Author Interview--Allen J. Ottens (General John A. Rawlins) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Allen J. Ottens about his new book, General John A. Rawlins: No Ordinary Man, published by Indiana University Press in August 2021. 

Part 1

That is such a fascinating research story. We sure will return to the tuberculosis topic later. I think the best entry into your book is to look at the early relationship between Grant and Rawlins in Galena. How did the two men become acquainted and friends?

AJO: In an 1868 interview Rawlins said that he mentioned meeting Grant and his brothers before the war but had hardly any kind of relationship with them. And most of that was probably business related, because Rawlins did legal work for the Grant leather store on Galena’s main street. The Grant-Rawlins relationship started slowly. In that same interview Rawlins disclosed that it took some time before he realized that Grant liked him. Grant seems to say the same thing in his Memoirs about the evolving nature of their relationship: “I became very much attached to him.” (Italics added). In his autobiography Grant refers to Rawlins’s considerable oratorical skills, such as he displayed as an elector on the Democratic ticket for the First Congressional District during the 1860 election. In that capacity, Rawlins engaged in a series of debates with his Republican counterpart in the various Illinois counties comprising that district. Those debates were thoroughly covered in the Galena papers, so Grant, who had been a Galena resident for only a few months, was thereby introduced to one of the town’s rising stars. In April after Sumter’s surrender, Rawlins gave an impassioned speech at the Galena courthouse, with Grant in attendance. The speech galvanized townsfolk into taking preparations for war. Perhaps Grant, who was uncomfortable with public speaking, was impressed by someone who could enthrall an audience.

Regarding Grant, Rawlins said, “I felt that I was going to be attached to a man equal to the enlarging situation.” Thus, early in their relationship Rawlins saw Grant’s considerable leadership potential. Moreover, Rawlins comported himself consistent with that feeling: he stood foursquare behind Grant and always acted on Grant’s behalf. Grant felt comfortable with Rawlins; he could trust him. Comfort and trust were two important attributes for winning Grant’s friendship. And we dare not forget that Rawlins had no compunction about being assertive—and using a few choice expletives in the process. This was also helpful to the confrontation-averse Grant.

Why did Grant pick Rawlins to take such a prominent position on his staff considering he was a civilian with no military experience?

AJO: Brigadier General Grant wanted someone on his staff from his first regiment, the 21st Illinois, so he selected Lt. Clark Lagow—not necessarily a good pick given Lagow’s penchant for partying. He also wanted someone from his new hometown of Galena. That would be Rawlins. Rawlins was typical of a brigadier’s assistant adjutant general or aide-de-camp: young in age and a friend or acquaintance of the general. Rawlins’s lack of military experience was hardly an issue to Grant—although Rawlins fretted that he was too inexperienced. Grant had also tendered a staff position to William Hillyer with whom he was acquainted during his time in St. Louis. Hillyer was an attorney, and he had no military background either. Once Grant was awarded a brigadier’s star, he was pestered by a number of friends and family members for a slot on his staff. I doubt any of them were educated in the ways of the military. 

Consider, too, that a large number of regiments were led by colonels who had no prior service in the army or state militia—they were simply
elected by their troops.

Let’s turn to the war, you already mentioned that your book corrects notions about Rawlins as the sobriety guard. How did the assumptions you argue against that Rawlins kept Grant sober emerge? Even more, Rawlins seems to be a bit paranoid fearing that if he was not around Grant could relapse, did such perception contribute to later scholars incorrectly presenting Rawlins?

AJO: Yes, I think some scholars have gone to excess in lauding Rawlins as Grant’s keeper. Certainly, Rawlins liked to brag that the role he played as Grant’s “stay” was well known in high political circles. And a number of those politicians no doubt gave Rawlins considerable credit for being always positioned between Grant and a liquor bottle. Scholars could also point to a number of Grant’s colleagues who credited Rawlins for protecting Grant. For example, Dr. Edward Kittoe, a Galena physician who attended Grant on occasion, said in an 1887 piece in the New York Sun that Grant’s ability to overcome his fondness for drink was due to Rawlins’s advice and encouragement. Charles Dana portrayed Rawlins as the constant watchful presence over Grant helping him stay the course and uphold his pledge. Harry Wilson spoke about Rawlins volunteering him to keep Grant from falling. On the other hand, there are many examples of contemporaries relating episodes where Grant exercised self-control and chose to be abstemious absent any intervention by Rawlins.

Rawlins, no doubt, believed he was helping Grant as well as the country. He saw Grant’s potential for ending the war and understood the enormous responsibilities he shouldered. Rawlins was not schooled in the ways of the military, but one thing he could do was to ensure that Grant did not stumble or give ammunition to his critics. If Rawlins overplayed this role, it’s understandable. I haven’t seen evidence that Grant chafed under Rawlins’s doting eye or insisted he stop nagging him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Grant liked it in a way—it would be proof that Rawlins appreciated him and wanted what was best for him.

One Grant biographer who I think made sense way back in 1917 was Louis Coolidge. Let me quote liberally from pp. 125-126 of his book, Ulysses S. Grant: “[Rawlins] protected Grant in countless ways from those who would impose on his simplicity, made others show Grant deference which Grant would not exact himself, and watched him constantly to save him from mistakes. Perhaps his greatest service was in keeping him from drink, for he appreciated more than Grant the handle envious rivals made of any lapse, and that while Grant might drink no more than others, he could not afford to drink as much, by very reason of the stories which were widely spread and of the damage they might do the Union cause. Of course, there is no question of Grant’s habit, and that at times he favored it too much, but envious tongues gave it far greater emphasis than it deserved. If Grant had not been as successful as he was, his habits would have cut no figure. Who cares if other Union generals abstained or not?” (Italics added). Now, if Grant’s “habit” was exaggerated or overemphasized by “envious tongues,” can we surmise that the importance of Rawlins’s role was not as someone who needed to rescue Grant from the deadly clutches of demon rum but, rather, to perform impression management?

I think somewhat related to these misconceptions is also an interesting conundrum that you are pointing to, which is the absence of Rawlins from Grant’s autobiography? Why would Grant not mention Rawlins? 

AJO: Short answer: you’d have to ask Grant. 

Personally, I think Grant regarded his memoirs as the last opportunity to put his imprimatur on his remarkable life and career. For example, he wasn’t about to let Adam Badeau ghostwrite his autobiography. He could damn well do it himself—and magnificently. Similarly, I’d wager that over the years he had heard enough from detractors about how Rawlins made up half of Grant. So, why give more ammunition to those detractors in his memoirs?

As we should slowly draw to a close, Rawlins was a very flexible person when it comes to different social and political views, but he did not seem very good at taking care of himself. How did you treat Tuberculosis at the time? Could he have avoided an early grave for himself and his wives?

AJO: I might point out that Rawlins’s physicians probably held back the truth from him in order to keep alive his hope of a recovery. Fairly well into the course of his illness, Rawlins’s physicians were assuring him that his lungs were sound. As an aside, one of his physicians was Dr. Doctor (that is no typo!) Bliss, who was among Washington’s foremost medical practitioners. It was Bliss who later headed the surgical team that treated President Garfield’s gunshot wound and who performed the bare-fingered probing of that wound that caused Garfield’s fatal infection.

As far as taking care of himself, Rawlins actually did about as much as anyone could back in that day. He exercised, religiously followed an odd diet, and even took a revolting medicine concoction. He also sought a cure in the clear, dry air of the Rockies—an ordeal I describe in detail in the book. Rawlins was infected with TB from his first wife and transmitted it to his second wife. They had no chance of survival.   

To close, do you think you will do another book on the Civil War era?

AJO: Gadzooks! This one will take a little time to recuperate from. Years ago I read that when writing his massive, three-volume classic on the Civil War, Shelby Foote hoped to produce 250 words a day. That’s about what I could churn out on a good day. How often I’d tramp down from our second floor computer room and announce, “Hey, I finished two whole paragraphs today!”

Oh, and before I start another book, let’s see how the public receives
General John A. Rawlins: No Ordinary Man.