Grant's Connection to Slavery
A word about General Grant's involvement with slavery is in order, here. Much has been made by the historians, regarding the fact that General Lee, in his capacity as executor of his father-in-law's estate, held power over slaves. Between 1857 and the outbreak of the war, General Lee managed Arlington Plantation through an overseer pursuant to the conditions of George Washington Custis's will. In December of 1862, pursuant to the terms of the will and his power as executor, General Lee caused a deed of manumission to be filed in the Henrico County courthouse. The deed names some 100 or so Africans who had been held in slavery under the laws of Virginia. Included among the names can be found the slave, Nancy, who Lee inherited from his mother at the time of her death, many years before. Other than Nancy and her children there is no evidence that General Lee owned a slave. For Grant's part, it appears from the available evidence that Grant directly acted the role of overseer, in his management of his wife's 80 acre farm, that he seems to have used the labor of least one of the Dent slaves, that it appears he probably benefited financially from slave labor, generally; and that, by no means, can it be reasonably said that his heart reached out in love to the dark bondmen of his day, much less the mudsills.
The sources of the available evidence, to establish these points, include Grant's published letters, his memoirs, other documents, and statements made by presumed precepient witnesses, such as his son, John Dent Grant, his wife, Julia Boggs Dent Grant, and several St. Louisians who claimed to have known him.
The facts are that, in 1854, Grant resigned from the U.S. Army and took up residence with his wife, Julia, and his several children, on her farm. Julia's father, Frederick F. Dent, had given her 80 of the 820 acres he owned in the southern outskirts of St. Louis. When Grant returned to St. Louis in 1854, there were two houses on the tract of land Dent owned. One of these belonged to Dent and was called White Haven. This is the house, as reproduced, that visitors to the NPS park can see. Another house on the tract was owned by Dent's son, John. The Grants occupied John's house during the time they lived on the tract. In the fall of 1856, Grant had completed the construction of a log cabin and he moved his family into it, but, soon after Dent's wife died, in January 1857, Grant moved with his family to St. Louis.
At this point, Dent sold about 80 acres of the tract to a man named White. White gave Dent, in return for possession, a mortgage plus title to a house and two lots in St. Louis. Dent gave Julia the mortgage and the titles to the house and lots. At some point between 1857 and 1860, White defaulted on the mortgage and Dent regained possession.
During this time, 1854-1858, with the help of at least three slaves, Grant had timber on Dent's land cut down and cut to form posts and beams for mine shoring purposes, and, perhaps, for fire wood. Grant made daily trips into St. Louis, to sell the wood in wagon loads. He also caused some of the acreage to be planted in various crops. In 1858, Grant abandoned his farming activities, and went to work in St. Louis as a real estate agent, a business he abandoned in 1859.
In March 1863, while Grant was engaged in operations against Vicksburg, Julia executed a two year lease agreement with White, who may have remained in possession of some portion of Dent's tract during the time Dent litigated to regain it. It appears that the St. Louis Circuit Court resolved the litgation in Dent's favor, ordering that the 80 acres be sold at auction on the court house steps. At some point during the term of the lease, White again stopping making payments, this time contending that a condition of the lease transaction was that Julie would give him the notes he had previously signed but, after the lease was signed, Julia refused to turn over the notes.
This resulted in two lawsuits between White and Julia: the first Julia brought to recover the missed lease payments. A jury trial was held and the jury returned its verdict for White. The court record does not make clear what ground the verdict was based on. Julia appealed the verdict to the St. Louis Circuit Court which reversed the verdict and entered judgment for Julia. (Grant was a nominal party to the case) White appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court which held in Julia's favor. While the appeal in the first action was pending, Julia sued White a second time. The second suit was based on White's refusal to give up possession of the land; i.e., unlawful detainer. A jury trial was held and this time the verdict was in Julia's favor. Judgment was entered accordingly.
At the time Grant arrived in St. Louis, in 1854, Dent owned a number of slaves. While there exists some witness statements that put the number of Dent slaves at thirty, the census slave schedules show that, in 1850, Dent owned fourteen slaves; by the 1860 census, the count was seven, three males, two females and two children.
From the spring of 1854 to about December 1856, Grant's main activity seems to have been clearing timber from Julia's acreage and selling it. Here's what he told his father he was doing through the year, 1856.
Who was the "hand" who helped Grant cut down the trees, shave the branches off, which he sold to mines as shoring posts, cut the trunks into pieces to make cord wood, and load the wagon? The record shows that Frederick Dent, Grant's father-in-law, "gave" Julia one of his male slaves known as William Jones. Whether the "hand" was Jones or another of Dent's slaves, or a slave hired from a neighbor, or a free man, no one can say.
The Two Story Log Cabin Grant Built With Slave Labor
What can be said, with some factual basis in the record, is that it was Grant who drove the team of two horses that pulled the wagon loads of wood into St. Louis. One witness, a man named John Darby, told what he saw in a book published in 1880.
In January 1857, Frederick Dent's wife died and he left the farm and took up residence in a house he owned in St. Louis. Whether Grant remained on the farm as an occupant, or simply came to it every day from St. Louis, the record is not clear. In February 1857, Grant wrote his father, explaining his plans and asking for money.
A standard type Missouri Slave Cabin
(Photos of cabins courtesy of Gene Fuenfhausen at littledixie.net)
It appears from the record that, in 1857, Grant raised crops, such as oats, corn, wheat, hay, cabbage, melons, and potatoes. Grant kept the harvest of some of these crops for his family's consumption (a wife and four children), and others, such as the potatoes, he sold at the St. Louis markets.
According to the available literature the National Park Service provides, both on its "Grant's Farm" website and in the brochures its rangers hand to visitors, Grant "worked alongside two hired Negros and one of Dent's slaves" during this time. The NPS literature leaves the visitor with the impression that (1) the two "hired Negroes" were freemen, and (2) that Grant literally "worked alongside" the black men; i.e., that his hand was on the plow, and on the axe. This probably is an incorrect statement of fact.
The objective reality is that it was the standard practice of the times, in Missouri, that slaveholders within each county would hire out their idle slaves to a neighbor for a year. This would be done by formal contract which provided that the lessee pay the lessor about $150 for the year, plus provide the hired slaves with stipulated items of clothing, provide good shelter, and provide medical care when needed. Here is an example of the standard form contract ordinarily used.
Under a contract similar to the one shown, Grant no doubt supervised the two hired Africans, as well as the slave Dent had given his wife, as any reasonable overseer would do. He would have established the tasks the Africans were to peform each day and stand by, not pitch in, as the Africans labored in the fields. This does not mean that Grant acted out the role abolitionist literature assigned the overseer, by imposing physical punishment upon the slaves. But it does mean, whoever actually "owned" the Africans, Grant personally profited from their labor in the same way General Lee's wife and children profited from the labor of his father-in-law's, George Washington Custis's, slaves.
The movie protrait of the overseer swinging the black snake whip is largely a myth, which an objective analysis of the evidence debunks. Yes, of course, somewhere, sometime, in the Slave States, an overseer whipped an African, but this was not an ordinary, daily event. In the Deep South, on the large plantations, the Africans were organized in gangs. The gangs worked much like the workers in Henry Ford's Detroit factories: each gang had a specialized task to perform, in cooperation with the other gangs, which moved the crop to market, from preparing the soil for planting, planting, winnowing, and harvesting. The slaveowner, by and large, took good care of his slaves; providing housing which was equal to, or better than, the housing the Irishman, the mudsill of the day, could afford on the subsistence wage he received from the capitalist. It was the Irishman, working in gangs, who did the hard, back-breaking labor of digging the canals, grading the road beds for the railroads, doing the heavy lifting on the levees and in the factories, not the African.
Examples of Typical Missouri Slave Houses
The Irishman and African as Viewed by the Anglo-Saxons
An Irishman's Hovel
The fact the Africans in slavery were better off physically than were the immigrant Irish, does not mean the Africans were better off generally. Obviously the Africans were worse off than the Irish, because the Irish enjoyed at least some civil rights: the States they lived in tolerated their presence and recognized their marriages, their parent-child relationships, and their right to move between employments of their choosing. The Irish, thus, though not yet "equal" to the native American, were "free" while the African was not.
That Grant was working with hired African slaves, as opposed to free Africans, is plain from a letter he wrote his sister, in March 1858.
Note: A "free" African would not hire himself out for a year. For a week, or a month, yes. A year? No.
By 1859, it appears Grant gave up on the farming business. Dent sold the eighty acres to a man named Joseph W. White, taking as consideration a residence White owned in St. Louis and White's promissory note for $3,000. Dent, in turn, transferred the mortgage to Julia. When, by court order, the land was sold to cover White's debt, Julia bought it, a common practice of the times. As the consequence, Julia now held the title in her name and she held the mortgage (promissory note) part of which remained unpaid, not covered by what she paid for the land in the judicial forced sale. It is the promissory note that White claimed she promised to give him when he later signed the lease agreement.
Abstract of Title
The Grant family occupied White's house and Grant got into the real estate brokerage business, partnering with Julia's cousin, Harry Boggs. The business lasted about a year.
White's House at 9th & Barton
During this time it appears that at least one of Dent's female slaves lived with the Grants as a house servant. The others were hired out. In 1873, and, again, in 1900, the St. Louis newspapermen interviewed two female Africans, Mary Henry and Mary Robinson, who were known to have been Dent slaves. The women spoke warmly of Julia and her father whom they called the "old boss."
However, there exists ambiguity here in the record. In her autobiography, Julia says she held title to more slaves than the 1860 census shows her father owned: "[In 1860] we rented our house and hired out our four servants (nee slaves) to persons whom we knew and who promised to be kind to them." She identified these four slaves by name as "Eliza, Dan, Julia, and John, and said that they belonged to her up to the time of Lincoln's proclamation. "When I visited the general during the war," she wrote, "I nearly always had Julia with me as nurse. She came near being captured at Holly Springs. (Grant had to make a quick retreat as he advanced into the heart of Mississippi.). . . Our mess (in Grant's HQ camp) was kept by a colored man, who did almost all the cooking. He served the dining room; our nurses (slaves) did the chamber work for our families."
Note: Since Missouri, a loyal slave state, was exempt from the effect of Lincoln's proclamation, it may be that Julia retained owneship of these slaves until the passage of the 13th Amendment, in 1866.
In the spring of 1859, a position of county engineer became available, and Grant applied for it. Five judges of the county court were assigned the task of deciding who would get the post. three of these judges were Republicans and two were Democrats. To Grant's chagrin, the three Republican judges voted for an immigrant German. Grant is reported to have expressed anger at the fact that, in his mind, the foreigners were getting all the jobs, while the "Native Americans," the "Know Nothings," of which he counted as one, were left out in the cold. (Sound familar in this Age of Trumpism?) Grant voted Democratic in the Presidential elections of 1856 and 1860; preferring Buchanan and Douglas over Fremont and Lincoln.
Note: Grant didn't like "Jew peddlers" either. In 1863, he ordered the provost marshall to throw them out of Memphis. This order was rescinded when Henry Halleck, the general-in-chief, reminded him that there were Jews in the Army's ranks.
This brings us to the manumission document Grant executed in the early spring of 1859, just before he applied for the engineer position. When the Grants left their farm behind and went into St. Louis, they took with them, in addition to the female slave, at least one of Dent's male slaves, a man known as William Jones. About this slave, Grant had written to his father, in October 1858, and said:
This letter of Grant's makes plain that the "boy," presumably William Jones, was a slave owned by Frederick Dent, that Dent gave this slave to his daughter, Julia, and that Grant, in his legal capacity as Julia's husband, not only used the boy's labor, himself, but hired the boy to third parties at "about three dollars a month." Indeed, that the other "Negroes" that the NPS supposes "worked alongside" Grant when he was cutting timber and building his log cabin, were, in fact, slaves he had hired, is plain from the letter to his sister in which he wrote, in March 1858: "I now have three Negro men, two hired by the year, and one of Mr. Dent's. . ."
The NPS points to the wonder of Grant manumitting a slave as proof of the distance that existed between his political view of slavery and his father-in-law's view of it, the theme being that Grant was "anti-slavery" when, in fact, he was not. There are two problems to face, for those who wish to swallow the NPS's theme. First, is the fact that the law of the times did not recognizse a legal power in the wife to execute contracts of any kind; even those which were intended by her to dispose of her own real and personal property. Frederick Dent had given Julia, not Grant, the 80 acres and at least one slave, William Jones. Because of Julia's legal status, however, it was Grant who actually appeared in court as "owner" of the 80 acres when Julia sued White. Similarly, with the manumission of Jones, it is Grant, not Julia, who is identified as the "owner," when, in fact, he was not.
Note: Julia was legally dead in the Missouri of 1859. She could not buy and sell property, execute contracts, sue or be sued, claim ownership of her own wages. All these things were the exclusive province of her husband. As Blackstone expressed it, "By marriage the husband and wife are one person and the husband is that person." The husband, in other words, was the wife's lord and master. He could physically punish her if she refused to obey. (See, e.g., Grant v. White (1868) 42 Mo. 285: the Supreme Court ruled that White was estopped from claiming Julia lacked legal capacity to execute the lease agreement.)
The second problem is that the manumission document states that Jones was manumitted "for consideration." The NPS seems unwilling to recognize the meaning of the word, pushing the story that no financial benefit flowed to the Grants as a consequence of the manumission. The NPS points to the italicized phrase—"for diverse good and valuable consideration me haveunto moving" do hereby free. . . Jones, as making the issue ambigous. But the italiczed phrase is merely lawyers' boiler plate form language that can be found in many deeds of sale quoted in state case law of the times. The three witnesses who signed the document were all lawyers in whose office Grant and his partner, Boggs, rented desk space in their real estate business. The legal meaning of the phrase is "motivated;" i.e., Grant (Julia) was motivated by good consideration to manumitt Jones.
What the form of the "consideration" was, that was given in exchange for Jones's freedom, No one can say. But it could not have been simply the idea that, because Jones had faithfully labored for Grant in the past, Grant was giving Jones his freedom. The issue of whether a slave could claim he was legally free, on the basis of this quid quo pro, had been litigated in the antebellum courts and the ruling was, "No," since the labor of the slave was due the owner as a matter of law anyway, it could not constitute legal consideration. Therefore, the probability is strong that someone paid Grant (Julia) something, in exchange for Jones's freedom.
Grant's Pawn Ticket
Who that someone was, no one can reasonably say. It is clear that Grant, at this time, was about dead broke—earlier in 1857 he pawned his gold watch for twenty dollars, and by the spring of 1860 was working in his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois.
Note: This deed is recorded in a minute order book of the St. Louis Circuit Court, dated March 29, 1859. It describes Jones as a "mulatto." Why exactly this document exists in the historical record must be, because it contains Grant's signature? One would expect, if this deed was preserved to history, the deed of manumission executed by Taylor Blow, who purchased Dred Scott and his family from Mrs. Emerson the owner (through her husband Dr. Chaffee), would likewise be preserved but it is not. The fact both deeds were made, however, is proved by reference to the record book of the St. Louis Circuit Court.
Grant's connection to slavery ended in large measure, at, or just after, Lincoln's emancipation proclamation was published in January 1863. At that time, Grant was in command of the Army of the Mississipi, laying seige to Vicksburg. Up to this time, Julia spent most of her time with Grant in his army camp, or at Memphis, and she kept slaves with her. For a time, as the Africans of Mississipi and Louisiana, who lost their places in consequence of the war, were growing in numbers around his camps, Grant resisted allowing them to remain, much less integrate them into his army as soldiers. The resistence ended in March 1863, when General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, at Lincoln's command, sent the Army Adjutant General, Lorenzo Thomas, to Grant's headquarters to oversee the absorption of the Africans into the Union Army. (See, Vol. 24, part III, Official Records of the Rebellion:)
"It has been reported to Stanton that many of the officers in your command not only discourage the Negroes from coming under our protection, but by ill-treatment force them to return to their masters. This. . . is directly opposed to the policy of the Government. I write you as a friend and as a matter of friendly advice. . . I may better understand the intentions of the Government than you can from merely consulting the officers of your own army." (Halleck to Grant, March 31, 1863.)
As Julia put it, in her autobiography, "General Lorenzo Thomas passed through Memphis, and we were told he came as the mouthpiece of Lincoln and could make and unmake men, and I should not be surprised if General Grant was removed."
The NPS literature promotes the theme that there was a conflict between Grant's view of slavery and Julia and Frederick Dent's view. The conflict is myth. Grant willingly used Aficans as slaves to labor for his material benefit over a period of years, when he easily had available the Irish mudsill to work for wages; in cutting down his timber, building his log cabin, and planting his crops. Furthermore, his household enjoyed the benefit of slave service up to the last minute.
What happened to the Dent slaves as the war years unfolded, the record does not say. Except to show that Mary Henry, apparently one of the Dent's female slaves, died in her eighties in a tenement on Chouteau Ave in St. Louis, in 1900, having worked as a servant for a book publisher named Kaiser. The newspapers reported that she was surrounded at her death by her son, who worked in New Orleans, and two daughters who lived in St. Louis. Today, the lot she lived on is a truck parking lot. All the tenements around it, which first housed the Irish and then the Africans, were torn down in mass, in the late 1950s. Today Saint Louis University owns most of the land.
Mary Henry worked in a large mansion on this lot.
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