Myths & Misunderstandings

Myths & Misunderstandings | Grant as a slaveholder

Myths and Misunderstandings

Did Ulysses S. Grant own slaves during the Civil War?

No, but it will come as a surprise to many people, that Grant did in fact own a man named William Jones for about a year on the eve of the Civil War. In 1859, Grant either bought or was given the 35-year-old Jones, who was in Grant’s service until he freed him before the start of the War.

While Grant’s views on slavery evolved over time, his relationship with slavery was complicated and demonstrates the pervasiveness of the institution in antebellum America. Grant’s father, Jesse, was firmly anti-slavery. However, his son’s attitudes toward slavery were more ambivalent, at least from what we can discern of his opinions before and during the Civil War. “I never was an abolitionist, Grant wrote to his friend and patron, Elihu Washburne, in 1863, “not even what could be called anti-slavery…” In fact, while at West Point, Grant seemed to gravitate toward southern cadets like his friend and future foe James Longstreet. He married Julia, the sister of his West Point roommate Frederick Dent.

Through the Dents, Grant began a long pre-war immersion in the milieu of slaveowning planters near St. Louis. Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, owned 30 enslaved people and had “given” Julia four enslaved people when she was a child: Eliza, Dan, Julia, and John. There is no evidence he legally transferred ownership to Julia but from her writings it is clear she considered them hers.

In 1854 Grant left the military and tried to make a go of it as a farmer on land adjacent to his father-in-law’s in St. Louis, Missouri. He worked alongside Frederick Dent’s enslaved laborers to build a house for his family that they dubbed “Hardscrabble,” and in the late 1850s Grant managed his own property and Frederick Dent’s White Haven farm. 

Finding farming less lucrative than he’d hoped, Grant asked his father for a loan. Jesse Grant reportedly replied, “Ulysses, when you are ready to come North I will give you a start, but so long as you make your home among a tribe of slave-owners I will do nothing.”

After the death of Julia’s mother, the Grant family left “Hardscrabble” and moved to her father’s farm, “White Haven,” which Grant managed from 1854-1859. Novelist Hamlin Garland, an early biographer who spoke with Grant’s Missouri neighbors, wrote,

“The use of slaves on the farm…was a source of irritation and shame to Grant. Jefferson Sapington told me that he and Grant used to work in the fields with the blacks. He said with glee, ‘Grant was helpless when it came to making slaves work,’ and Mrs. Boggs corroborated this. ‘He was no hand to manage negroes,’she said. ‘He couldn’t force them to do anything. He wouldn’t whip them. He was too gentle and good tempered and besides he was not a slavery man.’”

Whether or not Grant wasn’t a “slavery man” by inclination, we know he briefly owned William Jones. He does not mention Jones in his memoirs or other writings, so the exact nature of their relationship remains a mystery. We do know that in March 1859 Grant filed the following manumission document.

“I Ulysses S Grant of the City and County of St. Louis in the State of Missouri, for diverse good and valuable considerations me hereunto moving, do hereby emancipate and set free from Slavery my negro man William, sometimes called William Jones(Jones)of Mullatto complexion, aged about thirty-five years, and about five feet seven inches in height and being the same slave purchased by me of Frederick Dent-And I do hereby manumit, emancipate & set free said William from slavery forever.”

It is notable that Grant did not sell or work out a plan with Jones to purchase his freedom, but simply freed him.

Right after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Grant wrote to his father-in-law, “In all this I can see but the doom of slavery. The North do not want, nor will they want, to interfere with the institution. But they will refuse for all time to give it protection unless the South shall return soon to their allegiance.” In this, Grant expressed the nominal policy views of Northern Democrats—to encourage secessionists to return to the Union by pledging to not make a way against slavery.

In these letters Grant expressed a similar opinion to the early stated war aims of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln wrote in 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

Yet Grant, like Lincoln, did not hold to those opinions. To his father he wrote, “My inclination is to whip the rebellion into submission, preserving all Constitutional rights. If it cannot be whipped any other way than through a war against slavery, let it come to that legitimately. If it is necessary that slavery should fall that the Republic may continue its existence, let slavery go.”

By 1863 both Grant and Lincoln had evolved on the issue. The letter where Grant denied being “what could be called antislavery” continued, “I try to judge fairly and honestly, and it became patent in my mind early in the rebellion that the North and South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without slavery. As anxious as I am to see peace established, I would not therefore be willing to see any settlement until the question is forever settled.”

When the Emancipation Proclamation allowed for the raising of black troops, Grant wrote President Lincoln, “by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weaken him in the same proportion they strengthen us.”

With that added strength and Grant in command of the Union Army the Civil War became a war of liberation for enslaved people. Julia Grant wrote that Frederick’s enslaved people who served in the Grant household in St. Louis, Eliza, Dan, Julia, and John were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but Missouri being a border state, the proclamation did not technically apply to them. They would have received their official freedom along with Frederick Dent’s other enslaved people on Jan 11, 1865 when the Missouri state legislature abolished slavery in its borders. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Julia Grant was still accompanied by her maid, also named Julia, though likely as a paid servant.

Grant may have been initially ambivalent to the institution of slavery but his wartime experiences showed him that it was morally and practically indefensible and that African Americans would not only make strong allies in defeating the Confederates, but respected citizens in the reunited nation to follow. As the 18th President of the reunited nation, he was an advocate and defender of the freedmen’s newly acquired rights, earning the admiration of Frederick Douglas, who believed, “To Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement.”

In his memoirs Grant wrote, “As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.” Grant likely would be disappointed that there are still Americans who deny that slavery was the cause of the Civil War and point to his and his in-laws’ use of enslaved labor as evidence. The proponents of the myth that Ulysses S. Grant owned slaves during the War do so to obscure the historical record that the overwhelming reason given by southerners for seceding from the Union was to protect the institution of slavery, an institution that had expanded beyond southern borders. That the United States initial war aim was to preserve the Union and only later became a war of liberation for enslaved people does not contradict that fact.

For further reading:

Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017)

Ulysses S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2017)

Nick Sacco, “Did Ulysses S. Grant Own Slaves During the Civil War?” Exploring the Past, June 29, 2015 (Accessed Nov. 21, 2017)

Nick Sacco, “’I Never Was an Abolitionist’: Ulysses S. Grant and Slavery, 1854-1863, Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 9, No. 3 (September 2019), 410-437. 

Brooks D. Simpson, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War & Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014)