Among the Civil War’s leading generals, Ulysses S. Grant probably was the calmest in battle, the most inner-directed, and the most capable of keeping the big picture in mind. Making all that possible were his secret weapons: his wife, Julia, and their four children.
All soldiers drew strength from the support of their families. Over the course of the war, caring wives and sweethearts would mean more to men’s morale than almost anything else. Anyone reading soldiers’ mail from long ago is struck by how the men constantly begged for letters from home. To them, the letters signified how much they were cared for and how a “normal” world still existed, away from the battlefield. And that could make all the difference to being a dedicated soldier. Civil War literature has not paid enough attention to the crucial role of ordinary women in supporting the troops.
For Grant, Julia and the children provided a snug harbor of normalcy, an anchor that helped him weather the terrible demands of war. During their courtship, he wrote Julia from New Orleans, “You can have but little idea of the influence you have over me, Julia…” That didn’t mean Mrs. Grant ever had a voice in her husband’s strategic thinking. The practice of war was strictly his, and she was no “co-commander.” Instead, Grant drew moral strength from Julia and the children. They formed the emotional foundation on which Grant built his extraordinary wartime achievements.
The unpretentious Grant usually dressed in an ordinary soldier’s uniform with only a general’s shoulder boards added, but, whenever it was safe to do so, he would exercise one privilege of rank: he would bring his family to live with him at headquarters. Julia Dent Grant was a strong, stocky woman with a muscle weakness that kept her eyes from aligning with each other, causing her to require photographers to take her image only in profile. She wasn’t a classic beauty, but her bubbly personality and self-confidence gave Grant a firm base that sustained him through the trials and tribulations of war.
In the field and away from her, Grant wrote Julia on almost a daily basis. When he established headquarters at Cairo, Illinois, he began urging Julia to leave Galena, bring the children, and join him. After “much timidity,” Julia finally did, arriving in Cairo by train the day after the battle of Belmont. Cairo did not present an appealing prospect. She found the Mississippi River “high and angry” and Cairo itself “desolate.”
The Grant family had rooms in the general’s headquarters building. The building was Spartan, resembling a “great barracks,” Julia would recall later. But, with effort, she and the children managed to be comfortable, and the personable Julia quickly made friends. The Grant family found occasional diversion in the general’s reviews of his troops, at which the band would play “Hail to the Chief.” Several times Mrs. Grant ventured short distances down the Mississippi River on flag-of-truce boats.
In Cairo, danger lurked over the horizon and the living was hardly plush, but “Ulys”—Julia’s pet name for husband—and his family were together. That mattered a lot, and not just to one man’s state of mind.
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