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Reading, Writing And History
Few memoirs in recent years have drawn more attention, or stirred up more of a controversy, than the book Three Years with Grant , written by Civil War newsman Sylvanus Cadwallader and edited by Benjamin P. Thomas.
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
A correspondent first for the Chicago Times and later for the New York Herald, Sylvanus Cadwallader was attached to Grant’s headquarters during the greater part of the war. Years after the war ended he wrote his memoirs. They offer a highly intimate picture of the famous general, and if Cadwallader’s recital is accepted as authentic they constitute a source which no student of Federal army operations in the Civil War can afford to overlook.
They were not, however, published during the lifetime of any of the figures involved. Cadwallader wrote them after he had left newspaper work and had retired to a remote village in California; the manuscript somehow failed to find its way to a publisher, was acquired some years after Cadwallader’s death by the Illinois State Historical Library, and went largely unread until Mr. Thomas arranged for its publication last fall. In its October, 1955, issue AMERICAN HERITAGE printed a portion of the book.
Obviously, a newspaperman who spent most of the Civil War in the company of General Grant had an ideal vantage point for observation. The question that is raised by the Cadwallader book, however, is the perennial one which attaches to any document written long after the events which are described: how accurate was the man’s memory? Can an eyewitness account, set down after a lapse of three decades, be accepted as wholly reliable? May not a man’s memory play tricks on him? To what extent will we be justified in following Cadwallader’s account of events when confirmation of his story from some independent source is lacking?
There is room for two opinions on these points, clearly; and a particular interest attaches to the Cadwallader memoirs because of his extreme frankness in discussing Grant’s alleged fondness for whisky. In his account of the Vicksburg campaign, Cadwallader describes a spree of Gargantuan proportions, which he asserts that he himself witnessed and from which, according to his memoirs, he extricated the General with considerable difficulty. Is this account, then, to be taken as accurate, or should it simply be added to the mass of unverified legends about Grant?
Because of the attention which has centered on this episode, and because the whole question of the value of after-the-event memoirs is central to the problems that confront the historian, AMERICAN HERITAGE herewith presents three letters bearing on the matter. The first is from General Grant’s grandson, a distinguished soldier in his own right. The following two letters, analyzing the Cadwallader story in detail, are from well-known American historians. Kenneth P.Williams, who attacks Cadwallader, is the author of Lincoln Finds a General, a three-volume work which is winning acceptance as a definitive study of the operations of the Union armies during the Civil War. Benjamin P. Thomas, who replies to the criticism, edited the Cadwallader memoirs for publication.
To the Editor, AMERICAN HERITAGE :
I was shocked and chagrined to find you had thought fit to publish even the most fantastically untrue and scurrilous parts of Cadwallader’s imaginative reminiscences in AMERICAN HERITAGE . Heretofore I have, as doubtless many others, trusted AMERICAN HERITAGE to reproduce only authentic information. Of course, I realize that you cannot check the accuracy of everything that goes into your magazine, but it seems to me the Cadwallader story is so fantastic and so unlike the subject of it that it might have been put aside for investigation, before defaming unjustly one of our country’s great men.
U. S. Grant, III Washington, D.C.
To the Editor, AMERICAN HERITAGE :
As the centennial of the Civil War approaches, it is disturbing to see such a story as Sylvanus Cadwallader’s account of an alleged two-day spree by U. S. Grant published without any questioning of its truthfulness. It indicates an almost greedy eagerness for the sensational and a readiness to put the label of praiseworthy candor on what should be suspected as being smoothly written falsehoods.
In an address delivered about a year before his death, and which fittingly was used as the first piece in the first number of Civil War History , Douglas Southall Freeman warned about recollections written long after the event. Freeman surely knew that there had been old soldiers who gave circumstantial accounts of battles in which they had not participated, and he cautioned particularly about the veteran who had become a public lecturer. Equally open to suspicion, or even more so, are the memoirs of a former newspaper correspondent who had become a completely forgotten man after the war, and who in his declining days wrote a book that portrays him in one instance as a great hero.