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Prudence: Do you not find sometimes, as if those things were vanquished, which at other times are your perplexity?
—John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress
The complicated, historically important relationship between Ulysses S. Grant and his close confidante, John Rawlins reads like a Christian allegory. On one side, U.S. Grant is the knight of old, questing for a utopian Camelot where all men are created equal. Like the Pilgrim in John Bunyan's classic novel, he begins to mess it up almost immediately. He meets friends along the way, who dialogue with him, comfort him, and try to set him back upon the narrow path... Such a friend was John Rawlins to Ulysses S. Grant.
Straight Outta Galena
There are many points of connection between U.S. Grant and and Rawlins. Both had struggled financially. U.S. Grant's father was middle class, but had to use his political connections to send his son to West Point, because it was a low cost education. Rawlins was the son of a widow, and also self made. Both were Christians. Most importantly, both had struggled with liquor. During the American Civil War, the plain talking Rawlins functioned as a conscience to the susceptible General Grant.
Although their friendship was cemented through political discourse, there is some evidence, of dubious credulity, that even at their earliest acquaintance in Galena, Grant may have taken to the bottle. U.S. Grant appears to have had struggles with alcohol that first reached public notice during his service in the Mexican American War. During the time when his friendship with Rawlins fulminated, years later, one biographer of Galena resident Ely Parker states that Parker witnessed U.S. Grant publicly drunk. In his defense, Grant at that time was working as a clerk in his brother's store, and that sadly that humble position represented a recent social and financial high for Grant.
"I demand to know the facts... I will know them!"
Grant was not a store clerk for long, and neither did he forget his former friend. As soon as he reached a position of power, U.S. Grant appointed John Rawlins adjutant general, a move that Grant biographer Ron Chernow states "startled" Rawlins. Despite his enthusiasm for Grant, he did not think himself qualified. However, at that time he found himself a widower with three young children and may have felt compelled by his finances. Despite his lack of experience, he seems to have decided early on what his mission in the Army was going to be, extracting an oath of temperance from Grant. Other officials, while not taking any such oaths, may have curbed their drinking around the zealous Rawlins. While not entirely successful, the vigilant Rawlins appears to have salvaged the reputation of U.S. Grant, simply by being ubiquitous and, at times, penning reminders to Grant about his promises. Despite his lack of knowledge of warfare, and being somewhat politically naive, his efforts to keep Grant reasonably sober earned him public acclaim, and he Forrest-Gumped himself a position as Secretary of War in the Grant administration.
Gone Too Soon
Sadly, John Rawlins contracted tuberculosis at some point in 1863. He died in September, 1869. He was 38 at the time of his death. During his life, he made valiant efforts to serve the Grant administration in whatever capacity he could. His fervor did not escape the public's notice. People who hated Grant sometimes nonetheless admired Rawlins, and spread rumors that Rawlins was the real mastermind behind the Union victory. Notwithstanding his clever mind and pragmatic nature, there is not much concrete evidence for this. Some said that Grant neglected to speak of Rawlins and shunned Rawlins' deathbed presumably out of jealousy. While Grant tried to be with Rawlins at the end, he missed Rawlins' death by an hour. Later, after Rawlins' memory threatened to eclipse his own victories, at least in the public mind, Grant may have tied to diffuse the rumor mill by limiting references to Rawlins in his memoirs.
Grant. Ron Chernow. Penguin Press, 2017.