Friday, April 27, 2018

Elmer Ellsworth and John Newman

I don't believe Elmer Ellsworth ever met Grant, but he was a friend and political ally of Lincoln. The young colonel's death -- the first Union officer killed in the Civil War -- shocked the country. Ellsworth was from Malta, NY, and the town historian, Paul Perreault, not long ago produced this display board which can be seen in the community center there, near the public library.
Ellsworth is buried in nearby Halfmoon, outside Mechanicville, in Hudson View Cemetery. His grave had grown neglected a decade ago, which I wrote about in the newspaper. That story, along with Bruce Squiers' photo, did prompt the powers that be to clean up the grave site -- but I don't know what it looks like now.
Not far away in the same cemetery is the grave of the Rev. John Newman. A fashionable and successful preacher by 1885, he had done more hazardous civilian duty in Louisiana from 1864 to 1869, ministering to and educating African-Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Newman was a friend of Grant, and especially of Julia, but was no friend of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Like them, he is a character in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Matias Romero and the Editing Process

Years ago, when I first read Grant's Memoirs, I was jolted into full attention by an early passage about the Mexican War, in which he fought as a junior officer. I hadn't realized Grant's true feelings about that war, at least at the end of his life when he was writing the book: He strongly opposed it, thought the United States was wrong to invade Mexico, and that this unjust war helped set the stage for the US Civil War. Yet Grant obviously thought his duty lay in serving in Mexico, which he did with great courage and success.
Cynics will sometimes say Mark Twain was the real author of Grant's Memoirs, which is nonsense. Twain was the editor, and helped organize the manuscript, but a considerable part of his job was to give Grant confidence and get out of his way. He did not, for example, tone down what Grant wrote about the Mexican War, despite its potential to offend conventional readers who might believe in the notion of "my country right or wrong". (Twain's only regret was that the book did not address Grant's drinking.)
Matias Romero was a Mexican diplomat who first met Grant in Virginia in 1864. They later became friends, and in Grant's post-presidential years worked together on a plan to build railroads in Mexico. Romero provided badly needed financial aid when Grant went broke in 1884.
Romero is a recurring character in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant (so is Twain, or Samuel Clemens). That book's editor at Square Circle Press was Richard Vang. He did a good job, e.g. breaking the novel into two parts and coming up with titles for them, an idea I at first brushed aside before reconsidering. He also raised an objection to a joke at the beginning of Chapter 20, the last chapter. It was a wisecrack shared by Ely Parker with Frank Herron, involving a planned luncheon for the two of them plus Romero and Nellie Grant Sartoris. I don't think I was wrong to keep the joke in.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Baldy Smith and Grant's Drinking Problem

General William Farrar "Baldy" Smith was a brilliant, brave, cantankerous, and not necessarily trustworthy West Pointer from Vermont who had a complicated relationship with Grant.
It came to a head in 1864, when Grant had secured Smith's promotion to major general but placed him under the command of Major General Benjamin Butler, a considerably less trustworthy character, militarily incompetent yet in some ways a brilliant and partly principled Democratic politician. And 1864 was a presidential election year, when Lincoln needed Butler's support, so was reluctant to replace him.
Smith frames Chapter Two of The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant, where the conversation touches on the circumstances of his removal from command. Smith's version blames Grant's drinking problem, which I think by the end of his life he was prone to maliciously exaggerate -- as did many others about other occasions of Grant's alleged drinking. It is nonsense, for example, to say Grant was drunk at the Battle of Shiloh, although some people did say so at the time, prompting Lincoln to defend the general he would not meet for another two years. Those stories tended to stick, and unfairly damage Grant's reputation up to this day, because there is some truth behind them. People like George McClellan had seen Grant drunk in the prewar Army, and so were inclined to believe unfounded rumors.
Still, I also think it is possible that Butler used an occasion when he and Smith witnessed Grant drinking to save his own job and get rid of Smith.
My own view of Grant's drinking is that it was only a problem when he was away from Julia and the children, not because she was nagging or otherwise riding herd, but because he was secure and happy in her presence, so not tempted to self-medicate in alcoholic excess.
That meant Grant's drinking problem was nonexistent for the last 20-odd years of his life. The incident involving Smith and Butler is about the last instance of it.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Grant Cottage News


The former prison ball field at the top of Mount McGregor may be added to the Grant Cottage property there, Friends of Grant Cottage President Tim Welch said at the group's annual meeting on Saturday.
Since the closure of Mount McGregor Correctional Facility four years ago, the state has been trying without success to sell the prison site, including the ball field, which is just up the road from Grant Cottage (obscured by trees in the image above). The state has also expanded Moreau State Park to include much of the prison grounds as well as Grant Cottage -- which, although operated by the Friends, is owned by the state parks office. Now the Friends are talking to the state about taking over the ball field.
Tourists and tour guides often saw prisoners playing baseball there, and if any balls were hit over the tall razor wire we were strictly instructed not to throw them back -- a precaution against the passage of contraband.
My first visit to Grant Cottage was in 1983, when my girlfriend (now wife) and I were hosted by the legendary caretaker Suye Narita Gambino and her husband Tony. After Suye's death the next year, the state tried to close the cottage down, prompting pushback from the community which I covered as a reporter for the Glens Falls Post-Star. The pushback resulted in formation of the Friends group.
It's a good thing that the cottage is now connected to Moreau State Park, and taking over the ball field at the summit, the site of the Balmoral Hotel when Grant was on the mountain, would be a jewel in the crown.
But one drawback of the prison closure is a reduction in security. Although the Friends have installed some features to enhance it, I still fear the cottage is now too vulnerable to vandals. The solution, I think (at the risk of violating my rule about no controversy after 1885), is to renovate the upstairs and bring back live-in caretakers like the Gambinos. (And to violate the post-1885 rule even further, I don't reckon Grant, who even as a private citizen tourist helped negotiate peace between Japan and China, would favor waging war in Syria now.) 
In other news, the Friends are sponsoring a Civil War Weekend on August 11-12 on Ballard Road in Wilton, at which the main attraction will be 100-plus re-enactors, and one of the lesser ones will be authors including yours truly (maybe I'll get to do some tour guiding too).
And one of my friends from the Friends sends along this story about a good prospect for saving Grant's home as a junior officer in Detroit (below). 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Family

This photo looks to be from 1869-70, so 15-plus years before Grant's death, when he was still in his vigorous 40s and the youngest president to serve up to that time. The two elder boys, on the right, boldly face the camera, while Julia and Nellie look away from it, and young Jesse takes center stage.
The struggles of Fred, the eldest, to take more responsibility for the family's precarious fortunes are portrayed in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant, but Julia and Nellie play larger roles in the book. By 1885, Nellie, Grant's favorite child, was the unhappily married mother of three surviving children, whom she had to leave in England to attend her dying father. Her husband Algernon Sartoris, as perhaps can be seen below, was no gentleman.
Ulysses and Julia, on the other hand, had the happiest of marriages, loving to their children, and bound ever closer by the roller-coaster turmoil of their shared lives. They were each other's steadfast support through adversity and triumph -- a pattern which continued, indeed intensified, as Grant's death approached.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Pete Longstreet, Henry Shrady and Confederate monuments

Although the former Confederate general James "Pete" Longstreet, a friend of Grant's before and after the Civil War, is not one of the characters in the novel, he is on the mind of several people who are.
One of them, Frank Herron, was an ally of Longstreet in postwar Reconstruction politics, and in Chapter 15 talks about the 1874 riot in New Orleans when dozens of people were killed by the White League. The White League defeated the heavily African-American state militia commanded by Longstreet, who was himself wounded and almost lynched. As a result, the state's governor was ousted until Grant sent in federal troops to restore order.
According to Wikipedia, the above inscription lauding "white supremacy" was added in 1932 to the 1891 obelisk monument celebrating the riot, or "The Battle of Liberty Place," but was apparently removed in 1993 as the city made efforts to provide some historical balance.
Although Longstreet was one of the best Confederate generals, there are virtually no statues of him in the South. The generally accepted reason is because of his postwar Republican politics.
The city took down the monument last year, along with three others, including a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Also last year, a woman was killed in a riot in Charlottesville, Va., triggered by that city government's (not yet accomplished) plan to take down a statue of Lee. That statue was designed by Henry Shrady, and completed after his death by Leo Lentelli. It is a work of art.

Shrady was the son of Dr. George Shrady, a minor character in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.
The younger Shrady is best known for the magnificent Grant memorial in front of the U.S. Capitol.
As I occasionally tell would-be arguers when I give tours of Grant Cottage, my rule is not to engage in controversy about events after 1885.

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