Robert E. Lee has had a rough couple years on the commemorative landscape front. His statue in New Orleans was removed in 2017, his statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was removed last year, and his statue in Richmond, Virginia was removed a few days ago. While Lee’s legacy is still celebrated by a large number of Americans, it is clear that his presence within the nation’s public commemoration of the American Civil War through monuments, memorials, and statues is changing. A majority of residents within these local communities have expressed their values through activism and voting and have declared that Lee is no longer worthy of the public commemoration that he has enjoyed for more than 100 years. As our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new evidence comes to life and new interpretations are offered by historians, so too are public icons revised as new understandings of the past emerge.
There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of Lee’s statues on historical and aesthetic grounds and the process by which these three icons were ordered to be removed through government orders. I am not interested in rehashing those debates here, but the above tweet from David Reaboi of the Claremont Institute did raise my eyebrows for what it had to say about who could participate in debates about Confederate iconography. As can be seen, Reaboi is perplexed by people who have taken a strong view of Confederate iconography but whose families have no direct connection to the Civil War since their families immigrated to the United States after the war. Reaboi labels these people (of which I’m assuming he means people opposed to Lee’s statues) as “self-righteous” and the entire idea of their participation in these debates “gross.”
I find these comments to be troubling, possibly nativist, and “gross” for a number of reasons.
On the most basic level, these comments fly in the face of inclusive commentaries about the place of immigrants and their progeny in American society. Lofty rhetoric about the United States as “A Nation of Immigrants” and legal protections in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright and naturalized citizenship aim to abolish legal and cultural hierarchies between native and foreign-born citizens. In other words, once you are a citizen of the United States, it no longer matters whether you are a lifelong citizen or a citizen who became naturalized today. All citizens have the same legal protections to participate freely in American society and a right to help shape the country’s future. That would also mean the right to participate in what history is commemorated in the public square in the future, contrary to what Reaboi states.
One might also point out that a deep ancestral connection to the United States should not be fetishized. After all, there are plenty of native-born Americans with a very poor understanding of U.S. history and many foreign-born people with a strong understanding of U.S. history. It’s worth remembering, of course, that U.S. history plays an important role in the country’s naturalization test, a test that many native-born citizens would struggle with! Moreover, just because a person is descended from Robert E. Lee does not make them an expert on the American Civil War, nor does it give them an elevated voice on what should be done about Lee’s statue today. An understanding of history does not develop from genetics or through osmosis, but by use of historical methods, research, and interpretation. To say one U.S. citizen’s opinion on the Lee statue is more valid than another’s because of their ancestral origins is preposterous. What difference does it make if my ancestors came to the United States in 1826, 1866, or 2016 if I’ve studied the Civil War and have views about its history?
It is also worth mentioning that Reaboi fails to grapple with the idea that people whose descendants were here long before the American Civil War might also have a negative opinion of Confederate iconography. After all, some of the most vocal opponents of Lee’s statues are the descendants of African Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, and others who have a long ancestral history of living in the United States. The notion that the loudest “self-righteous” critics of Lee’s statues have no familial connections to the Civil War is therefore a strawman in no way rooted in the reality of the situation.
All of this is to say that NO, you do not have to have an ancestor who experienced the American Civil War firsthand in order to form an opinion on Robert E. Lee’s statue. In the end, it’s about the quality of the arguments being made and the evidence used to support those arguments. If you have a compelling argument to make, your ancestral background shouldn’t matter. Focus on the game, not the players.
Finally, I should also mention that Reaboi continued his opinions in another tweet by criticizing “our modern desire to see history as a simple morality play between forces of Progress and Evil.” The irony of this view is that public iconography is often guilty of doing this very thing by reducing complex history to a narrative of national progress and unquestioned hero worship through statuary. And since many Civil War monuments and statues were erected in the late 19th century and early 20th century, we can see that the desire to turn history into a simple morality play of progress and evil is not modern at all. These monuments and statues are actually reflective of a longstanding tradition of using history to promote nationalism, patriotism, and a “consensus” view of history. Many critics of public iconography like Robert E. Lee’s statues have grounded their criticisms on the idea that society needs to ask serious questions not just about history, but how and why we honor certain historical figures and events through public icons. Seen in this light, these critics are actually asking society to take history more seriously.
P.S… Just in case anyone is wondering about my own family connections to American history, I do have a Civil War ancestor. My great-great uncle Charles Brady served in the 49th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Union) during the war.
Former First Lady Julia Dent Grant was very forthright about her relationship with slavery in The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant. Having grown up at the 850-acre White Haven plantation in the St. Louis countryside with upwards of thirty enslaved African Americans at one point, Julia was taught from a very young age that slavery was a “positive good” that established a stable, appropriate relationship between Black and White Southerners. Slavery was central to her own privileged upbringing by ensuring that she had no chores to do at home and that time could be spent enjoying the niceties of friends, family, entertainment, and a formal education while the enslaved did the work of making this ideal upbringing possible. Julia Grant sincerely believed that “our people were very happy” with this lifestyle and even went so far as to lament that “the comforts of slavery passed away forever” with the coming of emancipation during the American Civil War (34).
As I previously wrote several years ago, the evidence suggests that Julia Grant never legally owned any enslaved African Americans. She was, however, informally “gifted” four enslaved people from her father, Frederick F. Dent, that served at her pleasure. In fact, Dan, Eliza, Julia, and John actually served Ulysses and Julia Grant and their entire family while they lived at White Haven from 1854 to 1859 and during their brief stay in downtown St. Louis from 1859 to early 1860. According to Julia, when the Grants decided to move to Galena, Illinois, “we rented our pretty little home [in St. Louis] and hired out our four servants to persons whom we knew and who promised to be kind to them” (82). An additional letter from Ulysses S. Grant on May 10, 1861 confirms that when Dan, Eliza, Julia, and John were hired out, the income generated from the arrangement went to Frederick F. Dent, not Julia, pointing to him as the legal owner of these people.
For the purposes of this post I’m interested in exploring how the enslaved woman Julia, sometimes referred to as “Jule,” achieved her freedom. In November 1861, Julia Grant came back to St. Louis from Galena, Illinois, to visit her father at White Haven. While there, Julia somehow regained possession of Jule and took her away from White Haven. “When I visited the General during the war, I nearly always had Julia with me as nurse,” Julia Grant recalled (83). Remarkably, Julia maintained possession of Jule for a little over two years until January 1864, one year after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
During this time, Julia Grant discovered that her eldest son, Frederick D. Grant, was deathly ill back in St. Louis. Anxious to get back to him, Julia prepared her things and took Jule with her to St. Louis, until this moment happened during the trip:
“At Louisville [Kentucky], my nurse (a girl raised at my home) left me, as I suppose she feared losing her freedom if she returned to Missouri. I regretted this as she was a favorite of mine.”
The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, p. 126
The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Missouri, so at first glance it does not make much sense why Jule would be concerned about losing her freedom if she didn’t have it in the first place. A closer look, however, indicates that Julia Grant and Jule were at General Grant’s headquarters at Holly Springs, Mississippi, on January 1, 1863. Technically speaking, the Emancipation Proclamation would have made Jule a free woman since she was in Confederate territory at that time. Therefore, when Julia Grant made plans to return to a state where slavery still existed in 1864, Jule decided to flee when the opportunity arose.
This story raises some interesting questions about the meaning of “freedom.” Even if Jule was legally freed through the Emancipation Proclamation, did she truly acquire any new rights that day? Did she now possess a right to leave Julia Grant’s “employ” at will? Did she begin to earn wages for her labors, or did she continue to toil in much the same way as she always had in slavery? If Jule was now free, was she truly free so long as she remained alongside Julia Grant?
The wording of Julia’s recollections suggests that Jule considered herself a free person in January 1864 and that returning to Missouri threatened her freedom. Conversely, the passage also suggests that Julia Grant still viewed Jule as “hers.” The sight of an African American woman raised at White Haven leaving her was a moment of profound sadness for Julia Grant, something that remained on her mind more than thirty years later. In any case, the question of whether Jule was freed in 1863 or 1864 should not distract us from the fact that ultimately she took matters into her own hands and seized freedom on her own terms by leaving Julia Grant in 1864.
On February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states after the Iowa State Legislature became the 28th state to ratify*. (The Republican-majority in the New York State Legislature approved the amendment in April 1869, but a new Democrat majority attempted to “rescind” the state’s ratification in January 1870. New York nevertheless re-ratified on March 30th, which is the date listed on the official certification of the amendment). The amendment states that the right to vote could not be denied by the U.S. or any state “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about not just the transformative nature of the amendment, but also its shortcomings and general ineffectiveness for much of its history since 1870. On the one hand, the amendment ostensibly created a biracial society where all men, regardless of color, were enabled to vote and hold office. The amendment lays down the foundation for legal and political equality throughout the country. Black men who had been enslaved and were legally considered property ten years earlier were now constituents, voters, and citizens. The presidential election of 1872 between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was one of the fairest elections in the U.S. during the 19th century and African American voters played an integral role in Grant’s reelection (Black Southerners who had previously been enfranchised by the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867 had also played a role in electing Grant to his first term in 1868). The 1872 election signaled a promising future of color-blind electoral politics in the United States.
On the other hand, the 15th Amendment ultimately failed to protect African American men in their right to vote in the long run. One underappreciated but extremely important reason whey the amendment failed lies in a provision of the 14th Amendment that has never been enforced.
When debates about the 14th Amendment began in 1866, supporters were concerned that including any language allowing for universal manhood suffrage would kill further support for the amendment. Ratifying an amendment is intentionally difficult and requires support from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states to ratify. Radical Republicans in Congress argued that it would be far better to confer citizenship and equal protection of the laws to African Americans without pushing for black voting rights rather than losing on all three counts because of national hostility towards the latter provision. And yet, a major problem existed. The pre-Civil War Constitution included the “three-fifths Clause.” This clause stated that representation in Congress would be based on “the whole number of free persons” and “three fifths of all other persons,” which was a politically correct way of saying “slaves.” But with the end of slavery came the end of the three-fifths clause and the new practice of counting African Americans as full persons for representational purposes. This change meant that Congressional representation in the former Confederate states would actually increase by almost two dozen seats. If African American men could not be guaranteed a right to vote, how else could Southern power in Congress still be curbed?
The answer comes in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment. Section 2 was a compromise measure. It states that yes, Southern states could disenfranchise their population, but at the expense of their representation in Congress. Disenfranchisement would carry a heavy price with it through the terms of the 14th Amendment. And, of course, Section 2 was the first time the word “male” was inserted into the Constitution, pushing the women’s rights movement into a state of rage for basing Congressional representation on the male population.
When the 15th Amendment was ratified two years later in 1870, the new amendment stated that voting could not be denied on the basis of race. However, the 15th Amendment was also a compromise measure by still not guaranteeing universal manhood suffrage. Ostensibly “race-neutral” tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes could still be used to keep blacks away from the polls. And that is exactly what happened. By 1900 the spirit of the 15th Amendment was replaced by Jim Crow practices and the near-complete disenfranchisement of all black voters. Congress and the courts were empowered through Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to lower the South’s Congressional representation as a punishment, but that authority was never exercised.
A great counterfactual to consider during this 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment is how much more effective it would have been in guaranteeing black voting rights and a genuine biracial democracy in the South had Section 2 of the 14th Amendment been invoked as a punishment for Jim Crow tactics.
2019 saw the deaths of two noteworthy scholars who wrote biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. Both biographies were popular best-sellers when they were released and both represent crucial landmarks within the Grant historiography. And yet both are what could be best described as a double-edge sword; they advance our knowledge of Grant and his times while still making crucial mistakes along the way that illuminate the difficulty of writing an accurate historical biography.
Jean Edward Smith died in September at the age of 86. The New York Times described Smith as “a political scientist and renowned biographer whose works helped restore luster to the tarnished reputations of underrated presidents.” That was certainly the case with his 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Smith specialized in 20th century presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower for most of his career. His study on Grant, however, is notable because it was one of the first major birth-to-death biographies that attempted to overturn some of the common stereotypes of Grant being a drunk butcher who oversaw a hopelessly failed and corrupt administration. While more recent popular narratives on Grant from biographers like H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have undoubtedly supplanted Smith on the best-seller list, I would actually place Smith’s study above all three of them. Grant is a readable page-turner that offers a sympathetic but also convincing interpretation of Ulysses S. Grant’s life. It was the first biography of Grant that I read while in college and inspired me to learn more about the American Civil War, so for that I will always be grateful to Jean Edward Smith.
Nevertheless there are shortcomings and mistakes that make me very conflicted about the biography. At times I believe the book is too defensive of Grant. To cite but one example, Smith portrays Grant’s Indian Peace Policy while president as progressive and forward-thinking. Grant certainly disagreed with the “removalist” school of thinking that wanted to eliminate all Native Americans through violent means (embodied most notably through General Philip Sheridan’s remark that “a good Indian is a dead Indian”). But Grant’s policies essentially called for forced confinement of native populations in poorly-supplied reservations and harsh assimilation policies that some scholars today would describe as cultural genocide. Grant’s views may have been moderate for the time, but they were most certainly not forward-thinking, in my opinion.
An equally serious problem with Smith lies in at least one documented instance in which his writing veers dangerously close to plagiarism. Here’s the bit from Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf:
From Jean Smith’s Grant, page 411, bottom paragraph:
The President’s casket, draped in black crepe, rested on a raised platform under a domed black canopy. President Johnson, the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for the President’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln felt unable to attend. At the head of the catalfalque, standing alone throughout the ceremony, was Grant – the living symbol of the cause for which the President had given his life.
Correspondent Noah Brooks reported that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant later said he was grateful that Lincoln had spent most of his final days with him at City Point. “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”
From Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton, 1969 ed., page 479, bottom paragraph:
Draped in crepe and black cloth, the President’s casket lay in the East Room under a domed canopy of black cloth. President Johnson, members of the Supreme
Court and the cabinet, the uniformed diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for members of Mr. Lincoln’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln feeling unable to attend. At the head of the catafalque, all through the service, stood General Grant, alone.
Correspondent Noah Brooks said that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant reflectively said he would always be glad that Lincoln had spent most of his final days in Grant’s company, and when he tried to sum up the man he could only say: “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”
William McFeely died just a few days ago at the age of 89. Like Smith, he received a New York Times obituary that describes him as an acclaimed biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and also Frederick Douglass. Contrary to Smith, McFeely was trained as a historian and specialized in African American history and the Civil War Era, particularly Reconstruction. His 1981 biography of Grant won a Pulitzer Prize and was the standard study on Grant for at least a generation. Also contrary to Smith, McFeely went the opposite direction and was a harsh critic of his subject. One quickly gets the impression from reading the book that McFeely simply didn’t like the guy.
On the one hand, McFeely’s book remains one of the best and most widely-researched studies within the genre. For example, while most biographers today consider Grant to have held anti-slavery beliefs throughout his life, I actually agreed with McFeely when he argued that Grant’s 1854 resignation from the Army and move to St. Louis to become a farmer was in part based on a desire to emulate his father-in-law’s luxurious plantation lifestyle. I appreciated McFeely’s attempts to contextualize Grant’s St. Louis experiences, and his interpretation on this subject makes an appearance in my Journal of the Civil War Eraarticle on Grant’s relationship with slavery that was published this past September. On the other hand, McFeely made his own mistakes along the way. And his overall interpretation of a cold, heartless tactician who did not care about African Americans or Reconstruction more broadly led Brooks Simpson (who is, in my view, the preeminent scholar of Ulysses S. Grant over the past thirty years) to suggest that Grant would not recognize himself in McFeely’s biography.
The biggest problem with McFeely’s biography, in my opinion, is his excessive use of psychoanalysis to interpret Grant’s thoughts and personality. There are many examples to cite, but the most obvious one comes on pages 10 and 11. Here McFeely assesses Grant’s early boyhood in Ohio and how he communicated that upbringing in his Personal Memoirs. He cites this passage from the Memoirs:
A Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village . . . owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get to him, to give the twenty-five. I at once mounted a horse and went for the colt. When I got to Mr. Ralston’s house, I said to him: ‘Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, I am to give you twenty-five.’ It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon.
. . . this transaction caused me great heart-burning. The story got out among the boys of the village, and it was a long time before I heard the last of it. Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity. I kept the horse until he was four years old, when he went blind, and I sold him for twenty dollars.
McFeely argues that this “one boyhood experience haunted Grant all his life. He referred to it often, usually giving the appearance of laughing it off; but something that must be laughed off repeatedly cannot be dismissed.” McFeely continues:
In the Memoirs, Grant presented this incident as having provided a lesson well learned in his education as a maturing businessman, but actually it functioned in the opposite way. It reminded him every time he had business to do that he was not good at it, that he was still an embarassable boy. What was more, he had been humiliated and mocked not for being discovered secretly doing something nasty, but for being innocent and open; in effect, he had been told that grown-up things, business things, were the affairs of men who laughed at boys who were direct about what they wanted. The mockery came not from the horse, but from the boys in town who feigned sophistication, from the owner of the horse, and very probably his father, who without malice but with great ability to harm, may have laughed at the boy’s ingenuousness. If the story is seen as demonstrating a second point, Ulysses’ love of horses, the blinding of the animal sours the effect. ‘My colt’–that unspoiled beautiful moment–became a broken animal, and in the terrifyingly cruel end to which the creature had come Grant saw himself. The blinded beast walked nowhere in the ceaseless drudgery. Trivial though the story of the purchase of the horse may seem, Grant spent a lifetime not getting over the transaction with Mr. Ralston.
Is this a fair and reasonable interpretation of Grant? Does the blinded horse really symbolize how Grant viewed himself; a broken beast walking through ceaseless drudgery to nowhere? Did Grant include this story in his Personal Memoirs because he was traumatized by the event? Could it not be interpreted with equal credibility that Grant’s own explanation for telling the story–that it was an important lesson in the harsh realities of the business world and reflective of a small, rural town’s culture where everyone knows everyone’s business–is valid?
Historians and particularly biographers face a tough task when they attempt to interpret their subjects inner-most thoughts and personality. The subject offers the biographer pieces of the puzzle through letters, diary entries, written books like a Personal Memoir, and other related documents. The biographer must sift through those pieces and put together a picture that makes sense and an accurate portrait of a person’s life and times. Psychoanalysis may serve a purpose in that process, but sitting a historical subject down and becoming an armchair psychologist requires a great deal of caution. In my view McFeely too often throws caution to wind to craft interpretations that are too loosely based on personal speculation and innuendo.
By all accounts, however, McFeely was a generous scholar who advanced the fields of black studies, African American history, and Reconstruction. His biography on Frederick Douglass is still highly regarded, and from what other historians have said he was a thoughtful, caring person (as I’m sure Smith was as well).
Both biographers’ studies of Ulysses S. Grant represent important landmarks for understanding Grant and should be taken seriously by scholars. May they both rest in peace.
When it comes to discussing the origins of the Confederacy, it’s common to run across defensive assertions that “the North was also racist.” By portraying the majority of white Northerners as deeply prejudiced against blacks–both free and enslaved–it becomes easier for some to contend that the American Civil War had little to do with slavery and was more about abstract principles such as states rights and tariffs. This argument is misleading in several respects.
For one, no self-respecting Civil War historian has ever argued that racial prejudice didn’t exist in the North before the Civil War. It is well-known and acknowledged among historians that racial prejudice was strong in the North, and there have been books published on this subject. Arguing that the North was racist is therefore a strawman argument. Secondly, discussing the extent to which white Northerners held racial prejudices against African Americans does little to tell us why eleven Southern states chose to leave the Union in 1861. After all, none of the various state Declarations of Secession proclaimed that they were leaving the Union because white Northerners were racist. Thirdly, what we see at play here is a failure to distinguish between discussions about slavery and discussions about race in antebellum America.
To be sure, race and slavery were closely intertwined in U.S. slavery both in law and in practice. While slavery had already existed for thousands of years in many places all over the world, black chattel slavery in the United States took on its own unique form in three different ways: it was based on race, was inherited from one generation to the next (in most cases based on the status of the mother), and lasted an entire lifetime (as opposed to most cases of indentured servitude). What sometimes gets lost, however, is that just because someone held racist views towards blacks does not mean that they also supported slavery.
Abraham Lincoln serves as a useful example of the complexities of race and slavery. On the one hand, Lincoln at various points in his political career believed that “a perfect social and political equality” between the races was “an impossibility,” stated that “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality,” and openly advocated for colonization schemes that would (voluntarily) send black Americans to permanently settle in Africa.
On the other hand, Lincoln hated slavery with a passion and believed that freedom was the natural state of humanity. No one, regardless of their background, should be held in chains and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their labor. And when it came to the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln asserted that all were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Although the Declaration was a statement of principles and not codified law, those principles declared that “the inferior races are our equals.” Lincoln’s fifth debate with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 was an extended debate about the Declaration of Independence and whether or not the Declaration applied to only white men or to all men. By arguing that the Declaration applied to all men, Lincoln was branded by Douglas as a radical promoter of social equality between the races. Even though Lincoln disavowed such intentions, Douglas repeatedly hammered him and argued that the Declaration was created for and applied only to white men. In the end, Lincoln’s belief that all were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was viewed by many white Southerners as such a grave threat to the institution of slavery that they were willing to tear apart the Union to protect what the state of Mississippi declared was “the greatest material interest in the world,” slavery. That Lincoln held prejudicial views towards blacks as a race was of far less importance to those secessionists then the fact that he hated slavery and hoped to someday see the institution ended in the United States.
Another interesting person to study when it comes to race and slavery is Congressman Frank Blair. Blair was a strong antislavery Unionist who played a pivotal role in keeping Missouri in the Union, but he was also an avowed racist who had his own colonization plan that received some support in the North in the late 1850s. I wrote about Blair’s racial views here.
Was the antebellum North a hostile place for free people of color? Yes. Did many white Northerners hold prejudicial views towards blacks? Yes. We should remember, however, that someone could simultaneously hold racist views while still opposing slavery. Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was feared by slaveholders not because of the racial views of its members, but because of their position on stopping slavery’s westward expansion.
I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.
Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.
Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.
A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.
Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?
I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.
Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.
Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.
Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.
Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.
Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.
Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.
Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.
Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.
It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:
Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?
Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.
Over the past year I’ve been trying my best to dig into the historical record and learn something new about William Jones, the man enslaved by Ulysses S. Grant for a period of time right before the Civil War. I recently shared those findings in my latest post for the The Journal of the Civil War Era’s “Muster” blog. You can read it here.
Ulysses S. Grant has often been portrayed in textbooks and popular histories as an alcoholic, a drunkard, or at the very least someone who enjoyed a good drink from time to time. It may be safe to say that there is no other figure in U.S. history whose drinking habits have been put under such a close microscope and gossiped about so often. No matter what historians have previously said or will say in the future about Grant’s drinking, the topic will always play a role in his life story.
When drinking claims emerged during Grant’s lifetime, he steadfastly refused to publicly address them. He believed that acknowledging these rumors with even a basic denial gave them a legitimacy they didn’t deserve. As such, historians have relied on what Grant’s contemporaries have said about the matter. Readers of Grant scholarship should proceed with caution, however. One quickly learns that the available evidence is limited and contradictory. Much of what has been said about Grant’s drinking was stated after he died in 1885, sometimes even forty and fifty years after an alleged episode occurred. Hardly any primary source evidence exists that is contemporary to Grant’s actual experiences. It is also not surprising that the harshest critics of Grant were the ones who were most vocal about his alleged drinking problem. Although historians at the turn of the twentieth century were more apt to take the most negative claims at face value and label Grant an alcoholic, recent historians are in most cases more hesitant to place that label on him.
Ron Chernow’s latest biography on Ulysses S. Grant is a largely positive interpretation of the man, but he unfortunately throws caution to the wind and makes Grant’s “alcoholism” a central aspect of his story. In Chernow’s interpretation, Grant fought alcoholism throughout his life. Most notably, Chernow claims that Grant’s alcoholism was a “disease,” the first time such a claim has been made by any Grant scholar. These drinking problems are actually a redeeming aspect of Grant in Chernow’s telling, however, because they demonstrate how Grant fought through his personal demons while achieving greatness and becoming the single most important figure in 19th century American history. Chernow also takes pains to make a distinction between someone who was an alcoholic and someone who was a drunkard. He suggests that a drunkard drinks all the time and that an alcoholic could hypothetically not drink regularly but go on sporadic binges where they temporarily lose all functionality. Chernow defends Grant from claims of being a drunkard but places him directly in the alcoholic camp. While the difference between the two concepts makes sense to me, I suspect that most readers of Chernow’s book will not pick up on this distinction and conclude that Grant had a serious and consistent drinking problem. Ultimately I think it’s fair to say that most people today use the terms “alcoholic” and “drunkard” interchangeably.
In my opinion, Chernow engages in sloppy research and excessive psychoanalysis that hampers his interpretation of Grant’s drinking. Grant himself would probably read Chernow’s drinking claims and wonder who the book was written about. Most Grant historians–myself included–would argue that Grant DID drink and that he may have drank to excess at times. But we would caution that describing Grant as an alcoholic or a drunkard is an exaggeration of the limited historical evidence we have to make such a conclusion. What follows in this essay is a point-by-point analysis of Chernow’s claims about Grant’s drinking before the Civil War. Since it is generally understood that Grant’s worst lapses with alcoholism occurred during this part of his life, I figured it would be best to keep the focus relatively narrow and leave interpretations of Grant’s relationship with alcohol during the Civil War and his presidency to others.
Claim 1: A heavy drinker during the U.S.-Mexico War
Page 58: It is consistent with Grant’s later drinking patterns that he abstained from alcohol during combat periods, when he was actively engaged and shouldered responsibility. “I never saw Grant under the influence of liquor at all,” said one solider. “I know he did drink a little, but that was pretty good whisky he had.” Another person noted he “never drank to excess nor indulged in the other profligacy so common in that country of loose morals.” But idleness, boredom, and the loneliness of occupation mixed a toxic brew of emotions that slowly led him into temptation and people noticed an abrupt change. One Ohio soldier wrote home in May 1848 that Grant was “altered very much: he is a short thick man with a beard reaching half way down his waist and I fear he drinks too much but don’t you say a word on that subject.” A more damning recollection came from his friend Richard Dawson, who said Grant “got to drinking heavily during or after the war.” Right after his return from Mexico, he encountered Grant and said he “was in bad shape from the effects of drinking, and suffering from mania a potu [delirium tremens] and some other troubles.”
Footnotes: “Interview with J.D. Elderkin,” Hamlin Garland Papers, Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library S2 B54 F13; Letter from John Rowe to his wife, May 12, 1848, Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library S2 B4 F10; Letter from Richard Dawson to Hamlin Garland, July 17, 1896, Hamlin Garland Papers.
Comment: This passage is the first of many passages in which Chernow attempts to portray a sense of certitude about Grant’s drinking to readers when in reality the available evidence is speculative, uncertain, and contradictory. His assertion that Grant only drank during periods of down time belies the fact that a “combat period” can start at any point in a time of war. That fact is only magnified later when Grant takes over command of the U.S. Army during the Civil War and is tasked with managing a major war effort with multiple field armies, more than one million soldiers, and the contingencies of an evolving war where plans could change in an instant. Just ask Dwight Eisenhower. The 1848 letter from Rowe is the strongest evidence to corroborate any claims that Grant did in fact drink, but it’s worth questioning whether one letter from the Mexican-American war is enough evidence to verify whether Grant’s drinking constituted a serious problem akin to alcoholism.
The other letters and interviews conducted by Hamlin Garland (who wrote a biography of Grant in 1898 based on these interviews) are contradictory. They must also be taken with a grain of salt considering that they were conducted fifty years after the Mexican-American war. How is Richard Dawson’s 1896 letter considered a “damning recollection” when the two other sources Chernow cites from the 1890s said that Grant didn’t drink to excess? What about Dawson’s recollection gives it more legitimacy than the other recollections?
Another noteworthy consideration is that Brooks Simpson’s 2000 biography of Grant, Triumph Over Adversity, also quotes Rowe and Elderkin to acknowledge that Grant drank (p. 44-45), but he avoids speculation or theorizing about Grant experiencing an abrupt change in his behavior or excessive drinking patterns during the Mexican-American War.
Claim 2: Grant’s Alcoholism is a Disease
Page 67: Julia [Dent Grant’s] prolonged absence during the winter of 1849-50, coupled with a dearth of challenging work, proved a formula for trouble for Grant. Heavy drinking was commonplace in frontier garrisons, making it difficult for Grant, stranded in Detroit, to abstain. The problem was neither the amount nor the frequency with which he drank, but the dramatic behavioral changes induced. He and Julia kept a pew in a Methodist church led by Dr. George Taylor and perhaps realizing his newfound responsibilities as a father, Grant sought counsel from his pastor about his drinking. “I think that Dr. Taylor helped Grant a great deal,” said Colonel James E. Pitman. “It was said that he had a long talk with Grant at that time and told him that he could not safely use liquor in any form and Grant acknowledged this and took the [temperance] pledge and thereafter used no liquor in Detroit.” This episode makes clear that Grant, from an early age, acknowledged that he had a chronic drinking problem, was never cavalier about it, and was determined to resolve it. This overly controlled young man now wrestled with a disease that caused a total loss of control, which must have made it more tormenting and pestered his Methodist conscience.
Comment: The claim that Grant suffered from alcoholism by 1850 and that it was a disease is the most extreme claim by Chernow about Grant’s drinking. What makes the claim all the more amazing is that it is based on a single interview with an acquaintance fifty years after Grant had been stationed in Detroit with the U.S. Army. (William Conant Church, like Hamlin Garland, interviewed Grant acquaintances and published a biography in 1897). Readers should also note Pitman’s acknowledgement that he heard these claims about Grant secondhand. “I think” Dr. Taylor helped him, he admits. “It was said” that Grant had a long talk with Dr. Taylor.
Chernow cites no sources from Dr. Taylor himself, Grant, or anyone else from 1849-50 to further corroborate Pitman’s claims. While Chernow is undoubtedly right that drinking was common in frontier garrisons, the evidence he presents does not conclusively demonstrate that Grant experienced “dramatic behavioral changes.” What, exactly, were those behavioral changes, and how did they affect Grant? Was he loud, angry or violent? Chernow invokes Grant’s new fatherhood and his “Methodist conscience” as weighing heavily on him, but again lacks sources to corroborate this ambiguous psychoanalytical claim. What does having a “Methodist conscience” even mean in the first place? And most of all, how can Chernow reasonably diagnose Grant with a “disease” based on the words of one acquaintance who spoke on the subject about fifty years after Grant had been stationed in Detroit?
Claim 3: Grant Injures Himself From Drinking Too Much
Page 68: During the winter of 1850-51, Grant slipped on ice and injured his leg in front of the house of Zachariah Chandler, a big, imposing man soon to be Detroit’s mayor. Grant had the courage to file a complaint against Chandler, claiming he violated a city ordinance demanding that residents keep their sidewalks free of snow and ice. During the trial, Chandler taunted Grant: “If you soldiers would keep sober, perhaps you would not fall on people’s pavements and hurt your legs.” One wonders whether Chandler hinted obliquely at rumors of drinking by Grant. Although the jury found Chandler guilty, he was fined a laughable six cents, perhaps suggesting the court agreed with Chandler’s insinuation that excessive alcohol consumption had accounted for the fall.
Footnotes: Albert D. Richardson, A Personal History of Ulysses S. Grant (1868), p. 134.
Comment: This claim is questionable. In ThePapers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1, a transcript of Grant’s deposition in this case is included on page 195. The deposition states that the person who “did neglect to keep his Side walk free and clear from Snow and Ice on Jefferson Avenue” was actually Antoine Beaubien, not Zachariah Chandler. A footnote in the Grant papers states that “a printed form with space provided for offense and date” with Beaubien’s name is at the Detroit Historical Museum. No mention of an angry outburst about drunk soldiers is mentioned in the document. This information suggests that Richardson inserted Chandler’s name into the document for dramatic effect. Why Chernow cited Richardson instead of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant in his footnote is a mystery. Chandler’s quote and the assumption that the court fined the guilty party only six cents because they knew Grant was drunk are dubious claims that are not supported by the original deposition paper. In sum, we don’t know why Beaubien was fined only six cents for his offense.
Claim 4: Grant Takes a Temperance Pledge Because He Knows He’s an Alcoholic
Page 69: Loneliness, ennui, frustration, inactivity—such unsettled feelings always conspired to drive Grant to drink. Luckily, he recognized his alcoholism just as the temperance movement gathered strength, and he embraced this new faith with fervor. “I heard John B. Gough lecture in Detroit the other night,” he told a Sackets Harbor [New York] friend, “and I have become convinced that there is no safety from ruin by drink except from abstaining from liquor altogether.”
Footnotes: Hamlin Garland, “Grant’s Quiet Years at Northern Posts.”
Comment: Here again is a dubious claim from an article published by Garland after Grant’s death and long after Grant was in Detroit. While we have a quote allegedly from Grant in which he admits he can’t handle alcohol, once again there is nothing else to corroborate those words other than what someone said fifty years later in the 1890s. Moreover, that friend was thousands of miles away in New York when the alleged drinking problems occurred and the temperance pledge was made, meaning that the unnamed friend didn’t actually see any of this taking place at the time. No direct quotes or letters from Grant at the time further complicate matters. This lone source may or may not be true, but it is not definitive.
Claim 5: Grant is Drunk at Sea
Page 52-53: The situation [in the ship to San Francisco in 1852] was ripe for a resort to alcohol, and Grant was innocently abetted by the ship’s captain, James Findlay Schenck, who was profoundly impressed by him. Grant “seemed to me to be a man of an uncommon order of intelligence. He had a good education, and what his mind took hold of it grasped strongly and thoroughly digested.” Schenck, with no inkling of his drinking history, recalled Grant’s “excellent taste for good liquors. I had given him the liberty of the sideboard in my cabin, and urged him frequently never to be backward in using it as though it were his own, and he never was. Every night after I had turned in, I would hear him once or twice, sometimes more, open the door quietly and walk softly over the floor so as not to disturb me; then I would hear the clink of glass and a gurgle, and he would walk softly back.” These late-night raids on Schenck’s liquor cabinet fit Grant’s later pattern of private, late night indulgence in alcohol. It seemed as if with Julia’s absence the discipline of the temperance movement and the ringing exhortations of John Bartholomew Gough crumbled during a tumultuous week at sea.”
Footnote: Ohio Daily Journal, January 27, 1880.
Comment: As with other claims, Schenck offers these thoughts long after the event in question and no contemporary sources are quoted. Grant was still alive when this article was published, but like all other claims about his drinking Grant refuses to publicly comment about it. Maybe he drank on this trip, maybe he didn’t. Is it enough evidence to diagnose Grant an alcoholic?
Claim 6: Grant Drunk Again at Fort Vancouver
Page 76: For someone prone to depression, the everlasting rain and snow, combined with enforced confinement [at Fort Vancouver in 1852 and 1853], were sure to prey on his mind. He began to suffer cramps in his legs and feet in the damp, frigid climate, a possible symptom of alcoholic neuropathy.
Footnote: Allen and Bookey, “The After effects of Alcoholism.”
Comment: A purely speculative claim. Once again Chernow does not cite from Grant’s papers, which include the actual letter Grant wrote to his wife about his health issues while stationed at Fort Vancouver. Below is what he told Julia on December 19th, 1852. Does it suggest Grant was suffering from alcoholic neuropathy? (from The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1, p. 277):
I am, and have been, perfectly well in body since our arrival at Vancouver, but for the last few weeks I have suffered terribly from cramp in my feet and legs, and in one hand. You know I have always been subject to this affliction. I would recover from it entirely in a very short time if I could keep in the house and remain dry. My duties however have kept me out of doors a great deel, and as this is the rainy season I must necessarily suffer from wet and cold.
Grant acquired malaria at some point earlier in his life, most likely during his boyhood years in Ohio or during the U.S.-Mexico War. Frequent fevers, migraine headaches, and joint pains are very common with someone suffering from a case of malaria. There is also a chance that Grant was dealing with some sort of arthritic pain. In my reading of this letter I believe it does not in any way prove that Grant’s pains had anything to do with drinking. The Allen and Bookey article simply describes alcoholic neuropathy and is not very helpful for helping us understand why Grant was sick at this moment in the winter months of late 1852. What is also strange about Chernow’s interpretation is that he describes Grant as dealing with “enforced confinement” at Fort Vancouver. In reality, Grant had opportunities to earn extra money outside of his work with the Army and actually enjoyed life in Washington Territory so much that at one point he actually attempted to move the rest of his family from St. Louis to Fort Vancouver.
Claim 7: Grant is a Lightweight Whose Behavior in the West Becomes Erratic
Page 80: Grant drank less often than other officers but went on “sprees” consistent with his lifelong tendency to engage in sporadic binge drinking. “He would perhaps go on two or three sprees a year,” said Lieutenant Henry C. Hodges, “but was always open to reason, and when spoken to on the subject, would own up and promise to stop drinking, which he did.” The problem was not the frequency with which Grant drank but the extreme behavioral changes induced. Officer Robert Macfeely observed: “Liquor seemed a virulent poison to him, and yet he had a fierce desire for it. One glass would show on him,” his speech became slurred, “and two or three would make him stupid.” Alcohol loosened up Grant’s tightly buttoned personality, giving him a broader, often jovial emotional range; the charge of being “stupidly” or “foolishly” drunk would recur with striking regularity in future years. Rumor mills hummed busily in the small, insular peacetime army before the Civil War, and when Grant made a public spectacle of himself, those who glimpsed him in this silly, sloppy state never forgot the sight.
Footnotes: Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, S2 B4 F10. Letter from Henry C. Hodges to William C. Church, January 5, 1876; Simpson, Triumph Over Adversity, 58; Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, S2 B24 F15. “Interview with General Robert Macfeely,” Hamlin Garland Papers (undated).
Comment: Previous Grant historians before Chernow such as Simpson, Lloyd Lewis, and Charles Ellington tend to universally agree that Grant drank to some extent—and possibly to excess—while stationed in the west with the Army from 1852-1854. Chernow cites Simpson in this passage, but Simpson’s own interpretation in Triumph Over Adversity is noticeably more reserved than Chernow about the ways Grant’s drinking affected him. Simpson states that “Many officers had fallen victim to alcohol; there seemed nothing terribly out of the ordinary about Grant’s behavior except that he could not handle nearly as much liquor as did some of his harder-drinking peers.” That is a remarkably different interpretation than Chernow, who suggests that Grant acted silly, sloppily, and with a “jovial emotional range,” whatever that might mean. Once again, it’s hard to make a definitive statement about Grant’s drinking in the absence of contemporary sources and a larger contextual analysis.
Claim 8: Grant Becomes a Regular at the Saloon Near Fort Humboldt
Page 84: Unfortunately for Grant, alcohol was ubiquitous at Fort Humboldt. Once morning drills ended, officers resorted to whiskey and poker to pass the time. “Commissary whisky of the vilest kind was to be had in unlimited quantities and all partook more or less,” said a military wife. To deal with his private sadness and mitigate the pain of migraine headaches, Grant got into the habit of drinking more frequently, often stopping for alcoholic refreshment at a local saloon or a general store run by James T. Ryan. [Colonel Robert] Buchanan’s adjutant, Lewis Cass Hunt, said Grant “used to go on long sprees till his whole nature would rebel and then he would be sick.” Echoing comments made elsewhere, a beef contractor named W.I. Reed claimed Grant drank less often than other officers, but with more harmful consequences for “with his peculiar organization a little did the fatal [work] of a great deal . . . he had very poor brains for drinking.”
Footnotes: Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, S2 B24 F7. “Interview with General Henry Heth,” Hamlin Garland Papers; Library of Congress. William C. Church Papers, Box 2. “Interview with W.I. Reed.”
Comment: Not much to say here other than the fact that the source material for these claims, like many others, is based upon recollections from the 1890s. They may or may not be true, and at the very least they suggest that Grant partook in alcoholic drinks while stationed in the west. I image no such thing exists, but sales records and ledger books from James T. Ryan’s general store would constitute primary source documents with more reliability than the sources Chernow cites.
Claim 9: Grant Admits Drinking Excessively While Stationed in the West
Page 85: While Grant laid down the preferred version of his resignation [from the army] in his Memoirs, where he never breathed a syllable about his drinking problems to posterity, he was more candid in later private conversations, telling Civil War chaplain John Eaton that “the vice of intemperance had not a little to do with my decision to resign.” To General Augustus Chetlain he admitted that “when I have nothing to do I get blue and depressed, I have a natural craving for a drink, when I was on the coast I got in a depressed condition and got to drinking.”
Footnotes: Jean Edward Smith, 88; Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, S2 B54 F7, “Interview with General Augustus Chetlain, Hamlin Garland Papers (undated).
Comment: Smith’s citation on page 88 of his book quotes John Eaton’s 1907 book Grant, Lincoln, and the Freedman, which was a memoir about Eaton’s time as a Civil War chaplain. In the absence of anything in Grant’s papers about this episode, readers are forced to determine whether to take Grant’s word or the words of Eaton and Chetlain. Chernow clearly puts more trust in the words of the latter two. Again, the evidence is contradictory and circumstantial.
Claim 10: Grant is Forced to Resign from the Army Because of His Drinking Habits
Pages 85-86: Overwhelming evidence suggests that Grant resigned from an alcohol problem. Lewis Cass Hunt told several people how Buchanan sent him to reprimand Grant after one drinking episode. As Colonel Granville O. Haller heard the tale, Hunt told Grant that Colonel Buchanan would “withdraw the drinking charge if Grant didn’t offend again—he had Grant write out his resignation, omitting the date.” There was an “explicit understanding that if Grant forgot his pledge, Buchanan would forward his resignation and save Grant the odium of being cashiered by a General court martial.” The journalist Benjamin Perley Poore later confirmed that Buchanan had warned Grant, “You had better resign or reform,” to which Grant responded, “I will resign if I don’t reform.”
One Sunday morning, Grant showed up at his company’s pay table under the influence of drink. Bristling at this display, Buchanan told Hunt to buckle on his sword and lay down the law to Grant, warning that if he did not resign, he would face a court-martial. According to Colonel Thomas M. Anderson, who heard the story from Hunt, “Grant put his face down in his hand for a long time and then commenced writing something . . . Grant said that he did not want his wife to know that he had ever been tried . . . Grant then signed his resignation and he gave it to the commanding officer.” Some of Grant’s friends, convinced he would have been acquitted, pleaded with him to stand trial. Henry C. Hodges said the regiment deemed Buchanan’s action ‘unnecessarily harsh and severe.’ Rufus Ingalls, Grant’s old roommate at West Point and Fort Vancouver, believed that since Grant had not been incapacitated by drink, he would have been exonerated, but he confirmed that Grant refused to stand trial because “he would not for all the world have his wife know that he had been tried on such a charge.” The idea that Grant feared Julia’s wrath makes one wonder whether she had extracted a strict promise from him to refrain from drinking altogether.
During the Civil War, Thomas M. Anderson discussed Grant’s resignation with Robert Buchanan, then his commander in the Army of the Potomac. “I was very intimate with Col. Buchanan & had my first information as to the Humboldt episode . . . from him . . . . I remember absolutely the Col. Buchanan told me distinctly that he had condoned a similar offense in Grant before he fired, or as he said permitted his resignation as a favor.” From discussions with Lewis Cass Hunt, Anderson, later commander at Fort Vancouver, added that “Hunt had warned Grant not to show up intoxicated at the pay table and had even volunteered to go in his place, but Grant had refused.”
Footnotes: Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, S2 B54 F10. Letter from Ben Parley Poore to Hamlin Garland, August 1, 1885; ibid, S2 B4 F9-11. Letter from Thomas M. Anderson to Gen. Charles King, January 20, 1915; ibid, S2 B4 F10. Letter from Henry C. Hodges to William C. Church, January 5, 1876, William C. Church Papers; ibid S2 B54 F30. Letter from Thomas M. Anderson to Hamlin Garland, August 15, 1896, Hamlin Garland Papers.
Comment: This entire passage is a hot mess of secondhand recollections. It is far from “overwhelming,” as Chernow suggests. There are no official Army records confirming a possible court martial for Grant. Haller, Poore, and Anderson cannot be relied up since they were not there to see what actually happened and were commenting fifty years later on what they heard secondhand. Moreover, where’s any commentary from Buchanan? It is also noteworthy that not everyone present at Fort Humboldt at the time agreed that Grant had a drinking issue. Some believed there was no evidence to corroborate the claim were confident he would be acquitted of all charges of drunkenness. The fact that several people recalled Grant having some sort of drinking habit must be taken seriously, but whether it was worse than what other officers engaged in or if it was the true cause of Grant’s resignation cannot be fully corroborated with the source material Chernow employs. Simpson in Triumph Over Adversity stated the following (p. 61):
Exactly why Grant [resigned] remains in dispute. Certainly he had spoken of resignation as the only way to reunite his family. But others insisted that there was more to the story—that Grant had too often overindulged in alcohol, and he had been under the influence while on duty on payday, enabling Buchanan to finally force him out of the army under the threat of a court-martial. What exactly happened between Grant and Buchanan remains unclear (there are no contemporary documents extant to support the court-martial story) . . . Old Buck didn’t like [Grant], and any slip gave the post commander the opportunity to make Grant’s life even more of a hell than it already was. After all, as Rufus Ingalls later declared, Buchanan ‘was prejudiced against Grant & was an infernal old martinette & a d—a old S. of a B.’ Gossip being what it is, officers likely embellished the story in repeating it, until the image of a drunkard drummed out of service (possibly under the threat of a court-martial) was firmly fixed in the minds of many people, most of whom had never met Grant. He never shook the stories; they would haunt him for the rest of his life. Whatever action Buchanan took or threatened to take, if any, he didn’t have to try very hard to persuade Grant to do what he had long contemplated in any case.
Simpson’s interpretation does a much better job of acknowledging the fact that historians simply don’t have the evidence to corroborate the claim that Grant resigned because of excessive drinking at Fort Humboldt.
Claim 11: It was a Well-Known Fact Among Army Officers that Grant Was an Alcoholic
Page 86: During the Civil War, both sides knew what had unfolded at Fort Humboldt. As the Union general James H. Wilson wrote: “It is a part of the history of the times that [Grant] had fallen for a season into the evil ways of military men serving on the remote frontier and that his return to civil life was commonly believed to have been a choice between resignation and a court-martial.”
Footnotes: James H. Wilson, The Life of John Rawlins (1916), p. 18.
Comment: James “Harry” Wilson was a disgruntled office-seeker and anti-Grant Republican during Grant’s presidency who hated the man with a passion. During and after Grant’s life Wilson worked to spread rumors of his drunkenness and corruption in an effort to tarnish his reputation. His book on John Rawlins claims that Rawlins was responsible for the bulk of Grant’s military victories and that Grant unfairly received all of the glory. As with so many other sources Chernow employs, readers must ask, “is this a reliable source that can be trusted?” Charles Calhoun’s book, The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (2017) explores Wilson’s efforts to undermine Grant in depth.
Claim 12: Secretary of War Jefferson Davis Knew Grant was an Alcoholic
Page 87: Unfortunately, [Secretary of War Jefferson] Davis considered the matter settled, and his reply [to Ulysses’ father Jesse Grant] delicately evaded the true reason behind the resignation. He observed that since Ulysses had “assigned no reasons why he desired to quit the service, and the motives which influenced him are not known to the Department,” he would let the decision stand. Grant’s failure to specify a reason for departing from the army strengthens the suspicion that drinking lay at its root.
Footnotes: William McFeely, Grant (1981), 56.
Comment: Chernow suggests that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis knew the reason why Grant decided to resign from the Army in 1854 and deliberately withheld that info from Grant’s father, but he does so without providing evidence that Davis was aware of Grant’s drinking problems, or that Davis even knew who Grant was prior to his resignation. Davis, headquartered in Washington, D.C., would have had to have heard something from an officer at Fort Humboldt, and his letter to Jesse Grant suggests that he had heard nothing of the kind. McFeely simply cites Davis’s letter to Jesse Grant, so Chernow’s speculations here are entirely his own. Once again, Chernow fails to cite Grant’s papers and instead relies on other books about Grant.
It is not at all clear how Grant’s letter of resignation and his omission of any explanation for why he was resigning somehow “strengthens” the theory that he left because of drunkenness any more than it weakens an equally plausible theory—corroborated by Grant’s letters at the time—that he resigned simply because he hadn’t seen his family in over two years and had been considering a departure from the Army for months beforehand. Furthermore, it would be odd for the War Department to award Grant a promotion to Captain and a new commission on the same day he resigned if he had been dogged by persistent drinking claims and dereliction of duty. Ultimately the absence of any mention of alcohol in Grant or Davis’s letters does not confirm that drinking was the primary factor leading to Grant’s resignation, or that Jefferson Davis knew anything about it and deliberately withheld that info from Grant’s father.
Claim 13: Rampant Speculation and Excessive Psychoanalysis
Page 91: From his home in Covington, Kentucky, Jesse responded [to Grant’s resignation] by dispatching his middle son, Simpson, to New York to fetch Ulysses and settle the hotel bill. It seems rather odd that Jesse chose to send an escort instead of simply arranging credit for Ulysses. One possible solution to this mystery lies in a letter written by Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned designer of Central Park and other urban parks, to his wife at the end of the Civil War. Olmsted had just spent an evening with Major Ralph W. Kirkham, who recalled that during the summer of 1854 he and Winfield Scott Hancock were stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis “when a letter was received from [Simon Bolivar] Buckner telling them that he had found Grant in New York. Grant had resigned, arrived in New York, got drunk, got into a row and been locked up by the police. Buckner relieved him and supplied him with means to go to his father in Missouri [sic].” The story, if true, may suggest why Grant, who was so desperately homesick and eager to see his wife and children, dallied in Manhattan until late summer and why his brother came to retrieve him. A careful search of the sketchy New York court records for the period fails to provide any confirmation of the story.
Footnotes: None provided
Comment: Clearly this story is extremely speculative and another example of a secondhand source written years after the fact by a person who wasn’t there. We don’t know why Grant’s father acted the way he did in this moment. The claim therefore must be taken with a huge grain of salt and probably dismissed as a reliable source. One wonders why such speculation even needed to be included in the book given the fact that no evidence could be offered to corroborate it besides Chernow’s own speculations on the matter. Other Grant biographers such as Simpson, Ron White, Joan Waugh, Jean Edward Smith, and several other past historians avoided any mention or speculation about the Olmsted letter in their studies. Chernow should have as well.
So there you have it. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations and thanks for reading.
Earlier this week a friend and I undertook a short two-day trip of various Civil War historic sites in Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. We had a great time and saw a lot of neat history, highlighted by a wonderful visit to Fort Donelson National Battlefield. Unfortunately we encountered some bad history along the way as well.
I will not name the site here, but this particular house tour was loaded with all sorts of Lost Cause nonsense.
“The war wasn’t all about slavery. It was about independence.” Why did they want their independence?
“The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves.” Wrong.
“It’s not a PC thing to say, but there were thousands of blacks who served as soldiers in the Confederacy. Frederick Douglass saw them on the battlefield.” Wrong and wrong.
And on and on and on.
I usually keep quiet on tours, but there were multiple times when I had to push back against the tour guide’s interpretation. I felt bad afterwards for speaking out so much but I had never been on such an inaccurate tour before.
I believe all tours at Civil War historic sites should incorporate some discussion of the political ramifications of why the Civil War was fought. But in that moment I really felt like this house tour would have been better if it just focused on the furniture and fancy guns and left the politics out of it. At least people wouldn’t leave the tour in some sort of fantasy land where the war had nothing to do with slavery and 20,000 African Americans voluntarily fought for the Confederacy and their continued enslavement.