I recently read on one of those “X number of things you didn’t know about” lists (I saw the the ink on Facebook but now I can’t find it) that noted Ulysses S Grant was the only US president who lived in Detroit. As it turns out, I did not previously know that (unlike most of the rest of the list), and I was intrigued.
So I set out to write a blog post about Grant’s time in Detroit. And came up short. In his two-volume memoir, Grant’s time in Detroit takes up about one page. He wrote “two years were spent with but few important incidents.” (He also wrote very little about his presidency, so I guess Detroit shouldn’t feel too bad).
About a Michigan election in which its constitution was ratified, he wrote, “All the officers stationed there at the time who offered their votes were permitted to cast them. I did not offer mine, however, as I did not wish to consider myself a citizen of Michigan.” Ouch.
The slight to my home state aside, Grant was an interesting character. Apparently reluctant to join the army, he skated through West Point, fought in the Mexican-American war, a war which he disagreed with, and later re-enlisted at the beginning of the Civil War. He strongly believed in the cause of the North. He was an abolitionist and though at one time he owned a slave, he later set him free. After his success as Civil War general, he served two terms as President.
In 1848, he married his good friend’s sister, Julia Dent. After the Mexican-American War, Grant was stationed in Detroit and Julia soon joined him. On April 27, 1849, Grant’s birthday, he wrote to Julia about their new home, describing it quite lovingly with “a garden with the best kinds of fruit. There is a long arbor grown over with vines that will bear fine grapes in abundance for us and to give away. There are currants and plums and peach trees and in fact everything that the place could want to make it comfortable.” In the same letter her writes, “I find Detroit very dull as yet but I hope it will appear better when I get better acquainted and you know dearest without you no place, or home, can be very pleasant to me.”
Grant’s letters to Julia are quite sweet and worth a look if that’s your kind of thing.
The Grants’ Detroit home, built in 1837, originally sat on Fort Street in what is now Lafayette Park. In the 1930s, an insurance company moved the house to the State Fair Grounds near 8 Mile. Recently, news outlets have reported plans to move the house yet again, possibly to the Eastern Market area.
The book Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character by Hamlin Garland, is based on recollections of people who knew Grant during his stay in Detroit. Garland published his book in 1898 – about 40 years after Grant lived in Detroit – which may not make it the most credible source. But according to Garland, Grant enjoyed Detroit more than Sackets Harbor, NY, at least. He also wrote that Grant liked and became well known for driving (horses) fast. “He used to race Saturdays way out on Fifth Avenue, which was then a foremost racing-ground for the citizens. On bright midwinter days every driving team in Detroit would be there. Every man who had a horse took part, and Grant was always there with his little pony which he bought of Dave Cicotte.” Appropriate pastime for the future Motor City.
A few highlights of Grant’s presidency: he led the country through Reconstruction, tried to enact civil rights legislation, implemented the gold standard for US currency, and signed the law establishing Yellowstone National Park.
On his deathbed, he wrote his two volume memoirs, which mostly focus on his military career. Mark Twain published the books shortly after Grant succumbed to cancer in 1885, and their sale provided a comfortable life for Julia.
It’s not often you hear about Grant’s time in Detroit. The roughly two years he spent here may not have left a huge impression on him, but they offer a glimpse into the smaller parts of a big life.
For more on Grant:
Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant available from Project Gutenberg.
Mississippi State University has Grant’s papers, including his love letters to Julia, available digitally.
The Library of Congress has a web guide on Grant.
A take on Grant’s legacy on Slate.
7/15/2016: A No-Update Update on the Grant house.
Edited to correct typo.