Albert D. Richardson’s problematic biography of Ulysses S. Grant 1 comment

Albert Deane Richardson’s biography, A Personal History of Ulysses S. Grant, originally published in 1868, provided numerous familiar anecdotes about a great and good Grant. The book was republished in 1885 with certain corrections.

A scenario in the 1868 edition (pp. 253-54) started with Sherman chasing away the Rebels at Shiloh with some well-aimed artillery:

‘That’s the last of them,’ said Grant. ‘They will not make another stand.’ Then he rode over to the left and shook hands with Thomas, who commanded one of Buell’s divisions, and whom he had not met since the beginning of the war.

Grant.—‘General, those fellows are completely demoralized. Take your division and another, and pursue. We can cut them all to pieces and capture a great many.’

Thomas.—‘My men are completely used up. They marched all Saturday and Sunday and have been fighting all day. If you say so, of course, they shall march, but they are hardly able to move.’

After the author died, someone must have realized that George Thomas didn’t even make it onto the field in time for the battle. His was the last in Buell’s column of five divisions. The 1885 edition (pp. 249-50) removed both Thomas and the shaking of hands and, instead, inserted McCook, Nelson, and Crittenden.

The three replied that their men had been marching all Saturday and Sunday, and fighting ever since morning, and were completely used up. They were barely able to move, and the roads were so heavy that they could hardly hope to overtake the main body of the enemy.

Richardson further stated that, at Shiloh, “a bullet struck the General’s scabbard and threw it up in the air. The sword dropped out and was never recovered.” Grant’s Memoirs indicate that he didn’t lose his sword: “A ball had struck the metal scabbard of my sword, just below the hilt, and broken it nearly off; before the battle was over it had broken off entirely. There were three of us: one had lost a horse, killed; one a hat and one a sword-scabbard.”

Another of the revisions concerned the astonishingly successful charge by almost four divisions of the Army of the Cumberland up Missionary Ridge which ended the battles for Chattanooga, Tennessee. Watching the troops ascend, a nervous Thomas on Orchard Knob, protested: “Those fellows will be all cut to pieces. They will never get to the top in the world.” The new edition changed the speaker of this quote to Grant’s staffer, James Harrison Wilson. The 1868 version also presented a conversation which placed division commander Absalom Baird on Orchard Knob that day, although he wasn’t. In the 1885 edition, this was corrected to Thomas Wood. Unlike Forts Henry and Donelson, correspondent Richardson was not at Shiloh or Chattanooga.

But it’s not just the employment of the earlier edition which showed questionable judgment in later biographers who utilized his work, but the use of Richardson at all. Without doubt, it is a great source of Grant quotes. But some are downright unbelievable. The author quoted dialogue between a five-year-old Jesse and his mother. Jesse and another boy have seven lines of quoted dialogue (and one of quoted thought). Somebody supposedly memorized seven lines of dialogue between an 11-year-old Grant and his father about hauling wood. For many of the multitudinous tales told about Ulysses, Richardson apparently obtained a verbatim transcript. Several of these were before Grant became famous or was even born. Given the extreme improbability of Richardson’s accuracy in transcribing conversations and the frequent errors of history, this biography should be used with caution.

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One thought on “Albert D. Richardson’s problematic biography of Ulysses S. Grant

  • Robert A. Lynn

    Besides the relevant time-keeping comment, another matter that is rarely mentioned is how acoustic sounds played a part in the Civil War engagements.

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