Was Grant “The Silent Man”?

Was Ulysses S. Grant “the silent man”? He certainly had a reputation for it in his time, and since then, his purported silence has contributed to the perception that Grant was/is sphinx-like.

Later this month, I’ll have the privilege to present at Grant Cottage. My talk, “The Myth of Grant’s Silence,” is based on an essay I wrote for a forthcoming book called Grant at 200, which will be published by Savas Beatie. While doing some additional research for the talk, I came across this account from Edward Chauncey Marshall’s The Ancestry of General Grant, and Their Contemporaries (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1869). It featured excerpts from an interview with Brig. Gen. William Hillyer, who served for a time on Grant’s staff during the war. Hillyer and Grant knew each other from before the war when Grant lived in St. Louis.

“Was the General silent then as now?” the interviewer asked.

“No,” Hillyer replied. “We considered him more than commonly talkative. So he is now: he won’t talk for effect, nor before strangers freely. This reticence of Grant, so much talked of, is partly discrimination and partly the form of an old bashfulness he had when a boy. Anybody whom he knows can hear him speak at any time.” (77-8)

The title of my talk, “The Myth of Grant’s Silence,” comes from a phrase coined by Robert Underwood Johnson, the editor of Century Magazine, who worked with Grant on a series of essays for the magazine (for the series that would eventually become known as Battles & Leaders of the Civil War). Johnson was tasked with confronting “the myth of his [Grant’s] silence,” which Johnson soon found out was, indeed, a myth. “General Grant, instead of being a ‘silent man’[,]was positively loquacious . . .” Johnson discovered. “He spoke rapidly and long . . . and in the frankest manner. . . .”

The myth of Grant’s silence has had long-lasting repercussions on Grant’s reputation and, unfortunately, some of the assumptions people have made in the last century and a half about the Civil War itself. I’ll explore some of these legacies during my talk at the Cottage.

Come visit Grant Cottage—a truly wonderful historic site—and sit in for the first annual Grant Cottage Literary Landmark Authors Series: Saturday, September 24 at 4:30 p.m.

Ulysses S. Grant State Historic Site
1000 Mount McGregor Road
Wilton, NY 12831

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!