Julia Grant at the Corner of History

By Kaleena Fraga

Julia Grant is one of the many women largely forgotten by most Americans, yet one who bore witness to watershed moments and even likely altered the course of American history.

Part I: The End of the Civil War

Grant, née Dent, was married to the Civil War general and president Ulysses S. Grant. She was his steadfast companion during the war, despite her own Southern roots. She, like Mary Lincoln, endured questions about her loyalty to the Union cause–both were labeled secesh, or a supporter of secession because of their Southern roots and their families’ divided loyalties. But Julia Grant completely supported her husband and the Union. When approached in a grocery store by a woman who suggested that Julia Grant was “Southern in feeling and principle,” Grant responded, “No, indeed, I am the most loyal of the loyal.”

Still, Grant admitted to deep melancholy after touring the fallen city of Richmond, Virginia. She described abandoned streets littered with paper “like forest leaves after summer is gone.” In her memoirs, she wrote how she left the tour feeling distraught. “I fell to thinking of all the sad tragedies of the past four years. How many homes made desolate! How many hearts broken! How much youth sacrificed!…tears, great tears, fell from my eyes…could it be that my visit reminded me of my dear old home in Missouri?”

As the two armies faced off near Richmond, and as the war began to look hopeless for the South, Confederate general James Longstreet seethed that continuing to fight was “a great crime against the Southern people and Army….[a] hopeless and unnecessary butchery.” In discussions with a Union General, Edward Ord, Longstreet suggested that his own wife could pass through Union lines and meet with Julia Grant, whom she had known as a girl, and then Julia could visit the Confederate side.

Julia Grant, for her part, was enthusiastic to participate. “Oh how enchanting, how thrilling!” she exclaimed to her husband. But when she asked Ulysses S. Grant if she could go, he refused. “No, you must not,” he said. “The men have fought this war and the men will finish it.”

The war would continue for two more months, before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

Part II: Julia Grant, Mary Lincoln, and a Fateful Decline

In the end, Julia Grant’s greatest influence on the Civil War itself may be her companionship to her husband–she traveled over 10,000 miles during the war in order to accompany him as often as possible–and the fact that Ulysses S. Grant, an alcoholic, never drank when his wife stayed with him.

Yet Julia Grant would command an oversized influence on the events directly after the war. Over the course of the conflict, her husband had developed a close working relationship with the president, Abraham Lincoln, who had struggled to find an effective leader for the Union Army. As the war wound down near Richmond, Julia Grant also spent time with Lincoln’s wife, Mary.

mary lincolnTheir first meeting was auspicious. In his biography of her husband, Ron Chernow writes that it became family lore among the Dents. In their telling, Julia Grant paid a courtesy call on Mary Lincoln, only to find that the First Lady “expected [Julia] to treat her like royalty.” Mary Lincoln is infamous for her wild rages, but she had special reasons to dislike the Grants–she suspected that Ulysses S. Grant wanted her husband’s job, and he had allowed her son Robert to join him as an aide-de-camp, against her wishes.

Their relationship never improved, and Julia Grant was horrified when Mary Lincoln accused General Ord’s wife of flirting with her husband in a blistering tirade. When Julia tried to intervene, Mary Lincoln snapped, “I suppose you think you’ll get to the White House yourself, don’t you?”

A few months later, when the Lincolns invited the Grants to a night at the theatre, Julia Grant “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln.” When the president later encouraged her husband to accompany them, Ulysses S. Grant offered his regrets, joking that he “now had a command from Mrs. Grant.” Lincoln understood, saying, “Of course…Mrs. Grant’s instincts should be considered before my request.”

In the end, the Lincolns invited Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone. That night Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth–dramatically altering the lives of everyone else in his box. Word had already spread that Grant would be accompanying the Lincolns that night, and, indeed, Booth sought to assassinate both Lincoln and Grant. We’ll never know if Grant would have been killed alongside with Lincoln, or if his military instinct might have saved both their lives.

There’s no doubt that Julia Grant played an important role during the Civil War by supporting her husband and suppressing his inner demons. Her fateful decision after the war to refuse the Lincoln’s invitation likely altered the course of events for decades to come.

Of War and Poets: Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln

By Duane Soubirous

In celebration of National Poetry Month, History First recognizes Walt Whitman for crafting his observations into poetry, giving future generations of Americans the ability to see Whitman’s time period through his eyes.

Walt Whitman is best known for his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 with 12 poems. He continuously revised and added to Leaves of Grass throughout his life, and the final 1892 “deathbed” edition consists of almost 400 poems, including “Drum-Taps,” a collection of poems written about the Civil War, and “Memories of President Lincoln,” containing Whitman’s best-known poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”

ralph waldo emersonIn 1842 Whitman attended a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, where Emerson predicted that America would soon have its own poet who would write about the American experience in a uniquely American style. “When he lifts his great voice, men gather to him and forget all that is past, and then his words are to the hearers, pictures of all history,” Emerson said.

If Walt Whitman believed he could be the “genius of poetry” that Emerson prophesied, few others shared his confidence. The first edition of Leaves of Grass, where Whitman debuted his style, free of the forms that defined poetry, was met with scathing reviews. It sold fewer copies than Whitman had given away. One reviewer called Leaves of Grass “a mass of stupid filth,” and Whitman’s brother even said he “didn’t think it worth reading.” Emerson, however, wrote Whitman a letter of encouragement, praising Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

The 1850s were a time of unprecedented divisions in the United States. Northerners denounced pro-slavery laws of Congress and Supreme Court decisions, and Southerners threatened secession over Northerners’ hostility to slavery. Whitman hoped Leaves of Grass would unite the country. “I think that Whitman believed that Leaves of Grass was going to prevent a Civil War,” Whitman scholar Ed Folsom said in the Walt Whitman episode of PBS’s American Experience. “Leaves of Grass is really a book about preserving the Union. It’s a book about holding things together, being able to absorb contradictions and still maintain a single identity.”

Whitman’s poetry couldn’t keep the country together, and the ensuing Civil War hit especially close to home. Whitman read in the papers that his younger brother was a casualty in almanack-battle-fredericksburg-painting.jpgthe Battle of Fredericksburg, where the Union was badly defeated. Whitman rushed to the battlefield, only to find that his brother was minimally injured. Whitman stayed with his brother for over a week and witnessed the realities of war. “Living so close to the front, to the dressing stations and the hospital tents pitched on the frozen ground, the fresh barrel-stave markers in the burial field, the vexed Rappahannock, and the ruins of Fredericksburg, he saw ‘what well men and sick men and mangled men endure,’” Justin Kaplan wrote in Walt Whitman: A Life. Whitman began writing down these observations, later using them for his “Drum-Taps” poems.

After his experience on the battlefield, Whitman, too old to fight, became a dedicated volunteer in army hospitals. He served the non-medical needs of wounded soldiers, providing them with items like food, linens, stationery, and money. He often wrote letters informing families of a loved one’s death. “In his poem ‘Come Up from the Fields Father,’ Whitman imagined the family that received a letter like those he wrote,” Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in This Republic of Suffering. “It reports his gunshot wound but does not yet communicate the more terrible truth that ‘he is dead already’ by the time the letter arrives. It is a letter that will destroy the mother, as a rifle has already destroyed the son.”

Whitman captured the widespread grief after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He wrote “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day” on the day of Lincoln’s funeral. “Whitman speaks as one of the people, leading the soldiers in mourning and urging common men to whom he is so devoted to join him in tribute to ‘our dear commander,’” Faust wrote. Another poem commemorating Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” was written with a rhythm so uncommon to Whitman’s poetry, a democratic style that is accessible to common people. In this poem, Whitman represents “the searing grief of a single man, in a representation of the individual pain of which the cumulative loss is constituted.”

If Irish folklore is to be believed, Irish clans fighting in the old wars had an agreement to spare the poets. “Don’t kill the poets, because the poets had to be left to tell the story,” historian David Blight said. Through Walt Whitman’s poetry, the modern reader can see the total devastation of war and pain of losing a leader and a hero.

 

Part III: A Ship in the Storm–Lincoln’s Steady Hand in the Tumultuous Final Years of War

By Duane Soubirous 

January 1, 1863, the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and declared freedom for all slaves living in the Confederate States of America, was just like any other New Year’s Day to those slaves. In order to gain freedom, they would need to escape behind Union lines or wait for Union troops to advance past them. Slaves living in the loyal border states and parts of the Confederacy that had been pacified by the Union army were kept in bondage. The Emancipation Proclamation freed no one the moment it was issued, but it was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. Three years later, slavery was abolished throughout the U.S. with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued a preliminary proclamation 100 days earlier, on Sept. 22., This warned that emancipation was coming, but rebels could keep their slaves if they put down their arms and rejoined the Union (no one took that offer). Midterm elections in November 1862 showed that many in the Union agreed with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.”

1864Racial violence perpetrated both sides of the conflict. That year, the Democratic Party ran a racist, anti-war campaign, warning that emancipation meant black people would move North in droves and force whites out of their homes. “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the negroes where they are,” was their campaign slogan. Democrats gained 34 seats in the House of Representatives, won gubernatorial races in New York and New Jersey, and won control of several state legislatures. In 1863, Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York, said, “I assure you I am your friend,” to anti-draft rioters who had lynched black doormen and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City. 

Unfazed by backlash to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln pressed for emancipation in the loyal states. He encouraged a constitutional amendment that would gradually emancipate slaves (until 1900) and provide compensation to slaveholders. Lincoln believed that his emancipation plan for the border states was “one of the most potent, and swift means of ending” the Civil War. “Let the states which are in rebellion see, definitely and certainly, that, in no event, will the states you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy, and they can not, much longer maintain the contest.” To people who didn’t want tax dollars spent on buying slaves, Lincoln replied that compensated emancipation would cost less than a prolonged war: “I had not asked you to be taxed to buy negroes, except in such way, as to save you from greater taxation to save the Union exclusively by other means.” Lincoln also warned that failing to accept gradual, compensated emancipation might lead to immediate, uncompensated emancipation.

  Many soldiers who had enlisted to defend the Union had reservations about fighting to free the slaves. Lincoln deployed his power of persuasion in a letter to be read at a Union rally in Springfield, Illinois: “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union.”

 General Ulysses S. Grant was one soldier who didn’t need convincing. He wrote in a usgletter to Lincoln, “I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given to the Confederacy … by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.”

 After the major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, the war dragged on through 1864 and Democratic anti-war sentiment rose again. Democrats believed the war could end and the Union restored by negotiating a peace agreement that upheld slavery. Such a treaty would overturn Emancipation Proclamation, which said slaves with disloyal masters “are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” Lincoln was up for reelection that year, and though his electoral prospects looked grim that summer, he decided to hold firm on his proclamation and insist upon abolitionism in any peace talks.

By the fall of 1864, a string of Union victories dampened anti-war sentiment, and Lincoln and Republican legislators were resoundingly endorsed by the electorate. During the lame-duck session of Congress, when many Democratic congressmen had only a few months left before being replaced by Republicans, Lincoln pressed the House to pass the 13th Amendment, which had passed the previous April with the requisite 2/3 majority in the Senate. After much personal lobbying by Lincoln, just enough lame-duck Democrats either abstained or voted yes to clear the amendment through Congress on Jan. 31, 1865. It was then sent to the states and finally ratified in December 1865.

2nd inag abeLincoln’s second inauguration happened on March 4, 1865, when Union victory was imminent. He closed his Second Inaugural Address by extending an olive branch to the defeated Confederates and looking ahead to Reconstruction: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

After news reached Washington that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, crowds gathered at the White House to hear Lincoln speak. Instead of delivering a bombastic victory speech, he addressed Rreconstruction. It was the last speech he gave, and true to form, he encouraged moderation. Radical Republicans didn’t want to accept Louisiana back into the Union because its constitution didn’t enfranchise black people. While Lincoln said that he personally supported enfranchisement for “the very intelligent” and “those who serve our cause as soldiers,” he asked, “Will it be wiser to take [Louisiana’s constitution] as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it? Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State Government?”

  A distraught Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s speech and was outraged to hear Lincoln endorse black suffrage in Louisiana. “That means n—-er citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make,” Booth reportedly said. He assassinated Lincoln three days later.

Abraham Lincoln closed the Gettysburg Address by saying, “We here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Freedom for all Americans was a work in progress when he died, but it began when Lincoln insisted that for slavery to end, its expansion must be culled.

Lincoln is exalted as a god among men today; he is seen as the savior of black American slaves, and the sole reason that slavery ended. Like all people, Lincoln was flawed–his actions and thoughts, judged by today’s society, would make many uncomfortable. Still, he believed in moderation, in fairness, and in the importance of listening to both sides. This, in any era, makes him one of the nation’s most remarkable leaders. He certainly deserves credit for his handling of the Civil War years.