her love story with Ulysses S. Grant is not well known, but “they shared one of the great, romantic, beautiful loves of all American history,” historian Bruce Catton concludes.
Julia met Ulysses just as she was finishing boarding school. Her older brother was then at West Point, and he wanted his little sister to meet his roommate. Ulysses, he said, was “pure gold.”
The two hit it off immediately, riding horses and reading poetry together. When Julia’s pet canary died, Ulysses made a small yellow coffin and got his fellow officers to help with a small funeral.
Clearly, Ulysses was smitten. Before leaving to serve with the Army, he gave Julia his West Point ring and declared his love. For her part, Julia was more hesitant. She was young—only 18—and not ready to be married. But she consented to a secret engagement.
Ulysses was a faithful correspondent during these years, pouring out his love on paper. “When I lay down I think of Julia until I fall asleep hoping that before I wake I may see her in my dreams,” he wrote.
Julia was older and more certain of herself when Ulysses finally returned in 1848. They got married—but they had to do it without his family. The older Grants didn’t approve of Julia’s slave-owning parents.
Perhaps many military families can relate to the years that followed: The newly married couple spent time together, but they also spent time apart. They had children. Ulysses was sometimes a soldier, but also a farmer and a civilian. When he was separated from Julia, some contend that Ulysses drank too much. Others argue that the stories of drinking stem from unfounded rumors planted by Ulysses’s rivals.
Either way, the Civil War came, and it changed everything. Ulysses’s success as a general is well known. Less well known? The extent to which he relied on Julia. She stayed with the Army when she could. She kept her husband on an even keel.
Nevertheless, Julia had her own struggles: She was married to a Union general, but her family was sympathetic to the South. Meanwhile, she was growing in prominence, and she’d become a potential target for Confederate forces. Her son was nearly kidnapped.
Ulysses was a hero after the war, and he was soon elected President. At this point, Julia considered correcting a long-standing problem: She’d long had strabismus, which causes one eye to cross.
“I never had the courage to consent [to surgery],” she wrote, “but now . . . I really thought it behooved me to try to look as well as possible.”
Ulysses would have none of it. “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes?” he asked her. “I like them just as they are . . . . Mrs. Grant, you had better not make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”
Julia was a popular First Lady. She hosted lavish state dinners, and she restored elegance to a White House that was in shambles. When Ulysses decided to retire, she was disappointed. The White House was a stable home after so many years in the military, and she’d loved her role as First Lady.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, the Grants embarked on a world tour, then settled in New York. Ulysses wrote his memoirs, finishing mere days before losing a fight with cancer in 1885. That heroic effort ensured that his wife would be financially stable after his passing.