Analyzing Mediocre, Good, and Great U.S. Grant Biographies

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The other day I came across a history blog run by a gentleman named Stephen Floyd. Mr. Floyd is using his blog to share his experiences on a “journey through the best presidential biographies,” which includes reading almost 100 biographies of U.S. presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama. Stephen is currently reading a few biographies of President Ulysses S. Grant, and I feel inspired to write an overview of what I consider the most notable “mediocre, good, and great” Grant biographies. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of biographies on Grant that one can choose from, and I’d argue that there really isn’t a “definitive” study of Grant out there at this time. Nevertheless, I am going to focus on ten noteworthy authors here.

I consider a “mediocre” Grant biography to be one that hardcore scholars should read in order to understand the evolving literature/historiography of Grant studies, but casual readers can probably avoid. “Good” biographies are worth picking up at your local library or cheaply on Amazon. I deem “great” biographies as essential to understanding the life of Ulysses S. Grant and highly recommend their purchase by those interested.

Here we go:

Mediocre

William McFeely – Grant (1981): University of Georgia history professor William McFeely won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1981 biography of Grant. The study was meticulously researched and his bibliography is a good resource for seeking solid primary and secondary resources for researching Grant. The study was groundbreaking for its time, but in my opinion this book is uneven and many of its interpretations are questionable. To take one example, during McFeely’s analysis of Grant’s time in St. Louis in the 1850s he cites a letter written from Grant in which he mentions a negro “boy” who labored at the White Haven estate and was either Frederick Dent’s (Grant’s Father-in-law) slave or a laborer hired by Grant. McFeely uses this scant evidence to argue that this “boy” was actually William Jones, Grant’s slave from an unknown date in the late 1850s until 1859. It very well might have been Jones, but no one really knows who this “boy” was – McFeely is simply speculating and passing these speculations as “history” to his readers. Later, in his analysis of Grant’s presidency, McFeely argues that Grant didn’t really care about blacks during his presidency, even though Grant passionately advocated for passage of the 15th Amendment granting black males the right to vote. President Grant also fought for the protection of Southern blacks from political terrorism by groups like the Ku Klux Klan long after his Northern Republican contemporaries in Congress lost interest in military reconstruction and the protection of black rights. Finally, McFeely too often dabbles in psychobabble that simply lacks any credible primary source documentation. Bob Pollock addresses one instance of McFeely’s psychobabble here.

Edward H. Bonkemper III – Ulysses S. Grant: A Victor, Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War (2004)Edward Bonkemper attempts to save General Grant’s reputation as a drunken and reckless butcher during the American Civil War. Bonkemper’s efforts are commendable and there is not a lot to disagree with in this book. The problem, however, is that Bonkemper’s analysis is unoriginal, stale, and bordering on hagiography. J.F.C. Fuller’s study of Grant’s generalship–which will make an appearance later in this essay–thoroughly debunked the “Grant’s a butcher” claim in the 1930s, and several other scholars including Bruce Catton and T. Harry Williams also refuted those claims later in the 1950s and 60s. Not much original research to see here.

Geoffrey Perret – Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (1997): Like Bonkemper, Geoffrey Perret aims for a sympathetic portrayal of Grant that illuminates both his generalship and presidency in a positive light. Perret’s writing is clear and his narrative is easy to follow, but the book is plagued with mistakes throughout. Far too many to enumerate here. His interpretation of Ulysses and Julia’s courtship and early marriage is also off, in my opinion, by suggesting that their relationship was more tenuous than it really was. Despite extended leaves of absence during Grant’s military service throughout the 1840s and 50s, one would be hard pressed to find a more loving relationship than the one between Ulysses and Julia. Perret seems to miss the dynamics of this relationship in his interpretation.

Good

Joan Waugh – U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (2009): Joan Waugh’s study of Grant is partly a biography of Grant’s life and partly a memory study that analyzes Grant’s last years, his 1885 death and funeral, and the ways people chose to commemorate and remember his life in the years after his death. When it comes to studying Grant’s funeral and death commemoration, this book is tops. Waugh writes in a clear and engaging manner, but I felt there was too much time spent on the biography part (which was pedestrian at times) and not enough on the memory study (which is what makes this book unique). I also thought she missed an opportunity by not analyzing the ways people remembered Grant in the early twentieth century and how those memories still shape much of our understanding of him today. That book remains to be written.

J.F.C. Fuller – Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1937): Although British General J.F.C. Fuller’s comparative study of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee is dated, this publication is a real treat to read, especially for someone like me who does not specialize in military history. In a time when scholars like Douglas Southall Freeman were extolling the virtues of Lee’s generalship and labeling Grant’s generalship–especially his 1864 Overland Campaign–as a reckless destruction of human lives, Fuller was one of the first scholars to question this conventional wisdom of Grant and Lee. Most importantly, Fuller demonstrates through statistical analysis that it was actually Lee who was more reckless with the lives of his troops than Grant (Lee’s casualty rate was roughly 18%; Grant, about 10%). Fuller convincingly argues in favor of Grant’s generalship during the American Civil War. If you’re able to get a 1937 edition of this book, do so. The pull-out maps are easy to interpret and nicely compliment Fuller’s written analysis of Grant and Lee’s generalship.

Jean Edward Smith – Grant (2002): Marshall University history professor Jean Edward Smith writes a detailed and comprehensive biography of Grant that tops out at more than 700 pages. If you’re looking for a book that addresses every facet of Grant’s life, this book might be for you. Smith’s greatest contribution, in my opinion, is his analysis of Grant’s presidency, which receives a good amount of attention in the book. What keeps me from putting this book into the “great” category, however, is that there are too many mistakes and sloppy citations throughout. Dmitri Rotov of Civil War Bookshelf goes even further by suggesting that Smith may have plagiarized at least one passage from historian Bruce Catton and that he incorrectly attributed a painting of Mexico to Grant during his service in the Mexican-American war. See Rotov’s evidence here and here.

Great

Josiah Bunting III – Ulysses S. Grant (2004): For those looking for a punchy, concise analysis of Grant’s life, I highly recommend checking out Josiah Bunting’s brief biography, which clocks in around 200 pages. Bunting does a nice job of interpreting Grant’s presidency (although I would like to have seen more about Grant’s reconstruction policies), and the book is full of eloquent passages that provide a nice historical context for explaining the world in which Grant operated. I enjoyed this book very much.

Jonathan D. Sarna – When General Grant Expelled the Jews (2012): Brandeis University history professor Jonathan Sarna’s book on Grant is more of an analysis of a particular moment in Grant’s life than a comprehensive biography of his entire life, but I still consider it a biography because the book also covers his childhood in Ohio and his presidency. In December 1862, Grant issued General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews “as a class” from his military lines in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. This draconian order was roundly criticized at the time and rescinded by President Lincoln not long after receiving complaints from leaders in the American Jewish community. General Orders No. 11 would remain a blot on Grant’s character for the rest of his life, but Sarna’s surprisingly forgiving interpretation shows readers how Grant made efforts after the war–especially during his presidency–to apologize and make amends for what he readily acknowledged to be a horrible mistake. This book is a fun read that demonstrates Grant’s personal capacity for growth throughout his life.

Frank Scaturro – President Grant Reconsidered (1999): Prior to 1999, the vast majority of Grant biographies either ignored Grant’s presidency or portrayed his presidency in a negative light. William B. Hesseltine’s Ulysses S. Grant, Politician (1937), for example, was one of the most comprehensive and widely cited studies of Grant’s presidency up until McFeely’s 1981 publication. Hesseltine was extremely critical and dismissive of Grant, even going so far as to say at one point that “Ulysses S. Grant was a loser. Even dogs didn’t like him.” New York politician and former National Park Service volunteer Frank Scaturro destroys these arguments and engages in what I consider to be the finest analysis of Grant’s presidency. Common assumptions about Grant’s acceptance of corruption and his retreat from Reconstruction are demolished here, and later scholars like Bunting and Smith readily acknowledge the influence of Scaturro’s study on their own interpretations of Grant’s presidency. I highly recommend this book. The only downside is that the book is rare and now out of print. As of this writing, the cheapest copy I could find online was about $125 (I managed to get a copy for $13 a couple years ago). Good luck finding it for an affordable price.

Anything written by Brooks D. Simpson: Arizona State University history professor Brooks Simpson is undoubtedly the most prominent Grant scholar of the past twenty years, and his scholarship greatly influences my own work interpreting Grant with the National Park Service. His 1991 publication Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 sheds new light on Grant’s political acumen and convincingly argues that Grant’s success on the battlefield must also be attributed to his ability to work with the powers in Washington, D.C. Simpson also spends a considerable amount of time on the crucial period from 1865-1868 when Grant acted as General of the Armies (and temporarily as Secretary of War) during Andrew Johnson’s presidency, a period other scholars often ignore or give short shrift to. His chapter on Grant’s reconstruction policies in The Reconstruction Presidents (1998) illuminates Grant’s uphill battle to find a balance between liberty and order in the postwar South. Finally, his biography of Grant’s life up to Appomattox in Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (2000) provides a detailed, nuanced analysis of Grant’s early life and his generalship during the American Civil War.

Are there any other Grant related books you enjoy reading? Share them in the comments below!

Cheers

*Addendum: It’s been pointed out to me twice in the comments section that I omitted the Lloyd Lewis/Bruce Catton trilogy of Grant biographies. I should not have left them off this list. Lewis started the trilogy in 1950 with Captain Sam Grant but suffered a fatal heart attack before finishing the series. Bruce Catton finished the trilogy with Grant Moves South: 1861-1863 (1960) and Grant Takes Command: 1863-1865 (1968). I’d put the trilogy in the “good” section, but only because the research is a bit dated. Both authors, but especially Catton, were marvelous writers and it’s well worth the ten or twelve dollars to purchase the entire trilogy.

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35 responses

  1. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Nick Sacco at Exploring the Past rates several Ulysses S. Grant biographies as either mediocre, good or great. Numerous biographies have been written about Grant. It is not difficult to understand why. He evaluates the following Grant biographies:

    William McFeely – Grant (1981)
    Edward H. Bonkemper III – Ulysses S. Grant: A Victor, Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War (2004)
    Geoffrey Perret – Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & Presdient (1997)
    Joan Waugh – U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (2009)
    J.F.C. Fuller – Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (1937)
    Jean Edward Smith – Grant (2002)
    Josiah Bunting III – Ulysses S. Grant (2004)
    Jonathan D. Sarna – When General Grant Expelled the Jews (2012)
    Frank Scaturro – President Grant Reconsidered (1999)
    Brooks D. Simpson – Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S.. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstuction
    The Reconstruction Presidents (1998)
    Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (2000)

    Check out Sacco’s ratings at Exploring the Past.

    1. Thanks for reblogging, Sandvick!

  2. I would put the Lloyd Lewis-Bruce Catton trilogy in the “good” category. The research is a bit dated, as it was written in the 1950s-1960s, but it still holds up well. There is also “The Trial of US Grant” by Charles Ellington, which essentially covers his time in the army on the West Coast.

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for commenting. Those are both excellent suggestions. I haven’t had a chance to read Ellington’s book yet, but I’ve heard good things about it.

  3. Nice list, Nick, but you’re missing the Lloyd Lewis/Bruce Catton trilogy.

    1. Hi Al,

      Thank you for the kind words. I did omit the Lewis/Catton trilogy, but not intentionally! I will make a brief addendum on the original post since both you and James mentioned it.

  4. Reblogged this on Student of the American Civil War and commented:
    Nick Sacco has some good commentary on Ulysses S. Grant biographies. I think he needs to include the Lloyd Lewis/Bruce Catton trilogy of Captain Sam Grant, Grant Moves South, and Grant Takes Command, but what he has here is excellent. I would also include Michael Korda’s mess and William Woodward’s Meet General Grant in a separate category of “Suitable only to line the bottom of birdcages.”

  5. Oh, and H. W. Brands’ biography of Grant is a good one, too. Not great, but good.

    1. I haven’t read it yet but might do so in the future. Ron White and Ron Chernow have biographies coming out soon too.

  6. I like J.F.C. Fuller’s earlier work, The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant (1929). I think he gives a very good analysis of Grant’s battles during the war and, while he very much approves of Grant’s generalship, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize and, with respect to Cold Harbor, even points out an option that might have given a greater hope of success. He also provides in several instances a unique perspective on things that Grant did during his campaigns. I would rate it good/near great.

    1. Hi TC,

      Thanks for commenting and mentioning Fuller’s earlier work on Grant. I’ve not had the chance to read that one, but if it’s even half as good as “Grant and Lee” I’ll enjoy it very much!

      1. Thanks. I should have said earlier that I think this is a great list with insightful commentary. I agree with you on the Smith biography, but I do have a special place in my heart/mind for that book because, warts and all, it was my first exposure to Grant and made me appreciate him so much that it led me to read Catton, Simpson, Fuller, and many others.

      2. Thank you for your additional comment, which is very kind. I had a similar experience with Smith’s biography. His work was the first Grant biography placed in my hands when I started working at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site as an intern in 2010, and it was hard not to get a bit emotional when reading Smith’s depiction of Grant’s last days. The book can be had for maybe five or eight bucks nowadays, and I think it’s a good book to have on the bookshelf, despite its problems.

      3. “a good book to have on the bookshelf, despite its problems.”

        What do you consider the Jean Edward Smith book’s problems?

        I absolutely love that book, and when people who are just getting interested in Grant ask me for a recommendation, that one is always #1 on my list. So I’d be curious to know what the problems are with it (I’m just an amateur!).

        One thing I did notice about it…. I love Smith’s narrative of the night when Grant first arrived in Chattanooga in late ’63 after the tortuous ride through the mountains, and he and Thomas sat by the fire…. Every other biographer I’ve read describes this as a tense situation between Thomas and Grant. But Smith, in contrast, tells a tender story of two strong, quiet, companionable men that is so heartwarming it brought tears to my eyes. I’ve often wondered where Smith got that interpretation from, since I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Is that the kind of “problem” you’re talking about?

      4. Hello “theheartlander,”

        Thanks for your question. To repeat what I posted in my original post about Smith’s book, compelling evidence was posted on Dimitri Rotov’s blog that Smith may have plagiarized some passages in his book from Bruce Catton, James McPherson, and a number of other scholars. That’s not good. See here http://cwbn.blogspot.com/2005/04/jean-smith-grant-and-antigravity.html and here http://cwbn.blogspot.com/2005/04/jean-smith-and-grant-cont.html. There were also some factual errors Rotov pointed out here: http://cwbn.blogspot.com/2005/05/jean-smith-and-grant-cont.html

        To add to those comments I noticed a few other factual errors on my own (one picture caption, for example, incorrectly stated that Grant’s mother refused to visit the White House during Grant’s presidency because she was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, but Grant was actually talking about her aunt. I also believe his interpretation of Frederick Dent–Grant’s Father-in-Law–is pretty inaccurate). I also feel like there are better treatments of Grant’s military experience out there (see Simpson, “Triumph Over Adversity”). The best section of Smith’s book is the one on Grant’s presidency, in my opinion. Again, definitely a book worth reading, but not the “definitive” study of Grant.

  7. I’m going to add another for consideration: “US Grant and the American Military Tradition.” This is old (1954?) and not well-known. I found my copy in Ulrich’s Bookstore at the University of Michigan, bought it for a pittance, and found it very interesting. Like most of Catton’s stuff, the prose is first-rate. Not sure where it would fit in your ranking scale, though. Another couple of titles about Grant’s last days are “Many Are the Hearts” (Goldhurst) and “The Captain Departs” (Pitkin).

    1. Thanks for mentioning these titles, James. I’m not familiar with the Goldhurst and Pitkin books, so I’ll have to check those out.

  8. I agree. U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition is a wonderful book. Catton-lovers will be happy to see Catton finally mentioning Grant’s presidency. To me the real treasure is Catton describing Grant’s writing his Memoirs.

    One indispensable book is the 2-volume “Around the World with General Grant” by John Russell Young. Unfortunately, it will never make the top ten books on Grant, because it is saturated with lists of who attended what dinners, and who was wearing what dress.

    But buried among them are amazing “Rolling Stone” type interviews which capture his feelings about the Civil War and other topics — in a way that neither his Memoirs nor his letters can do. Very sadly, some of the most important sections like this have been chopped out of the newly edited versions.

    Also, it’s always great to go back to the “classics” and read some of the numerous early biographies of Grant — often by people who knew him personally. They give much insight into Grant’s character, and to how he was perceived by those around him.

    * Horace Porter – Campaigning with Grant
    * Hamlin Garland – Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character
    * Albert Deane Richardson – A Personal History of Ulysses S Grant
    * Grenville Mellen Dodge – Personal Recollections of President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman

    And finally, not to be missed:
    * Julia Dent Grant – Personal Memoirs

    1. Two other really nice books in the “people who knew him” category are:

      * Ely Parker, Alexander Stephens, et al. — Reminiscences of Ulysses S. Grant: First-hand Accounts of the General, the President and the Man from Those Who Knew Him
      ($9.95 for the Kindle version, $12.95 for the paperback — but worth every cent for someone like me who adores the man and loves to hear from those who knew his heart! There are precious anecdotes in here that I’ve never seen elsewhere.)

      * John Eaton — Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedmen: Reminiscences of the Civil War (Grant’s army in the West was swamped with more ex-slave refugees than any other army; it fell to Grant, through the man he appointed, John Eaton, to pioneer the new and complex task of providing relief for the refugees, protection from their former masters, and education and guidance for learning how to become self-reliant citizens.)

  9. […] Although the book has its factual and interpretive problems, I really enjoyed Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant. The book introduced me to Grant and helped spawn my interest in the Civil War Era, and for those things I will always be thankful. Here’s my list of recommended Grant studies for those interested. […]

  10. […] unbalanced biography of Grant that appeared only a few years before Foner’s publication (We’ve discussed McFeely on this blog before). Where is U.S. […]

  11. wilbur templeton | Reply

    This is a very helpful blog. But one doesn’t see exactly how everyone missed Allan Nevins’s Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant administration. It’s by far the best work of primary scholarship ever done on Grant — it’s based throughout on the detailed diary Fish kept throughout the entire Grant administration — and gives a day-to-day view of Grant’s relations with Babcock, Badeau, Rawlins, W.S. Stewart, Roscoe Conkling, and the full cast of hangers-on and con men who took advantage of
    Grant from the day of his inauguration to the end of his second term. It’s true that Grant comes through as small-minded, vindictive, and simply ignorant about such things as international relations and the structure of the U.S. Constitution, but that’s not Nevins’s fault. He is, if anything, far too protective of Grant, not least because he wants to show how necessary Hamilton Fish was to keep him out of even worse trouble than he would have gotten into otherwise. The accounts of the Whiskey Ring scandal, the Belknap Indian trading post scams, Schenck’s Emma Mine swindle as U.S. Minister to Britain, etc are superb and, as far as one can tell, incontrovertible. The section where Grant wants to travel (as President!) to the St. Louis courtroom where his evil genius Babcock was being tried for his central role in the enormous corruption of the Whiskey Ring peculation is high drama. (Fish finally convinced him that it was unseemly for a U.S. President to hustle around serving as a “character witness” for one of the most corrupt and venal wire-pullers in U.S. political history. So Grant reluctantly agreed to provide a deposition in Babcock’s favor, which he proceeded to do.) Nevins’ book is a brick, maybe a thousand pages (though my edition may have been a combined version of what were once two volumes), but it is unmatched as both narrative history and a primary source on Grant as politician.

    1. Hi Wilbur,

      Thanks for the kind words and glad you like the blog. While I agree that Allan Nevins’s work on the Grant administration is essential reading for anyone interested in the Grant Presidency, we have some differences of opinion when it comes to the usefulness and accuracy of Nevins’s scholarship.

      First of all, the Nevins book is a biography of Hamilton Fish that devotes a good amount of time exploring the Grant presidency through the eyes of Fish. So the book is not so much a biography of Grant as much as it’s an account of Fish’s experiences and thoughts while serving as Grant’s Secretary of State as reflected in his diary. Added to this is the fact that Grant’s papers had not been published at the time Nevins’s book was released. Readers never really get Grant’s perspective in “Hamilton Fish” because, again, it’s filtered through the perspective of Fish without much in terms of Grant’s letters or voice. Keeping that in mind I don’t think it’s accurate to say that “Hamilton Fish” is the most accurate reflection of Grant as a politician. I also think it’s mistaken to suggest that Nevins is “too protective” of Grant. The opposite is actually the case in the book – everything great in the Grant administration occurs thanks to Fish while everything bad in the Grant administration is Grant’s fault.

      Babcock’s role in the Whiskey Ring Scandal is much disputed and there is little existing evidence to indict him for his role in the scandal. Grant wanted hard evidence to prove Babcock’s guilt and that’s partly why he was willing to testify for him in St. Louis, although it’s true that he later lost faith in Babcock’s trust. See the aforementioned book by Scaturro for more information.

      1. Wilbur Templeton | Reply

        Nick–
        Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

        I have to admit that I haven’t read Scaturro’s book. As you point out, it’s prohibitively expensive. A quick look on abebooks showed a few copies in exactly the price range you mentioned: $150-200 plus! The listing says that it was published by the University Press of America, which I then found in a list of self-publishing outfits. I don’t know whether or not that implies that it wasn’t refereed — i.e., reviewed for publication by professional historians — or not. It may be that Mr Scaturro, on whom I found a biographical piece identifying him as a lawyer and a politician rather than a trained historian, simply wanted to bypass the normal refereeing process at a scholarly press. In any case, the per-copy price may simply be due to the fact that very few copies were produced in the first place. A thing, as Samuel Johnson said, is valued according to its rarity.

        Meanwhile, I’ve been leafing back through Nevins in light of your comment — based, presumably, on Scaturro? — that Babcock’s involvement in the Whiskey Ring business was “disputed.” Nevins, who as you know was a distinguished and thorough historian, gives a very detailed account of the whole affair. As far as one can tell, it’s based on an exhaustive examination of all available evidence. That being the case, I wonder what anyone who makes that claim does with material like the following —

        Whoops. A bit of background. You’ll remember that early attempts to uncover the Whiskey Ring business were foiled because of constant leaks from inside the IRS, later determined to have been made by clerks and others who had been bribed with some of the millions siphoned off by those who had been evading two-thirds of the taxes due on distilled spirits. So Treasury Secretary Bristow devised a plan for keeping the investigation invisible to head conspirator John McDonald and his minions. Here’s Nevins:

        “George W. Fishback, who had bought the St. Louis Democrat from McKee, helped him devise a method of discovering the culprits. Elaborate precautions were taken to keep all steps secret from the Internal Revenue Service, plainly honeycombed with corruption. A new cipher was devised; no departmental officer save the Solicitor of the Treasury, Major Bluford Wilson, was informed of the relentless investigation under way. Bristow borrowed from the Democrat its efficient commercial editor, Myron Coloney, an expert in collecting data upon shipments. He corresponded with him only through a private citizen in Washington, for the postoffice had its spies.”

        The investigations, as you’ll recall, then triggered a House inquiry into the Whiskey Ring Trials. Nevins:

        “It was not merely, as the Nation remarked, the ‘revelations of intrigue, corruption, servility, and lying in “Administration circles” make up such an exhibition as has never before been presented to the public.’ Sadder still was the light which the testimony threw upon Grant himself. Bluford Wilson gave the most striking evidence. With convincing honesty, he brought out Grant’s intense hostility to the trials and efforts to hamper them in every way possible. He swore that Grant had manifested open chagrin when the law officers of the government refused to surrender their evidence against Babcock to a military court, and had told Bluford Wilson that it was an ‘outrage.’ He showed that when Grant had been given confidential evidence against Babcock he had promptly imparted it to his secretary [i.e., Babock]. Both he and Edward Pierrepoint substantiated Nordhoff’s statement that Grant had ordered the unwilling Attorney-General to write his circular letter forbidding the use of accomplices’ testimony. For the first time the public learned that Babcock had forged a passage in a letter by Bluford Wilson to excite Grant’s prejudice; that government detectives had been active in crippling the prosecution in St. Louis; and that Grant had accused Bluford Wilson and Carl Schurz of promoting the trials as a conspiracy against him.”

        Given Babcock’s long and sordid history of manipulating Grant by (1) discrediting his (Babcock’s) critics by inventing vicious gossip about them — see the history of the Santo Domingo affair for spectacular instances of this: Grant would believe any ugly accusation brought by Babcock & Co against someone who threatened to blow their cover — (2) issuing orders and instructions in his role as White House secretary in Grant’s name, usually to his own advantage or the advantage of those (e.g., Fabens, Cazneau) with whom he was conniving, many of which Grant never saw, and (3) isolating Grant in a fantasy-world that always worked to his own advantage and neutralized anyone who might want to tell Grant what was really going on in the world outside the Kitchen Cabinet — given, I say, that history, it seems very difficult to believe that Babcock wasn’t up to his neck in the Whiskey Ring corruption.

        I see two ways of trying to counter this, but neither seems to me very credible. One would be to deny that Babock’s instant attempt to demand a military trial — thus neutralizing the government investigation and taking jurisdiction away from the civilian courts faced by the other Whiskey Ring conspirators — wasn’t a cynical attempt to buy time and raise a jurisdictional issue that might further complicate the case against him. But it’s hard to see any other explanation, since taking payoffs from McDonald and his merry crew would have been pretty much a matter for the courts and not a military panel.

        The other way is the strategy ceaselessly urged upon Grant by Babcock, to discredit the witnesses who had turned State’s evidence by saying that they were all demonstrably liars and thieves and so who would ever believe them in the first place? (This was the origin of the “circular letter” Grant ordered the Attorney General to issue.) But as any number of those familiar with the case have pointed out, this is both disingenuous and cynical. Every prosecutor has brought villains to justice by permitting the minor or marginal players to cop a somewhat more favorable plea in exchange for telling what they know. The crucial point is that “what they know” is independently verifiable, and can in fact be energetically investigated to show correspondence with the alleged facts. The Mafia trials of past years show the value of this sort of thing in what would seem to be a conclusive light. Who would ever let a crime kingpin go because he blustered and tried to denounce those who had turned State’s evidence as a bunch of liars and crooks?

        I still haven’t read Scaturro’s book. I can’t both buy it and meet my car payments. But if he is the main source of the notion that Babcock’s guilt in the Whiskey Ring business– or, indeed, his ceaseless manipulation of poor Grant for his own self-advantage over a long period — is “disputed,” my tendency is to reserve judgment. Anything — e.g., that the sun rose this morning — can be “disputed,” but that doesn’t mean that the sun didn’t actually rise this morning.

        Thanks for sending me back to Nevins. I’ve read most of the books on your list, but I hadn’t gone back to Nevins in some years. I’m going to send for Scaturro through our local Interlibrary Loan. If he convinces me that he knows the details of the Grant administration at least as well as Nevins, I’ll check back in here and say so.

        Cheers.

        WT

    2. Hi Wilbur,

      Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful comment. I’ll respond with a couple points.

      1. Scaturro is not the only historian to question Babcock’s role in the Whiskey Ring Scandal. Simpson, Smith, and several others on this list have also thrown themselves into the discussion as well. I cite Scaturro simply because his book–if you can find it–offers a concise explanation for the perceived “corruption” in Grant’s administration, and while it’s perfectly appropriate for you to reserve judgement on the merits of Scaturro’s arguments, it might also be good to reserve judgement on the definitiveness of Nevins’s arguments here, especially considering the fact that Nevins, again, was writing in the 1930s and did not have the same resources later scholars have been able to benefit from.

      2. The main piece of evidence in question regarding Babcock’s role in the Whiskey Ring Scandal was a mysterious anonymous letter signed “Sylph” to John McDonald. That letter read: “I have succeeded. They will not go. I will write you.” That’s far from definitive proof that Babcock was guilty, and Nevins even acknowledges on page 802 in “Hamilton Fish” that there was never enough evidence to prove Babcock’s guilt. This lack of evidence explains why Babcock was so willing to go to court over these allegations and why Grant was willing to make a deposition in defense of Babcock in 1876. Added to the complexity is that Treasury Secretary Bristow does not necessarily have clean hands here. Bristow had presidential ambitions and was considered a serious candidate for the Republican nomination as late as 1875 for the following year’s election. Bristow wanted Grant out of the way and Attorney General Pierrepont became so frustrated at the questionable nature of the Babcock investigation–which some in Washington believed was part of a larger effort to cast doubts on the entire Grant administration–that he became convinced that the entire affair was a sham. Therefore Grant also had reason to question Bristow’s motives when he decided to defend Babcock in court. None of this means that Babcock was a saint or a competent officer or wholly innocent in other affairs like the Santo Domingo incident, but it does mean that Babcock’s role in the Whiskey Ring Scandal is definitely “disputed.”

      3. Scaturro is no dummy, and his scholarship is widely respected by other Grant scholars. Whether he’s a lawyer or a historian or a garbage man is far less important than the substance of his arguments, which are pretty solid. I highly doubt his book was published with a non-university press because he “simply wanted to bypass the normal refereeing process at a scholarly press.” It’s hard to get a book published with a scholarly press and he most likely sought an alternate route to publish the book largely because of that fact.

      Good luck finding a copy of Scaturro’s book and do make sure to stay in touch. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and hope to hear further from you once you get a chance to check some other sources on these topics.

  12. Wilbur Templeton | Reply

    Nick,

    Thanks for another thoughtful comment.

    This is an interesting topic. It’s not just about Grant, but about the recognition and use of evidence in historical explanation.

    I’ll say something about the Whiskey Ring business below, but first let me say something about Mr. Scaturro. I didn’t mean in the least that, if his book had been self-published, he was taking that route to avoid the scrutiny of readers at a scholarly press. I meant only that he might have decided to avoid the hassle of going through a long review process by getting the book out instantly. (Also that his doing so might be the reason for the high per-copy price now: if only a tiny number of copies is in circulation, the price would rise stratospherically as a matter of course.)

    That said, I don’t think that your claim about how it wouldn’t matter if a “garbageman” had made the same case is entirely to the point. Of course, once an argument is out there, everyone’s entitled to make their own judgments about whether or not it holds water. That’s self-evident.

    But it doesn’t mean that “everyone” is in the same position to make judgments, or that their judgments have equal validity. Example: suppose you’ve had a splitting headache for two months. You tell a friend (a lawyer, let us say) about it. He says “You’ve been out in the sun too much. Stay inside for a few days.” And it turns out that, in fact, you have been out in the sun a lot over the last few months. But just to be sure you go to a neurologist. He tests your reflexes, listens to your account of the pain sensations, and says “I think it sounds like an astrocytoma. Let’s do a CT scan.”
    And they do, and it turns out you have to have an operation,

    The example is interesting not simply because it might suggest that experience and expertise might make one person’s opinion worth a lot more than another’s, but because it includes the CT scan. My guess is that your lawyer friend, given the CT scan results, wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of it. Your neurologist, on the other hand, instantly recognizes the pathology it reveals.

    This is a parable about expert review at scholarly presses. It doesn’t mean that your neurologist is a better person than your lawyer friend, or smarter, or more informed about Renaissance art, but it does mean that his opinion is likely to be more trustworthy than your friend’s about medical matters.

    Now. Back to the Whiskey Ring. Two points. First, I think the business about the “sylph letter” has been vastly overemphasized in considerations of Babcock’s guilt or innocence. It’s a tiny shred of questionable evidence, but in my experience it’s been a huge distraction from the main issue of Babcock’s guilt.

    Second, I’m familiar with the “none of this matters because Bristow wanted the presidency and was out to get Grant” line. What I find depressing about it is that it exactly mimics the tactic Babcock and his cronies invariably used to keep Grant from seeing what they were up to. (Example: when R.H. Perry, consular agent in Santo Domingo, freaked out by what he had seen of the bunch of land speculators and swindlers who were pushing annexation, he came up to Washington to find someone to protest to, Babcock instantly found out he was there and hustled in to Grant to tell him that when in the army Perry had been accused of “swindling a bank in New Orleans, rape upon a small girl, etc.” [Nevins, 364]. For Grant, that settled the matter: who’d ever listen to a rapist, especially if the victim was a “small girl?! This may be a mark of some kind of unusual probity, but some would say that it’s just Grant being, as he certifiably was so many times, a patsy for Babcock’s tactics of discrediting responsible accusations of corruption by smearing the messenger who brought them.

    Bristow was, undeniably, the messenger Grant had to deal with most frequently in the Whiskey Ring business. But Bristow was also the person who, against nearly impossible odds, orchestrated an investigation that turned up mountains of evidence of a sprawling scheme of massive corruption. None of the literature on the Grant administration, so far as I know, has ever denied that what that investigation turned up was (1) incredibly sordid, and (2) a gigantic example of the corruption with which the Republic during Grant’s time was riddled. If all that can be offset by saying that Bristow conjured the whole thing into existence because he had presidential aspirations, well, it’s possible to see that rejoinder as an example of Babcockism that has improbably managed to outlive Babock.

    Then, the matter of sources, materials, etc. I don’t particularly buy the “lots of new materials to which Nevins didn’t have access” line on the truth about Grant administration. The great example would be the online digital collection of the Grant papers. Since my earliest notes on all these things were based on a careful reading of Nevins some years ago, I’ve never had occasion to directly compare his treatment with anything that’s become available since the publication of the Grant papers. But I can say that, going over my Nevins notes now, I haven’t yet found anything that would have to be drastically reevaluated. (Actually, though they do shed light on the period — e.g., the tangled issues of Reconstruction — I’ve never found them the least helpful in trying to understand Grant himself.)

    Finally, in your (very good) previous message, you argue that Nevins is really peripheral because his book is about Fish, and sees everything through what might be called a Fisheye lens. But actually that seems to me to be somewhat unfair to Nevins’s accomplishment in that book.

    Looking back through Nevins, and starting from the Whiskey Ring affair from which our exchange began, I find, for instance, this. You’ll remember that the kingpin of the Whiskey Ring was one John A. McDonald, who after being convicted and jailed for his part in the swindle went on to write “Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring,” which I’m sure you’ve read. (It’s likely, one gathers, that it was ghost-written, McDonald being yet another ex-Army-officer not known for his literacy. But there’s no doubt that he was found guilty of being a central figure in one of the greatest instances of civic corruption in our history.). Here’s another tiny passage from Nevins, who has just been quoting directly from Fish’s diary:

    “There follows in the diary another of those reports of Grant’s words which would seem incredible had they not been put in black and white at the time. “Well, Mr. Bristow,” he said just after the raids, “there is at least one honest man in St. Louis on whom we can rely–John McDonald. I know that because he is an intimate acquaintance and confidential friend of Babcock’s.” “Mr. President,” replied Bristow, “McDonald is the head and centre of all the frauds. He is at this very time in New York ready to take a steamer on the first indication of any attempt to arrest him.”

    This brings up what I meant by giving credit to the trained historian’s experience in weighing and judging the reliability of evidence. Let’s take it in, roughly, the way I myself weigh such questions:

    1) Nevins might be cooking the evidence he’s using to make his judgments here. He might, in fact, be making up everything, including Fish’s preceding diary entry, out of whole cloth. He might just be doing this to make Fish look good, since he’s wasted a lot of time writing a huge book about Fish’s role in the Grant administration.

    A: I don’t know precisely how I’d argue against somebody who made this claim, but I don’t think it’s likely. In the hundreds of cases where I’ve had occasion to check Nevins’s evidence against independent sources, he’s always been reliable. Also, since Fish’s diary was absolutely private — nobody ever read it all the way through until Nevins went into the Fish papers in the 20th century — it’s doubtful that he envisioned any perfidious public use of this particular entry to further his own purposes.

    2) Well, Fish may be lying or making the whole thing out of whole cloth. Maybe he wanted to discredit both Babcock and McDonald by scripting a conversation that implicated them both (and Grant, for an obliviousness amounting to incompetence). Maybe Fish had eyes on the presidency and was trying to wipe out all the competition in a single blow.

    A: I’m no fan of Fish — I actually rather dislike the man — but I find all this unlikely. He was too old to run for the presidency in that age of shorter life spans. He seems to have been the one member of Grant’s cabinet — after, that is, the departures of Hoar and Cox — who was absolutely honest and trustworthy in a now very old-fashioned sense. Also, anybody who’s read his other writings knows that he probably didn’t have the purely literary knack needed to make up scenes out of whole cloth. So: Let’s provisionally trust Fish.

    3) Well, you can’t trust Bristow. Everybody knows he wanted the presidency — if Fish decided not to run — and needed to get Grant out of the way, etc.

    A: Sure, but now we’re not just talking about Bristow anymore. We’re talking about Fish talking about Bristow, in front of witnesses. And we’ve just agreed that Fish is likely to be a reliable reporter in this case, and that this conversation actually did take place.

    4) Okay, but now what?

    A: well, this. The serious questions raised by this entry in Fish’s diary seem to be to be the following: (1) did the conversation reported by Fish on May 22, 1875 take place exactly or even approximately as it appears here? (2) were these people — Fish, Bristow, U.S. Grant — in the same room at the same time when this conversation is said to take place? (3) Were the names reported in Fish’s diary entry — Babcock, McDonald — correct as reported? (4) Taking all these factors into account, is it likely or unlikely to be true that (a) Babcock was a “confidential friend” of McDonald, the kingpin of the Whiskey Ring, (b) Grant knew him to be the confidential friend of Babcock, his secretary, and (c) Grant so trusted Babcock’s evaluation of men’s moral character that he implicitly believed that McDonald was an “honest man”?

    With all due respect, I simply don’t see how evidence of this sort — and Nevins’s account of the Grant administration is constructed around such evidence, plus his own judgments of its reliability — can be outweighed by tangential considerations of things like the “sylph letter” or by smears of Bristow as “orchestrating all this because he wanted the presidency himself.”

    In short, I do think that this conversation took place as reported. I do think that Nevins is reporting it accurately. I do think that Grant had been convinced by Babcock that the unutterable McDonald was the “one honest man in St. Louis.” I do think that Babcock had worked to convince Grant of that palpably untrue “fact” — and, as the record suggests, a few thousand others — because he had long practice in playing upon Grant’s paranoia and insecurities. And I do think that such evidence suggests beyond a reasonable doubt that (a) Babcock was an adroit and tireless misleader of Grant for his own purposes, and (b) that Babcock was up to his neck in the Whiskey Ring swindle.

    Your turn. If you see any way of reading episodes like this in ways that don’t amount to a cheap discrediting of the principals — “Bristow just organized the Whiskey Ring investigation to cover up for his having raped a young girl,” etc — or an outright denial of what seem to be simple facts — they were in the room, they did have this conversation, etc — I’d like to hear it (and I mean that sincerely). Meanwhile, I’m making out forms to request Mr Scaturro’s book from Interlibrary Loan. If he has anything other than the “sylph letter” business to go on, I stand to be corrected.

    Cheers,

    WT

    1. Hi Wilbur,
      1. I appreciate your efforts to clearly explain your position on the importance of experience and expertise in historical interpretation, but this hypothetical exercise in how you’d interpret documents and sources related to the Whiskey Ring Scandal/Hamilton Fish almost comes off a bit condescending to me. Listen, I recognize that I’m a younger scholar in the field right now and that I haven’t had the opportunity (yet) to benefit from doctoral training in history, but I’ve spent many years of my life in school, working in the field, and blogging about the historical enterprise on this very website. I care about this stuff and did not start reading about it yesterday. Forgive me if that wasn’t your intention.

      *Of course* a garbageman’s opinion isn’t automatically as valid as a trained historian’s. Training in historical thinking and interpretation is obviously important. My point is simple: Some people focus on the players; I focus on the game. Some people focus on credentials; I focus on arguments.

      History is something that exists far beyond the walls of academia. Different authors of historical works have different goals, objectives, and questions in writing their scholarship, and not all of these authors come with a history PhD background. Does a medical doctor need a PhD. to engage in medical practices? I think we’d all agree on that. Does a professional historian need a PhD to participate in the historical enterprise? That’s debatable. The question of whether or not a writer is a professional academic historian like Allan Nevins was or a lawyer like Frank Scaturro is not nearly as important to me as the substance of their arguments and what other scholars in the field think of those arguments. Nevins only received an M.A. in English and was a professional journalist for twenty years before joining the history faculty of Columbia University, for crying out loud! Scaturro’s scholarship is well-respected among Grant scholars, and that counts a great deal to me in assessing my own judgment of his work rather than his background. And it’s not like being a lawyer is wholly incompatible with being a historian. Plenty of lawyers have produced great historical scholarship over the years. Gordon Rhea is one of the foremost and respected Civil War military historians of the past thirty years. He makes his living as a professional lawyer with his own practice. Should we also scrutinize his scholarship on the basis of his credentials (Stanford Law) or lack of a history PhD, or should we judge his scholarship on the merit of his arguments?

      2. “I don’t particularly buy the ‘lots of new materials to which Nevins didn’t have access’ line on the truth about Grant administration. The great example would be the online digital collection of the Grant papers. Since my earliest notes on all these things were based on a careful reading of Nevins some years ago, I’ve never had occasion to directly compare his treatment with anything that’s become available since the publication of the Grant papers.”

      Perhaps you should check out those papers before concluding that you don’t buy into my point.

      3. It is a mischaracterization to suggest that my argument about Bristow can be whittled down to “none of this matters because Bristow wanted the presidency and was out to get Grant.” The argument is that Bristow, for all of his hard work in fixing the nation’s finances and cleaning out the corruption within the Whiskey Ring, had his own motivations for pursuing Babcock and making an example out of him, just like Grant had his motivations for defending Babcock. It’s a basic point that I’m making. Politicians have motivations that underlie all of their actions, and it would be wise to simply acknowledge that Bristow had his own motivations for pursuing Babcock. The Whiskey Ring scandal was not an example of Bristow “conjuring the whole thing into existence because he had presidential aspirations” and I never suggested such a thing. Again, the corruption of the Ring in all levels of government and dating back to before Grant’s presidency was indeed real! The question we seem to be debating is Babcock’s involvement in the whole matter and Bristow’s motivations for pursuing him, which goes to point four.

      4. You have not presented anything definitive to prove Babcock’s guilt in the Whiskey Ring scandal beside circumstantial evidence. You state that the sylph letter has been over-exaggerated and is a distraction “from the main issue of Babcock’s guilt,” which seems to revolve around Babcock’s friendship with McDonald and his misleading description of McDonald to President Grant. Those facts raise questions about Babcock’s honesty, motivations, and role in the Ring, but they are far from conclusive pieces of evidence that would clearly implicate Babcock in a court of law. And once again, as I’ve previously stated, Allan Nevins in the very book you have relied on to support your viewpoint clearly states on page 802 that “the evidence against [Babcock] in any event lacked conclusiveness.” Again, that doesn’t mean he’s fully innocent, but we cannot use the evidence presented here to safely conclude that he was guilty or what his specific role in the Ring was.

      We have strayed far from the original intent of this blog post, and I have spent copious amounts of my free time re-reading Nevins, Scaturro, et al and responding to your comments. I am happy to continue the conversation if you so wish, but I think it’s best if you take some time to read some of the other scholarship listed here (not just Scaturro) and try to consider some of the other arguments they make with an open mind. Thanks again for commenting.

  13. […] the past few days I have been going back and forth with a commenter on a recent post I did about mediocre, good, and great biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. One of the issues raised in […]

  14. Here’s how I got the Scaturro book for less than $130. I checked out the book through Interlibrary Loan, took it to our local equivalent of Kinko’s, and photocopied the whole thing. I think it cost me like $10 — and gave me my own copy, which, unlike the interlibrary loan copy, I could highlight and write notes in the margins!

  15. How the McFeely book won a Pulitzer is a great mystery; I would say a miscarriage. It is one-sided, sometimes snide or condescending, and has really nothing good to say about the man who turned the Civil War around. How McFeely got this way is unknown to me, but his biography is barely worth reading, let alone a Pulitzer.

    1. To McFeely’s credit, it was a well-researched book and was very influential when it was released. Grant scholars need to read it to better understand the historiography about him and understand his evolving reputation, but yes, the typical history buff looking for one good title on Grant can skip this one.

  16. Happy to report that the Scaturro book is now available in paperback at Amazon — for $34.57 new, and only $10.20 secondhand!

    1. Wow, what a discount! Thanks for the update 🙂

  17. One of the approaches that I been taking with the study of Grant is reading the writings of those who were close to him, such as Horace Porter. A book that I have wondered about is Three Years with Grant by Sylvanus Cadwallader. I have somewhat avoided it thus far due to the sensationalized version of the Yazoo Bender, however, I am now thinking that I may need to read this book. What do you think, Nick? Is this required Grant reading?

    1. I haven’t read Cadwallader personally. There are probably useful insights in the book but I can’t really comment on it. James H. Wilson served in the Western Theater with Grant and wrote a bio on him, and Hamlin Garland’s biography of Grant is interesting because he interviewed a lot of people who knew Grant personally. I take all of these books with a grain of salt, however, because verifying memories as historical truth–especially in the case of Garland’s book, which was published 13 years after Grant died–is always a tricky endeavor.

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