La Grange, Tennessee,
November 7, 1862.
NOT having much of special note to write you since your visit to Jackson, and knowing that you were fully engaged, I have not troubled you with a letter. I write now a little on selfish grounds. I see from the papers that Mr. Leonard Swett is to be called near the President in some capacity. I believe him to be one of my bitterest enemies. The grounds of his enmity I suppose to be the course I pursued whilst at Cairo toward certain contractors and speculators who wished to make fortunes off of the soldiers and government, and in which he took much interest, whether a partner or not.7 He called on me in regard to the rights of a post sutler for Cairo (an appointment not known to the law) whom he had appointed. Finding that I would regard him in the light of any other merchant who might set up there, that I would neither secure him a monopoly of the trade nor his pay at the pay table for such as he might trust out, the sutler never made his appearance. If he did he never made himself known to me. In the case of some contracts that were given out for the supply of forage, they were given, if not to the very highest bidder, to far from the lowest, and full 30 per cent, higher than the articles could have been bought for at that time. Learning these facts, I immediately annulled the contracts.
Quite a number of car-loads of grain and hay were brought to Cairo on these contracts, and a change of Quartermaster having taken place in the meantime the new Quartermaster would not receive them without my order, except at rates he could then get the same articles for from other parties. This I refused to give. The contractors then called on me, and tried to convince me that the obligation was binding, but finding me immovable in the matter, asked if General Allen’s approval to the contract would not be sufficient. My reply was, in substance, that General Allen was Chief Quartermaster of the Department, and I could not control him. They immediately left me, and, thinking over the matter, it occurred to me that they would go immediately to St. Louis and present their contract for approval without mentioning the objection I made to it. I then telegraphed to General Allen the facts, and put him on his guard against these men. For some reason, however, my dispatch did not reach St. Louis for two days. General Allen then replied to it, stating that those parties had been to him the day before, and knowing no objection to the contract he had approved it.
The parties then returned to Cairo evidently thinking they had gained a great triumph. But there being no money to pay at that time, and because of the bad repute the Quartermaster's Department was in, they were afraid to take vouchers without my approval. They again called on me to secure this. My reply to them was that they had obtained their contract without my consent, had it approved against my sense of duty to the government, and they might go on and deliver their forage and get their pay in the same way. I would never approve a voucher for them under that contract if they never got a cent. I hoped they would not. This forced them to abandon the contract and to sell the forage already delivered for what it was worth.
Mr. Swett took much interest in this matter and wrote me one or more letters on the subject, rather offensive in their manner. These letters I have preserved, but they are locked up in Mr. Safford’s safe in Cairo. I afterwards learned from undoubted authority that there was a combination of wealthy and influential citizens formed, at the beginning of this war, for the purpose of monopolizing the army contracts. One of their boasts was that they had sufficient influence to remove any general who did not please them.
The modus operandi for getting contracts at a high rate, I suppose, was for a member of this association to put in bids commencing at as low rates as the articles could be furnished for, and after they were opened all would retire up to the highest one who was below any outside person and let him take it. In many instances probably they could buy off this one for a low figure by assuring him that he could not possibly get the contract, for if he did not retire it would be held by the party below. You will see by the papers that I am on the move. If troops are furnished me to keep open my lines of communication, there will be no delays in this department. Once at Grenada I can draw supplies from Memphis, and save our present very long line.
I do not see my report of the battle of Iuka in print. As the papers in General Rosecrans’s interest have so much misrepresented that affair, I would like to see it in print. I have no objection to that or any other general being made a hero of by the press, but I do not want to see it at the expense of a meritorious portion of the army. I endeavored in that report to give a plain statement of facts, some of which I would never have mentioned had it not become necessary in defense of troops who have been with me in all, or nearly all, the battles where I have had the honor to command. I have never had a single regiment disgrace itself in battle yet, except some new ones at Shiloh that never loaded a musket before that battle. . . .
7Leonard Swett (1825-1889), a successful Illinois lawyer and an intimate friend of President Lincoln, made the nomination speech for the latter in the Chicago Convention of 1860, which the writer happened to hear, and in 1887 he delivered the oration at the unveiling of the Lincoln Statue in Chicago. During the war Mr. Swett had charge of a large number of cases for the Government, earning a high reputation both as a civil and as a criminal lawyer. He said to Grant at Cairo, “We are the lowest bidders and insist upon having the contract; if not, the matter will be placed before the President;” to which the General calmly replied, “I shall buy the hay in open market at a lower rate than you offer it, and will transport the hay on your road [the Illinois Central], of which I shall take immediate possession.” Grant then added, “If I find you in this military district at the expiration of twenty-four hours, you will be imprisoned and probably shot.” Hastening to Washington the indignant lawyer laid the matter before Lincoln, who said, “Well, Swett, if I were in your place, I should keep out of Ulysses Simpson's bailiwick, for to the best of my knowledge and belief Grant will keep his promise if he catches you in Cairo. In fact, Leonard, you had better ‘take to de woods,’ as the colored brother remarked.” Mr. Swett, who in later years became one of the General's greatest admirers, and who was one of the 306 that strongly urged Grant’s nomination for a presidential third term, told this story as here related by the present writer.
SOURCE: James Grant Wilson, Editor, General Grant’s Letters to a Friend 1861-1880, p. 18-22, 114-5