John Rawlins used his brains and blue language to keep his boss in check
In Galena, Illinois, in early 1861, one would have been hard pressed to find two men less alike than Ulysses S. Grant and John A. Rawlins. The 39-year-old Grant was a failed former Army officer of limited horizons and dubious sobriety who passed his days as a clerk, shuffling around his father’s general store. Rawlins, nine years Grant’s junior, was an abstemious, ambitious attorney and the town’s leading Democrat. Although Rawlins represented Grant’s father in the store’s legal business, he and Ulysses were only passing acquaintances.
All that changed with the outbreak of the Civil War. On April 16, 1861, two days after Fort Sumter fell, town leaders held a meeting at the courthouse. Grant attended but said nothing. Rawlins, however, electrified the crowd. Dismissing talk of compromise, he proclaimed: “There can be but two parties now, one of patriots and one of traitors….Only one course is left for us. We will stand by the flag of our country, and appeal to the God of battles.”
A fellow lawyer, upon meeting Rawlins eight years earlier, had described him as “a strong, sturdy looking young fellow, swarthy in complexion, with hair and eyes black as night, which when they looked at you looked through you.” His arresting countenance masked what had been a difficult youth. Born in East Galena on February 13, 1831, Rawlins received only a few months of schooling. He worked with his father cutting wood and burning it to create charcoal, needed to feed the furnaces and smelting works of Galena’s rich lead mines.
The elder Rawlins was a shiftless hard drinker, and John came of age hating liquor. Although known as somewhat of a prude, John Aaron Rawlins could be generous and affable. But he also had a sharp temper and foul mouth. And he had the talent and drive needed to rise quickly to prominence. In 1854 he took his savings from the charcoal business and enrolled in a local academy. Three years later he became Galena’s city attorney.
Rawlins’ courthouse oratory convinced Grant to return to his first calling. He told his brother, “I think I ought to go into the service.” In August 1861, Grant became a brigadier general of volunteers, and he asked Rawlins to join him in Missouri as captain and assistant adjutant general on his brigade staff. Military service seemed the best path for Rawlins at the time, as he had just watched his wife slowly succumb to tuberculosis.
Grant had chosen Rawlins because of his sharp mind, sound judgment and blunt talk. But Grant also knew he could benefit from the attorney’s friendship with U.S. Congressman Elihu Washburne, also from Illinois.
The bereaved Rawlins assumed the role of Grant’s protector, shielding him from scheming officers and, in Rawlins’ mind at least, from Grant’s fondness for the bottle. He knew liquor had ruined Grant’s Regular Army reputation just as it had his own father’s life, and he was vigilant for signs that Grant might revert to his old ways. Rawlins, however, knew nothing of military affairs. At the Battle of Belmont in November 1861, he was too green to do much more than draft orders and accompany the general into action. But he showed Grant that he could stand firm under fire. “I have been in one battle,” Rawlins wrote his mother, “heard the whistling of bullets and the whizzing of cannonballs, and I tell you I thought no more of the first than of the last. I never thought of running.”
Rawlins was surprisingly radical when it came to making war. Before Belmont he had told Grant to ignore Kentucky’s neutrality, arguing that “conditional neutrality [was] absolute hostility to the government.” This was a risky proposition that ran counter to Lincoln administration policy, but the Rebels had violated Kentucky neutrality first. Belmont convinced him that it was always best to strike the first blow. Afterward, whenever Rawlins thought Grant hesitant, he pushed for immediate action.
Rawlins’ loyalty to Grant found its first expression that winter when a crooked contractor whom Rawlins had expelled from the department spread rumors that Grant was a drunk. Rawlins hastened to squelch them, assuring Congressman Washburne that, if ever Grant did drink, Rawlins would be the first to speak out. “I regard his interest as my interest,” he declared, “all that concerns his reputation concerns me; I love him as a father; I respect him because I have studied him well, and the more I know him the more I respect and love him. But I pledge you my word, that should General Grant at any time become an intemperate man or a habitual drunkard, I will ask to be removed from duty on his staff or resign my commission.”
During the Fort Henry and Fort Donelson campaigns, Rawlins’ duties extended little beyond keeping an eye on Grant and writing orders. But in the confused fury of Shiloh he emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Rawlins and Grant were in Savannah, Tenn., on the morning of April 6, 1862, when the rumble of cannon fire told them the Army of the Tennessee, camped upriver (south) near Pittsburg Landing, was under attack by Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Mississippi. Rawlins set off with Grant on the steamer Tigress for Pittsburg Landing, where they found hundreds of dazed soldiers huddled around the bluff. The two rode forward at 9 a.m. to inspect the five divisions in action. Grant then sent Rawlins back to Tigress to write orders calling up Lew Wallace’s division, camped nearly six miles away at Crump’s Landing.
Rawlins scratched out a note to the chief quartermaster to find Wallace, then returned to the front and stayed with Grant under fire until midafternoon when, despairing of Wallace, Grant ordered him and fellow staff officer James B. McPherson to locate the Indianan. They found Wallace on a back lane, four miles from the fighting. Furious at the “cool and leisurely” pace of his march, Rawlins marshaled his choicest oaths to implore Wallace to make haste.
“The roar of battle swelled from the direction of Pittsburg Landing,” Rawlins recalled. “We knew that it was our heavy guns, and that the enemy had attained a nearness to the river that filled our minds with terrible apprehension.” As Wallace’s division drew nearer the battlefield, he continued to move too slowly to suit an always exacting and then overexcited Rawlins. Grant’s loyal aide never forgave Wallace for what he considered a gross neglect of duty. McPherson, in fact, had to talk him out of arresting Wallace on the spot.
Rawlins reached the landing with Wallace’s advance at sunset, and was reassured by Grant that the Rebel attack could be stopped. Grant was right, but that costly victory cast a cloud over him that lingered until the fall of Vicksburg. Rawlins never forgave Wallace, and stood by Grant in condemning him, believing his presence before nightfall on April 6 might have hastened a Federal victory the next day.
In the 15 months between Shiloh and the final operations against Vicksburg, Rawlins—who became chief of staff on November 1, 1862—found new challenges in his self-ordained role as Grant’s protector. Major General Henry Halleck had concentrated the Western armies to capture Corinth, Miss., and he relegated Grant to second in command of the whole: “fifth wheel to a coach,” as Grant put it. Grant wanted to resign, but Sherman and Rawlins persuaded him to stay on. When Halleck was called East, Grant assumed command of both the armies of the Tennessee and the Mississippi. Sherman and Rawlins had rescued him from almost certain military oblivion.
Rawlins’ next task was to diffuse doubts about Grant’s competence and sobriety, which grew, in early 1863, as Grant’s offensive against Vicksburg foundered. Major General John McClernand, a War Democrat whose corps operated independently at Vicksburg under Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s authority, was angling to replace Grant. Brigadier General Cadwallader Washburn wrote Congressman Washburne, his brother, that Grant was unsuited to high command, and that his staff officers were imbeciles. Only Rawlins had any military ability, he said. The letter found its way to Abraham Lincoln, and Stanton decided to send Charles Dana, a former journalist destined to become assistant secretary of war, to investigate.
Rawlins had just exacted another pledge from Grant not to drink (whether because Grant had been drinking or because Rawlins feared he would is uncertain) when Dana arrived in April. Most in camp were for turning Dana out on his heels, but Rawlins’ faith in Grant led him to counsel prudence. He took Dana into his confidence, and the two became warm friends. Dana came to champion Grant, and his support allayed doubts in Washington. Dana had no qualms Grant was a great general, but he also believed that without Rawlins, Grant “would not have been the same man.” In Dana’s judgment, “Rawlins was one of the most valuable men in the army. He “bossed everything at Grant’s headquarters. He had very little respect for persons, and a rough style of conversation. I have heard him curse at Grant when the general was doing something that he thought he had better not do.”
Now a lieutenant colonel, Rawlins had begun to assert himself in matters of strategy. After failed attempts to get below and behind Vicksburg by canal and bayous, Rawlins advocated a bold, direct approach: Run the Vicksburg batteries with gunboats and transports, then ferry troops to the east bank of the Mississippi for a land advance against the city. After careful consideration, Grant adopted the plan over Sherman’s objections. The effort succeeded and set the stage for victory.
One brief bout with the bottle almost lost Grant Rawlins’ services. In early June 1863, the general fell ill, perhaps with a migraine. A doctor at Sherman’s headquarters induced Grant to take at least one glass of wine to help ease his pain. A few days later Rawlins found him sipping wine with some staff officers. To make matters worse, Rawlins found a box of wine in front of Grant’s tent. Rawlins disposed of it, only to learn that the general had forbidden anyone to remove it; he wanted to pass it around when Vicksburg fell. On the morning of June 6, Rawlins penned a rebuke to Grant. His “great solicitude of this army” compelled him to remind Grant of the general’s pledge of abstinence made to him nine months earlier. He added, “You have the full control of your appetite and can let drinking alone.” Perhaps his concern was unfounded, Rawlins wrote, but if it was not, and Grant took another drop a liquor, “let my immediate relief from duty in this department be the result.”
That same night Grant took a steamboat up the Yazoo River with Charles Dana on a reconnaissance. When he returned, rumors circulated that the general had been “stupidly drunk.” James H. Wilson, a fellow staff officer and friend of both Rawlins and Grant, scribbled in his diary, “General G. intoxicated.” The rumors were apparently unfounded, however, since Rawlins added an endorsement on his own copy of the letter that his admonitions had been heeded, and “all had went well.” There was no more talk by Rawlins of Grant’s drinking that summer.
Grant not only took Rawlins’ scolding well, but in late July also recommended him for promotion “for gallant and meritorious services” and “extreme fitness for higher command.” Concluded Grant, “He comes the nearest being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” The promotion was granted but not confirmed until March 1864.
After Vicksburg a season of quiet descended upon Grant’s army. Julia Grant and her children had settled into army headquarters, occupying a large white house belonging to William and Ann Lum. The Lums’ Connecticut governess, Mary Emma Hurlbut, soon caught Rawlins’ eye. Shy in the presence of women, Rawlins overcame his reserve and proposed. Much to the pleasure of Grant and his wife, Emma accepted.
Vicksburg earned Grant a promotion to major general in the Regular Army. His first act was to try to end the political threat posed by McClernand, whom he had removed from corps command in June after the Union setback at Haynes’ Bluff. Rawlins traveled to Washington, ostensibly to deliver Grant’s report of the Vicksburg Campaign but really to indict McClernand, who, although now under Grant’s command, still enjoyed Lincoln’s confidence. On July 31, he was Lincoln’s guest at a cabinet meeting. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles admired his “frank, intelligent, and interesting descriptions of men and of army operations….The unpolished and unrefined deportment of this earnest and sincere patriot and soldier interested me more than that of almost any other officer whom I have met.” Rawlins’ arguments convinced Welles, the president and Stanton that Grant was right to remove McClernand.
In late October, the Lincoln administration sent Grant to Chattanooga to break the Confederate stranglehold on the city and its defenders. Reinforcements arrived from the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Potomac. It was then that Rawlins’ power of persuasion was at its peak, said Wilson: “Grant consulted him more freely than ever, and the chief of staff did not hesitate to express his views whenever he thought it necessary.”
The necessity for Rawlins to speak was most evident as Federal fortunes hung in the balance on the afternoon of November 25. From atop Missionary Ridge, Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee had repelled an attack by Sherman on their right flank, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was foundering against their left. Only Maj. Gen. George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland in the center remained uncommitted. Grant, Thomas and their staffs watched the stalemate from Orchard Knob, three-quarters of a mile away from Missionary Ridge.
Grant wanted Thomas to move against the Rebel rifle pits at the base of the ridge, but Thomas resisted. Grant yielded, much to Rawlins’ disgust. After Wilson suggested Rawlins do something to break the impasse, Rawlins strode over to Grant and in a low voice shamed him into ordering Thomas forward. The men of the Army of the Cumberland surged across the plain, over the rifle pits and, without orders, up the top of Missionary Ridge and beyond, shattering the Army of Tennessee.
The stunning victory at Missionary Ridge removed all doubt about Grant’s fitness for high command. With his chief’s reputation secure and operations halted for the winter, Rawlins took leave to marry Emma Hurlbut and cure what he thought was a persistent cold.
Rawlins rejoined Grant in January 1864 and accompanied him to Washington in March, taking pride in his chief’s promotion to lieutenant general and commander of all Federal armies. But given his new responsibilities, Grant felt the need to staff his headquarters with Regular Army officers. He brought in Colonel Charles Comstock and Captains Horace Porter and Orville E. Babcock, all honor graduates of West Point.
Rawlins and Grant began to drift apart—perhaps in part because Rawlins was very ill. What he thought was a cold was really the onset of tuberculosis, contracted from his first wife. Rawlins assured Emma he would recover, but he sank still lower that spring and summer. A rough cough racked his body. To maintain his strength, he resorted to drinking a concoction of bourbon and cod’s liver oil, which mortified him. In late July, Rawlins went home to convalesce, but when he returned in October he found himself almost a supernumerary. He protested in vain against Grant’s decision to permit Sherman to cut loose from Atlanta and head for the sea as Confederate General John Bell Hood began marching north into Tennessee.
On March 3, 1865, Rawlins was promoted to brigadier general in the Regular Army. In the war’s final two weeks he recovered some of his old influence with Grant, much to the relief of Major Genera; Philip H. Sheridan. Just as Lee had begun to abandon Petersburg and retreat west, Grant decided to detach Sheridan and his cavalry corps and send them from Virginia to North Carolina to help Sherman. Convinced his departure would hobble the Army of the Potomac, Sheridan hastened to headquarters to object. Rawlins, Sheridan said, swore a blue streak when they talked of the order. Encouraged by Rawlins’ support, Sheridan convinced Grant to suspend it. Then and there, said Sheridan’s chief of staff, James W. Forsyth, an “exceedingly close” friendship formed between Sheridan and Rawlins. Sheridan went daily to Grant’s headquarters “for the purpose of seeing General Rawlins and helping him brace up and sustain Grant.”
Rawlins did so forcefully on March 30 after torrential rains forced Grant to order Sheridan to halt his operations against Lee. The commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George G. Meade, apparently had convinced Grant to withdraw the army until the roads dried. Again Sheridan hurried to headquarters. Entering Grant’s tent, he found Grant and Rawlins arguing the matter, the latter so harshly that Grant suggested Rawlins take command of the army. “Seeing that there was a difference up between Rawlins and his chief,” Sheridan said, “I made the excuse of being wet and cold and went outside to the fire.” Grant soon emerged and, after some words with Sheridan, relented. Said Colonel Forsyth, “The men who prevented that withdrawal were General Sheridan and General Rawlins,” a conclusion with which Sheridan’s brother and staff officer, Michael Sheridan, agreed.
After Appomattox, Rawlins stayed on as Grant’s chief of staff. On March 11, 1869—though he was by that time a tubercular shadow of his former self—Rawlins accepted a position in President Grant’s cabinet as secretary of war. His doctors implored him to go to Arizona to prolong his life, but Rawlins refused to leave Grant’s side.
Rawlins’ term as secretary of war was brief. On September 6, he died in Washington, D.C. In his last moments, Rawlins told Sherman that his greatest fear was that Emma and his children would be left in poverty. He asked for Grant repeatedly, but died in great pain an hour before the president, who had been at Saratoga, N.Y., arrived.
As Grant had not been there to help ease Rawlins’ agony, neither did he favor Rawlins for posterity. In his memoir, written as his own death loomed, Grant mentioned his former adjutant just four times. Grant praised Rawlins only for having shielded him from fools and knaves, but he also attacked his character, accusing him of having appealed to Lincoln to halt Sherman’s planned March to the Sea after Grant overruled him, a charge of insubordination based on nothing better than hearsay.
Grant’s treatment of Rawlins stunned their mutual friends. James Wilson and Charles Dana, both of whom fell out with Grant for other reasons, tried to right the record. But journalist Sylvanus Cadwallader went further, insisting that Rawlins “was the power behind Grant; greater even than Grant himself.
Major General Jacob D. Cox thought Rawlins had been “a living and speaking conscience” to Grant. Lieutenant General John M. Schofield considered Rawlins a “military genius” equal to his commanding general. Grant’s former secretary, Adam Badeau, whom Grant fired when newspapers suggested that Badeau had authored part of his memoir, told historian Henry Adams that Rawlins had regularly fed Grant ideas that the latter claimed as his own. Badeau could “never follow a mental process in [Grant’s] thought,” nor was he sure that Grant did think.
Badeau wrote with a poison pen. But why did Grant try to erase Rawlins from history? Perhaps because to do otherwise would have been to acknowledge that he played a greater role in his success than Grant cared to confess.
Peter Cozzens, a frequent contributor on Western theater topics, is the author of Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, among other books.