I arrived at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri around 4:00, just an hour before it closed. I had to rush through, and then I was on my way to my sister’s house in Murphysboro, Illinois.
Ulysses S. Grant was one of the most famous Americans of his era. As commanding general of the U.S. Army during the Civil War, he led the fight to preserve the Union. As 18th President (1869-77), he championed the civil rights of African Americans. However his second term was fraught with political public scandals and corruption.
Few people know about his rise to fame or his personal life. As a young officer, Grant visited White Haven, a plantation owned by “Colonel” Frederick Dent. Here, he met and courted Julia Dent, his future wife. Ulysses and Julia lived at White Haven 1854-59 and raised their young family. Grant helped manage his father-in-law’s plantation and its enslaved workers. Grant himself owned at least one enslaved man, William Jones. The Grant family fought poverty and hardship as they struggled through a weak economy, health problems, and even a frost-filled summer. They moved to Galena, Illinois about a year before the outbreak of the Civil War.
Today, White Haven commemorates the lives and loving partnership of the Grants against the turbulent backdrop of the 19th century. For some, White Haven was a place of leisure, entertainment and family. For others it was a place of backbreaking labor, daily struggles and longing for freedom. At White Haven, one can experience the nation’s division over slavery and its aftermath through one family’s perspective.
Colonel Dent named the property White Haven after his family home in Maryland. Paint analysis indicated the house was painted various colors in the 19th century, including Paris Green with a dark green trim. A typical color of the Victorian period, a purchase of the color was dated to 1874, during Grant’s ownership. It is a surprising color to find based on the historic name of the property.
Grant was from Ohio, a free state where abolitionist activities flourished. Young Ulysses learned from his father that slavery was morally wrong. Julia Dent was born and raised in the slave state of Missouri, where her father, Colonel Dent, taught her that slavery was the proper relationship between blacks and whites. Dent owned at least 30 enslaved African Americans, vital to his wealth, status, and the success of the plantation.
When the Civil War came, Grant’s support of the Union never wavered. Dent, while professing support for the Union, did not believe the federal government should compel a state to remain in the Union. When Union authorities in St. Louis began requiring loyalty oaths, Dent refused to sign.
Julia was caught in the middle, supporting her husband’s efforts to preserve the Union. At the same time, she had enjoyed a comfortable life made possible by slave labor. She felt strongly that the Dent slaves were “family,” content in their servitude.
Grant demonstrated his patriotism by immediately offering his services at the outbreak of the Civil War. Frequently separated from family, he endured physical hardships, illness, political scheming, and public accusations of wrongdoing. Through it all, he kept sight of his duty to his country.
White Haven’s enslaved African Americans watched the unfolding events with hope and interest. Slavery remained legal in the border state of Missouri, and the state was exempt from President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Yet by early 1864, all the Dent slaves had illegally fled White Haven. Little is known about these people’s lives after slavery.
Below are some of the belongings of the enslaved people at White Haven. “Diviners’ bundles” or “conjurers’ caches,” were used in African ritualistic religious practices. Pieces of slate pencils suggest enslaved people were secretly learning to read and write. Decorative china pieces show what African Americans used to serve the Dents and Grants.
The White Haven property is about 850 acres and includes cleared fields, orchards, large wooded areas, and hills cut by streams and creeks. A variety of grains, vegetables, fruits and other crops were produced at White Haven and then taken to markets in the city. Cleared timber from the property was sold as firewood or to nearby coal mines as bracing for mine shafts.
Female slaves who supported the lifestyle of the owners of White Haven spent a majority of time in the winter kitchen preparing meals. Although the slaves performed work typical of the time, they could not choose what work they did, nor did they directly benefit from their labor. They worked under harsh conditions and always at the whim of their owners.
Remaining invisible in the presence of whites, slaves at the same time created personal identity and kinship ties among themselves. Because whites limited their involvement with work spaces, slaves claimed these places as their own. Away from the eyes and ears of the Dents, they conversed and conducted activities in areas such as the laundry room, the kitchens, and the cabins.
The large horse stable, ice house, and chicken house were vital parts of the farm operation.
In the late 1850s, St. Louis farmers and plantations struggled against bad weather, illness, and a nationwide economic depression. Unable to recover from these conditions, Dent and Grant sold off their livestock and farm equipment in 1859. That same year, Grant freed his slave, William Jones. The number of enslaved people owned by Colonel Dent declined from thirty on the 1850 census to seven on the 1860 census.
Grant accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1868 out of his sense of duty to ensure that what had been won through war — an indivisible Union and citizenship for blacks — would not be lost through partisan politics.
Grant assumed the presidency believing a nonpartisan approach would smooth the process of reunion and ensure all citizens equal rights. He quickly found out this would not be the case. For eight years, Grant struggled to place the freedmen on equal civil footing, but deteriorating race relations in southern states, public interest in other domestic issues, and waning Republican support resulted in limited success. The Panic of 1873 plunged the nation into a severe economic depression.
One of Ulysses Grant’s most appealing traits was an unassuming nature that helped him to easily make and keep friends. He maintained friendships with people from childhood on, through the ups and downs of life.
Grant’s views on equality and justice evolved throughout his life. Recognizing that prejudice was a result of ignorance and fear, Grant believed education was the only means to eradicate this. He believed citizens in a democracy have both rights and responsibilities. He understood those responsibilities to include knowledge of how our government works and participating in it, as well as not infringing on the rights of others and being a productive citizen.
At the end of Grant’s presidency, people encouraged him to run for an unprecedented third term. Grant had had enough and informed the Republican Party that he would not consider re-nomination.
After leaving the Presidency in 1877, Grant wrote: “I was never as happy in my life as the day I left the White House. I felt like a boy getting out of school.”
Released from public responsibilities, Grant prepared to realize a lifelong dream — traveling abroad. During his world tour, he often took solitary walks, exploring back streets and observing people at work and play. He served as unofficial ambassador wherever he went. His speeches expressed the desire to build and strengthen friendly relations with other nations.
He became the most widely traveled former president up to that time, but more important for Grant, he obtained a better understanding of different cultures, religions and countries. As he traveled to over 25 countries, his belief that democracy was the best form of government was reinforced.
The adventure did not end until Julia, having had enough, insisted on returning home when Grant suggested visiting Australia. The world tour depleted his funds. Then he lost his fortune by trusting too much in the scheme of a friend who swindled him. Only by writing his memoirs was he able to leave something for his beloved family after he died of throat cancer (probably from smoking so many cigars).
Historic assessments of Grant’s legacy have varied over the years. Historians have hailed his military genius. However, conservative 20th century surveys have traditionally ranked Grant among the worst presidents. Perceptions of him as an incompetent president can be attributed to scandals exposed during his presidency, involving members of his cabinet, public officials, and individuals with whom Grant was acquainted. Historians have asserted Grant’s innocence, but also blamed him for being politically naive in continuing to associate with those under investigation.
Modern historians have had a more positive assessment of his presidency, including civil rights enforcement, equal rights for blacks, and civil service reform; he was also legislatively proactive. He avoided war with Spain over Cuba, restored cordial relations with Great Britain, and directed the U.S. onto the world stage. In the West, he halted white efforts to annihilate the Plains Indians. He also reestablished a sound currency and provided the basis for the orderly growth of the American economy.
Grant has been regarded as an embattled president who performed a difficult job during Reconstruction following the Civil War.
(Information about White Haven and Ulysses S. Grant comes from signs and pamphlets from the National Park Service).
I left the site at closing and crossed the Mississippi River by 5:30; I was met by the sign: “Welcome to Illinois: The Land of Lincoln From the People of Illinois.” I went through Red Bud, where a cow grazed placidly beside a church. I passed a yard decorated with witches and a big cemetery on a hill. A sign advertised: Spinach Can Collectibles.
I arrived at my sister Stephanie’s house by 7:20. We had beers and chatted. She gave me a tour of her house, which she’s fixed up nicely since my visit in February. We Face-timed with my brother Robbie in New Jersey. He had recently had an infection in his foot, which was serious as he has diabetes. He had a treatment where maggots ate the dead flesh, and he had a big hole in his foot; he said he could see the tendon! So scary!
We spent much of the evening talking about Trump and the impeachment proceedings.
Monday, October 1: In the morning, we took Steph’s dog Babe for a walk in the neighborhood.
Then she showed me more of her house, gardens and the pond she dug herself.
We took a drive to Makanda, a cute little “town” nearby. It really consisted of a wooden sidewalk in front of a few shops. The aroma of coffee wafted through the air, and the scent of patchouli incense greeted us in a Himalayan shop.
At pb+j, I bought a cute scarf and a pair of earrings with green stones at the ends. The long-haired shop owner told us the railroad company wanted to put up a big tower with fencing around it, but the community wanted them to locate it somewhere else so it wouldn’t ruin their views and their community.
At Makanda Trading Co, I bought two pendants (no chains), one a fossilized stone and one a deep raspberry with blue veins.
We drove to Giant City State Park Lodge and enjoyed a lunch of Chicken and Dumplings (they were heavy spaetzle-like dumplings). We shared corn fritters and Steph ordered a dill pickle soup (strange!) and a patty melt with onions and Swiss cheese.
After lunch, we returned to Carbondale and stopped in the Target. Later, after relaxing a bit, we went out for our traditional sushi, Sapporo and hot sake at Fujiyama Restaurant. I had a Dragon Roll: shrimp tempura, cucumbers topped with avocado. Steph had a Pink Lady Roll: spicy crab, cream cheese, avocado, and cucumber topped with crunchies wrapped in pink soy paper.
We talked a long time with the sushi chef, a young pony-tailed guy from Indonesia. Steph told him all about the chickens she’d had when she lived in Los Angeles. She talked about her birds and animals and how she doesn’t travel much because of them. He talked about going to West Virginia and enjoying taking pictures of the fall leaves.
I told him about my brief afternoon in Indonesia while I was doing a study abroad in Singapore. We talked about Japanese culture and the language and I told him of the immature students I had when I taught at university there. He was quite engaged in our conversation. I guess it helped that we were the only customers at the sushi bar.
We watched an episode of Gentleman Jack, which I’d never heard of or seen, when we returned home.
Wednesday, October 2: We walked Babe with Steph’s 81-year-old neighbor and friend Carolyn. In the afternoon, we went to lunch at one of our favorite places, Longbranch Cafe and Bakery. I had an extra-large orange juice, and Huevos Green: Two corn tortillas topped with two eggs (fried), black beans, cheddar cheese, sour cream, salsa, crushed red pepper and fresh cilantro. I added sauteed spinach for a dollar.
I did a little shopping at a new shop I’d discovered early on in my trip, maurices. I bought a number of things there, especially a bunch of flannel shirts for the cooler weather.
We went to AMC Theatres to watch Downton Abbey. We had reclining theater seats that were roomy and comfortable.
We had a beer back at Steph’s house and then went to the Global Gourmet in Carbondale, where I had another chat (like I had in February) with world traveler Andrea.
We had Moscow mules and shared a variety of small dishes:
- Cajun crab cakes topped with remoulade & scallions
- Smoked salmon on pea-scallion pancakes with red onion, dill sauce, capers, lemon, and fresh dill
- Mushrooms sauteed in butter with garlic, herbs and red wine served with a baguette
- Brie topped with bacon and onions.
For dessert, I had a warm pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream.
My sister and I really love to eat!!
Back at her house, we watched Gentleman Jack again.
The next morning, I would do the next leg of my trip home: Murphysboro to Greeneville, Tennesssee.
*From Topeka to Murphysboro & around: 470.4 miles*
*Monday, September 29 to Wednesday, October 2, 2019*