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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
On the night of April 8, 1865, the day before Lee’s surrender, Grant was so sick with a headache that he was unable to reply to a message that came from the Confederate commander a little before midnight. The description that Cadwallader gives of that night is totally at variance with the one in Horace Porter’s reliable Campaigning with Grant , and he says not a word about Grant’s illness. Cadwallader turns the spotlight on himself and explains how he was sleeping securely in a corner on the parlor floor and not dangerously in front of the door when Lee’s message arrived.
Cadwallader’s description of the surrender at Appomattox is grossly inaccurate, though the most his editor could say was that it disagrees in some minor details with that given by Freeman in R. E. Lee . It differs significantly from what Cadwallader wrote in a dispatch to the New York Herald a few hours after the surrender, a dispatch that Editor Thomas evidently did not trouble himself to consult.
In Three Years, Cadwallader has himself called into the surrender room and presented to Lee along with Grant’s staff—asserting that Grant personally came to the door of the house and called them in. In his dispatch he says merely that the staff officers were called in. As Cadwallader was not a staff officer, the later inclusion of himself must be regarded as an embellishment of passing years—precisely the thing Freeman warned about. If Cadwallader was actually present, he was a very poor reporter (”a superb reporter” Thomas calls him without assuring us that he ever read a single one of his dispatches) when he wrote in his dispatch in a way to imply that a document had been drawn up and signed by both Grant and Lee. The surrender, it will be recalled, was accomplished by an exchange of letters.
Because of the highly sensational character of the Satartia story, Cadwallader’s recollections should have been thoroughly and carefully edited from beginning to end, with all errors and suspicious claims pointed out. No special pleading was needed for Grant. But elementary justice for a great American general, whose habitual kindness and consideration for others is a precious part of the American heritage, required that the reader be put in a position to form an intelligent idea about Cadwallader’s credibility.
Kenneth P. Williams, Bloomington, Indiana
To the Editor, AMERICAN HERITAGE :
Mr. Williams makes some pretty severe statements in his letter, and I appreciate your offering me the opportunity to answer him. Some of his criticisms arise out of the fact that he and I differ on the functions of an editor. He thinks I should have imparted to Cadwallader’s recollections, when edited, the sanctity of Holy Writ. I worked from a different premise.
Whenever I discovered that Cadwallader had made a misstatement, I called the reader’s attention to the error. Some errors I no doubt missed. When Cadwallader expressed an opinion, I usually let it stand, believing that the intelligent reader would accept it or reject it, as he chose. There is no question that Cadwallader was something of a braggart; and I assumed that a reader of ordinary discernment would allow for that fact, and make his judgments accordingly. It would be absurd to think that Cadwallader was always correct to the minutest detail. Nor did I expect a reader to conclude, when editorial comment was lacking, that I endorsed Cadwallader’s every word. I left room for the reader to exercise common sense.
On the other hand, it is scarcely fair of Mr. Williams to condemn Cadwallader because descriptions of happenings by other observers do not always coincide with his. Almost every court trial proves that no two witnesses see or describe things in exactly the same way. Nor is either of them necessarily a liar. Even the hallowed Official Records contain contradictions, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies.
On this point, Mr. Williams criticizes Cadwallader on the ground that his description of the night before Appomattox is at variance with General Porter’s. I should be surprised if it were not. I should not want to vouch for either man’s account as being scripturally accurate. Even Freeman’s description of the surrender may have flaws, great historian though he was, and there are other accounts besides Cadwallader’s, by no means considered worthless, that do not wholly agree with Freeman.
Mr. Williams quibbles when he points out that Cadwallader in his terse report to the Herald says that Grant’s staff were called into the surrender room (incidentally I have read a great number of Cadwallader’s reports), whereas, in the longer account in his recollections he says that Grant himself called the staff into the room. And there is really no cause for Mr. Williams’ indignation at “Editor Thomas” for allowing Cadwallader to get away with the statement that he went into the room with the staff. Two letters in Cadwallader’s manuscript bear upon this point. The first is from Grant’s own cousin, Captain Orlando H.