Given the proximity of Presidents Day to Valentine’s Day, I’m always tempted this time of year to celebrate both holidays at once by exploring love poetry written by U.S. presidents. In previous years I’ve looked at the idealistic love poems of a teenage George Washington, as well as the more sensual poetry written by Warren G. Harding. This year, given the recent publication of the Library’s Ulysses S. Grant Papers online, I want to look at a little-known poem attributed to President Grant that he may have written for one of his early love interests.
According to some scholars,1 Grant is thought to have written the poem around Spring 1839, before his departure for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Since Grant left for West Point in May 1939, he would have been seventeen at the time. Here is the poem as it appears in the Library’s digitized Grant Papers:2
The poem captures a teenage boy’s feelings at the moment he’s about to leave his home to prepare for a possible career in military service. Though he will soon be off to “gain the field of glory,” Grant thinks fondly of the friends and family he will be leaving behind. In particular, Grant asks the “you” to whom the poem is addressed to “kindly . . . remember me,” and gives his assurances that he will “often think of thee.”
Who is the person Grant has in mind?
The Library of Congress’s copy of the poem gives a clear answer. The poem concludes with a note from Victor King Chestnut (“V.K.C.”) indicating that it was dedicated to his aunt, Mary King. Even without this note, the poem itself makes its addressee quite evident: it is an acrostic poem, and the first letters of each line spell out “Mary King.”3
Mary King would have first met Grant in Georgetown, Ohio, where they apparently grew up together. William Conant Church’s 1897 biography of Grant includes a brief account of Grant’s youthful infatuation with a young woman who, while unnamed, may well have been Mary:
Sitting over his camp-fire in front of Petersburg one night, General Grant told the writer of this biography that his cadet days were filled with dreams of a young lady he intended to marry as soon as he graduated, and his one thought at West Point was of her. The romance ended as do so many others, for the young woman did not become Mrs. Grant. (p. 19)
Hamlin Garland’s 1898 biography of Grant supports the idea that Mary was the woman who occupied Grant’s West Point dreams by noting “the tradition that Miss King was the boyhood sweetheart who had made West Point seem a long way off.” Furthermore, Geoffrey Peret writes in his 1997 biography of Grant (p. 31) that “chances are” the woman in question was Mary King.
As readers familiar with Grant’s biography know, Grant would eventually meet and marry the love of his life, Julia Dent (who was the recipient of many, often poetic, love letters from Grant4). Before Julia, though, Mary seems to have been one of the few women who drew his attention. While the reason for Mary and Grant’s split is unclear, an article in the January 18, 1890, issue of The Kansas City Gazette gives one possible explanation: “When Grant was a young man he was very much in love with a young girl named Mary Ann King. . . . Her father, old Victor King, didn’t think Grant was a very promising young man, and bitterly opposed the match” (p. 3).
Grant appears to have had minimal correspondence with Mary King after their childhood interactions. When Mary’s husband John D. Fulford died in 1870, though, Grant apparently offered her the position of the postmaster at Thibodaux, Louisiana, where she was living. The historical marker for “Mary King Fulford” at St. John’s Historic Cemetery in Thibodaux, Louisiana, provides the following details of Mary’s adult life:
Mary King Fulford was a childhood sweetheart of U.S. Grant in Georgetown, Ohio. After her marriage to John D. Fulford, they moved to Memphis, then in 1845 to Thibodaux. She cared for seven children, of whom several died in childhood, and played a strong role in the Thibodaux Presbyterian Church. John Fulford lost his property and work after the Civil War. When he died in 1870, President Grant offered the position of Postmistress in the Thibodaux Post Office to his friend of thirty years’ acquaintance. After Mary held the post for five months, she resigned saying that it was inappropriate for a woman. Mary Fulford died in 1903.
Although the poem I’ve been discussing is attributed to Grant, I should emphasize that scholars have not been able to prove definitively that he was the author. The original copy of the poem, held by Southern Illinois University, is not in Grant’s hand. Additionally, the Library of Congress’s copy of the poem is accompanied by a page of notes that call several aspects of the poem into question.
First, the top of the page gives a date of 1846-1847. If this is supposed to indicate the date of the poem’s composition, it can’t have been written by Grant, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1843 and was engaged to Julia Dent in 1844. The years given, however, could reflect the faulty or incorrect memory of Mary King or one of the poem’s donors, or be intended to note a date other than when the poem was thought to be composed.
The notes also claim that Grant wrote the “first two lines only,” and that the poem was “probably finished by Mary Cramer,” one of his sisters. I love picturing Grant and his sister collaborating on a poem for his girlfriend, struggling to come up with lines that not only make sense, but whose first letters also spell out Mary’s name. Without further evidence, though, this must remain enjoyable speculation.
Want to learn more about poetry written by other U.S. presidents? Take a look at the Library’s Presidents as Poets web guide, which chronicles the poetic attempts—for better or worse—of ten former presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama. You might also enjoy the Presidents Day article published in yesterday’s Washington Post, which draws on the guide to explore how George Washington and Abraham Lincoln stack up as poets.
If you want to weigh in on which president you consider to be the best poet, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Let us know in the comments below!
1. Page 364 of The Papers of Ulysses S Grant, Volume 1: 1837-1861 includes the following note on the poem: “1839, [Spring ?]. Poem supposedly written by USG for Mary King before his departure for USMA. Apparently not in USG’s hand— ICarbS.”
2. Ron Chernow indicates in his recent biography of Grant (p. 26) that it was written for Kate Lowe, which the Los Angeles Herald once referred to as “Grant’s First Sweetheart.”
3. Transcription of poem:
My country calls and I obey,
And shortly I’ll be on my way,
Removed from home far in the West,
Yet you with home and friends are blest.
Kindly then remember me,
I’ll also often think of thee,
Nor forget the soldier story
Gone to gain the field of glory.
4. See, for example, the May 24, 1846, letter from Grant to then-fiancée Julia Dent, written while Grant was serving in the Mexican War. Grant laments the loss of two wildflowers sent him by Julia: “The two wildflowers you sent me come safe, but when I opened your letter the wind blew them away and I could note find them. Before I seal this, I will pick a wildflower off the bank of the Rio Grande to send to you.”
You speak of celebrating Presidents Day and Valentines Day together; the Dan Meyer Choir in Baltimore has been doing that for the past four years! Every Presidents Day we perform The Love Songs of the Presidents at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance. We perform settings of love poems and letters by Washington, J.Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Harding, Hoover, L.Johnson, Nixon and G.W.Bush. Check it out if you’re ever nearby!