Don’t Tell Me What I Don’t Want to Know

(this post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on October 14th, 2006)

One of the more interesting moments in historical research is when one comes across information that challenges a long-cherished account that has been accepted as unchallenged truth. For me, one of those moments happened in the early 1990s. I was starting work on several articles that helped to establish the foundation for my biography of Ulysses S. Grant: one concerned the Lincoln-Grant relationship. I’ve always found it useful to return to original accounts whenever possible, instead of relying upon filtered versions of the accounts, and it was with that in mind that I revisited Alexander McClure’s account of a conversation he had with Abraham Lincoln in the aftermath of Shiloh. Here is the key portion:

“I appealed to Lincoln for his own sake to remove Grant at once, and, in giving my reasons for it, I simply voiced the admittedly overwhelming protest from the loyal people of the land against Grant’s continuance in command. I could form no judgment during the conversation as to what effect my arguments had upon him beyond the fact that he was greatly distressed at this new complication. When I had said everything that could be said from my standpoint, we lapsed into silence. Lincoln remained silent for what seemed a very long time. He then gathered himself up in his chair and said in a tone of earnestness that I shall never forget: ‘I can’t spare this man; he fights.’”

The only problem is that the rest of McClure’s account argues against the authenticity of this conversation. McClure advanced a series of claims that simply had no basis in the historical record, claiming that Lincoln had somehow arranged for Halleck to come to Grant’s army after Shiloh and make Grant second-in-command in order to keep him under cover for a while. At the right time, according to McClure, Lincoln would restore Grant to command. None of that is supported by a shred of evidence. Halleck had planned to join Grant before he learned of Shiloh; it was Halleck’s idea to place Grant in a second-in-command slot (and Grant didn’t like it); Lincoln (through Stanton) had asked Halleck whether Grant was at fault for Shiloh (suggesting Lincoln could well spare him); Lincoln did not restore Grant to command (Halleck’s departure to become general-in-chief and the dispersal of Halleck’s joint force after Corinth took care of that); and there is absolutely no documentation to support any of the claims McClure makes. So why trust the quote? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s not a football.

I published my findings and was honored when Don Fehrenbacher, one of the greatest of Lincoln scholars, cited my findings in the book his wife and he assembled that evaluated quotes attributed to Lincoln. If one could question the “I can’t spare this man” quote, then Lincoln’s ambivalence about Grant, including his willingness to lend an ear to John McClernand and his decision to investigate Grant’s command in the spring of 1863 make more sense. No one offered any evidence to suggest I was wrong.

It didn’t matter.

Geoffrey Perret embraced the old story in his 1997 biography, even though his footnote cited my article in Lincoln Lore on this issue; Jean Edward Smith endorsed the old tale as well in his 2001 biography. It’s appeared on websites that cite my own Grant biography, which is amusing. See

http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/inside.asp?ID=133&subjectID=2

for an example.

Why would one want to continue to use a story that is not only not supported by evidence, but rather clearly contradicted by it, and where the veracity of the account in which the story appears is questionable, to say the least?

You tell me.

13 thoughts on “Don’t Tell Me What I Don’t Want to Know

  1. Brad March 2, 2014 / 5:15 am

    Have you seen “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”? Well worth watching, even if you have. At the end, after the character played by Jimmy Stewart (who has come clean about events that led to his rise in politics) asks a reporter to whom he has told the truth if he is going to print the truth, the reporter replies, “no sir, this is the west, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

  2. Lewis L. Gould March 2, 2014 / 6:20 am

    Brooks: When I wrote the sketch of McClure for American National Biography years ago, I cited the remark from John Hay in Tyler Dennett’s biography. Hay numbered McClure among the “professional liars” who had “written several volumes of reminiscences of Lincoln with whom I really think he never had two hours of conversation in his life.” (Tyler Dennett, John Hay (1933), p. 136.

  3. John Foskett March 2, 2014 / 9:06 am

    That’s a nice piece of research. Why does it persist? Because it sounds good and makes an American idol appear to be prescient and stolid in the face of ephemeral public opinion. Grant seems to be the subject of a few of these. For example, there’s the oft-quoted “lick ’em tomorrow” statement to Sherman on the night of April 6 after the calamitous first day at Shiloh. That fits the indomitable, imperturbable Grant of popular history. If one traces the provenance of the quote, however, one finds modern scholars citing such “sources” as Catton, who (if I recall correctly) in one of his books cited an account based on an alleged interview of Sherman by a Washington reporter which was only published after Sherman died (and, of course, after Grant had died).

    • Lyle Smith March 2, 2014 / 9:44 am

      It’s not much different from why the Lost Cause lingers. It sounds right and it gets repeated time and time again. We see such fallacies deployed all the time in politics and other disciplines, because they can work. It’s some kind of groupthink problem.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 2, 2014 / 12:15 pm

      Here’s what (to me) makes the difference: we have plenty of other quotes from April 6 that suggest Grant’s determination to fight again on April 7, and the fact that Sherman found him in the rain meets up with Grant’s own description of that awful night. In contrast, everything at the time points against McClure’s claims.

      • John Foskett March 2, 2014 / 12:36 pm

        Certainly true. In other words, it may serve as an apocryphal anecdote which neatly reflects Grant’s attitude towards renewal of the fighting. Whether Grant actually said that to anyone/Sherman is very suspect (since the quote is at best “totem pole hearsay” and tracing its origins is a bit of a detective exercise). It also “rings” an awful lot like something that John Ford might have put in Marion Morrison’s mouth. Grant, as we know, had his moments, as well. So the thing these two quotes have in common may be that they are both fabricated. In that event, where they diverge is that the Grant quote doesn’t result in painting an inaccurate historical picture while the Lincoln quote does.

  4. Nancy Winkler March 2, 2014 / 10:58 am

    I just LOVE to hear about research that counters long-held assumptions. More! More!

  5. Bob Huddleston March 2, 2014 / 11:06 am

    The Mr Lincoln’s White House web site also tells us that Grant “swiftly rose to command Army of Mississippi,” I do see you are the most referenced source — no doubt you are responsible for the Army of Mississippi. :>)

  6. Tony March 2, 2014 / 3:17 pm

    What is the name of the Fehrenbacher book? Do you remember if he evaluated “Vicksburg is the Key?”

    Recently read “The Night the War Was Lost” by Charles Dufour. He pokes holes all through David Dixon Porter’s account but never explicitly addresses the Vicksburg quote.

  7. Nancy Winkler March 2, 2014 / 3:36 pm

    I’m suspicious of Henry Wing. (Henry Wing, _When Lincoln Kissed Me_) He claims that Gen. Grant told him, privately, that if he saw the president to tell him that “whatever happens, there will be no turning back.” When Henry saw the president, he stresses that Lincoln wanted to hear what he had to say in absolute privacy. Then Henry told him Grant’s “secret” message, and Lincoln kissed him. One silly assertion after another. Grant’s message was hardly top secret intel. What do you think?

  8. Bob Huddleston March 2, 2014 / 5:12 pm

    Don E. Fehrenbacher, and Virginia Fehrenbacher, compilers and editors, _Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln_ (Stanford: 1996), a wonderful book to pick up on a quiet evening and read a few pages. It is arranged alphabetically by the person claiming AL told them something, then the claim is evaluated and graded A thourgh F.

  9. Bob Huddleston March 2, 2014 / 5:14 pm

    And, no, they do not mention the “Key” comment.

    • Tony March 2, 2014 / 7:37 pm

      Eh … I would give the quote an F, but I would like some day to have the time and money to travel out and dig through Porter’s journal to look for any evidence Lincoln said such a thing. He certainly didn’t appear to stress that point to Farragut in any official correspondence, and did not protest when Farragut ordered him away from the city.

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