John Aaron Rawlins, a Man for His Time

Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, Chief of Staff,
at City Point, VA, with wife and child at door of their quarters

Before the American Revolution, three brothers named Rawlins came to settle in the colonies from England. At Sun Breaks, http//,  the entry for August 28, 2011 begins a three-part story about one of them, ancestor James Mason Rawlins, who was willing to give up his family and perhaps his life for what he thought was right.

James Mason Rawlins was born around 1737. Soon after, in 1742, another Rawlins boy named James entered the world. He was James Rawlins III, born to Sarah and James Rawlins II. James Rawlins III became the great-grandfather of John Aaron Rawlins, the subject of this story. By 1826, both John’s family and descendants of James Mason Rawlins were living in Illinois.

Despite a crash course in beginning genealogy, I haven’t yet discovered how or if John Aaron Rawlins is related to our branch of the Rawlins family. But since one purpose in telling these tales is to show how our family (and all American families) help make up the larger history of these United States, here is the story of Major General John Aaron Rawlins. 

    John Aaron Rawlins was born in Galena, Illinois on February 13, 1831, one of eight siblings in a family of very modest means. He helped to support the family by hauling the charcoal made by his father to nearby towns and selling it. When his father left to join the 1849 California gold rush, John looked after his mother and siblings. He loved his father deeply but hated his bad habits. Because of his father’s drinking, John vowed never to touch strong drink. One writer thinks it was this aversion, as much as anything else, that became the basis for his place in history.

    John was an intelligent, darkly handsome young man with an unusual gift for oratory. His early education was spotty, but at the age of twenty he entered secondary school with the goal of becoming an attorney. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1855 and practiced law in his hometown. By 1858 he’d become interested in politics. Though a staunch Democrat, according to writer Lee Bonnet, he made speeches on behalf of fellow Illinois resident, Republican Abraham Lincoln, in the 1860 presidential campaign.¹

    Then the Civil War broke out. After the first Battle of Bull Run as the fighting moved closer to home, Rawlins organized a band of civilians into the 45th Illinois Volunteers, inspiring the new soldiers with his rousing speeches.

    The town of Galena was intensely loyal to the Northern cause. More generals called Galena home than any other Union city. The town probably contributed more privates, as well. One night local Republicans staged a big political meeting. Rawlins was advised that they would not welcome him as a Democrat, but he insisted he was going, and if asked to speak, he would not remain silent. Wherever he went, he was usually asked to speak, and it happened again that night.

    One of those attending the meeting was a modest, rather inarticulate colonel named Ulysses S. Grant. He had been a clerk in his father’s leather-goods store and knew Rawlins slightly because Rawlins had done legal work for the company.

    When the audience called “Rawlins! Rawlins!” John responded. He made what one author called “one of the great speeches of the Civil War period: a speech which rallied everyone, regardless of party, regardless of previous views about slavery and about sectionalism, regardless of anything and everything. He appealed to the God of battles to aid the great cause of the North; he appealed to everyone to give his utmost.”²

    Grant was among those who wanted to give his utmost. He asked Rawlins to join him as assistant in his military ventures, and as Grant advanced up the ranks to general, so did Rawlins. Eventually Grant made him his chief of staff.
    One of John Aaron Rawlins’ outstanding characteristics was his loyalty. He’d been fiercely faithful to his wife, Emily, with whom he had three children, and remained at her side, comforting her until her death in August 1861 of tuberculosis, a major killer of that day. Though in deep sorrow, he joined Grant to become one of his most trusted confidantes, deeply involved in every decision and every battle. He organized Grant’s military camp and also worked to protect Grant from the demon of strong drink.
    According to historian Elmer Gortz, Rawlins did have an interesting flaw or ability, depending upon one’s perspective. When the occasion warranted, he could erupt into the most passionate, evocative, eloquent surge of swearing imaginable. One of the people who witnessed his colorful language was a northern girl named Emma Hurlbut.

     Emma was working in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as a governess during the siege of the city. Rawlins was assigned to protect her from the unwanted attentions of soldiers and officers. Not only did he do his job well, he also courted and married her. Emma was able to curb his profanity.

    John Rawlins had become a Major General by the time the war ended in 1865. He returned to his law practice in Galena. By then, he’d also contracted tuberculosis.

    In the summer of 1867, General Grant urged his chief of staff to go out West, hoping that the climate might help him recover. Accompanied by an aide and several friends, Rawlins traveled to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There he met General Grenville M. Dodge and a party of civil engineers who were surveying a railroad route westward from Omaha.
    As the company rode west on their horses, approaching the hills near the present city of Rawlins, Wyoming, the ailing general expressed a desire for a drink of good, cold water. Scouts set out to explore. They discovered a fine spring of water near the base of the hills and brought some back to the sick man. General Rawlins declared he’d never tasted a drink more refreshing. “If anything is ever named after me, I hope it will be a spring of water,” he said. General Dodge heard what he said and immediately named it “Rawlins Spring.”

    The town that grew up near the spring, a division point of the railroad, was at first called “Rawlins Spring.” Later, the name was shortened to “Rawlins.”

    Unfortunately, the expedition did not improve Rawlins’ health. He returned to the East, and a short time later Ulysses S. Grant became President Grant. The president summoned his old friend Rawlins to Washington, D.C., and in March 1869, made him secretary of war.

    John Aaron Rawlins died five months later at the age of thirty eight, on September 6, 1869. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

¹ (Lee Bonnet)

² from Three Galena Generals, by Elmer Gortz, 1955 (Speech to Illinois Historical Society)

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