Monday, May 5, 2014

The Many Adventures of Julia Grant

  One of the funny things about reading through the first ladies in chronological order is the overlap of history that I get to read. Because each biography contains the person's whole life I read the same time period in history over and over again. This is the seventh time I have read through the Civil War, and I will read through it again a couple more times. However, Varina Davis and Julia Grant's life are the pinnacle of the Civil War. Both ladies led action-packed lives but Julia Grant's life was much happier mostly due to a marriage of two people in partnership which is something Varina Davis longed for but never got. Julia Grant was also able to bear up under criticism which again may partially be due to her partnership in marriage but also because Julia had had so much practice dealing with criticism. Julia was also always ready for the next adventure.  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall and hear what these two ladies talked about when they befriended each other later in their lives when they were widows living in New York.  I like to picture Varina saying "Oh, Julia, you are so blessed to have had such a loving, attentive husband. That is what I longed for but it was not to be."

When Ulysses' Grant first came around Julia's family's place it was to visit her brother, a West Point classmate. Ulysses was scrawny and according the Julia's father wouldn't amount to anything. However, Julia and her mother saw something special in him. They thought he would become a great man. Julia's father would not be persuaded and he left the two young people hanging for years before he would give consent to be married. Julia was apparently her father's favorite and she knew how to deal with his critical tongue and how to whittle him down to get what she wanted. Dealing with criticism is something she had to deal with her whole life and I believe this early practice was beneficial to her in preparing her for the public. After Ulysses had been gone fighting for many years away from his wife he just couldn't stand being apart anymore.He retired from military service and farmed including clearing his land and hauling the wood to town to sell. Many men looked down on the Grants at their farming and place in life. They were very poor, but very happy! Again, they pressed on against criticism for what they wanted. When Ulysses rejoined the military, and worked his way up to General there was even more criticism this time in the public realm in the media. His time in the White House is of course surrounded by critics. Even after Ulysses' death Julia continued to fight criticism. For example, Dr. Douglas who nursed Ulysses in his last months later ended up in a charity hospital. There was lots of media criticism of Julia. How could she let this dear doctor go to a charity hospital? Why didn't she pay for his care? (Side note: There was a brief mention of Dr. Douglas's wife setting up a boarding house in Bethlehem, PA, which is close to my home. I've got the South Bethlehem Historical Society on the case tracking down the house.)

Although the criticism effected Julia and she paid attention to what her family, her neighbors, and later the media were saying, the criticism never paralyzed her or utterly defeated her like it did to some other first ladies. This may be due to the fact that she was used to it. And she and Ulysses supported each other. They seemed like they were best friends who confided in each other and supported each other. That kind of support and intimacy in your marriage can outweigh the naysayers outside your home.

Julia Grant

The other thing that struck me about Julia Grant was her love of adventure! When she and Ulysses were first courting they loved to ride horses together through the woods of her family's property. They even happened upon an injured slave on one of their rides and jumped right into the role of first responder caring for the slave and even visiting him later to see that he was healing well. When Ulysses' fought in the Civil War, Julia stayed with him in the army camps as much as she could. 

Most adventurous of all was the Grant's world tour after their two terms in the White House. Other presidents had certainly visited Europe before, but this was much more. After Europe they visited Egypt, Middle East, India, China, Japan, and were thinking about visiting Australia but decided against it and went to California slowly making their way back east. They were gone for two years and were treated like royalty with big parties and receptions wherever they went. The American press closely followed their trip. No one had done anything quite like this before and they loved it all! Julia had a love for new experiences and adventure which I admire. Again, her happy marriage made this adventure possible and pleasant. If you didn't enjoy the company of your spouse there is no way you would want to travel around the world for two years limited to only his company.

The biography I read of Julia was The General's Wife by Ishbel Ross. The book accurately told the story of their lives but lacked historical reflection on Julia's significance as a First Lady. As the title suggests, the author mostly concentrated on Julia as a military wife, although even that lacked historical reflection. The most compelling biographies  give a complete look at the whole person, flaws and all. This book simply told the story. 

1 comment:

  1. Now that is a First Lady I can identify with!! Love her adventurous personality! Thank you for sharing!