Just in time for the upcoming wedding anniversary of Ulysses and Julia Grant, the National Park Service has created a new online exhibit exploring the life and legacy of the nation’s 18th president. The expansive exhibit amasses artifacts, documents, and photographs from numerous Park Service sites, including Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.
As one might expect from such a multi-faceted figure as Ulysses Grant, his life encompasses many aspects, including his early upbringing and family life as well as his military career and presidency. And the fascinating new exhibit covers them all.
There are more than 20 national sites with connections to Grant, many of them housing collections that include artifacts, portraits, and documents related to the president or his family members. But thanks to this new virtual exhibit, many of these items can now be viewed in one accessible location. They shed light on little-known facets of his life, helping us gain greater insights into the famous man.
Although Grant is celebrated for his military and political achievements, his artistic side is less well known. The exhibit features sample of some of his watercolor paintings. When he was a West Point cadet, he enrolled in several drawing classes and developed this hobby over the years. Sadly only eight of his paintings have survived to the present day.
Then there are the charming vestiges of the Grants’ everyday life, like Julia’s ivory sewing kit, Ulysses’ cigar holder, the couple’s ivory and silver coffee service, and even the leather boots worn by Julia’s sister Emma.
The exhibit explores Grant’s military career from his early days at West Point to his role as commander of the entire Union Army during the Civil War. The surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in 1865 is highlighted with a color image of a Currier & Ives print of the two generals signing the surrender documents, a photo of the chairs and table used during the signing ceremony, and a poignant letter outlining the terms of surrender.
Grant’s experience with the institution of slavery is a recurrent theme in the exhibit. From an early age, he was taught that slavery was wrong and that his Southern relatives “had depended too much on slave labor to be trained in self-reliance.” When Grant married into the slaveholding Dent family, it worsened tensions with his father (none of the Grants attended Ulysses and Julia’s wedding).
Yet when the couple occupied White Haven in the 1850s, they lived and worked alongside dozens of enslaved African Americans, most of whom were owned by Grant’s father-in-law (though Grant himself owned an enslaved man named William Jones, whom he later freed). This experience strengthened Grant’s hatred of slavery and commitment to abolish the institution, and set the stage for him to become one of the great civil rights presidents in American history.
The new Grant exhibit is just the latest virtual exhibit created by the National Park Service Museum Management Program, whose aim is to make the broad range of NPS collections widely available to online users. You can see numerous other offerings at the program’s website.
In honor of Ulysses and Julia’s 174th wedding anniversary on August 22nd, you may want to brush up on the life of Julia Dent Grant. She had a long and event-filled life as the wife of a Civil War general and U.S. president. Also check out her personal memoirs, which are available from JNPA’s online store, or at the gift shop at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.