Author Interview--Allen J. Ottens (General John A. Rawlins) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Allen J. Ottens to talk about his new book, General John A. Rawlins: No Ordinary Man, published by Indiana University Press in August 2021. 

Allen J. Ottens is Professor Emeritus of Counselor Education and Supervision at Northern Illinois University. He was president of the Manuscript Society and has been a lifelong reader of the history of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.

To start the interview, Al, I like to ask how you became interested in writing a biography of John Rawlins?

AJO: Over the years my wife and I have made numerous trips to Galena, IL, the town where John Rawlins came into prominence. On one of those trips, perhaps now ten or twelve years ago, I spent a few hours hanging out with old friend Bill Butts in his downtown store, Main Street Fine Books & Manuscripts. Somewhat out of the blue, Bill suggested that I write a biography of John Rawlins. “A fresh biography of Rawlins is long overdue,” he ventured, “given that the only one came out almost a hundred years ago.” He thought that with my life-long study of the Civil War I might have enough background and interest to tackle such a challenge. I chuckled, but Bill’s words of encouragement stuck with me. In truth, I was looking for a writing project since retiring from academia, and I had given a wee bit of thought to perhaps writing a bio of Union general James L. Kiernan—how that idea came about is a story for another day. I was also becoming more confident about my writing. For example, I had written several articles on Lincoln and Civil War topics for Manuscripts, the flagship journal of The Manuscript Society on such disparate topics as accounting for silver from the Confederate treasury, the placebo treatment that cured Charles Sumner’s post-traumatic stress disorder, and inquiry into possibly the earliest forgery of Lincoln’s signature. David Chesnutt, the editor of Manuscripts (he had been an editor of The Papers of Henry Laurens), was pleased with my writing and kept requesting additional articles from me. The simple fact that we live not too far distant from Galena was another factor in my decision to attempt a book on Rawlins. Moreover, the spate of biographies that have been churned out in recent years about Grant gave me additional incentive: it really was high time John Rawlins got his due. 

What do you argue in your book?

AJO: One of my goals was to correct the caricature of Rawlins as the temperance fanatic who kept Grant sober or as the real “brains” behind Grant’s success. There was even a joke back in the day that if someone kicked Grant in the head, it was Rawlins’s brains that would be dislodged. Rawlins might cluck that his interventions “sustained” Grant, but Grant had more control over his appetites than most believed. Where Rawlins more likely succeeded was in helping to ease the minds of those (i.e., President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton) who had invested so much responsibility in Grant. “If Rawlins is on the prowl through the camp, it must be as dry as the Sahara,” is how such thinking might have gone. Regarding Rawlins’s exaggerated advisory influence on Grant, Adam Badeau, a fellow staff officer who was close to both, said, “It did not take Grant and Rawlins to make Grant, as some have said, who knew neither intimately. Rawlins would have been the first to repel the pretension.” In this biography, I have more to say about Rawlins on both of these scores while I draw a more balanced and multi-dimensional picture of him as a lawyer, emerging Democratic Party figure in Northwest Illinois, bulwark of Grant’s staff, and cabinet member. 

What impresses me most about John Rawlins is how he transcended his views about race to become a champion on behalf of the oppressed. This is probably the most overlooked or ignored aspect of his growth as a human being and something I hoped to correct. Remember, Rawlins was, in pre-war Galena, a champion of Stephen Douglas and a leading Democrat in his part of Illinois. Douglas was convinced of the inferiority of Blacks, and in 1858 the Democrats in Rawlins’s congressional district adopted resolutions against conferring upon Blacks equality under the law or the privilege of citizenship. Although we don’t know Rawlins’s personal views at that time about race, it’s hard to imagine they were significantly more enlightened.  Thus, we must be impressed that in his magnificent “Platform Speech” delivered at Galena in June 1867, Rawlins argued for all states to confer upon Blacks the right to vote. He envisioned how universal suffrage could work for the common good of the country and uplift the Freedmen: “And the African, elevated from the degradation of slavery, rendered respectable by his voice in government, admitted to all sources of intelligence, inspired by the same love of freedom, speaking the same language and worshipping the same God, will rise rapidly in the scale of knowledge and the cloud of ignorance that now envelopes him will as rapidly pass away, and he will not fail ‘to help keep the jewel of liberty in the family of freedom.’” Moreover, during his brief time in Grant’s cabinet, Rawlins was the most vocal advocate for the cause of the insurrectionists in Cuba who were fighting for freedom from their Spanish oppressors.

I have to confess, I had not realized until I read your book what a fascinating character Rawlins was. However, before we get into some of the details, I do want to ask you about your research, because you mention early on in the book that Rawlins did not leave a significant record. So how did you get at his thought and perceptions? How challenging is it to write a biography of a person who does not oblige you with a nice set of diaries and lengthy correspondences?

AJO: You pose several great questions. The fate of Rawlins’s papers (there may have been two trunks full of them) is a mystery that may never be solved. General James H. Wilson, Rawlins’s friend and former member of Grant’s staff, claimed he had been designated as Rawlins’s literary executor and thus expected to be the recipient of the papers. He never came into possession of them. Instead Rawlins’s wife, Emma, may have turned them over to William Hillyer, another former staff officer who served as her attorney. What Hillyer or the Hillyer family did with the papers, if they had them, is open to speculation. There’s even the story that an old Galena friend, General John E. Smith, obeyed Rawlins’s wishes to have them burned. Staff of the Library of Congress undertook two serious, but futile, efforts to track down the papers.

Absent much of his personal correspondence or diaries, I had to make due with what’s “out there.” Some of Rawlins’s letters to his second wife and General Wilson exist, and these offer helpful insights into Rawlins himself. While Wilson was writing his biography of Rawlins, he corresponded with David Sheean, a Galena lawyer and best friend of Rawlins. The information Sheean provided was of great help to me. Of course, I made liberal use of John Simon’s seminal work on the Grant papers and the Official Records. I sought out personal recollections and perceptions of Rawlins by individuals who knew him well, such as Wilson, Grenville Dodge, and Adam Badeau. It was Badeau’s account of an interaction between Grant and Rawlins over how Grant should respond to criticism from Andrew Johnson that gave me an astounding insight into Rawlins’s role as an advisor to Grant—or how Rawlins listened with a “third ear.”

Information came to me through a host of channels—some unexpected. I gleaned many interesting facts from the actual Galena newspapers of that period that are housed in the Galena public library. Regarding Rawlins’s role as Grant’s “stay,” I am confident that Rawlins was influenced by the book of sermons on intemperance by Reverend Lyman Beecher. I go into more detail in my book as to how this might be so. Rawlins, as well as his two wives, succumbed to tuberculosis early in life, and research into mid-nineteenth century treatment of that disease proved fascinating. I can’t begin to tell you how much time I devoted to discovering what an “issue pea” was. I was also privileged to have been given access to the diary that David Sheean kept as a prisoner at Fort Lafayette after being ordered arrested by Edwin Stanton.