Although I wrote this essay about Ulysses S. Grant and public monuments two years ago, I recently received an interesting comment in response to that essay. The comment asked about the usefulness of monuments and statues as tools to promote civil religion and whether I felt they could still serve that purpose. I wanted to share the original comment and my response here.
First, I understand we don’t need statues to document accurate history and that instead monuments are about popular memory. But do you think monuments of heroes meant to inspire veneration as part of America’s civil religion — which helps a diverse society cohere around a shared story — are not necessary or helpful?
Second, as to Grant specifically, do you feel that critics (today, it’s racial justice activists; in the past, it was Lost Causers) are missing a sense of proportion and context? If we weigh:
a) In his personal life, Grant’s benefitted directly from one enslaved person of his own for about a year and indirectly from 30 enslaved held by the Dent family over a couple decades, against
b) In his public life, Grant won the Civil War that permanently ended 250 years of slavery in our part of North America and enabled 4 million people and their descendants to enjoy freedom (imperfect though it be)
Does a fair sense of proportion help us re-orient the discussion towards Grant’s real significance to American and world history?
Here is how I responded:
To your first question, I do admit that I take a skeptical view of the use of statues and monuments within the context of civil religion. My primary concerns are that they promote the worship of false idols and overly simplify the complexities of history. Put differently, I get worried about histories that are flattened in the name of unquestioned patriotism, nationalism, and the glorification of the nation-state. While I think there are many admirable people from the past that we can learn from, I think the language of “heroes” and “veneration” runs the risk of creating division within the diverse groups you speak of. After all, veneration is quite literally the act of honoring a saint. Therefore, within the context of civil religion, if certain individuals or groups do not properly “venerate” historical figures deemed as important to society through monumentation, they are considered unpatriotic, not real Americans, politically radical, etc. etc. So yes, I question the very premise that statues can help diverse societies cohere around a shared understanding of the past.
I am personally interested in Jurgen Habermas’s ideas around “constitutional patriotism,” or the notion that societies work to develop a respect and appreciation for civic ideals central to a republican form of government: freedom, liberty, civil rights, democracy, checks and balances, and the rule of law, etc. rather than the veneration of specific individuals from history. Individuals can help students of history appreciate these civic ideals in action, but I think there are more appropriate methods for achieving these ends, most notably the use of primary sources and facilitated dialogue between historians, educators, and students.
To your second question, I don’t know if I have a great answer to offer. I would begin by saying that it is definitely important for us to study individuals personal lives so that we can see what factors shaped their future actions and beliefs. It is very significant to Ulysses S. Grant’s story to understand the context of his interactions with slavery in the 1850s. At the same time, it is obviously true that those actions alone cannot define Grant’s entire legacy. In fact, those connections to slavery actually help us better appreciate how far he evolved in supporting civil rights as president in the 1870s. All of these factors live together in tension when studying Grant’s life, and professional historians are far from unified in their interpretations of Grant’s “real significance” to history. So it’s no surprise to me that society at large has a very conflicted attitude towards Grant’s significance. As a historian, all I can hope for is that all people make a genuine effort to appreciate context, complexity, and nuance when studying the past.
To briefly expand my original response, I wasn’t really sure how to address the “racial justice activists vs. Lost Causers” dichotomy. For one, there are plenty of Lost Causers still around today – they have not been removed to the dustbin of history and you only need to get onto social media for about five minutes to see Lost Cause-ism in action. One of the challenges in ascribing a motive for tearing down Grant’s statue in San Francisco is that we still don’t know who did it or what the motivation was for doing it. Was it taken down for racial justice? Was it because of Grant’s slaveholding past or his Indian policies or something else entirely? Do all that many people outside of history even know that Grant enslaved a man? I don’t really know. Within the context of the summer of 2020, I think Grant simply became a symbol of governmental power that was targeted because of that symbolism and not necessarily because of his legacy or “real significance” to American history. That no other statues or monuments of Grant have come down since then suggests it really was about the politics of 2020.
When historians work to determine the scope of their research projects, they inevitably run into a Catch-22 of sorts. The issue is particularly acute when the central focus of this research is an individual or a group of individuals. For someone studying the American Civil War, they can choose to look at the words of a large group of soldiers on either side of the conflict. They can study letters, diary entries, and post-war recollections from thousands of soldiers to make broad generalizations about what soldiers told friends and loved ones about the war, how they experienced it firsthand, and how they felt about the political crisis that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades and Peter Carmichael’s more recent The War for the Common Soldier are great examples of a “macro” approach to understanding the Civil War.
Conversely, the historian can choose to focus on one individual soldier’s story. This approach has the advantage of possibly creating a strong sense of empathy and compassion within the reader as they follow the individual’s experiences during the war.
Both approaches have their disadvantages, however. Given the fact that millions of soldiers fought in the Civil War and had something to say about it, any particular viewpoint the historian wishes to highlight could ostensibly be justified through the source material. Union soldiers felt very strongly about making the Civil War a war to end slavery . . . or they were outraged about the Lincoln administration’s efforts to make the war’s aims anything besides the preservation of the Union. Civil War soldiers regularly read their Bibles and viewed the war in strongly religious terms . . . or they didn’t. Civil War veterans were anxious for political reunion and sectional reunion with their adversaries . . . or they weren’t. You get the point. For an analysis of individual stories, the challenge is being able to see the meaning of the Civil War beyond the individual soldier’s eyes. In other words, the causes, context, and consequences of the war are sometimes hard to find with an individualized approach.
Steve Procko’s Rebel Correspondenttries to thread the needle with a delightful read about Private Arba F. Shaw, a Confederate solider who wrote more than 40,000 words about his experiences with the 4th Georgia Cavalry during the American Civil War. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Shaw put pen to paper and wrote regular columns for the Walker County Messenger about his experiences during the war. Like other such recollections that are archived in newspapers, Shaw’s words were restricted to microfilm records prior to the publication of this book. Procko faithfully copies Shaw’s words and attempts to provide as much context as possible by fitting Shaw’s recollections within the context of the 4th Georgia Cavalry’s experiences during the war. In this sense the book isn’t merely a biography of Shaw but a regimental history that nicely captures the hopes, fears, and tragedies that Shaw and his comrades experienced during the war.
One of my favorite recollections from Shaw is the first one he published on December 12, 1901. In it, he recalled that:
I will say that it was a hard task for me to leave a pleasant home where peace and abundant comfort were taken [and] in exchange a miserable out door life where I was liable to be killed any day, but it was a task that for the same of honor I could not shirk from and now I am glad I performed it . . . What lamentation when husbands were called from their dear wives and little ones at home, in thousands of instances parted to meet at the fireside no more, and the young man thinking of his aspirations that were blasted and so many that went away to come no more and many that did return were so injured that their elastic steps was gone [sic] and they were maimed for life, some losing an arm, a leg, an eye, or both or many other things.
Private Arba F. Shaw, December 12, 1901
Shaw nicely summarizes how jolting the war must have been for young men who had anything but war on their minds. We are apt to think that every American was glued to their daily newspaper during the secession crisis and that they knew the war was inevitable. For Shaw, one gets the impression that he enjoyed a comfortable life with few concerns and lots of dreams when the war broke out. He does not appear to have been concerned about secession, slavery, or civil war at the time the conflict began in 1861. But eventually the force of events caught up to him and many other men in a similar situation, forcing them to make a choice about their future. For hundreds of thousands of men, that choice had life changing or deadly consequences.
I admit that I tend to gravitate towards Civil War studies from academic publications and, when reading biographies, I find myself reading more about political leaders rather than common soldiers who experienced the war firsthand. However, I think most Civil War enthusiasts are probably the opposite of me in that they love reading firsthand accounts. In this sense, Procko’s book should receive a wide readership, especially from locals in Georgia who want to learn about Shaw and the 4th Georgia Cavalry.
Because of my usual reading interests, I found myself wanting a more substantial discussion of the context in which Shaw was writing. I mean to use the word “context” in several respects. For one, Shaw himself does not discuss ideology in his writings, either his own or the Confederate government that he chose to fight for. With the preponderance of the Lost Cause and popular beliefs that the war had little to do with slavery, a discussion of the ways people chose to remember the Civil War–and how soldiers like Shaw may have shaped these discussions, even if they chose not to write about politics in their own recollections–could have been beneficial. Secondly, it would have been nice to read more about the reasons why veterans like Shaw–particularly soldiers like him who never made it past the rank of private–were anxious to tell their stories to a younger generation that had not experienced the war firsthand. I would have liked Procko to situate his study within the context of other studies on Civil War veteran culture by historians such as Keith Harris, Caroline Janney, David Blight, James Marten, Brian Matthew Jordan, and others. There were also times when I struggled to keep track of all the names and dates there were published in the book.
Having said all of this, I did enjoy reading Rebel Correspondent and hope it receives a wide readership from Civil War enthusiasts of all types. Procko is an expert on his subject and this book is very well-researched. Other scholars who are anxious to uncover stories about the American Civil War in their local community would do well to study Procko’s research methods and take note of the ways he weaves Shaw’s recollections within a larger story of the 4th Georgia Cavalry during the Civil War.
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.
1. I am pleased to announce that my manuscript on Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery has been published with The Journal of the Civil War Era. I won’t spill all the beans here, but my central thesis is that most Grant biographers and Civil War historians have missed crucial details about Grant’s views towards slavery and experiences while living at his wife’s family plantation in St. Louis, White Haven, from 1854 to 1859. These oversights occurred in large part because scholars have relied too much on Grant’s Personal Memoirs and personal recollections from his St. Louis contemporaries that were conducted in the 1880s and 1890s, long after Grant had lived in St. Louis. By going back to the limited documentation we have from the 1850s and continuing into the first year of the Civil War, we can see how Grant wasn’t necessarily the strong, lifelong anti-slavery advocate he is often portrayed to be in popular scholarship.
If you are not a subscriber to the journal, here’s a direct link to the article for download and purchase if you’re interested in reading it.
2. I have been thinking a lot about visitation to historic sites, particularly the narratives that have emerged about an alleged lack of interest in Civil War historic sites. I interviewed several public historians who work at these sites and shared some of my own thoughts in a blog post for Muster that you can read here.
3. I have another blog post that I’m currently working on for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog about inclusive public history. I’m hoping this essay will be published within the next week or so.
4. I joined a group of scholars in proposing a panel for the NCPH 2020 Annual Meeting to be hosted in Atlanta, Georgia. We were interested in looking at public iconography beyond Confederate monuments and I was going to discuss St. Louis’s three monuments to Unionists Edward Bates, Franz Sigel, and Frank Blair that are located in Forest Park. Unfortunately the panel was rejected for the final program. No worries, however! I am changing course and looking into possibly presenting at the Society for Civil War Historians’ conference next summer to discuss my Grant and slavery article and/or blogging for The Journal of the Civil War Era. For the first time since 2014 I will not be attending NCPH’s annual meeting, but I feel like I have an opportunity to expand my professional network and connect with more Civil War scholars if I’m able to get to the SCWH conference. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my research on the three St. Louis Unionist monuments, but there’s definitely an interesting discussion to be had about them and I will keep working on this little side project in my free time.
5. Finally, I got married earlier this month to my best friend in the whole world. Mrs. Sacco and I met in early 2016 and I proposed to her about a year and a half ago. After lots of planning and several other unrelated life events that have kept us very busy we were finally able to tie the knot and enjoy a wonderful day with our loved ones and best friends. Life is good and we are very blessed!
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.
History is the process by which individuals and societies make sense of the past. Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms “History” and “The Past” are not mutually exclusive. “The Past” is the verified, factual information we know about past events in human history. We know, for example, that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. “History,” however, is the process by which we document, contextualize, and interpret the meaning of a particular event. Why was the Declaration of Independence written? Who wrote it? What was going on in the world at the time of its writing? What social, economic, religious, and political forces inspired the document’s author? What were the consequences of its publication? These are the types of questions historians ask when researching and interpreting “The Past” to make an informed historical argument about something like the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
Memory plays a necessary and crucial role in creating history. “Memory” is the process by which individuals and societies choose to remember (and forget) their pasts. Memories are created after an event has taken place and take the form of oral recollection, art, public iconography, and many other expressions of personal reflection. How did Thomas Jefferson remember his role in writing the Declaration years later? What did members of the Continental Congress think of the event? How did citizens of the colonies remember hearing about the Declaration of Independence? What monuments, statues, markers, and plaques were created to commemorate the event? What messages did these icons attempt to convey to viewers about the Declaration? How is the Declaration remembered by society today? These are the types of questions historians and memory scholars ask when researching how present-day conditions simultaneously shape and are shaped by past events. History and memory intersect to tell us what happened in the past, and what it means for us today.
What are the distinctions between history and memory? Is there a distinction between the two? Scholars disagree on this question, but I think there are distinctions, albeit very subtle.
Take the case of the veteran’s recollection of a wartime experience twenty years after a significant battle. The truthfulness of that soldier’s recollection may not be fully verifiable based on the evidence that was created from the time in which the battle originally took place. His or her recollection may contradict the official battle report created at the time (“The Past”), or it may include details that were previously omitted. Sometimes the recollection may even unintentionally confuse or invent crucial details with the passage of time. Nevertheless the veteran’s memory exists as a “personal truth” for him or herself; an individual process by which the soldier copes with, comprehends, and understands their experiences in that battle. The tricky task for the historian is to determine whether the veteran’s recollection should be incorporated into the body of evidence being used to interpret the history of that battle. Is the recollection reliable? Does it help advance the story? Does it help or hinder the historian’s effort to make sense of The Past?
Historian Jonathan Hansen argues that history advances through hypothesis while memory evolves over time but never really advances. I like that description because memories of a given event will change over time (a new personal reflection or the erection of a new monument, for example) but those memories may not be verifiable in the same way a historical fact can be through a hypothesis.
Much of what we understand about The Past is based on memory, which simultaneously informs and muddles the historical process. As such, the concept of “Truth” does exist within the historical process, but it takes multiple forms. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience defines four different forms of “Truth”: forensic truth (The factual, verifiable past), personal truth (a personal memory), social truth (a collectively held truth as expressed through art, public iconography, political speechs, etc.) and healing truth (a collective process of historical reckoning such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission).
The above description is how I understand the distinctions between The Past, history, and memory. These three phenomenons constantly interact and shape each other, leading to the creation of individual and collective understandings of past events that in many cases contain multiple truths for us to learn from.
My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog went live last week. I wrote about gift shops at Civil War historic sites and the urgent need for memory scholars to analyze the ways these spaces shape visitor experiences at historic sites. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so far and I hope the essay will lead to a more sustained and substantial dialogue on how gift shops can better serve the mission of a given public history site.
I have a lot of other exciting writing projects and upcoming presentations going on at the moment and I’ll let you know about those initiatives in a future post. For now, enjoy the above essay and let me know what you think in the comments section.
My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog, Muster, was published earlier this week. I explore a few speeches from members of the Grand Army of the Republic in protest of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation and argue that not all white Union Civil War veterans were ready for reconciliation with former Confederates, even when they were in the seventies and eighties.
Last week I had the honor of being invited to speak via the BlueJeans app to Dr. Thomas Cauvin’s history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments and historical interpretation. I found the discussion fascinating. The students had a lot of good questions, and some of them were really tough to answer cogently. It’s one thing to write out an idea while in deep contemplation and without a time limit, but a whole other challenge to answer a tough question on the spot. I am not a fan of watching or hearing myself after a recording, but if you want to see our discussion and learn a little about Dr. Cauvin’s class on historical monuments, follow this link. Hopefully I sound like I have a basic idea of what I’m talking about. Enjoy!
When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.
There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.
I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?
The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.
One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:
Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.
This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?
What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.
An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.
The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.