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John Aaron Rawlins

RAWLINS, John Aaron, soldier, born in East Galena, Illinois, 13 February, 1831; died in Washington, D. C., 9 September, 1869. He was of Scotch-Irish extraction. His father, James D. Rawlins, removed from Kentucky to Missouri and then to Illinois. John passed his early years on the family farm, and attended the district school in winter. He also assisted at burning charcoal and hauling it to market ; but this work became disagreeable to him as he approached man-hood, and, after reading all the books within his reach, he attended the Mount Morris seminary in Ogle county, Illinois, in 1852-'3. His money having given out, he resumed his occupation of charcoal-burner that he might earn more but, instead of returning to the seminary, as he had intended, he studied law with Isaac P. Stevens at Galena, and in October, 1854, was admitted to the bar and taken into partnership by his preceptor. In 1855 Mr. Stevens retired, leaving the business to be conducted by Rawlins. In 1857 he was elected attorney for the city of Galena, and in 1860 he was nominated for the electoral college on the Douglas ticket. During the contest that followed he held a series of joint discussions with Allen C. Fuller, the Republican candidate, and added greatly to his reputation as a public speaker. He held closely to the doctrines of Judge Douglas, but was, of course, defeated with his party. His own opinions were strongly opposed to human slavery, and yet he looked upon it as an evil protected within certain limits by the constitution of the United States. His love for the Union was, however, the master sentiment of his soul, and while he had followed his party in all peaceful advocacy of its claims, when the South Carolinians fired upon Fort Sumter, April 12. 1861, he did not hesitate for a moment to declare for coercion by force of arms. He was outspoken for the Union and for the war to maintain it, and at a mass-meeting at Galena on 16 April, 1861, Rawlins was called on to speak; but, instead of deprecating the war, as had been expected, he made a speech of an hour, in which he upheld it with signal ability and eloquence. Among those of the audience that had acted with the Democrats was Captain Ulysses S. Grant. He was deeply impressed by the speech, and thereupon offered his services to the country, and from that time forth was the warm friend of Rawlins. The first act of Grant after he had been assigned to the command of a brigade, 7 August, 1861, was to offer Rawlins the post of aide-de-camp on his staff, and almost immediately afterward, when Grant was appointed brigadier-general of volunteers, he offered Rawlins the position of captain and assistant adjutant-general, to date from 30 August, 1861. He joined Grant at Cairo, Illinois, 15 September, 1861, and from that time was constantly with the latter till the end of the war, except from I August to 1 October, 1864, when he was absent on sick-leave. He was promoted major, 14 April, 1862, lieutenant-colonel, 1 November, 1862, brigadier-general of volunteers, 11 August, 1863, brevet major-general of volunteers, 24 February, 1865, chief-of-staff to Lieutenant-General Grant, with the rank of brigadier-general, United States army, 3 March, 1865, and brevet major-general, United States army, 13 March, 1865. Finally he was appointed secretary of war, 9 March, 1869, which office he held till his death. Before entering the army Rawlins had never seen a company of uniformed soldiers nor read a book on tactics or military organization, but he soon developed rare executive abilities. During Grant's earlier career he was assistant adjutant-general, but as Grant was promoted and his staff became larger, Rawlins became chief of staff. Early after joining Grant, Rawlins acquired great influence with him. He was bold, resolute, and outspoken in counsel, and never hesitated to give his opinion upon matters of importance, whether it was asked or not. His relations with Grant were closer than those of any other man, and so highly did the latter value his sterling qualities and his great abilities that, in a letter to Henry Wilson, chairman of the senate military committee, urging his confirmation as brigadier-general, he declared that Rawlins was more nearly indispensable to him than any officer in the army. He was a man of austere habits, severe morals, aggressive temper, and of inflexible will, resolution, and courage. He verified, re-at-ranged, and re-wrote, when necessary, all the statements of Grant's official reports, adhering as closely as possible to Grant's original drafts, but making them conform to the facts as they were understood at headquarters. While he did not originate the idea of running the batteries at Vicksburg with the gun-boats and transports and marching the army by land below, he was its first and most persistent advocate. His views upon such questions were sound and vigorous, and were always an important factor in General Grant's decisions concerning them. At Chattanooga he became an ardent advocate of the plan of operations devised by General William F. Smith, and adopted by Generals Thomas and Grant, and for the relief of the army at Chattanooga, and for the battle of Missionary Ridge, where his persistence finally secured positive orders from Grant to Thomas directing the advance of the Army of the Cumberland that resulted in carrying the heights. He accompanied Grant to the Army of the Potomac, and, after careful study, threw his influence in favor of the overland campaign, but throughout the operations that followed he deprecated the repeated and costly assaults on the enemy's intrenched positions, and favored the flanking movements by which Lee was finally driven to the south side of the Potomac. It has been said that he opposed the march to the sea, and appealed to the government, over the head of his chief, to prevent it; but there is no evidence in his papers, nor in those of Lincoln or Stanton, to support this statement. It is doubtless true that he thought the time chosen for the march somewhat premature, and it is well known that he opposed the transfer of Sherman's army by steamer from Savannah to the James river for fear that it would leave the country open for the march of all the southern forces to a junction with Lee in Virginia before Sherman could reach that field of action, and it is suggested that the recollection of these facts has been confused with such as would justify the statement above referred to, but which was not made till several years after his death. He was a devoted and loyal friend to General Grant, and by far too good a disciplinarian to appeal secretly over his head to his superiors. His whole life is a refutation of this story, and when it is remembered that General Grant does not tell it as of his own knowledge, it may well be dismissed from history. Rawlins, as secretary of war, was the youngest member of the cabinet, as he was the youngest member of Grant's staff when he joined it at Cairo in 1861. He found the administration of the army as fixed by the law somewhat interfered with by an order issued by his predecessor, and this order he at once induced the president to countermand. From that time till his death he was a great sufferer from pulmonary consumption, which he had contracted by exposure during the war; but he performed all the duties of his office and exerted a commanding influence in the counsels of the president to the last. A bronze statue has been erected to his memory at Washington. He was married twice. After his death provision was made by a public subscription of $50,000 for his family.

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