Ulysses S Grant in a Dress, and a Mexican War Romance Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Ulysses S Grant in a Dress, and a Mexican War Romance

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Ulysses S Grant as historical hottie

Question: Is it true that US president Ulysses S Grant once performed in Shakespeare's   Othello   – as Desdemona?

Answer: Yes and no. It's true he played Desdemona in the rehearsals. But his co-star, Lieutenant Theodoric Porter, complained that he couldn't find his motivation while staring at Ulysses. So they hired a professional actress before opening night. You'll hear about this. But first, a word about the historical circumstances.

The Army of Occupation, 1845

In 1845, the United States annexed Texas. The matter was a hot-button issue in the 1844 presidential campaign. Now that James K Polk was in, he approved of the move to annex the breakaway republic into the US – as, eventually, a slave state. It was obvious that this move was going to create tensions with Mexico. Eventually, it would lead to a costly and controversial war.

Young Lieutenant Ulysses S Grant1 was under no delusions that this action was what you might call ethical, but he was a professional soldier, and this was his job.

We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce: 'Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,' and prosecute the contest with vigor.
–   Personal Memoirs of US Grant, 1885

By September of 1845, an enormous army was assembled at Corpus Christi under the command of General Zachary Taylor2. It was the largest assemblage of troops on US soil since the US War of Independence. By 1846, the Army of Occupation numbered around 4,000 and was laid out in a neat camp. Here's what it looked like:

The Army of Occupation, 1846

The camp was located in a remote area: the nearest ranches, even, were miles away. There was not a lot to look at. Still, fun-loving Lieutenant James Longstreet3 found lots to do.

There were many advantages too in the way of amusement, game on the wild prairies and fish in the broad gulf were plentiful, and there was the salt water for bathing. On one occasion during the winter a violent north wind forced the waters over the beach, in some places far enough to disturb our camps, and when they receded, quantities of fish were found in the little puddles left behind, and turtles more than enough to supply the army.
–   From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America by James Longstreet, 1896

Grant, Workaholic

While the rest of the young officers were busy amusing themselves, US Grant was hard at work being a quartermaster. One of his biggest personnel problems was... mules.

The soldiers were principally foreigners who had enlisted in our large cities, and, with the exception of a chance drayman among them, it is not probable that any of the men who reported themselves as competent teamsters had ever driven a mule-team in their lives, or indeed that many had had any previous experience in driving any animal whatever to harness. Numbers together can accomplish what twice their number acting individually could not perform. Five mules were allotted to each wagon. A teamster would select at the picket rope five animals of nearly the same color and general appearance for his team. With a full corps of assistants, other teamsters, he would then proceed to get his mules together. In two's the men would approach each animal selected, avoiding as far as possible its heels. ... The first motion was generally five mules in the air at one time, backs bowed, hind feet extended to the rear. After repeating this movement a few times the leaders would start to run. This would bring the breeching tight against the mules at the wheels, which these last seemed to regard as a most unwarrantable attempt at coercion and would resist by taking a seat, sometimes going so far as to lie down. In time all were broken in to do their duty submissively if not cheerfully, but there never was a time during the war when it was safe to let a Mexican mule get entirely loose.
–   Personal Memoirs of US Grant, 1885

This passage tells us four things:

  • The US Army had a lot of immigrants, even then.
  • Mules are stubborn.
  • The US Army liked its mules to be colour-coordinated.
  • Ulysses S Grant wasn't goofing off in Mexico.

Theatrical Tale

Besides eating turtles, Longstreet and his bored officer buddies built a theatre. It held 800. They charged for tickets, and soon made their investment back by showing comedies. Then they got ambitious and tried their hands at the serious stuff, like Shakespeare. Shakespeare was more popular back then. At first, they thought they'd do what they did with the comedies: let the better-looking young officers play the girls. After all, it worked for the Bard. Which gets us to the Grant story.

Lieutenant Longstreet was going to play Desdemona, but Lieutenant Porter objected strenuously. Longstreet was six feet (183cm) tall. It was going to be hard enough strangling Desdemona without reaching up to do it. So Grant was drafted: he was only 5'8" (173cm) and very nice-looking.

If this surprises us, it's because we've looked at a $50 bill. That Grant is a middle-aged man. With a beard – and, usually, a cigar in his mouth. But look at his picture at the top of this Entry: he was what they call now a 'historical hottie'. Besides, he fit in the dress.

Grant went along with it, but Porter objected. Longstreet later wrote:

But after rehearsal Porter protested that male heroines could not support the character nor give sentiment to the hero, so we sent over to New Orleans and secured Mrs. Hart, who was popular with the garrisons in Florida. Then all went well, and life through the winter was gay.
–   From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America by James Longstreet, 1896

'Gay' as in 'happy'. Grant doesn't mention the incident in his memoirs. He was busy chasing mules and courting Julia Dent. He barely mentions Julia in his memoirs, either: that stuff was private. But Julia spilled the beans.

Grant's Romance

Fred Dent was Grant's roommate at West Point military academy. He introduced Grant to his sister Julia because, as he wrote to her, 'He's pure gold.' Mr Dent, Julia's father, wasn't so keen. He didn't want his beloved daughter to marry a soldier. Not because there was anything wrong with soldiers, mind you: his son was one. But she'd leave, you see. She wouldn't live in the neighbourhood, and her dad couldn't see her as often.

Julia had first liked young Lieutenant Grant because he was so nice. After all, when her pet canary died, he made it a tiny coffin and organised the eight-man escort for the miniature military funeral. When the officers were ordered south to join what eventually became the Army of Occupation, Grant offered her his class ring, tantamount to an engagement. Julia at first said no. But she had regrets about that. Then she had the weird dream.

There is an old superstition that whatever you dream the first night in your new bed will surely come true. When we young ladies retired, Josephine S. and I slept in my new bed and, according to custom, named the bedposts, and of course my absent friend was not forgotten. I did dream of Mr. Grant. I thought he came at Monday noon and was dressed in civilian's clothes... Monday morning my young friends had departed, and I was about to retire for an afternoon siesta, when my colored maid came and, looking up toward the front gate, said: 'Law, Miss Julia, if there isn't Mars John and, I declare, Mr. Grant, and he has on citizen's clothes and how odd he looks in them too.'
–   The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, first published in 1975.

Sure enough, Grant was there, in fulfilment of the 'new bed' dream, and in ill-fitting, borrowed civvies. He'd fallen into Gravois Creek; the clothes were borrowed from Julia's brother John, who lived nearby. Julia accepted the ring.

It took them five years to wear Papa Dent down. Julia's father was right about the travelling: during the Civil War, she accompanied General Grant on his campaigns, covering more than 10,000 miles. They had a long and happy marriage. Julia could be very persistent when she wanted something, as Grant found out. You don't think he wanted to be president, do you? When he won the election he told her, 'I hope you're satisfied.' She wasn't: Julia was cross when her husband refused to run for a third term.

Ulysses S Grant in a period hooped dress
1Original name: Hiram Ulysses Grant. His parents picked the name 'Ulysses' out of a hat. One wonders what else was in there. He didn't like Hiram, so he dropped it. His sponsor wrote 'Ulysses S Grant' on his West Point reference, and the name stuck. Since 'US' could also mean 'Uncle Sam', Grant now had the nickname of 'Sam'. Better than Hiram, anyway.2Also to become a US president, the 12th.3Later General Longstreet – of the Confederate Army. See Pickett's Charge.

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