Friday, August 24, 2018

Letters from Matamoros

Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885)
From My Dearest Julia: The Wartime Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to His Wife

Steel engraving by Scottish American artist Alexander Hay Ritchie (1822–1895), based on a daguerreotype of brevet second lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant in 1843. From A Personal History of Ulysses S. Grant by Albert Deane Richardson, 1885. Daguerreotype of Julia Dent Grant, c. 1855–61. Courtesy of National First Ladies’ Library.
In the January and February 1909 issues of Circle and Success Magazine, Emma Dent Casey published a charming memoir, in which she recalled a meeting sixty-six years earlier at the White Haven plantation near St. Louis:
I was a very little girl when General Grant first came to our house; in fact, I was not yet seven years old. It was I whom he first met, and in years after when my sister Julia had become his wife it used to be my teasing boast that I knew him best because I had known him longest.
Months before little Emma met her future brother-in-law, twenty-one-year-old Ulysses S. Grant had been promoted to brevet second lieutenant after graduating from West Point, where Emma and Julia’s brother, Fred Dent, was his roommate. When Grant was ordered to report to Jefferson Barracks outside of St. Louis in the fall of 1843, Fred suggested a visit to White Haven. As it happened, seventeen-year-old Julia, the eldest daughter, was not home for that first visit, nor were any of her four brothers, “so the burden of entertaining Fred’s friend fell upon my parents and sister Nelly [Ellen],” who was fifteen at the time.

Grant continued to make visits to the family over the winter, and in early 1844 he finally met Julia. By the summer he had proposed, and she had accepted—although the couple kept their engagement a secret from her family. The following April, while he was stationed outside Natchitoches, Louisiana, he requested leave, traveled to St. Louis, and surprised the Dent family by showing up at their door. Grant sought an audience with Julia’s father, Colonel Frederick Dent, and in her memoir Emma repeats the story that became family lore:
“Mr. Dent,” he said, “I want to marry your daughter, Miss Julia.” . . .
“Mr. Grant,” my father spoke at last, “if it were Nelly you wanted, now, I’d say, ‘Yes.’”
“But I don’t want Nelly.” said the soldier bluntly. “I want Julia.”
Colonel Dent opposed Julia’s marrying an officer; her past health issues had convinced him that she would never be able to withstand the rigors of army life. But, according to Emma, “When Julia wanted a thing of my father she usually got it.” The couple agreed, however, to hold off for a year or two, as things were heating up along the Mexican border.

On March 1, 1845, Congress voted to annex Texas; on July 4, Texas voted for annexation; on December 29, Texas was admitted to the Union as a state. These events increased tensions with Mexico. “The flashpoint of controversy,” write Ron Chernow in his recent biography of Grant, “was whether the Nueces River formed the southern border of Texas, as Mexico believed, or the Rio Grande, 130 miles farther south, as the Polk administration insisted.” Grant’s regiment was already encamped in the disputed territory when Mexico declared war on April 24, 1846.

Throughout the conflict, Lieutenant Grant wrote letters to his fiancée. In July, during a lull in the hostilities (between the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma in May and the Battle of Monterrey in September), he sent two letters from the Mexican city of Matamoros (which Grant spells Matamoras). Strategically located on the southern bank of the Rio Grande below the southernmost tip of Texas, the city had been captured and occupied by American forces in mid-May. These two letters, which show a side of Grant unfamiliar to most readers, have been included in a new collection, My Dearest Julia: The Wartime Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to His Wife, and we present them here as our Story of the Week selection.

Note: A bracketed space [ ] is used to indicate where words are missing or illegible as a result of damage to the manuscript of the letter.

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