Daguerreotype portrait of an unidentified Mexican War officer.
When Ulysses S. Grant was born in 1822 photography was not invented yet and there are no photographs of him as a child. When he left his boyhood home in Ohio for West Point in 1839 the art of photography was in its infancy. As Grant’s adult life progressed and his fame grew, photography evolved as well. He, along with his wife and children, became some of the more frequently photographed people of the later 19th century. The Ohio History Connection Archives & Library is fortunate to hold some intriguing portraits of the Grant family.
The first photographic format, daguerreotypes, were the dominant format for portraits in the 1840s. Daguerreotypes are unique images developed on copper plates that are coated with silver and highly polished. They are distinguished by their shiny surface and presented in cases. It is not known if any daguerreotypes of Ulysses Grant from the 1840s exist today. The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution holds a tintype copy of a Grant portrait made in the 1860s from a 1840s daguerreotype. This image, widely published as a print, depicts Grant after he graduated from West Point and was serving in the U.S. Army.
The Ohio History Connection has a copy of the print made from the tintype. Additionally, the Ohio History Connection holds a daguerreotype that has long been described only as an unidentified military officer in a Mexican War era uniform. The plate has the mark of L.B. Binsse & Co. N.Y., a maker of daguerreotype plates that operated from 1844 to 1848. Paperwork documenting the piece provides few additional details, but there is a note suggesting that the man pictured is a relative of Jesse Root Grant, father of Ulysses. Tarnishing and scratching of the plate have diminished some details of the image. However, when viewed with the print, the man pictured in the daguerreotype does bear some resemblance to Grant. History Connection staff and historians consulted are intrigued by the possibility this could be Grant, but without more supporting documentation, we may never be certain.
Daguerreotype portrait of Julia Grant with her two older children, Frederick and Ulysses, Jr., 1854.
A Grant family daguerreotype in the Ohio History Connection collections that has been positively identified is a beautiful likeness of Julia Dent Grant with her two older sons, Frederick, born in 1850, and Ulysses, Jr., born in 1852. Julia’s brother Fred was a classmate of Ulysses at West Point. Julia and Ulysses met when he was stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri. The first ten years of their relationship were distinguished by an engagement that stretched four years due to Grant’s service in the Mexican War and then long periods apart as he was sent to far-flung Army posts. When he was stationed in New York and Michigan Julia was able to visit and sometimes bring Frederick. He left for his posts in California and the Northwest Territories before Ulysses, Jr. was born. In a letter dated March 31, 1853 sent from Columbia Barracks, Washington Territory, Ulysses asked Julia:
“Can’t you have your Dagueriotype taken with Fred. and Ulys. along? If you can send it by Adam’s and Co’s Express, to Portland O.T.” (1)
In another letter dated February 2, 1854 from Humboldt Bay, California he wrote:
“Then I feel again as if I had been separated from you. and Fred.long enough and as to Ulys. I have never seen him.” (2)
It seems plausible that the daguerreotype of Julia and the two little boys was taken to send to Ulysses on the west coast. However, not long after the letter of February, he resigned from the Army. From 1854 until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Grant’s would be reunited, reside together in Illinois and have two more children, Ellen, born in 1855 and Jesse, born in 1858. In addition to being one of the earlier known photographs of Julia Dent Grant, it is also an unusual image because she is pictured facing the camera. She preferred to be photographed in profile to hide a ‘slight misalignment’ of her eyes. Despite her own self-consciousness, Julia’s husband reportedly liked her eyes ‘just as they are.’ (3)
Carte de visite portrait of Ellen, called Nellie, and Jesse Grant by African American photographer James Pressley Ball of Cincinnati, Ohio, circa 1862. They were the only daughter and youngest son of Civil War General and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Dent Grant.
Carte de visite portrait of Ulysses S. "Buck" Grant, Jr. by Cowan's Photograph Gallery, circa 1862. He was the second son of Civil War General and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Dent Grant.
During the four years of the Civil War the Grant children were often away from their father, but letters were frequent and photographs taken. In addition to many letters exchanged between Julia and Ulysses, the older children also wrote to and received letters from him. He sent presents and had a great deal to say about where they went to school, what subjects they studied and their behavior, particularly in the case of little Jesse.
These photographs depicting the children are cartes de visite portraits, a form of photography that was introduced in the United States around 1859. The name cartes de visite came from the French expression for calling card. The photographs were printed from glass negatives on paper, but the paper was thin and it was necessary to mount the images on heavier cardstock. The cardstock was typically cut about 4 ¼ x 2 ¼ inches, the size of calling cards. Quickly produced and highly portable, they became extremely popular during the war.
An advantage of the cardstock was that photographers could print information such as their studio names and addresses on it. The photograph of Nellie and Jesse Grant has the mark of talented African American photographer, James Pressley Ball who worked in the Cincinnati area. The older boys, Frederick and Ulysses, Jr., were photographed by Cowan’s Photograph Gallery, also in Cincinnati. The Grant children were probably photographed while visiting family friends and relatives in Ohio.
While the family had more opportunities to take and share photographs with each other, photographers were increasingly interested in having Ulysses sit for them as he rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army. Of the many photographs of Grant in military uniform from the 1860s, one that stands out is this somber portrait of Grant taken in April 1865. On his arm he is wearing a black mourning band in honor of President Abraham Lincoln. Grant described the day Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 as “the darkest day of my life.”(4) The assassination of President Lincoln may have been particularly unsettling for the Grant’s as General and Mrs. Grant were invited to attend the theater with President and Mrs. Lincoln on the night the President was attacked. Ulysses declined the invitation when Julia requested they leave Washington to visit their children who were at school in Burlington, New Jersey.(5) Grant was not only mourning the loss of his commander in chief, but also concerned for the future of the country. Of Lincoln Grant wrote:
“I knew his goodness of heart, his generosity, his yielding disposition,
his desire to have everybody happy, and above all his desire to see all
the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of
citizenship with equality among all.”(6)
Different versions of the photograph of Grant mourning Lincoln were made. One version is cropped and mounted on a mat that the photographer, Frederick Gutekunst, had printed with a copyright statement and the earlier date 1863. The second is a full length version that was mounted on a carte de visite. Both photographic mounts are printed with the rank ‘Lieut. Gen.,’ to which Grant was promoted by President Lincoln in March 1864. The different versions of Grant’s portraits reflect the popularity of collecting photographs of famous people. The cartes de visite format due to its small size, and therefore more affordable cost, was especially common for collectable portraits. Cartes de visite of actors, military officers, and politicians are not uncommon to find in family albums.
Ulysses S. Grant’s extensive personnel and professional correspondence, and well-written memoirs have provided historians with a rich understanding of his thoughts, opinions and personality. Photographs, like these examples from the Ohio History Connection collections, illustrate Grant’s words and bring additional poignancy to the story of his remarkable life.
Ulysses S. Grant, My Dearest Julia, The Wartime Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to his Wife (New York: Library of America Special Editions, 2018), 78.
Grant, My Dearest Julia, 81.
H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union, Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace (New York: Doubleday, 2012), 372-73.
Elizabeth D. Samet, The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Liverright Publishing Company, 2019), 895.
Samet, Annotated Memoirs, 894-95.
Samet, Annotated Memoirs, 896.
Brands, H. W. The Man Who Saved the Union, Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace. New York: Doubleday, 2012.
Grant, Ulysses S. My Dearest Julia, The Wartime Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to his Wife. New York: Library of America, Special Editions, 2018.
Samet, Elizabeth D. The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Liverright Publishing Company, 2019.
Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Collection. Ohio History Connection Archives & Library, Columbus, Ohio.