Grant of Illinois
John Y. Simon
Almost precisely one year before the Civil War began, former captain Ulysses S. Grant arrived at Galena, Illinois, with his wife and four children. His father, Jesse R. Grant, owned a leather store in which Captain Grant's two brothers worked. Simpson, the older of the two, suffered from tuberculosis, and the store needed an extra man. For all practical purposes, brother Orvil, who knew the business, was Ulysses's boss, even though he was thirteen years younger. At least it was only a store. Ulysses had grown up in Georgetown, Ohio, across the street from his father's tannery, with all its appalling sights and stench. To get away from the tannery, Ulysses reluctantly agreed to attend the military academy at West Point. Six years earlier, in 1854, Grant had resigned from the U.S. Army while stationed at Fort Humboldt, California, an isolated post with a commanding officer he disliked. He was paid too little to bring his wife and two boys to join him, his health was poor, and prospects for promotion dim. He planned to become a prosperous Missouri farmer. The failure of all his hopes brought him to Galena.
Ulysses had been born in a small cottage in 1822 at Point Pleasant, Ohio, on the Ohio River. After a family conference resolved differences by drawing names from a hat, he received the name of Hiram Ulysses Grant. His father Jesse, who preferred Ulysses, always used it. After receiving a fair education in local schools and nearby academies, he went to West Point at his father's insistence. Nowhere else could his son receive a college education at public expense. Believing that other cadets would tease him about the initials H. U. G., he reversed his names to Ulysses Hiram, but found on arrival at the Military Academy that the congressman who had appointed him had used the name Ulysses S. Grant. With military inflexibility, Academy officials insisted that he enroll under that name. Eventually Grant himself adopted S as a middle initial, insisting that it stood for nothing.
Cadet Grant preferred reading novels to studying, but his aptitude for mathematics enabled him to graduate in the middle of his class. He disliked military life and planned to teach mathematics in college after obligatory army service. Assigned to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, he fell in love with Julia Dent, the sister of a classmate, but the Mexican War prolonged their engagement. His regiment went first to Louisiana, then to Texas, where it crossed the Nueces River into land claimed by both the United States and Mexico, provoking bloodshed and, finally, war. Lieutenant Grant served under both General Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico and General Winfield Scott in the campaign that captured Mexico City. Superiors commended Grant for efficiency and bravery, while he considered the war wicked and cruel.
After the war he finally married, and Julia accompanied him to posts at Detroit and Sackets Harbor, New York. Assigned to the Pacific Coast in 1852, Grant left his pregnant wife and infant son Frederick behind, unwilling to subject them to the dangers of crossing the Isthmus of Panama. In fact, many of the women and children who accompanied the regiment died on the journey. Learning that his wife had borne another son and named him Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., he asked her what the S stood for in the baby's name. After two years of lonely separation, Grant resigned the same day he learned of his promotion to captain. Other officers gossiped that he had taken to drink and had been forced to resign. Whether he had been drinking more than other officers remains unknown; he had more than enough reasons to resign anyway.
Reunited with his family, he began to farm on part of his father-in-law's estate south of St. Louis. Colonel Dent had given Julia the farm and four slaves. Grant's farm went under in the depression of 1857. He moved to St. Louis in search of work but everything he tried turned out badly. Nonetheless, he freed the only slave he ever owned in 1859, at a time when his fortunes were low. The Grants now had two more children, Nellie and Jesse; in desperation he finally agreed to work for his father.
When the war began, Captain Grant drilled Galena volunteers and went with them to Springfield, where Governor Richard Yates put him to work mustering in recruits and advising the state on military procedure. In search of a command, Grant went to see General George B. McClellan in Cincinnati, who kept him waiting for several days until Grant got the message. On his way back to Illinois, Grant received a telegram from Yates offering him command of a regiment he had mustered in at Mattoon. The troops had elected a blowhard colonel who turned out to be incompetent. Under Colonel Goode, the troops had become an undisciplined crowd, a menace to chickens for miles around. They needed firm leadership; Grant soon proved himself. Illinois congressman Elihu B. Washburne had noticed Grant in Galena and now induced his old friend President Lincoln to appoint Grant a brigadier general.
Chance put Grant in command at Cairo when Confederates violated the self-proclaimed neutrality of Kentucky. Without even awaiting orders, Grant
seized Paducah. Again showing initiative, Grant attacked a Confederate camp at Belmont, Missouri, winning initial success before enemy reinforcements drove him from the field. In January 1862 Grant wrung reluctant permission from General Henry W. Halleck to attack Fort Henry, Tennessee. When the fort fell without much resistance. Grant followed fleeing Confederates to Fort Donelson. There he surrounded the enemy garrison of 21,000 with his own army of 15,000, repelled an enemy breakthrough, and demanded "an unconditional and immediate surrender." An exuberant North hailed the first major victory of the war and named its hero "Unconditional Surrender Grant." He finally had a middle name.
Surprised soon afterward at Shiloh, Grant's army was nearly pushed into the Tennessee River in a bloody day of battle. Reinforcements arrived at night, however, and in a second day of battle Grant drove the enemy back to Mississippi. Although severely criticized for the heavy casualties, Grant now had Lincoln's backing.
Through the winter of 1862-63, Grant was repeatedly frustrated in reaching the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on the Mississippi River. He first tried an overland campaign that he abandoned after Confederate cavalry cut his supply line. Then he camped above Vicksburg, shielded from the north by a tangle of rivers, bayous, and swamps. Finally he sent his gunboats and transports past the batteries, marched his troops south through Louisiana, and landed on dry land in Mississippi. With Vicksburg accessible at last, he marched away from it to the state capital at Jackson, where he disrupted relief forces on their way to Vicksburg, then turned west, keeping his army between two Confederate forces, prepared to fight either. Quickly he drove to Vicksburg, began a siege, and forced the garrison to surrender. With Vicksburg in Union hands, the North soon controlled the entire Mississippi River and had cut the Confederacy in two. Later that year, Grant lifted the siege of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a series of battles that sent Braxton Bragg's army reeling back to Georgia.
During the final year of war, Grant commanded all the armies but accompanied the Army of the Potomac, which struck toward Richmond in a relentless, bloody spring campaign against Robert E. Lee. After losing thousands in the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant pushed south to Spotsylvania, where he wrote that he proposed to "fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." When summer began, Grant held Lee in a vise at Petersburg, Virginia, while William T. Sherman sliced into Georgia. In the following spring, Grant launched one last offensive that drove Lee to surrender at Appomattox Court House.
After the war, Grant commanded the armies through Reconstruction, eventually breaking with Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, and becoming the inevitable Republican nominee for president. Galena had given Grant an elegant house that dwarfed his prewar rented cottage, and there he resided through much of the presidential campaign to avoid public speaking and newspaper publicity. Telegraph lines strung to Congressman Washburne's parlor in Galena brought Grant news of his election. Soon he returned to Washington, visiting Galena only twice during his two terms as president and infrequently later.
Nine years after the former captain trudged ashore at Galena, he stepped inside the White House. Four times from Lincoln's election in 1860 through Grant's reelection in 1872, Americans chose an Illinois resident as president—and have never done so again. Illinois had launched the career of a great Civil War commander who had first drilled a handful of Galena recruits, mustered in volunteers in Mattoon, Belleville, and Anna, shuffled military papers in Springfield, then marched his first regiment to Quincy. From Cairo, he mounted his expeditions to Paducah, Belmont, and forts Henry and Donelson. By war's end, Illinois' reluctant resident had become its foremost citizen.