[pg. 25] AN INTERVIEW WITH FREDERICK DENT GRANT *** McClure’s Magazine for May, 1894, contained an interview with Colonel Frederick Dent Grant which supplements his recollections of his father, Ulysses S. Grant, which appeared in the Newsletter for April and October, 1969, and January, 1970. The complete article containing the interview is reprinted below.
By A. E. Watrous.
Any one who has laid his tribute of worship at the feet of General Grant without ever having seen the man experiences a surprise, and almost a shock, when he meets the master of the house at No. 245 West Seventy-fourth Street, in the city of New York. The man whom he really meets, and whom he knows he meets, is Colonel Frederick D. Grant. But the man whom he sees–and the illusion will grow on him all through a long morning’s talk–is as exactly General Ulysses S. Grant as if the painting on the western wall of the parlor of that house, or the crayon on the eastern wall of the library, had taken life, and, doffing its four-starred General’s uniform for mufti, had stepped from its frame and sat down at the library desk to write an order to Burnside beleaguered in Knoxville.Colonel Grant is probably a larger man than his father, but proportionately their cranial measurements would probably tally almost exactly. The square, short head, indicative of the General’s perfect equability of temperament, is reproduced in the Colonel. The features are the same. Particularly is the resemblance close in the nose of unobtrusive strength. The Grant nose is a Caesarian organ with constitutional limitations, [pg. 26] British and American. It must have been the nose of a potential dictator once, but centuries of civil and religious liberty in Old and New England and the new New England of what was once the West, have depressed the arch and set the member snug and law-abidingly to the face. There is the same penetrating and meditative eye, the eye that thinks but does not brood. There are the same squared, even shoulders. There is the same set but not protrusive jaw. There is the same brown beard, now slightly tinged with gray, for Colonel Grant has reached the age of forty-four, at which his father, his battles all over, had created for himself the unprecedented rank of General.
When Colonel Grant begins to talk, and especially when, to illustrate points in his talk, he reads from his father’s manuscript order books,1 the similarity of mental process as well as of outward appearance is shown. The General never made phrases intentionally. He never left anything to intuition. But be made things so clear, at enormous pains to himself, that he absolutely stopped all loopholes of misunderstanding. So with Colonel Grant, the attribute that strikes you mast is the impossibility of getting an incorrect idea from him.
This mental similarity is not to be wondered at. The son lived in the father’s shadow, slept in his tent, ate at his mess, rode by his side–a volunteer aide-de-camp without pay at thirteen–through the time when his mind was most plastic.
Colonel Grant likes better to talk of his father’s campaigns than of his personality, and exhibits in talking of them the remarkable Grant clarity of statement. Yet a single question drew from him, almost accidentally, a clearer analysis of those attributes that went to make up the patent entity known as Grant, than any that I at least have seen in print. “Did you notice any change,” I had asked, “in your father’s manner or demeanor after he came East and took command of all the armies? Was there anything to show that he thought, ‘Here is the great task of my life’?”
Colonel Grant shook his head thoughtfully. “No,” he said; “that was impossible. My father was always the same. He was always grave. He was always thoughtful. He was always gentle. He was always extraordinarily considerate of the feelings of others. I have never known a man who had such nice ways about him in that respect as my father. But, more than that, he always did his best. Be did as much his best when he was a farmer as when he was Lieutenant-General, and he never saw that doing your best in one position in life was any different from doing it in another. For instance, he never would look upon one particular achievement and say, ‘That was my mast brilliant deed.’ He never looked at things that way. He used to say that he had done all he could, taken all the pains he could, about everything, and if one thing turned out better than another it was because he had more or better information to act upon. No, he never felt one responsibility more than another. He felt it his duty to do his best under all circumstances, and after that he did not care. So he never thought that he did one thing better than another. It was the duty idea that ruled him. And I may say that in the history of my father’s family that same idea of doing your best in the place you find yourself has been [pg. 27] a ruling and an upholding one. It’s been a rather remarkable family in that way, I think. His father did the best that was to be done in the little town of Georgetown, Ohio, where he lived, and that was to be mayor, and draw the resolutions and platforms for the local political conventions. And his father did his best, and that was to fill a lieutenancy in the Revolutionary war; and that father’s father was thanked by the Connecticut Assembly for his services in French and Indian warfare. There was another Grant, who became town clerk, back there in Connecticut. And so I think of each generation, since the family came here in 1630–it was of the clan Grant in Scotland originally–it may be said that there was some man doing his best, though until my father’s time in a comparatively small way. Then my father’s mother added greatly to the family stock of strict sense of duty. She was a woman who thought that nothing you could do would entitle you to praise; that you ought to praise the Lord for giving you an opportunity to do it. My father held himself to almost as strict an accountability, though he didn’t extend it to others. He was always ready to praise his subordinates, and towards his children he was especially indulgent and lenient.”
Grant’s reluctance to talk “shop” is one of the most marked but most exasperating instances of good taste in history. When the subject was mentioned to his son, he smiled a smile of amused remembrance.
“The only way I could ever draw my father out upon the art of war,” he said, “was to engage in conversation with some one else and then to make purposely a misstatement. He would correct me, and then be very apt to give his opinion on the subject, whatever it was. He never studied strategy between the time of his leaving West Point and the breaking out of the Rebellion. He had a few books, Jomini for one, and his memory retained all that he had learned at the academy. But, as a matter of fact, no European writer and no European commander could have given him much help in his campaigns.”
The talk fell upon Vicksburg, and Colonel Grant, looking at it from the military standpoint, corrected my idea that it corresponded to the campaign of Ulm, and said that its true resemblance was to the Italian campaigns of 1796-97. Then I suggested: “Colonel, there are a good many million boys in this country who would like to know what a thirteen-year-old aide-de-camp saw on the day of the surrender.”
The Colonel laughed and said: “Well, I don’t know exactly where to begin. I remember that father had had it given out that we were to assault Vicksburg on July 4, when the attack was ordered for the 6th, and that brought the flag of truce; and then Pemberton and his staff rode out to meet my father and his staff. He and Pemberton went to one side and talked together, and then my father called Rawlins, and Pemberton called Bowen, into consultation. In the mean time the two staffs mingled and talked about all sorts of things, and I listened. When we got back to the tent,” and here the Colonel grew more interested and more exact in statement, “I remember how I wanted to lie down. Dysentery had pulled me down from one hundred and ten to sixty-eight pounds, and I had a toothache as well. The first thing I did after the surrender was to have that tooth pulled. My [pg. 28] father sat at his little desk. That was all there was in the tent, except his cot and my cot; and the bottom of his was broken, and he had to stretch his legs apart when he slept in it to keep from falling through.”
The Colonel stopped to laugh a moment at the recollection, and went on. “He began to write very hard, and with great interest in what he was writing. I lay on the cot with my face in my hands. We were alone, and it was toward evening. At last there came an orderly with a despatch. I remember seeing my father open it. He got up and said: ‘W-e-e-e-ll, I’m glad Vicksburg will surrender tomorrow.'”2
The question had been put to Colonel Grant, while he was describing the scene in the tent, whether his father was smoking at the time, and whether he really smoked as much as he was said to have. “I’ll tell you about that afterwards,” Colonel Grant had then said: “I’ll tell you how he came to smoke.” So, after the Vicksburg incident had been disposed of, there came this first authentic history of Grant as a smoker.
“My father,” said Colonel Grant, “tried to smoke while at West Point, but only because it was against the regulations; and then he didn’t succeed very well at it. He really got the habit from smoking light cigars and cigarettes during the Mexican war, but it wasn’t a fixed habit. When he left the army and lived in the country, he smoked a pipe–not incessantly. I don’t think that he was very fond of tobacco then, and really there was always a popular misconception of the amount of his smoking. But he went on as a light smoker, a casual smoker, until the day of the fall of Fort Donelson. Then the gun-boats having been worsted somewhat, and Admiral Foote having been wounded, he sent ashore for my father to come and see him. Father went aboard, and the Admiral, as is customary, had his cigars passed. My father took one, and was smoking it when he went ashore. There he was met by a staff officer, who told him that there was a sortie, and the right wing had been struck and smashed in. Then my father started for the scene of operations. He let his cigar go out, naturally, but held it between his fingers. He rode hither and yon, giving orders and directions, still with the cigar stump in his hand. The result of his exertions was that Fort Donelson fell after he sent his message of ‘Unconditional surrender,’ and ‘I propose to move immediately upon your works.’ With the message was sent all over the country the news that Grant was smoking throughout the battle, when he only had carried this stump from Foote’s flagship. But the cigars began to come in from all over the Union. He had eleven thousand cigars on hand in a very short time. He gave away all he could, but he was so surrounded with cigars that he got to smoking them regularly. But he never smoked as much as he seemed to smoke. He would light a cigar after breakfast and let it go out, and then light it again, and then again let it go out, and light it; so that the one cigar would last until lunch time.”
There has been more “popular sentiment” about the Chattanooga campaign than any other of the war. Colonel Grant smiled as we came to talk about it, and walked across the room to some book-shelves. From the long rows of leather-bound books he chose out a volume of smoothly copied orders, saying, as he turned the leaves: “Lookout Mountain is called the ‘Battle above the Clouds,’ I believe. The army lost nine men there, and at the other mountain, [pg. 29] Missionary Ridge, it lost six thousand or seven thousand. Then there is another story, that the troops carried Missionary Ridge without orders, in an access of heroism. Well, let’s see!” He read from the volume of orders and commented. In all the multifarious detail of instruction, which took painful cognizance of the depth of mud on every cross-road, and the comparative condition of the baggage train of each division, there was the fixed and iterated and reiterated exposition of the fact that Missionary Ridge, the point that was carried “without orders” by the Army of the Cumberland, was the point where the hammer of Thor was to strike when all this complex machinery should have raised it for its fall, which was to reëcho through all the years of the Republic.
Then from reports to Halleck, in another of the leather-bound volumes, came the reflection of the series of orders, fitting them as the type fits the matrix. The last was almost amusing in its unstudied simplicity. It was: “I do not at all expect that Bragg will be about here in the morning.”3
Chronologically the talk had come to Grant’s journey East to assume general command, and his first meeting with Lincoln. “Did he give you his impression of Lincoln when he returned from that interview?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” answered Colonel Grant. “You see, I was with him at the time.”
“Yes; in Washington and in the White House–with him and Lincoln.”
One can hardly imagine Marlborough taking a young Churchill to see Queen Anne after Ramillies; or Wellington, back from Spain, accompanied by a Right Honorable little Wellesley in his first call on the Duke of York. “Old Fuss and Feathers” doing such a kindly, natural, domestic, American thing after Mexico, is unthinkable. The incident seems to me to show Grant’s unshakable equilibrium, his perfect invariableness.
“Is it true that Lincoln quoted a story about Captain Bob Shorty and the Mackerel Brigade, from the ‘Orpheus C. Kerr Papers,’ to your father at that meeting?” I asked.
“Very likely, though I don’t remember. The story that I do remember hearing him tell my father that day was about Jocko. Jocko was the commander of an army of monkeys in a monkey war, and he was always sure that if his tail were a little longer he could end the monkey war. So he kept asking the authorities of the monkey republic for more of a tail. They got other monkey tails and spliced them on his. His spliced tail got too long to drag after him, and they wound it around his body. Still he wanted more, and they wound his spliced tail about his shoulders. Finally it got so heavy that it broke his back. Mr. Lincoln applied the story to the cases of generals who were always calling for more men and never did anything with them.4 They talked about the campaign, but in a desultory way. I remember Mr. Lincoln’s saying, ‘I don’t give many military orders. Some of those I do give I know are wrong. Sometimes I think that all of them are wrong.'”
“Of those whom your father met in civil life, Conkling became the nearest to him, did he not?” said I, as our talk concluded.
In a rather pensive and low tone Colonel Grant answered, “Conkling and my father loved each other. They were devoted; and Conkling’s devo [pg. 30]tion was quite unselfish. There was a large element of hero-worship in it. He had three historical ideals–Mary Stuart, Napoleon, and my father.”
Besides the new impressions of Grant the talk with his son yielded, I got another on noting a water-color that hung before me–a Normandy draft horse, done by Grant. An artistic element, the public scarcely suspected in him; but it was strong, as another painting and various drawings preserved by the family show, and it has descended to Colonel Grant’s daughter.5
- These books are now in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
- See “Frederick Dent Grant at Vicksburg,” Ulysses S. Grant Association Newsletter, VII, 1 (Oct., 1969).
- “I have no idea of finding Bragg here to-morrow.” Grant to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, 7:15 P. M., Nov. 25, 1863, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880-1901), I, xxxi, part 2, 35.
- Frederick Dent Grant contributed his father’s written account of the story to Allen Thorndike Rice, ed., Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of his Time (New York, 1886), 1-2.
- See illustrations in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1967- ), I, 13-19.
NEWS NOTES *** The Ulysses S. Grant Association has received a grant of $10,000 from the National Historical Publications Commission for the coming fiscal year. *** At a Grant Association board meeting, held in April, Ralph E. McCoy, director of libraries for Southern Illinois University, was elected a director. *** T. Harry Williams, a vice president of the Grant Association, has been awarded a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Huey Long. E. B. Long, also an officer of the Grant Association, has joined the faculty of the University of Wyoming.