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Julia Dent Grant’s Personal Memoirs as a Plantation Narrative

Her memoirs contribute to the inaccurate post-Civil War memory of the Southern plantation.

Julia Dent Grant holds the unique distinction of being the first in a line of distinguished First Ladies to have written a memoir. Following the death of her husband Ulysses S. Grant in 1885, Julia Grant began contemplating the idea of telling her own life story and sharing insights into her long, loving relationship with the nation’s most famous American at that time. Completed before her death in 1902 but not published until 1975, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant have proven to be a crucial resource for historians looking to understanding her early life experiences in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Grant family’s personal dynamics.

While providing unique insights into Julia Grant’s life as a Civil War general’s wife and First Lady, the Memoirs also capture a complex, deep relationship with the institution of slavery during her childhood. Growing up at White Haven, a plantation owned by her father Frederick F. Dent, left an indelible impression on Julia Grant’s mind. She carried this impression with her to old age and used her memoir to reconstruct life at a place where “our people were happy” and “the comforts of slavery” made life enjoyable. Seen in this light, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant serve as a plantation narrative.

As Grace Elizabeth Hale, David Blight, and other historians have demonstrated, this popular literary genre at the turn of the century aimed to recollect, celebrate, and educate readers—particularly young White Southerners—about the positive aspects of slavery and life in the South before the Civil War. Julia Grant’s recollections contain a subtle but important difference from most of this literature in that she did not express support for a Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Her husband, of course, was on the other side of that battle literally and figuratively. It is nevertheless clear that Julia viewed slavery as a positive good that brought order, stability, hierarchy, and happiness to all. In her view, the enslaved laborers at White Haven were satisfied with trading their freedom for food, clothing, and a comfortable place to stay. “My beloved and honored father . . . [was] the kindest of masters to his slaves, who all adored him . . . [he] was most kind and indulgent to his people, too much so perhaps,” she argued.