Grant: Man of Contradictions

Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.
Her stiff hands were busy now with an odd piece of wood,
Sometime Westpointer, by accident more than choice,
Sometime brevet-captain in the old Fourth Infantry,
Mentioned in Mexican orders for gallant service
And, six years later, forced to resign from the Army
Without enough money to pay for a stateroom home.
Turned farmer on Hardscrabble Farm, turned bill-collector,
Turned clerk in the country-store that his brothers ran,
The eldest-born of the lot, but the family-failure,
Unloading frozen hides from a farmer’s sleigh
With stoop-shouldered strength, whittling beside the stove,
And now and then turning to whiskey to take the sting
From winter and certain memories.
It didn’t take much.
A glass or two would thicken the dogged tongue
And flush the fair skin beneath the ragged brown beard.
Poor and shabby–old “Cap” Grant of Galena,
Who should have amounted to something but hadn’t so far
Though he worked hard and was honest.
A middle-aged clerk,
A stumpy, mute man in a faded army overcoat,
Who wrote the War Department after Fort Sumter,
Offering them such service as he could give
And saying he thought that he was fit to command
As much as a regiment, but getting no answer.

So many letters come to a War Department,
One can hardly bother the clerks to answer them all–
Then a Volunteer colonel, drilling recruits with a stick,
A red bandanna instead of an officer’s sash;
A brigadier-general, one of thirty-seven,
Snubbed by Halleck and slighted by fussy Frémont;
And then the frozen February gale
Over Fort Henry and Fort Donelson,
The gunboats on the cold river–the brief siege–
“Unconditional surrender”–and the newspapers.

Major-General Grant, with his new twin-stars,
Who, oddly, cared so little for reading newspapers,
Though Jesse Grant wrote dozens of letters to them
Pointing out all the wonders his son had done
And wringing one dogged letter from that same son
That should have squelched anybody but Jesse Grant.
It did not squelch him.  He was a business man,
And now Ulysses had astonished Galena
By turning out to be somebody after all;
Ulysses’ old father was going to see him respected
And, incidentally, try to wangle a contract
For army-harness and boom the family tannery.
It was a great surprise when Ulysses refused,
The boy was so stubborn about it.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

I am glad to announce that Dale Price is back to regular blogging at Dyspeptic Mutterings.  I am glad to announce that because I have ever stolen borrowed blogging ideas from him.  Here is his review of H.W. Brand’s bio of Grant:

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace is an excellent biography of one of America’s most consistently-underrated historical figures. 

University of Texas history Professor H.W. Brands does a fine job of illuminating Grant’s early life and struggles, not only with the bottle but with his failings as a provider–both despite his best efforts. As he does so, Brands presents the determined character that enabled Grant to overcome these failures and rise to become the most beloved general since Washington, and the most popular President of the 19th Century (at least in terms of electoral success).

The description of Grant’s military tenure during the Civil War is very solid, demonstrating that he was the best strategic thinker on either side, and no slouch as a tactician. Brands points out–correctly–that Grant’s casualty rates were lower as a proportion of men in combat than Lee’s despite being on the offensive much more often. That said, I still think Lee was slightly better as a tactician, especially considering that the quality of leadership in the Army of Northern Virginia declined drastically over time, and that of the Army of the Potomac increased with the rise of men like Sheridan and Ord.

None of that was a particular surprise to me, given my other reading. The real eye-opener for me was Brands’ revisionist (and I use that term advisedly) assessment of Grant’s two terms as President. Far from the failure “everyone knows” it to be, Grant’s Presidency had a remarkable number of achievements: the Fifteenth Amendment, the squelching of the attempt to corner the gold market, the settling of claims against England stemming from the giving of commerce raiders to the Confederacy and, most crucially, Grant’s dedication to civil rights for freedmen. In enforcing the Ku Klux Klan Act and related civil rights legislation and appointing determined attorneys general like Amos Akerman (who had been a Colonel for the Confederacy!), Grant was the President most devoted to civil rights and racial equality until the arrival of Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, Grant presented the most humane policy toward the Indian tribes by an American president up to his time.

Where this reassessment (slightly) fails is in providing a thorough explanation of *why* Grant’s reputation as President went to and remains mostly in the dustbin at this late date. To be sure, Brands’ treatment of 1872-1880 is not all praise–Grant is rapped for his too-restrictive handling of the Panic of 1873, America’s first industrial depression, which cast a shadow over much of his tenure. Though, in Grant’s defense, his restrictive approach to increasing the money supply was well-within the mainstream of 1870s economic thought.

Interestingly enough, the economic doldrums did not damage his personal popularity much (as opposed to damaging the GOP)–he came close to winning a nomination for a third term in 1880, and almost certainly would have won that election, too. 

All in all, the coverage of Grant’s presidency is an eye-opener which should act as a welcome rebuttal to the Good General/Bad President canard that unjustly haunts him.

Finally, Brands deftly handles Grant’s last battle–a race against time to finish his memoirs as he was dying of throat cancer. As he did through his military career, Grant won this battle through dogged determination, dying a few days after he finished them, ensuring that his wife and family would be well-provided for. The Mutt-and-Jeff friendship that arose between Grant and Mark Twain is also well-drawn. Brands also includes a hilarious anecdote of Twain’s one “battle” on behalf of the Confederacy in 1861 that left me–and my wife–laughing out loud. I am morally certain Twain would approved. (more…)

Published in: on October 4, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Grant: Man of Contradictions  
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The Last Stand of the Black Horse Troop

Something for the weekend.  I Am a Rebel Soldier sung by Waylon Jennings.  Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body follows in part of his poem a Confederate Georia cavalry unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the Black Horse Troop.  On the way to Appomattox they met their destiny guarding the rear of their expiring Army.  I have always thought this was a fitting tribute to the men of that Army who endured to the end.

Wingate wearily tried to goad
A bag of bones on a muddy road
Under the grey and April sky
While Bristol hummed in his irony
“If you want a good time, jine the cavalry!
Well, we jined it, and here we go,
The last event in the circus-show,
The bareback boys in the burnin’ hoop
Mounted on cases of chicken-croup,
The rovin’ remains of the Black Horse Troop!
Though the only horse you could call real black
Is the horsefly sittin’ on Shepley’s back,
But, women and children, do not fear,
They’ll feed the lions and us, next year.
And, women and children, dry your eyes,
The Southern gentleman never dies.
He just lives on by his strength of will
Like a damn ole rooster too tough to kill
Or a brand-new government dollar-bill
That you can use for a trousers-patch
Or lightin’ a fire, if you’ve got a match,
Or makin’ a bunny a paper collar,
Or anythin’ else–except a dollar.

Old folks, young folks, never you care,
The Yanks are here and the Yanks are there,
But no Southern gentleman knows despair.
He just goes on in his usual way,
Eatin’ a meal every fifteenth day
And showin’ such skill in his change of base
That he never gets time to wash his face
While he fights with a fury you’d seldom find
Except in a Home for the Crippled Blind,
And can whip five Yanks with a palmleaf hat,
Only the Yanks won’t fight like that. (more…)

Published in: on April 11, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Last Stand of the Black Horse Troop  
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God of Our Fathers

Something for the weekend. God of Our Fathers. Written in 1876 to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it reminds each American how fortunate we are to live in this land.

God of our fathers, whose almighty hand
Leads forth in beauty all the starry band
Of shining worlds in splendor through the skies,
Our grateful songs before Thy throne arise.

Thy love divine hath led us in the past,
In this free land by Thee our lot is cast;
Be Thou our ruler, guardian, guide and stay,
Thy Word our law, Thy paths our chosen way.

From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence,
Be Thy strong arm our ever sure defense;
Thy true religion in our hearts increase,
Thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.

Refresh Thy people on their toilsome way,
Lead us from night to never-ending day;
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
And glory, laud, and praise be ever Thine.

America is a wonderful place, even when we acknowledge her flaws. I think one of the best tributes to America is contained in Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, when he describes Daniel Webster addressing the Jury of the Damned: (more…)

Published in: on November 29, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on God of Our Fathers  
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The Army of Northern Virginia

Furling the Flag

Army of Northern Virginia, fabulous army,
Strange army of ragged individualists,
The hunters, the riders, the walkers, the savage pastorals,
The unmachined, the men come out of the ground,
Still for the most part, living close to the ground
As the roots of the cow-pea, the roots of the jessamine,
The lazy scorners, the rebels against the wheels,
The rebels against the steel combustion-chamber
Of the half-born new age of engines and metal hands.
The fighters who fought for themselves in the old clan-fashion.
Army of planters’ sons and rusty poor-whites,
Where one man came to war with a haircloth trunk
Full of fine shirts and a body-servant to mend them,
And another came with a rifle used at King’s Mountain
And nothing else but his pants and his sun-cracked hands,
Aristo-democracy armed with a forlorn hope,
Where a scholar turned the leaves of an Arabic grammar
By the campfire-glow, and a drawling mountaineer
Told dirty stories old as the bawdy world,
Where one of Lee’s sons worked a gun with the Rockbridge Battery
And two were cavalry generals. (more…)

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 5:32 am  Comments (2)  
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Daniel Webster

Yes, Dan’l Webster’s dead–or, at least, they buried him. But every
time there’s a thunder storm around Marshfield, they say you can hear
his rolling voice in the hollows of the sky. And they say that if you
go to his grave and speak loud and clear, “Dan’l Webster–Dan’l
Webster!” the ground’ll begin to shiver and the trees begin to shake.
And after a while you’ll hear a deep voice saying, “Neighbor, how
stands the Union?” Then you better answer the Union stands as she
stood, rock-bottomed and copper sheathed, one and indivisible, or he’s
liable to rear right out of the ground. At least, that’s what I was
told when I was a youngster.

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named, and we have examined the lives of each of them including the “life” I made up for the fictional the Reverend John Smeet.  We also looked at the judge who presided over the case, Justice Hathorne.  Only one personage remains to examine, Daniel Webster.

Born in 1782 a few months after the American victory at Yorktown, Webster would live to be a very old man for his time, dying in 1852.  Webster would serve in the House for 10 years from New Hampshire and 19 years in the Senate from Massachusetts.  Three times Secretary of State, he also attempted on three occasions to win the Presidency failing three times, watching as much lesser men attained that office.  Like his two great contemporaries, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, his name is remembered while most Americans would be hard pressed to name many of those presidents.

While holding political office he also practiced law, arguing an astounding 223 cases before the United States Supreme Court and winning about half of them.

He was acknowledged to be the finest American orator of his day, a day in which brilliant speech making was fairly common on the American political scene, and his contemporaries often referred to him blasphemously as “the god-like Daniel”.  Perhaps the finest example of Webster’s oratory is his Second Reply to Senator Haynes of South Carolina during the debate on tariffs which took place in the Senate  in January of 1830.  In the background lurked the nullification crisis and possible secession, a crisis which would build over the next three decades and explode into the attempted dissolution of the union in 1860.  The ending of this speech was once known by every schoolchild:   Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable! 

The American Union was Webster’s passion throughout his life, being above all an ardent patriot.  He was also an ardent opponent of slavery.  However, in 1850 when his opposition to slavery conflicted with what he perceived to be the necessity of a compromise to preserve the Union, he did not hesitate and helped hammer the compromise together.  Because it included a stronger fugitive slave act, he was roundly condemned throughout New England, something noted in The Devil and Daniel Webster:

Well, with that the stranger began to beg and to plead. And he begged and he pled so humble that finally Dan’l, who was naturally kind hearted, agreed to let him go. The stranger seemed terrible grateful
for that and said, just to show they were friends, he’d tell Dan’l’s for tune before leaving. So Dan’l agreed to that, though he didn’t take much stock in fortunetellers ordinarily.

But, naturally, the stranger was a little different. Well, he pried and he peered at the line in Dan’l’s hands. And he told him one thing and another that was quite remarkable. But they were all in the past.

“Yes, all that’s true, and it happened,” said Dan’l Webster. “But what’s to come in the future?”

The stranger grinned, kind of happily, and shook his head. “The future’s not as you think it,” he said. “It’s dark. You have a great ambition, Mr. Webster.”

“I have,” said Dan’l firmly, for everybody knew he wanted to be President.

“It seems almost within your grasp,” said the stranger, “but you will not attain it. Lesser men will be made President and you will be passed over.”

“And, if I am, I’ll still be Daniel Webster,” said Dan’l. “Say on.”

“You have two strong sons,” said the stranger, shaking his head. “You look to found a line. But each will die in war and neither reach greatness.”

“Live or die, they are still my sons,” said Dan’l Webster. “Say on.”

“You have made great speeches,” said the stranger. “You will make more.”

“Ah,” said Dan’l Webster.

“But the last great speech you make will turn many of your own against you,” said the stranger. “They will call you Ichabod; they will call you by other names. Even in New England some will say you have turned
your coat and sold your country, and their voices will be loud against you till you die.”

“So it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say,” said Dan’l Webster. Then he looked at the stranger and their glances locked. “One question,” he said. “I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart?”

“Not while you live,” said the stranger, grimly, “but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will fight for your cause, because of words that you spoke.”

“Why, then, you long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed, fortune-telling note shaver!” said Dan’l Webster, with a great roar of laughter, “be off with you to your own place before I put my mark on
you! For, by the thirteen original colonies, I’d go to the Pit itself to save the Union!”

I think that the Compromise of 1850 was essential for the preservation of the Union.  Ten years later the North barely won the Civil War begun in 1861.  In 1851 the disparity in industrial strength and rail capacity was much less than it would be in 1861.  The South had borne the brunt of the fighting in the Mexican War, and as a result it had many veteran volunteer soldiers in civilian life, still in their prime, who would have given the South perhaps an insurmountable advantage early in a war that began in 1851.  The Republican party still remained in the future, and there was no party in existence in 1850 dedicated both to preservation of the Union and anti-slavery to rally the strength of the North through a terrible conflict.  Finally, the hapless Millard Fillmore would have made a poor substitute for Abraham Lincoln as a war president.  Daniel Webster was absolutely correct in his conclusion that a compromise was needed in order to preserve the Union.  In the world to come I am sure that has given him immense satisfaction.

Justice Hathorne

He pointed his finger once more, and a tall man, soberly clad in Puritan garb, with the burning gaze of the fanatic, stalked into the room and took his judge’s place.

“Justice Hathorne is a jurist of experience,” said the stranger. “He presided at certain witch trials once held in Salem. There were others who repented of the business later, but not he.”

“Repent of such notable wonders and undertakings?” said the stern old justice. “Nay, hang them–hang them all!” And he muttered to himself in a way that struck ice into the soul of Jabez Stone.

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named, and we have examined the lives of each of them including the “life” I made up for the fictional the Reverend John Smeet.

The judge who presided over the case was Justice John Hathorne.  Born in August of 1641, Hathorne was a merchant of Salem, Massachusetts.  Hathorne prospered as a merchant with trading ventures to England and the West Indies.  He owned land around Salem and in Maine.  With economic power he combined political power, being Justice of the Peace in Essex County, and a member of the legislative upper chamber which combined the roles of legislature and high court.  In 1692 Hathorne was one of the men who questioned the accusers and accused and was in favor of bringing the accused to trial.  He was appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts as one of the judges of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer that heard the trials.  Hathorne always voted to convict.

Subsequent to the trials he saw service in the militia in King William’s War, taking part in 1696 in the siege of Fort Nashawaak in what became New Brunswick in Canada and rising to the rank of Colonel.  He was eventually appointed to the Superior Court.  He died on May 10, 1717.

Following the Salem witch trials, there was a wave of revulsion at the verdicts.  Few doubted at that time that witches did exist, but many attacked the fairness of the trials, especially the concept of “spectral evidence” which allowed the accusers to testify as to what demons purportedly told them about the accused.  Many people found this admission of supernatural hearsay to be not only fundamentally unfair but preposterous and feared that the accusers had been simply settling old family feuds with the accused.  (more…)

Governor Dale

and cruel Governor Dale, who broke men on the wheel

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the sixth in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty, here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet,  here to read the biography of Major Walter Butler, here to read the biography of Thomas Morton and here to read the biography of King Philip.  Today we look at Governor Thomas Dale.

The Virginia colony was close to collapse.  Too many useless “gentlemen” of leisure who had come to the New World thinking they could pick gold off the ground and quickly return to England rich.  They had not bargained for a hard pioneer life and many seemed to prefer starvation rather than forsaking their lazy habits.  Into this fiasco in the making came Thomas Dale in 1611.  A Surrey man, Dale had served both as a soldier in the Netherlands and in the Navy.  He was a military man to his marrow and something of a martinet.  The Virginia Company, realizing that strong leadership was needed if the new colony was not to dissolve into anarchy appointed Dale as Deputy Governor and as “Marshall of Virginia”.

When he got to Jamestown Dale was alarmed at the dilapidated condition of the buildings and immediately convened a meeting of the council to appoint crews to begin rebuilding Jamestown.  Dale would serve as acting Governor for the colony for three and a half months in 1611 and in 1614-1616.  In the interim Dale served as “Marshall”.  Whatever his title, while he was in the colony it was clear to all that he was in charge.

He introduced the first code of laws to the colony, popularly known as Dale’s code, which is quite severe.  However, coming into a literally lawless community I can see why Dale would have erred on the side of sternness. (more…)

King Philip

King Philip was there, wild and proud as he had been in life, with the great gash in his head that gave him
his death wound.

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the fifth in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty, here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet,  here to read the biography of Major Walter Butler and here to read the biography of Thomas Morton.  Our focus today is on King Philip.

Metacom, known to the white settlers as King Philip, was the second son of Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag, who had helped the Pilgrims survive during the first years of the colony.  He became chief in 1662 when his brother Wamsutta, King Alexander, died.  King Philip attempted to preserve peace with the whites.  The Wampanoag were in a bad strategic situation, squeezed between ever-increasing white settlements in the East and an ever-expanding Iroquois Confederacy in the West.  King Philip made major concessions to the whites, but war came anyway.

The great war of Seventeenth Century New England, King Philip’s War raged from 1675-1678 with the New England colonists, now numbering about 80,000, and their Mohican and Pequot allies confronting the  Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Podunk, Narragansett and Nashaway tribes.  The war was savage on both sides, with quarter rarely given. (more…)

Morton of Merry Mount

There was Morton of Merry Mount, who so vexed the Plymouth Colony, with his flushed, loose, handsome face and his hate of the godly.

Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the fourth in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty, here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet and here to read the biography of Major Walter Butler.  In this post we direct our attention to Thomas Morton of Merry Mount.

A Devonshire man born in circa 1578, Morton was an attorney and a lover of plays and classical learning.  In 1624 he became involved in a trading venture to the Algonquian Indians in what is now Massachusetts.  In 1626 he founded the settlement of Merry Mount.  Morton ran a free and easy settlement, with the English settlers mixing freely with the Indians and quite a good time apparently being had by all.  On May 1, 1627 Morton erected a Maypole with much frolicking going on around it.

The pilgrims were shocked.  Governor William Bradford of Plymouth wrote: (more…)

Walter Butler

For there was Walter Butler, the loyalist, who spread fire and horror through the Mohawk Valley in the times of the Revolution.

 Stpehen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster

In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the third in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty and here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet.  In this post we will examine the life of Major Walter Butler.

Walter Butler was a young man of 23 at the start of the Revolution, the son of John Butler, a wealthy Indian agent and a judge in frontier Tryon Country, soon to be the scene of many desperate frontier battles between Patriots and Loyalists, and their Indian auxiliaries.  John Butler was a firm loyalist as was his son.    Walter Butler served as an Ensign at the battle of Oriskany in 1777 during the Saratoga campaign.  Shortly after Oriskany he was captured behind enemy lines.  Sentenced to death he succeeded in escaping.  When his father formed the Loyalist Butler’s Rangers, Walter served in it as a Captain.

On November 11, 1778 at Cherry Valley, New York, Butler, leading a mixed force of Loyalists and Mohawks and Seneca under Joseph Brant, easily overcame the heavily outnumbered 7th Massachusetts Continentals.  In the aftermath of the battle, 30 settlers were murdered, including women and children.  In his report Butler blamed Brant and his Indians and steadfastly insisted that he spared no effort to rescue settlers from them.  However, Patriots claimed that Brant attempted to save settlers and that it was Butler who instigated the massacre.  My estimate is that neither Brant nor Butler were directly responsible and that it was independent action by the Seneca and the Mowhawk, who had many scores to repay, that resulted in the murders.  Like many historical questions the evidence now is too fragmentary and conflicting for complete certainty. (more…)


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