“The most woebegone twelve-year-old lad in America”: Frederick Dent Grant’s Civil War

ECW welcomes guest authors Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant

During the Civil War, many Americans believed that witnessing or even participating in war would benefit boys well below military age. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia shared this view. Soon after Grant took command of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment in May 1861, eleven-year-old Fred joined him in camp. “The soldiers and officers call him Colonel,” Grant reported to Julia, “and he seems to be quite a favorite.”[1] That July, the young “colonel” rode along as Grant marched his men to Quincy, Illinois, forgoing train transport to build up their stamina. But when the regiment was ordered into Missouri, Grant overruled his son’s objections and sent him home. “I did not telegraph,” he explained to Julia, “because I thought you would be in a perfect stew until he arrived…. I felt loath at sending him but now that we are in the enemy’s country I thought you would be alarmed if he was with me.”[2]

Grant misjudged Julia’s response: the thought of Fred traveling alone alarmed her more than the thought of him under fire alongside his father. “Do keep him with you,” she quickly replied, reminding her husband that Alexander the Great had been no older than their son when he accompanied his father, Philip II of Macedon, into battle.[3] Although Fred had already departed by the time Grant received her message, he delighted in his wife’s martial enthusiasm. Their boy would “make a good general someday,” he assured her, joking that she should “pack his valise and start him on now.”[4] Two months later, he dropped any pretense of humor when he inquired of her, “What do you say to Fred making the campaign with me?”[5]

Taken sometime during the years that Frederick Dent Grant (1850-1912) would have been with his father at war, this family portrait shows all three of Grant’s sons in military uniforms. Fred, the oldest, is standing in the middle. Engraved carte de visite, circa 1862-64, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Though Fred never enlisted, he spent much of the next four years in camps and on battlefields, staying with his father during the Vicksburg campaign and the fighting that followed. Boys and youths were often present in Union armies and camps, and a full 11 percent of Union soldiers enlisted before reaching the age of eighteen.[6] Still, it was uncommon to see a boy as young as Fred in the line of fire. Annie Wittenmyer, who nursed troops at Vicksburg and subsequently wrote about her experiences, recalled how Grant had alarmed his officers and men by routinely exposing not only himself but also his son to mortal danger. “Almost every day as I drove about the lines,” she wrote, “I would see General Grant and his brave little orderly riding at full speed in the face of the long lines of the enemy’s batteries, and within range of their murderous fire.”[7]

In later years, the father and son had very different things to say about the latter’s Civil War experiences. Ulysses proudly recalled his son’s independence and fortitude. Fred “caused no anxiety to either me or to his mother, who was at home,” he rather implausibly claimed in his memoir. “He looked after himself and was in every battle of the campaign.”[8] Fred’s own recollections are not so sanguine. In 1897, he spoke with the journalist Frank G. Carpenter of his experiences at Vicksburg. “You must remember I was only a boy of 13,” he explained, “and the scene was a terrible one to me.” In particular, he recalled being “sickened” by the “blood and pieces of flesh” that covered the deck of the USS Benton, the gunboat then commanded by Admiral David Porter. Later, after successfully crossing the Mississippi, Grant had left Fred sleeping aboard a different gunboat, having ordered that the boy should not be allowed ashore. But Fred escaped his confinement and headed to the battlefield. As the Confederates retreated, he followed after Union troops who were pushing toward Port Gibson. For a while he tagged along with a detachment collecting bodies for burial, but after “sickening at the sights,” he joined another group charged with carrying the wounded to a makeshift hospital. “Here were scenes so terrible that I became faint,” he remembered, “and making my way to a tree, sat down, the most woebegone twelve-year-old lad in America.”[9]

In the end, Fred survived the campaign with only a minor flesh wound to his thigh. The much greater risk to his life came from the diseases that felled so many full-grown soldiers. By the time Vicksburg finally surrendered in early July 1863, he related in another interview, “dysentery had pulled me down from one hundred and ten to sixty-eight pounds, and I had a toothache as well.”[10] It took nearly five months before he had recovered enough to rejoin his father in camp. He then fell ill again, succumbing to what Julia called “camp dysentery and typhoid fever.”[11] Grant rushed to his son’s sick bed “hardly expecting to find him alive on my arrival.” Yet even after this serious bout of illness, Fred returned to his father’s side. In June 1864, Grant informed Julia that their son had been “suffering intensely for several days with rheumatism” and was “unable to turn himself” in the ambulance wagon. Still, Grant blithely predicted that he would recover “in a day or two.”[12]

From a modern-day perspective, Ulysses and Julia Grant seem wildly irresponsible in the risks they allowed their eldest child to take. Certainly, there was some level of self-interest involved. Grant took pleasure in watching Fred interact with his troops, just as William Tecumseh Sherman had reveled in his son Willie’s presence in camp—until, to his horror and regret, the nine-year old sickened and died.[13] As for Julia, historian Susannah Ural has convincingly argued that she wanted Fred to stay with Grant because family was such a stabilizing force for her husband—and one that possibly kept him from drinking.[14]

But however much Fred’s presence benefited his father, both parents also saw the war as a rare educational opportunity that they would be remiss to deny their son. “My father liked to have me with him,” Frederick Dent Grant told Carpenter, trying to explain his presence in the field. But he immediately added, “I suppose he wanted me to see something of the war.” Indeed, there is ample evidence that Grant believed his son would benefit from the arrangement. As he wrote to Julia in April 1863, Fred “will receive as much perminant [sic] advantage by being with me for a few months as if at school.”[15] In his memoirs, Grant revealed his thinking more fully when he reflected, “His age then, not quite thirteen, enabled him to take in all that he saw and to retain a recollection of it that would not be possible in more mature years.”[16]

This is a critical passage, and one that marks the distance between their past and our present. Because Fred was so young and impressionable, the scenes he witnessed would always remain vivid in his mind. And that, his father believed, was a good thing. Today, contemporary psychiatrists warn that the young are especially vulnerable to lasting damage from witnessing or experiencing traumatic events. But people in the mid-nineteenth century thought very differently, even when it came to something as seemingly self-evident as the need to protect children from the horrors of war. Adults often had boys assist in harrowing situations during the Civil War, from tending wounded men on the field to performing grisly hospital duties. This was partly out of sheer necessity, but also because shielding the young from disturbing and traumatic scenes was simply not the moral imperative that it would later become. On the contrary, many Americans believed that boys who witnessed a battle or its bloody aftermath would ultimately be fortified by what they saw: it would sear into their minds an appreciation of the sacrifices required to maintain their system of government.

This apparently held true for Frederick Dent Grant, who became a general, as Ulysses predicted, and served in the Spanish-American War. Somewhat reticent, like his more famous father, he spoke rather sparingly of his youthful experiences. When he did finally share some of his memories in the 1890s, he met with some skepticism.[17] By the late nineteenth century, it was hard to credit that a boy so young had seen so much. But many of the details Frederick Dent Grant related check out, and eyewitness accounts—like that of journalist Charles Dana, who “tramped and foraged” with the boy during the push toward Port Gibson—echo the picture he painted.[18] Civil War era Americans may have viewed children’s emotional needs and development very differently than we do today, but they well understood the staying power of memories forged under the most trying of circumstances.

Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant are the authors of the forthcoming Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era. Clarke is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney and the author of War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North, which jointly won the Australia Historical Association’s biennial Hancock prize for the best first book in any field of history. Plant is Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America. Their work on Of Age was supported by the American Council of Learned Societies and the Australian Research Council.


[1] Ulysses S. Grant to Julia Dent Grant, July 7, 1861, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 2: April-September 1861, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), 59.

[2] Ulysses S. Grant to Julia Dent Grant, July 13, 1861, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 2, 70.

[3] Julia Dent Grant, Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant), ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), 92.

[4] Ulysses S. Grant to Julia Dent Grant, August 3, 1861, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 2, 82.

[5] Ulysses S. Grant to Julia Dent Grant, October 1, 1861, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 3: October 1, 1861-January 7, 1862, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970), 10.

[6] We explain how we arrived at this estimate in Appendices A and B of Frances M. Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023).

[7] Annie Wittenmyer, Under the Guns: A Woman’s Reminiscences of the Civil War (Boston: E.B. Stillings & Co., 1895), 204.

[8] Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, ed. Caleb Carr (New York: Random House, 1999 [orig. 1885]), 259.

[9] Frederick Dent Grant, “With Grant at Vicksburg,” Outlook 59 (July 2, 1898): 533-43 (quotation, 534).

[10] A.E. Watrous, “Grant as His Son Saw Him: An Interview with Colonel Frederick D. Grant about His Father,” McClure’s Magazine 2, no. 6 (May 1894): 515-519 (quotation, 517).

[11] Dent Grant, Personal Memoirs, 126.

[12] Ulysses S. Grant to Julia Dent Grant, June 1, 1864, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 11: June 1-August 15, 1864, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 5.

[13] Thom Bassett, “The Death of Willie Sherman,” New York Times, October 12, 2013.

[14] Susannah Ural, Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: Soldiers and Families in America’s Civil War (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 154.

[15] Ulysses S. Grant to Julia Grant, April 3, 1863, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 8: April 1-July 6, 1863, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), 9.

[16] Grant, Personal Memoirs, 259.

[17] See, for example, Anon., “Some New War History,” Decatur Daily Republican, February 24, 1897, 4.

[18] Charles A. Dana, Recollections of the Civil War (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1902), 45.

5 Responses to “The most woebegone twelve-year-old lad in America”: Frederick Dent Grant’s Civil War

  1. I know Grant adored his family, but the way Fred free-floated around seemingly at will during the Vicksburg campaign makes me sometimes wonder about Grant’s judgment as a parent. I suppose Grant figured Fred had an entire army to keep him safe, but a young boy can get into a lot of trouble if he puts his mind to it!

    Nice piece. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for this glimpse behind the curtain of the Early Life of Frederick Dent Grant. This is such a thought-provoking report that it is difficult to know where to begin a response… So I will start by claiming, “Julia Dent Grant was an under-appreciated ‘Power behind the Throne’” who likely absorbed the teachings of her war-veteran Father, Colonel Dent, and witnessed the real-time military experiences (through letters and conversation) of her West Point educated brother, Frederick. And when the opportunity presented to push her “just in a slump” but otherwise capable husband, Ulysses forward “to ever better outcomes… for ALL of them,” Julia grasped that opportunity with both hands; and ended up guiding her competent, misunderstood husband all the way to the White House.
    It is said that “Experience is a cruel Teacher because she kills so many of her students.” Note Willie Sherman and Willie Lincoln.
    But it also true that “Whatever does not kill us makes us stronger.” As regards Frederick Dent Grant: every father’s dream is to have their son (or daughter) follow in the family business. And General Grant, with Julia’s acquiescence, provided that exposure in such a way that the outcome was positive.

  3. When reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Vinny Byrne of the Irish Republican Army. At just 15 years of age, he took part in the whole of the Easter Rising’s fighting at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory on St. Stephens’ Green and then was brought to custody after it was over in Richmond Barracks.

    The tragedy of the young who have lived so brief to know death so well…

  4. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

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