A Question of Loyalty / by Matthew Sims

In our most recent episode, we discussed the role of President Ulysses Grant in The Whiskey Ring Scandal. Throughout the debacle, Grant appeared to remain faithful to his Secretary, Orville E. Babcock...even when it looked like Babcock was at the heart of one of the most damning tax evasion scandals in American history.  As you'll recall, Grant even underwent legal deposition to try and defend his close ally. 

It's easy to assume that the President was merely attempting to hide or deflect the guilt of such a massive ordeal.  After all, why wouldn't he?  If Babcock is publicly seen as an innocent, then Grant would appear innocent by extension.  We may never actually know to what extent Grant had dirtied his proverbial hands.

There is a detail worth considering when discussing allegations of Grant's guilt.  He was a man of considerable loyalty.  His fidelity was legendary.   According to Joan Waugh, Professor of History at University of California, Los Angeles: "Grant was also loyal out of all proportion to anyone who had helped him or worked with him."  And he was loyal to no one more than his wife, Julia.

Julia Dent was born in January of 1826.  She lived at White Haven, located in modern-day Affton.  By all accounts, Julia was an energetic and highly intelligent young woman.  She attended a boarding school in St. Louis for seven years, and while social, appeared to be something of an introvert.  Contemporary reports describe her as always having a book on hand, and prone to long horse rides on her own.  

In 1844, a 21 year old Ulysses Grant found himself stationed at Jefferson Barracks as a quartermaster, responsible for barracks supplies.  This position was, shall we say, a bit lacking in excitement.   In an attempt to break up the boredom, Grant went to visit his West Point buddy Fredrick Dent.  Little did he know, at that moment, that a ten mile trip (admittedly a more taxing trek then than it was today) would be a fateful one.  Upon his arrival, Grant met Julia. 

Happily Ever After, right? Well....not exactly.

In many regards, it's a storybook romance.  The handsome young West Point student meets the vivacious, autodidactic provincial woman.  There courtship was charming; Ulysses and Julia spent time together whenever possible at White Haven.  One story tells of Julia's beloved pet bird passing away.  Ulysses built a tiny coffin and summoned local military officers (hopefully, in their own private time) to assist with a funeral for the deceased canary. In short order, it's said that Grant was considering marriage. 

Later that year, Mexico and the United States had come to blows over the territory of Texas.  Grant was called away to do his duties.  Before he left, he gave Julia his West Point ring.  Ulysses and Julia were thus engaged to wed.  They exchanged letters frequently.  When Julia moved into St. Louis proper with one of her siblings, Grant apparently feared that Julia was intending on leaving him.

Ulysses Grant returned to St. Louis in 1848.  As a wedding gift, they're given land near what is now Rock Hill Rd.  The site's cabin was called "Hardscrabble."  Times were tough, but he and Julia worked to make ends meet (Ulysses Grant would resort to peddling firewood.  Like we said in our most recent episode....he was bad with money.) 

It's interesting to think that Ulysses Grant, a man who would swing from street peddling to President remained faithful to his wife for the entirety of their marriage, but there is no evidence at all to point towards anything but total devotion.  From poverty, to presidential scandal, to his death from throat cancer, he and Julia stuck together through thick and thin.  Julia would say of her husband "the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.”  

So was Grant simply a grifter, profiting from the illicit behaviors of his compatriots?  Or was he an innocent caught in the middle of machinations greater than himself?  I'm of the opinion that neither is precisely true.  Personally I find it difficult to believe that Pres. Grant didn't know about the Whiskey Ring.  But even if he did, I am inclined to believe that his loyalty to Orville Babcock and Julia were frankly cut from the same cloth.  Admittedly, Julia was not in the position of Babcock, but Grant's loyalty to his beloved wife tells a story of someone who believed in the best in people, sometimes to his own detriment.

If you want to know more about the life of Julia and Ulysses Grant, I recommend this article from the Smithsonian. You should also visit the Ulysses S. Grant Historical Site.  This location has been lovingly preserved by the National Park Service.  The staff there is incredibly knowledgeable and friendly...and it's free.  So that's a plus.


- Lucas