Ulysses Grant was a warrior, but Julia Grant was the Civil War’s road warrior. Beginning with that first journey, she covered more than 10,000 miles in four years – and nearly 4,000 in just the first year – to be with her husband. Even those numbers understate the effort required to travel at the mercy of unreliable trains, ferries and carriages, in bad weather, and over bad roads, sometimes in enemy country. On a very good day, Julia might have covered 50 miles.
With that optimistic calculation in mind, Julia spent at least 80 days on roads, rails and rivers between October 1861 and December 1862. Such travel exposed her and those with her to the same risks faced by her husband and his soldiers – disease, death and capture.
She couldn’t have managed without her slave. Though the slave’s real name was Julia, she was often called Jule or Black Julia. In Julia Grant’s memoirs, she described Jule as “my nurse and maid, a slave born in my old Missouri home.” Home was a plantation near St. Louis, called White Haven, where her father, Frederick Dent, and more than a dozen slaves lived a life more commonly associated with the Deep South. Jule was a small, “ginger colored” woman, according to one recollection.
Probably relating family lore, Julia’s biographer wrote that Dent gave the slave girl as a gift to his beloved first daughter when Julia Dent was born in 1826, but no records have been found. It is not clear if Jule ever legally belonged to Julia; historians still debate whether Dent retained legal title to the four slaves his daughter claimed to own. We know Dent influenced the Grants’ use of slaves. It was through Dent that Grant acquired a slave (whom Grant later freed), and Dent insisted that Julia leave her slaves with him when the Grants lived in the North, fearing they would escape to freedom.
When Julia and Ulysses Grant moved to Galena in 1859, Jule and the three other slaves remained with Dent in St. Louis, while Julia struggled to teach white servants to clean, care and cook like her slaves. Julia much preferred the familiar ease of Jule’s service, though. It is likely that in November 1861, when Julia traveled with her children from Galena to St. Louis and then to Cairo, she convinced her father and husband to allow her to take Jule with her.
Grant understood his tiny, cross-eyed wife’s need for familiar, reliable help to deal with unfamiliar military camp conditions and frequent moves, often with their four children in tow. As the price of having Julia with him, Grant tolerated Jule’s presence, though the slave’s arrival at his headquarters was surely an embarrassment. Almost immediately, one of Grant’s detractors tried to brandish Jule as a weapon against him. In January 1862, Abraham Lincoln received an anonymous letter from Cairo, decrying Grant’s drinking and his “secesh” wife with her slave, “as is the case now in camp here.” Though the president sought information from Grant’s congressman and sponsor, Elihu Washburne, Lincoln ultimately did nothing about the charges; perhaps his own wife’s alleged “secesh” tendencies sparked empathy for the young brigadier.
When Grant left Cairo in early February for Fort Henry, in Tennessee, he urged Julia to take her children and live with his parents in Kentucky. Several months later, after the Battle of Shiloh, he sent for her to join him in Memphis, and she followed when he moved his headquarters to Corinth, Miss. Julia, Jule and 4-year-old Jesse Grant then lived with the general in LaGrange, Tenn., before the trio pushed south to Holly Springs, Miss., in late November, courtesy of a pass that Grant issued for “Mrs. Grant servant & child.”
“When I visited the General during the war, I nearly always had Julia with me as nurse,” Julia recalled in her memoirs. “She came near being captured at Holly Springs.” Grant’s troops had seized Holly Springs only a few weeks earlier, and when Julia arrived, the sight of the Federal general’s wife with her slave provoked questions about her devotion to the Union cause. A Confederate woman who encountered Julia in a dressmaker’s shop asked, “You are Southern, aren’t you?” Julia replied, “No, I am from the West. Missouri is my native state.” The Mississippi matron persisted, “Yes, we know, but Missouri is a Southern state. Surely, you are Southern in feeling and principle.” Indignantly, Julia declared, “No, indeed, I am the most loyal of the loyal.”