Taken for Granted
In his article “General Grant’s ‘Living and Speaking Conscience’” (October 2009), Peter Cozzens carefully qualifies what little evidence he has and resurfaces two of the traditional knocks on Ulysses S. Grant—that he was a drunk and a puppet of someone smarter.
Bruce Catton’s magnificent book Grant Takes Command answers both of these aspersions in detail, as well as the chief knock that Grant was a butcher who defeated Robert E. Lee only by his willingness to sacrifice huge numbers of his vastly larger force. The truth seems too unlikely for many to accept: that a roughly cut, poorly educated Westerner—a so-called “failure”—outgeneraled Lee, the flower of Southern nobility.
Catton doesn’t argue the point. Rather, he lets Grant’s deeds and words, and the evaluations of his contemporaries, make the case. But as usual he can’t resist the perfect anecdote. He quotes Hamlin Garland’s account of the hometown folks who knew Grant from his days as a farmer and storekeeper and decided to visit the general outside Petersburg, Va. They expected to find Grant amid the pomp and circumstance befitting the commander of the Union armies. Instead, they were amazed to find “Ulyss” unchanged, just as plain and neighborly as ever, as he sat with them and chatted about the old days. They concluded that he wasn’t much of a general after all, and that it was just his darn luck that got him where he was.
Like those visitors from Galena, Ill., some still choose to judge Grant by appearances rather than his record.
Upon reading the article about Ulysses Grant and John Rawlins in the October 2009 issue, I was surprised to learn some of facts to which author Peter Cozzens alluded—surprised because the remarkable book by Hor ace Porter, Campaigning With Grant, specifically mentioned that the general’s drinking was a fabrication of the liberal press. Both Horace Porter and John Rawlins had an intimate relationship with Grant and apparently left behind conflicting reports concerning his use of alcohol. Who is correct, Horace Porter or Mr. Cozzens?
Peter Cozzens replies: Mr. Bordier’s letter implies something I did not say in my article—that Ulysses Grant was a “drunk and a puppet of someone smarter.” On the contrary, I think he was neither. Grant drank occasionally during the Civil War; Rawlins feared he might drink to excess. Grant’s heavy drinking in the prewar Army was an open secret; hence my initial remark about his “dubious sobriety” before the Civil War.
That Grant often took the advice of Rawlins and other members of his staff does not suggest he was any one’s puppet, but rather that he had the good judgment to choose able staff officers who felt free to offer their counsel. He took it when he found it to be of merit, and chose not to when he believed the correct course to be otherwise.
As an admirer of both Grant and Rawlins, I wrote my article with the intent of clarifying their relationship. I believe I did so fairly and accurately. Where I take Grant to task is in his failure to acknowledge Rawlins’ service in his memoir. Bear in mind that Grant thought highly enough of Rawlins to deem him worthy of a corps command after Vicksburg, and after he became president chose him to be his secretary of war. The views of men such as John M. Schofield and Jacob Cox regarding Rawlins’ abilities I presented as their own; readers may draw their own conclusions.
Regarding Mr. Bellinger’s question about “Grant’s misuse of alcohol,” I found no reference to any “fabrication of the liberal press” in Porter’s book. On the contrary, Porter said that “upon a few occasions the general joined his staff in taking a whiskey toddy” (P. 215).
Credit Where It’s Due
Much as I admire Gary Gallagher and the two authors he writes about in October’s “Blue & Gray” column, I must disagree with one credit he gives to Bruce Catton. Lloyd Lewis wrote the first volume (titled Captain Sam Grant) of the three-volume biography of Grant. After Lewis’ death, Catton was chosen to complete the work, which he did in his usual competent and graceful way.
By the way, I think Lewis should have been added to this list, but perhaps this was another one of those “balancing” situations.
Jack B. Wood
Remembering Sergeant Sligh
According to Gettysburg historian John Heiser, the photograph on P. 52 of “So Far From Home” in your October 2009 issue was taken on the Rose Farm near the barn, “used as a temporary aid station by members of Kershaw’s Brigade….” The darker headboard, which is in scribed with “T.W.S.” with “SC,” most likely belonged to Sergeant Thomas W. Sligh/Sligth of Company E, 3rd S.C. Infantry, killed on July 2.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.