Three Years With Grant

PrintPrintEmailEmailDuring the forepart of 1862 I was city editor of the Milwaukee Daily News, badly broken down in health, and seeking some less exhausting occupation. The following Special Order from Gen. Grant commanding the Department of the Tennessee, to Gen. Sherman, commanding the District of Memphis, afforded me the first opportunity for doing so:

August 8th 1862. General: — Herewith I send you an article credited to the Memphis correspondent of the Chicago Times, which is both false in fact and mischievous in character. You will have the author arrested and sent to the Alton Penitentiary, under proper escort, for confinement until the close of the war, unless sooner discharged by competent authority. I am very respectfully Your Obedient Servant. U. S. Grant, Major General &C.

The correspondent alluded to was Mr. [Warren P.] Isham, a brother to the wife of Wilbur F. Storey, the great editor of the Chicago Times. He had been a writer for the Times, and upon the breaking out of hostilities was sent to the field as a war correspondent. The Times had an immense circulation in the armies of the southwest and was very sensational in character. It delighted in seeing how near it could approach the line of actual disloyalty without incurring the penalty. Mr. Isham was considered one of the most brilliant correspondents in that department, but was never sufficiently careful and guarded in his statements. He had been cautioned by General Grant once or twice before this against giving such free range to his imagination. This last offense was that of sending off for publication a “cock and bull” story about a fleet of rebel ironclads at Pensacola, which he claimed to have received by “grape-vine” telegraph through the Southern Confederacy.

About the middle of October 1862 I received at my home in Milwaukee, the following telegram:

“Can you go to the army of the Tennessee for us?” signed Storey & Worden.•

• Storey and Ananias Worden were co-owners of the Times.

I replied: “Yes.”

The second dispatch of same date inquired: “When?”

To which I answered: “Immediately.”

“Come to Chicago by the first train,” was the final dispatch for that day.

On arriving at the Times office I was put in possession of the facts concerning Isham’s arrest and imprisonment, and informed that the object of my trip would be to secure his release, if possible. I had never seen either Storey or Worden till then; knew nothing of Mr. Isham but what I learned from them in this conversation; had no acquaintance either with Gen. Grant or any member of his staff; and at first objected to the undertaking. The interview ended, however, in my starting at once for Jackson, Tennessee, where Gen. Grant’s headquarters then were, as a duly accredited correspondent of the Times, to avoid betraying the chief object I had in view.

On arriving at Jackson, Tenn., I consumed twentyfour hours in deciding upon some systematic line of procedure to obtain Mr. Isham’s release. I was supplied with more letters and petitions uniting in the request, than such a person as Gen. Grant could ever be induced to examine. I soon decided to not unmask this budget of correspondence at present, and to make any future use of it depend upon conditions and circumstances which should arise later on.

I was first of all (to outward appearance at least) a correspondent of the Chicago Times. To maintain this character I must visit Gen. Grant’s Headquarters and obtain permission to remain within the military lines of his Department, with authority to pass from place to place as an army correspondent. So assuming a confidence very much beyond what I really felt, I presented myself to Major [John Aaron] Rawlins [Grant’s adjutant general] and handed him my letter of credence from Storey and Worden. He was ceremoniously polite—altogether too polite and formal I felt, to promise well for the chief mission on which I had been sent. After a few commonplace remarks concerning newspapers and war-correspondents in general, Major Rawlins relieved himself from the burden of my further entertainment, by politely and formally introducing me to such members of the staff as were present.

At that time nearly all army correspondents were in bad odor at all army headquarters, and were always secretly held to be a species of nuisance that needed abating. In many cases official hostility was openly expressed, and hindrances put in their way as to collecting and transmitting army news. This unfriendliness was especially prevalent among “West Pointers” and U.S.A. officers. The war was half over before Gen. Sherman could forbear being rude, if not positively insulting, to every correspondent with whom he was thrown in contact, unless the individual came into his presence bearing the unqualified indorsement of some of the general’s influential friends, and studiously kept the nature of his avocation in the background.

In view of this status of army correspondents, I resolved upon an entirely new line of procedure. This was first to sustain my own self respect and secondly, to so govern my intercourse with military men in the Dept. as to deserve theirs. I decided to procure my own outfit, to ride my own horses and pay my own expenses liberally rather than parsimoniously. That if the exigencies of the service required me to enter a military “mess,” to pay my full pro-rate share of all its expenses and to accept no hospitalities on any other conditions. I also decided to make all calls at Regimental, Brigade, Division, Corps & Army headquarters rather formal than otherwise at the outset; to make them brief, and never allow them to interrupt official business.

My calls at Army h.d.q. were therefore regular and very short ones. I simply inquired if there was any news suitable for publication that they were at liberty to give me; asked for copies of special or general orders; and bowed myself out at once. I never allowed myself to hang around as if to gather news by eavesdropping on official conversations, and never presumed to take a seat without urgent invitation. It was not long before I began to observe the effect of this conduct in more cordial receptions and more extended conversations.

In the meantime I had made the acquaintance of Col. Thomas Lyle Dickey,• then chief of cavalry in that Dept., from Ottawa, Ill. I was surprised to find him a son of the Rev. Wm. Dickey of Bloomington, Ohio; a nephew of Rev. James [Henry] Dickey for many years pastor of the Presbyterian church at South Salem, Ross Co., Ohio; and nephew also to Mr. James Dean of the same place with whose family I was intimately acquainted while at the Academy there. He was surprised and pleased to make the personal acquaintance of one so often mentioned in correspondence between himself and his relations. We had many mutual acquaintances and friends which led to intimacy and friendship between ourselves.

• Dickey’s first name was Theophilus, not Thomas. He was a lawyer and Democratic politician, and the son, not the nephew, of James Henry Dickey.

This seemed to open a way for my approaching General Grant upon the real object of my mission to his headquarters. So inviting Col. Dickey to dine with me I made him my confidant; exhibited my petitions, letters, &c.; and said to him frankly that were I in Gen. Grant’s place I would never read such a mass of matter. The facts were simply these: Isham had been imprisoned for misbehavior; the Times did not question the propriety of his imprisonment, and admitted Gen. Grant’s right to decide what was fit matter for newspaper publication concerning military affairs within his Department. Mr. Isham’s friends asked for his release solely on the grounds that he had been sufficiently punished. His family needed his earnings for its support and were then dependent on others for their daily subsistence. If, as the Times believed. Gen. Grant’s only desire was to stop literary buccaneering in his army by making an example of some representative man, it had certainly been accomplished by Mr. Isham’s incarceration which must convince all concerned that such conduct as his would not be tolerated.

Col. Dickey agreed with all of this and was pleased to learn that the Times took a reasonable view of the matter. It was arranged between us that I was to keep all these letters and petitions in my own custody until he had an opportunity of presenting the case to the general. This occurred the next day when on a ride to Gen. [John A.] Logan’s headquarters, Dickey introduced the subject to Grant. The latter inquired how long Isham had been in the Alton Military Prison and on learning that it was two or three months, admitted it to be a severe discipline for the offense. A staff officer was sent northward the next day charged with the duty of releasing Isham from custody.