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State Historical Society of Missouri
Ulysses S. Grant
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Grant's Cabin at Grant's Farm
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Graceland in Mexico, Missouri
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Grant's Headquarters in Cape Girardeau
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City Hotel in Jefferson City
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By Gregory Wolk
Ulysses S. Grant may be America’s most underappreciated politician. Most people who study military history acknowledge he stands in the top tier of military leaders this nation has produced. In the public mind, though, his legacy is oddly clouded. The perceived failure of his presidency and a slanderous charge of habitual drinking probably account for this. But with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it is time to recognize that Grant is the most accomplished Missourian in military history.
Hiram Ulysses Grant was born in Ohio; he died and is buried in New York. Those things aside, all of the touchstones of domicile point to Missouri. When he left West Point in 1843, embarking upon a life of a career soldier, Grant was assigned to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. A reticent man, we can imagine he eschewed the social scene that swirled around the young officers at the barracks.
Nevertheless, Grant met Julia Dent, the daughter of a Southern family, the sister of his West Point roommate. They married in 1848. He served in the Mexican War, but like most military men, home was with his family. This was Whitehaven, the Dent plantation on Gravois Road southwest of St. Louis.
When Grant resigned his Army commission in 1854, he came home, where he built a modest home and farmed Dent property that he and Julia had received as a wedding gift. Unsuccessful in civilian life, Grant uprooted his family in 1860. The Grants left Missouri for Galena, Illinois, where Ulysses secured a job as a clerk in a branch office of his father’s leather business. After war broke out in the spring of 1861, Grant went in search of an army command in Illinois and was rebuffed several times. In June of 1861, Grant got his command, an unruly new regiment being raised in central Illinois. Its first colonel had resigned in disgust.
In 1861, during his second homecoming, Grant began his remarkable Civil War career. That he began his ascendancy as a colonel of Illinois troops is an accident of history, born in failure. That it began in Missouri is no accident. In July 1861, this was the hotbed of the struggle that would consume the nation.
In 1863, the Grants began purchasing tracts of the Dent estate. Eventually, they would own all of the core area of Whitehaven, the only home that Grant ever owned. It was his retreat during the Civil War and throughout his presidency. It was to be his and Julia’s retirement home. Today, Whitehaven is the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis.
West Quincy, Missouri, July 10-13, 1861
Grant’s new command, the 21st Illinois Infantry, ferried across the Mississippi and disembarked on Missouri soil on July 10, 1861. The regiment had been bound for southern Missouri after completing basic training at Springfield, Illinois, but was diverted opposite Quincy, Illinois. An emergency brought Grant to Missouri. Another Illinois regiment, the 16th Illinois Infantry, was trapped in Monroe City, a hamlet twenty miles inland by rail.
The 16th Infantry was surrounded by the Missouri State Guard, which was allied with the Confederate States. It had ventured too far into Southern-leaning north Missouri after marching toward Florida, Missouri, to find the rumored camp of State Guard Gen. Thomas Harris. The 16th then retreated to Monroe City.
The emergency subsided soon after Grant established camp in West Quincy. During the next several days, Grant’s men busied themselves guarding the Quincy & Palmyra Railroad, a branch line constructed in 1860 to connect Quincy to the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad (H&SJ) at Palmyra in Marion County. That branch line was to become part of the main line of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.
Trains still rumble through the area (now the BNSF), and a place called West Quincy still exists. But the town site, north of the new Quincy Bayview Bridge, disappeared years ago.
On the Salt River, Shelby County, July 14, 1861
Grant moved west through Palmyra and Monroe City to take position near the ruins of the H&SJ bridge over Salt River, thirty miles west of Hannibal. This critical structure was destroyed three times during the Civil War, the first time during the operations= around Monroe City on July 10, 1861. The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Hunnewell Access point, a mile west of Hunnewell on Old Highway 36, is close to the modern bridge.
Grant’s regiment camped on this ground for a week, protecting the crews that were rebuilding the span. Their stay here was interrupted by a two-day foray to Florida, Missouri, in Grant’s first overland march of the Civil War. The regiment returned to Salt River after the march.
A marker signifies Grant’s time at Salt River.
Florida, Missouri, July 17, 1861
Now it was Grant’s turn to chase Harris. The 21st Illinois approached the town from the north, only to find that Harris had abandoned his camp. Grant entered the undefended town and established headquarters in the home of Dr. James Goodier.
Mark Twain claimed he was in Harris’s camp near Florida before the camp was abandoned in the face of Grant’s approach. Twain did serve two weeks in July 1861 in a company of the Missouri State Guard attached to Harris’s command.
The Florida town site was once a thriving commercial center, but now much of the area is part of the Mark Twain State Park. The Goodier House is in ruins on private property along Route U.
Mexico, Missouri, July 20-August 7, 1861
The 21st Illinois was next assigned to Mexico, Missouri, where Gen. John Pope had established headquarters. Grant arrived here with his regiment, by rail, traveling west from the Salt River bridge to the junction of the H&SJ and North Missouri Railroad at Macon, then southeast on the North Missouri. Mexico, the seat of Audrain County, remains an important rail center; the North Missouri Railroad is now the Norfolk Southern.
At Mexico, Grant took de facto command of two additional regiments and spent two uneventful weeks guarding the railroads in this vicinity. He set up camp west of town and north of the railroad, in an area bounded by Monroe and Jackson Streets, ranging west from Missouri Avenue.
While stationed here, Grant visited Graceland, a private antebellum mansion. In Mexico, Grant learned President Lincoln nominated him for a promotion to the rank of brigadier general, which Congress confirmed.
Open to visitors, the magnificently restored Graceland is now home to the Audrain County Historical Society.
Ironton, August 8-19, 1861
Eighty miles south of St. Louis on Highway 21, Ironton dangled at the end of the St. Louis Iron Mountain railroad line, which was deep in hostile territory. Grant rushed here from Mexico when authorities learned a Confederate army had advanced from Arkansas to within forty miles of the place. His brigadier’s commission caught up with him in Ironton at the headquarters camp he established next to a spring two blocks south of the town square.
Grant was abruptly relieved at Ironton by Quincy native
Brigadier Gen. Benjamin Prentiss. Prentiss’s belief, evidently shared by St. Louis headquarters at the time, was that he outranked Grant. During the following week, Grant pressed his claim over Prentiss’s, while Grant, dejected, served in Jefferson City. In nine days in Ironton, though, Grant had organized the regiments under his command and put them on the roads to confront his adversary to the south. The legend, supported by a witness’s account written long after the war, is that Grant sat in his tent by the Ironton spring and drew the plan that ultimately led him to victory at Vicksburg.
A statue built in 1886 by veterans of the 21st Illinois Infantry and the spring are located on the grounds of the St. Marie du Lac Catholic Church.
Jefferson City, August 21-28, 1861
On August 21, Grant arrived in Jefferson City, the state capital occupying a bluff on the south side of the Missouri River one hundred miles west of St. Louis, on the Pacific Railroad. As in Ironton, he immediately started organizing his new command. Grant made his headquarters at the old City Hotel at the northwest corner of High and Madison streets. Again, Grant was abruptly relieved of command by orders that he report to Army Headquarters in St. Louis.
The City Hotel was demolished one hundred years ago. The old Central Bank Building now occupies the site.
St. Louis to Cape Girardeau, August 28-September 4, 1861
Grant arrived in St. Louis on August 28 and reported immediately to the headquarters of Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont, located at Eighth Street and Chouteau Avenue. This was the fourth time that Grant rode the rails to St. Louis in August 1861 to deliver intelligence or receive orders, and it would be his most eventful trip.
Controversy surrounds the events of August 28, 1861. One version of events is that Grant reported to headquarters as ordered, where he was recognized by an old army comrade.
Grant waited to be received by Fremont, who was meeting with senior staff, including Grant’s friend, about the appointment of an officer to push down the Mississippi from southeast Missouri. Grant’s old friend exclaimed, “I know just the man, who is waiting downstairs.”
More likely, during the week Grant languished in Jefferson City, Fremont realized that Grant outranked Prentiss (still in command at Ironton), and Fremont summoned Grant to his headquarters to recompense Grant with a higher command. Whatever the case, orders in hand, Grant repaired to the Planters House hotel near St. Louis’s Old Courthouse, where he assembled a staff. On August 30, he boarded a steamboat and arrived in the Mississippi port town of Cape Girardeau. His headquarters for the next four days was a brick building on the waterfront, known now as the Port Cape Girardeau Building.
Grant collected troops on duty in southeast Missouri and moved his headquarters to Cairo, Illinois. His stay in Cape was not without incident, however. On September 2, Prentiss arrived in Cape Girardeau; he had been ordered from Ironton to join Grant with four regiments. Grant expected Prentiss to remain with his troops outside of town. Mindful that Prentiss could no longer dispute his authority, Grant ordered Prentiss to rejoin his regiments. When Prentiss requested Grant to relieve him of command, Grant refused. The incident caused Prentiss to place himself under arrest so he could plead his case for seniority in St. Louis.
Grant was now firmly in charge and headed south. Two days after he left Cape Girardeau, Grant marched into Paducah, Kentucky, and claimed that place in the name of the United States. After Cape Girardeau, Grant never again commanded from a headquarters on Missouri soil.
Grant’s family cabin is still standing in St. Louis at Grant’s Farm, open to visitors. The Port Cape Girardeau building, which served as Grant’s headquarters, is still standing at Water and Themis streets.
Belmont, November 7, 1861
Cairo, Illinois, a staging area while Grant commanded from September 4, 1861, until January 1862, was the natural place to mount an expedition into the southern heartland. The town was the southern terminus of the Illinois Central Railroad, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
Soon after his arrival in Cairo, Grant fortified a beachhead at Bird’s Point, opposite Cairo. That is where another railroad, the Cairo & Fulton, had its terminus.
Grant’s command struck out from Bird’s Point on November 4, 1861, focused on securing the Cairo & Fulton Railroad and eliminating a Missouri State Guard force occupying Bloomfield. Grant remained in Cairo under orders from Fremont to make a “demonstration” in the direction of Columbus, Kentucky. This was the Confederate’s Gibraltar along the Mississippi, located on a bluff that overlooked the small Missouri town of Belmont.
On November 6, Grant loaded three thousand Union troops on river transports, landing them several miles north of Belmont. He knew then that in the days since his orders were issued, Fremont had been relieved of command in the West. Grant seized the opportunity and, contrary to orders, attacked the Confederates at Belmont.
This was the first battle of the Civil War in which Ulysses Grant commanded troops in the fi eld. The Union lost the Battle of Belmont. Grant himself was nearly captured as he led a retreat to the boats; he scrambled up a gangplank to make his escape as the last boat departed for Cairo.
Prepared for Greatness
Grant departed Cairo on February 2, 1862, at the head of seventeen thousand troops. Bound for the Kentucky-Tennessee border, he was not the only Union commander to realize the north-flowing Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were highways into the Confederate heartland. He struck rapidly.
On February 16, 1862, Grant accepted the surrender of a whole Confederate army at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, accomplishing the first significant Union victory of the war.
Grant’s fame, established at Donelson, carried with him to Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Petersburg, and Appomattox.
After the war, a grateful nation elevated him to high office. He was the only president from Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson to serve two full consecutive terms.
Grant’s drive up the Tennessee River in 1862 and down the Mississippi to Vicksburg in 1863 was relentless, but not without occasional setback.
Seventeen weeks in Missouri had prepared Grant for setback, just as it prepared him for greatness.
Gregory Wolk is a St. Louis lawyer and author of Friend and Foe Alike: A Tour Guide to Missouri’s Civil War.