Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? Interview with Mitchell Yockelson

Today we get to interview Mitchell Yockelson, author of ‘Grant:Savior of the Union,’ a biography on General U.S. Grant. (http://www.amazon.com/Grant-Savior-Generals-Mitchell-Yockelson/dp/1595554521/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1342447169&sr=1-3)
 
 
 

 
 
  1. What prompted you to write about U.S. Grant?

In 2011, I was contracted by Thomas Nelson to write a biography of Douglas MacArthur for their General’s series. The book was published that spring and during the process the publisher asked if I would like to write another biography. Ulysses Grant was available and I jumped at the chance. Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area my family and I often visited the nearby Civil War battlefields of Antietam, Bull Run and Gettysburg. My parents nurtured my interest in the Civil War and bought me some of Bruce Catton’s books, which I devoured. From there I discovered Ulysses S. Grant and he instantly became someone I admired for his perseverance and skill as a commander.

2. What were some primary sources that you used in your research?

There is no better source when researching the military career of U.S. Grant than his published papers. They were first compiled by John Simon for Southern Illinois University Press and now the project is run by John Marszalek at Mississippi State University. Both have done an amazing job with their staffs of tracking down all known pieces of Grant correspondence. What you learn from his correspondence is that Grant was a wonderful writer. His prose is clear and there is never any doubt of his intent. I spent a few days at Mississippi State reviewing the papers of Lloyd Lewis and Bruce Catton. Both of whom left behind a vast collection of their research notes for the three-volume Grant biography that Lewis started and Catton finished. The collection was donated to the Grant Papers. I also visited the Special Collections at the West Point Library to examine Grant’s school records from his days at the U.S. Military Academy. Also essential to my research was the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, a must research tool for any Civil War researcher. And finally Grant’s two-volume memoirs are amazing for their detail and prose. They are considered a literary classic and I frequently quote from the memoirs in my biography.

3. What do you think are some popular misconceptions of Grant? Where did these misconceptions originate from?

When most people think of Grant the first thing that comes to mind is his supposed drinking problem. Grant was known to first drink while posted at Fort Humbolt, CA after the Mexican War. He was very lonely. Julia and their only child at the time were in St. Louis and he felt despondent. He missed them terribly. So he drank some to ease the loneliness. Because of his small stature, he could become intoxicated with just one drink. However, there is no evidence that he was an alcoholic. Some biographers believe he was threatened with a court martial and told to resign from the Army because of the drinking. There is simply no evidence to support this. In 1854, Grant resigned from the Army on his own because he did not enjoy being in the military and wanted to return to his family. The rumors of his drinking spread throughout the close-knit Army and the stories were embellished after he became famous. More rumors of drinking came forth during the Civil War. Again, no is not clear evidence to support such claims.

Another misconception about Grant is that he was anti-Semitic. This stems from General Order 11, which he issued on December 2, 1862. The order was an effort by Grant to abolish the black market cotton trade in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, which he thought was run mostly by Jews. After protests from Jewish leaders and members of Congress, President Lincoln revoked the order. It became an embarrassment to Grant who downplayed it even though the issue haunted him the remainder of his life. I believe he was frustrated that the peddling of cotton was disrupting his operation to take Vicksburg, which was not going well, and he over reacted. In any case I have not uncovered anything in his writings to suggest that he had a specific dislike of the Jewish people, nor are there any incidents prior to this that support such a claim. Grant’s detractors, particularly newspaper reporters, made this a national scandal and it is still a black cloud hanging over Grant’s head.

4. Did you uncover any interesting facts about Grant during your research?

Although I felt as though I knew Grant before settling in to write the book, I quickly realized that my knowledge was focused on the battles in which he fought during the Mexican War and Civil War. What I didn’t know was Grant the man, especially his passion for Julia and the family. He was completely devoted to them, more so than his military career. This is unusual for a commander at his level, who normally made the Army their life. Grant wanted Julia close by whenever possible and could not wait for the war to be over so he could return to his family full-time.

5. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

As the subtitle indicates Grant truly was the Savior of the Union. There was no other general in the Union Army that Lincoln could rely upon to finish the war. Even though Grant used all resources at his disposal, his aim was not to crush the Confederacy. He wanted to bring the country back together and preserve the Union. This displays more than anything his passion for the Union and compassion for others. He learned this during the Mexican War while serving under General Zachary Taylor’s command. Taylor was known for offering lenient terms to the Mexican troops. Even though Grant was adamant about unconditional surrender, he was not vengeful after Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and certainly Appomattox.

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