[pg. 7] GENERAL GRANT AND GENERAL PRENTISS *** As soon as the Civil War began, Governor Richard Yates of Illinois realized both the strategic importance and the vulnerability of the southern tip of his state. The earliest Illinois volunteers were sent to Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, under the command of Benjamin H. Prentiss, a lawyer from Quincy and Mexican War veteran, who was appointed a colonel. When more troops arrived in Cairo, including full regiments commanded by colonels, Yates advanced Prentiss to brigadier general.
When Prentiss was appointed a colonel, Grant was still nominally in the leather business in Galena. Prentiss had advanced to brigadier general when Grant was named a temporary mustering officer. But Governor Yates had no authority to appoint brigadier generals; only President Lincoln could do this. When Prentiss’ appointment was confirmed by Congress in midsummer 1861, Grant stood on the same list of brigadier generals with appointments to date from May 17; in fact, Grant stood a few notches higher because of his previous rank of captain in the regular army.
These technicalities were probably far from General John C. Fremont’s mind when he sent Prentiss to take command at Ironton, Missouri, where Grant was already stationed. When Grant arrived in St. Louis, however, Fremont learned that he had accidentally superseded him by a junior officer. Grant was sent to Jefferson City for a week, then returned to southeast Missouri. [pg. 8] It was General Prentiss’ turn for initiation into the mysteries of rank.
The following account of the incident is a portion of an unpublished autobiography of General Benjamin H. Grierson of Jacksonville, Illinois, made available through the courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library and Mrs. M. L. Frank of Jacksonville, a grandniece of General Grierson. The account was written long after the events described, but is based closely on long letters written at the time to Mrs. Grierson.
General Prentiss, who was anxious to have me continue with him during the war, had endeavored to obtain, by the assistance of General Fremont, a commission for me from the War Department with the rank of captain. He was assured by General Fremont that he should have command of the troops both at Cairo and in south-east Missouri. Being the commander, as he understood it, of even more than a Division he thought himself entitled to an aide-de-camp with the rank of major and was determined that I should have that grade if he could obtain it for me. So soon as the troops could be equipped and properly supplied with transportation it was the intention to move southward to Greenville, Wayne County, Mo., to attack the rebels, said to be there under command of General Hardie [Hardee], and supposed to be 6000 in number….On arrival of General Prentiss at Ironton he found General Grant pushing things as well as he could with the force available. Fremont liking Prentiss had resolved to increase his command and on the promises heretofore mentioned had sent him to Ironton. Grant supposed himself relieved but Prentiss claiming superiority under Fremont’s orders Grant asked leave to go to St. Louis to consult with Fremont on the subject and Prentiss of course cheerfully gave his consent. General Fremont finally ascertained that Grant did rank Prentiss and saw that it was a great blunder to have brought those two officers into collision. Grant not wishing to go back to Ironton to supersede Prentiss was sent temporarily to Jefferson City and soon afterwards assigned to Prentiss’ old command at Cairo and vicinity, a change which proved fortunate for the former and correspondingly detrimental to the interests of the latter…. [Prentiss was later ordered to move from Ironton to Jackson, Missouri. Grierson’s account of the march is omitted.]
When General Prentiss was ordered on that expedition he supposed it was to head the great movement southward, but when he arrived at Jackson he found Colonel Marsh, with troops already there, who, upon receiving his orders informed him he already had them from General Grant and could not of course obey two commanders. General Prentiss was appointed a Brigadier-General of Illinois State Troops on the 8th day of May, 1861, and received his commission on that day. His appointment of Brigadier-General of Volunteers was dated May 17th, the same date as General Grant’s and General Prentiss believed himself entitled to precedence on account of his commission as Brigadier-General received from the Governor of Illinois, but on account of General Grant’s previous service in the United States Army, he was by the War Department, placed above him in the order of appointment and was therefore superior to General Prentiss in rank, as well as many other [pg. 9] officers who were appointed General Officers at that time. General Prentiss immediately proceeded to Cape Girardeau to meet General Grant and it was early in September when the interview herein related took place which resulted in a wide breech between those two officers and the subsequent removal of General Prentiss to a distant command. I was the only other person present on that occasion. I did my utmost to maintain peace between those gallant and ambitious officers. I believed that my friend and commander, General Prentiss, to a certain extent justifiable in his cause, but could not be insensible to the intemperance with which he urged his claims. Seeing that General Prentiss was laboring under great excitement, I had determined at all hazards to prevent any serious collision between him and General Grant. At the commencement of the interview a staff-officer who accompanied General Grant, hearing loud talking in the room opened the door as if to enter. General Grant turning towards him raised his hand and indicated that he wished him to remain outside. Seeing this I at once proposed to General Grant to withdraw also, as I then presumed he might prefer to be alone with General Prentiss. General Grant however immediatedly said that he desired me to remain. I had already been endeavoring to quiet General Prentiss and to secure an understanding and an arrangement which would be satisfactory to both officers. Although my position was, under the circumstances, an embarrassing one, I believe my coolness and presence of mind was a fortunate thing for all parties immediately concerned, as well as for the cause in which we all felt so deep an interest.
General Prentiss having, as has been seen, a reasonable expectation of being the first in command in that part of the country and leader of the main expedition southward, was exceedingly exasperated at finding himself subordinate to General Grant, as can readily be understood. General Grant, however, offered the most favorable arrangement possible to General Prentiss, promising him opportunities to do and troops to do with, but nothing could assuage General Prentiss who became very violent and abusive. General Grant was very patient and magnanimous; told General Prentiss he did not want to interfere with him; offered to place him in command of the movement southward and to let him have all the men necessary, and in short aid him to the utmost in every way in his power to insure the success of the expedition. General Prentisa persistently refused to be appeased, and relying on General Fremont’s regard for him believed he could carry his point. He refused absolutely to take orders from General Grant; returned to Jackson in great anger; turned over his command to Colonel John Cook of the 7th Illinois Infantry, and then went to his tent, laid down on his bed and there dictated a letter to General Fremont, giving a statement of the whole transaction and interview between himself and General Grant and sent me to deliver it to General Fremont at St. Louis. I started immediatedly to carry out instructions but on my arrival at General Fremont’s Headquarters I found that the General was just starting to make a call on Prince Napoleon. I succeeded in presenting the papers to his private secretary, however, and arranged to return in the after-noon for an answer. Upon so returning I unfortunately found that Prince Napoleon was there returning General Fremont’s call, which of course made it necessary to arrange for the interview to take place the next morning. Before leaving headquarters I learned from the secretary that General Prentiss had already been ordered to St. Louis, where he arrived at 6 o ‘clock, a.m., the next day. His presence of course relieved me from further action in the matter. He called on General Fremont at the hour fixed upon, but found him so much occupied in giving orders for the shipment of troops that he had to make a further [pg. 10] appointment to meet him later in the day, and while he was having that interview I occupied my time in writing an account of those extraordinary occurrences to Mrs. Grierson. General Prentiss had, under excitement, on the spur of the moment, tendered his resignation but after the conference with General Fremont he was induced to withdraw it on the assurance that he would be assigned to an adequate command. The whole affair was unfortunate for General Prentiss and in my judgment it was a very great mistake, under all the circumstances, for him to refuse to receive orders from General Grant. Had he remained at his post he would have had every opportunity afforded him for distinction. Fremont could not sustain him against a higher power and Prentiss was finally ordered into north Missouri where the rebels carried on a sort of gurilla warfare which amounted to nothing. He had a large section of country and a large nunber of troops but they were so scattered and the rebels so disinclined to concentrate and attempt any great movement, that the command was a very undesirable one as nothing but the most petty and desultory warfare was possible. My remonstrances with General Prentiss were earnest, and for a time seemed persuasive, but unfortunately failed in the end and it is probable that the result was afterwards regretted by General Prentiss himself. My relations with General Grant during this unfortunate quarrel were perfectly satisfactory notwithstanding my loyalty to my superior and friend General Prentiss….
Prentiss came under Grant’s command again on April 1, 1862, at Pittsburg Landing. There he was placed in command of newly arrived reinforcements and with these withstood the attack of the Confederates at Shiloh five days later. When the rest of the Union army pulled back, Prentiss maintained a stubborn defense of the Hornets’ Nest until he and the remainder of his command were captured late in the afternoon. He had sold his command to buy time for Grant.
Prentiss was exchanged after six months and soon reassigned to Grant, who stationed him at Helena, Arkansas, during the Vicksburg campaign to prevent Confederate reinforcements from the Trans-Mississippi reaching Vicksburg. On the very day Vicksburg surrendered Prentiss defeated a Confederate army twice the size of his own.
Prentiss resigned his commission that fall to resume his law practice in Quincy. That there was no ill-feeling was shown later when President Grant appointed Prentiss a federal pension agent, and shown once more when Grant discussed their earlier difficulties in his Memoirs.
[pg. 11] General Prentiss made a great mistake on the above occasion, one that he would not have committed later in the war. When I came to know him better, I regretted it much. In consequence of this occurrence he was off duty in the field when the principal campaign at the West was going on, and his juniors received promotion while he was where none could be obtained. He would have been next to myself in rank in the district of southeast Missouri, by virtue of his services in the Mexican war. He was a brave and very earnest soldier. No man in the service was more sincere in his devotion to the cause for which we were battling; none more ready to make sacrifices or risk life in it.
NEWS NOTES *** The Grant Association has been awarded a medallion and certificate by the United States Civil War Centennial Commission. The presentation was made by Fred Schwengel, vice chairman of the commission, at a meeting of the Chicago Civil War Round Table. Newton C. Farr, a director of the Grant Association, accepted the award. *** Let Us Have Peace: The Story of Ulysses S. Grant, by Howard N. Meyer, is a recent publication of the Collier Books branch of the Macmillan Company. Although published in a series of history books for teenagers, there is nothing condescending about either the style or the ideas. With some twenty per cent of the text treating Grant’s life before the war, forty per cent the war itself, and another forty per cent the years beyond Appomattox, this is one of the best proportioned Grant biographies. Meyer emphasizes Grant’s dislike of war, and deals more with his character and personality than his generalship. Sympathetic to Radical Reconstruction, he believes that Grant’s role in the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment was his supreme achievement. “I insist,” Meyer has written, “that Grant has been misjudged in the consensus of our ‘trained’ historians, who have obscured his greatness as a pacifist and citizen soldier and distorted his contribution as a stubborn opponent of Andrew Johnson’s evil course.” *** Another new book which discusses Grant and the Fifteenth Amendment is William Gillette’s The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, published [pg. 12] by the Johns Hopkins Press. Gillette argues that the amendment established impartial rather than universal suffrage in order to gain needed support from moderate Republicans and that the primary goal was enfranchisement of the Negro in the North where a few more Republican votes might carry closely contested pivotal states. Beyond that, however, the amendment also carried “the source and the vision of political equality…as capable of growth as the capacity of Americans to mature.” It was in this light that Grant regarded ratification of the amendment as “the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life.”