LETTERS FROM COLONEL GRANT’S REGIMENT *** Grant’s first command in the Civil War was the Seventh District Regiment of Illinois Volunteers, later mustered into U. S. service as the 21st Illinois Volunteers. Grant first saw this regiment at Mattoon where he had gone as mustering officer to enroll the regiment in the state service. It was then commanded by Colonel Simon S. Goode, who proved incapable of maintaining discipline. The regiment left Mattoon by train for Springfield on June 14, 1861; that evening Governor Richard Yates conferred with officers of the regiment and the following day appointed Grant to command of the regiment.
The regiment was mustered into federal service on June 28 and five days later began a march to Quincy, Illinois, on the Missouri border. By the time the regiment reached Missouri, Grant was satisfied that he had “done as much for the improvement and efficiency of this regiment as was ever done for a command in the same length of time.”1 The regiment was at various places in northeast Missouri for about a month; then it was transferred to Ironton in southeast Missouri. By that time Grant had been promoted to brigadier general, and he took command of other regiments at Ironton also. On August 18, when Grant was at Marble Creek, Missouri, preparing to move against Confederate Brigadier General William J. Hardee; he was replaced by Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss, and left for St. Louis to be reassigned by Major General John C. Fremont. This marked the end of Grant’s active connection with the [pg. 2] regiment.
Letters covering the period of Grant’s command of the 21st Illinois were written by First Lieutenant Philip Welshimer of Neoga, Cumberland County, Illinois, about eleven miles southwest of Mattoon. Welshimer joined the Seventh District Regiment on May 7, 1861, was promoted to captain on March 19, 1863, and served until March 19, 1865, Below are portions of his letters to his wife and five children dealing with army life, beginning with letters written while the regiment was commanded by Colonel Goode and ending with Grant’s reassignment. Omitted portions concern his family and discuss friends and relatives. Some punctuation and capitalization has been added for clarity. For permission to use these letters we are indebted to the Illinois State Historical Library and Mr. Philip V. Welshimer, Jr., of Downers Grove, Illinois.
Camp Grant2 June 6th 1861With a heavy heart this morning I thought I would write you a line and look to you in this hour of my deepest grief for consolation. May I not look in vain Dear Wife, we have been accepted by the United States for during the war, And I took a solemn Oath if called on during the thirty days to tender my services, thinking that time would be three months which is the longest term the President has a right to call them out for but he is calling them for a longer term thinking congress will legalize the act.3 Now say Dear wife in Gods name what shall I do: stand out before the country as a Perjured man as I think I would be and as some in our company and other companies are a doing or go when my oath and my country calles. My only trouble dear Julia is in leaving you and the Children, and in this I can only make amends by keeping my character unsulled and by sending you evry cent of my wages that I can by econemy spare which I know will not be lees than fifty dollars per month which I can send you. I have no fears of my health for camp life agrees with me. I have no fears of danger for I know more men die by the manner by which the take care of them selves than by the Soard. My only trouble is in leaving home. If you can dispell this it will add to my comfort more than any thing on Earth, and as long as we are any where in reach of you I will come home as often as I can and see you. You have a good house and with the money I will get for my wages, say nothing about that that is owing to me, I think you can get along untill I return to stay with you while life may last.
Camp Yates4 June 18th 1861
We will draw our pay this afternoon and I will send you thirty [pg. 3] dollars. I have my clothes to pay for and thirty dollars is all I can spare this month. I will send it by Express and it will be in gold. Our regiment will go to Quincy in a short time there to remain for some time. As soon as we get there and fixed up I will come home and see you and if you can leave home I want to take you with me to Quincy to stay a week or two.
Camp Yates June 25th 1861
I have been Sick for several days. I was taken Sick last Thursday night and on Friday morning I went to the Hospital and remained there till Sunday eavning I.m slitely salivated but so I can be about. I was out on drill this morning. I was treated very kindly while in the Hospital by Doctor Drake who is very much of a Gentleman….I cannot say when we will leave here. It takes so long to get things in readiness. But evry thing goes off much smoother and better since our new Colonel [Grant] has got command. We have certain hours for drill each day, and evry man must be on hands. If he is not as soon as he gets back into the Gard House he goes pop sure and hours that they are not required to drill they can go where they please. The gard house was not large enough for the first fiew nights and days but yesterday there was but two or three in and to day none. No person is allowed out of Camp after dar[k] unless by permission of the Col. So you see we have the best of order and every thing mooves off pleasantly.
Camp Yates June 26th 1861
I.m not well yet but so I can be about I think it is the water here that effects me and quite a number of others as it is limestone but we will be mooved from here in a day or two at furthest…We have 98 men now in our company if we had three more we would have all the law would allow us. 80 makes a company and it may be 101.
Naples July 7th 1861
You will see by the heading of this letter that we are at Naples and encamped on the banks of the Illinois River. We arrived hear’ yesterday which was Saturday eavning and are laying over here to day Sunday. I kept the Rail Road to Jacksonville which place I reached Friday eavning about four O.clock in the eavning and learned that the Regiment had passed through there about 12 O.clock that day. I got a cup of coffee being very sick. In fact I felt as sick as I had been at any time. I hired a man to send me out to camp in a buggy which I reached about eleven O.clock that might and yesterday marched with the Rigiment fOurteen miles to this place, and about ten Oclock yesterday I thought I should faint. I never felt so badly to stand on my feet. In the after noon It was verry warm and I got to sweating and begun to feel better. When we got into camp I was verry tired, and hungary Smeidle & Stevenson5 had hired a nigger to cook for us and Mr Nigger got us a good supper and I ate verry harty and I never felt better in my life. I think I am entirely well, and to day I went down in town to church and after church a Gentleman steped up to me and invited me and two others to go to his house and take dinner which of course we accepted and a splendid dinner we had too. His name and kindness I shall never forget. his name was Bewark and is a merchant. In fact I never saw such kindness in people in my life as most of the folks showed all along the road yesterday. At [pg. 4] many places they set out tubs full of pies bread butter and honey but I was so sick I could not eat one bite. But if the people continue as kind the balance of the way I think I shall be able for my share. We have about forty miles yet to Quincy which it will take us about three days to reach.
July 8th 1861
I wrote you on Sunday last from Naples and this is Tuesday and I [write] to you from the same place with this differance there we was on the East bank of the Illinois now we are on the west bank of the River. We crossed the River yesterday morning and marched four miles & camped. We had not been in camp long before the Colonel received orders to march back to the River and await Transportation by River to St Louis and from there we are to go to Ironton Misourie to which place I expect we will go this week some time…While I am sitting on an old logg writing a company of 20 or 25 little boys about the size of Dora all in uniform, red caps white shirts and blue pants, have come into camp and are drilling to the great delight of the soldiers. Thier little captain has his soard in hand and gives commands like some old officer and the little fellows are well drilled. A little boy played his fife and another the drum. They have come some five or six miles from some little town. Nothing of importance has happened since I wrote you, excep that yesterday the Colonel was notified that a Secessionist lived about Six miles from where we camped. The proof was positive against him. The Colonel sent an officer and some men after him and about 12 O.clock last night they returned to camp in the rain and had the Gentleman with them and at first be refused to take the Oath of Allegeance but when he was informed that he could do that or worse he at last consented and the Colonel swore him and released him. This is the second man the Colonel has sworn in since we have got to this River. Since I commenced writing the Colonel has heard that we leave here in the morning.
Camp West Bank the Mississippi River
opposite Quincy Ills.
July 11th 1861
We are at this place one day. We are ordered to one place and before we get started we are ordered to some other place; but our destination is still Ironton Missourie. the Secessionist have a Regiment of our troops surounded at Palmyre West of this place and are burning all the bridges on the Rail Road running West from here and we were ordered here to assist in relieving that Regiment and opening the Rail Road West to Palmyre.6 Last night a company of Cavalry & Artillery and a company of our Regiment started to Hanible to assist in relieving that Regiment and one company was sent west six miles to gard a bridge which duty our company will have to perform this night.7 We are now in the enemy’s country and may have a batle before the seting of the sun. No one calculates on any thing else that we will have to fight and that soon. Julia you had better take the [Chicago] Tribune (daily) that will keep you posted where we are better than I can…I forgot to tell you that old Ex Governor Wood was in that company of Cavelry that went west yesterday with his beard as white as snow.8 we have not yet heard from them or the company that went to gard that bridge neither having returned.
This is a fine country but nearly forsaken. The rebels first drove off the union men and since the troops have got in a great many rebels have left. We passed throug two or three towns in which all the people had left but two or three families. Fine brick houses & fine frame houses standing emty and some with the furniture in and one I heard of that they left their dinner standing on the table. Freight houses, tanks, cars, and miles of cord wood and evry bridge that the devels could they burnt and hardly a man to be seen but the darkies say massa gone to war. We see lots of burnt houses where they have driven off Union men or killed then then burnt their houses. We passed the ground yesterday where Col. Smiths regiment had the fight last week. Re had about five hundred men and they had fifteen hundred and Col Smith made them take to the woods. When ever our troops gets near them the men, all they can do is to distroy property and sneak upon our picket gards and kill one once and a while or drive off Union Women men & children from there homes. There is plenty of fields of wheat standing not cut, corn waist high that never has been plowed. Oh it is almost enough to make a man weep to see the destruction of property here. Where we are camped a rail Road bridge has been burnt that will cost the company ten thousand dollars to rebuild it. Now & then there is a family left that are Union. As we passed a house yesterday an old lady came out and claped her hands & almost shouted for joy to think that they were to be protected. I think it would have mad any man in the free states have shouldred his Gun.
July 21st 1861 Camp near Mexico
Andrain County Misouri10
This is Sunday and it is raining. Evry thing looks dreary…How long we are to remain in this state I cannot say but the Lieut Colonel told me yesterday that the probibility now was that we would go to Alton this week there to remain in camp for a short time.11 We have had no trouble yet although other Regiments who have proceeded us have had some of thier men killed and have killed maney of them. Day before yesterday they killed one man and cripled another out of a St Louis Regiment, the one they killed after they shot him they tied him under a horse and drug him for miles then hung him on a limb and left him hanging, where his company found him. Then persued and caught two of the gang brought them back and hung them on the same limb. This Town of Mexico is quite a town and has about fifteen hundred inhabitance and I do not believe there is two hundred men in it now and not over five or six hundred inhabitance here the finest houses standing empty, and others that are not empty no men about home nothing but Women Children and Negroes you inquire for the man and the reply is they have gone from home. The Union men here say that there is at least three hundred men from this town that are out in the brush skulking around like sheep killing doggs for fear some of Uncle Sans boys will get a hold of them.
August 4th 1861 Camp near Mexico
Andrain County Missouri
It would trouble me very much if it should be that any of you was to be sick as I do not believe at this time there is money enough in this Regiment to pay one mans fare home even if I could get a pass or fourlough [pg. 6] which is doubtfull as a good many have tried lately and failed. General [John] Pope is here and he being higher in command than our Col., application has to be made to-him now. Even our own Collonel applied for leave of absence from Saturday till monday noon and was refused, so you see my chances is poor for comeng home. But I am comming after while General, Collonel War or no War… I think I never felt the weather any warmer than it has been for the last fiew days and all the water we have to drink here is creek and cistern water. There being but one well in the, town and two weeks to day since the last rain nearly all the cisterns is dry. Oh how I have wished a thousand times for only one good drink of water out of our well. If I ever live to get home you can bet I will know how to appreciate good water and Vituals and kind friends. Yet I must say that with all the hardships I have to endure it is not realy as bad as I anticipated it would be, but it is bad enough, God knows, the best of it. I do not think we can remain here in this place long for there is no appearance of rain, and water we must have. Where we will go I do not know.
Ironton Mo Aug 9th l861
We left Mexico on Tuesday Eavning arrived at St Louis Wedenesday about one or two Oclock, took a Steam Boat for the Barracks (Jefferson Barracks) which is twelve miles below St Louis, arrived about sundown, got a bite of supper about nine O.clock, lay down upon my shawl on the ground. Had not slept any the night before & of course slept soundly all night. But Thursday morning to our surprise was ordered to be ready to take the Cars at Seven Oclock for this place. The Col and all had Expected to remain at St Louis for a week or two at least but so it is. Arrived here about about four Oclock yesterday and it rained verry hard last night. Our camp Equipage failed to arrive so we took quarters in empty houses as ther is plenty in all towns in this State. We are within fifteen miles of the enemy’s camp and of course will not be surprised if we have an engagement at any time. We expect to remain here perhaps a week or two. General Fremont intends to have this place fortified and held by our troops as it is at the turminus of the Rail Road it is verry important to the Government. Holding this point we control the Rail Road to St Louis and this is the reason why the enemy want it, but I guess they will have a good time to get it as we have about four thousand troops and a lot of cannon and more arriving as fast as the R.R. can bring them. they had a mill 4 miles below here which had been running all season grinding for the rebels. Yesterday Uncle Sans boys went down drove them out took possession and informed them that we needed it for our selves & as soon as we get sufficiently strong here if they do not advance on us we will on them. Now a line about [t]his place and I am done. This town is in a Valley about two miles wide right in the Iron mountains and the pretiest place I have seen in Missouri. The cedar clad mountains on every side, butiful valley, and the finest springs flowing out at different points the best water in the world. Here is wher I should like to live. There can be no sickness here. I drank and drank of this water then washed, jumped up, shook it down, than drank again. How different from where we have been there there was nothing but creek & cistern water and you can guess how I appreciated this good water.
Was it not for my family I would as willingly lay down my life in this cause as to die amid luxury. this I believe is the feeling generally in this branch of our Army for we know and hear and see how Union folks have been and are being treated by these reches. But this week and a fiew miles from this place a man had five balls put through him just because he sayed he was in favor of the Union, the best government on the face of the Earth. The man that was shot had a family and others that have not been killed have been driven out of the country. I was offered two houses in this place Each one and a half stories with seven rooms in each all finished up nicely with good water and out buildings all built last summer at One hundred dollars each. The men having been run off they went back to the state of Michigan where they had come from. They left their property in the hands of an agent and since they went back they have writen their agent to take the above price if he could get no more as they never intended to return. I was sent on friday eavning with twelve of our men four miles out into the Mountains as picket guard and remained ther till twelve Oclock last night when we returned this is considered the most dangeres work we have to perform. There is no sleeping but keep a constant lookout for the enemy should they approach. We allow no one to pass or repass at night unless they have the countersign and allow citizens to pass in, in daytime but not out unless they have a written pass from the Commanding General [Grant]. From your letter dear Julia I am affraid you think I am sick when I wrote you I had had a fiew chills caused from a cold I think, but my health now I think is as good as it ever was and to give you some Idea Black Bill had some green corn, sliced Onions & tomatoes for dinner I ate hartly of the tomatoes & Onions and with seven ears of green corn made out a tolerble fair dinner. However the ears of corn here is not so large as they are in Illinois, having been growen in the Mountain Valleys. If you will look in the atlas in South east Missouri you will see Pilot Knob. We are camped at the western foot of this knob which is six hundred and sixty feet above the valley and twelve hundred feet higher than St Louis. I was up on the top of this mountain to day and down the side to where the were digging out Iron oar. It looks as though there was Iron enoug in this one mountain alone to last the United States for ever, but all these Mountains are full of Iron and lead ore. I was also in one of thier furnaces and saw them smelting & moulding the Iron which was quite a curiosity to me. The mineral is all this country is fit for.
Camp near Marble Creek 12 miles
South of Ironton Iron County
Missouri Aug 18th 1861
My health continues good. I never felt stouter in my life than at this time. This certainly is a verry healthy country but full of chigers and ticks, which are a great annoyance to us all. We are camped here in the woods waiting reinforcements which are expected here to day. Then I suppose we will moove South.12 How fare or where to I do not know but one thing certain we will go down as fare as the Arcansas line as we have men here with us from that country who have been run of from home by the rebles They have left their families and come to us for protection and to incist for us to go down. They say the rebles have taken all their property guns &c then told them they could join their army or leave thier [pg. 8] homes. We have one man with us who acts as guide who has had three thousand dollars worth of property taken from him and him and others have flowen and left thier families to the mercy of these rebles. We grieve on account of our families but we have now such cause for grief as they and their woes related to us make our men more like devels than men and when we do reach thier camp I expect their will be some hard fiting for out men declair they will show them no quarters.
- Grant to his father, July 13, 1861, in Jesse Grant Cramer, ed., Letters of Ulysses S. Grant to hie -Father and his Youngest Sister, 1857-78 (New York and London, 1912), 41.
- The camp of the Seventh District Regiment at Mattoon was originally named Camp Cunningham. After Captain Grant had mustered in the regiment the camp was renamed in his honor.
- When the regiment officially entered federal service on June 28, 1861, the term of enlistment was “three years unless sooner discharged.”
- Camp Yates was located on the outskirts of Springfield, Ill.
- Jesse P. H. Stevenson of Paradise, Ill., was captain of Co. B, 21st 111. Vols., until his resignation on March 19, 1863. At that time Philip Welshimer replaced him, and Second Lieutenant Charles L. Smidell of Prairie City, Ill., replaced Welshimer.
- Although the attack on Palmyra, Mo., caused considerable anxiety and led to the reassignment of Grant’s regiment, it was actually a minor skirmish. Grant later wrote “I am inclined to think both sides got frightened and ran away.” Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885-6), I, 248.
- According to Record of Events Cards, 21st Ill. Vols., Record Group 94, National Archives, it was on July 12 that Co. B was assigned to guard a bridge on the Hannibal and Palmyra Railroad, ten miles west of camp. It rejoined the regiment at Palmyra the following day.
- John Wood of Quincy, Lieutenant Governor of Ill., filled out the unexpired term of Governor William U. Bissell, who died in office in 1860.
- The 21st Ill. had been moved from Palmyra to Salt Creek in order to guard workmen rebuilding a bridge on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad.
- On July 19 the regiment moved from Salt Creek to Mexico.
- Lt. Col. John W. S. Alexander of Paris, Ill., eventually succeeded Grant as colonel.
- The evening train brought no more troops but it did bring Brig. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss, who claimed (incorrectly) that he outranked Grant. As Grant left for reassignment in St. Louis, Prentiss cancelled the scheduled advance against Confederate forces at Greenville.
[pg. 9] GRANT AT SAN COSMÉ ***During the Mexican War Second Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, serving under both General Zachary Taylor and General Winfield Scott, was present at every major battle except Buena Vista. After his assignment to quartermaster duties in August, 1846, however, Grant took a much less active role in the fighting than he would have liked. His services at Monterey in September, 1846, though well-remembered by brother officers, were not officially recognized. It was not until the final campaign against Mexico City that Grant performed services in battle that were officially noticed, and only his activities on the last day of fighting brought him recognition in print and advancement in rank.
Grant seems to have been no less eager for recognition and advancement than other officers of the regular army. They all knew how slowly promotions and brevet advancement came in time of peace; those unrewarded for wartime service would probably remain indefinitely junior in rank to those who were. On August 23, 1847, reporting the recent action of the Fourth Infantry, Major Francis Lee could say only that “2nd Lieutenant U. S. Grant, regimental quartermaster, was usefully employed in his appropriate duties.”1 It then seemed all too likely that Grant would emerge from the war as a second lieutenant.
On the morning of September 13, 1847, General Scott launched his attack on the impressive fortifications of Chapultepec commanding the western approaches to Mexico City. As happened frequently in the Mexican War, the [pg. 10] bastion fell with a speed almost as disconcerting to the Americans as to the Mexicans. The next step in Scott’s plan was an advance up the causeways to the Belén and San Cosmé Garitas, or gates, which provided entrance into the city itself. Believing the Belén Garita to be the stronger of the two, Scott planned a feint in that direction with the major assault at San Cosmé. Leading the advance on San Cosmé was Colonel John Garland’s brigade of Brevet Major General William J. Worth’s division, and taking the lead in ducking through the archways supporting the. aqueduct on the causeway was Second Lieutenant Grant. What he did that day was best described by Grant himself in his Memoirs.
The City of Mexico is supplied with water by two aqueducts, resting on strong stone arches. One of these aqueducts draws its supply of water from a mountain stream coming into it at or near Molino del Rey, and runs north close to the west base of Chapultepec; thence along the centre of a wide road, until it reaches the road running east into the city by the Garita San Cosme; from which point the aqueduct and road both run east to the city. The second aqueduct starts from the east base of Chapultepec, where it is fed by a spring, and runs north-east to the city. This aqueduct, like the other, runs in the middle of a broad road-way, thus leaving a space on each side. The arches supporting the aqueduct afforded protection for advancing troops as veil as to those engaged defensively. At points on the San Cosme road parapets were thrown across, with an embrasure for a single piece of artillery in each. At the point where both road and aqueduct turn at right angles from north to east, there was not only one of these parapets supplied by one gun and infantry supports, but the houses to the north of the San Cosme road, facing south and commanding a view of the road back to Chapultepec, were covered with infantry, protected by parapets made of sand-bags. The roads leading to garitas (the gates) San Cosme and Belen, by which these aqueducts enter the city, were strongly intrenched. Deep, wide ditches, filled with water, lined the sides of both roads….When Chapultepec fell the advance commenced along the two aqueduct roads. I was on the road to San Cosme, and witnessed most that took place on that route. When opposition was encountered our troops sheltered themselves by keeping under the arches supporting the aqueduct, advancing an arch at a time. We encountered no serious obstruction until within gun-shot of the point where the road we were on intersects that running east to the city, the point where the aqueduct turns at a right angle….There were but three commissioned officers besides myself, that I can now call to mind, with the advance when the above position was reached. One of these officers was a Lieutenant Semmes, of the Marine Corps.2 I think Captain [John H.] Gore, and Lieutenant [Henry M.] Judah, of the 4th infantry, were the others. Our progress was stopped for the time by the [pg. 11] single piece of artillery at the angle of the roads and the infantry occupying the house-tops back from it.West of the road from where we were, stood a house occupying the south-west angle made by the San Cosmé road and the road we were moving upon. A stone wall ran from the house along each of these roads for a considerable distance and thence back until it joined, enclosing quite a yard about the house. I watched my opportunity and skipped across the road and behind the south wall. Proceeding cautiously to the vest corner of the enclosure, I peeped around and seeing nobody, continued, still cautiously, until the road running east and west was reached. I then returned to the troops, and called for volunteers. All that were close to me, or that heard me, about a dozen, offered their services. Commanding them to carry their arms at a trail, I watched our opportunity and got them across the road and under cover of the wall beyond, before the enemy had a shot at us. Our men under cover of the arches kept a close watch on the intrenchments that crossed our path and the house-tops beyond, and whenever a head showed itself above the parapets they would fire at it. Our crossing was thus made practicable without loss.
When we reached a safe position I instructed my little command again to carry their arms at a trail, not to fire at the enemy until they were ordered, and to move very cautiously following me until the San Cosme road was reached; we would then be on the flank of the men serving the gun on the road, and with no obstruction between us and them. When we reached the south-west corner of the enclosure before described, I saw some United States troops pushing north through a shallow ditch near by, who had come up since my reconnaissance. This was the company of Captain Horace Brooks, of the artillery, acting as infantry. I explained to Brooks briefly what I had discovered and what I was about to do. He said, as I knew the ground and he did not, I might go on and he would follow. As soon as we got on the road leading to the city the troops serving the gun on the parapet retreated, and those on the housetops near by followed; our men went after them in such close pursuit–the troops we had left under the arches joining–that a second line across the road, about half-way between the first and the garita, was carried. No reinforcements had yet come up except Brooks’s company, and the position we had taken was too advanced to be held by so small a force. It was given up, but retaken later in the day, with some loss.
Worth’s command gradually advanced to the front now open to it. Later in the day in reconnoitring I found a church off to the south of the road, which looked to me as if the belfry would command the ground back of the garita San Cosme. I got an officer of the voltigeurs, with a mountain howitzer and men to work it, to go with me. The road being in possession of the enemy, we had to take the field to the south to reach the church. This took us over several ditches breast deep in water and grown up with water plants. These ditches, however, were not over eight or ten feet in width. The howitzer was taken to pieces and carried by the men to its destination. When I knocked for admission a priest came to the door, who, while extremely polite, declined to admit us. With the little Spanish then at my command, I explained to him that he might save property by opening the door, and he certainly would save himself from becoming a prisoner, for a time at least; and besides, I intended to go in whether he consented or not. He began to see his duty [pg. 12] in the same light that I did, and opened the door, though he did not look as if it gave him special pleasure to do so. The gun was carried to the belfry and put together. We were not more than two or three hundred yards from San Cosme. The shots from our little gun dropped in upon the enemy and created great confusion. Why they did not send out a small party and capture us, I do hot know. We had no infantry or other defences besides our one gun.
The effect of this gun upon the troops about the gate of the city was so marked that General Worth saw it from his position. He was so pleased that he sent a staff officer, Lieutenant [John C.] Pemberton–later Lieutenant-General commanding the defences of Vicksburg–to bring me to him. He expressed his gratification at the services the howitzer in the church steeple was doing, saying that every shot was effective, and ordered a captain of voltigeurs to report to me with another howitzer to be placed along with the one already rendering so much service. I could not tell the General that there was not room enough in the steeple for another gun, because he probably would have looked upon such a statement as a contradiction from a second lieutenant. I took the captain with me, but did not use his gun.3
Three days after the battle, Major Francis Lee submitted his report which stressed Grant’s efforts at the barricades.
At the first barrier, the enemy was in strong force, which rendered it necessary to advance with caution. This was done; and when the head of the battalion was within short musket range of the barrier, Lieutenant Grant, 4th infantry, and Captain Brooks, 2d artillery, with a few men of their respective regiments, by a handsome movement to the left, turned the right flank of the enemy, and the barrier was carried. Lieutenant Gore, who had attacked the enemy’s front, now joined Lieutenant Grant and Captain Brooks; they, with a few men of their regiments, followed the enemy to the second barrier, from which the 4th infantry was withdrawn by an order to assemble the battalion for the support of the howitzer battery….Second Lieutenants Grant and Judah, behaved with distinguished gallantry on the 13th and 14th.4
Colonel John Garland’s report added detail on Grant at the garita.
[The Mexicans] had made a stand behind a breast-work, from which they were driven by detachments of the 2d artillery, under Captain Brooks, and of the 4th infantry, under Lieutenant Grant, supported by other regiments of the division, after a short but sharp conflict….The enemy then took position at the garita San Cosme, when they were supported by two pieces of artillery which raked the streets with grape and canister. Finding a secure position to the right of the second defence, I reorganized the command as it came up; mounted a howitzer on the top of a convent which, under the direction of Lieutenant Grant, quartermaster, 4th infantry, and Lieutenant [John H.] Lendrum, 3d artillery, annoyed the enemy considerably.
[pg. 13] Garland added that Grant had “acquitted himself most nobly upon several occasions, under my own observation.”5 The division commander, General William J. Worth, spoke of the howitzer at San Cosmé without mentioning Grant. “…a mountain howitzer was placed on the top of a commanding building on the left, and another on the church of San Cosmé on the right, both of which opened with admirable effect.”6 Later, in the list of officers deserving recognition, however, he mentioned “Grant, 4th infantry, especially…”7 The work of the troops in burrowing from house to house to reach the garita, Worth reported, “was greatly favored by the fire of the howitzers.”8 Worth, Garland, and Lee all wrote letters recommending Grant for brevet promotion in recognition of San Cosmé.
It was well that Grant’s superiors noted his services, for other officers involved in the attack were mainly concerned with their own achievements. Captain Horace Brooks’ report of the action at San Cosmé does not credit Grant with initiative.
I succeeded in reaching the fort with a few men. Here Lieutenant U. S. Grant, with a few more men of the 4th infantry, found me; and, by a joint movement, after an obstinate resistance, the strong field-work was carried, and the enemy’s right was completely turned.10
Captain John H. Gore, in writing Major Lee of his own services at San Cosmé, at least added detail on Grant’s actions.
Two days since, you mentioned to me that you did not know that I had taken the small breast-work immediately in front of San Cosme garita, but supposed that Captain Brooks, 2d artillery, and Lieutenant Grant, 4th infantry, were with or in advance of me. The following are the facts in the case: Our column advanced under a very heavy fire (as you know) to within some sixty yards of the angle of the San Cosme road; by this time our number had become so small, it was deemed prudent, apparently, to stop, and if possible get reinforcements. It was the good fortune of Captain B., Lieutenant G. and myself to be in advance. After firing some fifteen minutes, the two officers above named proceeded by our left, (round the English cemetery,) with a few men, and charged the [pg. 14] enemy on their right; I, at the same time made a rush upon the front, and we cleared the work. We had moved but a short distance before some of them ran; a small number, however, kept their places until we came within twenty yards. The moment was a very exciting one, and I do not know whether the two officers by the right or myself were first to reach the centre of the work, but do not contend for it, feeling, as I do, that they not only deserve all the credit given them, but much more, as do also all persons named in the general’s report. The command proceeded rapidly after the enemy, up the road. I was somewhat retarded in keeping back our color-bearer, (who had already been severely wounded, but begged permission to retain them, and did so until some fifty yards in front of the next work, when he fell, shot through the brain,) for fear they might be taken from our little party. I soon found myself in advance, and kept it, being the first person to arrive at the small breast-work, half way across the road, immediately in front of San Cosme; before reaching it, we were under very severe fire of shot, grape, &c. No officer of the army but myself reached the work at this time, and no officer, except myself, claims to have done so. Lieutenant Semmes, of the marines, and some fifteen men, most of them of my own company, kept near me and reached the work. Captain B., Lieutenant G., Lieutenant Judah and, I think, Lieutenant [John] Sedgwick obtained a position only a short distance in my rear, covered by a projection of some houses on our left. I held the work some fifteen minutes, and during the time heard the order from the rear to fall back, but determined to hold the place, and so informed my party; but, seeing the party near me had retired, and some of my own men gone, I reluctantly gave it up, seeing the danger my small force was in, and knowing we could do no good. In running back, Sergeant Donovan was shot by my side, by the fire from the gate. After the regiment was re-formed, and we took the same point a second time, by moving to the rear and round the right of the church, Lieutenant Grant and myself were the two first persons to gain it; one of our men shot a Mexican soldier at the work after our taking it. At this place, you will remember, Colonel Garland arrived (while we were waiting for mining tools) and kept us for some time.11
Gore was breveted major for services at Molino del Rey, five days before San Cosmé, and had not advanced in rank when he died five years later.
Grant was promoted to first lieutenant to replace Sidney Smith, who was wounded while entering Mexico City on September 14, 1847, and died two days later. First Lieutenant Grant was also breveted captain for his services at San Cosmé. Then officials of the War Department realized that Grant was only a second lieutenant at the battle of San Cosmé; he could not properly be given a brevet rank two grades in advance of actual rank. This created a problem not resolved until 1851, when Grant [pg. 15] was confirmed as a brevet first lieutenant for service at Molino del Rey and thus was eligible for a further brevet for San Cosmé. The chief villain of the story seems to be the brevet system itself which created ranks that were, at least in part, imaginary, but were real enough so that no officer could afford to neglect them.
The consequences of what Grant did at San Cosmé were twofold. He demonstrated again, as he had at Monterey a year earlier, that he had the qualities of ingenuity and daring prized in young officers. Although he seems to have disliked military life and questioned the justification for the Mexican War, Grant showed his determination to prove himself as a soldier. In a practical sense, he won formal recognition of these qualities in a manner which probably encouraged him to remain in the army after the war.
It was some thirty-seven years before Grant wrote his own account of San Cosmé for his Memoirs. There is no evidence that he checked his memory of the events of that long-vanished day against documentary sources and yet his account is as clear, factual, and detailed as any contemporary report. He showed that he had given the final campaign against Mexico City much thought. “In later years, if not at the time,” he wrote, “the battles of Molino del Rey and Chapultepec have seemed to me to have been wholly unnecessary.” It would have been possible, he explained, to bypass these heavily fortified positions and make a direct assault upon the gates of the city, and, once bypassed, they would have been evacuated.12 The realization that the Mexicans were immobilized by their fortifications may well have provided a lesson useful later at Vicksburg.
[pg. 16] 1. House Executive Document, 30 Cong., 1 Sess., no. 8, appendix, 52. (Hereafter HED, 30-1-8).
2. Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, then a volunteer aide to General Worth, later became so prominent as commander of the Confederate cruiser Alabama that Grant probably intended humor by his vagueness about Semmes’ identity.
3. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885-6), 1, 149-150, 155-159.
4. HED, 30-1-8, appendix, 175-176.
5. Ibid., 170-171.
6. HED, 30-1-8, 392.
7. Ibid., 394.
8. Senate Executive Document, 30 Cong., 1 Sess., no. 1, 392. Facing this page is a detailed map of the area of battle.
9. Garland’s letter, dated Feb. 10, 1848, is noted in the Register of Letters Received by the Secretary of War, Record Group 107, National Archives, Washington, D. C. The letter itself has not been located. The recommendations of Worth and Lee will be printed in the first volume of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.
10. HED, 30-1-8, appendix, 174.
11. Ibid., 30-1-60, 1071-1073,
12. Memoirs, I, 154-155.
NEWS NOTES *** Lawrence A. Frost of Monroe, Michigan, is the author of U. S. Grant Album: A Pictorial Biography of Ulysses S. Grant from Leather Clerk to the White House, a 192 page publication of Superior Publishing Company, Seattle, which sells for $12.95. Frost has drawn on many institutions in putting together the best picture history of Grant ever compiled. Photographs are reproduced clearly on large (8 1/4 x 10 1/2) glossy pages, and the individual pictures are large enough to repay close study. The text, a brisk retelling of the Grant story, is somewhat longer than might be expected in a book designed as a picture history, and one might wish that it was more closely connected to the pictures. One might also wish that less space was devoted to well-known pictures of Civil War commanders, such as the half-page devoted to a standard photograph of J. E. B. Stuart, to leave room for pictures more relevant to the Grant story. Nonetheless, a surprising number of Grant pictures are printed here for the first time, and by supplementing photographs with engravings, paintings, and other representations of Grant and his career, Frost has created an intriguing book unlikely to be supplanted for many years.
[pg. 17] GRANT’S EARLY YEARS *** The most reliable source of information about Ulysses Grant’s life before he entered West Point at the age of seventeen is what Grant himself recalled when he wrote his Memoirs. A series of articles about Grant’s boyhood which appeared in the New York Ledger in 1868 under the name of his father were actually written by a reporter for the Ledger who drew on Jesse Grant’s recollections. Almost all other information about Grant’s early life comes from reminiscences of acquaintances collected long after the events had taken place and are frequently tinged by an understandable eagerness to discern seeds of greatness in the young boy.
Of these reminiscences, one of the most engaging appeared in the New York Times on July 30, 1885. It has a ring of reliability in that the assessment of Grant is in accord with available facts and the general view is in harmony with Grant’s Memoirs, which were not yet available. Little is known of James N. Sanderson beyond what is available in this newspaper account; his comments to the Times reporter, however, seem sufficient to identify him as a truthful and discerning witness.
James H. Sanderson has for two years made his home at the residence of his daughter and son-in-law in the town of Gorham, in Ontario County. He was born in Georgetown, Ohio, and lived there until he was 18 years old, and has an unusually clear recollection of the early life of Gen. Grant in that place. Mr. Sanderson is 66 years of age–three years older than the General. He has been a resident of Cincinnati the greater part of his life. He was paralyzed six years ago. His residence is seven miles from the nearest village. To a correspondent of The Times, who called upon him to-day, he talked quite freely of his old friend.[pg. 18] “My memory of Gen. Grant as a boy,” said Mr. Sanderson, “has been kept particularly keen because I realized as long ago as 1847 that he was destined to become one of the famous men in the United States. I have recalled from time to time, little by little, thousands of incidents in the General’ s boyhood days in which I think myself fortunate to have been a participant. I have related his early life over and over again to my children. The earliest recollection I have of Grant was about 1830. He was then 8 years old. His father and mother had moved to Georgetown several years before, I believe. Grant and I went to the same country school in Georgetown. He was a little short, fat fellow, and I was unusually tall and lank for my age. He usually went with boys older than himself because he passed for a boy three or four years older than be really was. He had such a quiet, sedate way that made him liked by the school teachers. I do not remember much about him in his classes at school except that he was good in arithmetic. I remember that he especially liked problems in mental arithmetic. The teacher used to give us a lot of than, one after another, every other day during the term. Most of us hated than and would mike all kinds of excuses to get out of the exercise, while young Grant was anxious to have the teacher fire them at him. His mind seemed exactly fitted for solving such problems on a moment’s notice. While the majority of us pupils would be just getting the problem settled in our minds Ulysses would shout an answer. That would make the older pupils feel ashamed that such a little fellow was smarter than they were.
“My uncle, Thomas Upham, was teacher at that school for two Winters while Grant attended there. My uncle told me 20 years ago, after the General became so famous, that his former pupil’s standing in arithmetic was unusually good, but that he had no taste for grammar, geography, and spelling, although he was not noticeably dull in any of those studies. The teacher once introduced essay writing in the school, but it was not a success. Young Grant would do almost anything to avoid writing an essay, although he wrote two or three of merit for a boy of 11 or 12 years. They were very brief, and each did not consist of more than 150 words. Then an attempt was made to have the boys declaim every two weeks. This, my uncle said, was unbearable to young Grant. He spoke only once or twice, and then by the greatest exertion. He could not bear to get up and face a whole room full of boys and girls. Once, my uncle said, he spoke a selection from Washington’s Farewell Address, but he made fearful work of it, and after school said he would ‘never speak there again, no matter what happened.’ The proudest day my uncle ever experienced was when he voted for his former pupil for President of the United States in 1868. He wrote a letter to the General at Galena the same day, and in reply received an invitation to visit the General’s family. How he longed to accept the invitation! but he was too poor to make a trip from where he was in Ohio to Illinois. He died two months before President Grant was inaugurated in 1869. He fully intended to witness the inauguration, and had saved quite a sum of money for the trip South. A few days before he died he said he considered his life a successful one because he had helped educate a President of the United States and the foremost man in America.
“I first became intimately acquainted with young Grant by borrowing some books from his father’s library. There were about 35 books in it altogether, and that seemed like a mighty big book collection in those [pg. 19] days in Ohio. Ulysses said he guessed his father would let me borrow some of them, and that he himself did not care to read books, and he gained his father’s consent to loan me the books and would bring than to me one at a time, and when read would carry them back to the house. I remember that one of the books was a cheap edition of Irving’s ‘Sketch Book.’ It must have lain about the Grant house for some time, but had evidently not been read until I had it. On the fly leaf were some of the boy scrawls of Ulysses, who had written ‘Hiram U. Grant’ there in several places. Another book was a collection of articles about Methodism in America. I did not read that book very much, and I remember Grant laughed a little when I opened the book and showed how dry it was.
“In those early days the boy took a fancy to horses and delighted in getting astride one of them. In return for the books he had loaned me I several times allowed him to ride a 4-year-old colt which my father had in a lot near Georgetown village. His eyes fairly stood out with delight when I told him one day, after I had found that my father had gone several miles away from home, that he could put a bridle on the favorite animal and ride him up and down the road for half an hour. He always rode bare[-]back, except that once in a while he put a blanket across his own father’s horse for a ride. He seemed perfectly fearless of horses, and would sometimes ride at a breakneck speed, with only a bridle on the horse’s head. I can see him now, in my mind’s eye, dashing through the village at a speed that frightened nearly every female old and young in the place. Several times he begged me to allow him to let my father’s colt jump fences with him, but I feared an accident to father’s animal, and refused.
“Ulysses Grant was one of the quietest boys I ever knew, and yet he was liked by every boy in Georgetown who knew him, and that is saying a good deal, because we Western boys used to be as noisy and rollicking a lot of fellows as there ever was. There was something about Ulysses that made the boys respect him. He always seemed to be thinking and to take things that excited us to the highest pitch so easy. I don’t remember that I ever once saw him excited, and I knew him so well. Even on Fourth of July celebrations, when we were always excited all day long, he was as cool as a cucumber, although he joined in our fun as much as any one. He always had some kind of a firearm for shooting on those days. A pistol was his favorite, while we had shotguns. He was up to any lark with us, but went about everything in such a peculiarly businesslike way. He never cared much for hunting, and that was strange because there was scarcely a boy in all that region that did not love to hunt, some of them for whole days at a time. I remember he joined a party of ten of us once to go out for a three days’ hunting in the woods. We had grand success from the first hour, but he did not enter into the sport, and early on the morning of the second day he and my cousin started back to Georgetown, already tired of the excursion. I don’t remember that he ever joined us in another long hunt. He loved ‘to shoot at the mark,’ and when about 15 years of age was a good marksman. I think he won a badge for the best shooting among the boys of his age at a Fourth of July celebration.
“In swimming he was quite an expert, and many a time outswam boys larger and stronger than he, but as an athlete, in which nearly all Western boys of my day particularly prided themselves, he was not up to the average except in horsemanship, in which he, of course, was the best anywhere in our locality.
[pg. 20] “After Ulysses became 13 years old he began to work about his father’s tannery in Georgetown. When be was a little boy he used to hold the horses of men who drove up to the little tannery to transact business with his father, and would take more pleasure in that than in playing with the boys. In Summer vacations, he worked in the tannery, and worked hard, too. Many a time we had been there to get him to go for some fun with us, and he would refuse in that quiet way of his that would make us like him all the more for sticking to work. I don’t remember what particular work he ever did about the tannery. I have seen him doing a good many things–changing the hides from one vat to another, unloading tanbark from the wagons, and scraping hair from the hides before placing than, in the liquor. He seemed to be used as a general boy for all work. Of his going to West Point I have a distinct recollection. How we boys envied him when he heard that old Gen. Hamer had appointed him to the Military Academy, although I was older than Ulysses. The lad did not say much about the appointment himself until a few days before be started for the East. We all thought him about the biggest boy we had ever seen. His father, I am sure, was very sorry to lose Ulysses from home, but saw that he would never make much of a tanner. It was too much drudgery for such a young fellow as Ulysses. A short time after Ulysses went to West Point his folks moved away from Georgetown and I went to Cincinnati a little later. I did not hear anything more about Grant until about 1848, when I vent to Georgetown on a visit, and learned that he had been made a Lieutenant in the army and had done finely in the Mexican war. Some of the boys from Georgetown told me a year later that Grant had been married and was fighting Indians out West. I lost track of him until 1861, when I read that he was commanding an Illinois regiment. Of course, I have watched his wonderful career ever since.
“In 1871 I went to Washington, and sent my card to the President. I wrote ‘Georgetown, Ohio,’ at the bottom of the card. It was only a few minutes before I was called into the President’s private room at the White House. Over 100 people had been waiting for hours to see the President, and I went right in before them. It was the first time I had seen my old companion since he went to West Point. He was very cordial, and begged me to sit down for a chat with him about where I had been and what I had done since we had last met in old Georgetown. He referred to many of the people we used to know there, and remembered nearly all of them unusually well. I was surprised how he remembered even some of the middle names of the folks there and their peculiar characteristics. He recalled a few incidents which I had forgotten. Of course, our conversation was a short one. He had so much business before him that I felt uneasy at detaining him, and excused myself from his presence. He wanted me to come and see him and his family the next evening, but I had to leave Washington the next day. I intended to see him while he was in New-York, but have been such a helpless paralytic that I cannot even go a foot without help. Gen. Grant’s career has been such a wonderful one that I sometimes wonder if he could have been the very same boy I used to know so well in Ohio. Those early days in Georgetown, in the light of the General’s great achievements since 1861, seem to me like a dream.”
[pg. 21] NEWS NOTES *** The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume I: 1837-1861 will be placed on sale by Southern Illinois University Press on April 27, 1967, the 145th anniversary of Grant’s birth. The price is $15, with a ten percent reduction to those who intend to purchase the entire fifteen-volume set as issued. The first volume, edited by John Y. Simon, includes a foreword by Ralph G. Newman, President of the Grant Association; prefaces by Bruce Catton and Allan Nevins, members of the editorial board; and an introduction by the editor. All available Grant correspondence dated before the Civil War is then covered in 428 pages. The bulk of the letters were written to Julia Dent Grant, and those written during their four year engagement, 1844-48, provide a running account of Grant on the Southwestern frontier and in the Mexican War. Another large group of letters cover Grant’s two years on the Pacific Coast, 1852-54, before his resignation. The letters cover matters both great and small. One minor matter, particularly gratifying to the editor, is the conclusive evidence that Grant’s middle name was never Simpson. “Find some name begining with “S” for me Julia,” Grant wrote in 1844, “You know I have an ‘S in my name and dont know what it stand for.” Grant was stationed at Fort Vancouver when he learned that his second child had been named Ulysses S. Grant, Jr. “What does the S stand for in Ulys’s name?” he asked, “in mine you know it does not stand for anything!” While Grant describes many events and encounters of interest in themselves, nothing in these letters surpasses in value what Grant reveals about his own character, something historians have generally considered a mystery. The volume also contains maps, illustrations, and an index. *** The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant has been designed by Bert Clarke of New York and is printed by Clarke and Way. Clarke also designed [pg. 22] and printed General Grant by Matthew Arnold with a Rejoinder by Mark Twain, published last year by Southern Illinois University Press (4.25), which has recently won two design prizes. The book was chosen as a Top Honor Book by the Chicago Book Clinic and as one of the Fifty Books of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in New York City. *** The February, 1967, issue of In Britain, a magazine published by the British Travel Association, has an article by George McBride, “From Ulster to the White House,” discussing the Ulster ancestry of the Presidents of the United States. McBride states that a house belonging to Ulysses Grant’s maternal ancestors in Dergina, County Tyrone, marked with a commemorative plaque, is now the home of Isobel Simpson who is related to Grant’s mother. *** The Chicago Historical Society, which is well-known to Grant scholars for its important collection of Grant manuscripts, and which regularly exhibits the table on which Lee wrote his surrender at Appomattox, also owns some rather unusual Grant items, including Grant’s crutches, his cellarette, a pen he used in writing his memoirs, and an elaborate wedding certificate of his daughter Nellie (Mrs. Algernon Sartoris). Some of the Society’s lesser known Grant items are currently on exhibit as the April Feature of the Month.
Round Table Gold Medal Award Dinner, April 13, 1967
Any man who tries to make a speech about the accomplishments of General Ulysses S. Grant runs at once into three problems. Let me list them, as follows:
First, most of his listeners would rather have him talk about Robert E. Lee. They have nothing at all against Grant–except, perhaps, here and there, for the fact that he finally won the war; they just think Lee is a more glamorous character, and because he is more glamorous he is somehow more interesting.
Second, if the speaker is not very careful he will have to spend most of his time explaining that this famous soldier was not really an habitual drunkard, and that on quite a number of occasions he showed up for duty cold sober.
Third, the speaker cannot go very far without running head-on into the common belief that Grant was simply an unimaginative slugger who never in the world would have got to Appomattox if he had not commanded so many men that his great rival was simply beaten by force of numbers. If that is the case, of course, there is no point in talking about Grant’s generalship, because no [pg. 24] generalship was needed. All the man had to do was sit at the steering wheel and let the car run itself. Sheer weight and momentum would finally carry it to its goal.
I am going to dodge the first two of these hurdles. I will freely admit that Robert E. Lee is one of the most appealing characters in American history and that he did as well as any man could possibly have done with a task that in the last analysis proved impossible of accomplishment. I am not going to get into the second issue at all, because it seems to me self-evident that the soldier who came to represent–in the judgment of Abraham Lincoln, the keenest appraiser of men who ever sat in the White House–complete dependability and integrity, was no part of an alcoholic. It is to the third prong of this problem that I would like to address myself this evening.
What did Grant do, in the final, climactic campaign of the Civil War–the campaign that began on May 4, 1864, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan, and ended eleven months later when the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomnattox Courthouse?
I suggest to you that there was a good deal more to this campaign than simple slugging and attrition. The war did not win itself. The heavy weight of numbers, of course, was on the Federal side–it had been so, ever since Fort Sumter–but that weight in itself was not enough to bring victory. Grant’s predecessors had had that weight on their side, and none of them could make real use of it. The chief difference in 1864 was that there was a different man in charge: U. S. Grant. He used the power that was available to him as McClellan, Burnside, Pope, Hooker and Meade had been unable to do. How did he do it?
That goes without saying. But he was responsible for something more than that. It was up to him to destroy the Southern Confederacy as an independent nation. The Confederacy of course would remain independent as long as it possessed its capital city and that city’s magnificent defender, the Army of Northern Virginia. To destroy the army and occupy the city were naturally objectives of the highest importance. But to say that is not at all the same thing as saying that Grant’s underlying idea, from the start, was simply to bring Lee to battle head-on and fight him until he could fight no more. If he could do that, to be sure, it would be fine, and unquestionably one of the things Grant hoped for, in every battle he fought between the Rapidan and the James, was the kind of all-out victory every general wants. But his strategic plan was a good deal more subtle and complicated than we generally realize.
When he opened the 1864 campaign Grant had to keep two points in mind.
The first was the fact that Lee was notoriously averse to remaining on the defensive. He was a master of maneuver, an extremely daring strategist who took long chances–and usually made them work–simply because he was in a position where to play it safe was to lose. Precisely because time and the weight of numbers were on the side of the North, Lee had to turn the tables before the handicap they imposed became too much for him, and thus far in the war he had done it with dazzling success. Lee would seize the initiative if he were given the smallest bit of leeway. If a McClellan got down to the Chickahominy and [pg. 26] then paused to get everything ready–if a Pope got to Bull Run and waited for reinforcements to come up–if Hooker moved around the flank at Chancellorsville and then halted in order to let his own nerves regain their coolness–in all such cases, Lee could be relied on to strike back and reduce a “Forward to Richmond” drive to failure.
Whatever happened, therefore, it was necessary for Grant to keep the pressure on so constantly that Lee had no chance to go over to the offensive. The instructions Grant gave General Meade just before the campaign began are eloquent. Lee’s army, Grant said, was Meade’s big objective point: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” The Army of the Potomac in other words not only had to go on the offensive; it had to retain the offensive every minute of the way, so that whatever the two opposing armies did they would march where the Federal commander chose rather than where Lee chose.
But if this required Meade to keep in close contact with the Army of Northern Virginia every foot of the way–which of course would mean a great deal of hard fighting–it was not supposed that this by itself would be enough to bring victory. And this is where the second point in Grant’s basic plan comes in.
From the moment the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan, Grant was actually looking toward the country south of the James River. The reason for this is clear, and Grant stated it repeatedly: what he wanted was to cut the supply lines by which the Confederacy sent food, munitions, replacements and equipment to Lee’s army. If this could be done, Lee would be forced to do one of two things: either to retreat into the deep south, which in itself would lead to final Confederate defeat, or to turn and attack the much larger army that faced him under conditions which [pg. 27] would doom such an attack to failure. Now it is of course true that Grant’s plan did not work perfectly. Far from it, as the terrible engagements in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania and around Cold Harbor testified. But everything Grant did that spring and summer was directed toward that end, and it is instructive to see how it was planned.
In his attempt to put his plan into operation Grant had three principal instruments. First, of course, there was the Army of the Potomac. Second, and of almost equal importance, there was Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James. Third, there was the army that operated in the Shenandoah Valley, commanded successively by Franz Sigel, by David Hunter and by Phil Sheridan. All three armies moved together. Meade crossed the Rapidan, Butler went up the James to Bermuda Hundred, and Sigel began to move up the Shenandoah Valley.
Meade’s operation naturally gets most of the attention. His first task was to keep Lee so busy that the great Confederate would never have the opportunity to start a significant counter-offensive of his own. Grant hoped that Meade could eventually slide past Lee’s flank and take a position between Lee and Richmond which would compel Lee to attack him. Since Meade’s army was about twice as large as Lee’s army, and since the combination of field entrenchments and the rifled musket gave the defense all of the advantages, such a fight could hardly end in anything but Lee’s defeat.
Meade did half of the job perfectly. That is, he kept crowding Lee so energetically that after the first sharp clash in the Wilderness Lee remained on the defensive until the two armies had crossed the James River. Meade was never able to do the other half–to interpose between Lee and Richmond–partly because the command system of the Army of the [pg. 28] Potomac was just a little muscle-bound but much more because Lee was too able a strategist to get caught in such a trap. But the half that Meade did accomplish would have been enough if the other two armies had been able to do their part.
Butler and Sigel were supposed to go after those lines of supply. Landing below the James, Butler was supposed to cut the railroad lines that connected Richmond with the deep South; moving up the Shenandoah, Sigel was supposed to cut off that rich source of supplies; and it seems fairly certain that if Grant had been able to put really competent generals in the places held by those two incredibly inept political appointees the whole scheme would have worked in fairly quick time. Unfortunately for Grant, neither man was able to do the job, and the Army of the Potomac finally had to carry the whole load. The load was extremely heavy, and the war went on until the spring of 1865. It might well have ended much sooner.
In any case, Meade and Grant together moved down from the Rapidan to Cold Harbor. The terrible battles and the costly flanking maneuvers that filled those six weeks constitute one of the most grimly fascinating stories of the entire war, but unfortunately we do not have time tonight to examine them–we would be here until midnight, and we would know no more when we got through, than we know now. The only point I would like to make here is that the battle of Cold Harbor was actually a final attempt to move around Lee’s right flank and take a position between Lee’s army and the Confederate capital. It failed, and Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to cross the James River.
I want to emphasize that this had been his primary objective from the start. Beat Lee’s army in the field if possible, slip past him and [pg. 29] occupy Richmond if possible, but at all events get south of the James, put Meade’s army in line beside Butler’s, and then go after those lines of supply in earnest–that was the basic point in the whole strategic plan.
General Andrew A. Humphreys, Meade’s chief of staff, a capable soldier who was thoroughly familiar with the plan, and a man by the way who was not at any time an apologist for General Grant, wrote about this move after the war. He said that it was designed “to carry out the plan with which the Army of the Potomac began the campaign, that is, to destroy the lines of supply to the Confederate depot, Richmond, on the south side of the James as close to that city as practicable, after those on the north side of the river had been rendered useless.” Two days after Cold Harbor, Grant himself wrote to Halleck, in Washington: “My idea from the start has been to beat Lee’s army, if possible, north of Richmond, then after destroying his lines of communication north of the James river to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat.”
Before we go any farther with this, it is necessary to take a brief look at the railroad lines that were Grant’s principal objective.
Four railroad lines came up from the south to Petersburg. Two of these were unimportant–a stub line east to City Point, and a longer one running down to Norfolk. The federals occupied both of these as soon as they came up in front of Petersburg and the Confederacy never felt the loss. The other two, however, were vital.
These were what is called the Weldon road, that ran south from Petersburg all the way to the great blockade-runners’ port of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the South Side railroad that ran off westward to Lynchburg, where it met the Virginia and Tennessee railroad. Fifty or [pg. 30] sixty miles west of Petersburg it intersected another line of vast importance, the Richmond and Danville road. The roads that came into Petersburg, of course, had a direct railroad connection with Richmond itself.
These were the supply lines that Lee and Richmond simply had to retain. If they could be broken even briefly, the Army of Northern Virginia and the capital it defended would be put under a severe strain; if they could be broken permanently, Lee would have to retreat and the capital would have to be given up. Butler might have broken them by seizing Petersburg during the first week of May. Being Butler, he did not even come close. Now the job had to be done.
In addition, both Humphreys and Grant had spoken about breaking the supply lines north of the river. Here they were thinking principally about the Shenandoah Valley and about Lynchburg. The Virginia Central railroad went north and west from Richmond to strike the Orange and Alexandria road at Gordonsville. It went on to Staunton, in the Valley; and there was also a branch running down from Gordonsville through Charlottesville to Lynchburg. Lynchburg, incidentally, was a supply depot of extreme importance to the Confederate cause. If, while the lines south of the James were broken, Lynchburg could be seized, and if the Virginia Central and its connections in the Gordonsville-Charlottesville area could be occupied, Lee’s isolation would be complete. At the time the Army of the Potomac crossed the James, Grant had reason to hope that this was about to take place.
General Hunter, having replaced Sigel, was moving up the valley with Lynchburg as his goal. Grant sent Sheridan and two divisions of cavalry off to Gordonsville, with orders to destroy that railroad connection, join hands with Hunter, go on and take Lynchburg, and then come back to [pg. 31] join the Army of the Potomac.
As you know, this plan failed to work. Sheridan got to Trevilian Station, a dozen miles east of Gordonsville, destroyed a segment of the Virginia Central, and then learned that Hunter was moving up the valley on the far side of the Blue Ridge, by way of Lexington. Sheridan fought the Confederate cavalry, and although he claimed a victory the fact remained that he felt unable to go on and join Hunter, who was moving away from him rather than toward him. He came back to the Army of the Potomac, the destruction he inflicted on the railroad was quickly repaired–one interesting fact about the Civil War is that cavalry raids, by themselves, almost invariably failed to inflict lasting damage–and Hunter, who was a little better than Sigel but not very much better, failed to take Lynchburg and was driven off in retreat into the mountains of West Virginia, leaving the Shenandoah Valley open for the operations of General Jubal Early.
In other words, what Grant hoped to gain immediately was not gained. He did not break the communications north of the river. His swift thrust to the south did not result in the fall of Petersburg, which would have broken the southern supply network permanently. He did get Meade’s and Butler’s armies together south of the James, as he had hoped to do, but although he got them there in the middle of June, 1864, it was not until April of 1865 that Lee was forced to go off in a doomed retreat. It is easy to assume, as a result, that the fearfully costly campaign from the Rapidan south had not won anything in particular, that Grant had been foiled and that he finally won out only because of the North’s immense superiority in manpower and supplies.
The first witness has to be Lee himself. When Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia below the river to counter Grant’s thrust at Petersburg he unquestionably went where he did not want to go. Earlier in the campaign he had said to Jubal Early: “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James river. If he gets there it will becomes siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” At about the same period he told A. P. Hill that unless Grant could be stopped, “we shall at last be obliged to take refuge behind the works of Richmond and stand a siege, which would be but a work of time.” By the end of June, 1864, Grant was on the James, and if Lee was not quite in the “works of Richmond” he was in the trenches of Petersburg, which were very nearly the same thing.
Grant had the same idea. The day after the last attack at Cold Harbor he told Adam Badeau, his military secretary, that he believed success now “was only a question of time.” He and Lee, in other words, saw it the same way. Grant’s strategy was beginning to work. Six weeks after crossing the Rapidan–not a long time, as military campaigns go–he had put his army in a position from which it could not be dislodged–in a position where it could constrict the life out of the Confederate army and capital in Virginia. It would take many more months, many lives, and unflinching determination: but the rival generals saw it alike–now it was only a question of time.
There was nothing magical about having a strong Federal army on the south side of the James–except that now, at last, this army was within reaching distance of those railroad lines that it had been going for from [pg. 33] the beginning. An advance of only a few miles would break the Weldon railroad once and for all, and to go only a little farther would break the South Side line. The goal was not Petersburg, and it was not really Richmond: it was the supply lines. Grant understood the meaning of railroads. This was the Vicksburg campaign all over again. He had been able to do nothing against Vicksburg until he finally crossed the river and cut the railroad that linked General John C. Pemberton with the rest of the Confederacy. Once he did that, Pemberton’s number was up. Once he crossed the James, he threatened Lee with Pemberton’s fate.
Lee understood this very clearly. He sent Jubal Early and an army corps off to the Shenandoah on June 12, the very day Grant disappeared from his front–a time when Lee needed every soldier he had–to protect the valley and the valley’s railroad network; to stave off the disaster that he saw taking shape. Just after he told Early to go as far north as he could, Lee wrote to President Davis:
“I am less uneasy about holding our position than about our ability to procure supplies for the army. I fear the latter difficulty may oblige me to attack General Grant in his entrenchments, which I should not hesitate to do but for the loss it will inevitably entail. A want of success would in my opinion be almost fatal, and this causes me to hesitate in the hope that some relief may be procured without running such great hazard.”
Grant of course had to send troops north to drive Early away from Washington. He shaved it pretty thin, but he succeeded; and once the Sixth Corps got to Washington Grant never had any doubt that Early would eventually be defeated and made harmless. And it is interesting to note that over and over again, from July of 1864 to the winter of 1865, in [pg. 34] his dispatches to Ha1leck, to Hunter and at last to Sheridan, Grant emphasized one point. Assuming that Early would be driven back, he called time and again for a new Federal advance up the Valley that would seal that source of supplies off from Lee once and forever. He wanted the Gordonsville-Charlottesville-Lynchburg railroad network broken, just as he wanted the railroads south of Petersburg broken.
He finally got what he wanted, in the spring of 1865. It is instructive to note that in the spring of 1865, after the Weldon road had finally been broken, when Sheridan at last occupied Staunton and came eastward, ripping up the Virginia Central, to join Grant, Lee felt compelled to do what he had told Mr. Davis he did not want to do: that is, he moved out to attack Grant’s fortified lines, striking at Fort Stedman and suffering an expensive defeat. Grant followed by cutting the South Side road, after the battle of Five Forks–which logically followed the battle at Fort Stedman–and then there was nothing left for Lee but the hard road to Appomattox, the sunset shadows and a tragic, haunting place in the American memory.
Grant’s strategy, in short, worked the way he hoped it would work when he took Meade across the Rapidan. It was not, to be sure, automatic, and it assuredly was not easy. And it required one element that is not always taken into account–unflagging persistence, not only by the army in the field but also by the government in Washington. What Grant did cannot be considered apart from what Abraham Lincoln did. The dominant fact in the final year of the war indeed was the unbreakable partnership between President Lincoln and General Grant. Grant was admitted to that partnership–as none of his predecessors had been–simply because he had earned it. Lincoln trusted him implicitly and gave him all-out support.
[pg. 35] This cannot have been easy for Lincoln. He had a Presidential election campaign to win in that summer of 1864; he doubted very much that he would be able to win it, and after the terrible casualty lists produced by the campaign from the Rapidan to the James a great wave of disillusionment and war-weariness swept the north. But Lincoln left no one in any doubt about where he stood. On June 16, just after Grant had crossed the James, Lincoln made a little speech at a Sanitary Commission Fair in Philadelphia, using words which any American President might feel called on to use at a moment when the electorate seems to have grown tired of supporting a war that seems to have no visible end. Here is what Lincoln said:
“We accepted this war for an object, a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is attained. Under God, I hope it never will until that time. Speaking of the present campaign, General Grant is reported to have said: ‘I am going through on this line if it takes all summer.’…I say we are going through on this line if it takes three years more.”
With that kind of support from Washington, Grant brought his 1864 campaign to a triumphant conclusion.
NEWS NOTES *** At a recent Grant Association board meeting two new directors, E. B. Long and William K. Alderfer, were elected to replace retiring directors James I. Robertson and Erwin C. Zepp. Long, director of research for Bruce Catton, has been vice chairman of the editorial board of the Grant Association since 1962. Alderfer, formerly director of the Historical Society of Michigan, is now Illinois State Historian. Clyde C. Walton, former Illinois State Historian and also a director of [pg. 36] the Grant Association, will maintain his connection with the Grant Association from his new post as Director of Libraries at Northern Illinois University, De Kalb. *** Joseph Olgin’s Ulysses S. Grant: General and President is a recent publication of Houghton Mifflin (Piper Books, $2.20) designed for readers between the ages of nine and eleven. The book has 191 pages containing numerous drawings, and there are two excellent maps and a guide to pronunciation at the end. The book focuses upon Grant’s early years; less than a third of the pages cover his life after the beginning of the Civil War. There is considerable dialogue created by the author, and the brisk narrative presents no special difficulties for young readers. *** Another recent publication of Grant interest is Victor Hicken’s Illinois in the Civil War, sponsored by the Illinois Civil War Centennial Commission and published by the University of Illinois Press ($7.50). Drawing on a vast body of letters and accounts by soldiers, Hicken has created what E. B. Long, in an introduction, calls “a composite eyewitness report of the Illinois volunteer as he was.” Intrigued by the star-crossed career of General John A. McClernand, Hicken gives considerable attention to his rivalry with Grant.