Book Review: General John A. Rawlins: No Ordinary Man

Reviewed by Zachery A. Fry

Allen Ottens has produced a gripping and illuminating biography of Ulysses Grant’s right-hand man and fellow Galena, Illinois native John Rawlins. Ottens draws from an extensive source base to offer a wide-ranging view of his subject, contextualizing Rawlins within the tumultuous political, military, and social tides of his time. Protector, confidant, counselor, facilitator, and friend—all these could describe Rawlins, a man who lived his military career forever in the shadow of the war’s greatest Union general. But Ottens succeeds brilliantly in helping Rawlins emerge from that shadow as a complicated, competent, empathetic figure in his own right. The result is a biography that shines new light on an often-overlooked figure and on the key role commanders’ staffs played in the war.

The life of a Civil War staff officer was desperately busy, fraught with stressful hours of thankless work and poorly defined responsibilities. Moving, feeding, and equipping tens of thousands of citizen-soldiers sprawled across the campaign map was a ponderous burden. Rawlins fulfilled the functions of Grant’s adjutant general during his early campaigns and eventually rose to serve as chief of staff, a catch-all term for manager of Grant’s command team and personal gatekeeper for the general himself. His effectiveness as Grant’s gatekeeper came from the close working relationship and mutual trust they shared. Although their prewar experiences differed dramatically—Rawlins had no professional military background and had instead started the war as an up-and-coming self-made lawyer—both exemplified the rugged, rough-hewn resolve of the emerging Midwest.

Rawlins is often hailed as the teetotaling babysitter, of sorts, who promised Grant’s political patron Elihu Washburne that he would protect the general from the influences of alcohol. The reality, Ottens shows, was more complex. Rawlins did build a “temperance zone” around headquarters, but Grant showed more self-control than allowed by many detractors then and now. And Rawlins, whose temperance advocacy probably resulted from the baneful effects of alcoholism he witnessed in his own father, performed his duty with the zeal of a Grant loyalist who knew that Grant’s powerfully connected political enemies would jump at the first chance to do him harm.

The higher Grant climbed on the ladder of Union leadership, the bigger a target he presented to ambitious rivals. Protecting Grant from peril meant Rawlins himself had to demonstrate keen political acuity. A case in point Ottens highlights is how masterfully Rawlins ingratiated himself with newspaper editor and Stanton confidant Charles Dana, who arrived to keep tabs on Grant during the Vicksburg siege. Dana, largely because of Rawlins’s welcome, emerged as one of Grant’s staunchest allies and noted how candidly—even brusquely—Rawlins could speak to the commanding general. The chief of staff himself was a political conservative who wrote and functioned as a War Democrat, which is to say he generally supported the administration and could even act as mediator when friend and fellow Illinoisan David Sheean ran into political trouble with the quarrelsome secretary of war.

Grant’s increased responsibilities as general-in-chief in 1864 brought sweeping changes to his staff, and Rawlins’s administrative role diminished in ways that often frustrated his self-made, citizen-soldier sensibilities. He deeply resented some of the professional staffers’ influence over Grant during the Overland Campaign, for instance, and blamed Cyrus Comstock in particular for convincing Grant to launch relentless frontal assaults against Lee’s entrenchments in May and June. Despite this, Rawlins clearly remained indispensable to his commander as a friend, counselor, and sounding board for key decisions. “Rawlins had the ability to capture the feelings and meanings beyond Grant’s ken and then give a concrete and fuller expression to them,” Ottens notes. It is no wonder that Grant tapped Rawlins to serve as Secretary of War during his tumultuous administration.

But Rawlins did not serve long in Grant’s cabinet. The menace of tuberculosis haunted Rawlins’s life from the time his first wife died of the disease in 1861 to when he himself finally succumbed to it in September 1869. The lurking presence of tragedy in Rawlins’s life is never far from the narrative, and to this reviewer, at least, it adds a powerful human interest element to the book.

Ottens succeeds brilliantly in fixing our gaze on the engaging figure of John Rawlins while still giving fresh insights into Grant, the Union Army, and the broader Civil War era. No Ordinary Man merits the highest recommendation.

General John A. Rawlins: No Ordinary Man
By Allen J. Ottens
Indiana University Press  2021  $35 hardcover.

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3 Responses to Book Review: General John A. Rawlins: No Ordinary Man

  1. John Pryor says:

    A small fish in a pond that grew too big for him. Grant rescued Rawlins from himself as a sign of his gentle soul and loyalty to subordinates, even problematic ones.

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    John Rawlins was an enigma. He wrote no memoirs, and his personal letters are few and hard to come by. Even General Grant in his Personal Memoirs makes scant mention of his most trusted advisor. So we are left to biographers to explain the Lawyer from Galena… and until a year ago, there had only been one: James Harrison Wilson. And Wilson’s 1916 “Life of Rawlins” was lacking in depth, ignoring key questions, leaving the discerning reader profoundly unsatisfied. Zachery A. Fry has convinced me to give this work by Allen Ottens a read: it has been added to my Christmas Wish List.

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