Another nineteenth century presidential home and museum is the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in Grantwood Village, St. Louis, Missouri. This one is run competently by the National Parks Service. (Grant’s papers are at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.)
The house is called White Haven, and yes, it is green. That is because, according to our NPS guide, in 1874 Grant had it painted in the era’s “most expensive color” to show off his wealth! Grant himself was from Ohio, but started coming regularly to White Haven, the home of his West Point classmate Frederick Tracy Dent, when Grant was stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Thus did Grant begin courting Dent’s sister Julia in 1844 – discreetly, since Grant’s family were abolitionists, and White Haven was a plantation powered by slaves and owned by an unapologetic slaveowner, Dent’s father Frederick Dent. Only after the Mexican-American War (in which Grant distinguished himself, although he claimed that there was “not ever a more wicked war”) could the couple marry, and even then Grant’s parents did not attend the ceremony. To support Julia, Grant remained in the army, and after stints in Detroit and New York, was transferred to the Vancouver Barracks in the newly-acquired Oregon Territory. Julia, now eight months pregnant, did not join him, and his three years on the west coast were not happy ones. He started drinking, a habit that contributed to his dismissal in 1854, although nothing indicating this fact was entered into his record.
The next seven years were hard ones. Grant was happily reunited with his family at White Haven, but failed at most of the jobs he tried, whether farming, bill collecting, or even selling firewood. It was as though Grant was at heart a soldier, and so the advent of the Civil War represented a sterling opportunity for him, now 39 years old. Grant’s daring and competent service to the Union at the Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga are well known, and over the course of the war Grant rose from colonel to Commanding General of the United States Army. (Complaints to President Lincoln about Grant’s drinking prompted the memorable, although perhaps apocryphal, retort: “Well, I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”) Following the Overland Campaign, Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Within a week, Lincoln was dead; his successor Andrew Johnson turned out to be more favorable to the Southern cause than he had initially let on, and Grant eventually broke with him – one of the reasons why Johnson was impeached in 1868. The episode certainly set up Grant to be nominated by the Republicans for the presidential election that year, and he won in an electoral college landslide, largely due to the votes of newly-enfranchised African-Americans.
Grant’s presidency was characterized by making Reconstruction work, both by mollifying ex-Confederates and by ensuring civil rights for ex-slaves. He did this largely through enforcing the fifteenth amendment, passed in 1870, which guaranteed the right to vote, and by successfully waging war against the Ku Klux Klan. His second term was less successful – numerous cabinet members were implicated in various scandals, and although Grant himself was innocent, he generally kept the cabinet members in place, to widespread disappointment. Republicans urged him to run for a third term, but he declined, thereby setting the country up for the disputed election of 1876, the elevation of “Rutherfraud Hayes,” and the unfortunate ending of Reconstruction. There followed a world tour and business venture in which Grant eventually lost everything, even White Haven, which he had inherited following the death of his father-in-law in 1873. Thus did he compose his memoirs, largely in order to provide a source of income for his family. He completed this valuable primary source in 1885, right before his death from throat cancer at age 63.
Obviously the plantation has largely been sold off. (Most of it is occupied by Grant’s Farm, an animal reserve run by the Anheuser-Busch corporation.) The NPS only acquired the house in 1989, along with a large barn that Grant had built for his horses (Grant was an excellent horseman). The barn houses the museum, nicely done in a “spokes of a wheel” format. The separate visitors center has a theater which shows a short film about Grant’s life, and a well-stocked store featuring all the latest books on Grant.
Definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in St. Louis.
UPDATE: From the Fort Donelson National Battlefield Facebook page:
This picture shows Ulysses S. Grant reading a newspaper on the porch of his cottage in Mount McGregor, New York. The photo caption stated that it was the last photograph of the general taken just four days before his death. Grant had recently moved to the cottage from New York City following advice from his doctors in hopes that the cooler dry air in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state would provide him some comfort. Fighting his battle with throat cancer had taken a toll on the former President and “Unconditional Surrender” hero of Fort Donelson. Grant, always the fighter, committed himself to finishing his memoirs to provide for his wife Julia and his family. With the help of Samuel Clemens, known more famously as Mark Twain, Grant would complete his two volume memoir before finally succumbing to the cancer and dying in the early morning hours of July 23, 1885. Photo: Last photograph of Gen. Grant, four days before death / Gilman, Mt. McGregor and Canajoharie, N.Y. from Library of Congress.