This picture was taken in Cairo, Illinois of the newly appointed Brigadier General, U.S. Grant, in May of 1861.
Written by Ned Lodwick, U.S. Grant Homestead Association
“The War Begins”
As the Union army was growing from less than 10,000 troops to more than 75,000 in less than a month and officers received promotions from Captain to Brigadier General it seemed as though Ulysses S. Grant would be left out of the fight. His letters to the War Department went unanswered and when he tried to see General George McClellan in Cincinnati he was not even given a chance to talk to the general. Ulysses returned to Illinois disappointed but soon was called to Governor Yates’ office.
The Governor asked Ulysses to accept a commission as Colonel in the Illinois Volunteers and take command of the 21st Illinois Regiment. This Regiment known as ‘Yates’ Ruffians’ was so out of control that their original Colonel had retired from service and gone home.
Ulysses accepted the assignment and soon had the 21st turned into a well disciplined unit. One of the early challenges he faced was a total lack of discipline from the volunteers. The soldiers came and went from camp as they wished, they paid little or no attention to the officers and non-commissioned officers, they may or may not show up for roll calls or drills. The only time you could be sure to see the entire Regiment was at mess, soldiers like to eat and unpaid soldiers can only eat when the army feeds them.
Colonel Ulysses Grant was not an eloquent speaker, nor did he believe in severe punishments but he knew he needed to impress upon the regiment the importance of military discipline. Ulysses’ answer was to simply go to roll call one morning and after waiting for the Regiment to form, which never happened, told everyone that since roll could not be taken the quartermaster didn’t have a way of knowing how many soldiers were to be fed so no food was to be dispersed. Two days of no food and the Regiment was forming on time and the importance of following the military rules was foremost in the Regiment’s mind. Ulysses had more problems but he solved them and within a month the 21st was a Regiment that any Colonel could be proud of.
The Regiment was ordered to Missouri in early May and Ulysses marched his troops the 100 miles instead of moving by railroad to install pride in the Regiment. By the time they reached their destination the men were a unit.
The first mission of the 21st was to assault a regiment of Confederates under the command of Brigadier General Thomas A. Harris. The troop numbers were expected to be about equal. The Confederate troops were camped in a valley and the 21st marched towards them at dawn. Col. Grant wrote in his Memoirs about his thoughts as the Regiment marched towards the battle.
“As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we would see Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything to be back in Illinois, but had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view, I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there and the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the troops had all gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before, but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting the enemy.”
At Columbus, Kentucky the Confederates built a massive fort on the bluffs over the Mississippi River and placed a large anchor chain completely across the river to Belmont, Missouri. Gen. Grant knew he didn’t have the strength to attack the fort at Columbus but he could raid the smaller post at Belmont. He got permission for the campaign, prepared the plans, and personally led the successful assault. It was a victory of little importance and the ground could not be held but it gave his troops a taste of battle and even more important a taste of victory.
Within days of the assault Ulysses was promoted to Brigadier General and had his headquarters in Cairo, Illinois. Soon he was told by scouts that a Confederate force was moving towards Paducah, Kentucky, a very strategic position for both sides. Grant telegraphed his superior, General Henry Halleck, for permission to move on Paducah immediately. Three times Ulysses wired for his orders with no response, so he moved his troops to Paducah without orders and occupied the town without firing a shot. After his move proved successful General Halleck took his share of the credit and gave Ulysses a small mention in his report.
It was the fall of 1861 and the war was not going well for the North but one General was beginning to be noticed by his superiors, the public, and the Confederates. He was smart, aggressive, and successful. Confederate General Jubel Early in Virginia wrote, “There is a general in the West I hope the Union War Department does not find, his name is Ulysses S. Grant.”