Prologue Magazine

Grant, Babcock, and the Whiskey Ring, Part 2

Fall 2000, Vol. 32, No. 3

By Timothy Rives


A sitting President had never before— and has not since— testified voluntarily as a defense witness in a criminal trial. For Grant to do so, in person no less, was more than his Cabinet would bear. Secretary Fish warned Grant that "should the President go [to St. Louis], it would be a voluntary offering of himself as a witness for the defense in a criminal prosecution instituted by the government, of which the President is the representative and embodiment; that it would therefore place him in the attitude of volunteering as a witness to defeat the prosecution, which the law made it his duty to enforce."36

Fish prevailed, to a point. Grant would testify for Babcock, but there would be no trip to St. Louis, no crowds in the street, no dramatic courtroom entrance— just a deposition taken in the quiet, controllable confines of the White House.

Even a deposition warranted excitement in trial-crazy St. Louis. When defense counsel Emory Storrs broke the news of Grant's impending testimony, "the courtroom [became] like a Quaker meeting, and every man present, whether engaged in the suit as counsel, witness or juror, held his breath." The Globe-Democrat reported that "the possibility of this thing had been hinted for some days, but this fact, when presented in its naked certainty seemed to make an impression altogether unlooked for."37

Little is known of the atmosphere in the Executive Mansion on Saturday morning, February 12, 1876, as Chief Justice of the United States Morrison R. Waite swore the President to tell the truth. A few days before, defense and prosecuting attorneys had agreed to a list of questions for the President and mailed it to the White House. Maj. Lucien Eaton represented the government and William A. Cook, the defense. Treasury Secretary Bristow and Attorney General Pierrepont were also present to witness the President's signature. Two government stenographers recorded the event.38

A litany of disremembrances familiar to any student of modern presidential testimony characterized Grant's deposition. The President applied his ignorance and poor memory to more than thirty-five questions regarding Babcock's relationship with the Whiskey Ring conspirators. The following exchange is typical of Grant's testimony:

Eaton, for the prosecution: Did General Babcock on or about April 23, 1875, show you a dispatch in these words: "St. Louis, April 23, 1875. Gen. O.E. Babcock, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C. Tell Mack to see Parker of Colorado; & telegram to Commissioner. Crush out St. Louis enemies. [Signed] Grit."39

[Objected to by counsel for the defendant, and overruled.]40

Grant: I did not remember about these dispatches at all until since the conspiracy trials have commenced. I have heard General Babcock's explanation of most, or all of them since that. Many of the dispatches may have been shown to me at the time, and explained, but I do not remember it.41

The temperature in the Executive Mansion surely dropped during the following encounter, which captures the deteriorated relationship of the President and the prosecutors he appointed to represent the interests of his government in the case.

Eaton: Perhaps you are aware, General, that the Whiskey Ring have persistently tried to fix the origins of that ring in the necessity for funds to carry on political campaigns. Did you ever have intimation from General Babcock, or anyone else in any manner, directly or indirectly, that any funds for political purposes were being raised by any improper methods?

[Objected to by counsel for the defendant, and overruled.]

Grant: I never did. I have seen since these trials intimations of that sort in the newspapers, but never before.

Eaton: Then let me ask you if the prosecuting officers have not been entirely correct in repelling all insinuations that you ever had tolerated any such means for raising funds.

[Objected to by counsel for the defendant, and overruled.]

Grant: I was not aware that they had ever attempted to repel any insinuations.42

Grant's legendary photographic memory consistently failed him throughout most of the deposition, but it did not fail him when it came to Babcock. The President had no trouble remembering his aide's fidelity and efficiency nor in testifying to his universally good reputation among men of affairs.43

A New York Times correspondent noticed that on cross-examination the prosecutors "emphasized the fact that if Gen. Babcock had been engaged in any wrong transactions the president had no knowledge of it, and he did not believe it."44

Documents in Record Group 118, Records of U.S. Attorneys and Marshals, confirm what the perspicacious Times reporter deduced from the President's testimony. On the morning of Grant's deposition, U.S. Attorney Dyer wired Solicitor of the Treasury Bluford Wilson to "tell Eaton that he must show on cross-examination that the President had no knowledge of the secret correspondence of Babcock with Joyce and McDonald."45

The "hands off Grant" strategy marked the triumph of the defense team and signaled the effective end of the prosecution. Months of political intimidation in the wake of the Avery trial and Senator Henderson's "attack" on Grant had forced the prosecutors to the President's defense. Thus, on the morning of February 12, 1876, instead of pursuing the evidence wherever it led, instead of pressing the sort of question made famous by Senator Howard Baker during the Senate Watergate Hearings a century later— "What did the President know and when did he know it?"— the attorneys representing the United States of America were reduced to little more than gathering character references on behalf of their opponents.

The defense read the President's deposition into the record in St. Louis on February 17, the second day of its presentation. The courtroom drama still exerted its arresting effect on the nervous system of its observers as they listened to defense counsel Judge J. K. Porter read the President's deposition with "breathless attention." The trial watchers "strained" their ears to "catch the lightest accent" of Grant's words. "The solemnity of the occasion," said one reporter, "was felt by all present, for all understood that on these depositions depended the conclusion as to whether the defendant was guilty of using his influence with the President . . . in any corrupt manner."46

Judge John F. Dillon ruled on the objections noted at the time the President testified and recorded them in the deposition while the court was adjourned for lunch.

Other character witnesses followed that afternoon, notably General Sherman. "I have known him since 1861," Sherman said of Babcock, "but my better knowledge of him dates from the time he brought me a dispatch from General Grant at Savannah." Sherman said that he had "seen Gen. Babcock a hundred times in the Executive Mansion, next to the President's room...those who go to see the President see Babcock first. He is a kind of intermediator between the people and the President." Sherman added, "His reputation has always been good. I never heard it questioned until these troubles."47

The defense team's "Bloody Shirt Revue" continued with the testimony of Gen. A. A. Humphreys, Chief of the Engineer Corps and a divisional commander at the battles of Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The soldier-explorer Gen. James H. Simpson testified for Babcock, as did Gen. S. D. Sturgis, another Antietam veteran. The Honorable A. E. Borie, Grant's former secretary of the navy also appeared. Gen. W. S. Harney was an interesting choice for a witness. Harney had left the Federal army in 1863 amid charges of Southern sympathy. Perhaps he was included as a sop to the "rebel elements" remaining on the jury. As promised, all witnesses testified to Babcock's honesty, fidelity, and efficiency.48

In addition to the star Civil War character witnesses, the defense brought a former mail carrier, James Magill, to the stand to answer a charge that Babcock received five hundred dollars in the mail from the Whiskey Ring. Magill's testimony provided the trial's comic relief. His improbable story of removing envelopes addressed to Babcock from the mailbox and his highly excited state on the witness stand forced the defense to admit that Magill, "while undoubtedly truthful . . . afforded just ground for the suspicion that he had been trained for the occasion."49

Defense attorneys denounced the Babcock telegrams as "wretched, purposeless, meaningless." They dismissed the most incriminating evidence— the December 13, 1874, "Sylph" dispatch— as a "mere act of thoughtlessness or playfulness, of which all of us are guilty at some time or another." Babcock's defenders described him as "warm-hearted, confiding, generous man, who did not give up a friendship once cemented for the whispers of calumny." Was he wrong to continue his "meaningless" correspondence with Joyce and McDonald even after their indictment and conviction? Well, perhaps, they admitted, but this was merely a "weakness of judgment, to which everyone was liable," not evidence of guilt.50

The closing arguments brought the politics of the trial to the foreground. Defense attorney Emory Storrs moved the jurors to tears with his defense of his preferred defendant, Ulysses S. Grant. "The President, who remained silent to the last moment, and who only spoke in obedience to the law whose majesty he recognizes, now stands fully vindicated. There were no more flowers of rhetoric in his deposition than in Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Grant was no volunteer witness," Storrs said, disingenuously, "but was fortunately called by the exigencies of the case."51

Defense co-counsel Porter continued the assault on Grant's putative attackers the next day. "They evidently felt that every stab they gave this defendant is really thrust through him at the President himself. Why they should strike at Gen. Grant we don't know." U.S. Attorney Dyer, obliged to respond to the charges, said, "When a gentleman, for the purpose of his own, represents the President as on trial, I don't intend that the red flag shall be followed to battle." Dyer promised to "bring this defendant from behind the back of the President."52

He got no help from the court. Judge Dillon instructed the jury that "evidence of persons of good character has more scope than in cases where the proof of offense is positive and direct." Conversely, "the testimony of conspirators is always to be received with extreme caution and weighed and scrutinized with great care by the jury, who should not rely upon it unsupported unless it produced in their minds, the fullest and most positive conviction of its truth."53 Circumstantial evidence made up the case against Babcock. The message to the jury was clear: Believe Grant.

Judge Dillon cleared the room and sent the jurors out to decide Babcock's fate. "The crowd inside joined the multitude outside, and the sidewalks jammed with excited people, eagerly discussing and wagering upon the result," one observer wrote. They did not have long to wait. Two hours after receiving their instructions, the "plain, honest, farmer-looking" members of the jury reentered the courtroom where they delivered a verdict of "not guilty."54

The jurors then proceeded to the Lindell Hotel, where along with General Sherman and other dignitaries, they celebrated Babcock's acquittal and serenaded him with song. Babcock supporters hailed his acquittal as more "evidence of the closing of the gap between North and South, and the restoration of peace and fraternal feelings." This is no little irony given the purported efforts of the Babcock forces to pack the jury with loyal Republicans, to protect the administration from the "rebel element" still loose in Missouri. The hotel band played "Dixie" in tribute to the Yankee Babcock's fair trial and the symbolic healing it conferred on the nation.55

But was it a fair trial?

Grant did nothing illegal by testifying for Babcock. But was his deposition offered in the interest of justice, his secretary's personal interest, or his own political interest? Did he intend for his deposition to stonewall deeper probes into the administration's relations with the Whiskey Ring conspirators? On what grounds can the armchair historian impeach or reproach Grant— the suspension of the supervisor transfers, his corroboration of Babcock's ridiculous explanation of the Sylph telegram, or his timely prohibition of immunity to witnesses who turned states evidence? On this evidence, the case against Grant is as circumstantial as that which failed to convict his secretary. Nevertheless . . .

Secretary of State Fish raised the question of propriety when Grant announced his plan to testify. Did Grant "faithfully execute the laws"? Did he comport himself as the nation's "prosecutor in chief" should? Grant did nothing illegal by testifying for Babcock. Grant the fighter and loyal friend could do no less. Fair or unfair, historians agree: Grant saved Babcock. Of all the major St. Louis Whiskey Ring defendants, Babcock alone received acquittal.

Although Babcock won the battle, he lost the war.

Forced from Grant's side by cabinet officers concerned with the propriety of his presence in the White House following the controversial trial, Babcock was indicted just ten days later for his alleged role in yet another administration-related scandal, the Safe Burglary Conspiracy. Acquitted once more, he was appointed Chief Inspector of Lighthouses by the doggedly faithful Grant. In 1884, Babcock drowned near the coast of Mosquito Inlet, Florida, in the line of duty.56

Gen. John McDonald, the "key to the iniquitous arch," the man who saved Missouri from the Liberal Republicans in 1872, left prison in January 1877, when he was unconditionally pardoned by Grant. In 1880, the illiterate and apparently ungrateful McDonald produced an account of the Whiskey Ring in which he charged that Grant and Babcock were full partners in the enterprise. Serialized in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the appearance of McDonald's story established publisher Joseph Pulitzer as a national force in journalism. McDonald's sensational claim of Grant's connivance in the whiskey frauds is almost universally dismissed as unreliable.57

Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin H. Bristow, the man who hoped to win election to the White House on a record as a reformer, found himself labeled the administration's "detective." It was not a compliment. He left the cabinet in June 1876 and failed in his effort to win the Republican presidential nomination. Bristow claimed in later years that Grant called him to his deathbed where he "extended his hand and said, 'General Bristow, I have done you a great wrong and I cannot afford to die without acknowledging it to your face. In the prosecution at St. Louis you were right and I was wrong.'" Like McDonald's, Bristow's story suffers from a lack of corroborative evidence. The former Treasury secretary's eyes reportedly "filled with tears" when he related the story of Grant's apology to Babcock's erstwhile prosecutor, David P. Dyer. Dyer, who resigned his position as U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Missouri the week after Babcock's acquittal, went on to a career as a federal judge that continued until his eighties.58

Grant left office and the country in 1877, when he commenced a two-year trip around the world that released him from the pressure of eight contentious years in public office. Upon his return, he became involved with a number of business interests, most of which failed to prosper and which drained his financial resources. He had hoped for a draft for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880— for an unprecedented third term— but it never materialized. Stricken with cancer in 1884, he spent the remaining year of his life writing his memoirs, which eventually proved to be a critical and financial success. Just after finishing them, he died on July 23, 1885.

Although Grant's place in history as a Civil War general remains prominent and favorable— the hero of Appomattox who humbled Lee— his presidency is remembered most for the scandals created by the friends to whom he was so faithful and loyal.59

Grant, Babcock, and the Whiskey Ring, Part 1


The Grant deposition was first "discovered" many years ago by Sara Dunlap Jackson (1901–1991), one of the National Archives' most esteemed archivists. Dr. Jackson joined the National Archives in 1944 and was on the staff of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission from 1968 to 1990.The document sank back into obscurity until this year, when a researcher's request prompted a search of the case file.

The author wishes to thank Patrick O'Brien, professor of history, Emporia State University; Mel Kahn, professor (emeritus) of political science, Wichita State University; Christopher Phillips, assistant professor of history, University of Cincinnati; and Richard M. Pious, chair, Department of Political Science, Barnard College, for their invaluable assistance.

1. "Quotes About Ulysses S. Grant: How Others Perceived Him,"

2. "Hooks of steel" remark from "Quotes About Ulysses S. Grant: How Others Perceived Him"; Brooks D. Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents (1998), p. 133.

3. Frank J. Scaturro, President Grant Reconsidered (1999), p. 58; William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (1981), pp. 288–289.

4. Orville E. Babcock Indictment, Dec. 9, 1875; case file 4180; Law, Equity, and Criminal Case Files, 1838–1912; U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division (St. Louis); Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group (RG) 21, National Archives and Records Administration-Central Plains Region (Kansas City). Gen. John McDonald, Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring; and Eighteen Months in the Penitentiary (1880), p. 227.

5. Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 3, The Beginnings of Critical Realism (1930; reprinted, 1958), p. 23.

6. William S. McFeely, "Ulysses S. Grant, 1869–1877," in Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct, ed. C. Vann Woodward (1974), pp. 115-140.

7. Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (1936), p, 766; Concise Dictionary of American Biography (1964), s.v. "Babcock, Orville E."

8. David P. Dyer, Autobiography and Reminiscences (1922), pp. 154–158; Concise Dictionary, s.v. "Schurz, Carl"; Carl Schurz to Jacob D. Cox, quoted in McFeely, Grant, pp. 380-381; "Liberal Republicans," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning Grant biographer William S. McFeely, "wanted government not of the rich and the well born, but of the intellectually well endowed and the well bred. They favored civil service reform, free trade, hard currency, and civility. They held in disfavor political patronage, inflationary monetary policies, and the militarism they associated with a national constabulary necessary to police a national citizenry." Ibid., p. 381. Grant believed that the Liberals were too liberal in their sweeping conciliation with former Confederates.

9. William B. Hesseltine, Ulysses S. Grant: Politician (1935; reprinted, 1957), p. 380.

10. Dyer, Autobiography, pp. 156–158; "Dyer Testimony," House Select Committee Concerning the Whisky Frauds, Whisky Frauds, 44th Cong., 1st sess., 1876, H. Misc. Doc. 186, serial 1706, p. 31.

11. The five principal members of the ring were John McDonald, John A. Joyce, Charles W. Ford (manager of Grant's Missouri farm property),William McKee, and Joseph Fitzroy. "Dyer Testimony," p. 31.

12. McFeely, Grant, p. 405.

13. "Bristow Testimony," Whisky Frauds, p. 322.

14. Bristow's order would have shuffled revenue supervisors among leading distilling cities such as Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Cincinnati. Mary E. Seematter, "The St. Louis Whiskey Ring," Gateway Heritage 8 (Spring 1988): 36–37; McDonald, Secrets, pp. 121–123.

15. H. V. Boynton, "The Whiskey Ring," North American Review 123 (October 1876): 282.

16. Ibid., pp. 283; 288–290.

17. Seematter, "The St. Louis Whiskey Ring," p. 33.

18. Quoted in Nevins, Hamilton Fish, p. 769.

19. McDonald, Secrets, pp. 113-119. "Sylph" appears to have been a private joke between Babcock and John A. Joyce. It referred to Louise Hawkins, an intimate St. Louis acquaintance of the married Babcock. "Sylph," like the whiskey frauds, was a closely guarded secret.

20. McFeely, Grant, p. 410; Nevins, Hamilton Fish, p. 789.

21. Ibid., p. 793.

22. Ibid.; Seematter, "St. Louis Whiskey Ring," p. 42.

23. McDonald, Secrets, pp. 222–224; "Henderson Testimony," Whisky Frauds, pp. 65, 73.

24. Nevins, Hamilton Fish, p. 781; McFeely, Grant, pp. 411–412.

25. New York Times, Dec. 11–12, 1875; McKee purchased the Democrat in May 1875 allegedly to silence Fishback's reporting on the whiskey ring. Jim Allee Hart, A History of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (1961), p. 125.

26. Nevins, Hamilton Fish, p. 794; "Dyer Testimony," Whisky Frauds, p. 43; Concise Dictionary, s.v. "Pulitzer, Joseph."

27. Nevins, Hamilton Fish, p. 794.

28. New York Times, Feb. 7, 1876. Practiced primarily by Republican politicians, "waving the Bloody Shirt" is the revival and exploitation of Civil War memories for political or other advantage.

29. New York Times, Feb. 8, 1876; St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Feb. 8, 1876.

30. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Feb. 8, 1876.

31. Works Progress Administration, Missouri: Guide to the "Show Me" State (1941), pp. 298–304.

32. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Feb. 8, 1876; New York Times, Feb. 8, 9, 25, 1876. Besides the Times, the New York newspapers included the Herald, Graphic, Tribune, and World. Chicago and Cincinnati papers sent representatives as well.

33. New York Times, Feb. 25, 1876; E. L. Godkin, "General Babcock and the Army," The Nation, Mar. 2, 1876, p. 140.

34. New York Times, Feb. 7, 1876, p. 26.

35. Quoted in Nevins, Hamilton Fish, p. 798.

36. Ibid.; six Presidents besides Grant have provided testimony or "other evidence" in a criminal investigation or trial: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and William Clinton. See Richard M. Pious, "The Paradox of Clinton Winning and the Presidency Losing," Political Science Quarterly 114 (Winter 1999/2000): 577.

37. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Feb. 10, 1876.

38. Notarized by Chief Justice Waite, witnessed by Secretary of the Treasury Bristow and Attorney General Pierrepont, Grant's signed deposition and the stipulations governing its acceptance are now among the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration–Central Plains Region, Kansas City, MO.

39. Ulysses S. Grant Deposition, pp. 43–44, case file 4180, RG 21, NARA-Central Plains Region (KC).

40. The objections were recorded in Washington at the time of the deposition. Judge John F. Dillon ruled on them when the defense counsel read the deposition into the court records on February 17, 1876.

41. Grant Deposition, pp. 43–44, case file 4180, RG 21, NARA–Central Plains Region (KC).

42. Ibid., pp. 28–29.

43. Ibid., pp. 2–3.

44. New York Times, Feb. 13, 1876.

45. David P. Dyer to Bluford Wilson, Feb. 12, 1876; Vol. Sept. 14, 1875–Nov, 8, 1876, p. 440; Letters Sent, September 14, 1875–July 12, 1877; Records of U.S. Attorneys and Marshals, Eastern District of Missouri, RG 118; NARA–Central Plains Region (KC).

46. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Feb. 18, 1876.

47. New York Times, Feb. 18, 1876.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid., Feb. 17, 20, 1876.

51. Ibid., Feb. 22, 1876.

52. Ibid., Feb. 23, 24, 1876.

53. Ibid., Feb. 25, 1876.

54. Ibid., Feb. 9, 25, 1876; verdict, case file 4180, RG 21, NARA–Central Plains Region (KC).

55. New York Times, Feb. 25, 1876.

56. Concise Biographical Dictionary, s.v. "Babcock, Orville E."

57. McDonald, Secrets, passim; Julian S. Rammelkamp, Pulitzer's Post-Dispatch, 1878–1883 (1967), pp. 134–135.

58. Dyer, Autobiography, p. 170; David P. Dyer Collection, vertical file, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, MO.

59. Take away the scandals, and Grant's record "is one of accomplishment and even outstanding success," writes historian John A. Carpenter in Ulysses S. Grant (1970), p. 81. This is not the consensus view of Grant's tenure in White House. For other accounts of the Grant presidency and the Whiskey Ring scandals, see Geoffrey Perret, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President (1997); Ross A. Webb, Benjamin Helm Bristow: Border State Politician (1969); Hamlin Garland, Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character (1898); Louis A. Coolidge, Ulysses S. Grant (1922); and Ari Hogemboom, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865–1883 (1961).

Timothy Rives is an archives specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration–Central Plains Region in Kansas City, Missouri. He received his M.A. in history from Emporia State University and has been with NARA since 1998.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.