Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

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In November, we went to St. Louis to add Gateway Arch National Park to our list of national parks we have visited. While there we also went to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. The day we were there was cold and rainy and we were the only visitors. As such we had the volunteer guide all to ourselves. The site itself is very small and the Grants only lived there a few years but the museum housed in the horse barn was extremely well-done and presented a quite complete picture of Grant the man.  Hence the following “history lesson.”

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This 10-acre historic site in suburban St. Louis offers a glimpse into life in Missouri prior to the Civil War. This plantation, known as White Haven, originally encompassing about 850 acres, was established by Grant’s father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent. This historic site tells the story of the collision of diametrically opposing viewpoints concerning slavery as well as the story of the enslaved people themselves.

One of the first questions we (and apparently most other visitors) had for the volunteer who took us on a tour was – the plantation is called White Haven so why is the house painted a very bright green? We were told that originally the house was a cream color but was repainted several times and this particular green, called Paris Green, was the color of the house during the Grant family’s ownership and Grant’s presidency. Paris Green was popular during the Victorian era and was rather expensive so could be seen as a symbol of the prosperity of the owner. As a side note, Paris Green was also quite toxic made with an arsenic-based compound.

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From our history courses, we knew Ulysses S. Grant as the commanding general of the Union forces who  brought the Confederacy to surrender. We knew he was elected president after the war and was not a very effective president. We had been told that Grant was a perpetual heavy-drinker. However, in the museum we learned much more about the man himself and it was a very different perspective.

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Ulysses S. Grant was from Ohio, a free state, and born Hiram Ulysses Grant into a family of abolitionists. His father, Jesse Grant, was a tanner but Hiram had no interest in that profession. At age seventeen, his father arranged for him to enroll in West Point. A clerical error there listed him as Ulysses S. Grant and, not wanting to be rejected, he changed his name right then and there.

After graduation from West Point, Grant was stationed in St. Louis where he met his future wife, Julia Dent. Julia was born and raised in the slave state of Missouri and her father, Frederick Dent, owned at least 30 enslaved African Americans, vital to the success of his plantation. Julia was raised to believe that the Dent slaves were ”family” and content in their servitude.

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Grant and Julia were married in 1848. Over the next six years the couple had four children and Grant was assigned to a number of posts in the west while his family stayed in St. Louis. During that time, his fondness for alcohol seemed to become a problem and in 1854 he resigned from the army. Grant and his family moved to White Haven where he unsuccessfully attempted to become a farmer. The opposing viewpoints of Grant and his father-in-law on the issue of slavery had to make things very difficult at times. The Grants lived at White Haven until 1859 when they moved to Galena, Illinois.

A part of the story at White Haven was the story of the Dent slaves, their daily labor, struggles and longing for freedom. Slavery remained legal in the border state of Missouri and the state was exempt from Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Dent never freed his slaves but by early 1864 all of them simply fled the plantation.

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Shortly after the Civil War started in 1861, Grant became a soldier again. After four long years the Civil War ended and Grant was considered a hero. In 1868, Grant was elected President of the United States.

Unfortunately, he was not nearly as good a president as he had been a general. He worked to implement Reconstruction and supported both amnesty for Confederate leaders and civil rights for former slaves. He worked for ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. However, his administration was plagued by numerous scandals and those scandals have become the best-remembered features of his time in office.

After retiring from the Presidency, Grant’s business ventures failed. After learning he had cancer of the throat, he started writing his memoir to pay off his debts and provide for his family. That memoir, published by his friend Mark Twain, ultimately did that. Soon after completing the last page, in 1885, Grant died.

The real takeaway from visiting Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in Missouri was a better understanding of Grant as a man and the characteristics that actually defined him.

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For more information: https://www.nps.gov/ulsg/index.htm