Grant 1At my age, even opening the cover of a book of more than 900 pages is a sign of optimism. Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant is such a book, but far from wishing it were over, once I started reading I dreaded the day it would end. Grant, like the rest of us, was a complicated human being, and Chernow explores all the strengths and weaknesses of the man while simultaneously demonstrating why Grant was one of the most consequential and admirable public figures in American history.

Grant, whose ambition as a young man was to teach arithmetic, was a hard-luck guy in private life. He repeatedly failed at business and he was gullible and easily snookered. And he had a drinking problem that nearly wrecked his military career.

Grant 2On the other hand, he was a devoted father and husband, a military genius, and a fair and scrupulously honest man. He tried, as general and as president, to make Reconstruction work in the South—and for him that meant guaranteeing the rights of citizenship to black Americans. Although his policies regarding Native Americans weren’t perfect or particularly successful, he was more enlightened in that regard than most of his countrymen. He settled a seemingly intractable dispute with England over damages inflicted on federal properties by the Confederate cruiser Alabama—which had been purchased in England. He blazed a trail by being the first ex-president to exercise diplomacy overseas. And by the time he could see death approaching, he had become such an accomplished writer and chronicler that—in order to assure that his wife would have an income—he braved excruciating pain to write a massive two-volume memoir that is considered one of the best of its genre ever produced in this country.

One of the most ill-advised aspects of Grant’s presidency was his persistent attempts to get legislative approval of a treaty through which the United States would have annexed the Dominican Republic. 

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Julia Dent Grant

An aspect of Grant’s world view that Chernow develops thoroughly is particularly interesting at the present moment in our national life when controversies over memorials to Confederate leaders have exposed the bitterness between North and South that still exists in some quarters. The Grant that Chernow presents was devoted to the idea of reconciliation after the war. He demonstrated that early, at Appomattox, when he allowed Robert E. Lee’s troops, and Lee himself, some dignity in surrender. Grant traveled through the post-war South, and he warmly greeted former enemies when they called on him. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent, saw to it that there were Confederate veterans among Grant’s pallbearers.

Although Grant was uncompromising in battle, he never lost his compassion for other human beings. Witness this passage describing the aftermath of a successful Union campaign directed by Grant:

As was his wont, Grant proved generous in victory. When he and his officers trotted past a downtrodden contingent of enemy prisoners, he reacted with simple decency. “When General Grant reached the line of ragged, filthy, bloody, despairing prisoners … he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege,” recalled a prisoner. “He was the only officer in that whole train who recognized us as being on the face of the earth.”

Grant, as Chernow describes him, was fearless—almost reckless—in battle and thoughtful in repose. Almost no shock was great enough to break down his self control. He appeared to many of his contemporaries to be a man of silence, but in conversation he was an absorbing storyteller. And from the close of the Civil War until his death, he was wildly popular all over the country and abroad, as he and Julia discovered during the world tour that followed his second term as president. It is a melancholy thing to consider that the United States at that time did not provide a pension for former presidents, and Grant spent his retirement worrying about how he and his family were going to live.

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Julia Grant with her father, Colonel Frederick Dent, and two of her children, Nellie and Jessie

Grant isn’t the only fascinating character Chernow brings to life in this book. A host of men and women who played a part in Grant’s life, for better or for worse, provide the context for this story. They include Julia Dent Grant, the sweetheart of Grant’s life, a slaveholder’s daughter who gamely stood by her husband during the war and during his financial travails and who grew so attached to the gracious life of the White House that she was far more reluctant than Grant was to leave—and encouraged him in his unsuccessful attempt to win a third term. Also included are two gentlemen that Dickens would have loved—Grant’s father, Jesse, who was a constant embarrassment as he tried to capitalize on his son’s position, and Julia’s father, Colonel Frederick Dent, an unrepentant slaver whom Grant suffered to live in the White House even as the old man railed against the Union.

That’s a smattering of what Chernow has compiled in this biography. No matter how much time you have left, you won’t waste any of it if it’s spent reading this study of one of the finest Americans.

 

 

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Mudd 2In the 1936 film Prisoner of Shark Island Samuel Mudd is portrayed (by Warner Baxter) as a well-meaning country doctor who unwittingly abetted the escape of John Wilkes Booth and wound up in a federal prison on an island in the Caribbean. He is pardoned after stemming a yellow fever epidemic that swept the prison.

It’s a good story, but it isn’t entirely true. The truth, some might think, is even more interesting, and it is laid out in detail in The Assassin’s Doctor  by Robert K. Summers.

Summers, a great-grandson of Dr. Mudd, has written several books on this and related subjects, but he is not an apologist for his forebear. He seems more interested—particularly in this book—in spreading the record before the reading public.

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Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas Islands, where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned for four years.

Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln just as the Civil War was ending, and the reaction of the federal government—particularly of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—was affected by the intense feelings rippling through the country, feelings that included fear, disillusionment, desperation, and paranoia.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth jumped from the presidential box to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, breaking a leg. He stumbled out of the theater, mounted a waiting horse, and galloped off to Maryland where, in the company of David Herold, one of his co-conspirators, he arrived around 4 in the morning at the home of Dr. Mudd.

Aroused from his sleep, Dr. Mudd took Booth in, put a splint on the broken leg, and provided Booth with a makeshift pair of crutches. Booth remained at Dr. Mudd’s home until the following day, and then left with Herold, heading for Virginia where Herold surrendered and Booth was shot to death by a Union soldier.

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Dr. SAMUEL MUDD

Dr. Mudd did not tell anyone about his visitors until several days later, and even then he didn’t do so directly but asked his cousin, Dr. George Mudd, to notify federal authorities in a nearby town. Military personnel visited Samuel Mudd’s home where the Mudds eventually turned over a boot that had been cut from Booth’s leg and that bore the inscription “J. Wilkes.”

Dr. Mudd was arrested, charged with conspiracy, tried by the same military commission that condemned to death three men (including Herold) and one woman (Mary Surratt); Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas islands south of Key West. He was pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson after working diligently to treat victims of yellow fever at the prison and contracting the disease himself.

There are no serious disagreements about these facts, but there is a lingering discourse about certain aspects of Dr. Mudd’s behavior. The most important question is whether Dr. Mudd recognized Booth when the assassin came calling with his broken leg. Dr. Mudd had met Booth before, when the actor was in the neighborhood ostensibly looking at real estate and seeking to buy a horse. But the doctor and his wife, Sarah, maintained that Booth was wearing false whiskers when he came seeking help with his injury and that Dr. Mudd did not recognize him and had no reason to suspect him. The Mudds’ account was that Booth left their house on Saturday, April 15, while Dr. Mudd was absent, and that Mrs. Mudd noticed the false whiskers at that time. According to this version of events, when Dr. Mudd resolved to notify authorities about these now-suspicious men, Mrs. Mudd prevailed on him to stay at home inasmuch as the men might still be in the area and might pose a danger to the family. So Booth used his cousin as a surrogate messenger.

mudd 5I think the consensus among historians now is that Dr. Mudd’s acquaintance with Booth was more than the incidental encounter Dr. Mudd described, and that Dr. Mudd participated in conversations with Booth and others concerning Booth’s earlier plan to kidnap Lincoln and take him to Richmond, hoping to enable the Confederate government to negotiate a release of military prisoners. Dr. Mudd was a slave holder and a Southern sympathizer living in a border state, although not an activist against the Union government. It is unlikely, however, that he knew anything about Booth’s decision to murder Lincoln, both because Booth seems to have made that decision only shortly before carrying out the murder and because Dr. Mudd’s character suggests that he would not have agreed to have any part in such a crime. If he did help facilitate Booth’s escape, his primary motive might have been to purge the Mudd household of a murderer.

All the questions about what Dr. Mudd knew and when he knew it are explored in this book. Summers also includes extensive documentation, including many letters that Dr. Mudd wrote to his wife and others while he was a prisoner at Fort Jefferson. These letters include a description of his one attempt to escape from the prison, the harsh conditions under which he and the other prisoners lived, his relationship with other men who were sentenced in connection with the conspiracies against Lincoln, and his heroic part in stemming the yellow-jack epidemic. The average reader might not want to read all of these documents—although a history wonk such as me might devour them—but they do present in a convenient collection an opportunity to hear history unfolding in the voices of those who were taking part in it.

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HENRY RATHBONE

HENRY RATHBONE

Last summer, I wrote a post here about Scott Martelle’s book, “The Madman and the Assassin,” which was a biography of Thomas “Boston” Corbett, the eccentric soldier who shot John Wilkes Booth. What was interesting about that book, besides the fact that Martelle executed it so well, was the fact that in the 150 years that elapsed since Booth died, no one else had written a book-length account of Corbett’s life. Now, hard on Martelle’s heels, comes Caleb Jenner Stephens, with a rare and perhaps unique book-length account of the life of Henry Rathbone, one of only four people present when Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln. Rathbone, an army major at the time, and his fiancé, Clara Harris, joined Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 for a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin.

CLARA HARRIS RATHBONE

CLARA HARRIS RATHBONE

The only reason the couple accompanied the Lincolns that night was that everyone else who had been invited—notably including General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia—had declined. The advance chatter that the Grants and the Lincolns might attend together just days after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia had caused some excitement in Washington, but Julia Grant was one of many people in the capital who could not abide Mary Lincoln, so the Grants avoided the appointment by repairing to New Jersey to visit their children. Rathbone, who was sitting in the rear of the presidential box when Booth entered, confronted the assassin after the murder had been committed and sustained a serious knife wound in his left arm.

The dagger with which John Wilkes Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone

The dagger with which John Wilkes Booth wounded Maj. Henry Rathbone

Despite the injury, he tried unsuccessfully to prevent Booth from leaping from the box to the stage from whence he made his escape. Rathbone, who came from a wealthy Albany family, later married Clara Harris, who was also his stepsister, and the couple had three children, including U.S. Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone of Illinois. Rathbone recovered from the wound to his arm, but his mental health seems to have been permanently impaired by his experience at the theater and especially by the fact that he had been unable to either prevent Lincoln’s death or keep Booth from escaping. It was unreasonable for Rathbone to assume guilt for this, but the event was so sudden and shocking that reason didn’t play a part in his reaction to it. Stephens makes that argument, in some detail, that Rathbone suffered from what is now known as post traumatic stress syndrome. The author also explores an account of the murder—raised in a contemporary publication—which holds that Rathbone saw Booth enter the presidential box before the murder and rose to ask Booth what business he had there, but was brushed aside as Booth approached the president from behind and fired the fatal shot.

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

JOHN WILKES BOOTH

I am not aware that this version appears in any public record. Stephens attributes it to The Public Ledger, a daily newspaper then being published in Philadelphia. According to The Public Ledger, Clara Harris gave this alternative version during an interview with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Stephens gives weight to this account and repeatedly—and, I think, unfairly—refers to Rathbone’s “failure to protect the president.” In one instance, in fact—in a stunning exercise of hyperbole—the author accuses Rathbone of “failing the whole world.”

Rathbone remained in the army until 1879 and retired with the rank of brevet colonel. He and his family were living in Germany on December 23, 1883, when, after many years of psychic and emotional instability, he murdered Clara and tried to commit suicide. He was consigned to a reasonably comfortable asylum in Germany for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life. This book suffers from bad grammar and syntax to a degree that is very distracting. However, Stephens has made a contribution to the literature surrounding the murder of Abraham Lincoln by compiling a chronicle that has been neglected.