General Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb, an arguably pretentious, neoclassic mausoleum in New York City’s Upper Manhattan, is a testimony to Grant’s immense popularity at the time of his death. Although the war hero’s reputation has since fallen into disarray (thanks, in part, to “Lost Cause” apologists who “reinterpreted” the American Civil War, casting the South in a more favorable light), there is no question that Grant was widely beloved when he passed away.

As I recently recorded, the day after Grant died in 1885, the New York Times ran my personal favorite tribute to the general and 18th president, envisioning that, from that time on, “if a great soldier is indomitable in purpose and exhaustless in courage, endurance, and equanimity; if he is free from vanity and pettiness, if he is unpretentious, truthful, frank, constant, generous to friends, magnanimous to foes, and patriotic to the core, of him it will be said, ‘He is like Grant.’”

But behind the man universally recognized today stood a man now unknown. Propping up the hero whose remains are buried in America’s largest sepulcher was an officer who rests, forgotten, in an unassuming tomb alongside 400,000 others at Arlington.

This unremembered, but no less significant, hero of history is John A. Rawlins, and without him, there would be no Grant as we know him. As is noted in the foreword to Allen Ottens’ rare book about the unsung Civil War veteran, “Grant did not live in a vacuum…. One of the most influential figures in Grant’s life was John A. Rawlins.” According to Union engineer James Wilson, an associate of both men, Rawlins’ “bold, uncompromising, & honest character” was “necessary” and irreplaceable in Grant’s life.

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Rawlins, who, like Grant, hailed from Illinois, served throughout the war as Grant’s loyal assistant, confidante, and protecting friend. He scaled military ranks, climbing as high as major general, and serving briefly as U.S. secretary of war; but his most lasting contribution to history was, unquestionably, his role as Grant’s right-hand man and “conscience keeper.”

The two were virtually inseparable. Rawlins kept Grant on track, shielding him, during the war years, not only from alcohol (with which the general battled for much of his adult life) but also defamation, manipulation, and logrolling. Although some have overstated Rawlins’ role, suggesting incorrectly that he was the true genius behind Grant’s celebrated campaigns and that Grant merely took the credit, it is clear that Rawlins was an indispensable part of Grant’s team and success.

Regrettably, Rawlins perished early into his boss’s presidency, after having suffered from tuberculosis for years. It is an unfortunate mark against the sometimes naive Grant, an amateurish politician, that his administration thereafter plunged into corruption. Many have presumed that Rawlins might have protected the unsuspicious Grant from the men who soon took advantage of and hijacked his tenure.

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When he died, the nation owed an enormous debt of gratitude to Rawlins—we have not even begun to pay it off. Very few books have ever been written about him. His face is unidentifiable; it certainly isn’t plastered on our currency. Next to no one remembers that he even existed, let alone that he played a crucial role in a crucial general’s crucial life.

But perhaps that is a fitting tribute to Rawlins; a sobering reminder of the mountain of debt we owe countless unsung heroes like him.

Great men are the byproduct of great, but often unknown, men. Great nations are the byproduct of great but nameless citizens and their unheralded sacrifices. Entire books have been devoted to Lincoln’s mentors. Someone told Billy Graham about the gospel. Behind nearly every hero of history stands a Rawlins-like figure and friend, supporting faithfully the very men who would overshadow their existence. At Arlington, an impeccably dressed guard reminds us that we are built on the blood and patriotism of unknown soldiers.

Fighting for one’s country is not always about standing in the spotlight. In fact, it rarely is. Historians have captured and memorialized a few great men; legions more hide in impenetrable obscurity.

Whatever your role in the fight for liberty, don’t despair the lack of recognition. History may not remember your name, but it cannot forget your contribution. Like Rawlins, you can change the world without the world ever even knowing you touched it.

as Ronald Reagan often reminded himself: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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