Category Archives: disease

PTSD in Italy, 1944

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 507-509:

The newest units to join Fifth Army—the 85th and 88th Infantry Divisions, both in Keyes’s II Corps—were the first into combat of fifty-five U.S. divisions built mostly from draftees; their worth had yet to be proven. Four of six infantry regimental commanders in those two divisions had already been relieved, as Clark advised Marshall, “for a combination of age and physical reasons.”

There was more: the two British divisions still at Anzio remained so weak that both Truscott and Clark believed they would contribute little to any renewed offensive. The British Army since Salerno had suffered 46,000 battle casualties, with thousands more sick, yet replacements had not kept up with losses. Moreover, as Gruenther also noted, “Many British troops have been fighting for four or five years, and are in some cases pretty tired.”

Few British commanders disagreed. “Absenteeism and desertion are still problems,” wrote General Penney, back in command of the British 1st Division at Anzio after recovering from his wounds. “Shooting in the early days would probably have been an effective prophylactic.” On average, 10 British soldiers were convicted of desertion each day in the spring of 1944, and an estimated 30,000 “slinkers” were “on the trot” in Italy. “The whole matter is hushed up,” another British division commander complained.

Nor was the phenomenon exclusively British. The U.S. Army would convict 21,000 deserters during World War II, many of them in the Mediterranean. Clark condemned the surge of self-inflicted wounds in Fifth Army and the “totally inadequate” prison sentences of five to ten years for U.S. soldiers convicted of “misbehavior before the enemy.” A psychiatric analysis of 2,800 American troops convicted of desertion or going AWOL in the Mediterranean catalogued thirty-five reasons offered by the culprits, including “My nerves gave way” and “I was scared.”

A twenty-two-year-old rifleman who deserted at Cassino after seven months in combat was typical. “I feel like my nervous system is burning up. My heart jumps,” he said. “I get so scared I can hardly move.” Those symptoms affected tens of thousands, and added to Clark’s worries. “Combat exhaustion,” a term coined in Tunisia to supplant the misnomer “shell shock,” further eroded Allied fighting strength in Italy, as it did elsewhere: roughly one million U.S. soldiers would be hospitalized during the war for “neuro-psychiatric” symptoms, and half a million would be discharged from the service for “personality disturbances.”

All troops were at risk, but none more than infantrymen, who accounted for 14 percent of the Army’s overseas strength and sustained 70 percent of the casualties. A study of four infantry divisions in Italy found that a soldier typically no longer wondered “whether he will be hit, but when and how bad.” The Army surgeon general concluded that “practically all men in rifle battalions who were not otherwise disabled ultimately became psychiatric casualties,” typically after 200 to 240 cumulative days in combat. “There aren’t any iron men,” wrote Brigadier General William C. Menninger, a prominent psychiatrist. “The strongest personality, subjected to sufficient stress a sufficient length of time, is going to disintegrate.”

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1918 Flu Hits Holy Zamora

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 79-83, 87:

The Spanish city of Zamora–known as la bien cercada, or well enclosed, due to its impressive fortifications–straddles the River Duero in the north-western region of Castile and León. Deeply religious, it is famous even today for its sombre processions of hooded, barefoot penitents in Holy Week. In 1914, when its citizens learned that they were about to receive a new bishop, the bells rang out for three days. The man himself arrived a few months later, stepping down from a specially chartered train to a railway station packed with well-wishers. Fireworks were let off, and a joyful crowd accompanied him to the cathedral where he took his oath of office. The church-sanctioned newspaper, El Correo de Zamora, promised obedience to the new bishop, and praised his eloquence and youth.

The bishop’s name was Antonio Álvaro y Ballano, and at thirty-eight he already had a glittering career behind him. As a student at a seminary in Guadalajara, he had shone in every subject he had turned his hand to. At twenty-three he had taken up the chair in metaphysics, and after winning a hard-fought contest for the magistral canonry of Toledo, the most important archdiocese in Spain, he had come to the attention of Cardinal Sancha, Primate of Spain. He had been named a bishop in 1913, and prior to his arrival in Zamora, had held the post of prefect of studies at the seminary in Toledo.

When the Naples Soldier [the Spanish name for the flu] returned to Spain in the autumn of 1918, it appeared first in the east of the country, but it soon followed the bishop along the train tracks to Zamora. September is a month of gatherings in Spain. The crops are harvested, the army takes on new recruits, and weddings and religious feasts are held–not to mention that most popular of Spanish pastimes, the bullfight. Young army recruits, some from distant provinces, converged on Zamora to take part in routine artillery exercises, and in the middle of the month, the Correo reported nonchalantly that ‘There is cholera at the frontier, flu in Spain and in this tiny corner of the peninsula, fiestas.’ Then the recruits began to fall ill.

Attempts to quarantine the sick soldiers in barracks on the site of the city’s eleventh-century castle failed, and the number of civilian casualties began to rise. As it did so, the shortage of manpower began to interfere with the harvest, exacerbating pre-existing food restrictions. The press began to sound less sanguine. On 21 September, the Heraldo de Zamora–a newspaper that was nominally independent of the church–rued the unsanitary state of the city. Zamora resembled a ‘pigsty’ in which, shamefully, people still shared living space with animals, and many houses lacked their own lavatory or water supply. The paper repeated an old hobbyhorse, that the Moors had bequeathed to Spain an aversion to cleanliness. ‘There are Spaniards who only use soap for washing their clothes,’ it noted severely.

During the first wave of the pandemic, the country’s inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, had lamented the inability of a bureaucratic and underfunded health system to prevent the disease from spreading. Though provincial health committees took their lead from his directorate, they had no powers of enforcement, and they quickly came up against what he described as the ‘terrible ignorance’ of the populace–the failure to grasp, for example, that an infected person on the move would transmit the disease. Now that the Naples Soldier had returned, one national newspaper, El Liberal, called for a sanitary dictatorship–a containment programme imposed from the top down–and as the epidemic wore on, the call was picked up and echoed by other papers.

On 30 September, Bishop Álvaro y Ballano defied the health authorities by ordering a novena–evening prayers on nine consecutive days–in honour of St Rocco, the patron saint of plague and pestilence, because the evil that had befallen Zamoranos was ‘due to our sins and ingratitude, for which the avenging arm of eternal justice has been brought down upon us’. On the first day of the novena, in the presence of the mayor and other notables, he dispensed Holy Communion to a large crowd at the Church of San Esteban. At another church, the congregation was asked to adore relics of St Rocco, which meant lining up to kiss them.

Also on 30 September, it was reported that Sister Dositea Andrés of the Servants of Mary had died while tending soldiers at the barracks. Sister Dositea was described as a ‘virtuous and exemplary nun’ who had accepted her martyrdom with equanimity and even enthusiasm, who had slept no more than four hours a day, and who had spent much of her time coaxing sick soldiers to eat. The Mother Superior of her order asked for a good turnout at her funeral, and the papers passed on her request. In accordance with tradition, readers were informed, the bishop would grant sixty days’ indulgence to those who complied. Apparently the turnout was not as good as the Mother Superior had hoped, because the day after the funeral the Correo lambasted the citizenry for its ingratitude. The bishop, on the other hand, was satisfied with attendance at the novena, which he described as ‘one of the most significant victories Catholicism has obtained’.

By mid-November, the worst was over. … Zamora had suffered worse than any other Spanish city. But its residents do not seem to have held their bishop responsible. Perhaps it helped that they had grown up with the legend of Atilano, the first Bishop of Zamora, who in the tenth century had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to repent of his sins and free his city of plague. There are even those who defend Álvaro y Ballano, claiming that he did what he could to console his flock in the face of inertia at the town hall, the real problem being an ineffectual health system and poor education in matters of hygiene. Before 1919 was out, the city had awarded him the Cross of Beneficence, in recognition of his heroic efforts to end the suffering of its citizens during the epidemic, and he remained Bishop of Zamora until his death in 1927.

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1918 Flu Hits Holy Mashad

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 116-120:

Mashed was still medieval in 1918, but its mud walls were crumbling. It was a city of graveyards where pilgrims who came to die had been buried on top of each other for centuries, and where, from time to time, old graves simply gave out, dissolving into the water supply. This took the form of man-made channels called qanats, that brought the water into the city from the nearby mountains. The water flowed uncovered down the middle of the main street–a permanent throng of pilgrims, merchants, camels and mules–and in the absence of a separate and enclosed sewage system, was easily contaminated. Germ theory had made its mark in Persia by 1918, but only in the literate 5 per cent. When it came to water, most people were guided by a religious prescription according to which water was clean if it was flowing, and if its volume exceeded one korr (350 litres). They therefore washed their pots and pans, their donkeys and themselves, very close to the open qanats.

Because Mashed was a holy city, the shrine managers wielded great power–not only spiritually, but also financially, since the shrine owned large amounts of real estate. In 1918, Islamic thinking was still based on ninth-century teaching when it came to epidemics. It accommodated the concept of contagion, but only up to a point. The general rule was that those inside a plague-stricken area should not flee, while those outside it, who were still healthy, should keep away. But there was also a fatalistic element to the prescriptions: plague was a martyrdom for believers and an agonising punishment for infidels. When sick, the vast majority of Persians turned to hakims or herb doctors, who followed two apparently complementary systems of medicine: the Galenic, and one that held that the Quran offered the best protection against disease. They might put an illness down to a humoral imbalance and recommend a change in diet, in line with the first; or they might identify the cause of the illness to be the sting of a jinn, and recommend strapping a prayer to the arm, in line with the second.

Qavam wrote to the shrine managers on 18 September, asking them to implement the recommendations. He was asking them to suspend centuries-old traditions, potentially even challenging sacred texts, and he must have anticipated the possibility of a rebuff, but his famous powers of persuasion saw him through. … Graves, he ordered, should be at least one metre deep. After the corpse had been placed inside, it should be covered with a thick layer of earth and lime, ‘to eliminate the risk of noxious air rising from the corpse’. Anyone who failed to obey the new rules would be severely punished.

It was a breakthrough, of sorts, though not one that was likely to rein in an illness of winds–and certainly not at that late stage. The epidemic ran its natural course in Mashed. The worst was over by 21 September, by which time Khorasan and neighbouring Sistan provinces were thoroughly infected, and the flu was travelling west to Tehran at the speed of a ‘prairie schooner’–the American nickname for a diligence. [Americans call the diligence a stagecoach, not a prairie schooner.–J] From Mashed, it rippled out with pilgrims, merchants and soldiers to the four corners of the country. By the end of September it was almost gone from the city, though it was still depleting outlying areas. At that point, life for Mashedis eased in one way and one way only: raids and attacks on pilgrims became rare. Qavam’s policy of zero tolerance towards bandits may have begun to bite, but the hiatus was probably also an ominous sign of the havoc the flu had wrought in the mountains.

In a city with fewer than a hundred hospital beds, some 45,000 people, or two-thirds of the population, had come down with flu. An insight into the state of mind of the survivors–not only in Mashed, but in Persia as a whole–is provided by the words of the city’s chief astrologer, spoken at a public meeting towards the end of September. Astrologers were essentially mystics to whom Persians turned in times of crisis, and whose credibility was bolstered by the Islamic belief in predestiny. The chief astrologer relayed prophecies made a few days earlier by his counterpart in Tehran, to the effect that the British government would be annihilated the following year, 1920 would see the return to Persia of the current shah’s father, who had been deposed in 1909, and 1921 the return of the Mahdi, the long-awaited Twelfth Imam, who would rid the world of evil.

Qavam survived the turbulence of General Reza Khan’s British-backed coup in 1921, and finding favour with the new shah, went on to serve five terms as the country’s prime minister. The shah eventually rebuilt Mashed on a rectilinear plan, linked it to Tehran by a modern road, and demolished its graveyards. Hoffman, who stayed on there until 1947, witnessed the transformation: ‘The bones of centuries were shovelled into wheelbarrows and dumped into unmarked pits, the gravestones being used for street curbs and sidewalks.’

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1918 Flu in the Pacific

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 93-94:

Australia saw the epidemic coming from a long way off, both in time and space. Its authorities first heard about a flu epidemic in Europe in the northern hemisphere summer of 1918, and in September they became aware of the horrifying reports of the lethal second wave. Having watched it advance through Africa and Asia, they finally introduced quarantine procedures at all Australian ports on 18 October (New Zealand did not follow suit). When jubilant crowds gathered in Sydney’s Martin Place to celebrate the armistice in November, therefore, they enjoyed the privilege–almost unique in the world–of having nothing to fear from the virus. Though the country did receive the third wave in early 1919, its losses would have been far greater had it let the autumn wave in.

The Philippines were not protected by their island status. When flu broke out there, it didn’t occur to the occupying Americans that it might have come from outside, even though the first casualties were longshoremen toiling in the ports of Manila. They assumed its origins were indigenous–they called it by the local name for flu, trancazo–and made no attempt to protect the local population, which numbered 10 million. The only exception was the camp on the outskirts of Manila where Filipinos were being trained to join the US war effort, around which they created a quarantine zone. In some remote parts of the archipelago, 95 per cent of communities fell ill during the epidemic, and 80,000 Filipinos died.

The starkly contrasting fates of American and Western Samoa–two neighbouring groups of islands in the South Pacific–show what happened when the authorities got the direction of travel right, and when they got it wrong. The American authorities who occupied American Samoa realised not only that the threat came from outside the territory, but also that indigenous Samoans were more vulnerable to the disease than white-skinned settlers, due to their history of isolation, and they deployed strict quarantine measures to keep it out. American Samoa got off scot-free, but Western Samoa, under the control of New Zealand, was not so lucky. After infection reached the islands via a steamer out of Auckland, local authorities made the same error as the occupiers of the Philippines, and assumed that it was of indigenous origin. One in four Western Samoans died in the ensuing tragedy which, as we’ll see, would dramatically shape the islands’ future.

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Public Health in Rio, 1918

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 52-54:

At the time that Nava fell sick, Rio was the capital of a young republic. A military coup had brought the reign of Emperor Dom Pedro II to an end in 1889, and with the abolition of slavery the previous year, it had seen a massive influx of freed black and ‘mulatto’ slaves. The poorest moved into cortiços or slums in the city centre. The cortiços–the Portuguese word for ‘beehives’–often lacked running water, sewers and proper ventilation. Living conditions were better there than in the subúrbios, the shanty towns expanding on the outskirts of the city, but the cortiços were more visible. White, middle-class cariocas saw them as parasitising the city proper. Aluísio Azevedo conveyed the fear that they inspired in his novel O Cortiço:

For two years the slum grew from day to day, gaining strength and devouring newcomers. And next door, Miranda grew more and more alarmed and appalled by that brutal and exuberant world, that implacable jungle growing beneath his windows with roots thicker and more treacherous than serpents, undermining everything, threatening to break through the soil in his yard and shake his house to its very foundations.

When President Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves came to power in 1902, he launched an ambitious programme of urban renewal with the goal of turning Rio into a showcase of modern, republican civilisation. In his vision of the cidade maravilhosa, the marvellous city, there was no place for the cortiços, those nests of disease whose inhabitants, condemned by their biology, were ‘locked into a vicious cycle of malnutrition and infection’. They were razed and their inhabitants forced out. Six hundred homes were destroyed to make way for the magnificent Avenida Rio Branco, so that by the time the American travel writer Harriet Chalmers Adams described the city in 1920, she could write that ‘This portion of the city has been cooler ever since, as the breezes sweep through the wide avenue from waterfront to waterfront.’

But the easy mixing of the different classes that had once characterised Rio, their coming together in the seeking of pleasure–especially when it came to music and dancing–had gone. Now there was no area of carioca life in which rich and poor were not divided by an impenetrable gulf. The president also set out to rid the city of infectious diseases, and in this he was aided by a doctor, Oswaldo Cruz, who in 1904, as head of the General Board of Public Health, had ordered a campaign of compulsory vaccination against smallpox. At the time, the vast majority of Brazilians had no grasp of germ theory. For many it was their first experience of state intervention in public health, hence something extraordinary, and poor cariocas rioted. The ‘Vaccine Revolt’, as it was called, was about more than one perceived violation, however. It was an expression of a broader class struggle over whom the city should serve–the Brazilian masses, or the European elite.

A decade later, vaccination had been accepted by most Brazilians, but Cruz’s unpopularity survived his death in 1917, and it was this legacy that shaped cariocas’ response to the new disease threat in 1918. On 12 October, the day that the flu spread through the elegant guests at the Club dos Diàrios, the satirical magazine Careta (Grimace) expressed a fear that the authorities would exaggerate the danger posed by this mere limpa-velhos–killer of old people–to justify imposing a ‘scientific dictatorship’ and violating people’s civil rights. The press portrayed the director of public health, Carlos Seidl, as a dithering bureaucrat, and politicians rubbished his talk of microbes travelling through the air, insisting instead that ‘dust from Dakar could come this far’. The epidemic was even nicknamed ‘Seidl’s evil’. By the end of October, when half a million cariocas–more than half the population–were sick, there were still those among Rio’s opinion-makers who doubted the disease was flu.

By then, so many corpses lay unburied in the city that people began to fear they posed a sanitary risk. ‘On my street,’ recalled one carioca, ‘you could see an ocean of corpses from the window. People would prop the feet of the dead up on the window ledges so that public assistance agencies would come to take them away. But the service was slow, and there came a time when the air grew filthy; the bodies began to swell and rot. Many began throwing corpses out on the streets.’

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Other Names of the Spanish Flu

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 63-65:

When the flu arrived in Spain in May, most Spanish people, like most people in general, assumed that it had come from beyond their own borders. In their case, they were right. It had been in America for two months already, and France for a matter of weeks at least. Spaniards didn’t know that, however, because news of the flu was censored in the warring nations, to avoid damaging morale (French military doctors referred to it cryptically as maladie onze, ‘disease eleven’). As late as 29 June, the Spanish inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, was able to announce to the Royal Academy of Medicine in Madrid that he had received no reports of a similar disease elsewhere in Europe. So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.

Spain was neutral in the war, and its press was not censored. Local papers duly reported the havoc that the Naples Soldier left in its wake, and news of the disruption travelled abroad. In early June, Parisians who were ignorant of the ravages the flu had caused in the trenches of Flanders and Champagne learned that two-thirds of Madrileños had fallen ill in the space of three days. Not realising that it had been theirs longer than it had been Spain’s, and with a little nudging from their governments, the French, British and Americans started calling it the ‘Spanish flu’. Not surprisingly, this label almost never appears in contemporary Spanish sources. Practically the only exception is when Spanish authors write to complain about it. ‘Let it be stated that, as a good Spaniard, I protest this notion of the “Spanish fever”,’ railed a doctor named García Triviño in a Hispanic medical journal. Many in Spain saw the name as just the latest manifestation of the ‘Black Legend’, anti-Spanish propaganda that grew out of rivalry between the European empires in the sixteenth century, and that depicted the conquistadors as even more brutal than they were (they did bind and chain the Indians they subjugated, but they probably did not–as the legend claimed–feed Indian children to their dogs).

Further from the theatre of war, people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.

Some names reflected a people’s historic relationship with flu. In the minds of the British settlers of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), for example, flu was a relatively trivial disease, so officials labelled the new affliction ‘influenza (vera)’, adding the Latin word vera, meaning ‘true’, in an attempt to banish any doubts that this was the same disease. Following the same logic, but opting for a different solution, German doctors realised that people would need persuading that this new horror was the ‘fashionable’ disease of flu–darling of the worried well–so they called it ‘pseudo-influenza’. In parts of the world that had witnessed the destructive potential of ‘white man’s diseases’, however, the names often conveyed nothing at all about the identity of the disease. ‘Man big daddy’, ‘big deadly era’, myriad words meaning ‘disaster’–they were expressions that had been applied before, to previous epidemics. They did not distinguish between smallpox, measles or influenza–or sometimes even famines or wars.

Some people reserved judgement. In Freetown, a newspaper suggested that the disease be called manhu until more was known about it. Manhu, a Hebrew word meaning ‘what is it?’, was what the Israelites asked each other when they saw a strange substance falling out of the sky as they passed through the Red Sea (from manhu comes manna–bread from heaven). Others named it commemoratively. The residents of Cape Coast, Ghana called it Mowure Kodwo after a Mr Kodwo from the village of Mouri who was the first person to die of it in that area. Across Africa, the disease was fixed for perpetuity in the names of age cohorts born around that time. Among the Igbo of Nigeria, for example, those born between 1919 and 1921 were known as ogbo ifelunza, the influenza age group. ‘Ifelunza’, an obvious corruption of ‘influenza’, became incorporated into the Igbo lexicon for the first time that autumn. Before that, they had had no word for the disease.

As time went on, and it transpired that there were not many local epidemics, but one global pandemic–it became necessary to agree on a single name. The one that was adopted was the one that was already being used by the most powerful nations on earth–the victors in the Great War. The pandemic became known as the Spanish flu–ispanka, espanhola, la grippe espagnole, die Spanische Grippe–and a historical wrong became set in stone.

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Quinine’s Role in Exploring Africa

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 310-311:

On October 29 [Heinrich Barth] heard that a British expedition had steamed up the Benue River. He had urged this mission on the government two years earlier but hadn’t heard a word about it since. He traced the rumor to a man in Kano who had seen the steamer on the Benue. Barth questioned him closely and was convinced that the rumor was true.

Barth wouldn’t know the details for many months. The mission had left Britain in early June 1854. When its commander died soon after the boat reached the island of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, Dr. William Balfour Baikie assumed command. Baikie, who later became Barth’s friend and supporter, took the 100-foot steamer Pleiad up the Niger for 700 miles. In early August the Pleiad entered the Benue and ascended it for 250 miles. At the end of September Baikie turned around, reaching the Niger on October 20, while Barth was in Kano. By February 1855 the Pleiad was home.

Every previous excursion on the Niger had proven deadly to Europeans, mostly because of fever. But the Pleiad’s entire crew—twelve Europeans and fifty-four Africans—survived because of an experimental therapy—prophylactic doses of quinine. This success altered the course of African exploration. The voyage also proved Barth’s conviction that the heart of Africa could be opened to commerce through navigation of the Niger’s watershed.

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Gen. Grant’s Guardian Angel

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 148-152:

Grant needed a commanding personality to manage his office and ride herd over his staff and from the outset selected John Rawlins for a special place in his entourage. Rawlins was the pallid young lawyer with the full dark beard, saturnine aura, and enormous dark eyes who had bowled over Grant with his impassioned oratory at the Galena recruiting meeting. On August 30, Rawlins was appointed assistant adjutant general with the rank of captain, effectively making him Grant’s chief of staff. With no military background, he was startled that Grant gave him such a high appointment.

Rawlins’s family history with alcohol abuse gave him a special purchase on Grant’s drinking troubles, making it an all-consuming preoccupation. Before joining his staff, he extracted a pledge from Grant that he would not touch a drop of liquor until the war ended, and he would monitor this vow with Old Testament fervor, carrying on a lonely, one-man crusade to keep Grant sober. That Grant agreed to this deal shows his strong willingness to confront his drinking problem. The mission perfectly suited Rawlins’s zealous nature. With Grant’s consent, he laid down draconian rules to curb drinking, forbidding the open use of liquor at headquarters. In general orders that announced Rawlins’s appointment, Grant berated men who “visit together the lowest drinking and dancing saloons; quarrel, curse, drink and carouse . . . Such conduct is totally subversive of good order and Military Discipline and must be discontinued.” With Rawlins on the premises, even senior officers drank secretly in their tents. Any staff member who furnished Grant with alcohol faced the fervid wrath of Rawlins and likely dismissal. Rawlins fretted over Grant, agonizing over suspected lapses from the straight path of abstinence. He had no compunctions about chastising Grant for lapses, and his unflagging vigilance was remarkable in its forthright passion and candor.

Grant never discussed publicly his drinking pact with Rawlins, but he must have taken it to heart since Rawlins became his right-hand man and alter ego during the war. He allowed Rawlins to be the moralistic scourge and resident conscience of his staff. Later in the war, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” In entering the army and assuming tremendous responsibilities, Grant must have feared he would be hurled back into the hard-drinking world of officers from which he fled in 1854, endangering the hard-earned sobriety of his St. Louis and Galena years. A general could not afford even occasional bouts of dissipation. In the army Grant would also lack the firm, restraining hand of his wife. Prolonged absence from Julia could easily set him up for a major relapse into the periodic degradation of his West Coast years. With some notable exceptions, Rawlins largely succeeded in his role as self-appointed watchdog. In later years, Grant’s Galena physician, Dr. Edward Kittoe, paid tribute to “Grant’s repeated efforts to overcome the desire for strong drink while he was in the army, and of his final victory through his own persistency and advice so freely given him by Rawlins.”

The ever-watchful Rawlins enjoyed special license to be frank and even scold Grant. “It was no novel thing to hear the zealous subordinate administer to his superior a stiff verbal castigation because of some act that met the former’s stern disapproval,” said the cipher operator Samuel Beckwith. “And Grant never resented any reprimand bestowed by Rawlins.” Rawlins spoke to him with a freedom that flabbergasted onlookers. Only he could slap Grant on the back or engage in familiar banter. Grant shrank from profanity, yet he tolerated with amusement the barrage of oaths that constantly poured from Rawlins’s mouth.

Because of the purity of his motives, Rawlins became Grant’s closest friend. “Gen. Grant was a man who made friends very slowly,” noted a journalist. “While he had a great many acquaintances, I think he had a very limited circle of friends—I mean men whom he trusted or whose advice he accepted.” Only Rawlins could penetrate the zone of privacy that Grant drew subtly about himself. With his single-minded devotion, Rawlins could confront him with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgment, spouting opinions in a stentorian voice. With his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature. Rawlins “was always getting excited about something that had been done to Grant,” recalled Lieutenant Frank Parker. When someone showed disrespect for Grant, “he would prance around and say, ‘General, I would not stand such things’ to which Grant would say, ‘Oh, Rawlins! what’s the use in getting excited over a little thing like that; it doesn’t hurt me and it may make the other fellow feel a little good.’”

Perhaps because it contrasted vividly with his listless manner at the Galena store, Rawlins never forgot his initial glimpse of Grant at Cairo: “He had an office in a great bank there, and I was amazed at the quiet, prompt way in which he handled the multitude of letters, requisitions, and papers, sitting behind the cashier’s window-hole, with a waste basket under him, and orderlies to dispatch business as he did.” Fresh from personal calamity, Rawlins threw himself into a whirl of military activity. Before long, he worked day and night, tidying up Grant’s office, creating files, and instituting sound working procedures. Long politically active—Grant thought him the most influential young man in northern Illinois—Rawlins also assisted Grant in perfecting his relations with Washington. When Washburne boasted to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase that Grant in Cairo was “doing wonders in bringing order out of chaos,” Rawlins surely deserved much of the credit.

Such was the influence of John Rawlins over Grant that some observers would later exaggerate or misinterpret the nature of his power, attributing to him the military acumen that properly belonged to Grant. He had excellent common sense and swiftly grasped many basic principles of warfare, especially the need to concentrate forces instead of spreading them too thinly. And he became a formidable warrior in his own right, personally signing off on every letter and plan of campaign that came from Grant’s command and never hesitating to differ with him. Nevertheless, Rawlins had no military background and lacked Grant’s general knowledge of warfare. He could never have done what Grant did. While Grant developed tremendous respect for Rawlins’s fearless judgment, it was Grant who originated the plans, Grant who improvised in the heat of battle, and Grant who possessed the more sophisticated strategic sense.

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U.S. Grant’s Literary Masterpiece

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. xix-xxi:

Seldom, if ever, has a literary masterpiece been composed under such horrific circumstances. Whenever he swallowed anything, Grant was stricken with pain and had to resort to opiates that clouded his brain. As a result, he endured extended periods of thirst and hunger as he labored over his manuscript. The torment of the inflamed throat never ceased. When the pain grew too great, his black valet, Harrison Terrell, sprayed his throat with “cocaine water,” temporarily numbing the area, or applied hot compresses to his head. Despite his fear of morphine addiction, Grant could not dispense entirely with such powerful medication. “I suffer pain all the time, except when asleep,” he told his doctor. Although bolstered by analgesics, Grant experienced only partial relief, informing a reporter that “when the suffering was so intense . . . he only wished for the one great relief to all human pain.”

Summoning his last reserves of strength, through a stupendous act of willpower, Grant toiled four to six hours a day, adding more time on sleepless nights. For family and friends his obsessive labor was wondrous to behold: the soldier so famously reticent that someone quipped he “could be silent in several languages” pumped out 336,000 words of superb prose in a year. By May 1885, just two months before his death, Grant was forced to dictate, and, when his voice failed, he scribbled messages on thin strips of paper. Always cool in a crisis, Grant exhibited the prodigious stamina and granite resolve of his wartime effort.

Nobody was more thunderstruck than Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, who had recently formed a publishing house with his nephew-in-law Charles Webster. To snare Grant’s memoirs, sure to be a literary sensation, Twain boosted the royalty promised by the Century’s publishers and won the rights. Twain had never seen a writer with Grant’s gritty determination. When this man “under sentence of death with that cancer” produced an astonishing ten thousand words in one day, Twain exclaimed, “It kills me these days to write half of that.” He was agog when Grant dictated at one sitting a nine-thousand-word portrait of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox “never pausing, never hesitating for a word, never repeating—and in the written-out copy he made hardly a correction.” Twain, who considered the final product a masterwork, scoffed at scuttlebutt he had ghostwritten it. “There is no higher literature than these modest, simple memoirs,” he insisted. “Their style is flawless . . . no man can improve upon it.”

For Twain, the revelation of Grant’s character was as startling as his storytelling. Eager to spare his family, Grant was every inch the stoic gentleman. Only at night, when he was asleep, did his face grimace with pain. “The sick-room brought out the points of General Grant’s character,” Twain wrote. “His exceeding gentleness, kindness, forbearance, lovingness, charity. . . . He was the most lovable great child in the world.” For one observer, it was wrenching to watch Grant “with a bandage about his aching head, and a horrible and mortal disease clutching his throat.” He felt “a great ache when I look at him who had saved us all when we were bankrupt in treasure and in leaders, and see him thus beset by woes and wants.” In a magnificent finale, Grant finished the manuscript on July 16, 1885, one week before his death in upstate New York. He had steeled himself to stay alive until the last sentence was done and he could surrender his pen.

The triumph of the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which sold a record-breaking three hundred thousand copies in two-volume sets, was vintage Grant. Repeatedly he had bounced back from adversity, his career marked by surprising comebacks and stunning reversals. He had endured many scenes, constantly growing and changing in the process. Like Twain, Walt Whitman was mesmerized by Grant and grouped him with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the quartet of greatest Americans. “In all Homer and Shakespeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast,” he wrote. The plain unadorned Grant had nothing stylish about him, leading sophisticated people to underrate his talents. He was a nondescript face in the crowd, the common man from the heartland raised to a higher power, who proved a simple westerner could lead a mighty army to victory and occupy the presidential chair with distinction.

Dismissed as a philistine, a boor, a drunk, and an incompetent, Grant has been subjected to pernicious stereotypes that grossly impede our understanding of the man. As a contemporary newspaper sniffed, Grant was “an ignorant soldier, coarse in his taste and blunt in his perceptions, fond of money and material enjoyment and of low company.” In fact, Grant was a sensitive, complex, and misunderstood man with a shrewd mind, a wry wit, a rich fund of anecdotes, wide knowledge, and penetrating insights. Many acquaintances remembered the “silent” Grant as the most engaging raconteur they ever met.

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Why Write about Calcutta?

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1380-1405:

Sumitro and I were sitting in the last row of a minibus, bouncing from Ballygunge to Rajabazar, travelling northward up the city’s spine.

‘Who are you writing for? Why are you writing about Calcutta? And whose Calcutta?’ Sumitro fired those questions away with his piercing intelligence.

The minibus was idling in the traffic snarl at Park Circus when Sumitro asked: ‘Why is it that representations of Calcutta seem unchanged for centuries?’

The first Europeans who came to these shores had refused to get out of their boats. They called the settlement in the swamp Golgotha. Most accounts of Calcutta since have hardly varied. Calcutta to Western eyes was the epitome of urban hell, the Detroit of the world, the punchline to a joke: your room looks like the slums of Calcutta. Every visitor, even those who came to slum it in Calcutta, seemed to take away the same city, I said, the same crumbling mansions of colonial elites, graveyards full of dead Englishmen who could not survive the tropics, and everywhere, like a disease, the suffering of the poor. Ultimately the slummers all fell back upon the idea of the urban hellhole, the city as a place of darkness and death. Even Louis Malle and Allen Ginsberg arrived as gleeful voyeurs and headed to the cremation ghats at Nimtala, as if the last rites were a morbid spectator sport, as if they came from places where no one died. Had any of them ever been to Nimtala to give shoulder to the dead? Had they any idea how it might have felt to be on the other side?

‘Where in the representations of Calcutta is the jumble-tangle human clot of Baguiati?’ Sumitro asked, its intersection throbbing at every hour of the day with careening autos and overtaking buses and people rushing away in every lane clutching polythene bags from Ma Sarada Stores full of moong dal and Surf Excel?

‘Why not the Maniktala Market?’ I said, ‘With its fishmongers seated on their concrete plinths like sultans, surrounded by mounds of hilsa, pomfret and koi.’ ‘What about all the shops and little village-worlds in Bowbazar, in the heart of Calcutta?’ Sumitro asked.

At Sealdah, the bus roared up the overpass we called ‘the Flyover’. To our right, the suburban train station was bright with fluorescent lights; its orange neon signs were flashing SEALDAH, SEALDAH, SEALDAH, alternately in English, Hindi and Bengali, as they have eternally in my memory. To our left, the evening rush at Baithakkhana Bazar spilled out onto Bowbazar Street. Three centuries ago, the English trader Job Charnock, who is said to have founded the city, had sat under a banyan tree there and turned it into his parlour, hence the name Baithak Khana, Living Room. The street was barely visible now, covered over by the evening vegetable sellers squatting with their goods spread out on tarps, backlit by the beckoning glow of the jewellery shops that lured in wedding shoppers. Under a canopy of sulphur street lights stretching all the way to Dalhousie, was the perpetual human parade.

From atop the Flyover, Sumitro surveyed the sweeping view of all that was revealed below, and asked, ‘Where has anyone represented all this?’

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