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On the Trail of Grant and Lee
By Frederick Trevor Hill
To Howard Ogden Wood, Jr.
During the early years of the Civil War someone tauntingly asked Mr. Charles Francis Adams, the United States Minister to England, what he thought of the brilliant victories which the confederate armies were then gaining in the field. “I think they have been won by my fellow countrymen,” was the quiet answer.
Almost half a century has passed since that reproof was uttered, but its full force is only just beginning to be understood. For nearly fifty years the story of the Civil War has been twisted to suit local pride or prejudice in various parts of the Union, with the result that much which passes for American history is not history at all, and whatever else it may be, it is certainly not American.
Assuredly, the day has now arrived when such historical “make-believes” should be discountenanced, both in the North and in the South. Americans of the present and the coming generations are entitled to take a common pride in whatever lent nobility to the fraternal strife of the sixties, and to gather equal inspiration from every achievement that reflected credit on American manhood during those years when the existence of the Union was at stake. Until this is rendered possible by the elimination of error and falsehood, the sacrifices of the Civil War will, to a large extent, have been endured in vain.
In some respects this result has already been realized. Lincoln is no longer a local hero. He is a national heritage. To distort or belittle the characters of other men who strove to the end that their land “might have a new birth of freedom,” is to deprive the younger generations of part of their birthright. They are entitled to the facts from which to form a just estimate of the lives of all such men, regardless of uniforms.
It is in this spirit that the strangely interwoven trials of Grant and Lee are followed in these pages. Both were Americans, and widely as they differed in opinions, tastes and sympathies, each exhibited qualities of mind and character which should appeal to all their fellow countrymen and make them proud of the land that gave them birth. Neither man, in his life, posed before the public as a hero, and the writer has made no attempt to place either of them on a pedestal. Theirs is a very human story, requiring neither color nor concealment, but illustrating a high development of those traits that make for manhood and national greatness.
The writer hereby acknowledges his indebtedness to all those historians whose scholarly research has made it possible to trace the careers of these two great commanders with confidence in the accuracy of the facts presented. Where equally high authorities have differed he has been guided by those who, in his judgment, have displayed the most scrupulous impartiality, and wherever possible he has availed himself of official records and documents.
The generous service rendered by Mr. Samuel Palmer Griffin in testing the vast record upon which these pages are based, his exhaustive research and scientific analysis of the facts, have given whatever of authority may be claimed for the text, and of this the writer hereby makes grateful acknowledgment. To Mr. Arthur Becher he is likewise indebted for his careful studies at West Point and elsewhere which have resulted in illustrations conforming to history.
Frederick Trevor Hill.
New York, September, 1911.
I.–Three Civil Wars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 II.–Washington and Lee . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 III.–Lee at West Point . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 IV.–The Boyhood of Grant . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 V.–Grant at West Point . . . . . . . . . . . . 24 VI.–Lieutenant Grant Under Fire . . . . . . . . 35 VII.–Captain Lee at the Front . . . . . . . . . . 44 VIII.–Colonel Lee After the Mexican War . . . . . 52 IX.–Captain Grant in a Hard Fight . . . . . . . 59 X.–Grant’s Difficulties in Securing a Command . 67 XI.–Lee at the Parting of the Ways . . . . . . . 75 XII.–Opening Moves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83 XIII.–Grant’s First Success . . . . . . . . . . . 93 XIV.–The Battle of Shiloh . . . . . . . . . . . . 106 XV.–Lee in the Saddle . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116 XVI.–A Game of Strategy . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125 XVII.–Lee and the Invasion of Maryland . . . . . . 133 XVIII.–The Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg . . . . 141 XIX.–Lee Against Burnside and Hooker . . . . . . 148 XX.–In the Hour of Triumph . . . . . . . . . . . 163 XXI.–Grant at Vicksburg . . . . . . . . . . . . . 171 XXII.–The Battle of Gettysburg . . . . . . . . . . 180 XXIII.–In the Face of Disaster . . . . . . . . . . 193 XXIV.–The Rescue of Two Armies . . . . . . . . . . 201 XXV.–Lieutenant-General Grant . . . . . . . . . . 213 XXVI.–A Duel to the Death . . . . . . . . . . . . 224 XXVII.–Check and Countercheck . . . . . . . . . . . 238 XXVIII.–The Beginning of the End . . . . . . . . . . 248 XXIX.–At Bay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 256 XXX.–The Surrender . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 269 XXXI.–Lee’s Years of Peace . . . . . . . . . . . . 280 XXXII.–The Head of the Nation . . . . . . . . . . . 294
List of Illustrations
Illustrations in Color
Grant running the gauntlet of the Mexicans at Monterey in riding to the relief of his comrades . . Frontispiece September 23, 1846.
Lee with Mrs. Lewis (Nellie Custis) applying to General Andrew Jackson to aid in securing his cadetship at West Point . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 1825.
Grant on his horse, “York,” making exhibition jump in the Riding Academy at West Point . . . . . . . . . . 32 June, 1843.
Lee sending the Rockbridge battery into action for the second time at Antietam or Sharpsburg . . . . . . . 144 September 17, 1862.
Lee rallying his troops at the Battle of the Wilderness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 232 May 6, 1864.
Grant at the entrenchments before Petersburg . . . . . 260 March, 1865.
Illustrations in the Text
Signature of Grant on reporting at West Point . . . . 25 (From the original records of the U. S. Military Academy.)
First signature of Grant as U. S. Grant . . . . . . . 27 (From the original records of the U.S. Military Academy.)
Grant’s letter demanding unconditional surrender of forces at Fort Donnelson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 103
Diagram map (not drawn to scale) showing strategy of the opening of the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1 and 2, 1863 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157
Diagram map (not drawn to scale) showing Grant’s series of movements by the left flank from the Wilderness to Petersburg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 229
Facsimile of telegraphic message drafted by Lieutenant- General Grant, announcing Lee’s surrender, May 9, 1865 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 275
Lee’s letter of August 3, 1866, acknowledging receipt of the extension of his furlough . . . . . . . . . . . 283
Three Civil Wars
England was an uncomfortable place to live in during the reign of Charles the First. Almost from the moment that that ill-fated monarch ascended the throne he began quarreling with Parliament; and when he decided to dismiss its members and make himself the supreme ruler of the land, he practically forced his subjects into a revolution. Twelve feverish years followed–years of discontent, indignation and passion–which arrayed the Cavaliers, who supported the King, against the Roundheads, who upheld Parliament, and finally flung them at each other’s throats to drench the soil of England with their blood.
Meanwhile, the gathering storm of civil war caused many a resident of the British Isles to seek peace and security across the seas, and among those who turned toward America were Mathew Grant and Richard Lee. It is not probable that either of these men had ever heard of the other, for they came from widely separated parts of the kingdom and were even more effectually divided by the walls of caste. There is no positive proof that Mathew Grant (whose people probably came from Scotland) was a Roundhead, but he was a man of humble origin who would naturally have favored the Parliamentary or popular party, while Richard Lee, whose ancestors had fought at Hastings and in the Crusades, is known to have been an ardent Cavalier, devoted to the King. But whether their opinions on politics differed or agreed, it was apparently the conflict between the King and Parliament that drove them from England. In any event they arrived in America at almost the same moment; Grant reaching Massachusetts in 1630, the year after King Charles dismissed his Parliament, and Lee visiting Virginia about this time to prepare for his permanent residence in the Dominion which began when actual hostilities opened in the mother land.
The trails of Grant and Lee, therefore, first approach each other from out of the smoke of a civil war. This is a strangely significant fact, but it might be regarded merely as a curious coincidence were it not for other and stranger events which seem to suggest that the hand of Fate was guiding the destinies of these two men.
Mathew Grant originally settled in Massachusetts but he soon moved to Connecticut, where he became clerk of the town of Windsor and official surveyor of the whole colony–a position which he held for many years. Meanwhile Richard Lee became the Colonial Secretary and a member of the King’s Privy Council in Virginia, and thenceforward the name of his family is closely associated with the history of that colony.
Lee bore the title of colonel, but it was to statesmanship and not to military achievements that he and his early descendants owed their fame; while the family of Grant, the surveyor, sought glory at the cannon’s mouth, two of its members fighting and dying for their country as officers in the French and Indian war of 1756. In that very year, however, a military genius was born to the Virginia family in the person of Harry Lee, whose brilliant cavalry exploits were to make him known to history as “Light Horse Harry.” But before his great career began, the house of Grant was represented in the Revolution, for Captain Noah Grant of Connecticut drew his sword in defense of the colonies at the outbreak of hostilities, taking part in the battle of Bunker Hill; and from that time forward he and “Light Horse Harry” served in the Continental army under Washington until Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
Here the trails of the two families, AGAIN DRAWN TOGETHER BY A CIVIL STRIFE, merge for an historic moment and then cross; that of the Grants turning toward the West, and that of the Lees keeping within the confines of Virginia.
It was in 1799 that Captain Noah Grant migrated to Ohio, and during the same year Henry Lee delivered the memorial address upon the death of Washington, coining the immortal phrase “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Ulysses Grant, the Commander of the Union forces in the Civil War, was the grandson of Captain Grant, who served with “Light Horse Harry” Lee during the Revolution; and Robert Lee, the Confederate General, was “Light Horse Harry’s” son.
Thus, for the THIRD time in two and a half centuries, a civil conflict between men of the English-speaking race blazed the trails of Grant and Lee.
Washington and Lee
“Wakefield,” Westmoreland County, Virginia, was the birthplace of Washington, and at Stratford in the same county and state, only a few miles from Wakefield, Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807. Seventy-five years had intervened between those events but, except in the matter of population, Westmoreland County remained much the same as it had been during Washington’s youth. Indians, it is true, no longer lurked in he surrounding forests or paddled the broad Potomac in their frail canoes, but the life had much of the same freedom and charm which had endeared it to Washington. All the streams and woods and haunts which he had known and loved were known and loved by Lee, not only for their own sake, but because they were associated with the memory of the great Commander-in-Chief who had been his father’s dearest friend.
It would have been surprising, under such circumstances, if Washington had not been Lee’s hero, but he was more than a hero to the boy. From his father’s lips he had learned to know him, not merely as a famous personage of history, but as a man and a leader of men. Indeed, his influence and example were those of a living presence in the household of “Light Horse Harry;” and thus to young Lee he early became the ideal of manhood upon which, consciously or unconsciously, he molded his own character and life. But quite apart from this, the careers of these two great Virginians were astonishingly alike.
Washington’s father had been married twice, and so had Lee’s; each was a son of the second marriage, and each had a number of brothers and sisters. Washington lost his father when he was only eleven years old, and Lee was exactly the same age when his father died. Mrs. Washington had almost the entire care of her son during his early years, and Lee was under the sole guidance of his mother until he had almost grown to manhood. Washington repaid his mother’s devotion by caring for her and her affairs with notable fidelity, and Lee’s tenderness and consideration for his mother were such that she was accustomed to remark that he was both a son and a daughter to her.
Washington’s ancestors were notable, if not distinguished, people in England; while Lee could trace his descent, through his father, to Lancelot Lee, who fought at the battle of Hastings, and through his mother to Robert the Bruce of Scotland. Neither man, however, prided himself in the least on his ancestry. Indeed, neither of them knew anything of his family history until his own achievements brought the facts to light.
Washington was a born and bred country boy and so was Lee. Both delighted in outdoor life, loving horses and animals of all kinds and each was noted for his skillful riding in a region which was famous for its horsemanship. There was, however, a vast difference between Washington’s education and that of Lee. The Virginian schools were very rudimentary in Washington’s day; but Lee attended two excellent institutions of learning, where he had every opportunity, and of this he availed himself, displaying much the same thoroughness that characterized Washington’s work, and the same manly modesty about any success that he achieved.
By reason of his father’s death and other circumstances Washington was burdened with responsibility long before he arrived at manhood, making him far more reserved and serious-minded than most school boys. This was precisely the case with Lee, for his father’s death, the ill health of his mother and the care of younger children virtually made him the head of the family, so that he became unusually mature and self-contained at an early age. Neither boy, however, held aloof from the sports and pastimes of his schoolmates and both were regarded as quiet, manly fellows, with no nonsense about them, and with those qualities of leadership that made each in turn the great military leader of his age.
Never has history recorded a stranger similarity in the circumstances surrounding the youth of two famous men, but the facts which linked their careers in later years are even stranger still.
Lee at West Point
As his school days drew to a close, it became necessary for Lee to determine his future calling. But the choice of a career, often so perplexing to young men, presented no difficulty to “Light Horse Harry’s” son. He had apparently always intended to become a soldier and no other thought had seemingly ever occurred to any member of his family. Appointments to the United States Military Academy were far more a matter of favor than they are to-day, and young Lee, accompanied by Mrs. Lewis (better known as Nellie Custis, the belle of Mount Vernon and Washington’s favorite grandchild), sought the assistance of General Andrew Jackson. Rough “Old Hickory” was not the easiest sort of person to approach with a request of any kind and, doubtless, his young visitor had grave misgivings as to the manner in which his application would be received. But Jackson, the hero of the battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, only needed to be told that his caller was “Light Horse Harry’s” son to proffer assistance; and in his nineteenth year, the boy left home for the first time in his life to enroll himself as a cadet at West Point.
Very few young men enter that institution so well prepared for military life as was Lee, for he had been accustomed to responsibility and had thoroughly mastered the art of self-control many years before he stepped within its walls. He was neither a prig nor a “grind,” but he regarded his cadetship as part of the life work which he had voluntarily chosen, and he had no inclination to let pleasure interfere with it. With his comrades he was companionable, entering into all their pastimes with zest and spirit, but he let it be understood, without much talk, that attention to duty was a principle with him and his serious purpose soon won respect.
Rigid discipline was then, as it is to-day, strictly enforced at West Point, and demerits were freely inflicted upon cadets for even the slightest infraction of the rules. Indeed, the regulations were so severe that it was almost impossible for a cadet to avoid making at least a few slips at some time during his career. But Lee accomplished the impossible, for not once throughout his entire four years did he incur even a single demerit–a record that still remains practically unique in the history of West Point. This and his good scholarship won him high rank; first, as cadet officer of his class, and finally, as adjutant of the whole battalion, the most coveted honor of the Academy, from which he graduated in 1829, standing second in a class of forty-six.
Men of the highest rating at West Point may choose whatever arm of the service they prefer, and Lee, selecting the Engineer Corps, was appointed a second lieutenant and assigned to fortification work at Hampton Roads, in his twenty-second year. The work there was not hard but it was dull. There was absolutely no opportunity to distinguish oneself in any way, and time hung heavy on most of the officers’ hands. But Lee was in his native state and not far from his home, where he spent most of his spare time until his mother died. Camp and garrison life had very little charm for him, but he was socially inclined and, renewing his acquaintance with his boyhood friends, he was soon in demand at all the dances and country houses at which the young people of the neighborhood assembled.
Among the many homes that welcomed him at this time was that of Mr. George Washington Parke Custis (Washington’s adopted grandson), whose beautiful estate known as “Arlington” lay within a short distance of Alexandria, where Lee had lived for many years. Here he had, during his school days, met the daughter of the house and, their boy-and-girl friendship culminating in an engagement shortly after his return from West Point, he and Mary Custis were married in his twenty-fifth year. Lee thus became related by marriage to Washington, and another link was formed in the strange chain of circumstances which unite their careers.
A more ideal marriage than that of these two young people cannot be imagined. Simple in their tastes and of home-loving dispositions, they would have been well content to settle down quietly to country life in their beloved Virginia, surrounded by their family and friends. But the duties of an army officer did not admit of this, and after a few years’ service as assistant to the chief engineer of the army in Washington, Lee was ordered to take charge of the improvements of the Mississippi River at St. Louis, where, in the face of violent opposition from the inhabitants, he performed such valuable service that in 1839 he was offered the position of instructor at West Point. This, however, he declined, and in 1842 he was entrusted with the task of improving the defenses of New York harbor and moved with his family to Fort Hamilton, where he remained for several years. Meanwhile, he had been successively promoted to a first lieutenancy and a captaincy, and in his thirty-eighth year he was appointed one of the visitors to West Point, whose duty it was to inspect the Academy and report at stated intervals on its condition. This appointment, insignificant in itself, is notable because it marks the point at which the trails of Grant and Lee first approach each other, for at the time that Captain Lee was serving as an official visitor, Ulysses Grant was attempting to secure an assistant professorship at West Point.
The Boyhood of Grant
Deerfield, Ohio, was not a place of any importance when Captain Noah Grant of Bunker Hill fame arrived there from the East. Indeed, it was not then much more than a spot on the map and it has ever won any great renown. Yet in this tiny Ohio village there lived at one and the same time Owen Brown, the father of John Brown, who virtually began the Civil War, and Jesse Grant, the father of Ulysses Grant, who practically brought it to a close.
It is certainly strange that these two men should, with all the world to choose from, have chanced upon the same obscure little village, but it is still stranger that one of them should have become the employer of the other and that they should both have lived in the very same house. Such, however, is the fact, for when Jesse Grant first began to earn his living as a tanner, he worked for and boarded with Owen Brown, little dreaming that his son and his employer’s son would some day shake the world.
It was not at Deerfield, however, but at Point Pleasant, Ohio, that Jesse Grant’s distinguished son was born on April 27, 1822, in a cottage not much larger than the cabin in which Abraham Lincoln first saw the light. Mr. and Mrs. Grant and other members of their family differed among themselves as to what the boy should be called, but they settled the question by each writing his or her favorite name on a slip of paper and then depositing all the slips in a hat, with the understanding that the child should receive the first two names drawn from that receptacle. This resulted in the selection of Hiram and Ulysses, and the boy was accordingly called Hiram Ulysses Grant until the United States government re-christened him in a curious fashion many years later. To his immediate family, however, he was always known as Ulysses, which his playmates soon twisted into the nickname “Useless,” more or less good-naturedly applied.
Grant’s father moved to Georgetown, Ohio, soon after his son’s birth, and there his boyhood days were passed. The place was not at that time much more than a frontier village and its inhabitants were mostly pioneers–not the adventurous, exploring pioneers who discover new countries, but the hardy advance-guard of civilization, who clear the forests and transform the wilderness into farming land. Naturally, there was no culture and very little education among these people. They were a sturdy, self-respecting, hard-working lot, of whom every man was the equal of every other, and to whom riches and poverty were alike unknown. In a community of this sort there was, of course, no pampering of the children, and if there had been, Grant’s parents would probably have been the last to indulge in it. His father, Jesse Grant, was a stern and very busy man who had neither the time nor the inclination to coddle the boy, and his mother, absorbed in her household duties and the care of a numerous family, gave him only such attention as was necessary to keep him in good health. Young Ulysses was, therefore, left to his own devices almost as soon as he could toddle, and he quickly became self-reliant to a degree that alarmed the neighbors. Indeed, some of them rushed into the house one morning shouting that the boy was out in the barn swinging himself on the farm horses’ tails and in momentary danger of being kicked to pieces; but Mrs. Grant received the announcement with perfect calmness, feeling sure that Ulysses would not amuse himself in that way unless he knew the animals thoroughly understood what he was doing.
Certainly this confidence in the boy’s judgment was entirely justified as far as horses were concerned, for they were the joy of his life and he was never so happy as when playing or working in or about the stables. Indeed, he was not nine years old when he began to handle a team in the fields. From that time forward he welcomed every duty that involved riding, driving or caring for horses, and shirked every other sort of work about the farm and tannery. Fortunately, there was plenty of employment for him in the line of carting materials or driving the hay wagons and harrows, and his father, finding that he could be trusted with such duties, allowed him, before he reached his teens, to drive a ‘bus or stage between Georgetown and the neighboring villages entirely by himself. In fact, he was given such free use of the horses that when it became necessary for him to help in the tannery, he would take a team and do odd jobs for the neighbors until he earned enough, with the aid of the horses, to hire a boy to take his place in the hated tan-yard.
This and other work was, of course, only done out of school hours, for his parents sent him as early as possible to a local “subscription” school, which he attended regularly for many years. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was one of the maxims of the school, and the first duty of the boys on assembling each morning was to gather a good-sized bundle of beech-wood switches, of which the schoolmaster made such vigorous use that before the sessions ended the supply was generally exhausted. Grant received his fair share of this discipline, but as he never resented it, he doubtless got no more of it than he deserved and it probably did him good.
Among his schoolmates he had the reputation of talking less than any of the other boys and of knowing more about horses than all of them put together. An opportunity to prove this came when he was about eleven, for a circus appeared in the village with a trick pony, and during the performance the clown offered five dollars to any boy who could ride him. Several of Ulysses’ friends immediately volunteered, but he sat quietly watching the fun while one after another of the boys fell victim to the pony’s powers. Finally, when the little animal’s triumph seemed complete, Grant stepped into the ring and sprang upon his back. A tremendous tussle for the mastery immediately ensued, but though he reared and shied and kicked, the tricky little beast was utterly unable to throw its fearless young rider, and amid the shouts of the audience the clown at last stopped the contest and paid Ulysses the promised reward.
From that time forward his superiority as a horseman was firmly established, and as he grew older and his father allowed him to take longer and longer trips with the teams, he came to be the most widely traveled boy in the village. Indeed, he was only about fifteen when he covered nearly a hundred and fifty miles in the course of one of his journeys, taking as good care of his horses as he did of himself, and transacting the business entrusted to him with entire satisfaction to all concerned. These long, and often lonely, trips increased his independence and so encouraged his habit of silence that many of the village people began to think him a dunce.
His father, however, was unmistakably proud of the quiet boy who did what he was told to do without talking about it, and though he rarely displayed his feelings, the whole village knew that he thought “Useless” was a wonder and smiled at his parental pride. But the smile almost turned to a laugh when it became known that he proposed to send the boy to West Point, for the last cadet appointed from Georgetown had failed in his examinations before he had been a year at the Academy, and few of the neighbors believed that Ulysses would survive as long. Certainly, the boy himself had never aspired to a cadetship, and when his father suddenly remarked to him one morning that he was likely to obtain the appointment, he receive the announcement with uncomprehending surprise.
“What appointment?” he asked
“To West Point,” replied his father. “I have applied for it.”
“But I won’t go!” gasped the astonished youth.
“I think you will,” was the quiet but firm response, and Grant, who had been taught obedience almost from his cradle, decided that if his father thought so, he did, too.
But, though the young man yielded to his parent’s wishes, he had no desire to become a soldier and entirely agreed with the opinion of the village that he had neither the ability nor the education to acquit himself with credit. In fact, the whole idea of military life was so distasteful to him that he almost hoped he would not fulfill the physical and other requirements for admission. Indeed, the only thought that reconciled him to the attempt was that it necessitated a trip from Ohio to New York, which gratified his longing to see more of the world. This was so consoling that it was almost with a gay heart that he set out of the Hudson in the middle of May, 1839.
For a boy who had lived all his life in an inland village on the outskirts of civilization the journey was absolutely adventurous, for although he was then in his eighteenth year, he had never even as much as seen a railroad and his experiences on the cars, canal boats and steamers were all delightfully surprising. Therefore, long as the journey was, it was far too short for him, and on May 25th he reached his destination. Two lonely and homesick weeks followed, and then, much to his astonishment and somewhat to his regret, he received word that he had passed the examination for admission and was a full-fledged member of the cadet corps of West Point.
Grant at West Point
Grant’s father had obtained his son’s appointment to the Academy through the intervention of a member of Congress, who, remembering that the boy was known as Ulysses and that his mother’s name before her marriage was Simpson, had written to the Secretary of War at Washington, requesting a cadetship for U. S. Grant. This mistake in his initials was not discovered until the young man presented himself at West Point, but when he explained that his name was Hiram Ulysses Grant and not U. S. Grant, the officials would not correct the error. The Secretary of War had appointed U. S. Grant to the Academy and U. S. Grant was the only person they would officially recognize without further orders. They, therefore, intimated that he could either enroll himself as U. S. Grant or stay out of the Academy, making it quite plain that they cared very little which course he adopted. Confronted with this situation, he signed the enlistment paper as U. S. Grant and the document, bearing his name, which thus became his, can be seen to-day among the records at West Point. This re-christening, of course, supplied his comrades with endless suggestions for nicknames and they immediately interpreted his new initials to suit themselves. “United States,” “Under Sized” and “Uncle Sam” all seemed to be appropriate, but the last was the favorite until the day arrived when a more significant meaning was found in “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
The restrictions and discipline of West Point bore much more harshly on country-bred boys in those years than they do to-day when so many schools prepare students for military duties. But to a green lad like Grant, who had been exceptionally independent all his life, the preliminary training was positive torture. It was then that his habitual silence stood him in good stead, for a talkative, argumentative boy could never have survived the breaking-in process which eventually transformed him from a slouchy bumpkin into a smart, soldier-like young fellow who made the most of his not excessive inches. Still, he hated almost every moment of his first year and ardently hoped that the bill for abolishing the Academy, which was under discussion in Congress, would become a law and enable him to return home without disgrace. But no such law was passed and more experience convinced him that West Point was a very valuable institution which should be strengthened rather than abolished. He had not reached this conclusion, however, at the time of his first furlough, and when he returned to his more and found that his father had procured a fine horse for his exclusive use during his holiday, it was hard to tear himself away and resume his duties. Nevertheless, he did so; and, considering the fact that he was not fond of studying, he made fair progress, especially in mathematics, never reaching the head of his class, but never quite sinking to the bottom. Indeed, if he had not been careless in the matter of incurring demerits from small infractions of the rules, he might have attained respectable, if not high rank in the corps, for he was a clean living, clean spoken boy, without a vicious trait of any kind. Even as it was, he became a sergeant, but inattention to details of discipline finally cost him his promotion and reduced him again to the ranks. At no time, however, did he acquire any real love for the military profession. His sole ambition was to pass the examinations and retire from the service as soon as he could obtain a professorship at some good school or college. At this, he might easily have succeeded with his unmistakable talent for mathematics, and it is even conceivable that he might have qualified as a drawing master or an architect, if not as an artist, for he was fond of sketching and some of his works in this line which have been preserved shows a surprisingly artistic touch.
Graduation day at the Academy brought no distinguished honors to Grant, where he stood twenty-first in a class of thirty-nine, but it did win him one small triumph. As almost everyone knows, the West Point cadets are trained for all arms of the service, sometimes doing duty as infantry, sometimes as artillery and at other times acting as engineers or cavalry; and during the closing week of the year, they give public exhibitions of their proficiency before the official visitors. On this particular occasion the cavalry drill was held in the great riding hall, and after the whole corps had completed their evolutions and were formed in line ready to be dismissed, the commanding officer ordered an extraordinarily high hurdle to be placed in position, and while the great throng of spectators were wondering what this meant they heard the sharp command, “Cadet Grant.”
A young man of slight stature, not weighing more than a hundred and twenty pounds, and mounted on a powerful chestnut horse, sprang from the ranks with a quick salute, dashed to the further end of the hall and, swinging his mount about, faced the hurdle. There was a moment’s pause and then the rider, putting spurs to his steed, rushed him straight at the obstruction and, lifting him in masterly fashion, cleared the bar as though he and the animal were one. A thunder of applause followed as the horseman quietly resumed his place in the ranks, and after the corps had been dismissed Grant was sought out and congratulated on his remarkable feat. But his response was characteristic of the boy that was, and the man that was to be. “Yes, ‘York’ is a wonderfully good horse,” was all he said.
A lieutenancy in the engineers or cavalry was more than a man of low standing in the Academy could expect, and Grant was assigned to the Fourth Infantry, with orders to report for duty at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri, at the end of a short leave of absence. The prospect of active service, far from his native state, was anything but pleasing to the new officer; but he had come home with a bad cough, and had he not been ordered to the South, it is highly probable that he would have fallen a victim to consumption, of which two of his uncles had already died. The air of Camp Salubrity, Louisiana, where his regiment was quartered, and the healthy, outdoor life, however, quickly checked the disease, and at the end of two years he had acquired a constitution of iron.
Meanwhile, he had met Miss Julia Dent, the sister of one of his classmates whose home was near St. Louis, and had written to the Professor of Mathematics at West Point, requesting his aid in securing an appointment there as his assistant, to which application he received a most encouraging reply. Doubtless, his courtship of Miss Dent made him doubly anxious to realize his long-cherished plan of settling down to the quiet life of a professor. But all hope of this was completely shattered by the orders of the Fourth Infantry which directed it to proceed at once to Texas. Long before the regiment marched, however, he was engaged to “the girl he left behind him” and, although his dream of an instructorship at West Point had vanished, he probably did not altogether abandon his ambition for a career at teaching. But Fate had other plans for him as he journeyed toward Mexico, where the war clouds were gathering. Lee was moving in the same direction and their trails were soon to merge at the siege of Vera Cruz.
Lieutenant Grant Under Fire
The movement of the United States troops towards Mexico did not take the country by surprise. It was the direct result of the action of Congress admitting Texas to the Union. Ever since it had won its independence from Mexico, Texas had been seeking to become part of the United States; but there had been violent objection in the North to the admission of any new slave state, and this opposition had effectually prevented its annexation. At the last election (1844), however, a majority of the voters apparently favored the admission of Texas, which was accordingly received into the Union, and the long-standing dispute which it had waged with Mexico as to its proper boundaries was assumed by the United States.
Texas claimed to own far more territory than Mexico was willing to concede, but the facts might easily have been ascertained had the United States government desired to avoid a war. Unfortunately, it had no such desire, and General Zachary Taylor was soon ordered to occupy the disputed territory with about 3,000 men. This force, of which Grant’s regiment formed a part, was called the Army of Observation, but it might better have been called the Army of Provocation, for it was obviously intended to provoke an attack on the part of Mexico and to give the United States an excuse for declaring war and settling the boundary question to suit itself.
Probably, there were not many in the army who thought much about the rights or the wrongs of the impending war. There had been no fighting in the United States for more than thirty years, and most of the officers were more interested in seeing real service in the field than they were in discussing the justice or injustice of the cause. Grant was as anxious for glory as any of his comrades, but he cherished no illusions as to the merits of the dispute in which his country was involved. With the clear vision of the silent man who reads and thinks for himself, he saw through the thinly disguised pretenses of the politicians and, recognizing that force was being used against a weaker nation in order to add more slave states to the Union, he formed a very positive opinion that the war was unjustifiable. But though he was forced to this disagreeable conclusion, the young Lieutenant was not the sort of man to criticize his country once she was attacked, or to shirk his duty as a soldier because he did not agree with his superiors on questions of national policy. He thought and said what he liked in private, but he kept his mouth closed in public, feeling that his duties as an officer were quite sufficient without assuming responsibilities which belonged to the authorities in Washington.
War was inevitable almost from the moment that Texas was annexed, but with full knowledge of this fact neither the President nor Congress made any effective preparations for meeting the impending crisis, and when hostilities actually began, General Taylor was directed to advance under conditions which virtually required him to fight his way to safety. Indeed, he was practically cut off from all hope of reënforcement as soon as the first shot was fired, for his orders obliged him to move into the interior of the country, and had his opponents been properly commanded, they could have overwhelmed him and annihilated his whole force. The very audacity of the little American army, however, seemed to paralyze the Mexicans who practically made no resistance until Taylor reached a place called Palo Alto, which in Spanish means “Tall Trees.”
Meanwhile Grant had been made regimental quartermaster, charged with the duty of seeing that the troops were furnished with proper food and caring for all property and supplies. Heartily as he disliked this task, which was not only dull and difficult, but also bade fair to prevent him from taking active part in the prospective battles, he set to work with the utmost energy. By the time the enemy began to dispute the road, he had overcome the immense difficulty of supplying troops on a march through a tropical country and was prepared to take part in any fighting that occurred. But the Mexicans gathered at TALL TREES on May 8, 1846, were not prepared for a serious encounter. They fired at the invaders, but their short-range cannon loaded with solid shot rarely reached the Americans, and when a ball did come rolling towards them on the ground, the troops merely stepped to one side and allowed the missile to pass harmlessly through their opened ranks. After the American artillery reached the field, however, the enemy was driven from its position and the next day the advance was resumed to Resaca de la Palma, where stronger opposition was encountered.
Grant was on the right wing of the army as it pressed forward through dense undergrowth to drive the Mexicans from the coverts in which they had taken shelter. It was impossible to give any exact orders in advancing through this jungle, and the men under Grant’s command struggled forward until they reached a clearing where they caught sight of a small body of Mexicans. The young Lieutenant instantly ordered a charge and, dashing across the open ground, captured the party only to discover that they were merely stragglers left behind by other American troops who had already charged over the same ground. No one appreciated the humor of this exploit more than Grant. It reminded him, he said, of the soldier who boasted that he had been in a charge and had cut off the leg of one of the enemy’s officers. “Why didn’t you cut off his head?” inquired his commander. “Oh, somebody had done that already,” replied the valiant hero.
Slight as the fighting was at Resaca, it completely satisfied the Mexicans, and for over three months they left the Americans severely alone. Meanwhile, General Taylor received reënforcements and in August, 1846, he proceeded against the town of Monterey, which the enemy had fortified with considerable skill and where they were evidently prepared to make a desperate resistance. Grant was again quartermaster, and the terrific heat which forced the army to do its marching at night or during the early hours of the morning, greatly increased his labors and severely tested his patience. Almost all the transportation animals were mules, and as very few of them were trained for the work, they were hard to load and even harder to handle after their burdens were adjusted. One refractory animal would often stampede all the rest, scattering provisions and ammunition in their tracks, driving the teamsters to the point of frenzy and generally hurling confusion through the camp. Even Grant, who never uttered an oath in his life, was often sorely tried by these exasperating experiences, but he kept command of his temper and by his quiet persistence brought order out of chaos in spite of beasts and men.
His disappointment was bitter, however, when the attack on Monterey began and he found himself left without any assignment in the field. Lieutenant Meade, destined at a later date to command the Union forces at Gettysburg, was one of the officers entrusted with the preliminary reconnoissance against the city, and when the fighting actually commenced on September 21st, 1846, the deserted Quartermaster mounted his horse and rode to the scene of the action, determined to see something of the battle even if he could not take part in it. He arrived at the moment when his regiment was ordered to charge against what was known as the Black Fort, and dashed forward with his men into the very jaws of death. Certainly “someone had blundered,” for the charge which had been intended merely as a feint was carried too far and scores of men were mowed down under the terrible fire of the enemy’s guns. Temporary shelter was at last reached, however, and under cover of it the Adjutant borrowed Grant’s horse; but he fell soon after the charge was renewed and the Colonel, noticing the impetuous Quartermaster, promptly appointed him to take the fallen officer’s place. By this time the troops had fought their way into the town and the enemy, posted in the Plaza or Principal Square, commanded every approach to it. As long as the Americans kept in the side streets they were comparatively safe, but the moment they showed themselves in any of the avenues leading to the Plaza, they encountered a hail of bullets. This was serious enough; but at the end of two days the situation became critical, for the ammunition began to run low, and it was realized that, if the Mexicans discovered this, they would sweep down and cut their defenseless opponents to pieces. Face to face with this predicament, the Colonel on September 23rd, called for a volunteer to carry a dispatch to Headquarters, and Grant instantly responded.
To reach his destination it was necessary to run the gantlet of the enemy, for every opening from the Plaza was completely exposed to their fire. But trusting in the fleetness of his horse, the young lieutenant leaped into the saddle and, swinging himself down, Indian fashion, on one side of his steed so as to shield himself behind its body, he dashed away on his perilous mission. A roar of muskets greeted him at every corner, but he flashed safely by, leaping a high wall which lay across his path and then, speeding straight for the east end of the town, reached the commanding General and reported the peril of his friends.
Meanwhile the Americans began one of the most curious advances ever made by an army, for General Worth, finding that he could not force his troops through the streets leading to the Plaza without great loss of life, ordered them to enter the houses and break down the intervening walls, so that they could pass from one adjoining house to another under cover, directly to the heart of the city. This tunneling maneuver was executed with great skill, and when the walls of the houses nearest the Plaza were reached and masses of men stood ready to pour through the openings into the Square, its astonished defenders gave up the fight and promptly surrendered the city.
Captain Lee at the Front
Astonishing as General Taylor’s success had been, the authorities at Washington decided, largely for political reasons, to appoint a new commander, and three months after the battle of Monterey, General Winfield Scott, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States army, was ordered to the seat of the war.
It would be impossible to imagine two officers more utterly different than Taylor and Scott, but each in his own way exerted a profound influence upon the careers of Grant and Lee. Taylor was a rough, uncultivated man, fearless, shrewd and entirely capable, but with nothing to suggest the soldier in his appearance, dress or dignity. On the contrary, he usually appeared sitting slouchily on some woe-begone old animal, his long legs dangling on one side of the saddle, the bridle rein looped over his arm and a straw hat on his head, more like a ploughman than an officer of high rank. Indeed, he seldom donned a uniform of any description, and his only known appearance in full dress occurred during an official meeting with an admiral, when, out of regard for naval etiquette, he attired himself in his finest array. But this effort at politeness was not calculated to encourage him, for the admiral, knowing his host’s objection to uniforms, had been careful to leave his on his ship and appeared in civilian attire.
Scott, on the other hand, was a fussy and rather pompous individual, who delighted in brass buttons and gold lace and invariably presented a magnificent appearance. But, like Taylor, he was an excellent officer and thoroughly competent to handle an army in the field. He was, moreover, entirely familiar with the material of which the American army was composed, and his first move on assuming command was to order practically all the regular United States troops and their officers to join him near Vera Cruz, leaving Taylor virtually nothing but volunteer regiments. The Fourth Infantry accordingly parted with its old commander and reported to Scott, where it was assigned to the division of General Worth, and for the first time Grant met many of the men with and against whom he was to be thrown during the Civil War.
It was certainly a remarkable body of officers that Scott gathered about him at the outset of his campaign, for it included such men as Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, McClellan, Joseph Johnson, Jubal Early, A. P. Hill, Meade, Beauregard, Hooker, Longstreet, Hancock, Thomas and, last but not least, Ulysses Grant and Robert Lee. Lee had arrived in Mexico soon after the battle of Monterey, but he had no opportunity for distinction until the spring of 1847, when preparations were begun for the siege of Vera Cruz. He had, however, already demonstrated his ability as an engineer, and with Lieutenant Beauregard who, fourteen years later, commanded the attack on Fort Sumter, he was entrusted with posting the American batteries at Vera Cruz. This he did to such advantage that they made short work of the city which fell into the invaders’ hands, March 29, 1847, after a week’s siege. Scott was quick to recognize the merit of officers, and Lee was straightway attached to his personal staff, with the result that when the army began its forward movement most of the difficult and delicate work was confided to his care.
Scott’s object was the capture of the City of Mexico, the capital of the Republic, and against this stronghold he moved with energy and skill. At Cerro Gordo the Mexicans opposed him with considerable force, but maneuvers, suggested by Lee, enabled him to outflank the enemy and drive them, without much trouble, from his path. Again at Contreras a check occurred, part of the army having advanced over a well-nigh impassable country and lost touch with the Commander-in-Chief. One after another seven officers were dispatched to carry the necessary orders, but all returned without effecting their purpose. But at midnight, in the midst of a torrential storm Lee arrived from the front, having overcome all difficulties–an achievement which Scott subsequently described as “the greatest feat of physical and moral courage performed by any individual in my knowledge, pending the campaign.”
But Lee was more than merely brave and daring. He was thorough. When work was entrusted to his care he performed it personally, never relying on others further than was absolutely necessary, and never resting satisfied until he was certain that he had accomplished his task. On one of his most important reconnoissances he rode into the interior of the country at night to locate the position of the enemy, and after he had proceeded a considerable distance his guide informed him that if he went any further he would be a prisoner, for the whole Mexican army lay directly in his path. He, accordingly, advanced more cautiously, but the guide again begged him to halt, declaring that he could already see the enemies’ tents lying on the hillside below. Peering through the darkness in the direction indicated, Lee discovered what appeared to be an encampment of many thousand men, and for the moment he was tempted to accept his companion’s conclusion that this was the main force of the Mexicans. Second thoughts, however, convinced him that he ought not to make a report based upon the eyes of the guide, and, despite the man’s frightened protests, he decided to stay where he was and see the situation for himself by daylight. But, before the morning fairly dawned, it was apparent that the supposed army of Mexicans was nothing but a huge flock of sheep and, galloping back with the news that the road was clear, he led a troop of cavalry forward and located the enemy posted many miles away in an entirely different position.
The Mexicans stubbornly, though unsuccessfully, resisted the American army as it pushed toward their capital, and in the battles which ensued Lee was so active that his gallant conduct was praised in almost every dispatch of his Chief, who subsequently attributed much of his success “to the skill and valor of Robert E. Lee,” whom he did not hesitate to describe as “the greatest military genius in America.” Continuous praise from such a source would have been more than sufficient to turn the average officer’s head, but Lee continued to perform his duties without showing the least sign of vanity or conceit. Quiet, thoughtful, quick to take advantage of any opportunity, but greedy of neither honors nor personal distinction of any kind, he won the admiration of his comrades as well as the confidence of his superiors, and his promotion, first to the rank of major and then to that of lieutenant-colonel, was universally approved.
Meanwhile, Grant had been acquitting himself with high credit in all the work which fell to his share. He was in no position to render service of anything like the importance of Lee’s, but he did what he was ordered to do and did it well, being brevetted a first lieutenant for conspicuous gallantry at the battle of Molino del Rey, September 8, 1847. Again, on September 13, in the fighting around Chapultepec, where Lee, though wounded, remained in the saddle until he fell fainting from his horse, Grant gained considerable distinction by his quick action in relieving a dangerous pressure on part of the American lines by posting a small gun in the belfry of a church and galling the enemy with his deadly accurate fire. It was characteristic of the man that when complimented upon this achievement and told that a second gun would be sent to him, Grant merely saluted. He might, with truth, have informed his commanding officer that the belfry could not accommodate another gun, but it was not his habit to talk when there was no need of it, or to question the wisdom of his superior officer. He, therefore, quietly accepted the praise and the superfluous gun and, returning to his post, resumed his excellent service. This and other similar conduct won him further promotion, and on September 14, 1847, when the Americans marched triumphantly into the Mexican capital, he was brevetted a captain.
The war practically ended with this event and within a year Grant was married to Miss Julia Dent and stationed at Sackett’s Harbor, New York, while Lee was assigned to the defenses of Baltimore, not far from his old home.
Colonel Lee After the Mexican War
It is probable that Lee would have been well content to remain indefinitely at Baltimore, for his duties there enabled him to be more with his family than had been possible for some years. To his boys and girls he was both a companion and a friend and in their company he took the keenest delight. In fact, he and his wife made their home the center of attraction for all the young people of the neighborhood, and no happier household existed within the confines of their beloved Virginia.
It was not to be expected, however, that an officer of Lee’s reputation would be allowed to remain long in obscurity, and in 1852, he was appointed Superintendent at West Point. A wiser selection for this important post could scarcely have been made, for Colonel Lee, then in his forty-sixth year, possessed rare qualifications for the duties entrusted to his charge. He was not only a man whose splendid presence, magnificent physique and distinguished record were certain to win the admiration and respect of young men, but he combined in his character and temperament all the qualities of a tactful teacher and an inspiring leader. Quiet and dignified, but extremely sympathetic, he governed the cadets without seeming to command them and, as at his own home, he exerted a peculiarly happy influence upon all with whom he came into personal contact. Among the cadets during his service at West Point were J. E. B. Stuart, who was to prove himself one of the greatest cavalry leaders that this country has ever produced, and his elder son, Custis Lee, who, improving on his father’s almost perfect record, graduated first in his class.
About this time certain important changes were effected in the organization of the regular army, and the popular Superintendent of West Point was immediately appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the newly formed Second Cavalry, with orders to proceed to Texas and protect the settlers against the attacks of hostile Indians. It was with keen regret that Lee received this assignment, for, though intended as a promotion, it removed him from the corps of engineers to which he had always been attached and obliged him to break all his home ties for what was practically police duty in the wilderness. Nevertheless, no thought of resigning from the army apparently crossed his mind. He soon joined his regiment in Texas, where, for almost three years, he patrolled the country, ruling the Indians by diplomacy or force, as occasion required, practically living in the saddle and experiencing all the discomforts and privations of garrison life at an outpost of civilization.
Almost his only relaxation during this lonely and exhausting service was his correspondence with his wife and children, and his letters to them, written in rough camps and on the march, show that his thoughts were constantly with his home and loved ones. “It has been said that our letters are good representations of our minds,” he wrote his youngest daughter from Texas in 1857; and certainly Lee’s correspondence, exhibiting as it does, consideration for others, modesty, conscientiousness, affection and a spirit of fun, affords an admirable reflection of the writer.
“Did I tell you that ‘Jim Nooks,’ Mrs. Waite’s cat, was dead?” he wrote one of his girls. “He died of apoplexy. I foretold his end. Coffee and cream for breakfast, pound cake for lunch, turtle and oysters for dinner, buttered toast for tea and Mexican rats, taken raw, for supper! He grew enormously and ended in a spasm. His beauty could not save him…. But I saw ‘cats as is cats’ at Sarassa…. The entrance of Madame [his hostess] was foreshadowed by the coming in of her stately cats with visages grim and tails erect, who preceded, surrounded and followed her. They are of French breed and education, and when the claret and water were poured out for my refreshment they jumped on the table for a sit-to…. I had to leave the wild-cat on the Rio Grande; he was too savage and had grown as large as a small sized dog. He would pounce on a kid as Tom Tita [his daughter’s cat] would on a mouse and would whistle like a tiger when you approached him.”
But it was not always in this chatty fashion that he wrote, for in 1856, when the question of slavery was being fiercely discussed throughout the country, he expressed his views on the subject with a moderation and broadmindedness exceedingly rare in those excited times.
“In this enlightened age,” he wrote his wife, “there are few, I believe, but will acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country. I think it, however, a greater evil to the white than to the black race; and while my feelings are strongly interested in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are stronger for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa–morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race and I hope it will prepare and lead them to better things. How long this subjection may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise and merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from a mild and melting influence than from the storms and contests of fiery controversy. This influence though slow is sure.”
Such were the views of Robert Lee on this great question of the day, and even as he wrote the country was beginning to notice a country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who was expressing almost identically the same opinions in no uncertain terms.
But the calm advice of Lincoln and Lee did not appeal to the hot-heads who were for abolishing slavery instantly at any and every cost. In October, 1859, when Lee was on a short visit to Arlington, John Brown, whose father had once lived with Grant’s father, attempted to take the whole matter into his already blood-stained hands. It is a strange coincidence that Lee should have chanced to be in Virginia just at this particular crisis, and still stranger that the errand which had called him home should have related to the emancipation of slaves. But the facts were that Mr. Custis, his father-in-law, had died a few weeks previously, leaving him as the executor of his will, which provided, among other things, for the gradual emancipation of all his slaves. Lee had accordingly obtained leave of absence to make a flying trip to Virginia for the purpose of undertaking this duty, and he was actually making arrangements to carry out Mr. Custis’s wishes in respect to his slaves when the news of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry reached Arlington. Word of this reckless attempt to free the slaves by force reached him in the form of a dispatch from the Secretary of War, ordering him to take immediate charge of the United States marines who were being hurried to the scene of action. He instantly obeyed and, with Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart as his second in command, hastened to Harper’s Ferry and, directing his troops to storm the engine-house where Brown and his followers had taken refuge, effected their capture almost without striking a blow. Then, after delivering his prisoners to the proper authorities, he completed his work at Arlington and returned to Texas and the rough life of guarding the frontier line.
From this duty he was recalled to Washington in March, 1861, when the Southern States were rapidly forming the Confederacy, the whole country was in wild confusion and the nation was facing the prospect of a terrific civil war.
Captain Grant in a Hard Fight
Meanwhile, what had become of Grant? The War Department did not know and apparently did not care. Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War, responded to his father’s anxious inquiry that Captain U. S. Grant had resigned from the army in July, 1854, but that he had no official knowledge as to why he had taken this action. Mr. Grant, however, soon learned the facts from other sources, and in his bitter disappointment was heard to exclaim that “West Point had ruined one of his boys for him.”
It was natural enough that the stern and proud old gentleman should have blamed West Point for the heart-breaking failure of his favorite son, but, as a matter of fact, West Point was in no way responsible for what had occurred. Neither during his cadetship at the Academy nor for some years after his graduation from that institution had Ulysses Grant touched wine or stimulants in any form. He had, indeed, tried to learn to smoke during his West Point days but had merely succeeded in making himself ill. During his hard campaigning in Mexico, however, he had learned not only to smoke, but to drink, though it was not until some years after the war closed that he began to indulge to excess. As a matter of fact, he ought never to have touched a drop of any intoxicant, for a very little was always too much for him, and the result was that he soon came to be known in the army as a drinking man. Had he been at home, surrounded by his wife and children and busily engaged, perhaps he might not have yielded to his weakness. But his orders carried him to lonely posts on the Pacific, many hundreds of miles away from his family, with no duties worthy of the name, and the habit grew on him until the exasperated Colonel of his regiment at last gave him the choice of resigning or being court-martialed for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Face to face with this ugly alternative, he chose resignation, and the army, officially, knew him no more.
It was not only social and professional disgrace, but financial ruin which confronted the broken officer as he bade good-bye to his regiment at its desolate quarters in California, after fifteen years of service to the army. He was absolutely without money and, at the age of thirty-two, it was by no means easy for him to begin life all over again and earn his own living at a new calling. His fellow officers provided him with enough cash for his immediate wants, and with their help he managed to find his way back to Sackett’s Harbor, New York, where there was a little money owing him. But he failed to collect this and remained hopelessly stranded until another officer came to his rescue and provided him with sufficient funds to take him to his home. This friend in time of need was Simon B. Buckner, whom he was to meet again under strange and dramatic circumstances.
It was hardly to be expected, under such conditions, that stern old Jesse Grant would welcome the home-coming of his eldest son. Nevertheless, he helped him on his way to his wife and children, and, sick at heart and broken in health, the young man joined his family and began a desperate struggle to earn his own living. Mrs. Grant’s father was a slave owner and a sympathizer with the South in the growing trouble between that section of the country and the North. But the quarrel had not yet reached the breaking point, and although he did not approve of his son-in-law’s northern views and heartily disapproved of his conduct, he gave him a start as a farmer and then left him to work out his own salvation.
Farming was the only occupation at which Grant could hope to make a living, but he soon found that he did not know enough about this to make a success of it, and gradually fell back on his youthful experience as a teamster, hauling wood to the city where he sold it to the railroad or to anyone that would buy. At this he was fairly successful and, encouraged by his wife who stood bravely by him, he built a house with his own hands, which, although it was not much more than a log cabin, was sufficiently large to shelter his small family. All this time he was making a hard fight to conquer his drinking habits, but the vice had taken a terrible hold on him and he could not easily shake it off. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before his experiment at farming failed and with the aid of his father-in-law he entered business as a real estate broker in St. Louis. But for this calling he had no qualification whatsoever, and after a disheartening experience in attempting to secure the post of county engineer, he accepted his father’s suggestion that he join his brothers in the leather business in Galena, Illinois, and retired there with his family in the spring of 1860.
The position which his father had made for him was not much more than a clerkship and the work was dull for a man who had been accustomed to active, outdoor life; but he was received with tact and kindness, no reference was made to his past record of failure and all this helped him to continue the successful struggle which he was making to regain control of himself and his habits.
Indeed, from the time he began his residence in Galena he already had the battle well in hand and he fought it out with such grim resolution that before a year had passed his victory was complete. Scarcely anyone in the little town knew of this silent struggle for self-mastery. Indeed, very few people knew anything at all about the newcomer, save that he was a quiet, hard-working man who occasionally appeared on the streets wearing a blue army overcoat which had seen rough service. This weather-stained garment, however, forced Grant to break his habitual silence, for he fully shared General Taylor’s prejudice against a uniform and felt obliged to apologize for wearing even part of one. So one day he explained to a neighbor that he wore the coat because it was made of good material and he thought he ought to use it as long as it lasted. That was all the citizens of Galena then learned of the record of the man who had served with high honor in well-nigh every battle of the Mexican War. Had it depended upon him, their information would probably have begun and ended there.
During all this time the feeling between the North and the South was growing more and more bitter, but Galena was a town divided against itself on the slavery question. Grant himself was a Democrat. If he was not in favor of slavery, he certainly was not opposed to it, for he favored Douglas and not Lincoln in the contest for the Presidency, and Douglas was strongly against any interference with slavery. Indeed, it is a curious coincidence that at or about the time when Lee’s family was ceasing to own slaves, Grant’s family acquired some. Such, however, is the fact, for on the death of her father, Mrs. Grant inherited several Negroes and there is some evidence that Grant himself sold or attempted to sell them.
But, though he was at that time no champion of the black race, Grant was always a strong Union man, opposed heart and soul to secession. Indeed, when news of the attack upon Fort Sumter arrived in Galena, he arrayed himself with the defenders of the flag gathered at a mass meeting held in the town to form a company in response to the President’s call for 75,000 volunteers. Moreover, this meeting had no sooner been called to order than someone proposed him as chairman, and to his utter astonishment, he found himself pushed from the rear of the room to the front and from the front to the platform. Probably few in the audience knew who or what he was, and his embarrassment was such that for a few minutes no words came to his lips. Finally, however, he managed to announce the object of the meeting, warning those who intended to enlist that they would be engaged in serious business involving hard work and privation, expressing his willingness to aid in forming the Galena Company and ending with a simple statement of his own intention to reënter the army.
There was nothing eloquent about his short speech but it had the tone of a man who knew what he was talking about, and the audience, availing itself of his military experience, immediately voted to entrust the organization and drilling of the volunteers to his care, and from that moment he never again entered his father’s place of business.
Grant’s Difficulties in Securing a Command
The command of the local company was, of course, offered to Grant as soon as it was formed, but he declined, believing himself qualified for somewhat higher rank than a captaincy of volunteers. Nevertheless, he did all he could to prepare the recruits for active service in the field and when they were ordered to Springfield, the capital of Illinois, he journeyed there to see them properly mustered into the service of the state.
Springfield was a hubbub of noise and a rallying point for well-meaning incompetence when he arrived upon the scene. New officers in new uniforms swaggered in every public meeting place, bands of music played martial airs at every street corner and volunteers sky-larked and paraded in all sorts of impossible uniforms and with every form of theatric display. But system and order were absolutely lacking, and the adjutant-general’s office, littered with blanks and well-nigh knee deep with papers, was the most helpless spot in the welter of confusion. All the material for a respectable army was at hand, but how to form it into an effective force was more than anyone seemed to know. The mass of military forms and blanks intended for that purpose was mere waste paper in the hands of the amiable but ignorant insurance agent who bore the title of adjutant-general, and no one of the patriotic mob had sufficient knowledge to instruct him in his duties. In the midst of all this hopeless confusion, however, someone suggested that a man by the name of Grant, who had come down with the Galena Company, had been in the army and ought to know about such things. The Governor accordingly sought out “the man from Galena” just as he was starting for his home, with the result that he was soon at a desk in the adjutant’s office, filling out the necessary papers at three dollars a day, while the brand new captains, colonels and generals posed in the foreground to the tune of popular applause.
From this time forward order gradually took the place of chaos and the political generals and comic-opera soldiers were slowly shifted from the scene. But scarcely anyone noticed the silent man, hard at work in his shirt sleeves in a corner of the adjutant’s room, and such inquiries as were made concerning him elicited the information that he was a cast-off of the regular army, with a dubious reputation for sobriety, who had been hired as a clerk. But the Governor of Illinois was an intelligent man, and he was well aware of the service which the ex-Captain of regulars was performing for the State, and on the completion of his work in the adjutant’s office Grant was given a nominal title and assigned to visit the various regiments at their encampments to see that they were properly mustered in. He, accordingly, straightway set to work at this task, and his brisk, business-like manner of handling it made an impression upon those with whom he came in contact, for one of the temporary camps became known as Camp Grant.
Meanwhile, seeing his duties coming to an end without much hope of further employment, he wrote the following letter to the Adjutant-General of the United States Army at Washington:
“Having served for fifteen years in the regular army, including four years at West Point, and feeling it the duty of every one who has been educated at the Government expense to offer their services for the support of that Government, I have the honor, very respectfully, to tender my services until the close of the war in such capacity as may be offered. I would say in view of my present age and length of service, I feel myself competent to command a regiment, if the President, in his judgment, should see fit to entrust one to me. Since the first call of the President I have been serving on the staff of the Governor of this State, rendering such aid as I could in the organization of our State militia, and am still engaged in that capacity. A letter addressed to me at Springfield, Ill., will reach me.”
But the authorities at Washington took no notice whatsoever of this modest letter, which was evidently tossed aside and completely forgotten. Indeed, it was so completely buried in the files of the War Department that it disappeared for years and, when it was at last discovered, the war was a thing of the past.
This silent rebuff was enough to discourage any sensitive man and Grant felt it keenly, but he did not entirely despair of accomplishing his end. He tried to gain an interview with General Frémont who was stationed in a neighboring state and, failing in this, sought out McClellan, his comrade in the Mexican War, who had been made a major-general and was then in the vicinity of Covington, Kentucky, where Grant had gone to visit his parents. But McClellan either would not or could not see him. Indeed, he had about reached the conclusion that his quest was hopeless, when he happened to meet a friend who offered to tell the Governor of Ohio that he wished to reenter the army, with the result that before long he was tendered the colonelcy of an Ohio regiment. In the meantime, however, he had unexpectedly received a telegram from the Governor of Illinois, appointing him to the command of the 21st Illinois regiment, and this he had instantly accepted. Had he known the exact circumstances under which this post was offered him, perhaps he might not have acted so promptly, but he knew enough to make him aware that the appointment was not altogether complimentary and it is quite likely that he would have accepted it in any event.
The facts were, however, that the Colonel of the 21st Regiment had proved to be an ignorant and bombastic adventurer, who had appeared before his troops clothed in a ridiculous costume and armed like a pirate king, and there was such dissatisfaction among both the officers and men that a new commander was urgently demanded. Of this Grant already knew something, but he was not advised that the regiment had become so utterly demoralized by its incompetent leader that it was nothing less than a dangerous and unruly mob, of which the Governor could not induce any self-respecting officer to take charge. He had, indeed, offered the command to at least half a dozen other men before he tendered it to Grant, and he must have been intensely relieved to receive his prompt acceptance.
The new Colonel did not wait to procure a new uniform before reporting for duty, but, hastening to the Fair Grounds close to Springfield where his troops were stationed, ordered them to assemble for inspection. But incompetent leadership had played havoc with the discipline of the regiment, and the men shambled from their tents without any attempt at military formation, more from curiosity than in obedience to orders.
The new Colonel stepped to the front, wearing a rusty suit of civilian’s clothes, his trousers tucked into his dusty boots, a battered hat on his head, a bandanna handkerchief tied around his waist in place of a sash and carrying a stick in place of a sword. Altogether he presented a most unimpressive figure and it would not have been surprising if a wild guffaw of laughter had greeted him, but the troops, studying his strong, calm face, contented themselves with calling for a speech. Then they waited in silence for his response and they did not have to wait long.
“Men!” he commanded sharply. “Go to your quarters!”
The regiment fairly gasped its astonishment. It had never heard a speech like that before and, taken completely by surprise, it moved quietly from the field.
Sentries were instantly posted, camp limits established and preparations made for enforcing strict discipline. It was not to be supposed that such prompt reforms would pass unchallenged, but arrests followed the first signs of disobedience and punishment swiftly followed the arrests.
“For every minute I’m kept here I’ll have an ounce of your blood!” threatened a dangerous offender whom the Colonel had ordered to be tied up.
“Gag that man!” was the quiet response. “And when his time is up I’ll cut him loose myself.”
Before night, all was quiet in the camp of the 21st Regiment of Illinois Volunteers.
Grant was in command.
Lee at the Parting of the Ways
While Grant was thus striving to reënter the army, Lee was having a struggle of a very different sort. Summoned from his distant post in Texas, where only an occasional rumble of the coming tempest reached his ears, he suddenly found himself in the center of the storm which threatened to wreck the Republic. In the far South seven states had already seceded; in Washington, Congressmen, Senators, and members of the Cabinet were abandoning their posts; in the army and navy his friends were daily tendering their resignations; and his own state, divided between love for the Union and sympathy with its neighbors, was hovering on the brink of secession.
The issue in Lee’s mind was not the existence of slavery. He had long been in favor of emancipation, and Virginia had more than once come so close to abolishing slavery by law that its disappearance from her borders was practically assured within a very short period. All his own slaves he had long since freed and he was gradually emancipating his father-in-law’s, according to the directions of Mr. Custis’s will. But the right of each state to govern itself without interference from the Federal Government seemed to Lee essential to the freedom of the people. He recognized, however, that secession was revolution and, calmly and conscientiously examining the question, he concluded that, if force were used to compel any state to remain in the Union, resistance would be justifiable. Most Virginians reached this decision impulsively, light-heartedly, defiantly or vindictively, and more or less angrily, according to their temperaments and the spirit of the times, but not so Lee. He unaffectedly prayed God for guidance in the struggle between his patriotism and his devotion to a principle which he deemed essential to liberty and justice. He loved his country as only a man in close touch with its history and with a deep reverence for its great founder, Washington, could love it; he had fought for its flag; he wore its uniform; he had been educated at its expense; and General Scott, the Commander of the army, a devoted Union man, was his warm personal friend. Patriotism, personal pride, loyalty and even gratitude, therefore, urged him toward the support of the Union, and only his adherence to a principle and the claims of his kinsmen and friends forbade.
For a time Virginia resisted every effort to induce her to cast her lot with the Confederacy. Indeed she actually voted against secession when the question was first presented. But when Fort Sumter resisted attack on April 12, 1861, and the President called upon the various states to furnish troops to enforce the national authority, practically all affection for the Union disappeared and by a decisive vote Virginia determined to uphold the Southern cause.
At that crisis President Lincoln made a strong effort to induce Lee to support the Union, for he actually offered him the command of the United States Army which was about to take the field. The full force of this remarkable tribute to his professional skill was not lost upon Lee. He had devoted his whole life to the army, and to be a successor of Washington in the command of that army meant more to him than perhaps to any other soldier in the land. Certainly, if he had consulted his own ambition or been influenced by any but the most unselfish motives, he would have accepted the call as the highest honor in the gift of the nation. But to do so he would have been obliged to surrender his private principles and desert his native state, and it is impossible to imagine that a man of his character would, even for an instant, consider such a course. Gravely and sadly he declined the mighty office, and two days later he tendered his resignation from the service he had honored for almost six and thirty years.
For this and his subsequent action Lee has been called a traitor and severely criticized for well-nigh fifty years. But, when a nation has been divided against itself upon a great issue of government, millions upon one side and millions upon the other, and half a century has intervened, it is high time that justice be given to the man who did what he thought right and honorably fought for a principle which he could have surrendered only at the expense of his conscience and his honor. Lee was a traitor to the United States in the same sense that Washington was a traitor to England. No more and no less. England takes pride to-day in having given Washington to the world. Americans deprive their country of one of her claims to greatness when they fail to honor the character and the genius of Robert Lee.
It was in a letter to his old commander, Scott, that Lee announced his momentous decision, and its tone well indicated what the parting cost him.
“Arlington, Va., April 20, 1861.
“Since my interview with you on the 18th inst., I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the army. I, therefore, tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance. It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted the best years of my life and all the ability I possessed. During the whole of that time…I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors and a most cordial friendship from my comrades. To no one, General, have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness and consideration…. Save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”
Lee was fully aware of the serious nature of the conflict in which the country was about to engage. Americans were to be pitted against Americans and he knew what that meant. Wise men, both North and South, were prophesying that the war would not last more than ninety days, and foolish ones were bragging of their own powers and questioning the courage of their opponents, quite oblivious of the adage that when Greek meets Greek there comes a tug of war. But Lee did not concern himself with such childish exhibitions of judgment and temper.
“Do not put your faith in rumors of adjustment,” he wrote his wife before serious fighting had begun. “I see no prospect of it. It cannot be while passions on both sides are so infuriated. MAKE YOUR PLANS FOR SEVERAL YEARS OF WAR. I agree with you that the inflammatory articles in the papers do us much harm. I object particularly to those in the Southern papers, as I wish them to take a firm, dignified course, free from bravado and boasting. The times are indeed calamitous. The brightness of God’s countenance seems turned from us. It may not always be so dark and He may in time pardon our sins and take us under his protection.”
Up to this time his son Custis, who had graduated first in his class at West Point, was still in the service of the United States as a lieutenant in the Engineers and of him Lee wrote to his wife in the same comradely spirit that he had always shown toward his boys. “Tell Custis he must consult his own judgment, reason and conscience, as to the course he may take. The present is a momentous question which every man must settle for himself, and upon principle. I do not wish him to be guided by my wishes or example. If I have done wrong let him do better.”
Virginia was not slow in recognizing that she had within her borders the soldiers whom the chief general of the United States described as the greatest military genius in America, and within three days of his resignation from the old army, Lee was tendered the command of all the Virginia troops. Convinced that the brunt of the heavy fighting would fall on his native state, to whose defense he had dedicated his sword, he accepted the offer and thus there came to the aid of the Confederacy one of the few really great commanders that the world has ever seen.
It was to no very agreeable task that Lee was assigned at the outset of his command. The forces of the Confederacy were even less prepared to take the field than those of the United States, and for three months Lee was hard at work organizing and equipping the army for effective service. This important but dull duty prevented him from taking any active part in the first great battle of the War at Bull Run (July 21, 1861), but it was his rare judgment in massing the troops where they could readily reënforce each other that enabled the Confederate commanders on that occasion to form the junction which resulted in the overwhelming defeat of the Union army. This fact was well recognized by the authorities and, when the situation in western Virginia assumed a threatening aspect, he was ordered there with the highest hopes that he would repeat the success of Bull Run and speedily expel the Union forces from that part of the state.
A more unpromising field of operation than western Virginia could scarcely have been selected for the new commander. The people of that region generally favored the Union, and the Federal troops had already obtained possession of the strongest positions, while some of the Confederate commanders were quarreling with each other and otherwise working at cross purposes. For a time, therefore, Lee had to devote himself to smoothing over the differences which had arisen among his jealous subordinates, but when he at last began an aggressive movement, bad weather and a lack of coöperation between the various parts of his small army defeated his designs, and in October, 1861, the three-months’ campaign came to an inglorious close.
This complete failure was a bitter disappointment to the Confederate hopes and Lee was severely blamed for the result. Indeed, for the time being he was regarded as an overrated individual who had had his opportunity and had proved unequal to the task of conducting military operations on a large scale. It was not easy to suffer this unjust criticism to pass unnoticed, but the discipline of the army life had taught Lee to control his tongue, and he made no protest even when he found himself removed from the front to superintend the fortifying of the coast. A small-minded man would probably have retired in sulky silence under such circumstances, but Lee entered upon his new duties with cheerful energy, and in four months he devised such skillful defenses for Charleston, Savannah and other points on the Confederate coast line, that they were enabled to defy all assaults of the Union army and navy until almost the close of the war. This invaluable service attracted no public attention, but it was fully appreciated by the Confederate authorities, who in no wise shared the popular opinion concerning Lee’s talents. On the contrary, President Jefferson Davis, himself a graduate of West Point, continued to have the highest regard for his ability, and in March, 1862, he reappointed him as his chief military adviser at Richmond.
It was about this time that the roar of cannon in the West attracted the attention of the country, making it realize for the first time how far flung was the battle line of the contending armies; and on hard-fought fields, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from Washington and Richmond, the mud-splashed figure of Grant began to loom through heavy clouds of smoke.
It was by no brilliant achievement that Grant regained his standing in the army. The unruly 21st Illinois had been sufficiently disciplined within a fortnight after he assumed command to take some pride in itself as an organization and when its short term of service expired, it responded to the eloquence of McClernand and Logan, two visiting orators, by reënlisting almost to a man. Then the Colonel set to work in earnest to make his regiment ready for the field, drilling and hardening the men for their duties and waiting for an opportunity to show that this was a fighting force with no nonsense about it. The opportunity came sooner than he expected, for about two weeks after he had assumed command, his regiment was ordered to northern Missouri, and a railroad official called at his camp to inquire how many cars he would need for the transportation of his men. “I don’t want any,” was the bluff response; and, to the astonishment of the local authorities who, at that period of the war, never dreamed of moving troops except by rail or river, the energetic Colonel assembled his regiment in marching order and started it at a brisk pace straight across country.
But, though he had moved with such commendable promptness, Grant was not nearly so confident as his actions seemed to imply. In fact, before he reached his destination, he heartily wished himself back again, and by the time he arrived at the point where the enemy was expected his nerves were completely unstrung. It was not the fright of cowardice that unmanned him, but rather the terror of responsibility. Again and again he had braved death in battle but now, for the first time, the safety of an entire regiment depended solely upon him as he approached the summit of the hill from which he expected to catch sight of his opponents he dreaded to fight them, lest he prove unequal to the emergency. But, while he was tormenting himself with this over-anxiety, he suddenly remembered that his opponent was just as new at his duties as he was and probably quite as nervous, and from that moment his confidence gradually returned. As a matter of fact, Colonel Harris, who commanded the Confederate force, displayed far more prudence than valor, for, on hearing of the advance of the Union troops, he speedily retreated and the 21st Illinois encountered no opposition whatever. But the march taught Grant a lesson he never forgot and, thereafter, in the hour of peril, he invariably consoled himself by remembering that his opponents were not free from danger and the more he made them look to their own safety the less time they would have for worrying him.
It was in July, 1861, when Grant entered Missouri, and about a month later the astonishing news reached his headquarters that President Lincoln had appointed him a Brigadier General of Volunteers. The explanation of this unexpected honor was that the Illinois Congressmen had included his name with seven others on a list of possible brigadiers, and the President had appointed four of them without further evidence of their qualifications. Under such circumstances, the promotion was not much of an honor, but it placed Grant in immediate command of an important district involving the control of an army of quite respectable size.
For a time the new General was exclusively occupied with perfecting the organization of his increased command, but to this hard, dull work he devoted himself in a manner that astonished some of the other brigadiers whose ideas of the position involved a showy staff of officers and a deal of picturesque posing in resplendent uniforms. But Grant had no patience with such foolery. He had work to do and when his headquarters were established at Cairo, Illinois, he took charge of them himself, keeping his eyes on all the details like any careful business man. In fact he was, as far as appearances were concerned, a man of business, for he seldom wore a uniform and worked at his desk all day in his shirt sleeves, behind ramparts of maps and papers, with no regard whatever for military ceremony or display.
A month of this arduous preparation found his force ready for active duty and about this time he became convinced that the Confederates intended to seize Paducah, an important position in Kentucky at the mouth of the Tennessee River, just beyond the limits of his command. He, accordingly, telegraphed his superiors for permission to occupy the place. No reply came to this request and a more timid man would have hesitated to move without orders. But Grant saw the danger and, assuming the responsibility, landed his troops in the town just in time to prevent its capture by the Confederates. Paducah was in sympathy with the South, and on entering it the Union commander issued an address to the inhabitants which attracted far more attention than the occupation of the town, for it contained nothing of the silly brag and bluster so common then in military proclamations on both sides. On the contrary, it was so modest and sensible, and yet so firm, that Lincoln, on reading it, is said to have remarked: “The man who can write like that is fitted to command.”
Paducah was destined to be the last of Grant’s bloodless victories, for in November, 1861, he was ordered to threaten the Confederates near Belmont, Missouri, as a feint to keep them from reënforcing another point where a real assault was planned. The maneuver was conducted with great energy and promised to be completely successful, but after Grant’s raw troops had made their first onslaught and had driven their opponents from the field, they became disorderly and before he could control them the enemy reappeared in overwhelming numbers and compelled them to fight their way back to the river steamers which had carried them to the scene of action. This they succeeded in doing, but such was their haste to escape capture that they actually tumbled on board the boats and pushed off from the shore without waiting for their commander. By this time the Confederates were rapidly approaching with the intention of sweeping the decks of the crowded steamboats before they could get out of range, and Grant was apparently cut off from all chance of escape. Directly in front of him lay the precipitous river bank, while below only one transport was within hail and that had already started from its moorings. Its captain, however, caught sight of him as he came galloping through a corn field and instantly pushed his vessel as close to the shore as he dared, at the same time throwing out a single plank about fifteen feet in length to serve as an emergency gangway. To force a horse down the cliff-like bank of the river and up the narrow plank to the steamer’s deck, was a daring feat, but the officer who was riding for his life had not forgotten the skill which had marked him at West Point and, compelling his mount to slide on its haunches down the slippery mud precipice, he trotted coolly up the dangerous incline to safety.
The battle of Belmont (November 7, 1861), as this baptism of fire was called, is said to have caused more mourning than almost any other engagement of the war, for up to that time there had been but little loss of life and its list of killed and wounded, mounting into the hundreds, made a painfully deep impression. In this respect, it was decidedly ominous of Grant’s future record, but it accomplished his purpose in detaining the Confederates and he was soon to prove his willingness to accept defeats as necessary incidents to any successful campaign and to fight on undismayed.
Grant’s First Success
Up to this time the war in the West had been largely an affair of skirmishes. A body of Union troops would find itself confronting a Confederate force, one of the two commanders would attack and a fight would follow; or the Confederates would march into a town and their opponents would attempt to drive them out of it, not because it was of any particular value, but because the other side held it. “See-a-head-and-hit-it” strategy governed the day and no plan worthy of the name had been adopted for conducting the war on scientific principles.
But Grant had studied the maps to some purpose in his office at Cairo and he realized that the possession of the Mississippi River was the key to the situation in the West. As long as the Confederates controlled that great waterway which afforded them free access to the ocean and fairly divided the Eastern from the Western States, they might reasonably hope to defy their opponents to the end of time. But, if they lost it, one part of the Confederacy would be almost completely cut off from the rest. Doubtless, other men saw this just as clearly and quite as soon as Grant did; but having once grasped an idea he never lost sight of it, and while others were diverted by minor matters, he concentrated his whole attention on what he believed to be the vital object of all campaigning in the West.
The Tennessee River and the Cumberland River both flow into the Ohio, not far from where that river empties into the Mississippi. They, therefore, formed the principal means of water communication with the Mississippi for the State of Tennessee, and the Confederates had created forts to protect them at points well within supporting distance of each other. Fort Henry, guarding the Tennessee River, and Fort Donelson, commanding the Cumberland River, were both in Grant’s district, and in January, 1862, he wrote to General Halleck, his superior officer in St. Louis, calling attention to the importance of these posts and offering suggestions for their capture. But Halleck did not take any notice of this communication and Grant thereupon resolved to go to St. Louis and present his plans in person. This was the first time he had been in the city since the great change in his circumstances and those who had known him only a few years before as a poverty-stricken farmer and wagoner could scarcely believe that he was the same man. He had, as yet, done nothing very remarkable, but he held an important command, his name was well and favorably known and he had already begun to pay off his old debts. All this enabled his father and mother to regain something of the pride they had once felt for their eldest son, and his former friends were glad to welcome him and claim his acquaintance.
Pleasant as this was, the trip to St. Louis was a bitter disappointment in other respects, for Halleck not only rejected his subordinate’s proposition for the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, but dismissed him without even listening to the details of his plan. Most officers would have been completely discouraged by such treatment, but Grant had been accustomed to disappointments for many years and did not readily despair. Meeting Flag-Officer Foote who had charge of a fleet of gun boats near Cairo, he explained his idea and finding him not only sympathetic, but enthusiastic, he and Foote each sent a telegram to Halleck assuring him that Fort Henry could be taken if he would only give his consent. These messages brought no immediate response, but Grant continued to request permission to advance until, on the 1st of February, 1862, the necessary order was obtained and within twenty-four hours the persistent officer had his expedition well upon its way.
His force consisted of some 15,000 men and seven gun boats, and Halleck promised him reënforcements, sending a capable officer to see that they were promptly forwarded. This officer was Brigadier