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

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.

Comments (9) to “Don’t Tell Me What I Don’t Want to Know”

  1. Brooks,

    You know I think highly of you and your work, but I think you over-state the significance of your work on this Lincoln quote. What you show is that McClure’s account is questionable. It does not necessarily follow that Lincoln didn’t say that about Grant, it simply means McClure’s version is questionable. It’s *possible* that Lincoln did say it (or something similar).

  2. The problem, Jim, is that McClure’s version is the only account. He’s the original source. There’s no other account.

    If Lincoln could not spare Grant, then why did it seem that he came pretty close to sparing him in 1862 and 1863?

  3. The best argument against it is actually the extent of Lincoln’s non-support in 1862 and 1863. I find it odd that McClure (or anyone) would invent such a specific quote out of whole cloth. I think he heard Lincoln say something like this, or heard of it second-hand.

  4. Normally, that might make sense. However, McClure, who sided with the Liberal Republicans in 1872 (you’ll find that a great deal of early antiGrant literature about his military career has political echoes), also told another story about Grant’s supposedly uncertain support of Lincoln’s reelection bid in 1864 in which he mentions troop transfers that never took place. So I conclude that McClure was perfectly capable of fabrication.

  5. OK, so the man has a track record ;-) I agree, the evidence is adding up.

  6. Brooks,

    I feel that your question is a little naive. Writers of historical non-fiction often have an attachement to a particular version of events supported by some anecdote or charaterization that appeals to them. It will take a lot more than evidence to shake them from their preexisting point of view.

    -Will

  7. Historians need to test the evidence that supports their point of view as
    vigorously as they test the evidence that contests their point of view. I
    don’t think I’m being naive at all. Rather, I’m suggesting how long it can
    take to challenge historical narrative to the point that the challenge
    sticks. In that regard, Perret’s handing of this is most informative:
    although he mentioned my reservations in 1997, he decided to use the quote,
    without any explanation as to why. Several years later, in the error-riddled
    Lincoln’s War, he simply used the quote as if there was no objection to it.
    That’s regression.

  8. Brooks,

    You’re right. I am just feeling cranky about how often it seems that writers do not do what they ought to do with the evidence.

    - Will

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