[pg. 27] WHEN GRANT WENT A-COURTIN’ *** One of the least known of all articles written about Grant is also one of the most interesting. So far as is known, it represents the only effort of a member of the Dent family to write about Grant. “When Grant Went a-Courtin'” by Emma Dent Casey, Grant’s sister-in-law, appeared in two installments in successive Issues (January and February, 1909) of The Circle, a short-lived family monthly magazine of the early twentieth century. When the magazine failed, all memory of the article seemed to vanish with it.
Emily Marbury Dent, invariably called Emma, was the youngest of eight children born to Colonel Frederick Dent and Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent. Throughout her life she shared with her oldest sister, Julia, later Mrs. U. S. Grant, a marked vivacity and a keen sense of humor. At the age of seventy-two she set out to recall incidents dating back as far as sixty-five years. Where her facts can be checked, they prove accurate, showing that she was a careful observer and had cherished memories of her brother-in-law over the years.
The first installment of Emma Dent Casey’s recollections appear below in the form used by The Circle. The second half of the article will appear in our next Newsletter.
EMMA DENT CASEY
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. All this was a long time ago, a very long time ago, as I look back upon all that has happened since. For I was only seven then; now I am two and seventy. We lived at White Haven then, the place where I met General Grant, and where he met my sister and courted her, add where they afterward lived at different times.The farm of White Haven was even prettier than its name, for the pebbly, shining Graviose [Gravois] ran right through it, and there were beautiful groves growing all over it, add acres upon acres of grassy meadows where the cows used to stand knee-deep in blue grass and clover. We lived at St. Louis in the winters, but we always spent the summers at White Haven. It was a fine farm of some twelve hundred acres, which my father, Frederick Dent, had bought soon after he moved from Pittsburg to Missouri. It was about twelve miles from St. Louis and something like five or six miles from Jefferson Barracks.
The house we lived in stood in the center of a long sweep of wooded valley and the creek ran through the trees not far below it. The house itself was a pleasant, rambling old place, painted white and with big double porches running the full length of the front. There was a great stone chimney at each end, and these, as well as the porches, were covered with clambering honeysuckles and other vines. Through the grove of locust trees a walk led from the low porch steps to an old-fashioned turnstile gate, about fifty yards from the house. Some little distance behind the house were the stables and pens for the stock, and flanking these on either side were the eighteen cabins where our slave people lived. It was just a sweet, old-fashioned, “down South befo’ de wah” sort of place where my father was proud to dispense real old-time Southern hospitality.
My father had taken many of the notions of the Southern planter to Missouri with him. He was a Marylander by birth and the first white male child born in the town of Cumberland. He had lived in Pennsylvania for a while and married my mother there. He moved to Missouri and prospered. White Haven was bought for a summer residence and here all his children, save John and Julia, came into the world.
The Old Home Before the War
There were eight of us children–four boys and four girls. John, the oldest, was followed by George Wrenshall, Fred (afterward General Dent), and Louis. Julia (Mrs. Grant) came next, in 1826, then Nellie, in 1828, then Mary, in 1830, and it was my fate to arrive some six years later–the last to come and the last to go away, for all the others are dead.My father was at this time a white-haired man, smooth-shaven, and, [pg. 29] like all the Dents, rather under medium size. He usually dressed in the sober black long-coat, dark trousers, and high stock habitually affected by gentlemen of the period, He was a man little given to talking, much preferring to sit in a big rocking-chair on the front porch with a newspaper in his hand and a long reed-stemmed or churchwarden pipe in his mouth. He was a Democrat of the old school, an ardent Southerner, and, though opposed to secession, he was later called a “rebel.” He owned slaves up to the very day of the Emancipation Act, and though the time came when he, naturally, called himself a “Grant” man, he remained loyal to the principles of Democracy, as he conceived them, until the day of his death–which took place in the White House during General Grant’s second administration.
I may say here that my own views always agreed with my father’s in politics, and in these we were divided from the rest of the family. He was always very fond of saying during the war the “Enmy and I are the only rebels in the house.”
My mother was a Miss Ellen Wrenshall before her marriage, and both her parents were of English birth. She was a small, slender woman with rather serious gray eyes, a smiling mouth, and a gentle voice. I remember that she wore snowy caps and dainty kerchiefs on her head, as I have occasionally seen very old-fashioned old ladies do since.
I was nearing my seventh birthday, that bright spring afternoon in 1843 when, with my four little darky playmates, Henrietta, Sue, Ann, and Jeff, I went out hunting for birds’ nests. They were my slaves as well as my chums, for father had given them to me at birth, and as we were all of about an age, we used to have some good times together. This day, I remember, we were out in front of the turnstile and I had my arms full of birds’ nests and was clutching a tiny unfledged birdling in one hand when a young stranger rode blithely up to the stile.
“How do you do, little girl!” he called out to me. “How do you do! Does Mr. Dent live here?”
I was very much embarrassed. Every feminine mind will know how I felt to be caught like that. Besides, I thought him the handsomest person I had ever seen in my life, this strange young man. He was riding a splendid horse, and, oh, he sat it so gracefully! The whole picture of him and his sleek, prancing steed was so good to look upon that I could do nothing but stare at it–so forgetting the poor little crying thing in my hand that I nearly crushed it to death. Of course, I knew he was a soldier from the barracks, because he had on a beautiful blue suit with gold buttons down the front, but he looked too young to be an officer. I stood staring at him, and he sat his horse, smiling at me until he said again:
“Come, little girl. Can’t you answer me? Is this Mr. Dent’s house?”
By this time Jeff was standing on his head and cracking his bare, black ankles together, in a modest effort to “show off,” while the other little pickaninnies were capering about and shyly giggling, as if to urge me to some new mischief. But I said at last, “Yes, sir,” and let my arms drop and the little bird and the treasured nests all went tumbling down on the ground. The young stranger laughed pleasantly and got off his horse.
We children followed him up to the porch; trailing in his wake and [pg. 30] close to his feet like a troop of little black-and-tan puppies. On the way he asked me several questions, which I do not now remember, and which I don’t think I answered at, all. At the porch we heard him introduce himself to my father as Lieutenant Grant. Then my mother and my sister Nellie came out to meet him, and my mother sent us children scampering off to our play again. But the charms of, the wild were deadened to me for the time. I came back to sit on the steps of the porch and gaze, round-eyed and silent, into the handsome face of the stranger.
The young soldier explained the cause of his visit. He had been, he said, the roommate and classmate of my brother Fred (afterward General Dent) at West Point, and when he had been ordered from the Academy, to Jefferson Barracks, Fred had made him promise to call on us. My father and mother made him welcome and he spent the afternoon with us.
The Lieutenant Captivates Little “Emmy”
That was our first introduction to Lieutenant Grant. Julia was not at home upon this occasion. She had been spending the winter with a friend in St. Louis, and had not yet returned. My brothers were not at White Haven that day, either, and so the burden of entertaining Fred’s friend fell upon my parents and sister Nellie. Nellie, in the absence of Julia, was, of course, the “young lady” of the house, and no one could play the part better than that self-confident young miss of fifteen years. My own contribution toward the entertainment of the stranger was one continuous stare up at his face.But no one ought to have been blamed for staring at him. At that time Lieutenant Grant’s personal appearance was very attractive. He was very youthful looking, even for his age, which was just twenty-one. His cheeks were round and plump and rosy; his hair was fine and brown, very thick and wavy. His eyes were a clear blue, and always full of light. His features were regular, pleasingly molded and attractive, and his figure so slender, well-formed, and graceful that it was like that of a young prince to my eye. Indeed, I know that many persons who only knew General Grant after he had become famous did not think him handsome, but I can assure them that when he rode up to White Haven that bright day in the early spring of 1843 he was as pretty as a doll. At any rate, he enchanted me. He was my first sweetheart.
Having found the road to our house, Lieutenant Grant seemed to find it pleasant to ride out that way frequently. He came perhaps twice a week during the next two months and generally stayed through the afternoon and sometimes to supper. We all liked him, particularly the feminine part of the family, and sister Nellie and I began to wrangle as to which one of us should “have” him.
That was lots of fun for Nellie, who was a great tease, but I am afraid it sometimes taxed my childish jealousy to the limit. Sister Julia was still in St. Louis, and so the Lieutenant and I had some great romps together. He always called me his little girl, and many a delightful ride I’ve had on his shoulder. I remember that he used to kiss me occasionally, and that I resented it as being “too big a girl” for such things.
But I do not think my resentment against Lieutenant Grant ever lasted very long, for everywhere he went about the place I and my small [pg. 31] train of raggedy little darkies tagged after him. Sometimes, when he could not get rid of us any other way, he and Nellie used to get the horses and go out for short horseback rides. It was their only means of escape from the sharp eyes of me and my small cohort of “black perils.”
Sister Julia Arrives Upon the Scene
Then Sister Julia came home. She had already heard of the Lieutenant through the letters of my mother, who liked him very much. Quite to the contrary of the usual course under such circumstances, Julia appeared to like the young soldier, also, from the first moment they met. As for Lieutenant Grant–I have heard him say since that with him it was a case of love at first sight. His attentions certainly seemed to indicate it. He also told me once, when he was in the White House, that he had never had but the one love affair, but the one sweetheart in his life. Not even the boyish amours that usually precede a young man’s real passion had ever been his. His wife was the “lady of his dreams,” the heroine of his one romance.At the time Lieutenant Grant met her, sister Julia was as dainty a little creature as one would care to see. She was not exactly a beauty, a slight defect of one of her eyes marring the harmony of her features, but she was possessed of a lively and pleasing countenance. Aside from this cast in her eye she was very prettily made, indeed, and was considered to have an exquisite figure. She was plump, but neither tall nor stout, and she had the slimmest, prettiest foot and hand I have ever seen on any woman, while her arms were beautifully rounded. Her hair and eyes were brown, and she had a rosy complexion that would be the envy of most girls of to-day.
The defect in Julia’s eye was due to an accident in babyhood, and it never appeared to detract from her charms in the least. Indeed, it was in General Grant’s eyes an added grace, for he would never allow it to be remedied, although the very simplest use of the surgeon’s knife would have removed it. I remember upon one occasion, during their residence at the White House, in the General’s first term, Mrs. Grant determined to have the operation performed. She had never been able to quite believe the General when he had said, that he loved her more with the cast than be would without it, because she had had it when he courted her. So she determined to have it remedied and surprise him. Every precaution to keep any knowledge of the operation from “Dudy”–the name by which Mrs. Grant always called her husband–was taken. A specialist was summoned to the White House in secret and one of the children’s bedrooms improvised into an operating-room for the time being. But at the very moment when Julia was in the act of submitting to the knife, through some unforeseen cause, the General unexpectedly entered the room. He took in the situation at a glance and immediately showed–that rarest of emotions with him–positive annoyance.
“Now, Julia,” he said, “I don’t want you to do that. Your eye was that way when I married you and it’s got to stay that way. You’re pretty enough to suit me just as you are.”
And he ordered the surgeon away. My sister carried that defect with her to her death.
But, to get back to their first acquaintance, the visits of the [pg. 32] young army officer to our house became even more frequent after Julia came home. He rode over from the barracks perhaps as often as four times a week and was always pressed to stay to supper by my hospitable mother. He never seemed to require too much pressing, however; it did not take Nell and myself long to see that we were no more the attractions at White Haven for Lieutenant Grant. He showed a very quiet but marked preference for Julia’s company, which only she pretended not to notice. There was nothing of the “gushy” in his attentions to her, however. In fact, Julia was not the sort of girl to encourage that kind of thing, and what with four teasing brothers and two younger sisters on hand constantly, life would have been made something of a burden for her if she had. Their couduct toward each other was always frank and unaffected; in fact, their whole manner toward each other was that of a boy and a girl who are friends and not ashamed to show their liking for each other. There was little of the sentimental about either of them.
My mother, especially, was very much pleased with the young soldier. She had grown to be very fond of him even before this, because of the simplicity of demeanor and unconsciousness of self which always distinguished him. She greatly enjoyed hearing him discuss politics with my father, and I think the rare common sense he displayed, his quiet, even tones, free from gestures and without affectation, especially attracted her. On many and many an occasion, after he had ridden away, I have heard her say:
“That young man will be heard from some day. He has a good deal in him. He will make his mark.”
There were some merry days along the Graviose then, with sister Julia at home and the Lieutenant riding over from the barracks about every other day. He and she frequently went fishing along the shady banks of the creek, and many a fine mess of perch I’ve seen them catch together. Sometimes my brothers and Nellie and their friends would go with them, and we would have quite a fishing-party. More often my full train of little darkies, with my small self acting as engine and pilot, would tag after them, insisting upon carrying the bait or catching the “hoppergrasses” used to entice catfish to the hook, or even upon doing part of the angling ourselves. Generally they did not appear to mind us much, but sometimes the lover and the lady would “give us the slip” and gallop away on horseback–after having lured us further down stream, to look for a finer fishing-hole. I would be quite disconsolate at first, upon discovering such perfidy, and would frequently go into perfect tantrums of anger at being so imposed upon. But when they returned, the Lieutenant could generally tease or coax me out of my temper–though I sometimes gave him back the “sass” which white youngsters who play with colored children so easily pick up, before I surrendered.
One instance of my “sass,” at about this time, I remember, which he took occasion to recall to me a good many years later at a dinner in the White House. He had not been paying attention to Julia very long at this time, and she had gone away from home again for a short visit. I was going to school in a little log schoolhouse about half a mile distant, and I always rode a little pony which Billy, the black boy, led all the way. He was my pony, and I was very jealous of letting my sisters ride him. On this particular morning Lieutenant Grant, who had spent the night at our house, came out into the yard as Billy brought up my horse, [pg. 33] and said that he would ride to school with me. Sister Nelly heard what he said, and as it was a very fine morning for a gallop, she said:
“Why, Emmy, I believe I’ll go too. Then Billy needn’t go with us. I’ll ride your pony and you can get up behind me.”
“Indeed, I’ll not,” I said. “You shan’t ride my pony with me on behind. He’s my pony. I won’t do it.”
Nelly was annoyed, but the Lieutenant laughed.
“Oh, well, then, Emmy,” he cried, leaning down at me from his saddle, “you may ride with me. How would you like that? Come, you shall sit up here on my lap.”
“No, I will not,” I said. “I won’t ride on your lap, either.” I was quite as indignant as any miss of seven years could have been. The soldier was vastly amused, but he stopped teasing and began to try coaxing.
“All right, Emmy. But I’d ride in your lap if I could. Will you ride behind me, then if you won’t ride behind Miss Nelly?”
When a Little Girl Was Saucy Long Ago
After a little more cajolery I yielded to this plan. He reached down his hand, I put my foot on his stirrup, and he swung me up behind him. Very gingerly, and only after a little persuasion, I put my arms around his waist to hold on, and away we went.As we emerged from the woods and went slowly down the hill into the valley my gallant Sir Knight glanced toward the schoolhouse and saw all the youngsters inside with their noses pressed flat against the window panes. School had “taken up,” and its small denizens were studying us with more zeal than ever they gave to their books. Lieutenant Grant’s eyes twinkled as he turned and said over his shoulder, with an odd gravity in his voice:
“They’re looking at us, Emmy. They’re saying, ‘Look at Emmy Dent! She’s got her sweetheart with her.'”
Nothing could have ruffled more my small dignity.
“No, you’re not my sweetheart, you old black nigger fool,” I cried. “More like sister Nell’s beau, you mean.”
The Lieutenant flushed to the roots of his hair. And Nelly blushed as furiously as the poor lieutenant.
“Hush, Emmy, hush!” she cried, very red.
Long years afterward, when White Haven was only a memory to all of us, General Grant proved that he still remembered those early days by twitting me with this incident during a dinner at the White House. There was a distinguished company present, and I had just paid him one of my prettiest compliments, when he called the attention of the whole assembly to me:
“You have heard what Mrs. Casey has just said,” he cried, with his eye merrily twinkling. “Can you believe that this same person once called me ‘an old black nigger fool?'”
Then, to my great confusion and amid the laughter of the guests, he very solemnly related the whole circumstance almost as I have done here.
Not long after this Julia came home again, and Lieutenant Grant quite naturally resumed his courtship. And now that my other sister’s eyes and mine were opened to the true state of affairs we resigned our [pg. 34] aspirations and became “just children” again. It did not interfere in the least with our good times, and I like to think that we did not interfere too much in the good times of–what I might now call, perhaps, the enamored couple. The soldier did most of his courting on horseback. My sister was an enthusiastic rider and a good one as well, and she had a splendid Kentucky mare, which she named Missouri Belle, and which was as fleet as a doe. Lieutenant Grant was one of the best horsemen I ever saw, and he rode a fine blooded animal he had brought from Ohio. Many a sharp race they used to have together in the fine mornings before breakfast or through the sunset and twilight after supper.
NEWS NOTES *** The Ulysses S. Grant Association has received a grant of $10,000 from the National Historical Publications Commission for the coming fiscal year. *** At a recent Grant Association board meeting, Philip D. Sang, Chicago industrialist and manuscript collector, was elected a director to replace the late Newton C. Farr. *** An original crayon portrait of Colonel Frederick Dent of St. Louis was presented to the Grant Association by Dent’s great-great-granddaughter, Mrs. Gordon Singles of Alexandria, Virginia. The portrait was done by a French officer in 1872 when Dent was living in the White House with his son-in-law, President Ulysses S. Grant. Following necessary reframing, it will be displayed in the American Heritage Room of Morris Library, Southern Illinois University. *** Mrs. Lawrence E. Oestreich of 411 Meeker Street, Galena, Illinois, is engaged in battle with the Jo Daviess County Housing Authority over its plans to make way for public housing by demolishing the building which once housed the Jesse R. Grant leather store. Ulysses S. Grant left this store in April, 1861, to volunteer for the Union. Mrs. Oestreich has been fighting a delaying action against condemnation of property she owns adjacent to the leather store with the hope that she can rally support to preserve the historic structure. She would like to hear from people willing to join her side.