By DAVID COSTIGAN
Ulysses S. Grant was not quite 40 in April 1861 when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War.
Grant, a West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran had resigned from the Army in 1854. Rumors of excessive alcohol consumption marred his reputation and his future in the military. Subsequently he failed as farmer, salesman, candidate for county office, and customhouse clerk.
At the time of Sumter, Grant worked in a leather store in Galena. In his memoirs, Grant acknowledged that he expected the war to be over in 90 days or less. Grant was elected captain of a Galena infantry company, he had helped to raise, but he declined waiting for a more significant opportunity. This came in mid-June when Illinois Gov. Richard Yates appointed him colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment mustered at Springfield. Grant proceeded to Springfield to take charge.
Despite the lack of time for even meager training, Grant received orders to proceed to Quincy to allay possible hostile action on the Illinois- Missouri border. Despite available rail transportation, Grant opted to march across the state as good training and discipline for his men. In his memoirs he acknowledged that considerable positive training was accomplished by this move.
On the way, however, as they reached the Illinois River, the unit received news of hostile action in Northeast Missouri, so Grant hurried his troops to Quincy by rail.
Again in his memoirs he detailed events: "Before we were prepared to cross the Mississippi River at Quincy, my anxiety was relieved; for the men of the besieged regiment came straggling into town. I am inclined to think both sides got frightened and ran away."
Grant and the 21st then set up camp in the region waiting for its next assignment.
Not all the local response to Grant and his troops was favorable. While on the Illinois side of the river, the troops camped in the bottom lands outside of Quincy. Within four days, 30 soldiers were added to the sick list.
The Quincy Daily Whig urged him to find a healthier environment commenting, "If the officers place any value on the health of the soldiers encamping in that miserable and unhealthy bottom, it is certainly a very poor way to show it." Apparently commanders set up camp wherever they saw adequate empty space.
Subsequently Grant and his men crossed the river to the Palmyra, Mo., area, where the railroad from Quincy joined the Hannibal and St. Joseph RR, a prime target of rebel guerrilla forces. In a letter to his wife, Julia, Grant revealed that he was aware of a "terrible state of fear existing among the people."
Guerrilla violence was commonplace in the area. He pointed out that when the people learned his troops respected property, they began to visit the Union camp and became friendly with his troops. Grant's approach was in direct contrast with his predecessor in the region, Gen. John Pope, who stated that the entire population must be assumed to be hostile.
Grant conjectured, "I am fully convinced that if orderly troops could be marched through this country, and none others, it would create a very different state of feeling from what exists now." Grant's method, now called "counterinsurgency," presented a relatively unique approach that could wax and wane in the region throughout the first years of the war.
rant received orders to proceed further into Missouri against a rebel guerrilla force commanded by Col. Thomas Harris encamped in the small town of Florida (Mark Twain's birthplace.) Grant described the operation in his memoirs. His force marched about 25 miles toward a creek bottom where Harris's troops were supposedly encamped.
Grant explained, "The hills on either side of the creek extend to a considerable height, possibly more than a hundred feet. As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could 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 then to have been back in Illinois, but I 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 was encamped a few days before was still there and the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much 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 an enemy. I never forgot he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable."
It is quite remarkable to think that such a seminal experience took place in this remote area of Missouri.
Grant's next assignment was to proceed to Mexico, Mo., commissioned to keep order in that area. Two days after his arrival in Mexico, he was apprised of the fact that his name had been sent to the U.S. Senate for promotion to the rank of brigadier general. With solid support from Illinois congressmen, he received the appointment, and it was backdated to May 17 for the purpose of providing seniority. Grant's leadership in the west would continue, with successes and failures for almost three more years, when in the spring of 1864, Lincoln called him to become general-in-chief.
Grant had come a long way from the Galena leather shop and from his Springfield, Quincy, and Northeast Missouri assignments. By his own admission, he had conquered fear and he could display resoluteness that would serve him well through the remainder of the war.
David Costigan is Professor Emeritus of History at Quincy University, a member of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Interpretive Center Advisory Board, and a frequent speaker. His prize winning doctoral dissertation is entitled, "A City in Wartime: Quincy Illinois in the Civil War."
Costigan, David. "A City in Wartime: Quincy, Illinois in the Civil War." PhD diss., Illinois State University, 1994.
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Charles Webster and Company, 1885-1886.
Longacre, Edward G. General Ulysses S. Grant: The Soldier and the Man. Cambridge, Massachusetts: DeCapo Press, 2007.