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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
In the introduction to Three Years with Grant —the Cadwallader recollections—the editor, Benjamin P. Thomas, notes that he has dropped a year from Cadwallader’s title [ Four Years with Grant ] “for the sake of accuracy.” It is a little amusing that the editor apparently believed that Cadwallader did not distort or magnify until he was ready for the title page of his manuscript. Three Years, in fact, contains so many and such serious errors unnoticed by the editor that nothing in it can be accepted that is not already known to be true. Thus it really adds nothing to our knowledge.
The letter that appears on the first page, dated August 8, 1862, from Grant to Sherman, looks like a fake. The place of writing does not appear, which would be a very unusual omission for Grant. The heavy formal beginning and ending are suspicious in a short note from Grant to his good friend Sherman, and Cadwallader has Grant’s style of abbreviation in reverse, abbreviating where Grant generally spelled out and spelling out where Grant habitually abbreviated. And how, one must ask, did Cadwallader ever get the letter, and how did it happen that he had it in the mid-Nineties when he says that his correspondence was destroyed in the great Chicago Fire?
The sprightly story that Cadwallader tells about Charles A. Dana [first assistant secretary of war] being sent to Vicksburg in the early spring of 1863 because Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas was failing in the primary part of a mission given him—that of observing Grant with the idea of removing him—is reduced to nonsense by mere dates. Thomas was ordered to the west two weeks after Dana.
It is safe to say that Cadwallader’s work would never have been published if it were not for the sensational account about the alleged Grant spree. To appraise this story, which has been avidly picked up and disseminated, a little background is needed.
When Grant drove Pemberton into Vicksburg on May 18, 1863, he had insufficient troops to complete the investment, there being a big gap from the left of his line to the river below the city. Furthermore, to the northeast, in the vicinity of Canton, General Joseph E. Johnston was collecting a force to raise the siege. To find out more about Johnston, Grant in late May dispatched a reconnoitering force to the vicinity of Mechanicsburg, a village some four miles east of Satartia, a town upon the Yazoo River, the considerable stream that emptied into the Mississippi a little above Vicksburg and on which Grant had his base.
Because of what was learned, Grant on June 3 sent Brigadier General Nathan Kimball to Mechanicsburg with troops he had just brought from Memphis, and the next day he cautioned Kimball about new reports of the enemy’s strength, saying he wanted no risks run. It was probably on the fifth that Grant received a dispatch that Kimball wrote at 4 P.M. of the fourth reporting a clash with the enemy in Mechanicsburg; a postscript asking for reinforcements showed that Kimball was uneasy.
On the sixth Grant sent this message to each of his three corps commanders: “I am going up to Mechanicsburg. Cannot be back before to-morrow night. Make all advance possible in approaches during my absence. Communications signaled to Haynes’ Bluff will reach me.”
Dana, on his part, sent an important dispatch to Secretary of War Stanton, continuing what he had reported the day before about the sending of Kimball to observe Johnston. After giving the news of Kimball’s clash at Mechanicsburg, Dana said, “General Grant has just started for the place, deeming it necessary to examine the situation there himself. I go with him.”
It would appear that Earl Schenck Miers [who had used some of the Cadwallader material in his The Web of Victory] thought Cadwallader’s account of Grant’s Yazoo trip lacked motivation, so he supplied it in his book by saying that Grant was moody and melancholy because it was some time since he had seen his wife. His legs grew itchy, and so—says Miers—Grant one day “disappeared.”
Grant’s message to his subordinates shows he had a peculiar formula for disappearing; in taking Dana along he chose a strange companion for a bacchanalian adventure.
Cadwallader states that Satartia was about a hundred miles up the Yazoo and that he was coming down the river on the Diligence after an unsuccessful expedition in search of news when they met a boat flying Grant’s flag. Actually it was only about fifty miles to Satartia from the Yazoo’s mouth and no Diligence is mentioned in the published Official Records of the Army or the Navy, though the Diligent is. Cadwallader does not fix the exact date (nor, strangely, does his editor) but his account clearly places him in Satartia the previous day, which would be June 5, the day after Kimball’s clash at Mechanicsburg, and the day after the Confederates, supported by some five hundred cavalry, had put two guns in position and shelled the transports at Satartia until driven away by gunboats.