John Aaron Rawlins

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John Aaron Rawlins
John Aaron Rawlins - Brady-Handy.jpg
29th United States Secretary of War
In office
March 13, 1869 – September 6, 1869
President Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by John M. Schofield
Succeeded by William W. Belknap
Personal details
Born (1831-02-13)February 13, 1831
Galena, Illinois, U.S.
Died September 6, 1869(1869-09-06) (aged 38)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting place Congressional Cemetery,
Washington, D.C.
Arlington National Cemetery,
Arlington, Virginia
Political party Democratic; Republican
Spouse(s) Emily Smith Rawlins (1833-1861)
his 1st wife
Mary Emeline "Emma" Hurlburt Rawlins (1840-1874)
2nd wife
Children Mary Rawlins
James Bradner Rawlins
Jane Lovisa Rawlins Holman
Emily Smith Rawlins Wait
Willie Rawlins
Violet Rawlins
Profession Lawyer, General, Politician
Military service
Service/branch Union Army
Years of service 1861 - 1869
Rank Brigadier General (brevet Major General)
Battles/wars American Civil War

John Aaron Rawlins (February 13, 1831 – September 6, 1869) was an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. A confidant of Ulysses S. Grant, Rawlins served on Grant's staff throughout the war, rising to the rank of brevet major general, and was Grant's chief defender against allegations of insobriety. After the war, he was appointed Secretary of War when Grant was elected President of the United States, but died of advanced tuberculosis five months into his term.

Early years[edit]

Rawlins was born on February 13, 1831 in Galena, Illinois, the son of James Dawson and Lovisa Collier Rawlins both of Scotch-Irish descent whose ancestors originally settled in Culpeper County, Virginia. Rawlin's father James was born in Kentucky and lived a carefree lifestyle as a farmer in Missouri and Illinois. His father James also made a living charcoal burning.[1] In 1849, James migrated to California, during the Gold Rush and stayed there for three years. [2] While his father James was absent, Rawlins had to take care of his mother, his sister, and six brothers. [1] Upon James' return, without finding any gold, he half heartedly devoted his time to his family and timber farm, while Rawlins had taken increasing responsibility as a caretaker. [1] Rawlins blamed his father James' carefree lifestyle and lack of attention to his family on strong drink. [1] His father's behavior affected his own attitudes and fears toward alcohol. [1] According to historian Bruce Catton, Rawlins abstained from alcohol, however, he retained a personal fear that he would not be able to stop drinking if he himself took a drink. [1] Rawlins' early education was scanty, having attended local schools in the area and a year and a half at Rock River Seminary at Mt. Morris, Illinois.[2] Rawlins then studied law under Isaac P. Stevens of Galena, Illinois and was admitted to the bar in 1854. Rawlins practiced law with Stevens and later with Rawlins' own pupil David Sheean.[2] Politically Rawlins aligned himself with the Democratic Party.

Marriages, family, health[edit]

On June 5, 1856 Rawlins married Emily Smith, daughter of Hiram Smith of Goshen, New York. Their marriage produced three children including one son James, the eldest, and two daughters, Jennie and Emily.[1] During the Civil War Emily died of tuberculosis sometime when Rawlins began active service in the Union Army in August, 1861. According to historian Bruce Catton, Emily's death left Rawlins with the fear he would one day die of tuberculosis.[3] [2] Rawlins arranged for the care of his three children after Emily's death. [2] During the beginnings of the Chattanooga Campaign, in September 1863, his son James was seven years old.[1] On December 23, 1863 Rawlins married Mary Emma Hurlburt of Danbury, Connecticut.[4] Rawlins had loved Emily, his first wife, and his emotions for her carried over into his second marriage.[3] Rawlins frankly expressed to his second wife Mary that he still retained love for Emily.[3] During the Winter of 1863 Rawlins developed a persistent cough that would later be diagnosed by his doctors as tuberculosis. [5]

American Civil War[edit]

General John A. Rawlins

Union Army military promotions[edit]

In 1861, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Rawlins took an active role in the organization of the 45th Illinois Infantry, and was designated to become Major of the regiment of the Union Army. This was done in response to President Abraham Lincoln's call for Union troops that would fight the Confederacy. At this time, Rawlins met Ulysses S. Grant, who was in charge of the 45th Regiment. Grant requested that Rawlins take a commission as Lieutenant and become Grant's aide-de-camp. Rawlins accepted and on August 30 Rawlins was appointed Captain in the regular Army and Assistant Adjutant-General of Volunteers under Grant's command. [2] On September 14, Rawlins reported to Grant's headquarters in Cairo. From this time forward, Rawlins would remain by Grant's side and became Grant's most influential staff officer, advisor, and closest friend. [2] Like most men at the beginning of the Civil War, Rawlins was not formally military trained, however, he was naturally suited for his position. [2] As Grant rose in rank and responsibility in the Union Army due to his Union victories on the field of battle, Rawlins was likewise promoted in roles of increasing responsibility and rank.[2] Rawlins was appointed Chief of Staff of the Army of the Tennessee and of the Military Division of the Mississippi. He was known for his great attention to detail, as well as being a stickler for proper protocol. On May 14, 1862 Rawlins was promoted to Major. On November 1, 1862 Rawlins was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.[4] He was promoted to brigadier general of Volunteers on August 11, 1863. When Grant was promoted to general in chief of all the Union armies, Rawlins became Chief of Staff of the General Headquarters of the United States Army. [4] He was promoted to brevet major general on February 24, 1865, to brigadier general in the regular army March 3, and brevet major general in the regular army on April 9. [4] At this time Rawlins was diagnosed by his doctors that he had tuberculosis, while his duties as staff officer remained limited.[4]

Petitioned Sheean release (1862)[edit]

In the fall of 1862 Rawlins law partner David Sheean was arrested since habeas corpus had been suspended in the North by President Abraham Lincoln in May, 1861 during the beginnings of the Civil War. Sheean was an outspoken Democrat and his Republican political enemies used the suspension of habeas corpus for his arrest. Rawlins took leave of absence from fighting the war and petitioned both Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Congressman Elihu B. Washburne to release Sheean. Sheean was finally released in December, 1862 whereupon Rawlins congratulated Sheean for his freedom. [6]

Grant's Washington D.C. emissary (1863)[edit]

In July 1863 Rawlins met with President Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet at the White House.

During the Summer of 1863, Grant sent Rawlins east to Washington D.C. as his emissary to represent Grant. At this time Grant was relatively unknown in the political circles of Washington D.C. having fought in the Western Theater of the Civil War. [7] Much interest had been generated in Grant since his Vicksburg Campaign victory on July 4, 1863. Rawlins arrived in Washington D.C. on July 30 and talked with General-In-Chief Henry W. Halleck at the War Department and assistant adjutant general, Colonel J.C. Kelton.[7] Halleck cordially received Rawlins and told Rawlins he was pleased with Grant's victory and endorsed Grant's surrender terms where 31,000 Confederate prisoners were released on parole. Rawlins then went to the White House and met President Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet. Rawlins handed President Lincoln a letter from Grant that asked that Rawlins to be given an interview with President Lincoln on the successful results of the Vicksburg Campaign and information on the Confederate parolees. [8] Special observer Charles A. Dana and Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles gave Rawlins high praise for his industrious nature and his intelligence. [9] Dana stated that Rawlins was a "very industrious, conscientious man." Welles stated that he was please by Rawlin's "frank, intelligent, and interesting description of men and of army operations." [9] In terms of appearance, Rawlin's had a pale complexion, fiery eyes, and luxuriant dark beard. [9] Although known for being a profane ascetic Puritan, while in Washington D.C., Rawlins used swearing and scolding language.[9]

Chattanooga letter to Grant (1863)[edit]

During the Chattanooga Campaign, Grant was alleged to have been excessively drinking among other generals and subordinates who had access to bottles of whiskey and a bottle of wine received from Grant's mother Hannah on November 13, 1863.[10] Rawlins believed his presence was necessary to keep Grant from drinking. Rawlins wrote an unsent letter to Grant on November 16 that demanded Grant "immediately desist from further tasting of liquors of any kind." Rawlins letter however was unfounded, as Grant only had two drinks during a three-week period monitored by Major General David Hunter. On November 14, Grant had actually broken up a drinking party between his subordinate Colonel Clark Lagow and his friends at four in the morning.[11] Laglow later resigned from the Union Army. Finding out the truth of the situation Rawlins did not send the letter to Grant. However, Rawlins, purposely documented his unsent letter in his records that were later found by historians. Rawlin's unsent letter created a false impression that Grant had been excessively drinking.[11]

Dodge expedition and attempted health recovery (1867)[edit]

In 1867, during Reconstruction, Rawlins accompanied Grenville M. Dodge's expedition on the proposed route of the Union Pacific Railroad under a military escort. Dodge was chief engineer of building the railroad from east to west. Rawlins had accompanied Dodge to Salt Lake City, Utah in hopes that the dry mid west plains air would help cure his tuberculosis. Dodge would later name one of their campsites Rawlins that later became a town. After four months of travels, Rawlins returned to Washington D.C., however, his health made no material improvements. [4]

Secretary of War (1869)[edit]

Secretary of War
John Aaron Rawlins
Henry Ulke 1873

When Grant became President, Rawlin's doctors recommended that Rawlins go to Arizona, where his doctors believed the dry desert climate would allow him to live longer. Rawlins had contracted tuberculosis in 1863 and was diagnosed by his doctors in 1865. Grant wanted to appoint Rawlins military commander of the Southwest, however, Rawlins refused, wishing to stay at Grant's side. Grant believed the Southwest climate would aid in Rawlin's health recovery. [4] Grant appointed Rawlins his first Secretary of War. During his five-month tenure in office Rawlins was at odds with Secretary Hamilton Fish over recognizing and militarily supporting the Cuban Revolution. Both Rawlins and Fish competed for President Grant's support on his Cabinet. Grant, however, finally sided with Fish and did not intervene in the Cuban Revolution. Rawlins, however, was able to convince Grant to have a militant policy against Mormon polygamy in Utah. Rawlins health condition grew worse, bedridden, he died in office on September 6, 1869.

General William T. Sherman
Healy 1866

Reduced Sherman's authority[edit]

When Grant became President he promoted William T. Sherman his friend and fellow general during the Civil War the top command of General of the Armies in March 1869.[12] During this time General John M. Schofield was Grant's interim Secretary of War, a carry over from the Andrew Johnson administration.[12] Initially, Grant had given Sherman broad powers over the U.S. Military causing Sherman to believe his relationship to Grant during Grant's presidency would be the same as his close relationship to Grant during the Civil War.[12] When Rawlins became Secretary of War his first actions were to significantly reduce General Sherman's authority in the U.S. military. Sherman hurried to the White House and asked that Grant rescind Rawlins' orders that reduced Sherman's authority.[12] Knowing that Rawlins was gravely ill Grant told Sherman that he would not rescind Rawlins' orders. This upset Sherman, and after a disagreement over military and presidential protocol, Sherman stood up and walked out of the meeting saying "Good day Mister President!". Grant and Sherman had formerly been on first name familiarity. After this incident, Grant and Sherman were not on the same friendly manner they had been during the Civil War. Rawlins successor, William W. Belknap, also continued this trend and reduced Sherman's authority in the U.S. military.[12]

Anti-Mormon policy[edit]

Rawlins met with Mormon leader Brigham Young in 1869

In 1869, Grant sent Rawlins to Utah Territory in hope he would recover from his declining health and in part to observe the condition of Mormons there. This was Rawlins second time in Utah, having traveled with Dodge to Salt Lake City, in 1867. Rawlins was very cool to his reception of Mormons in Utah including Mormon leader Brigham Young, whom he met twice, who was surrounded by a Mormon military escort. Inwardly, Rawlins was hostile to Young and the Mormon polygamists. When Rawlins returned to Washington he convinced Grant to develop a harsh policy against the religious sect.[13] Rawlins also convinced Grant to appoint J. Wilson Shaffer Governor of Utah Territory. Shaffer implemented a strict policy that was designed to keep the Mormons from rebelling from the United States.[13] The Mormons were believed to be in a militant state of rebellion over the issue of polygamy. Grant went on to arrest many Mormons, including Young, in a crackdown by federal marshals Grant believed would keep the Mormons from separating from the United States and to disrupt their practice of polygamy.

Cuban insurrection[edit]

In 1868, the Cuban Revolution began when rebels on Cuba tried to overthrow Spanish rule.[14] Many Americans rallied behind the rebellion and began to sell war bonds in support of the recognition of Cuban belligerency. In 1869, President Grant's Secretary of State Hamilton Fish was unwilling to support the Cuban rebels since the United States had recently gone through the Civil War. Also at stake was negotiations for settlement of the Alabama Claims, that included the claim the British had recognized Confederate belligerency during the Civil War. The recognition of Cuban belligerency would have jeopardized negotiations between Britain and the United States. Secretary Rawlins, however, was strongly in favor of the recognition of Cuban belligerency and even advocated war with Spain if necessary. Rawlins went to the press and stated reasons why the United States needed to aid the Cuban rebels. Rawlins himself had accepted $28,000 in Cuban War bonds that would have been given face value if the Cuban rebels were recognized by the United States.[15] Political infighting over recognizing Cuban belligerency took place in Grant's Cabinet. Secretary Fish however was able to convince Grant over Rawlins impassioned arguments not to intervene in the Cuban insurrection. At this time Rawlins was becoming increasingly ill and was confined to his bed.[16]


Rawlins sickness grew worse having been diagnosed as having tuberculosis and was bed ridden. President Ulysses S. Grant, traveling at the time, was told of Rawlin's grave condition, but he was delayed from reaching Washington D.C. Rawlins died of tuberculosis on September 6, 1869, in Washington, D.C. and was buried in Congressional Cemetery, but his remains were later relocated to Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. Rawlins was survived by his second wife Mary Hurlburt and two children.[4] Rawlins was succeeded by Secretary of War William W. Belknap appointed by Grant. Commanding General William T. Sherman served briefly as interim Secretary of War appointed by Grant.

Honors and historical evalutations[edit]

Statue of John Aaron Rawlins in Washington D.C.

A statue, General John A. Rawlins was erected in Washington, D.C. in 1874. The town of Rawlins, county seat of Carbon County, Wyoming, is named for him, as well as Rawlins County, Kansas.

Rawlins devoted his efforts to maintaining Grant's public image during the war. Grant was known before the war for trouble with alcoholism, but it was revealed, in a letter from Rawlins to Grant (which Grant never saw), that Grant maintained his sobriety during his command of the Army. In this letter, made public in 1891—several years after Grant's death—Rawlins wrote, "I find you where the wine bottle has been emptied, in company with those who drink, and urge you not to do likewise." Rawlins noted that this advice was "heeded, and all went well", thus proving that Grant was not impaired by drink when his decision-making was critical.

General Rawlins at his quarters in City Point, Virginia with his second wife, Mary Hurlburt, and his daughter.

There was speculation that by the time Rawlins died, he and Grant had grown distant and that Grant no longer needed Rawlins's constant fussing over his image.[17] When Rawlins died, only his temporary successor as Secretary of War, General William Tecumseh Sherman, was at his bedside. In his memoirs, written shortly before his death, Grant only mentioned Rawlins twice, and essentially ignored their professional and personal relationship. Surviving members of Grant's former staff were outraged at the fact that Grant would snub someone who had been as loyal to him—literally to the death—as Rawlins had been. The most likely explanation for this is given by historian E.B. Long, who wrote, "It might be that Grant did not wish to praise Rawlins too profusely because of the current reports picturing Rawlins as the protector of Grant from his own bad habits."

Rawlins's anti-Mormon policy was part of a general latter half of the 19th-century hysteria campaign against Mormons.[18] In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act that outlawed polygamy. This law was not enforced until Secretary of War Rawlins, appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, had convinced Grant to set up an anti-Mormon policy in the Utah Territory. To further prosecution of Mormon polygamy, including the arrest of Mormons, President Grant signed into law the Poland Act (1874) that allowed the federal government to choose juries that could prosecute polygamists. The law put all Mormons in the Utah Territory under control of the U.S. Marshal and U.S. Attorney. Two more anti-Mormon bills were passed including the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (1882), signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, and the Edmunds–Tucker Act (1887), signed into law by President Grover Cleveland.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Catton 1968, p. 28.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Spaulding, p. 402.
  3. ^ a b c Catton 1968, p. 29.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Spaulding, p. 403.
  5. ^ Catton 1968, p. 116.
  6. ^ Wilson, p. 102.
  7. ^ a b Catton 2008, p. 3.
  8. ^ Catton 2008, pp. 2-3.
  9. ^ a b c d Catton 2008, p. 4.
  10. ^ Catton 2008, p. 66.
  11. ^ a b Catton 2008, p. 67.
  12. ^ a b c d e Flood (2005), p 394
  13. ^ a b The Desert News (March 23, 1875), The Situation in Utah, p 2
  14. ^ Smith (2001), p 492
  15. ^ Smith (2001), p 493
  16. ^ Smith (2001), pp 496-497
  17. ^ Article on Rawlins at the Ulysses S. Grant Homepage
  18. ^ Kosmin (1993) One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, viewed on 02-08-2014


External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
John M. Schofield
U.S. Secretary of War
Served under: Ulysses S. Grant

March 13, 1869 – September 6, 1869
Succeeded by
William W. Belknap