“Hardscrabble”—Grant: Marriage, family and failures

By Sherman Fleek USMA Historian

February 7th, 2019 | News, News and Features
 Ulysses S. Grant’s home, located near St. Louis, where he built the dwelling on a small farm parcel named Hardscrabble, given to him by his wife Julia’s father.

Dejected, depressed and without options, former U.S. Army Capt. Ulysses Grant faced the greatest personal humiliation possible in the spring of 1860: he asked his tight-fisted, vain father, Jesse Root Grant, for a job. Grant was broke in both mind and spirit.
“It was a wrenching experience for Grant to admit that he failed,” a biographer wrote. But it was nonetheless true. Grant had failed in everything but marriage and war; even his military career and future had floundered in despair and poor judgement.
Resigned to the fact that his wealthy father, who owned several businesses in Kentucky, Ohio and a leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, was his only hope, he humbly solicited a position from Jesse Grant.
His relationship with his father was not perfect, far from it. As a youth in Ohio, Grant detested working in his father’s tannery and the leather goods business. Now, for a salary of $800 per annum, Grant would work for his two younger brothers as a clerk.
He told a friend, “We’ll all go to Galena and starve to death together.”
Returning home as a hero in the summer of 1848 after four years away from Julia, brevet Capt. Grant was riding a high wave.
Within 10 years, he was nearly destitute and selling fireworks from a cart in St. Louis. How did this come to pass? Perhaps his greatest success in life and the center of all his genuine happiness was his love and marriage to Julia Boggs Dent on Aug. 22, 1848 at her father’s mansion on a large slave plantation near St. Louis.
In attendance was three future Confederate officers who would later surrender to Grant at Appomattox, including James Longstreet. Absolutely happy at his station in life and permanent promotion to first lieutenant on their honeymoon, Grant’s career began to unwind.
Stationed at Detroit, then cold and bleak Sackett’s Harbor in upstate New York, Grant was posted at both of these places, twice. In 1850, their first child, Frederick Dent Grant, was born at Julia’s parents home. (Fred would later graduate in 1871 from West Point; he is buried in the cemetery here.)
Orders arrived in the spring of 1852 that the 4th Infantry Regiment was to be transferred to the west coast, the new state of California. Troubled but obedient, Grant left Julia and Fred behind and made the difficult and deadly trip from New York City to Panama, crossing overland to the Pacific Ocean, then sailing north to San Francisco bay.
Crossing the deadly, tropical Isthmus of Panama, only 450 survived the three-week passage of the total of 700 soldiers, wives and children making the journey. Grant, as the quartermaster, established a hospital for the sick of cholera and malaria.
“He was like a ministering angel to us all,” remembered one survivor.
Grant learned that Julia was pregnant with U. S. Grant Jr. His first post was Vancouver Barracks, Oregon Territory (now in Washington state). Grant’s service on the Pacific was a disaster professionally and personally. He attempted several business ventures to supplement his meager lieutenant’s salary, including shipping ice down to San Francisco, but the weather changed unseasonably and melted the cargo.
He tried farming and selling vegetables to the growing settlements, but his farm flooded with the spring run-off. Grant was promoted to captain, then transferred to Fort Humboldt, California in January 1854. He and a fellow officer invested hundreds of dollars into a hotel in San Francisco only to have a civilian investor abscond with the money.
While posted in California, Grant began drinking more often and heavily. This dire weakness and poor judgement clouded his career, his military service, his name, his reputation and his memory in the historical record to this day.
Grant the drunkard, a label that is not true, but legend and the Southern Lost Cause myth has engraved it into American culture. He did drink to excess at times during his life, but he also abstained for years at a time, and was never affected during battles or on campaigns.
At Fort Humboldt, Grant drowned in worry about his family, depressed, wallowing in boredom and suffered from occasional binge drinking.
“You do not know how forsaken I feel here,” he wrote Julia, “I do nothing but sit in my room and read and occasionally take a ride on one of the public horses.”
He commanded F Company, 4th Infantry of some 60-70 soldiers, one of two infantry companies. The post commander was Lt. Col. Robert C. Buchanan, USMA Class of 1830, a veteran of Mexico and career-long officer of the 4th Infantry. Warned by the rigid Buchanan several times about his fondness for the bottle, Grant reported for pay officer duty on Sunday morning under the influence of alcohol.
He was not drunk, but his condition came to the attention of Buchanan, who as a stern disciplinarian offered Grant trail by court martial or he could resign his commission and leave the army. He did the latter.
Returning home to Missouri with a loss of confidence but joyed to see his new son, U.S. Grant Jr., and Julia, Grant tried several commercial ventures. They all failed, from being a real estate agent to banking in nearby St. Louis.
If anything symbolizes Grant’s life and status from 1854 to 1861, it was his house he built himself on small farm parcel given to him by Julia’s father, named Hardscrabble. It was a cabin where Grant farmed and sold produce, but he could not make a living. Eventually, U.S. Grant in his old captain’s coat, sold firewood from a handcart in the dirt streets of St. Louis.
In 1858, Grant sold Hardscrabble and rented a house in St. Louis. He gained employment in 1859 as a clerk at the U.S. Custom House, but after a month the chief collector died, Grant was dismissed by the new collector.
Frederick Dent, his pro-slavery, father-in-law, gave Julia and Ulysses a slave, William Jones, as a belated wedding gift. A healthy male slave at that time was worth $1,500 -$2,000 on the slave market.
On March 29, 1959, Grant submitted manumission papers on William Jones and set him free. Grant could have secured his family’s welfare for several years with the money from the sale. By 1860, Grant was so desperate and impoverished that he traveled to Covington, Kentucky to face his father, Jesse Grant.
(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on Ulysses Grant until his statue dedication at West Point on April 25.)