I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?
First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.
I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.
The National Council on Public History’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut has concluded. The theme of the conference was “repair work,” and I’ve left the conference with a lot of thoughts about the repair work needed in my own public history work and across the field more broadly. While many of the conversations taking place were continuations of ones that took place at previous conferences, I was pleased with the vast majority of the sessions I attended and thought the conference as a whole was solid. It was up there with NCPH 2016 in Baltimore as one of my favorites. What follows below is an attempt to put my thoughts into a cohesive summary.
“The Sage by the Side”
The concept of facilitated dialogue has become more and more popular among public historians who regularly design public programming at museums and historic sites. For several years already there has been an increasing awareness within the field that a “Sage on the Stage” approach to interpreting history has its shortcomings. Many of us better understand and appreciate the idea that people who visit these sites have their own contributions to make within the process of fostering historical understanding. Programming that does not invite active participation and discussion among all participants runs the risk of coming off as boring, meaningless, and irrelevant. Dialogue serves as a tool to promote historical understanding while also providing space for audiences to participate in meaningful exchanges with each other and with public historians. These exchanges offer the chance for all involved to learn how the past shapes the present and to take action towards improving our world today. The National Park Service has developed its own version of dialogue called “Audience Centered Experiences,” and I’ve been fortunate to have received a number of training workshops on the concept. I have used facilitated dialogue for about four years in a range of educational programming with k-12 students with success.
Having said all of this, I have become concerned about the ways dialogue is sometimes discussed within the field. In NPS trainings I’ve gotten the impression that dialogue is something that an interpreter can jump into relatively quickly; one needs to simply organize a few questions and maybe one or two interactive activities and then the discussion will take place from there. The impression is that effective interpreters should have no problem leading a dialogue; if you have interpretive skills, you can run an effective dialogue. After all, interpreters and public historians should function as a “Guide by the Side” rather than the “Sage on the Stage.” We facilitate, not dictate.
This approach runs the risk of privileging interpretive skills over the skills of a historian. It is concerning to me, for example, that the National Park Service has an interpretation division at each historic site it runs, but that park historians are becoming an extinct job title within the agency. Simply put, I believe an effective dialogue also requires content knowledge and not simply interpretive skills. After all, how does the dialogue move forward if there’s no historical content to give meaning and direction to the process? The “Guide by the Side” perspective gives short shrift to the knowledge and expertise of those who lead facilitated dialogues on historical topics. That’s why I was thrilled when Alice Baldridge of St. Mary’s College (who is actually a scientist) mentioned at the conference that she’s embraced the concept of “Sage by the Side.” This term perfectly encapsulates my current view towards dialogue as a teaching tool. As a facilitator I want to create an inclusive space for others to share their perspectives and to think anew about the world. But as a historian with training in both historical content and methodologies, I want to use my knowledge to inform the conversation in meaningful ways. I also want to use my position to create boundaries that correct misinformation about the past and protect those whose perspectives have historically been marginalized in spaces where public history takes place. Perhaps now more than ever, public historians need to assert their skills as interpreters, researchers, and communicators of historical knowledge. We can do that while also respecting other perspectives. Nevertheless it must be stated in clear terms that facilitated dialogue is not an easy concept and takes years to training and practice to do effectively. Thinking of myself as a “Sage by the Side” speaks to the skills I’ve acquired as both an interpreter and a historian.
Several NCPH sessions I attended focused on issues pertaining to words and language. Numerous archivists talked about the need to improve meta language and tags to make their collections more accessible and inclusive. For example, Anna Harbine of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture highlighted a single image in her collection of a Native woman from the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s. The photographer and the Library of Congress categorized the woman as an “Indian Princess” and her dress as a “costume,” highlighting the perspectives and prejudices of the collections managers at the time. Harbine and others offered an important reminder that a part of making collections accessible online (and making collections more inclusive) involves using language that is respectful of the people whose photos and artifacts make up a given collection.
The point was further reinforced in another panel on historic house tours. Matthew Champagne of North Carolina State University pointed out that many sites with LGBTQ histories often avoid any discussions of sexuality and how it influenced the people who lived in a given house. When the topic is discussed, inclusive and respectful language is important given the fact that people who were LGBTQ have historically been misdiagnosed as mentally unstable and deficient. He also correctly observed that discussions about the home life of historical actors have an inherent political nature to them, and that leaving out relevant conversations about sexuality from historic home tours is a political act. Lacey Wilson of the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters also stressed a point I’ve made on this blog numerous times about the importance of referring to “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” on historic home tours that discuss slavery.
In order to move the field forward, we have to use inclusive language that is respectful of historical actors and people of marginalized groups today.
Repairing Relationships and Trust
Several sessions and the Public Plenary in particular asserted the importance of trust in building relationships between public history sites and partner organizations. The public plenary focused on the establishment of Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford, and what Coltsville might be able to accomplish in providing history education and some sense of hope for a better future among community members in Hartford. In a community plagued by gun violence, poverty, and a lack of opportunity, several Hartford residents in the plenary expressed their wish to see Coltsville become a space for dialogue, education, and safety. I found it interesting to see so much hope placed into Coltsville, which came off to me as a subtle criticism of current historical sites in the city that have not acted as places for dialogue, education, and safety to many community members. Keeping in line with the theme of relationship-building and developing trust, I wonder if NCPH will do anything to follow up with Coltsville and the Hartford community moving forward.
Several attendees I spoke to afterwards complained that the expectations were being set too high for the National Park Service. After all, there are currently only two employees at Coltsville and little funding to go around, making any sort of outreach or educational initiatives very hard to pull off. This critique is fair. Any effective relationship between the NPS and the residents of Hartford should be based on fair expectations about what the NPS can deliver for the community and what the community can do to help the NPS. Empty promises will only lead to a fractured relationship and broken trust that would take a long time to heal. Nevertheless, I appreciated NCPH Executive Director Stephanie Rowe’s tweet reminding us that the plenary was about the wishes, hopes, and dreams of the community and not what public historians want. The point was made when an audience member, citing the Sandy Hook massacre, suggested during the plenary that Coltsville should focus on the actions of white men who committed acts of mass violence using guns rather than violence among African Americans in inner city communities. The Reverend Henry Brown forcefully responded by arguing that this line of thinking implied that the issues of poverty and violence within Hartford’s African American residents were secondary, and that this community could be forgotten within the narrative of gun violence as public historians chose narratives that suited their own interests. Point taken.
On the last day of the conference, I co-facilitated a working group with Allison Horrocks of the National Park Service about Freeman Tilden’s 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage in the 21st Century (you can learn more by visiting this website Allison and I built about this topic). I noted during the session that Tilden conceived the field of interpretation in gendered terms. He emphasized the importance of “interpreting the whole man,” celebrated “heroic” male soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, and generally assumed that men were the ones leading educational programming at cultural sites. Today the gender dynamics are completely reversed and women serve as important leaders within our field. The full-time staff at the NCPH central office are women, the majority of conference attendees were women, and most sessions I attended had panels that were majority-women or all women. I applaud these developments.
That NCPH is run by women does not make it immune to issues of sexual harassment and violence, however. On the first night of the conference I witnessed inappropriate sexualized comments from a man that were promptly reported to NCPH. On the last day of the conference a well-known scholar who presented at the conference announced on Twitter that she had left the field after years of sexual harassment from a prominent public historian who had previously won awards and held a place of high prominence within the organization. This abuse was enabled by the inaction of numerous other professionals who were aware of this person’s behaviors but turned a blind eye to them. I believed these complaints immediately when I read about them and so did a court of law, which ruled that a financial settlement was due to the complainant.
This year’s conference featured a session about sexual harassment in public history and a discussion about the Me Too movement. The NCPH Code of Conduct was also recently updated to take a firmer stance against sexual harassment, and the organization sent an email to all members after the conference pledging its willingness to do as much as possible to offer support to victims and prevent these sorts of behaviors from occurring the future. I applaud all of these efforts, but the events of NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that more is needed to be done.
I do not propose to have concrete solutions to these issues. I am more interested in listening, learning, and doing whatever I can to offer support rather than talking. I simply hope that practitioners in the field take proactive steps to police their own behaviors (and those of others) and provide support to victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and predatory behavior. For women in the field who work in a public-facing role, the problem is twofold. Much like other service industries, many public historians must contend with the culture of their workplace and the culture of visitors who come into these sites with their own standards of decency, not all of which are good. Even if a staff is fully trained and prepared to combat sexual harassment among colleagues, a visitor can come in and treat staff terribly and do so without consequences if the rest of the staff doesn’t police the situation. Every day at historic sites around the country there are programs taking place where a single individual is taking a tour with an interpreter who could possibly face harassment and predatory behavior from that visitor. Strategies should be implemented at every cultural site that ensure all staff are placed in safe situations when interacting with members of the public and other colleagues.
Our field is not perfect, and NCPH 2019 highlighted the fact that we must do more than simply repair the narratives and content of our programming. We must continually strive to repair ourselves, our practices, and the workplace culture within our field.
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.
The Missouri Humanities Council publishes a magazine twice a year that is full of insights into the work of various humanities organizations in the state. Each issue also features a number of articles on Missouri history. For the Fall/Winter 2018 issue, Executive Director Steve Belko wrote an article entitled “Reflections on the Humanities: Letter from the Executive Director” (56-60) that focused mostly on the life and actions of reformer Henry Schoolcraft during Missouri’s early years of statehood in the 1820s. At the end of the article, however, Belko states the following:
In the end, Schoolcraft’s scheme was for naught, as the Missouri Question permanently ended the emancipation movement [in Missouri], and massive bloodshed would ultimately settle the question of slavery. Ironic, it is not, that massive bloodshed ultimately resolved the Indian Question as well. And we can, arguably, attribute the resolution of both questions to a single individual–Ulysses S. Grant–as general and president. Hence, the bicentennial of our statehood and of the start of Schoolcraft’s professional career, in Missouri, coincides with the start of the sesquicentennial of the Grant administration, which, as a sequel to civil war, oversaw the destruction of the freemen’s civil rights and the culture of the American Indian. Still, neither tragic event–civil war nor Indian war–ever resolved the issue of race.
Those comments got my attention, to say the least. Letters to the editor were encouraged, so I decided to write a response a few weeks ago. Here is what I stated:
“Dear Dr. Belko,
My name is Nick Sacco. I read your recent essay with the Missouri Humanities Council about Henry Schoolcraft with much interest. While I enjoyed the essay as a whole, I was taken aback by some of your comments about Ulysses S. Grant in the concluding paragraph of the essay. If my reading of your arguments is correct, you state that:
1. “Massive bloodshed” resolved both the question of slavery and the “Indian Question.”
2. The resolution of both of these questions can be attributed to the actions of Ulysses S. Grant both as Union General (slavery) and as president (Indians).
3. Grant’s presidency oversaw the destruction of both black civil rights and Indian culture, the primary responsibility of which falls solely on Grant’s lap.
While I certainly agree with number one in regards to slavery, I take exception to your rather simplistic interpretation of Grant’s role in arguments two and three. As a basic matter of historical interpretation, it is a reach to attribute major world-changing events to the actions of a single individual. For example, contemporary historians have rightly shied away from previous interpretations of Abraham Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator” given the numerous other forces–the Union Army that Grant was a part of who conquered new territories and established contraband camps as the war became one to end slavery, enslaved blacks who resisted enslavement and took actions to aid the Union war effort, antislavery politicians and reformers, and even Jefferson Davis and the Confederates in overplaying their hand by attempting to secede–that also played a role in ending slavery. Grant evolved in his attitudes towards slavery during the Civil War and did in fact come to embrace emancipation and black enlistment in the U.S. military. But it is a stretch to attribute the end of slavery to Grant.
Likewise, it is not fair to attribute the resolution of the “Indian Question” to Grant. In fact it would be fair to argue that the “Indian Question” has never been resolved given the continued rates of poverty and suicide among American Indians, particularly ones living in reservations, that remain some of the highest in the country today (a somewhat similar argument could be made about African Americans in contemporary society). Here again, a multitude of forces contributed to ongoing conflicts with the various Indian nations during Grant’s presidency that cannot be whittled down to the actions of one person.
Your third argument is also questionable. Grant is not the primary person responsible for the destruction of the freepeople’s civil rights during Reconstruction. Grant supported the various Reconstruction Amendments and repeatedly called upon the white south to live in harmony with the freedpeople. He called for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, helped establish the Department of Justice to fight the Ku Klux Klan, and consistently decried violence at the polls and terroristic massacres of the freedpeople throughout the south. The Grant administration, if anything, was criticized by both Democrats and conservative Republicans for going TOO far in prosecuting the KKK, which in turn led Grant to back away from military intervention in most cases after 1872, although his rhetoric criticizing racial violence continued. Once again, a combination of other forces–growing northern apathy to Reconstruction, an anti-Grant Liberal Republican political movement that called for an end to military intervention in the south during the 1872 election, continued resistance from the white south via violence and fraud at the polls, an economic depression in 1873, anti-Reconstruction Democratic victories in the 1874 midterm elections, Supreme Court decisions like United States v. Cruikshank that hobbled federal enforcement efforts–all coalesced to push Reconstruction towards its end. It is also noteworthy that when Grant’s name was thrown around for a possible third term in 1880, the most vocal supporters of that effort were black politicians–including those who were members of the “Immortal 306” who stood by Grant at the 1880 Republican National convention–who believed Grant was the best candidate to reestablish federal efforts at protecting black civil rights. Why would they support someone who they believed had destroyed their civil rights?
To be sure, I take a much more negative view of Grant’s Indian Peace Policy. While Grant acknowledged that the Indian nations of the west had historically been “put upon” (Grant’s words) by whites, his policy essentially called for the nations to be imprisoned in reservations, stripped of tribal sovereignty, and forced to assimilate into white Anglo-Saxon Christian society or else. The Peace Policy was, in my view, a form of cultural genocide. But again, putting the sole responsibility of destroying American Indian culture squarely on Grant’s shoulders is not only unfair but also diminishes both past and future conflicts over the role of Indians in American society. The various nations who continued to survive long after Grant left the White House were undoubtedly devastated by other federal actions such as when the Dawes Act of 1887 was passed and episodes like the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 continued to occur. I might also add that not all Indian nations held the same view about Grant’s Indian policies. For example, the Choctaw Nation actually took the step of giving Grant a peace medal and thanking him for his efforts at peace when he left office. Some nations embraced assimilation while others–particularly the Sioux–resisted Grant’s efforts. Grant also relied on Seneca Indian Ely Parker to serve as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the beginning of his presidency and considered Parker a trusted confidant when it came to Indian policy. These details do not diminish or excuse the real hardships the various nations faced during Grant’s presidency or the fact that many historians look upon this aspect of his presidency in a negative light, but it does complicate the narrative by demonstrating that the Indian nations were not of one mind about Grant’s policies.
In both cases, claiming that Grant alone destroyed black civil rights and American Indian culture and that these questions were “resolved” diminishes the efforts of blacks and Indians who continued to resist their oppression and fight for their civil rights after 1877 by subtly erasing them from the narrative. It also leaves out the actions of future presidential administrations who had to deal with these same unresolved questions throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20 century.
I am not sure what resources you used in drawing your conclusions about Grant, but Charles Calhoun’s recent book on Grant’s presidency is the most comprehensive study of its kind and a necessary corrective to the common perception that Grant’s presidency was a complete and utter failure, particularly when it came to black civil rights.”
Every year the American Historical Association hosts its conference right at the beginning of January. It’s always hosted in a major city and is always very expensive to attend. The conference is huge and I have no doubts about the positive benefits of attending, particularly the networking opportunities it provides. The organization definitely caters to historians working in an academic setting, however, and the combination of high expenses and my job outside the academy has prevented me from attending their annual meeting.
There’s a longstanding tradition in academic history of interviewing potential candidates for professorships during the AHA meeting. What more or less happens is that history PhDs who are on the verge of finishing their degree begin looking for job opportunities in the academy and are instructed to attend the AHA to do face-to-face interviews with history departments. Sometimes the interviews take place in what’s called the “cattle call,” which I assume is a large room with tables set up throughout where prospective candidates can meet their interviewers, but sometimes they take place in areas such as hotel rooms, which seems like a recipe for discomfort at the least and sexual/mental abuse of the prospective candidate at the worst. The prospective candidates have no guarantees that they’ll leave the conference with a job offer. Many end up leaving empty-handed and thousands of dollars poorer than they were before the conference.
When I was in grad school a few years ago I was appointed by the history department to be the student representative on a search committee tasked with hiring a tenure-track professor of digital humanities and history. We did the right thing from the very beginning. One or two professors asked about meeting the top candidates at the next AHA meeting, but the rest of the committee quickly shot down that idea. We began by sorting through roughly 50 applications and picking our top six candidates. From there we decided that it would be best to interview those six candidates individually through a Skype call so that these candidates would not have to travel to AHA to do what we could do in thirty minutes with a video conference call. When we whittled the list down to two candidates, the university paid for those finalists to travel on separate days to campus for a tour and a face-to-face interview with the search committee. From there the rest was, as they say, history.
The option we went with was arguably better for the department and for those who applied for this opening. Video conferencing enabled the search committee to stay on campus and conduct their interviews in a timely fashion. For prospective candidates, their time and money was saved. For the two finalists, their travel expenses were covered by the university, who should have covered them anyway because the institution was in need of a highly talented historian to join the department in the first place.
I suppose this long-standing tradition of forcing people to go to AHA for a job interview continues in part out of habit and in part because it gets people to AHA, which helps justify the expense of putting together this annual conference. To be sure, some prospective candidates are perfectly willing to attend AHA and have the means to do so, and it could very well be most convenient for both parties to hold their interview at AHA under some circumstances. But history departments looking to hire should not force prospective candidates to attend AHA for their interview, nor should they defray the costs of conducting a job search to those looking for jobs, particularly when they are recent PhD grads in a poor position to take on those costs. This practice should be discouraged by both AHA and history departments around the United States. Some of us in public history were very vocal last year about the continued posting of unpaid internships and job postings without salary information on public history jobs pages. Through those efforts we were able to get several organizations to discontinue the former and strongly discourage the latter. The time has now come to push for an end to mandatory AHA job interviews someday.
To these antiquated history departments I welcome them to join the rest of the working world who use modern technology to conduct interviews and hire qualified candidates for jobs. Welcome to the 21st Century!
I am a member of a Facebook group called “St. Louis, Missouri: History, Landmarks and Photos.” As the title suggests, it’s a fun community where people can share pictures, thoughts, and reflections on the city’s history.
Or so I thought.
Someone recently shared a photo of a blackface performance from the 1920s in Webster Groves, a well-to-do area just outside the St. Louis city limits. After all, the photo is historic and it depicts something that is a part of St. Louis history, whether we like it or not. One would think the photo meets the standards of this group. But alas, the commenters had a firestorm. Why is this outrageous photo being shared?! Why do we have be exposed to this painful history? Why do we have to talk about the bad parts of St. Louis history? As one critical commenter later stated, “Sorry, I joined this group for history and vintage photos, architecture and STL neighborhoods – NOT for any ‘enlightened exchange’ [about the political aspects of history.]” The photo was quickly removed by administrators.
Listen, I get it. We don’t always have to harp on the bad parts of history and for the most part this group is one of the few positives experiences I get from using Facebook these days. But when the controversial aspects of history are removed from the overall story, it is better to simply call the group “St. Louis, Missouri: Landmarks and Photos.” If you enjoy looking at old photos but not studying the people, culture, and context of the time in which the photos were taken, you are engaging in nostalgia, not history.
One might wonder why people interested in a Facebook group such as this one wouldn’t want to learn more about the larger context of the city’s history, but I would contend that many of the blackface photo’s critics were precisely not interested in learning about or having a discussion about history. They are there to practice nostalgia. They are there to talk about their personal childhood experiences and re-live the good old days before the neighborhood went into “decline.” They want to see fancy old homes and neighborhoods but don’t want to discuss the humans who built them or the humans who live in those areas today. To talk about the experiences of, say, an African American who endured the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, and racial discrimination during the “good old days” is nothing but a distraction and an effort to make the past political. Anything outside of mainstream history is a controversy. Please leave out the enlightened exchanges!
(I also note that the some of the same critics who objected to one blackface photo on a social media page because it was “painful” were demanding a few years ago that the St. Louis Confederate Monument remain in Forest Park “because it’s history.”)
This experience reinforced the importance of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 2000 book The Presence of the Past. After surveying 1,500 people the authors concluded that the foundation for historical understanding starts with the personal. As they discuss in the introduction, “people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future.” The challenge for historians, therefore, lies in working with their many publics to demonstrate how fitting personal experiences into a larger context–using an entire body of evidence to make an informed interpretation about the past–is how history is created.
The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has been a double-edged sword for historical understanding. On the one hand, people now have an almost limitless access to information. The contents of the past–letters, diaries, newspaper articles, historical photos–can be found with great abundance in places like the above Facebook group. On the other hand, are we really learning anything new? What do people do with the knowledge they acquire at these places? Do they go to the local library to check out a book about St. Louis history, or does the information contained in a particular post evaporate as soon as the viewer logs off of Facebook? The internet can be a place of knowledge accumulation, but it can also be a place that is quite the opposite. I suppose this is all to say that I hope historians and public historians will someday collaborate to research and publish a new edition of The Presence of thePast for the digital era.
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.