The Grant project consumed him. . . . He worked on it every day, his wife said. “It was daily, it was weekends and it was most holidays,” she said. “Some holidays not all day.”
So said Mrs. Simon about Mr. Simon, as quoted in his New York Times obituary.
I never met John Simon in person, but I did correspond with him, and spoke with him on the phone once. He wrote the foreword to Civil War High Commands, the publication of which was one highlight of my time at Stanford University Press. In the realm of true Civil War scholars, John Simon was one of the great ones. And not just for his work, which will be an enduring legacy, but he scores especially high to me because he was unpretentious—the antithesis of pompous. Not that I knew him well, but the pompous ones can’t hide it. They are, in fact, unconscious of it, or else they wouldn’t be pompous.
No one knew more about Ulysses S. Grant. None of us can even appreciate the debt we owe to John Simon for the work he did, and most of us will never directly perceive how even the scholars among us will make use of the hours he logged. He made a serious contribution. “Some holidays not all day.” That says it all. [Of course the children of parents who work all the time, even on holidays, will naturally have a different take on the matter.]
Continuing my lazy (but exclusive and previously unpublished!) blogging of late, here are parts of a Q&A session Dr. Simon granted to the Civil War Forum on September 29, 2000.
Q. (Civil War Forum): Dr. Simon, you've been editing The Papers since 1962. Are you getting tired of Grant yet, or still finding new information, or new sides to the man?
A. (John Simon): I've never thought that I understood the man fully, and for that reason I've never become tired of him. People don't ask you questions like that about your wife, and I've been married to her for a long time. Grant's a very real person, and one with many dimensions to him. There's still more to learn and I'm eager to do it. We're into the presidential years now, but I'm still fascinated by the Civil War period. And there are documents that we haven't found yet, but those that are coming to light, almost daily, cast new perspectives on Grant.
Q. (Civil War Forum): What do you think, based on your readings of his correspondence, may be the biggest misconceptions about Grant? Was there anything that you were surprised to learn, or which slowly changed your perception of him?
A. (John Simon): Well I've been increasingly impressed by what a good writer he is. He has the capacity to express what he's thinking in the clearest possible form. He's a maker of memorable phrases. One of our interesting discoveries many years ago was when he wrote the famous line about fighting it out on this line if it takes all summer, he originally wrote, "If it takes me all summer." Then he went back and crossed out the word "me." He's conscious of just who's doing that fighting, and knows that that word "me" is inappropriate. Normally, the words just flow out as they did in the celebrated letter that he wrote at Appomattox, but when necessary he revised what he was writing.
Q. (Civil War Forum): Do Grant's writings give some clue as to why he seemed so centered and sure of himself in wartime but somewhat vulnerable and a fish out of water in civilian life?
A. (John Simon): I would say that they really don't. That, in fact, Grant is a far more assured figure in the White House than most people have recognized. He does have a centered presence in political life, as well as in military life. I don't believe that he understood politics well enough to be the great president that people anticipated, but he's a man who is always in touch with himself, and conscious of what he wanted to do. He's like other presidents who have had the misfortune of serving two terms. Like Bill Clinton, he turned 50 between his 1st and 2nd terms, and it's tantalizing to think what might have happened to Clinton had he not served a 2nd term.
In Grant's case, the unanticipated Depression of 1873 put him at something of a loss, especially since he had lost the flexibility with which he entered the White House. He settled into the job of serving as president, and quite possibly he would have done better to leave the White House after the achievements of the first term. Nonetheless, I don't think his position as president has ever received the appraisal it should have. In years gone by he was criticized for his upholding of the Reconstruction policy—he was later condemned for not having enforced it more fully. He's had it from both sides. From some presidents much is expected; from some it's considered a miracle that they haven't fallen on their faces. Grant entered the White House with such keen expectations that he'd govern the country with the same skill with which he'd won the war, that his low reputation as president has more to do with high expectations than with weak performance.
Q. (Civil War Forum): Have you gotten a sense from his Presidential writings as to what kind of South he wanted to see emerge from Reconstruction (and as for not being tough enough on enforcement of Reconstruction, one shudders at the thought of what would have happened if Seymour and Blair had won)?
A. (John Simon): That's a good point, especially about Grant's Democratic opponents. The problem that Grant faced with regard to Reconstruction was the same problem that Gunnar Myrdal called "an American dilemma," and it remains one. What's different about Grant, perhaps, is the sense of the military commander who had won the war with the aid of a significant number of black troops—perhaps more than 10 percent of his military force—when the war ended. Like other generals, he had a responsibility to his veterans after the war, one that he never forgot. He was perhaps lagging a bit in understanding the full capacities of black Americans, but when their rights were trampled on and abused, he knew what he wanted to do, and was determined to do it. When he left the White House, the Ku Klux Klan had been crushed. Perhaps the kind of Reconstruction that in retrospect seems preferable was beyond his imagination, but the retreat from Reconstruction was something that he abhorred. Blacks voted more freely in 1872 than they would for another 100 years.
Q. (Civil War Forum): Did Grant want to run for a third term? Did he use his world trip to "prepare" for it?
A. (John Simon): In 1876, if he had chosen to be receptive, he could have been renominated. He wrote a letter in 1875 stating clearly that he did not want a third term, mailed it, then later told his wife, who was disappointed. The Grant's had never lived anywhere as long as they'd lived in the White House. I don't think that Grant planned the tour around the world with the thought of returning to the presidency. If he had, he would have stayed away longer and his triumphant return would have been better timed. His supporters pushed him for a third term. He gave them relatively little encouragement, but as the matter went to the convention, there was no doubt that it was somewhat painful to Grant to lose anything, including that nomination.
It should be remembered that Grant had never wanted to be president in the first place, that he went through 2 terms in the White House complaining about the job, calling it "uncongenial," and reminding people when he was spoken of for a third term that he hadn't even wanted the first. I think he ought to be taken at his word. He preferred to be commander of the army in peacetime, a job with a steady income. Even in the 1870s he reminded the father of the young man who was going to marry his daughter that while he did have a good job with a good salary, it was a temporary position. As someone who had really experienced poverty as a grown man, lifetime employment had a special meaning for him, and the ironic twist on the Grant story is his encounter with a Wall Street crook who left him impoverished in his old age.
Q. (Civil War Forum): What was Grant's private opinion of Abraham Lincoln and how did Grant take the news of Lincoln's murder (especially since the Grants had begged off going to the theater that night with the Lincolns)?
A. (John Simon): An excellent question. The private opinion is very difficult to recover, because Grant is conscious of Lincoln as Commander in Chief. At the same time, Mary Lincoln's behavior had become steadily more irrational, and she made it clear that she resented and disliked Mrs. Grant. They begged off going to the theater on the grounds that they wanted to visit their children. It made sense, but I don't think they relished the idea of spending an evening with Mary Lincoln. Later on, Grant would speak of Lincoln in glowing terms, and I think he was deeply distressed by the assassination. He stood in the Rotunda where the body lay in state and he was weeping—he came to a realization of what Lincoln had done to win the war, and to sustain Grant in the process. His thoughts about Lincoln were no doubt colored by his intense dislike of Andrew Johnson. In retrospect, Lincoln looked even greater than he had to Grant on the eve of the assassination.
Q. (Civil War Forum): I've always liked the anecdote relating how Grant got involved in the war: leaning in the doorway of his shop in Galena, criticizing the local militia, and they tell him to put his money where his mouth his. Is it true? And more importantly, was his involvement in the war inevitable, or did he just get caught up by chance?
A. (John Simon): That's a good question. Grant has a firm sense of responsibility. This is the factor that kept him in the U.S. Army after he graduated from the military academy, and really didn't want to be a soldier, preferring a career as a teacher. But he'd been educated at government expense, and thought he had an obligation and was drawn into the Mexican War. In 1861, even though he'd been out of the army since 1854, he knew that he had a responsibility to use his military training and his 15 years of military experience for his country. There really was no issue there—he knew he had to go. Beyond that, he hated that leather store in Galena passionately. He liked being out of the army and with his family, but those obligations were much stronger than what might be considered his comfort. As for Grant taking a passive attitude at first when the war broke out, there's really no evidence for that. He'd been caught up in the political turmoil that preceded the war, and as a northern man who had an anti-slavery father, but who'd been treated better by his wife's family—Missouri slaveholders—he was conscious of the issues involved.
Q. (Civil War Forum): I'm interested in the relationship between Grant and his wife Julia. Some have accused Grant of being henpecked by her; to me, it looks like they had a pretty good relationship. What is the reality, in your opinion?
A. (John Simon): The story of Grant's marriage is apparently a love story from beginning to end. Part of the attraction that Julia had for Grant was her spirited nature. She thought for herself. She expressed her opinions. And Grant found her charming, from their first meeting to the end of his life. He loved to tease her. And in that respect, sometimes pretended that she was a pushy woman, but any impression that gives that he was indeed henpecked is misleading. There's no doubt who was the head of that household. No doubt in Grant's mind, none in Julia's either. But above all, they were a couple, devoted to each other.
Q. (Civil War Forum): I assume you are familiar with W.E. Woodward's 1928 work, "Meet General Grant." If so, how well do you think he interpreted Grant's personality?
A. (John Simon): The Woodward book marks a low point in Grant's reputation. Woodward was a southerner, and also a celebrated debunker, and he used his literary skills on Grant at a time when racism was rampant in American life. And it was possible to convince people that somehow the Civil War was a gigantic mistake growing out of misunderstandings between North and South, that it accomplished nothing, and that any good results from the perspective of the 1920s would have come about inevitably through peaceful means. This is a point of view that has long been discredited. I think beyond that, that Woodward never understood Grant, saw him as a kind of wooden figure moving on the stage of American history, not having any motive force of his own.
And the modern version of Woodward, but written from a completely different political perspective, is the 1981 McFeely biography of Grant. I think that these are writers who achieved considerable success with Grant biographies, but in both cases their interpretations are outdated.
Q. (Civil War Forum): Grant always seemed to have the edge on his opponents—finding their weaknesses and exploiting them weather it be in the military or political arena. He took the initiative and seized the moment. Is that a fair characterization?
A. (John Simon): I think that's a good question. Basically, Grant had excelled at West Point in mathematics, and he had a sense of approaching problems logically in both the military and the political field. Especially in wartime, the emotional component is likely to take over in many commanders, but rarely in the case of Grant. The problems he faced in command were to him logical problems of applying the requisite force at the necessary point. Another factor is his unpredictability—the campaign against Vicksburg, which was hailed as a military masterpiece, did not become a template for future campaigns. . . And when Lee had been so successful in outguessing and outfoxing his opponents, he simply could not apply that to Grant.
Q. (Civil War Forum): Speaking of Vicksburg, do you think that Grant made the right decision in attempting to assault Vicksburg on May 22, 1863? For what it's worth, after the Forum's trip to Vicksburg last March, I think that he would have been negligent not to do so, given the Confederate morale break at the Big Black.
A. (John Simon): In later years, Grant expressed some regret about the 2nd assault on Vicksburg, the May 22 assault. It's true that he wanted to probe the Confederate defenses again, and he was lured into committing more troops on the basis of a report from General McClernand, which was probably the beginning of the end for McClernand. On the other hand, Grant is, as his wife pointed out, "an obstinate man." And I think that assault was unfortunate. Grant thought it was unfortunate, and I can't believe that he had a reasonable chance at that point of breaking through the Confederate lines.
Q. (Civil War Forum): What should me make of Sylvanus Cadwallader's account of Grant's celebrated two-day bender? Catton was skeptical of Cadwallader's allegations, mostly because he found no contemporary documentary evidence for it. Do you think Cadwallader was embellishing the incident or not?
A. (John Simon): Cadwallader has always been a problem—he wrote his account long after the events that he purported to describe, and he put himself in the middle of the action. He was a fervent admirer of Grant's staff officer John Rawlins, and named his son Rawlins Cadwallader. Rawlins had made a practice during the Civil War of dramatizing his role in keeping Grant from drinking. Rawlins was, in fact, an ardent teetotaler, and always acted as if his presence at headquarters kept Grant from drinking. There's no evidence that Grant drank when Rawlins wasn't there. As for the Cadwallader account, there is reason to believe that he was not even on that boat which took Grant to Satartia. Ever since the publication of Cadwallader's account in 1955, people have found that story too good to resist, and I understand that it furnishes the centerpiece of novels published in the year 2000. It's not taken seriously in the Grant field.
Q. (Civil War Forum): Publicly, Grant was usually complimentary of George Meade. Does Grant's private correspondence reveal a different opinion? Did Grant find their relationship (having his Headquarters with the Army of the Potomac) awkward?
A. (John Simon): That's an excellent question. It's a terrible relationship. Grant tried to do something which simply could not be done—that is, he intended to accompany the Army of the Potomac during the spring campaign of 1864,leaving Meade in command of the AoP, and justifying his own presence on the basis of attaching the 9th Corps under Burnside, who technically ranked Meade. For that matter, Ben Butler claimed to rank Meade, but Grant ranked everybody, and he saw his role primarily as one of coordinator. But he knew what he wanted Meade's army to do, and somehow Meade disappointed him during the campaign. Although there was a great deal of expressed admiration for Meade, Grant was gradually taking control.
By the summer of 1864, Meade requested an assignment to command elsewhere, and by the end of the war, Grant had really seized the reins and in that final campaign, beginning at the end of March, and carrying through to Appomattox, Meade was virtually ignored. Grant knew no other way to end the war except to drive those armies as hard only he could drive them, and he used Sheridan, who had quarreled bitterly with Meade early in the Overland Campaign, as effectively as possible. By the end of the war, Meade is a fairly pathetic figure. He'd been neglected by the newspaper correspondents—because of his treatment of a reporter, there was a universal desire on the part of other correspondents to minimize his role in the final operations of the war—and Meade left the war a disappointed and bitter man, a bitterness that overwhelmed him especially when Sheridan was promoted over him. In some respects, Meade may have died of a broken heart and could be counted as one of the casualties of the Civil War.
Q. (Civil War Forum): You referred to Meade's treatment of a reporter as having put him in a negative spot with the rest of the Civil War correspondents. I'm unfamiliar with this story. Would you please elaborate? Thanks.
A. (John Simon): Well, the reporter in question had written a story suggesting that after the Battle of the Wilderness Meade had wanted to withdraw to Washington, which was not only untrue, but it touched Meade on a sore point. That is, he'd already been accused of being reluctant at Gettysburg, and he exploded—he treated the reporter, whose name was Crapsey by the way, sometimes given as Cropsey, because people couldn't believe that anyone would have such an ugly name, cruelly by having him paraded through camp wearing a sign declaring him a libeler, and then expelled from the Union lines. As it turned out, Crapsey was related to one of Grant's oldest and dearest friends, but it was essentially Meade's overreaction to a newspaper story that led to his punishment by the Press.
Q. (Civil War Forum): We appreciated your participation in the American Presidents series on CSPAN. That was an excellent show.
A. (John Simon): Thank you. There are no sweeter words in the English language than "I saw you on television."