[pg. 21] ALLAN NEVINS *** The distinguished American historian Allan Nevins died on March 5, 1971, at the age of eighty. A prolific writer, Nevins published his first book in 1914 and the two concluding volumes of Ordeal of the Union are scheduled for publication later this year. Two books, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage, and Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration, won the Pulitzer Prize. His numerous publications were all the more remarkable because he always gave generously of his time to assist other scholars.
As chairman of the U. S. Civil War Centennial Commission, Nevins participated in the organization of the Ulysses S. Grant Association in 1962, and maintained his connection with the project by serving on the board of directors and as chairman of the editorial board. Believing that an edition of the Grant papers was “a much-needed work of the greatest potential value to all students, scholars, and writers concerned with the military, political, and administrative history of the country,” Nevins gave advice, encouragement, and assistance throughout the crucial early years of the project, and contributed a valuable preface to the first volume. Volume 5 of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant will be dedicated to Nevins as a token of intent that future volumes will reflect his example and inspiration.
[pg. 22] GRANT AT FORT HUMBOLDT *** The last three months Ulysses S. Grant served in the U. S. Army before the Civil War have always held great Interest for his biographers. While stationed at Fort Humboldt, California, beginning on January 5, 1854, Grant decided to resign his commission, and did so on April 11. The explanation that the resignation was connected with excessive drinking, and perhaps was not voluntary, has long held an honored place in popular belief despite, or because of, the absence of any reliable evidence concerning the matter.
Certainly there was no lack of other reasons for Grant to resign. Poor army pay, along with the failure of his farming and business ventures, meant that his separation from his family (since mid-1852) might continue indefinitely. Grant gave this reason for his resignation in his Memoirs. Life in a small, isolated fort, under an uncongenial commanding officer, with no active service in prospect, no doubt influenced his decision. Ill health was the final blow.
Others stationed at Fort Humboldt while Grant was there did not comment on his resignation until many years later. In 1912, Clara McGeorge Shields gathered together the remaining local recollections of Grant’s stay at Fort Humboldt, which were then printed in the Humboldt Times of Eureka, California, on November 10, 1912. Although the late Major General Ulysses S. Grant 3rd drew on this article for his book, Ulysses S. Grant: Warrior and Statesman (New York, 1969), the obscurity of the source has hidden it from other Grant biographers. The Shields article is printed below as it originally appeared, with the exception of an introductory section discussing Grant’s transfer to the Pacific Coast. With all the faults to be expected in
[pg. 23] reminiscences gathered many years after events, the article still has the advantage of casting a flickering light on a dark corner of Grant’s career.
General Grant At Fort Humboldt In The Early Days
By Clara McGeorge Shields
Soon after the settlement of Humboldt County, differences arose between the natives and the aggressive white settlers. A few sharp lessons from the guns of the latter impressed the Indian with a wholesome respect for the white man and his methods. There was little to fear from attacks on the settlements, but to the lone herder, hunter and rancher, the lurking savage was a constant menace. A heavy belt of redwood timber encircled Humboldt bay and back of this was a large area of grazing land, rolling hills and fertile valleys. Naturally cattle raising became the chief industry of the settler and cattle stealing a profitable employment for the Indians.
So great were the depredations committed that many hundreds of cattle were killed and not a few people murdered.
In answer to an urgent appeal, the Government at Washington established a small fort on Humboldt Heights and soon after the arrival of the troops at Benecia companies B and F were ordered to this post.
The fort was built on a bluff overlooking the bay. Behind it stretched miles of unbroken forests of giant sequoias, the dense shade of which was never penetrated by any ray of sunshine. The lofty tops were never at rest. Even in the calmest days of summer, they were swaying and sighing in dreary sadness while under the stress of winter gales they would almost scream in madness. A dusty ribbon of road ran along the foot of the bluff and beyond it mud flats reached to the waters of the bay.
The companies arrives at Fort Humboldt late in January, 1853, Col. R. C. Buchannan1 commanding. In August of that year, the death of Captain Bliss caused a vacancy to fill which Lieutenant Grant was promoted to the rank of captain and ordered to Humboldt. In October, the beginning of the rainy season, Grant reached this out-post of civilization where, with leaden skies overhead, mud and flood underfoot, the gray bay in front and the dismal forest behind, with ever the vision before him of the cruel miles between him and his loved ones, he took up the petty duties and spirit-killing routine of garrison life.
Among Grant’s associates at the fort were Quartermaster Rundell,2 Lieutenants Crook,3 Collins4 and Underwood.5 Underwood was accompanied by his wife, and a little son was born at the fort, who was about the age of Grant’s second son, whom he had never seen.
But a few years ago there lived in Eureka a Major Howard, who before his death some years ago, talked freely with the writer of Grant’s service in Humboldt.
When asked for reminiscences, he said, “You must bear in mind that however great he afterwards became, at the time of his residence here, he
[pg. 24] was comparatively unknown except to his military associates. We had never heard of him and the only thing that may have attracted attention was the death of Captain Bliss and the promotion of his successor.
“I lived, at that time, on a ranch two miles from the fort and was acquainted with all the officers and they frequently visited my house. The first time that I met Captain Grant was early one foggy morning soon after his arrival. Lieutenant Collins called at my home to borrow my gun to shoot ducks and he was accompanied by Captain Grant.6 Collins seemed to be showing the new comer around and making him acquainted with the limited sports of the country.
They had driven down to the ranch and Grant sat in the bugy while Collins came in for the gun. I went out to the road and was introduced to Captain Grant.
He was an ordinary looking man with firmly set mouth and deep, searching eyes that seemed to take me in at a glance and then turned indifferently away. He was a very quiet man in strong contrast to the joking, fun-loving Collins. For all that Grant was so quiet himself, I think he enjoyed the lively company of Collins, as he seemed to favor his society more than any of the other officers.
There were few amusements at the fort, but sometimes I would receive an invitation which read ‘Come up to the post this evening to a gutta-percha banquet.’ On account of my young family and their unprotected condition, I could not always accept these invitations, yet when I did the entertainment was quite enjoyable.
A ‘gutta-percha’ banquet was so called from the chief article of the refreshments, which was a delicacy consisting of small bay mussels pickled in vinegar and served in a wide-mouthed bottle from which they were harpooned with an iron fork.
Cards was the only entertainment and nothing more exciting than ‘Old Sledge’ was played. On one particular evening the card quartette included Quartermaster Rundell, Lieutenants Underwood, Collins and myself. Grant did not play but reclined on the bed smoking a cigar. He seldom volunteered a remark yet when addressed always answered pleasantly.
We were all laughing heartily at something I have forgotten what, when Grant said, ‘Well boys, you can see a deal more fun in that than I can.’
Rundell replied, ‘Grant, I am afraid that you were born without a sense of humor.’
‘Perhaps I was, but that is not the only sense that I lack.’
The bed on which Grant lay was something of a curiosity. It was an immense structure made by one of the men for Rundell who was six feet, six inches in height. The bed was seven feet long and the same in width, having a headboard which reached the ceiling and was carved in leaf and scroll design with considerable skill. I afterward came into the possession of the bed and removed it to my home but after I left the ranch and it was in the hands of a tenant, my house and its contents were destroyed by fire.
The last that I saw Grant was just before his departure. One morning I was going to Eureka and at the foot of the hill where the road turns toward the post, I met Captain Grant and Lieutenant Collins. They were in a buggy and Grant’s face was partly hidden by a high coat-collar. He did
[pg. 25] not notice my salutation which was returned by Collins. I did not know at the time that he contemplated a change. I always found him gentlemanly in manner, treating all with quiet courtesy.”
Another old friend and admirer of Grant was F. S. Duff, from whom reminiscences were obtained. At the time of Grant’s service in Humboldt, there were not over two-score houses in Eureka. Mr. Duff owned a saw-mill, lodging house, and store, and furnished the lumber and many supplies for the fort. All the officers frequented the Duff home and put up at his lodging house when in Eureka. Mr. Duff was one of the very few intimate friends which Grant made during his stay at the garrison.
“Many a stormy night when it was too dark to ride back to the fort, did Captain Grant share my bed,” said Mr. Duff. “I furnished the lumber to build many of the houses at the fort and I have enjoyed many evenings with the officers there. In fact, it was my usual custom to drive down to the post Sundays and dine with them.
The officers’ quarters and the furniture in them were hand made, rude and rough. There was no society in the ordinary sense of the word; hunting and fishing become tiresome even with the most enthusiastic sportsmen, which Grant was not.
I never heard him complain, yet I could see that he was filled with an intense desire to be with his family. One day he lost his wife’s ring, which he wore.7 The intrepid soldier, who preserved his coolness in the bloodiest battles, was completely unstrung. The next morning half of the command was turned out and the parade ground was ‘panned’ until the ring was found.”
Grant’s relations with his commanding officer were inharmonious, to say the least. Colonel Buchannan was extremely punctilious and something of a martinet. Grant was a plain, practical, thoroughly drilled soldier, and he had little use for the fuss and frills of military etiquet. His easy methods and carelessness of dress were constant sources of irritation to his superior officer. Little inconsequent trifles of dress and ceremony became ever occurring causes for remarks and unpleasantness. Yet whatever faults the critical colonel may have found, neglect of duty was not among them. The conscientious performance of insignificant duties of a line captain was duplicated when he had the great Federal army in his keeping.
When Grant reached Humboldt he had an octagonal shaped gold piece which was called a “slug” and was worth fifty dollars. With this he bought a plow and vegetable seeds and made a large garden which supplied the post with fresh vegetables. Fresh beef was not always to be had but Grant made a contract with Seth Kinman, a famous hunter of those days, to supply the commissary department with elk meat. After Grant became President of the United States, old Seth Kinman traveled to Washington and presented his oldtime friend with a chair made of polished elk horns.
The welfare of the men was ever kept in view; he made frequent visits to their quarters, tasting their food and inspecting sanitary conditions. The men felt free to go to him with complaints and grievances knowing that they would be given a hearing and their claims considered with fairness.
Life at the post was insufferably dull. The Indians gave little trouble and months intervened between the arrival of the mails. There were
[pg. 26] days and days of rigid drilling and discipline until officers and men became stalled and wearied. Commissary whisky of the vilest kind was to be had in unlimited quantities and all partook more or less. The combination of whisky and idleness was followed by the usual results.
Under conditions like this trifles become causes of great moment. One day Captain Grant went duck shooting in the northern part of the bay some distance from the fort. Being absorbed in his sport he did not notice the ebbing tide until his boat was stuck hard and fast in the mud, a distance from the shore, and he was obliged to stay there until the next tide released him. Colonel Buchannan made his usual fuss over the incident but Grant simply ignored his fretting and bluster. Grant’s indifference to the Colonel’s scoldings and faultfindings was one cause of the friction between the two men.
In regard to the cause of Grant tendering his resignation, about which much comment has been made, the statements of A. P. Marble, with whom the writer converned shortly before that old soldier’s death, throws some light on the matter. Mr. Marble was Captain Grant’s body servant and accompanied him across the isthmus. He was loud in praise of Grant in those trying times. The old servant denied that there was any special cause for Grant’s resignation, other than that he was not satisfied with existing conditions. Cognizant of his own power and ability, he felt that his life was being wasted. His military ambitions were blasted and his captain’s pay inadequate for the support of his family. Besides his environments were decidedly unpleasant.
“Colonel Buchannan was an efficient officer but strict in petty details to the verge of absurdity,” said Mr. Marble. “I will relate an incident proving this. General Crook, of Indian fighting fame, was a lieutenant in Grant’s company. He was a sweet-tempered fellow, about twenty years old and brimful of fun and laughter.
One morning Colonel Buchannan was standing in front of his headquarters and, looking across the parade grounds, saw Lieutenant Crook standing in an easy position with his hands in his pockets.
The Colonel addressed me, ‘Orderly!’
‘Present my compliments to Lieutenant Crook and tell him to take his hands out of his pockets.’
I approached the lieutenant and, suppressing a smile, delivered the message. Crook was not on duty at the time and with a pleasant smile, he replied, ‘Orderly, present my compliments to Colonel Buchannan and tell him that my pockets are my own.'”
The writer saw in the possession of Mr. Marble a form of Grant’s resignation which had been thrown aside by him and picked up by the servant while putting the room in order. It probably was a first draught written out and discarded, as the wording is different from the one he did send and it is addressed to the commanding officer at San Francisco rather than at Washington. It read as follows:
“April 11, 1854.
Major-Gen. John A. Wool, San Francisco.
Signed, U. S. Grant.”
The resignation which was sent by Grant was as follows:
Humboldt Bay, April 11, 1854.
I very respectfully tender my resignation of my commission as an officer of the army and request that it may take effect from the 21st [3lst] of July next.
I am, Col.
Your obt. svt.
U. S. Grant.
Capt. 4th Infantry
To Col. S. Cooper,
Adj. Gen. U. S. A.
Washington, D. C.”
The resignation went to the department at Washington at the hands of Colonel Buchanan, was accepted and took effect at the date requested, and soon after Grant left for San Francisco leaving behind him all hopes of military glory and a year of wasted life.
The following letter, written by S. S. Todd and published in a Kansas City paper in April, 1895, hints at pressure being brought to bear on Grant to wring from him his commission. This theory is, in the opinion of the writer, erroneous, as the most careful investigation among those associated with him at Fort Humboldt, fails to find causes other than those herein ascribed.
Mr. Todd wrote, “The story of U. S. Grant’s retirement from the army when a captain in 1854, and his reinstatement at the breaking out of the civil war in 1861; his unhappy exit and fortuitious return to military duty, is dramatic and pathetic.
In 1861, I was a practicing physician in San Francisco and was commissioned surgeon of one of the regiments that California furnished. While in charge of the government hospital at Presidio, Cal., during the autumn of 1862, I was much in the company of Fred Dent, a brother-in-law of Grant, and a major in the Ninth Infantry. We often talked of Grant. The ex-captain was now a brigadier under hot fire from enemies, secret and open. His growing popularity was hatching detractors, some of whom were pleased to say: ‘Oh, he is at it again,’ meaning that the convivial habits of the captain had reappeared in the general.
Major Dent did not deny that ‘U. S.’ as he called him, had been in past days in the habit of using intoxicating liquors. The habit was almost universal in the army, but he assured me again and again of his utter disbelief in the stories that were being circulated of General Grant’s intemperance.
A few weeks later I was ordered to Fort Humboldt where Colonel Francis Lippett and a part of his regiment, the Second Cal. Volunteers, were stationed. While there I made the acquaintance of Dr. Jonothan Clark, a prominent physician of Eureka, who had in former years been frequently in
[pg. 28] charge of the hospital of the post in the absence of a regular army surgeon.
Forts Henry and Donelson had just fallen and the public was beginning to recognize the skill and daring of the silent brigadier. My quarters at the fort adjoined those of Colonel Lippett’s and Dr. Clark was a frequent visitor.
‘Let me tell you,’ said Clark one day as he sat in my room, knocking the ashes from his cigar and laying down his paper, which contained an account of the surrender of Fort Donelson, ‘Let me tell you something about Grant. We were old friends you know. He resigned his captaincy while here in 1854. Well, his quarters were the same that you now occupy.’ Then the doctor went on to tell me that when Captain Grant was on duty at Fort Humboldt, he and the doctor were on friendly and confidential terms. During this period Grant had two severe attacks of illness through which Dr. Clark attended him. It was after the recovery of the first illness that he tendered his resignation and he had just recovered from the the second when the knowledge of its acceptance reached him.8
When the doctor met him again he said rather sadly, ‘Well, doctor, I am out,’ then added, ‘But I will tell you something and you mark my words: my day will come, they will hear from me yet.’
These words, spoken so deliberately almost solemnly, impressed his hearer as a prophecy.”
Dr. Clark saw his friend again. When Ex-President Grant made his famous journey around the world, Clark made a special trip to San Francisco to see his former patient. Grant was in the drawing room of the Palace hotel surrounded by a throng of visitors when Dr. Clark entered. The great man recognized his friend immediately and came briskly forward, greeting the doctor with cordiality and inquired after many of the people of Eureka. Unhappy as had been his year at Fort Humboldt Grant had nothing but the kindest words for his associates there and from the pinnacle of his fame regarded them with the same quiet kindliness with which he had held them in the dark days of his residence at that dreary western garrison.
1. Bvt. Lt. Col. Robert C. Buchanan of Md., USMA 1830, commanded Fort Humboldt.
2. According to regimental returns, 2nd Lt. Charles H. Rundell of N. Y., USMA 1852, had not yet joined his new post at Fort Humboldt by the time Grant left.
3. 2nd Lt. George Crook of Ohio, USMA 1852, later a celebrated commander in the Civil War and Indian campaigns, had been at Fort Humboldt in 1853, but served at Fort Jones, Calif., all the time Grant was at Fort Humboldt.
4. 1st Lt. Joseph B. Collins of Washington, D. C., served at Fort Humboldt with Grant.
5. 1st Lt. Edmund Underwood of Pa. was stationed at Fort Reading, Calif., all the time Grant was at Fort Humboldt.
6. In writing to his wife on Feb. 2, 1854, Grant said that other officers enjoyed hunting ducks and geese but that he did not join them. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1967- ), I, 316. See Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885-6), I, 75-76.
7. Julia Dent gave Grant a ring with her name engraved inside at the time of their engagement. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, I, 55. Grant once misplaced the ring while stationed at Detroit. Ibid., 201, 221-222.
8. Grant was reported sick on the post returns of Fort Humboldt for Feb. and April, 1854. On May 1, Buchanan wrote that Grant was “too unwell to travel just yet.” Ibid., 332n. He left Fort Humboldt in May before his resignation had been accepted.