Grant in Springfield
On April 28, 1861, the man who would later be commander of the Union forces in the Civil War walked into the Springfield offices of Governor Richard Yates. Yates's aide, Gustave Koerner, later described him:
Hardly of medium height, broad shouldered and rather short necked, his features did not indicate any high degree of intellectuality ... he was very indifferently dressed, and did not look at all like a military man.
Governor Yates was similarly unimpressed. Grant was turned away without the commission that he desired.
Ulysses S. Grant was born in the small town of Point Pleasant, Ohio, on April 27, 1822. His father owned a tannery, where Grant worked in his childhood years. At age 17, tired of working in his father's business, Grant left for West Point. After his graduation, he was an army officer until 1854, when he retired amid rumors of alcoholism. After what he assumed would be the end of his military career, Grant tried his hand at real estate and farming, with little success. He then moved to Galena, Illinois, with his wife Julia and three children to work in a branch of his father's business that was located there.
At thirty-nine years of age, still seeking success, Ulysses Grant went to Springfield to seek a position as an officer in the army that was being raised by the North for the Civil War. Springfield in 1861 was buzzing with political activity as local politicians vied for the few command positions in the Illinois militia. On the west side of Springfield stood Camp Yates, a mustering and training camp for new recruits and incoming militias from other towns.
After Grant's initial disappointment with Yates's office, he was prepared to return to Galena at once. Just before he left, Grant was contacted by Koerner, who offered him a job as an assistant to General Thomas Mather, the commander of Illinois' troops. Grant accepted the job but was dissatisfied with it. His duties included copying orders for the general, inventorying the state arsenal, and doing most of the general's paperwork.
After Grant had spent a week as an assistant, Koerner, realizing that a West Point graduate should not be wasted on such a menial job, spoke with Yates about finding a more suitable placement tor Grant. Yates offered Grant the job as commander of Camp Yates. As part of his duties, Grant swore in new recruits and went to southern Illinois to find militia recruits for the army. Grant worked quickly and efficiently, completing the entire task by May 22.
By May 24 Grant had returned to his family in Galena. From there he sent numerous letters offering his service to the Union as a colonel. None were answered. On May 30 Grant returned to Springfield to try his luck one more time. After a fruitless week of searching, he went to his parents' home in Kentucky to try to re-establish some of his old army connections. Just before he was to leave for New York, a letter came offering him the job as commander of the Seventh District Regiment. He immediately accepted.
Grant arrived in Mattoon, home of the Seventh, on June 17. The Mattoon regiment had had a good time under their last colonel, becoming the scourge of chicken coops all around their camp. When they were called into action, however, they categorically refused to go anywhere near combat with their current leader. They would not even march to Camp Yates until they were assigned another colonel. General Grant made short work of them. On July 3, after only two weeks under his command, Grant's men marched to Springfield, ready to do battle.
Less than one month after leaving Springfield, Grant was promoted to the rank of brigadier general by Lincoln himself. The promotion was backdated to May 15. Later in the war, Lincoln would name Grant commander of the Union army and Grant would eventually become president of the United States.
Although Grant spent only ten weeks in Springfield, it was one of the most crucial points in his career. It was in Springfield that Grant received his first commission of the Civil War, a fact often overshadowed by the Civil War legacy that Lincoln left on Springfield and the rest of Illinois.—[From Wayne Allen, "Little Noticed Marker Notes Where U. S. Grant Began Civil War Career," Illinois State Register (Dec. 7, 1950); Hamlin Garland, "The Early Life of Ulysses Grant," McClure's Magazine (Dec. 1896); William S. McFeely, Grant; Cathy Monroe, "Grant in Springfield," State Journal Register (July 22, 1988).]