Monday, June 20, 2016

Louis Dent, a Relevant History

This post is number forty-two in a historical series discussing Mississippi’s Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, following the War Between the States and continues the “saga” resulting from the Democratic victory over the Republican progressive constitution framed during the Black & Tan Convention in the winter/spring of 1868, which resulted in a second election. For earlier posts in this Alcorn-driven series, see the sidebar to the right.

In my recent post concerning the Mississippi Democratic Party, led as of 1869 by the dominant New Departurist faction, I discussed its coalition with the Scalawags (“Southern” Republican Party) to defeat the Radical ticket in November.
I think referring to the Scalawags in Mississippi at this point in history as members of a “Southern” Republican Party more accurately describes their affiliation than the term faction. There were two Republican parties in Mississippi in 1869 and probably as early as that Republican defeat in 1868, if not before.
As of  May, these covert allies, New Departurists/Scalawags, supposedly independent of each other, were whispering the name of Louis Dent, U. S. Grant’s brother-in-law, as nominee for governor in opposition to the Radical candidate.
Louis Dent was not a stranger to Mississippi, nor Mississippi to him, but he was not well-known to the masses and the bulk of what was known would not necessarily be judged as favorable. He had been a government lessee of abandoned land in Coahoma County since late in the war and had been residing in the county at the time Grant was elected president in November of 1868. After Grant and Dent’s sister Julia moved into the White House, Dent was invited to join them in Washington. This was where he was residing when the conservative political leaders in Mississippi approached him regarding his possible acceptance of the nomination for governor on the National Union Republican Party/Scalawag ticket. It’s my gut feeling, however, that feelers for the position had been made prior to that.

Back in the early winter of 1868-1869, when the Wofford group had followed the committee of sixteen to thwart the latter’s efforts to have Congress vacate the Republican defeat that past summer, Louis Dent had actively supported the Wofford contingent with the President. What exactly that meant, I can only surmise. We already know that Grant was sympathetic to the conservative Republicans involved in a similar situation in Virginia, and more than likely his feelings were much the same, without anyone else’s influence, regarding Mississippi. I have little doubt, though, that Dent’s relationship with Mississippi and that of the President, gave the Wofford group greater access to the President either directly or indirectly. I’m taking a leap in assuming, at this point, that the committee of sixteen’s inroads had been greatest with the House Reconstruction Committee and Congress, but I’m supported in my assumption by the subsequent record of events. Yes, the proof here is to be found in the pudding.  

Be that as it may, by July 9, 1869, when Dent officially responded to the conservative contingent that had come to Washington to obtain his permission to nominate him for governor at the September 1869 National Union Republican Party (conservative Republicans/Scalawag) convention in Jackson, he was delighted [my word] to say, “...I beg to assure you that if I can in the least be instrumental in restoring the state of my adoption to her normal place in the Union and securing to her a good local administration, you have permission to use my name for any position within the gift of the National Union Republican Party of your state.” At this point, all indications were that Dent had the President’s support. 

Louis Dent and his little sister and brother, Julia and John respectively, as well as their older brother Frederick, had been born and raised on White Haven Plantation, a large slave-owning farm in Missouri’s Little Dixie south of St. Louis. Frederick was a West Point graduate, whose roommate had been Ulysses S. Grant. After graduation, Grant was stationed at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri on the river and not too far from White Haven. Frederick often invited his old college friend home and it was on the third such visit that Grant met Julia. Grant visited often afterwards and in 1844, after, apparently, having been asked more than once, Julia agreed to marry him.  

The men all fought in the Mexican War. Louis (and possibly John), who fought with General Kearny (1846), did not return to Missouri at that war’s end, but opted to remain in California. Frederick, whose military career appeared promising, remained in the army. Grant, whose career did not, eventually left the army, wed Julia, and settled comfortably into management of her aging father’s plantation. 

The Dent boys, Louis and John, prospered in California. As of 1847, Louis was in San Diego, then Monterey. He became a judge of the California Superior Tribunal from which he resigned before 1849. In September and October of 1849 he served as one of forty-eight delegates to write and subsequently adopt California’s first Constitution. On 13 November of that same year, at age 26, he was elected to the California congress.

By the early fifties, he and John had become part owners of Knight’s Ferry on the Stanislaus River in the Sierras, Mr. Knight having managed to get himself killed in an altercation. The ferry was a very lucrative business during gold-rush days, drawing in $500.00 per day (this sum is from Wikipedia, and it computes to in excess of $14,000 in today’s money. Other sources limit that to “some” days. Either way, they were doing well). They put up a boarding house and restaurant at the ferry, then built a grist and sawmill around 1853. They sold the property (the ferry?), and the new owner built a bridge, which put the ferry out of business. John also served as the Indian agent for the area, and Louis ran the adjunct trading post. In 1856 these two laid out the “town” of Knight’s Ferry—since there was a great deal of construction there already, that probably means they purchased land, divvied it up into lots and sold those lots at a profit. In California, Louis wed the daughter of Judge Baine, late of Grenada, Mississippi and a Whig. Of additional note, while the Dent patriarch was building White Haven Plantation up in Missouri, two of his brothers (at least, I’m assuming they were Dents and not relations from the female side, but Louis’ uncles either way), Benjamin and George, were establishing residence in the then Mississippi territory. Both had apparently moved on by the time Mississippi achieved statehood.

So yes, Louis Dent had a connection with Mississippi of sorts, but he himself didn’t show up in the state until after his brother-in-law had ravaged it. Then Louis had taken advantage of the ravaged. Given the apparently close-knit relations between Grant and his wife’s people, I can’t help but wonder how much of what Louis acquired was done so based on the advice/with the assistence of his sister and brother-in-law, who were in the state at the time imposing on the locals.  

Well, someone had to enjoy the spoils of war, why not family? 

Next time I’ll discuss Grant’s subsequent failure to look out for good ole Louis. Hint: The Devil made him do it.

Thanks for reading,







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