If you’re interested in US Civil War-era history, there’s a lot to explore in Missouri - a border state that played a key role in the building conflict and was deeply divided by the war. Here in St. Louis, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site offers a museum dedicated to the Union general and 18th President of the United States, on the estate where he once lived with his wife and future First Lady Julia Dent Grant. Visitors can tour “White Haven,” the house where Julia grew up, met, and married Ulysses. You can also explore museum exhibits in the former horse stable and other buildings on the grounds that give a sense of what it was like at the time.
Ulysses S. Grant led the Union to victory in the Civil War and was the first person after George Washington to achieve the ranks of three- and four-star general. As president, he helped pass the Fifteenth Amendment giving African American men the right to vote as well as the first Civil Rights Act, which established the Justice Department initially to go after the Ku Klux Klan, and made Yellowstone the first National Park. The site pays tribute to an American hero while also offering some reminders that heroes can be complicated. When this was the Grants’ home before the war, it was also home to enslaved people.
“White Haven” was built between 1812 and 1816, and purchased by the Dent family in the 1830s. Julia Dent grew up here and her playmates included enslaved children who would become her servants when she was an adult. As a girl, her goal was to marry “a soldier - a gallant, brave, dashing soldier.” Ulysses Grant first visited here as a guest of Julia’s brother, Fred Dent, his classmate at West Point.
When the couple held their wedding here, Grant’s father, an abolitionist, refused to attend. The Grants had four children, all born here. After serving in the Mexican-American War, Grant decided to leave the army to spend more time with the family. When the Civil War broke out, Grant returned to service, and Julia frequently traveled to be by his side, covering literally thousands of miles throughout the war.
Though Missouri is north of the traditional divide between slave and free states, many of its early settlers came from the South, bringing enslaved people with them, and sought to preserve slavery when Missouri became a state. This led to the 1820 “Missouri Compromise” under which the territory entered the Union as a slave state, but Maine (previously part of Massachusetts) became a free state to balance its voting power.
The Civil War deeply divided the state—it remained part of the Union, with about 100,000 residents fighting on the Union side, but an additional 40,000 fighting on the Confederate side. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 only applied to the Confederate states, so enslaved people here were not free until the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868. Jules, an enslaved woman who was Mrs. Grant’s personal servant, traveled with her to Union camps and didn’t leave her service until 1864.
After President Lincoln was assassinated, Grant reported to President Andrew Johnson, who favored a quick return of the Southern states to normal status in the Union. He asked Grant to tour the South and make a report on Reconstruction. Grant believed a continued US military presence in the South was necessary to establish former slaves as citizens amidst growing violence by the KKK. Frustrated by Johnson’s policies, the 46-year-old war hero ran for president and won, becoming the youngest person elected to the role.
The Grants never lived at White Haven full-time after the war, but they purchased it as a way to help out Julia’s family financially and owned it until shortly before Pres. Grant’s death in 1885. It had several other owners before becoming a National Historic Site in 1989.
Cover Photo: David Neman / NPS, public domain via nps.gov.