Julia Boggs Dent was born on a plantation west of St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a slaveholding planter-merchant and his wife. In her memoirs, she portrayed her childhood as idyllic, "one long summer of sunshine, flowers, and smiles." She was educated at a boarding school in St. Louis. She met Ulysses S. Grant at her home, where he visited as a classmate of her brother Frederick at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The couple became engaged in 1844, and following a delay caused by the Mexican-American War, were married in 1848 against the wishes of both families. Grant's parents refused to attend the wedding because of their opposition to slavery, though they eventually accepted Julia as their daughter-in-law. Julia had four children and accompanied her husband to his military posts at garrisons around the USA. He resigned from the army in 1854 and turned to farming and working in his father's leather goods store until he was recalled to active service at the outbreak of the Civil War. Throughout the war, she managed the farm and visited him in camp whenever she could. When General Grant was elected President in 1869, she became First Lady and entertained lavishly at the White House. After Grant left office in 1877, the couple took a lengthy trip around the world, being received by monarchs and heads of state.
In 1884, Grant suffered a business failure and they became nearly penniless. He wrote his famous Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant in 1885 to support them, and she became the first First Lady to write a memoir of her own. She was unable to find a publisher during her lifetime, and The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant) was not published until 1975.
She was buried beside Grant in his monumental tomb overlooking the Hudson River in New York City.