[pg. 17] REMINISCENCES OF GENERAL FREDERICK DENT GRANT *** General Frederick Dent Grant always regretted that he was unable to find time In his busy life to write a biography of his father. As the oldest of the four children of Ulysses S. Grant, born in 1850, Frederick Grant had memories stretching back farther than those of the other children, and was the only child to have been with his father in the field during the Civil War. In the last year of his father’s life Frederick had assisted in the writing of the Memoirs by checking statements of fact, and his concern for a factual record of his father’s life was shown by his preparation of an annotated edition of the Memoirs ten years after the appearance of the original edition.
Frederick Grant served four years as President Benjamin Harrison’s minister to Austria-Hungary, later for two years as police commissioner of New York City. When the Spanish-American War began he entered the volunteer service as a colonel and while in the Philippines was appointed a brigadier general in the regular army. He remained in the army until his death in 1912. His unanticipated return to the army upset any plans for a biography of his father.
Although Frederick Grant never found time for the biography of his father he hoped to write, he still created a significant body of materials for Grant research. He was frequently asked for speeches, articles, and interviews, and here he recorded memories of his father. In this newsletter some of Frederick Grant’s reminiscences of his father have been assembled. Others will follow in future issues.
I feel a delicacy in speaking of my father as he appeared to his family and to his intimate friends, and I may say at the beginning that I can throw no new light upon his character. In private and in public life he was a plain, dignified, undemonstrative man, with a quiet, self-controlled manner which never left him, shoving a consideration in all his actions and words towards others which I have never seen equalled. If I speak of him too warmly, it may be pardoned, for to me my father is a sacred character.In my recollections of him, which extend over an intimate intercourse of thirty-five years, there is no blur, no shadow. I had the happiness as a child and as a man of being his constant companion in peace and in war. The admiration which I felt as a boy for him only deepened and strengthened with increasing years. It must have been the same with all others who saw him and knew him as well as I did.
His First Recollections.
My first recollection of my father dates back to 1852, when I was a child two years old. The picture that comes before me is apparently distinct. I can see the crowds coming and going in the bustle of departure. I can hear the hissing of the steam as it escapes from the boat’s boiler. I am a little chap in my father’s arms, and he, a young officer, is saying good-by to my mother and to me. I can see the sorrowful faces of my parents as they are parting, he to go to far-away California with his regiment and my mother to take me first to his father’s home in Ohio, and later to the home of her father in St. Louis, Mo., there to await the time when her husband could send for his family to join him in California. It is just possible that I recall this scene because I have heard it described so often, but it seems to me a vivid memory. Alas, he never realized these hopes, for the expense of the journey and the cost of living in California were so great that the pay of a lieutenant did not enable him to maintain his family and save sufficient to defray their transportation to the Pacific coast. So, after two years of waiting and efforts on his part, his great desire to be with his family made further separation unbearable, and he resigned his commission in the army and returned home, preferring to take his chances in a civil career, where he could be with wife and children, for there were two of us now, my brother Ulysses having been born at Georgetown, O., a month or two after my father’s departure for the Pacific coast in 1852.I next remember seeing my father when he returned to my Grandfather Dent’s house, near St. Louis. That was in September, 1854. I was standing on the back porch of old White Haven when a man drew up near the back gate, in a buggy drawn by a white horse. One of the colored servants exclaimed, “La, there’s Mr. Grant!” In another moment my father sprang forward and took his two children in his arms.
Grant as a Farmer.
From 1854 on to the end of his life memories of my father crowd upon me. During the four years following his return from California we lived [pg. 19] upon my Grandfather Dent’s farm, occupying a pretty little English cottage known as Wish-ton-Wish. My father cultivated that portion of the old farm which my grandfather had given to my mother. He raised crops successfully, and spent his evenings with his family. I, being the eldest, was permitted to accompany him about the farm, and he began to teach me, at an early age, to ride and to swim. I can see myself now, a chubby little chap, sitting on the back of one of the farm horses and holding on for dear life, my father urging me to be brave. He would not tolerate timidity in his small boy, and a display of it meant an unhappy hour for him, and me also. To teach me to swim he would go into the water, place his hand under my breast or under my chin, and coax me to strike out, most patiently holding my nose and mouth above the water, and encouraging me in every way.My father was a strict disciplinarian with his children, although most kind and gentle, and always thoughtful of our happiness. While it became necessary on a few occasions to severely punish some of us, his usual method of correction was to show disapproval of our action by his manner and quiet words. This was far more effective with us than scoldings or whippings from others would have been. We all felt consternation and distress when he looked with disapproval upon what we had done.
His Relations with his Children.
I may mention here that the first lesson his children learned was that our father’s decision in any matter was absolutely final, and that the fulfillment of any promise he made was as certain as the coming of another day. Often on the days when he would go to the city he would promise his children that if they behaved well he would give them on his return candies or some little present. The promised articles were invariably brought home, and just as invariably were given to the children who had been good. The unfortunate youngster who had forgotten himself and had been mischievous during his absence received nothing except his disapproval. He was very careful about making a promise, but he never broke one after making it. No one in the world can say that my father led him to expect anything which was not forthcoming. A kindness rendered to my father was never forgotten, and was surely returned many fold by him when the opportunity arrived. As his children grew older and were able to realize fully what manner of man their father was, one of the qualities they most admired in him was his loyalty. He was loyal to his family, to his friends and to his country. If he believed in and trusted a man whose worthiness he considered proven nothing said or done by others could change his opinion. In political life the more bitterly his friends were attacked the more stoutly he clung to than. This was at times most unfortunate. At home or abroad he would tolerate no small gossip, no malicious scandal. If we had anything to say that was unpleasant to others we did not dare to repeat it before our father. We knew better than to bring anything that savored of unkindness to others before him; yet, generous as he was, he would not permit himself to be imposed upon, and he never forgot an injury.[pg. 20]
How Grier Became a Colonel.
A good illustration of how he appreciated a kindness may be given in his thoughtfulness of Lieut. (afterwards Col.) Grier, who was a tactical officer at West Point when my father was a cadet. My father occupied a room with Cadet Deshon, who is now a priest in the Paulist Church in New York. Upon one occasion Deshon ventured forth upon a foraging expedition and brought back a turkey, and my father and he were cooking this treasure in their room when Lieut. Grier came in upon them while making a tour of inspection. The odor of roasting turkey was strong in the room and must have smote the officer in his nostrils before he crossed the threshold. He walked around, keeping his eyes continually upon the ceiling, and announced with ostentatious severity: “Gentlemen, it seems to me I can smell something cooking.” Grier carefully avoided looking at the guilty faces of the two young fellows or towards the fowl on their hearth. It was perfectly clear that he had not the faintest intention of reporting them, and he did not do so. Of course he should have reported them, for their’s was a serious offense. His consideration saved the boys a great deal of trouble, and possibly from dismissal from the corps of cadets, and in after years, when the reorganization of the army took place, my father remembered the favor shown to him by Grier, and he did not allow the pressure brought by the friends of other officers to secure them places in the new army list to overweigh the just and proper claims of one who had rendered a kindness to him in his early life. Grier, who was a brave and efficient officer, became a Colonel.2
An Undemonstrative Man.
As I said before, father was an undemonstrative man, although in his family life most affectionate and gentle, and there was never a moment that one of us doubted his devotion and thoughtfulness of us. Of his children, my sister was probably the most petted, and, in his quiet way, he anticipated every childish wish of hers. In fact, he was apt to show his affection for each of us in deeds rather than in words.He was anxious that his boys should be strong and manly, and took the greatest interest in all our sports and pleasures. If one of us was ill he would quietly enter the sick room and ask about the patient with marked solicitude. He would remain near the ill one, rendering every service possible, and seemed to be most patiently watchful. He showed great happiness when the child recovered and rejoined the family circle.
As I grew older my father had some serious talks with me, varying according to the subject and occasion, but he never failed to include advice, which might be summed up in the motto, “Let your actions be such that you will respect yourself, and thereby deserve the respect of others.” He also taught purity, honesty, truthfulness, loyalty and consideration of others, and in all these things his own example was better than sermons. I never heard him use a profane word, though I have been with him hundreds of times when the provocation was not lacking. He never told, or listened to, a vulgar or improper story. I have known him to interrupt such stories in the beginning of their telling, and explain that he considered them out of place even among men.
I may here mention the fact that my father had a different way of dealing with each of his children. He showed us uniform affection and kindness, but he adapted himself to the individual character of each child. I, being the eldest, was treated by him always as if I were already a man, and was permitted to do many things that would have been considered too dangerous for the other children. For instance, he allowed me to accompany him during much of the war. I was with him in five great pitched battles before I reached my thirteenth birthday. My brother Ulysses, who was next to me in age, was, though brave, a very gentle and exceedingly sensitive boy. Father never failed to remember this, and was careful not to hurt his feelings in any way. He was considerate of my brother’s opinions and his wishes, and shoved appreciation of his actions. My sister, as I have indicated, was his darling, and father was exceedingly tender with her. The youngest boy, Jesse, was very jolly and was inclined to be something of a wit. My father enjoyed this very much and frequently addressed him facetiously, and the two had many laughs together.When I was very young my father gave me a series of home lessons, instructing me in the evening. I could not go to school for a time, because we were in the country, and so he taught me arithmetic, reading and spelling. Later, when we moved into the city of St. Louis, and there was a public school that his children could attend, he did not attempt to give any of us instruction, but in the evenings would read aloud to the family. I distinctly remember that one of the periodicals which he used to read was the Weekly New York World, and another was Harper’s Magazine, which was then publishing in serial form the works of Charles Dickens. My father read these stories aloud to us, and I have yet a vivid recollection of “Little Dorrit” and other tales. We all used to wait with the greatest eagerness for the next instalment of these interesting stories. Besides the serial stories, he read to us “Oliver Twist” and many books by standard authors.
In speaking of these pleasant evening readings I am reminded of a little incident which occurred many years later. While my father was President, during his second term, he was given a dinner in New Haven, Conn. Next to him at the table sat Prof. S., of Yale College, in whom my father did not feel a great interest, but Prof. S. persisted in talking steadily, in a gentle way. Father happened to be intensely engrossed in the conversation of several distinguished men of affairs, who sat on the other side of him, and who were talking of matters which especially appealed to him at that time. He answered Prof. S. rather absently from time to time, straining his ears to follow the other gentlemen, and feeling rather annoyed at being disturbed. Prof. S. chatted on, and finally asked father how he liked “Oliver Twist.” By this time father’s attention was concentrated wholly on the conversation of the others, and feeling annoyed, he turned to Prof. S. and asked, facetiously, “Who is Oliver Twist?” Prof. S. told the story, of course, many times afterwards, and tried to create a general impression that Gen. Grant had never [pg. 22] heard of Dickens’s book. I smiled when the story reached me, for I recalled the little white cottage in St. Louis, and the cosy sitting room, in which our family gathered around the centre-table, while my father sat and read “Oliver Twist,” much to our childish delight. I saw again the face of my mother as she busied herself with her needle, and the children listening for the first time to the varied adventures of this hero of Dickens. I could hear again the quiet laugh with which my father accentuated the telling points, and I laughed myself at Prof, S.’s absurd story, which so many persons accepted as true.
How Grant Suppressed his Colonel.
In 1860 father moved to Galena with his family. As I remember him in those early days he was serious and thoughtful, much as the public afterwards knew him. He was a sensitive and retiring man, but behind his modesty was a fair estimate of his own worth. He tolerated no disrespect and was most determined. One incident in his career, as a young lieutenant, and before the Mexican war, will illustrate this characteristic. He was drilling his company at Jefferson Barracks, when the commanding officer, Col. and Brevet Brig.-Gen. G., who was commander of the post, walked past him with a company of gentlemen, who were visiting him from St. Louis. The General was showing all of his post to his visitors, and was desirous of showing his authority at the same time. So when he passed my father, who was drilling his company on the parade ground, he said abruptly: “Lieutenant, many of your men are absent, sir!” My father halted his company, brought them to a “Present arms!” and then saluting the General, replied: “Yes, sir, some are absent with your permission.” “That is untrue sir,” shouted the General, “I have given no leaves of absence to your men. Lieut. Grant then turned to his company, and said, “Sergeant, take command of this company!” Thus being relieved of his command, he turned to Gen. G., and presented his sword to his breast, saying: “Sir, you have disputed my word in the presence of these gentlemen. You will apologize instantly or I will run you through.” The apology was immediately forthcoming. My father was but a brevet second lieutenant, and addressing a colonel and brevet brigadier-general. His action was audacious, to put it mildly, but Gen. G. appreciated the character of his young lieutenant, and was forever after his warm and devoted friend.3
His Keen Sense of Humor.
My father had quite a sense of humor, and was fond of illustrating his opinions with apt stories and anecdotes. He rarely laughed aloud, but his eyes would twinkle over a good bit of wit, and occasionally, when very much pleased, he would utter a gentle laugh, which held the essence of mirth. He seemed especially fond of quoting from Dickens’s works, and Sam Weller, Capt. Cuttle, Joe Bagstock, Pickwick and Bunsby are all familiar characters to those who talked much with him.Of father’s services during the war and in official life I need not, of course, speak here. They are a part of the history of our country, and every schoolboy should know them well. I will only say that as honors crowded upon him they wrought no change in him. As the President [pg. 23] of the United States he was the same sensitive, modest, retiring and considerate gentleman that he had been when a young officer, a farmer in Missouri and a merchant in Illinois.
The dread of seeing physical suffering in others, which I noticed in him during the war, was only equalled by his care and consideration of the feelings of others during his political life. In battle I have seen him turn hurriedly from the sight of blood, and look pale and distressed when others were injured.
His Sympathetic Nature.
At Shiloh, after the first day’s battle, he remained out in the rain all night long rather than accept the shelter which the hospital afforded among the wounded. Though giving his orders and preparing for the battle which he knew must be continued the next day he could not endure witnessing the sufferings and hearing the moans of the wounded, yet he himself at that time was suffering from a leg that had been crushed by the fall of his horse, and at the end of the battle the following day his boot and trousers had to be cut from his limb, owing to its bruised and swollen condition. He had endured his own suffering without a murmur. On one occasion when a machine gun was being fired, a copper-cased cartridge exploded and flew back and struck him in the thumb, causing a very painful though not a serious wound. As the surgeon dressed it, I heard my father remark that he suffered far less pain when he was wounded himself than when he saw others injured, and so, in his public career, be never knowingly said or did a thing which would wound the sensitive feelings of others.The world thinks of my father as the man who would accept no terms but unconditional surrender at Donelson, as the dashing officer who, with a smaller army, by his strategy and celerity of action captured Vicksburg, who planned and fought the great tactical battle of Chattanooga, whose determination forced the way through the Wilderness, but my admiration for him is more because of the fortitude with which he bore his own mental and physical sufferings. How patiently he endured those sufferings the whole world knows. He never turned his face to the wall and rebelled against his fate. To the last his consideration for others still outweighed all thought of self. For my mother’s sake he was determined to finish his Memoirs. With him it was a race against death, and he won. The book finished, there was nothing to do but wait, and be was never so thoroughly the man and the soldier as during this patient waiting for the end.
- This article originally appeared in the New York World Sunday Magazine, April 25, 1897.
- William N. Grier of Pennsylvania, who served as assistant instructor of infantry and cavalry tactics at West Point in 1840-1841, was appointed colonel, 3rd Cavalry, on Aug. 31, 1866.
- Col. Stephen Watts Kearny commanded Jefferson Barracks when Grant was stationed there. Frederick Grant may refer to Lt. Col. John Garland, later brevetted brigadier general in the Mexican War.
[pg. 24] NEWS NOTES *** Mrs. Gordon Singles of Arlington, Virginia, has given Southern Illinois University the papers of her great-grandfather General Frederick Tracy Dent. Grant’s West Point roommate, brother-in-law, Civil War staff officer, and White House secretary, Dent served in the U. S. Army for more than forty years. Some two hundred items in the collection represent his entire career, but most date from the years he served in the White House. *** Roger D. Bridges, assistant professor of history at the University of South Dakota and a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois, has been awarded a Fellowship in Advanced Historical Editing for 1969-1970 by the National Historical Publications Commission. He will spend the year with the Ulysses S. Grant Association learning about editing by helping to prepare The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.