Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
18th President of the United States, 1869-1877
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Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
White Haven

White Haven in winter
White Haven in winter
National Park Service

Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious Civil War general and 18th president of the United States, met his beloved wife, Julia Dent, at White Haven plantation in 1844.  He lived there with his growing family from 1854 to 1859 and hoped to spend a quiet retirement there when his military and political careers were over.  White Haven was the place that he and his family called home.  Grant, already famous throughout the North as the victorious hero of the Civil War, became president in 1869. Dedicated to ensuring that what had been won in war—freedom and union—would not be lost through politics, Grant faced numerous challenges as president. Successes in securing civil rights for African Americans and in foreign relations were overshadowed by scandals caused by several of his appointees who betrayed his and the nation’s trust. Even so, 12 years after his death, a grateful nation honored his patriotism and dedication by placing his body in the largest tomb in North America.

Born in 1822 in southern Ohio, Hiram Ulysses Grant worked with his farmer/tanner father during his youth and obtained his education at the local schools and nearby academies.  In 1839, he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.  A mistake in his appointment letter permanently changed his name to Ulysses S. Grant.  After his graduation in 1843, Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant moved to St. Louis, Missouri, assigned to Jefferson Barracks.  He soon paid a visit to his former roommate, Frederick Dent, at White Haven, the Dent family plantation.  There he met Fred's sister Julia, to whom he proposed in the spring of 1844, just before leaving for battle in the Mexican American War.

Ulysses and Julia Grant married four years later; their marriage, marked by love, trust, and respect, lasted 37 years.  The Army reassigned Grant often between 1848 and 1852.  His wife followed him when she could, but she could not accompany him to assignments on the West Coast.  Grant was frustrated in his career and lonely without his family, and rumors began to circulate that he was drinking too much.  He resigned from the Army in 1854 and returned to his family, living at White Haven.  The years the family were home at White Haven were difficult ones.  Grant tried his hand at farming, selling firewood, real estate, and bill collecting, all without success.  He also encountered within his own family some of the tensions that would soon split the country.  Grant grew up in the free State of Ohio, and his father was an outspoken opponent of slavery.  Julia was born on a plantation worked by 30 slaves.  Her father raised his children to believe that slavery was the proper relationship between whites and blacks.  The issue increasingly strained Grant's relationship with his father-in-law, leaving Julia caught in the middle.  In 1860, Grant moved his family to Galena, Illinois to work in a leather store owned by his family, but they continued to think of White Haven as home.

Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site barn
Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site barn
National Park Service

The main part of the frame of White Haven house dates to c. 1818.  A two-story porch runs along the front of the two-story main block.  On the interior, two front rooms are located on either side of a wide central hall.  The room to the right is said to be where Ulysses Grant proposed to Julia Dent.  The one story west wing contains another large room and the winter kitchen, with its large fireplace, is in the basement.  Decorative moldings ornament the doors and windows.

The coming of the Civil War was a tragedy for the nation, but an opportunity for Grant, whose strengths as a military leader became evident early in the war.  He rose quickly from commander of a company of Illinois volunteers to commanding general of the Union Army.  He succeeded through a remarkable combination of aggressiveness, incisiveness, strategic genius, and organizational skills. Grant's writings about his ride from Jefferson Barracks to White Haven to propose to Julia describes his military career equally well:  “One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go any where, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished.”  His first successes were in the Mississippi River Valley.  In March 1864, Lincoln put him in command of the entire Union Army.  He attacked the Confederate Army on all fronts.  In April 1865, Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, effectively ending the war.  The terms of surrender were humane and generous.

Grant won the title of General of the Army after the war and was extremely popular throughout the North.  Grateful citizens offered him homes and showered him with money.  Both parties considered him as their presidential nominee in 1868.  He remained neutral on most political issues, but when President Johnson tried to arrest General Lee for treason, contrary to the terms of Appomattox, Grant forced Johnson to back down.  This action aligned Grant with the radical Republicans and made him the logical Republican candidate for the 1868 election. 

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor, Va. 1864
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor, Va. 1864
Mathew Brady Collection
National Archives and Records Administration

A grateful nation, exhausted from war and political machinations between Congress and President Johnson, elected Grant president in November 1868, and reelected him by a wide margin four years later. Reconstruction remained at the forefront of domestic affairs, and Grant supported numerous efforts to ensure justice and equality under the law for African Americans. Passage of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing voting rights to African American males, as well as enforcing legislation to curb violence by white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan won him the support of many, including Frederick Douglas. Always adhering to the law, Grant was less successful as Northerners tired of the continued strife, and white Southerners were able to regain control of state governments and eventually overturn legislation that protected newly freed African Americans.

In foreign relations, Grant ensured peaceful arbitration between the United States and England over boundaries and war claims, when others, such as the powerful Senator Charles Sumner, threatened a new war. Grant’s actions earned him the enmity of Sumner, who later blocked Grant’s attempt to annex Santo Domingo.

Grant’s presidency could not avoid the greed and corruption that characterized the “Gilded Age.”  Many of the scandals had started much earlier, but became more excessive during Grant’s presidency, and included some of his Cabinet members and friends.  Grant himself was an honest man and supported all efforts to end abuses and bring criminals to justice, although his trust in several individuals reflected poorly on his judgment occasionally. The loose political and business morality of the period fueled the Panic of 1873, which led to a serious depression.

Acting to curb the abuses of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Grant implemented a new Indian Peace Policy. He replaced corrupt agents with religious organizations and chose a Seneca Indian, Ely Parker, as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position. In an effort to end patronage, he instituted Civil Service reform in the Executive Branch, but Congress failed to enact legislation that would make the reforms permanent after he left office. In the mid-term elections of 1874, the Democrats took control of the House for the first time in almost 20 years. Grant left office in March of 1877; six weeks later, he embarked on a worldwide tour that would last for over two years.

Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site Visitor Center
Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site Visitor Center
National Park Service

In 1864, Grant told a friend that he was “looking forward longingly to the time when we can end this war and I can settle down on my St. Louis farm and raise horses.”  He spent much of the next decade reassembling the White Haven property, which had been split up among Julia Grant and her siblings.  By 1866, he owned approximately 750 acres and was actively involved in decisions about managing the property.  As an absentee landlord while in the White House, however, he could not make the farm profitable and by 1874 was talking about putting it up for sale.  Eventually he gave up his plan to retire to White Haven, choosing instead to live in New York City where he and Julia could be closer to their children, but retained ownership of the property until shortly before his death in 1885.  Julia Grant wrote, “When I signed this last deed, it well-nigh broke my heart."

White Haven was a private residence for most of the 20th century but is now administered by the National Park Service. Completed in 2005, the Visitor Center offers a film about the historic site. In 2007, a new interpretive museum opened in the Grant-period stable.  The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site includes several historic structures in addition to the main house: a large horse stable built by Grant, a detached summer kitchen, an icehouse, and a chicken house--all restored to their 1875 appearance.  A walking trail surrounds the historic complex.

Plan your visit

Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, located at 7400 Grant Rd., St. Louis, MO. White Haven, is also a National Historic Landmark. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos, which includes interesting personal accounts of Grant’s time at White Haven.  The park is open daily, from 9:00am to 5:00pm. The site is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. Visits inside the Main House begin at 9:30am and are offered every half hour. The last visit to the Main House begins at 4:00pm.  For more information, visit the National Park Service Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site or call 314-842-3298.

White Haven has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey as well as several auxiliary buildings part of the historic site.

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