Family  /  Biography

Unraveling Ulysses S. Grant's Complex Relationship With Slavery

The Union general directly benefited from the brutal institution before and during the Civil War.

Slavery was a horrific, morally repugnant institution, yet Grant never publicly criticized it in the years before the Civil War. One of the most peculiar stories of the conflict is the fact the soldier who played such a crucial role in destroying slavery also profited immensely from the practice up until the penultimate year of the war.

In the 1850 census, Dent reported enslaving 30 people, who assisted with farm labor and household duties at White Haven. Dent grew wheat, Indian corn, oats and Irish potatoes. He also raised pigs, hogs, cattle and chickens. Lovely orchards stood near the main house.

Perhaps the most highly valued member of the White Haven enslaved community was Mary Robinson, the family cook. She was responsible for feeding roughly 40 people on any given day—an enormous undertaking requiring her to oversee several other enslaved laborers while also managing an extraordinary variety of tasks, from tending kettles in her kitchen to preserving meat for future consumption to securing ingredients for popular dishes.

Describing the meals at White Haven, Julia later wrote, “Well, mammy, Black Mary, was an artist.” She added, “Such loaves of beautiful snowy cake, such plates full of delicious Maryland biscuit, such exquisite custards and puddings, such omelets, gumbo soup and fritters—these were mammy’s specialty.” Based on Julia’s account, Robinson seemed qualified to be a head chef at a leading restaurant in St. Louis or some other big city. But the state of Missouri didn’t allow for such opportunities at the time.

From her white enslavers’ perspective, an enslaved woman like Robinson was supposed “to sustain their lives and livelihood while relinquishing her own,” writes historian Tiya Miles in All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. “She would also have been an intimate, a caretaker as well as a dependent, which made the nature of this relationship between owned and owner enmeshed and corrupt.”

In 1900, another enslaved woman at White Haven, Mary Henry, gave an interview about Grant and Julia to a local newspaper. Speaking with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Henry said, “When [Julia’s] children were born, they were handed to me as they came into the world, and it was my hands that first put on them the clothes that my hands had made.” Born at White Haven, Henry was only a year or two older than “Miss Julia,” as she called her mistress. The two were companions when they were young, though Julia didn’t hesitate to exert her authority whenever she wished.