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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
That brings us to the letter of Rawlins’ which alludes to the subject of Grant’s drinking. Mr. Williams states that it bears the date of June 6, 1 A.M. , which is correct, and that in it Rawlins voices some “suspicions” that Grant had drunk a glass of wine or two. Neither Mr. Williams nor I gave the whole content of the letter, and since neither of us would wish to be accused of suppressing adverse evidence, let us examine it further. As a matter of fact, Rawlins mentioned only one glass of wine that he suspected Grant of drinking, and then told Grant he had found a whole box of wine near Grant’s tent. But here is the most significant part of the letter. Rawlins wrote: ”… and tonight, when you should, because of the condition of your health, if nothing else, have been in bed, I find you where the wine bottle has been emptied, in company with those who drink and urge you to do likewise; and the lack of your usual promptness and decision, and clearness of expressing yourself in writing, conduces to confirm my suspicions.” Then Rawlins reminds Grant of his great responsibilities and of a promise made to Rawlins to refrain from drinking. Rawlins affirms that it is his duty to make Grant live up to that pledge and asks to be relieved from duty if Grant does not intend to do it.
Mr. Williams accuses me of representing this letter as having been written two days after the date it bears, that is, on June 8. It must have been written on June 8. If it was written on June 6 at i A.M., it referred to happenings on the night of June 5 (the night before Grant left for Satartia), and since it clearly indicates that Grant was in a shaky condition that night, to accept that date would be to have Grant inebriated before he even started on the trip. I prefer to believe that the date June 6 is incorrect, and there is evidence to support that conclusion.
General Wilson printed this letter in his life of Rawlins, using a retained copy from the Rawlins family papers. Rawlins, in his excitement, may have misdated the letter, or it may have been misdated when copied for publication. Wilson, though failing to note the error in date, stated that Rawlins wrote the letter an hour or more after he learned from participants the details of what had happened on the Yazoo, which would have been shortly after Cadwallader got Grant back to headquarters after the General’s wild night ride.
I said Rawlins wrote the letter “that morning,” that is, the morning after Grant’s escapade, which makes sense, because Grant had been consorting with wine-bibbers the night before, as Rawlins charged. That was the night Cadwallader found Grant on the large steamboat at Chickasaw Bayou that “Wash” Graham used as a sutler’s boat, drinking with a crowd of officers in the ladies’ cabin. I am sure that Mr. Williams will agree that the letter simply must have been misdated. Otherwise, he will have Grant drunk on three nights instead of two.
In conclusion, let me say that it is quite true that my attention was first drawn to Cadwallader’s manuscript by Lloyd Lewis’ vivid retelling of Cadwallader’s description of the Yazoo incident in the small volume Letters from Lloyd Lewis , published in 1950. But I should have had no interest whatever in editing the manuscript for publication if it merely disparaged Grant. I admire Grant as much as Mr. Williams does, and Cadwallader’s portrayal of him, rising above a human weakness, has increased my admiration for him. It is a great commander, a compelling human figure, and a man of enhanced stature who emerges from this book. This has been the reaction of almost all reviewers and of practically every person who commented on the book to me.
I really doubt that Grant’s fame will be affected one way or the other by the outcome of this controversy between Mr. Williams and me, and I am quite ready to reject Cadwallader’s account of the Yazoo incident whenever I am convinced that it is untrue. But in order to convince me Mr. Williams will have to dispose satisfactorily of the four points I have raised in this letter: first, the fact that Dana’s ghostwritten Recollections , in so far as they can be trusted, confirm Cadwallader’s story by indicating, if not proving, that Grant had been intoxicated on the trip to Satartia; second, the strong probability that Dana in his reports to Stanton was covering up for Grant; third, the fact that Dana was not present on the night of Grant’s wild ride, and hence that Cadwallader’s account of it remains uncontradicted; and fourth, the fact that Rawlins’ admonitory letter to Grant either supports Cadwallader’s story or shows that Grant was tipsy on another occasion.
Benjamin P. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois