A Welsh journalist’s unfiled story saved the career of the Civil War’s greatest general.
The contributions of the Welsh in the Civil War have long been underestimated. Two native-born Welshmen served as Union generals, and many other high-ranking officers in both armies had Welsh ancestors. But the Welshman who contributed most to the Union cause was not a soldier at all, but a newspaper reporter. And that reporter, Sylvanus Cadwallader of the Chicago Times, actually performed his greatest service by not writing a story. Indeed, had Cadwallader filed a dispatch on the madcap antics that took place aboard the Federal steamer Diligent on June 6-7, 1863, the entire course of the war–and of American history itself–might have been quite different.
At the time in question, Cadwallader had attached himself to the headquarters staff of Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who was then engaged in a long, frustrating struggle to crack the Confederate bastion at Vicksburg, Miss. On June 6, 1863, Grant left for a two-day inspection tour up the Yazoo River to Sataria, where he posted one of his divisions. Cadwallader went along for the ride.
Grant’s chief of staff, Colonel John Rawlins, who functioned as the general’s watchdog as much as his aide, had found a case of wine stowed in front of Grant’s tent outside Vicksburg. He was well acquainted with the general’s longstanding drinking problem, and he pointedly warned Grant not to begin drinking again as he sometimes did when he became frustrated.
Rawlins did not accompany Grant on the inspection tour. That was a mistake. Cadwallader, who enjoyed comparatively warm relations with Grant, sensed that something was amiss with the normally placid commander. “I was not long in perceiving that Grant had been drinking, and that he was still keeping it up,” Cadwallader recalled years later. “He made several trips to the barroom of the boat in a short time, and became stupid in speech and staggering in gait.”
The journalist tried to get someone on Grant’s staff to intervene, but no one would take responsibility for confronting the general. Finally, Cadwallader took it upon himself to escort Grant to his stateroom, where he locked the door and “commenced throwing bottles of whiskey…through the windows.” Naturally, Grant protested the waste of good whiskey, but Cadwallader finally managed to get the general to lie down. “After much resistance I succeeded, and soon fanned him to sleep.”
The next morning Grant came down to breakfast, and Cadwallader supposed that the worst was over. But somehow Grant got hold of another bottle of whiskey while Cadwallader wasn’t looking, and soon “was quite as much intoxicated as the day before.”
Even worse, the general wanted to proceed immediately to Chickasaw Bayou, a key landing point that was always swarming with soldiers and civilians. Cadwallader, fearing that someone would see Grant in his disheveled condition and thus bring about his “utter disgrace and ruin,” managed to delay the boat’s arrival until sundown, when Diligent tied up next to a sutler’s boat. Cadwallader warned the sutler about Grant’s behavior and “received his promise that the general should not have a drop of anything intoxicating on his boat.”
Cadwallader went off to locate an escort for himself and Grant, only to return to find Grant sitting at a table covered with whiskey and champagne bottles, “in the act of swallowing a glass of whiskey.” Once more Cadwallader intervened, respectfully advising the general that his escort was waiting.
Grant then insisted on riding five miles to army headquarters. Grant was an excellent horseman–drunk or sober–and he quickly tore off, Cadwallader in close pursuit. After a nerve-wracking chase through the growing darkness, the journalist caught up with the reeling Grant and convinced him to dismount and lie down for a brief nap.
Securing an army ambulance for the worse-for-wear commander, Cadwallader finally brought the Union commander back to his headquarters, where a furious Rawlins was waiting. To the journalist’s amazement, Grant calmly climbed out of the ambulance, bade everyone a gracious good night, and walked steadily, if slowly, back to his tent.
One month later Vicksburg fell, and a now-sober U.S. Grant continued his improbable rise to military greatness and, finally, the White House, his two-day bender long forgotten. By not filing a sensational story of the incident, Cadwallader had ensured that Grant would remain in place to receive the Rebel surrender at Vicksburg and, two years later, at Appomattox. Among those present that April morning in Wilmer McLean’s parlor was Sylvanus Cadwallader–the only journalist allowed on the scene. Perhaps it was Grant’s way of saying thanks.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War