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The Shadow of a Shade: General Grant and Not Fighting for Abolition

During the Lost Cause era, slavery’s role as the cause of secession and the Civil War was flatly denied. Among the arsenal of “proof” the adherents to this doctrine often focused upon General Grant. 1As shown previously. They understood that Grant had never been an abolitionist. More importantly, they hoped to convince their audience that Grant was openly against fighting the war to end slavery. If they could pull this off, it would bring them another step closer to proving that their grandfathers did not kill and die to defend the right to own other human beings.

One of their favorite pieces of “evidence,” which is still somehow bandied about as true, is a quote Grant supposedly made in 1861.

“If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side.” – General Grant, attributed.

For a period of time in the first two decades of the Twentieth century, this quote was spoken, published and heralded as proof positive that the war was not about slavery. It was popularized in 1914 by Mildred Lewis Rutherford, as the historian for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But it did not begin with Rutherford, and judging by how it remains heavily quoted in Neo-Confederate and pro-Southern web pages and publications, neither did it end with her. 2See here, here (little over halfway down), and here, for a small sample of how the quote is used.

1866 Mezzotint print of Ulysses S. Grant by William Sartain
1866 Mezzotint print of Ulysses S. Grant by William Sartain

Where It All Actually Began

The Presidential campaign of 1868 pitted Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, against the Democrat Horatio Seymour. The editor of Missouri’s Randolph Citizen, printed a piece explaining what he had apparently witnessed in the summer of 1861, when Grant was the colonel of the 21st Illinois.

He claimed that Grant “embraced every fair opportunity which came in his way to express his sentiments and opinions in regard to political affairs.” This specific quote was to have been spoken “in a public conversation in Ringo’s banking-house,” when “a sterling Union man put this question to him: ‘What do you honestly think was the real object of this war on the part of the Federal Government?'”

This was Grant’s supposed response:

‘Sir,’ said Grant, ‘I have no doubt in the world that the sole object is the restoration of the Union. I will say further though, that I am a Democrat – every man in my regiment is a Democrat – and whenever I shall be convinced that this war has for its object anything else than what I have mentioned, or that the Government designs using its soldiers to execute the purposes of the abolitionists, I pledge you my honor as a man and a soldier that I will not only resign my commission, but will carry my sword to the other side, and cast my lot with that people.’ 3“Grant as a Talker” The Democratic Speaker’s Hand-book: Every thing necessary for the defense of the national democracy in the coming presidential campaign, and for the assault of the radical enemies of the country and its constitution compiled by Matthew Carey, Jr. (Cincinnati: Miami Print. and Pub. Company, 1868) 33. The Randolph Citizen article was printed verbatim.

From Brownlow's Knoxville Whig., July 08, 1868.
From Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig., July 08, 1868.

This painted Grant, then a Whig, not only as being a pro-slavery Democrat, but also willing to side with the Confederacy – become a traitor – should the object of the war turn to freeing the slaves.

After this was published in, Elihu B. Washburne, a Radical Republican whose brother served under Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign, came to his defense. When the Democratic press realized the story had legs, the editor of Michigan’s Allegan Journal wrote to Washburne seeking verification. The reply denied the story completely.

“No more silly and ridiculous fabrication has been put forth,” wrote Washburne in June of 1868, “than the pretended speech of Gen. Grant, to his regiment, in 1861, which I have seen paraded in some of the most disreputable copperhead newspapers. The whole thing is false, there not being the ‘shadow of a shade’ of foundation for it.” 4“Nail the Lies to the Wall” Brownlow’s Knoxville Whig, July 8, 1868, 1. The Allegan Journal is from Allegan, Michigan, but has not been digitized and is only available through the Michigan Library system. Unfortunately, there is no date given for when they ran the original reply, but it was likely in late June or early July of 1868.

Second Verse Same as the First

New-York tribune., August 29, 1872, Page 4
New-York tribune., August 29, 1872, Page 4

Grant won the 1868 election despite this barb, but that didn’t stop Horace Greeley from using it in the next one. 1872’s election faced Grant off against Greeley, running on the Liberal Republican ticket. Greeley’s newspaper, the New York Tribune trotted it out on August 27, 1872, citing the Missouri editor’s version of the quote verbatim, calling it an “extraordinary declaration.”

The Tribune concluded that “[w]hen this statement of Mr. Grant’s original hostility toward Emancipation was first made, the Renomination journals with one loud voice declared it to be a lie. We give our authority, and we have no doubt of the substantial truth of the story. If the Nepo-Republicans want the resurrection style of controversy, they can be easily accommodated.” 5New York Tribune, August 29, 1872, 4. I’m not sure what a “Nepo-Republican” is, but could it possibly be from the latin “nepo” meaning “grandchild”?

The very next day, the New York Times published a response, reprinting Washburne’s reply. “Mr. Greeley is a candidate for Gen. Grant’s place,” read the Times, “and all his criticisms upon his rival are, therefore, naturally regarded with suspicion. But he ought not to tell stories.” 6New York Times, August 30, 1872, 1.

Revived By the Ladies of the Lost Cause

This election Grant won as well, and the quote seemed to be forgotten for a time. From 1872 until 1904, there was little or no mention of this by anyone. Since Grant was no longer in the running, it hardly mattered. But in the early 1900s, there was a new mission afoot.

As explained by Elizabeth Avery Meriwether (writing under the nom de plume George Edmonds) in her Facts and Falsehoods Concerning the War on the South she hoped to provide “future historians of the South” a collection of facts that they could use to right the “injustice of misrepresentation – of false charges – of lies.”


Working off of the original source as printed in The Democratic Speaker’s Hand-book, Meriwether paraphrased the story and Grant’s quote – a practice that would not end with her. Meriwether edited out almost all background information. Gone was the original Missouri source, and even the year. Instead, she wrote that it was said by Grant when as “Colonel of the Twenty-first Illinois Infantry he expressed himself plainly on the negro question.”

“The sole object of this war,” said Grant according to Meriwether, “is to restore the Union. Should I become convinced it has any other object, or that the Government designs using its soldiers to execute the wishes of the Abolitionists, I pledge you my honor as a man and a soldier I would resign my commission and carry my sword to the other side.” 7George Edmonds, Facts and Falsehoods Concerning the War on the South, 1861-1865 (Memphis: A.R. Taylor & Co., 1904) i, 219.

This brings us finally back to Mildred Lewis Rutherford, the “historian-general” of the Daughters of the Confederacy. Meriwether’s Facts and Falsehoods was certainly widely read. It was distributed by Crown Rights Book Company, the same distributor who would also attract Rutherford.

Wonderful color print of Mildred Lewis Rutherford
Wonderful color print of Mildred Lewis Rutherford

While many believed that women had no place in the study of history, Rutherford was insistent that it was not only their right, but their duty. Unfortunately, Rutherford was more interested in how the Confederacy was viewed than in actual history. 8Sarah E. Gardner, Blood & Irony: Southern White Women’s Narratives of the Civil War, 1861-1937 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) 161, 163.

She lamented that when articles appeared in such publications as The Confederate Veteran, they were often sympathetic with the North, “condemning the principles for which their Confederate fathers fought….” She believed it was time for the women, the daughters of the Confederacy “to become insistent that the truths of history shall be written, and that those truths shall be correctly taught in our schools and colleges.” 9Mildred Lewis Rutherford, Wrongs of History Righted, spoken in Savannah, Georgia on November 13, 1914. As printed in Four Addresses (The Mildred Rutherford Historical Circle, 1916) 49.

One of these “truths” was the false quote by General Grant. In a 1914 speech, she prefaced the condemning words with a fairly popular treatise about Northern leaders who owned slaves and Southern leaders who either did not or set them free. “No, the war was not fought to hold slaves,” she continued, “but a few selfish Southern people may have thought so.” Using Grant’s quote as proof, she concluded: “The North had no thought of fighting to abolish slaves, then why should the South be troubled on that score?” 10Ibid. 60.

Rutherford’s plea for Southerners to become more active in spreading the “truth” of history did not fall upon deaf ears. The section about Grant was printed in the June 1915 issue of The Confederate Veteran and from there it spread becoming part of the Lost Cause rhetoric. 11“Was the War Between the States Fought to Hold Our Slaves?” Confederate Veteran, June 1915. Appearing in Volume 23. 283.


The Neo-Confederate Revival

This tired old quote has found quite a bit of staying power. Though Rutherford offered no sources (not even the original Missouri newspaper), Neo-Confederate authors today print it as fact. Following the Lost Cause literature of the first half of the Twentieth century, the first author to revive Grant’s supposed quote was H.C. Blackerby in his 1979 Blacks in Blue and Gray. He claimed that there were over 300,000 African-Americans who supported the Confederacy – a number that would surpass the 179,000 who served the United States. 12H.C. Blackerby Blacks in Blue and Gray (Portal Press, 1979) 67. It’s hard to tell where Blackerby got his figure. Maybe if he counted all slaves who built trenches, drove teams, etc., he might be close, but that’s hardly proof that the South did not fight the war to preserve slavery.

Ads for a book on the KKK atop an ad for the Confederate Battle Flag from the June 1915 issue of the Confederate Veteran.
Ads for a book on the KKK atop an ad for the Confederate Battle Flag from the June 1915 issue of the Confederate Veteran.

While even the more prolific pro-Confederacy historians neglect or ignore this quote, other, less seasoned researchers, take it as fact. The quote can be found in two Christian-based pro-Confederate works. Devotions for Warriors by Mike Fisher and Joe Jared is a daily devotional that gives readers a main course of pro-Confederate jubilation with a somewhat related Bible verse on the side. To show that the civil war was “more complex than we realize and especially more complex than history textbook writers describe,” Fisher and Jared give us General Grant’s quote about resigning his commission. 13Mike Fisher and Joe Jared Devotions for Warriors: A Christian Perspective of the Civil War Tate Publishing & Enterprises, 2009) 124.

Additionally, in a vanity press publication entitled God Save the South! by John Thomas Nall, it’s lumped in without reference or explanation under the “Your Important Collection of Quotations and Statements” section. 14John Thomas Nall God Save the South: And a Treasure Chest of Forbidden Information (AuthorHouse, 2013) 451. What proving that the South was “right” has to do with Christianity is far beyond any reasoning. Also, I do feel sort of bad for singling out Nall’s book. It reads more like a disturbing, albeit dull, manifesto.

Though Nall’s book is basically a 500 page incoherent rant, he hit upon something. The list of unreferenced quotations and statements has long been the bread and butter for those who wished to speak from authority, but didn’t really want anyone to easily dissect or even question their words. This behavior is hardly new, and seems to be precisely what Elizabeth Avery Meriwether and Mildred Lewis Rutherford were doing. To them, the facts were irrelevant. History could be twisted and abused in any number of ways, just as long as it served to forward their cause.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

3 thoughts on “The Shadow of a Shade: General Grant and Not Fighting for Abolition

  1. Might Greeley have meant nepo-republican as invoking nepotism? Greeley’s Liberal Republicans were running an anti-corruption campaign at the time. So far as I know, Grant didn’t do anything corrupt himself but tended to protect his guilty friends, which is in the vein of nepotism. The classic version, of course was Popes and other figures high in the Catholic church appointing their “nephews” (read: sons) to important offices.

    1. Ha! I think you’re right! I actually was able to (just now) find another reference to it, which gives more context. Thanks so much for the clue! I reached for the Latin, which I should have turned to the abbreviation. Great work!

      From the The Wilmington Morning Star, October 1, 1872:

      A Washington, N. C, correspondent of the Tribune, thus writes of a family of office-holders that of Beaufort county: I have found a nest of genuine Nepo-Republicans down here in this little out-of-the-way town, in Eastern North Carolina a family which, having gobbled up about all of the Federal offices in this neighborhood; has made a “dead set” for the State and county honors. At the head of this illustrious house is Hiram E. Stilley, United States Assessor of Internal Revenue, member of the Lower House of the North Carolino Legislature in 1868-70, and just elected to the State Senate from this district. As a member of the last Republican Legislature, Stilley was one of the most pliant tools in the hands of Littlefield, and, of course, his vote was never wanting when a robbery of unusual proportions was to be put through. United States Marshal Car-row has elected him to serve another two years, in consideration ef his eminent services during his former term. Second on the list is Stephen W. Stilley. clerk to the Inter nal Revenue Assessor, and an aspirant for promotion if Grant is re-elected, Sydney F. Stilley, is Postmaster at this place, and one of Carrow’s lieutenants in running the political machine. Henry D. Stilley is Deputy Postmaster. William Stilley, jr., was, until recently, mail-carrier from Washington to Goose Creek, in this county. He is now out of employment, but will have to be provided for before the November election. James E. Merriam, brother-in-law of all the Stilleys, is Assistant Assessor of Internal Revenue, and recently elected one of the Board of County Commissioners.

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