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Chapter 1:

  • Birth and parentage of Grant
  • -- his name -- West point -- his army life -- the Mexican war -- he marries -- leaves the army -- enters the leather trade -- Galena -- Grant drills a company -- takes it to Springfield -- organizes volunteer troops -- Visits Cincinnati to see McClellan -- becomes colonel of the twenty-first Illinois regiment -- marches it to Missouri -- is made brigadier-general of volunteers -- takes command of the District of southeast Missouri -- Seizes Paducah -- Sends a force to drive rebels into Arkansas -- makes a demonstration upon Belmont -- the demonstration converted into an attack -- battle of Belmont -- Grant's success -- enemy reenforced -- Grant cuts his way out -- results of Belmont.

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on the 27th of April, 1822, at Point Pleasant, Clermont county, Ohio. His father was of Scotch descent, and a dealer in leather. Ulysses was the eldest of six children. He entered the Military Academy at West Point at the age of seventeen, the congressman who procured his appointment giving his name by mistake as Ulysses S. Grant. Simpson was the maiden name of his mother, and was also borne by one of his younger brothers: this doubtless occasioned the error. Young Grant applied to the authorities at West Point and to the Secretary of War, to have the blunder corrected, but the request was unnoticed; his comrades at once adopted the initials U. S. in his behalf, and christened him Uncle Sam, a nickname that he never [8] lost in the army; and when he graduated in 1843, twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine, his commission of brevet second lieutenant and his diploma, both styled him Ulysses S. Grant, by which name he has since been known.

His regiment was the Fourth infantry; he remained in the army eleven years, was engaged in every battle of the Mexican War, except Buena Vista, receiving two brevets for gallantry, and was afterwards stationed at various posts on the Canada frontier, and finally in California and Oregon. In 1848, he married Julia T. Dent, eldest daughter of Frederick Dent, a merchant of St. Louis; and in 1854, having reached the grade of captain, he resigned his commission in the army, and removed to Gravois, near St. Louis, where he owned and worked a farm. Afterwards, in 1860, he entered the leather trade, with his father and brother, at Galena, Illinois. Thus, when the civil war broke out, Grant was a private citizen, earning his bread in an insignificant inland town. He was of simple habits and tastes, without influence, and unambitious. Having never been brought in contact with men of eminence, he had no personal knowledge of great affairs. He had never commanded more than a company of soldiers, and although he had served under both Scott and Taylor, it was as a subaltern,1 and without any opportunity of intercourse with those commanders. He had never voted for a President but once; he knew no politicians, for his acquaintance was limited [9] to army officers and Western traders; even in the town where he lived, he had not met the member of Congress who represented the district for nine successive years, and who afterwards became one of his most intimate personal friends. Of his four children, the eldest was eleven years old. He lived in a little house at the top of one of the picturesque hills on which Galena is built, and went daily to the warehouse of his father and brother, where leather was sold by the wholesale and retail. He was thirty-nine years of age, before his countrymen became acquainted with his name.

Fort Sumter fell on the 13th of April, 1861, and the President's call for troops was made on the 15th. On the 19th, Grant was drilling a company of volunteers at Galena, and four days afterwards went with it to Springfield, the capital of Illinois. From there, he wrote to the adjutant-general of the army, offering his services to the government, in any capacity in which he could be of use. The letter was not deemed of sufficient importance to preserve: it stated that Grant had received a military education at the public expense, and now that the country was in danger, he thought it his duty to place at the disposal of the authorities, whatever skill or experience he had acquired. He received no reply; but remaining at Springfield, his military knowledge made him of service in the organization of the volunteer troops of the state; and at the end of five weeks, the governor, Honorable Richard Yates, offered him the Twenty-first regiment of Illinois infantry.

Before receiving his colonelcy, Grant went to Cincinnati to visit Major-General McClellan, then in command of Ohio volunteers. The two had known [10] each other in the old army, and although Grant had no intention of making any application, he still hoped that McClellan might offer him a place on his staff. He went twice to headquarters, but did not find McClellan there, and returned to Illinois, without mentioning his aspirations to any one. Early in June, he took command of his regiment, and marched at once to Missouri, reporting to Brigadier-General Pope, by whom he was stationed at Mexico, about fifty miles north of the Missouri river. On the 7th of August, he was commissioned by the President, brigadier-general of volunteers, to date from May 17th, his first knowledge or suspicion of this rank coming to him from the newspapers of the day. He had been unanimously recommended for the promotion by the members of Congress from Illinois, no one of whom had been his personal acquaintance.2

During the war, the entire country was divided by the United States authorities, into military departments, whose boundaries and organization were repeatedly changed. The state of Illinois, and the states and territories west of the Mississippi river, and east of the Rocky mountains, constituted at this time the Western Department, of which Major-General Fremont was in command. On the 8th of August, Fremont transferred Grant to Ironton, Missouri, and a fortnight afterwards to Jefferson City, in the same state. At both these places, he was occupied in watching the movements of partisan forces. On the 1st of September, by direction of Fremont, [11] he assumed command of the District of Southeast Missouri, and on the 4th, made his headquarters at Cairo, at the mouth of the Ohio. The district included not only the region from which it takes its name, but the southern part of Illinois, and so much of western Kentucky and Tennessee as might fall into the possession of national forces; it comprised the junction of the four great rivers, Tennessee, Cumberland, Ohio, and Mississippi.

Grant's first act was the seizure of Paducah, at the mouth of the Tennessee. The governor of Kentucky was at this time insisting that the state should maintain a position of armed neutrality, and all Kentuckians who sympathized with the rebels, took the same ground. This neutrality had never been recognized by the United States authorities, but was first violated by General Polk, the rebel commander in that region. He seized Columbus and Hickman, on the Mississippi, and threatened Paducah, within three days after Grant assumed his new command. All these places were of military importance, and Paducah completely commands the navigation of both the Tennessee and the Ohio. Fremont had previously ordered a movement in Missouri, which Grant was to superintend, and had directed the construction of Fort Holt on the Kentucky shore; but on the 2d of September, Grant arrived at Cairo, and on the 5th, heard of the advance of Polk, which had occurred the day before. He at once notified his commanding officer, as well as the Kentucky legislature at Frank. fort, and later in the same day, having received additional information, he telegraphed to Fremont at St. Louis: ‘I am getting ready to go to Paducah. Will start at six and a half o'clock.’ Still later on [12] the 5th, he wrote: ‘I am now nearly ready for Paducah, should not telegram arrive preventing the movement.’

Getting no reply, he started at ten and a half o'clock that night, with two regiments and a light battery; he also took two gunboats, the naval force in that neighborhood being under his control. He was delayed at Mound City, by an accident to one of his transports, but arrived at Paducah at half-past 8 on the morning of the 6th. The city was seized without a gun being fired, Brigadier-General Tilghman and his staff, of the rebel army, with a company of recruits, hurrying out of the town by the railroad, south, while Grant was getting ashore. A force of thirty-eight hundred rebels was reported to be sixteen miles off, and rebel flags and stores were found in the town; but this movement saved Paducah and the control of the Ohio river. Grant stayed in town only until noon, when, leaving a sufficient garrison, he returned to Cairo, where he received Fremont's permission to take Paducah ‘if he felt strong enough.’ The next day, Brigadier-General C. F. Smith was put in command of the place, with orders to report direct to Fremont, at St. Louis, and Grant was rebuked for corresponding with the legislature;3 but that body at once passed resolutions favorable to the Union, [13] and the political position of the state was secured: no more was heard of the neutrality of Kentucky. The seizure of Paducah was violently criticised by those whom it disappointed, and furnished an illustration of traits destined afterwards peculiarly to characterize the generalship of Grant.

For two months afterwards, Grant was occupied in holding the country at the junction of the great rivers, near which his headquarters were established, and in organizing and disciplining his forces, which by the 1st of November, were increased to nearly twenty thousand men. He was kept strictly subordinate by Fremont, and allowed to make no movement of importance by that commander; Smithland, however, at the mouth of the Cumberland, was occupied by C. F. Smith without opposition, a few weeks after Paducah. Several times Grant suggested the feasibility of capturing Columbus, an important position on the east bank of the Mississippi, about twenty miles below Cairo; and, on the 10th of September, he even asked permission to make the attempt: ‘If it was discretionary with me, with a little addition to my present force, I would take Columbus.’ No notice was taken of this application. Belmont, on the west bank, was a small post, fortified only by a rude sort of abatis, and lying directly under the guns of Columbus. The rebels were constantly crossing troops between these points, and in time made Columbus one of the strongest works on the Mississippi river, and one of their great depots of men and sup. plies. It of course completely barred the navigation of the stream, and was a constant menace to every point in Grant's command.

On the 1st of November, Fremont ordered Grant [14] to make demonstrations on both sides of the Mississippi, in the direction of Norfolk, Charleston, and Blandville, points a few miles north of Columbus and Belmont. He was not, however, to attack the enemy. On the 2d, Fremont informed him that three thousand rebels were on the St. Francis river, in Missouri, about fifty miles southwest of Cairo, and ordered him to send a force to assist in driving them into Arkansas. Grant accordingly sent Colonel Oglesby, on the night of the 3d, with four regiments (three thousand men), from Commerce, Missouri, towards Indian Ford, on the St. Francis river. On the 5th, however, Fremont telegraphed him that Polk, who commanded at Columbus, was sending reenforcements to Price, in southwest Missouri, by way of the Mississippi and White rivers. Fremont had a force at that time confronting Price, and it was of vital importance to him that these reenforcements should cease. Grant was accordingly directed to make at once the demonstration towards Columbus which had been previously ordered. He immediately instructed Oglesby to turn his column in the direction of New Madrid, on the Mississippi, below Belmont, and sent him an additional regiment. General C. F. Smith, commanding at Paducah, was also requested to move out from that place towards the rear of Columbus, and ‘to keep the enemy from throwing over the river much more force than they now have there;’ Grant informing him that ‘the principal point to gain, is to prevent the enemy from sending a force to fall in the rear of those now sent out from this command.’ Two other and smaller demonstrations for the same purpose, were ordered at the same time, from Bird's Point and Fort Holt, near [15] Cairo, the commanders being instructed to return the day after moving out.

On the evening of the 6th, Grant started down the river in person, with thirty-one hundred and fourteen men on transports, and under convoy of two gunboats. The force included a section of artillery, two squadrons of cavalry, and five regiments of infantry, to some of whom arms had been issued for the first time only two days before. Grant had but one general officer in his command, McClernand, who at that time had never heard a hostile shot; Logan, who afterwards became so distinguished, also accompanied him, but as a colonel. Grant proceeded nine miles, and made a feint of landing at a point on the Kentucky shore, where he lay till daybreak, with a view to distract the enemy, and, in conjunction with Smith's demonstrations, to give the idea that an attack on Columbus was contemplated.

At two o'clock on the morning of the 7th, he received intelligence that the rebels had been crossing troops from Columbus to Belmont, the day before, with the purpose of cutting off Oglesby. He at once determined to convert the demonstration against Belmont into an attack, as it was now necessary to be prompt in preventing any further effort of the rebels either to reinforce Price or to interrupt Oglesby. He still, however, had no intention of remaining at Belmont, which is on low ground, and could not have been held an hour under the guns at Columbus. His idea was simply to destroy the camps, capture or disperse the enemy, and get away himself before the rebel garrison could be reinforced.

At six o'clock, the transports moved down the river, and the troops were debarked at Hunter's [16] Point, on the Missouri side, just out of range of the Columbus batteries. They marched direct towards Belmont, about three miles off. Here, in an open space, protected by fallen forest timber, the rebels had pitched their camp. Grant moved by a flank, for about a mile, then drew his troops up in line, and ordered forward the whole force as skirmishers. On the road, he met with serious opposition, and by nine o'clock, his entire command was hotly engaged, except one battalion held in reserve near the landing, as a guard to the transports; the gunboats, although wood. en, occasionally engaged the batteries at Columbus, many of which had a plunging fire; this action, however, was without result. The country on the Belmont side was partially wooded, and cut up with sloughs and swamps, and the rebels took advantage of these difficulties. There was heavy fighting for nearly four hours; during all this time Grant was with the skirmish line; his own horse was shot under him, McClernand lost three horses, and every colonel set an example of gallantry to his command. Stimulated by this behavior, the green soldiers fought like veterans, and finally drove the rebels foot by foot, through sloughs and fields, and from tree to tree, to the river bank, charged through the abatis, took several hundred prisoners, captured all the artillery, and broke up the camp.

They became, however, at once disorganized by their victory, and instead of pursuing the enemy, as he huddled and crouched under the river bank, set about plundering, while their colonels, equally raw, shouted and made stump speeches for the Union. Grant, meanwhile, had observed the rebel transports crossing the river from Columbus, and crowded with [17] troops on their triple decks. He was anxious to get back to his own steamers before these reenforcements could arrive, and strove to re-form his men, but in vain; they behaved like so many schoolboys, until, finally, to stop the plundering, he ordered his staff officers to set the camps on fire. This drew the attention of the artillerists at Columbus, who speedily opened on the national troops, when, perceiving the necessity of discipline, the men returned to the ranks, and the march to the transports began. Meanwhile, the defeated rebels, finding no notice was taken of them, had re-formed under the bank, and in the woods on the point of land just above Belmont; three fresh regiments from Columbus had also arrived, and the combined force, passing along under the bank, interposed between Grant and his transports. It was instantly cried: ‘We are surrounded!’ and at first some confusion prevailed. An officer of Grant's staff, lately from civil life, rode up, a little flustered, with the intelligence. ‘Well,’ said Grant, ‘if that is so, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in.’ The men were brave enough, but it had not occurred to them before, that being surrounded, there was any thing to do but surrender. Grant, however, remarked: ‘We have whipped them once, and I think we can do it again;’ and as soon as the troops found that their leader meant to fight, the confusion was past; they promptly charged and dispersed the rebel line, which made but a faint resistance, not half so vigorous as that of the morning, and disappeared a second time over the banks.

It was necessary, however, to lose no time, for reenforcements were still crossing the river in large numbers. Grant pushed on to the landing, and [18] getting most of his force aboard, sent a detachment to gather up the wounded. He was occupied thus for an hour, without disturbance, but owing to the inexperience of his officers, not one of whom was a professional soldier, he had nearly every thing to do in person, and was obliged to superintend the execution of his own orders. The main body was nearly embarked, when he rode back with a single staff officer, to withdraw the battalion he had posted in the morning, as a guard to the transports, and which he supposed still covered the men who were bringing in wounded. But the reserves were as raw as the rest of the troops, and when the others were drawn in, they too had thought proper to retire. Without any orders, and without reporting their action, they had returned to the transports, not in alarm, for their position was protected by the gunboats, but simply out of ignorance and inexperience.

Grant was therefore completely outside of his own troops. At this moment, he rode up on a knoll, and discovered immediately in his front, the whole rebel force, now greatly augmented, and advancing upon him in line of battle. The enemy had formed a third time, nearly parallel to the bank, and was extending his own left so as to cut off the national transports, by getting to their rear, higher up the river. The bend in the stream just here, makes a peninsula of the Missouri shore, and rendered this manoeuvre easy to execute. The rebel line was in a corn-field, not fifty yards from Grant, and already firing on his transports. He sat still for a moment to observe the situation, and presented an easy mark to the rebel rifles; but the morning had been damp and chilly, and he wore a private's overcoat, and was not recognized [19] for an officer. He saw at once that it was impossible to save the parties who were still out in search of the wounded, and completely cut off; so he turned his horse, riding back to the transports slowly, in order not to attract a fire. Getting nearer, however, he put spurs to his horse, and galloped hard to the bank, the animal sliding over the brink on his haunches. The rebel fire was now hot, and the transports were about pushing off, leaving Grant ashore; he however rode rapidly up, and a plank was put out for him, over which he trotted his horse aboard, under a heavy musketry fire. The convoy of gunboats then opened on the rebel ranks, which had by this time approached within fifty or sixty yards. Grape and canister were poured into them with good effect, mowing the men down in swaths.4 The enemy fortunately fired too high, and a storm of shot passed over the hurricane deck, but wounded only three men, and killed none. By five o'clock, the last transport was out of range, officers and men equally elated with the idea of having gained a victory.

The next day, under a flag of truce, Grant met an old West Point comrade, who had become a rebel, and was serving on Polk's staff. Grant mentioned having ridden out and met the rebel line. ‘Was that you?’ said the other; ‘we saw you, and Gen. eral Polk called to some of his troops: “There, men, is a Yankee, if you want to try your aim;” ’ but all [20] were intent on hitting the transports then, and nobody fired at Grant.

At Belmont, Grant lost four hundred and eighty. five men in killed, wounded, and missing; one hundred and twenty-five of his wounded fell into the hands of the rebels; he carried off one hundred and seventy-five prisoners and two guns, and spiked four other pieces: three of these last were left behind, because drawn by hand, and the other had an inefficient team. About seven thousand rebels were engaged, and Polk sustained a loss of six hundred and forty-two men. By their own showing, the rebels had twice as many troops as Grant, and lost one-third more.5 If any reenforcements were to be sent to Price, they were by this operation detained, and the movement of Oglesby was entirely protected. The enemy also remained concentrated thereafter at Columbus, lest another and more serious attack should follow.

This battle confirmed Grant in the belief on which he always afterwards acted, that when neither party is well disciplined, there is nothing to gain in the matter of discipline, by delay. The enemy organizes [21] and improves as rapidly as yourself, and all the advantages of prompt movement are lost.

The strategic results accomplished by Belmont might perhaps have been attained, had the original design been carried out, and only a demonstration made; but the troops, who had volunteered with the idea of active campaigning, were getting restive during the long delay at Cairo. When they found that they were really starting out, the blood of officers and men was up; had they been taken back then without a fight, their confidence in themselves and in their commander, would have been impaired. Grant noticed this, and even if he had not received the information on which his attack was based, would nevertheless have made the assault. The influence of the fight upon the troops engaged was of the happiest sort. It gave them a confidence and a fortitude which they never lost, and long afterwards the ‘Bel mont men’ were known as among the stanchest soldiers in the army of the Tennessee.

The country, however, knowing none of the objects of the movement, and seeing only the fact that troops had advanced and then retired, regarded the affair as a disaster, while the enemy, of course, heralded it for a rebel victory. Long after, many who looked upon Grant as one of the greatest of soldiers, declared that he should be forgiven for Belmont, and remained ignorant, not only that he accomplished more than he was sent to do, but that the very traits which contributed most materially to his later successes, were displayed as signally at Belmont as on any occasion during the war.6

1 In 1864, General Scott told me that he thought he recollected a young officer named Grant, who behaved gallantly in the Mexican War; and General Robert E. Lee said to Grant at Appomattox Court-House, that he remembered their having met before. Grant must have been a brevet second lieutenant at the time, and Lee a staff-officer of Scott.

2 The Honorable Elihu B. Washburne, of Galena, who had never spoken to Grant until after the fall of Fort Sumter, suggested the nomination.


headquarters Western Department, St. Louis, September 6, 1861.
Brigadier-General U. S. Grant, Cairo, Illinois:
I am directed by Major-General Fremont to inform you that brigade and other commanders are not to correspond with state or other high authorities, in matters pertaining to any branch of the public service, either in initiating such correspondence or replying thereto.

All such subjects are to be submitted to the major-general commanding the department, for his information and action.

4 “After nearly all the troops had reembarked, and were about ready to start, a sudden attack was made upon the transport vessels by an apparently large reinforcement of rebels. Our boats being in good position, we opened fire with our grape and canister, and five-second shells, and completely routed them, we learn, with great slaughter.” Report of Lieutenant Walker, commanding naval force.

5 Pillow reported that, at the beginning of the fight, he had five regiments on the ground, but that these were greatly reduced by sickness, and, in consequence, numbered only twenty-five hundred men. Besides these, he had a battery of artillery and a squadron of cavalry. Polk reported reinforcing Pillow with five more regiments, whose numbers are not said to have been reduced by sickness. This entire force, at that period of the war, could hardly have been less than seven thousand men. The rebel reports greatly overestimate Grant's strength and exaggerate his loss. Otherwise they differ but in one essential point from the statements in the text. They all declare that Grant's troops broke and fled to the transports in great disorder, and were hotly pursued. The captured guns and the prisoners carried off by Grant, and the fact that men were sent back to gather up his wounded, disprove these assertions. The hot pursuit was after the national troops had got aboard.

6 See Appendix for Grant's instructions and various papers relating to the Belmont affair.

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