When Grant Went A-Courtin’
The Personal Recollections of His Courtship and Private Life
By His Wife’s Sister, Emma Dent Casey
Published by the Circle Publishing Company, New York, 1909
The following has been edited for publication.
|The Dent family country residence, White Haven. Engraving, ca. 1870. Missouri History Museum.|
I was a very little girl when General Grant first came to our house; in fact, I was not yet seven years old. It was I whom he first met, and in years after, when my sister Julia had become his wife, it used to be my teasing boast that I knew him best because I had known him longest. All this was a long time ago, a very long time ago, as I look back upon all that has happened since. For I was only seven then; now I am two and seventy. We lived at White Haven then, the place where I met General Grant, and where he met my sister and courted her, and where they afterward lived at different times.
The farm of White Haven was even prettier than its name, for the pebbly, shining Gravois ran right through it, and there were beautiful groves growing all over it, and acres upon acres of grassy meadows where the cows used to stand knee-deep in blue grass and clover. We lived at St. Louis in the winters, but we always spent the summers at White Haven. It was a fine farm of twelve hundred acres, which my father, Frederick Dent, had bought soon after he moved from Cumberland, Md., to Missouri. It was about twelve miles from St. Louis and something like five or six miles from Jefferson Barracks.
My father had taken many of the notions of the Southern planter to Missouri with him. He was a Marylander by birth and the first white male child born in the town of Cumberland. He had lived in Pennsylvania for a while and married my mother there. He moved to Missouri and prospered. White Haven was bought for a summer residence and here all his children, save John and Julia, came into the world.
The Old Home Before the War
There were eight of us children—four boys and four girls. John the oldest, was followed by George, Fred (afterward General Dent), and Nellie, in 1828, then Mary, in 1830, and it was my fate to arrive some six years later—the last to come and the last to go away, for all the others are dead.
Frederick F. Dent. Photograph of a tintype, ca. 1860s. Missouri History Museum.
My father was at this time a white-haired man, smooth-shaven, and, like all the Dents, rather under medium size. He usually dressed in the sober black long coat, dark trousers, and high stock habitually affected by gentlemen of the period. He was a man little given to talking, much preferring to sit in a big rocking-chair on the front porch with a newspaper in his hand and a long reed-stemmed or churchwarden pipe in his mouth. He was a Democrat of the old school, an ardent Southerner, and, though opposed to secession, he was later called a “rebel.” He owned slaves up to the very day of the Emancipation Act, and though the time came when he, naturally, called himself a “Grant” man, he remained loyal to the principles of Democracy, as he conceived them, until the day of his death—which took place in the White House during General Grant‘s second administration.
I may say here that my own views always agreed with my father’s in politics, and in these we were divided from the rest of the family. He was always very fond of saying during the war that “Emmy and I are the only rebels in the house.”
My mother was a Miss Ellen Wrenshall before her marriage, and both her parents were of English birth. She was a small, slender woman with rather serious gray eyes, a smiling mouth, and a gentle voice. I remember that she wore snowy caps and dainty kerchiefs on her head, as I have occasionally seen very old-fashioned old ladies do since.
I was nearing my seventh birthday, that bright spring afternoon in 1843 when, with my playmates, Henrietta, Sue, Ann, and Jeff [Dent family slaves who frequently played with Emma], I went out hunting for birds’ nests. As we were all of about an age, we used to have some good times together. This day, I remember, we were out in front of the turnstile and I had my arms full of birds’ nests and was clutching a tiny unfledged birdling in one hand when a young stranger rode blithely up to the stile.
|Ulysses S. Grant. Photograph, ca. 1845. Missouri History Museum.|
“How do you do, little girl!” he called out to me. “How do you do! Does Mr. Dent live here?”
I was very much embarrassed. Every feminine mind will know how I felt to be caught like that. Besides, I thought him the handsomest person I had ever seen in my life, this strange young man. He was riding a splendid horse, and, oh, he sat it so gracefully! The whole picture of him and his sleek, prancing steed was so good to look upon that I could do nothing but stare at it—so forgetting the poor little crying thing in my hand that I nearly crushed it to death. Of course, I knew he was a soldier from the barracks, because he had on a beautiful blue suit with gold buttons down the front, but he looked too young to be an officer. I stood staring at him, and he sat his horse, smiling at me until he said again:
“Come, little girl. Can’t you answer me? Is this Mr. Dent’s house?”
By this time Jeff was standing on his head and cracking his ankles together, in a modest effort to “show off,” while the other children were capering about and slyly giggling, as if to urge me to some new mischief. But I said at last, “Yes, Sir,” and let my arms drop and the little bird and the treasured nests all went tumbling down on the ground. The young stranger laughed pleasantly and got off his horse.
Jefferson Barracks. Lithograph by J. C. Wild, 1841. Missouri History Museum.
We children followed him up to the porch, trailing in his wake and close to his feet like puppies. On the way he asked me several questions, which I do not now remember, and which I don’t think I answered at all. At the porch we heard him introduce himself to my father as Lieutenant Grant. Then my mother and sister Nellie came out to meet him, and my mother sent us children scampering off to our play again. But the charms of the wild were deadened to me for the time. I came back to sit on the steps of the porch and gaze, round-eyed and silent, into the handsome face of the stranger.
The young soldier explained the cause of his visit. He had been, he said, the roommate and classmate of my brother Fred (afterward General Dent) at West Point, and when he had been ordered from the Academy to Jefferson Barracks, Fred had made him promise to call on us. My father and mother made him welcome and he spent the afternoon with us.
The Lieutenant Captivates Little “Emmy”
That was our first introduction to Lieutenant Grant. Julia was not at home upon this occasion. She had been spending the winter with a friend in St. Louis, and had not yet returned. My brothers were not at White Haven that day, either, and so the burden of entertaining Fred’s friend fell upon my parents and sister Nellie. Nellie, in the absence of Julia, was, of course, the “young lady” of the house, and no one could play the part better than that self-confident young miss of fifteen years. My own contribution toward the entertainment of the stranger was one continuous stare up at his face.
| Ulysses S. Grant during the Mexican-American war. Photograph, 1847. Missouri History Museum.
But no one ought to have been blamed for staring at him. At that time Lieutenant Grant’s personal appearance was very attractive. He was very youthful looking, even for his age, which was just twenty-one. His cheeks were round and plump and rosy; his hair was fine and brown, very thick and wavy. His eyes were a clear blue, and always full of light. His features were regular, pleasingly molded and attractive, and his figure so slender, well formed, and graceful that it was like that of a young prince to my eye. Indeed, I know that many persons who only knew General Grant after he had become famous did not think him handsome, but I can assure them that when he rode up to White Haven that bright day in the spring of 1843 he was as pretty as a doll. At any rate, he enchanted me. He was my first sweetheart.
Having found the road to our house, Lieutenant Grant seemed to find it pleasant to ride out that way frequently. He came perhaps twice a week during the next two months and generally stayed through the afternoon and sometimes to supper. We all liked him, particularly the feminine part of the family, and sister Nellie and I began to wrangle as to which one of us should “have” him.
That was lots of fun for Nellie, who was a great tease, but I am afraid it sometimes taxed my childish jealousy to the limit. Sister Julia was still in St. Louis, and so the Lieutenant and I had some great romps together. He always called me his little girl, and many a delightful ride I’ve had on his shoulder. I remember that he used to kiss me occasionally, and that I resented it as being “too big a girl” for such things.
But I do not think my resentment against Lieutenant Grant ever lasted very long, for everywhere he went about the place I and my friends tagged after him. Sometimes, when he could not get rid of us any other way, he and Nellie used to get the horses and go out for short horseback rides. It was their only means of escape from the sharp eyes of me and my small cohort.
Sister Julia Arrives Upon the Scene
Then Sister Julia came home. She had already heard of the Lieutenant through the letters of my mother, who liked him very much. Quite to the contrary of the usual course under such circumstances, Julia appeared to like the young soldier, also from the first moment they met. As for Lieutenant Grant—I have heard him say since that with him it was a case of love at first sight. His attentions certainly seemed to indicate it. He also told me once, when he was in the White House, that he had never had but one love affair, but the one sweetheart in his life. Not even the boyish amours that usually precede a young man’s real passion had ever been his. His wife was the “lady of his dreams,” the heroine of his romance.
At the time Lieutenant Grant met her, sister Julia was as dainty a little creature as one would care to see. She was not exactly a beauty, a slight defect of one of her eyes marring the harmony of her features, but she was possessed of a lively and pleasing countenance. Aside from this cast in her eye she was very prettily made, indeed, and was considered to have an exquisite figure. She was plump, but neither tall nor stout, and she had the slimmest, prettiest foot and hand I have ever seen on any woman, while her arms were beautifully rounded, her hair and eyes were brown, and she had a rosy complexion that would be the envy of most girls of today.
|Julia Dent Grant. Photograph by Mathew Brady, ca. 1875. Missouri History Museum.|
The visits of the young army officer to our house became even more frequent after Julia came home. He rode over from the barracks perhaps as often as four times a week and was always pressed to stay to supper by my hospitable mother. He never seemed to require too much pressing, however; it did not take Nell and myself long to see that we were no more the attractions at White Haven for Lieutenant Grant. He showed a very quiet but marked preference for Julia’s company, which only she pretended not to notice. There was nothing of the “gushy” in his attentions to her, however, in fact, Julia was not the sort of girl to encourage that kind of thing, and what with four teasing brothers and two younger sisters on hand constantly, life would have been made something of a burden for her if she had. Their conduct toward each other was always frank and unaffected; in fact, their whole manner toward each other was that of a boy and a girl who are friends and not ashamed to show their liking for each other. There was little of the sentimental about either of them.
My mother, especially, was very much pleased with the young soldier. She had grown to be very fond of him even before this, because of the simplicity of demeanor and unconsciousness of self which always distinguished him. She greatly enjoyed hearing him discuss politics with my father, and I think the rare common sense he displayed, his quiet, even tones, free from gestures and without affectation, especially attracted her. On many and many an occasion, after he had ridden away, I have heard her say: “That young man will be heard from some day. He has a good deal in him. He will make his mark.”
There were some merry days along the Gravois then, with sister Julia at home and the Lieutenant riding over from the barracks about every other day. He and she frequently went fishing along the shady banks of the creek, and many a fine mess of perch I’ve seen them catch together. Sometimes my brothers and Nellie and their friends would go with them, and we would have quite a fishing-party. More often my full train of playmates, with my small self acting as engine and pilot, would tag after them, insisting upon carrying the bait or catching the “hoppergrasses” used to entice catfish to the hook, or even upon doing part of the angling ourselves. Generally they did not appear to mind us much, but sometimes the lover and the lady would “give us the slip” and gallop away on horseback—after having lured us further down the stream, to look for a finer fishing-hole. I would be quite disconsolate at first, upon discovering such perfidy, and would frequently go into perfect tantrums of anger at being so imposed upon. But when they returned, the Lieutenant would generally tease or coax me out of my temper—though I sometimes gave him back the “sass” before I surrendered.
Just before the outbreak of the Mexican War [Grant’s] regiment was ordered south into Louisiana. The day his regiment received its orders to move from Jefferson Barracks the Lieutenant apparently discovered that he was not quite ready to go to war. There was something he needed, which many another soldier has needed, to make him do his best on the battlefield. That very night he mounted his horse and rode over to White Haven. It was a terrible night; nothing less than a mission of some great import could have lured or driven a man out on such a night and for such a ride. The rains had been drenching the earth like a deluge for several days and the creeks were swollen and raging. When the young officer reached the banks of the Gravois he found it a mad, muddy torrent, which had torn trees and bridges from its banks and was carrying them with a roar of waters through the valley to the river. But what was that to daunt a lover’s ardor: Like the hero of the legend, “he spurred his steed and plunged in.” but he plunged in over his head, with his horse under him. When they arose to the surface there was no turning back in that wild flood of foam-flecked water; there was nothing to do but go forward they went, the Lieutenant swimming at the side of his horse, sturdily breasting the swollen current until they landed safely upon the other side.
It was a bedraggled swain that stood in the presence of his lady-love a few moments afterward. We all enjoyed heartily the sight of his ridiculous figure with his clothes flopping like wet rags around his limbs, and none laughed more heartily than my sister Julia. Lieutenant Grant took it all good humoredly enough, but there was a sturdy seriousness in his usually twinkling eyes that must have suggested, perhaps, to Julia that he had come on more serious business, for the teasing did not last long. John carried him off to find some dry clothes, and when he returned the usually natty soldier looked scarcely more like himself than he had when he came out of his bath. John was taller and larger than Grant, and his clothes did not fit the Lieutenant “soonenough.” Of course, this roused more laughter, which the soldier took in the same good part, but those rosy telltale cheeks of his reddened, as usual with him when the inward state of his feelings did not agree with his outward composure.
I think it shows something of the character of the man that Lieutenant Grant should not have allowed his rather [word missing] outer appearance at the house of his sweetheart that night to have unsteadied his purpose in coming there. When he left the barracks he had it in his mind to offer the lady his hand and heart. He offered it. Nothing in the world could have prevented him, probably, since he had once had it in mind. It was characteristic of the man, as his campaign of after-years from Spottsylvania to Appomattox showed. Grant was often most slow and hesitating in his efforts to come to a decision. But when that decision was once made it was irrevocable and acted upon immediately.
The next question the Lieutenant disposed of with equal promptness. It was, of course, the customary interview, with my father. We were all very fond of the soldier by this time, and I am sure had the rest of us been taken into the young people’s confidence we should have sympathised with him. But there was no such surety about the stand of my father. That my father liked him as a man Grant knew very well, but as a son-in-law—that was a different matter. My father had been strongly opposed to Julia’s marrying into the army. She was his favorite daughter, and her health had never been strong. My father knew how arduous, pinched and restless was army life and how it provided few of the home comforts and opportunities for the care which a woman in delicate health might require. For that reason I feel sure that he had made up his mind, if he had thought about the matter at all, to refuse his consent to their marriage in case the Lieutenant should ask him for Julia.
However, he might have spared himself the pains of any thoughts upon the subject at all. For Julia, once having said yes, had made his decision for him. When Julia wanted a thing of my father she usually got it.
But father did not know that Julia wanted Lieutenant Grant, however, and the Lieutenant did not know that Julia always got what she wanted. On the day he came to ask her father for her hand, after greeting the rest of us on the porch, he strode quietly into the sitting-room where our parents were. My mother glanced at him, and in spite of his calm bearing she guessed his errand and slipped out. The determined young soldier stood straight before my father and looked him in the eye.
“Mr. Dent,” he said, “I want to marry your daughter, Miss Julia.”
My father looked back at him and smiled. I was peeping through the shutters.
For a minute the older man did not answer but sat soberly thinking. The soldier boy awaited his answer, unmoved.
“Mr. Grant,” my father spoke at last, “if it were Nelly you wanted, now, I’d say ‘Yes.’”
“But I don’t want Nelly,” said the soldier, bluntly. “I want Julia.”
“Oh, you do, do you? Well, then, I s’pose it’ll have to be Julia.”
We were all gathered on the porch when father came out and told us about it. The Lieutenant’s frankness had pleased him and had, I think, won him over in spite of himself.
After the Mexican War
After the Lieutenant went south with his regiment he passed for the time being out of my young life. I accepted him as sister Julia’s beau, and when I thought of him it was because he was somewhere near the place where my brother Fred was, more than because of any great interest in him during his absence. Julia received a number of letters from him with due regularity, and these were usually read to the family. They were brief but very interesting always, and generally had more to say about the movements of the army than of himself. I think I have remarked before that he was never a great hand to talk about himself, nor could he write about himself, either. He wrote and told us, I remember, when my brother was wounded at the battle of Buena Vista, and spoke of it as nothing alarming. His words prevented my mother from worrying as she would otherwise have done, because she trusted his judgment and good sense thoroughly, and she knew that he would be entirely frank with her.
Nothing else happened beyond the ordinary news and duties of our daily life at White Haven, that I can remember, during the full course of the Mexican War. Of course, when the war was over, this soldier—he was Captain Grant now—hastened to White Haven as soon as he could obtain his leave. The ardors of the campaign in Mexico had changed him very little so far as we could discern. His face was more bronzed from the exposure to the sun, and he wore his captain’s double-barred shoulder straps with a little more dignity than he had worn the old one, perhaps. His shoulders had broadened some, and his body was stouter, and it may be that he had grown a little more reserved in manner. But what change there was in him was certainly little enough, considering all that he had gone through with the others of his regiment. The most striking thing to my childish mind was that he was now burned to a rich brown where he had once been so rosy fair, and that he was still smooth-shaven of cheek and lip, whereas most of the young officers of the time rejoiced proudly in some curiosity or other of hirsute ornamentation.
Captain Grant had not long returned from the duties of the field before he and Julia concluded to have their wedding day. They decided to be married in St. Louis, and accordingly we moved into our city house.
The Captain was now almost constantly at our house. He showed his future bride the most devoted, yet quiet, attention, and these were happy days for us all. I remember them particularly, because the Captain frequently took me and Julia to the theatre during these happy prenuptial days, and the theatre was an enjoyment of which I had not, at that time, had enough.
|Confederate general James Longstreet. Photograph, 1861–1865. Missouri History Museum.
Our house was filled with a gay company, for both my sister and the captain were very popular in St. Louis, but as I spent the most of my days in the school, I did not see so much of the visitors as the other members of my family. I remember that the handsome James Longstreet and the charming Miss Garland, who afterwards became the dashing Confederate general’s wife, were among our most frequent visitors. Longstreet and Grant were always the closest of friends, and even the Civil War did not alter their deep personal regard for each other. Longstreet was our cousin on my Father’s side, and a great favorite with us. Miss Garland, too, was also a favorite with us, and with Captain Grant, because of her personal grace and beauty of her character.
The marriage of Captain Grant and Julia took place in 1848, at our St. Louis home. There was nothing unusually striking about it which I can call to mind. It was just a sweet, old-fashioned home wedding, without ostentation or any fanfare of trumpets. It was one of those weddings which the newspapers of today would call “very quiet,” but the house was filled with young people and our many friends. The ceremony took place at eight o’clock in the evening, in the large parlors, which had been decorated for the occasion. The Captain’s groomsmen were all army officers but, lest I be inaccurate, I will not attempt to mention them by name. My sister’s bridesmaids were Miss O’Fallon, Miss Shurlds, Miss Louise Pratt, and, perhaps, Miss Fanny Walsh.
As I Saw Grant’s Wedding
House of Colonel Frederick Dent on the southwest corner of Fourth and Cerre streets, where Ulysses and Julia were married. Photograph by Piaget, mid-20th century. Missouri History Museum.
During the ceremony I sat as quietly as I could on a pier table with Miss Amanda Shurlds, who afterward became my brother John’s wife. We tried to be seen and not heard, but I fear we succeeded in being heard more than anybody else. At any rate, I have since learned from the lips of Cadmus Wilcox (afterward General Wilcox) that I was the most pestiferous little nuisance during the whole wedding, that I was under his feet all the time when I was not under somebody’s else foot, and that he had most heartily wished me in bed. No doubt we were both as ubiquitous and chittering as most small girls are apt to be on such occasions. But, at least, I sat still long enough to admire my big sister’s extreme prettiness as she stood in her bridal dress beside her quiet, self-possessed soldier. Captain Grant was as cool under the fire of the clergyman’s questions as he had been under the batteries of the Mexican artillery. He did not look as if he were ashamed or afraid to be there, as I have seen some other bridegrooms look.
The couple spent that night at our home, and left the next day for a visit to Captain Grant’s people. They returned again after a few weeks, and the Captain was ordered to join his regiment, the Fourth Infantry, at Detroit.