New Grant Library collection offers insight into former Secretary of War Rawlins, president’s ‘conscience’

Anne Marshall shows off new Grant Library collection
Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library Executive Director Anne Marshall, left, and Will Epping, a Ph.D. student studying history from Atkins, Iowa, examine correspondence from former Secretary of War John Rawlins at Mississippi State’s Mitchell Memorial Library. The USGPL recently acquired a collection of Rawlins’ letters, documents and other memorabilia which provides insight into the life of one of Grant’s most-trusted advisers. (Photo by Grace Cockrell)

Contact: Carl Smith

STARKVILLE, Miss.—A special collection of correspondence, papers and memorabilia providing insight into the complicated relationship between former President Ulysses S. Grant and former Secretary of War John Rawlins now resides at Mississippi State’s U.S. Grant Presidential Library.

Described as “Grant’s conscience” in the absence of his wife Julia—according to USGPL and Ulysses S. Grant Association Executive Director Anne Marshall—Rawlins served as a chief advisor to the Union Army general during the Civil War and remained a close confidant in the 18th president’s cabinet until the secretary’s sudden death in 1869—not even one year into the Grant administration.

Rawlins, a teetotaler who abstained from alcohol throughout his life, is known for shielding Grant from controversy surrounding his drinking. While many anecdotes about Grant’s alcoholism were embellished by factions bent on changing narratives surrounding the Civil War and its actors, including Lost Cause promoters, Grant’s drinking was problematic enough to inspire Rawlins to write to Grant multiple times and urge him to avoid the bottle.

One such document—a copy of an unsent letter penned on June 6, 1863, by Rawlins in Vicksburg—is part of MSU’s new collection. In it, USGPL Director of Research Ryan Semmes said, Rawlins lays out a blunt message: While the fate of the Union hung in the balance, Grant would sometimes lose focus of what was important by carousing with the wrong crowd.

Memorabilia from John Rawlins' time as secretary of war.
Numerous documents from Rawlins’ six-month stint as America’s 29th secretary of war, including this June 1869 invitation, are now housed at MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library. Rawlins died from tuberculosis in August 1869. (Photo by Grace Cockrell)

“It was heavy stuff, like, ‘The great solicitude I feel for the safety of this army leads me to mention what I had hoped never to do again: the subject of your drinking,’ and, ‘Had you not pledged me the sincerity of your honor early last March that you would drink no more during the war—and kept that pledge during your recent military campaign—you would not today have stood first in the world’s history as a successful military leader,’” Semmes said while quoting the letter. “He’s putting a lot of pressure on Grant to keep him sober. He makes the point that when Grant’s wife isn’t around, he gets in with the wrong crowd. It’s a big point in their friendship.”

The document in MSU’s collection has markings on the back indicating Rawlins spoke to Grant directly about his drinking in that specific situation instead of sending him the letter. The copy was eventually sent to Rawlins’ second wife Emma, while the original was lost.

Following the war and Grant’s rise to the presidency, Rawlins served as the 29th secretary of war for only six months. He died of tuberculosis in August 1869.

Memorabilia from former Secretary of War John Rawlins
The Rawlins collection was opened to MSU students and researchers in the fall and will be fully accessible online to the public. (Photo by Grace Cockrell)

The complex relationship between the two men continued after Rawlins’ death. For example, Grant was charged with assisting the Rawlins’ estate and ensuring his children received an education after their father’s death. However, even though the men were intertwined for years in almost every aspect of life, many of the former president’s own memoirs and autobiographical accounts do not fully account for Rawlins’ impact, agreed Marshall and Semmes.

“Following the Civil War, Grant had accumulated many political enemies, many of whom were looking to change the narrative by attributing Grant’s military success to Rawlins, saying he was the man behind the genius. It’s not so much that Grant doesn’t like Rawlins; it’s that Grant doesn’t want to diminish his own standing,” Marshall said. “Rawlins was such a critical source of support for Grant—someone who was trying to steer him to do the right thing. Grant had this meteoric rise, and Rawlins was there for it all. He’s next to him at all these historically significant moments, and he knew who Grant the person was before them. He’s this interesting figure because he touches on all these parts of Grant—the drinking, the military acumen. Grant, at the end, was worried about his own posterity. He was human, too.”

The Rawlins collection, acquired from a private antiques dealer in Galena, Illinois, thanks, in part, to a donation from College of Business alumnus Turner Wingo of Collierville, Tennessee, includes letters, invitations, proclamations and other documents associated with Rawlins’ brief time in Grant’s cabinet, and many pieces of personal correspondence between him and his two wives.

The collection was opened to MSU students and researchers in the fall and will be fully accessible online to the public.

The U.S. Grant Association and Presidential Library are both housed within MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library and curate the 18th president’s papers, while preserving a vast array of artifacts and memorabilia. For more information, visit

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