On April 12, 1861, artillery belonging to the seceded state of South Carolina began firing on Fort Sumter, the United States Army post in Charleston Harbor, and the fort surrendered two days later. The forces of the United States of America were engaged in combat with those of the Confederate States of America.

Abraham Lincoln, who had taken the oath as president of the United States five weeks before, still hoped to avert a large-scale war, but he issued a call for seventy-five thousand volunteers from the North, to augment the small Regular Army, then numbering sixteen thousand men, in which Grant and Sherman had once served. The Confederacy, its central government coming into existence overnight, brought its army into being from a collection of militia organizations and companies of volunteers.

In Washington, the federal government kept its few Regular Army regiments intact and authorized the creation of additional Regular units, but many experienced officers of the peacetime army were quickly moved into posts commanding regiments filled with the new volunteers. In the Union Army as a whole, an important distinction existed between those holding Regular Army commissions—men who had graduated from West Point, or who had in a very few cases been given Regular commissions as they were brought in from civilian life—and those officers holding Volunteer commissions, which, while carrying real responsibilities, were appointments frequently made as a political favor to men with little or no military experience. With the wartime expansion, a West Pointer who had served for years in the Regular Army might find himself advanced several ranks, to make use of his ability and knowledge: a man would, for example, continue to hold his Regular commission as a captain, a rank in which he previously commanded no more than a hundred men, but soon be given the rank of colonel of Volunteers and become the commander of a regiment of a thousand. As for marching into battle, it was all the same Union Army.

It was a time of fateful, painful decisions: the South gained the services of Robert E. Lee, who declined an offer by an intermediary acting for President Lincoln that he should, in Lee’s words, “take command of the army that was to be brought into the field.” Three months before Fort Sumter was fired upon, Lee had written about the agonizing issue of conflicting loyalties to his son Lieutenant Custis Lee, who had graduated first in the West Point class of 1854: “I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.” But when his beloved native Virginia seceded, he resigned from the army he had entered as a West Point cadet thirty-five years before, stating, “I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States.” Lee urged his son to make his own decision in the matter, but Custis also resigned, to fight for the Confederacy. Of the 1,108 officers serving in the United States Army, a third chose to join the forces of the South; in the navy, a quarter of the officers resigned, to reappear in the new Confederate States Navy.

In the eyes of professional military men, another great loss to the Union was the decision to go with the South made by the exceptionally able Joseph E. Johnston, who had been Lee’s West Point classmate. The Confederacy elected as its president Jefferson Davis, a Southerner who had graduated from West Point, had led with distinction a regiment of Mississippi volunteers in the Mexican War, and had gone on as a civilian to serve as a United States senator and subsequently to become secretary of war in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce, dealing with reams of paperwork that included accepting the resignations of Captains Sherman and Grant. In early 1861, he was again a United States senator from Mississippi. On the day before he made his farewell address in the Senate and headed south, Davis said, “Civil war has only horror for me, but whatever circumstances demand shall be met as a duty.”

In Galena, Illinois, President Lincoln’s call for volunteers produced a mass meeting; Ulysses S. Grant, the only man in town who had served as an officer in the Regular Army, was pressed into duty as chairman. The citizens voted to form a company of foot soldiers to be known as the Jo Daviess Guards, named for Jo Daviess County, of which Galena was the county seat. Asked if he would take command of what soon became a hundred volunteers, Grant declined, saying that he intended to offer his services at a higher level, but he threw himself into the business of organizing the town’s company and readying these recruits to proceed to a camp outside the state capital of Springfield for training. “I never went into our leather store after that meeting,” Grant said, “to put up a package or do other business.”

Suddenly this quiet man was everywhere, helping the patriotically minded ladies of Galena order the right kind of cloth for uniforms from a dry-goods merchant appropriately named Felt, and telling the tailors at Corwith Brothers what the dark blue uniforms should look like. He showed the company’s newly elected captain how to drill the men: the entire state of Illinois had only 905 muskets and rifles on hand, 300 of which needed repairs, so the Jo Daviess Guards had their first instruction in the manual of arms using wooden laths instead of real weapons.

By the end of the first week, Grant had a tentative plan for himself: Galena’s congressman Elihu Washburne, who had given a fiery patriotic speech at the meeting that voted the Jo Daviess Guards into being, told Grant that he should go with the new company when they went to Springfield. At the state capital, Washburne told Grant, he would use his influence with the governor to find him a suitable position in the state’s effort to mobilize. Writing to his father in Kentucky, Grant urged him to come north from that border state, which might explode in violence at any time, and added that his own duty was clear: “Having been educated for such an emergency, at the expense of the Government,” he must offer his services in the conflict that had begun. At the moment he thought he might be gone for as long as three months. Of his wife’s reaction to both the national crisis and his intention to serve, he told his father that “Julia takes a very sensible view of the present difficulties. She would be sorry to have me go, but thinks the circumstances may warrant it and will not through [throw] a single obsticle [sic] in the way.”

That was not the entire picture of Julia’s feelings. A woman from a slaveholding family, married to a man who might soon be fighting against the South, she hoped that her home state of Missouri could be kept in the Union, and she had followed closely the events leading to the attack on Fort Sumter. Julia later wrote:

Oh! how intensely interesting the papers were that winter! My dear husband Ulys read aloud to me every speech for and against secession. I was very much disturbed in my political sentiments, feeling that the states had a right to go out of the Union if they wished to, and yet thought it the duty of the national government to prevent a dismemberment of the Union, even if coercion should be necessary. Ulys was much amused by my enthusiasm and said I was a little inconsistent when I talked of states’ rights, but that I was all right on the duties of national government.

The news of Confederate shells landing on a United States Army post at Fort Sumter evidently resolved the question of Julia’s loyalties. “I remember now with astonishment the feeling that took possession of me in the spring of ’61. When reading patriotic speeches, my blood seemed to course more rapidly through my veins.” She added, “Galena was throbbing with patriotism.”

Two days before his thirty-ninth birthday, Grant said good-bye to Julia and their four children and headed downtown, wearing a tired old civilian suit, a slouch hat, and the faded army overcoat he had worn peddling firewood in St. Louis, and carrying an old bag that had little in it. The Jo Daviess Guards were being sent off in a large and enthusiastic parade through town and across the bridge to the railroad depot, where the recruits would board the train for Springfield to join the many volunteer companies converging there. Grant watched from a sidewalk as different organizations—the Masonic Assembly, the city’s fire companies with their horse-drawn engines, the Odd Fellows, the mayor and various civic groups, all interspersed with brass bands—paraded down the street, followed by the hundred newly uniformed recruits he had equipped, many of them waving high-heartedly to the cheering crowds. As the last of the Jo Daviess Guards passed, the brother of the company’s captain watched Grant standing there on the sidewalk. A man to whom he later spoke of the moment remembered him describing how Grant “fell in behind the column and quietly, with head pensively drooping, marched in their wake across the bridge, and entered the train for Springfield.”

When Grant arrived with the Jo Daviess Guards at Springfield sixteen days after Fort Sumter was fired on, he found a military nightmare. He knew that the Volunteer companies, units of a hundred recruits apiece, had elected their officers, who might or might not lead them well, but now Grant found many men at the state capital, some with no military experience, seeking political appointments to be commanders of the ten regiments whose formation the Illinois legislature had authorized. This meant that, although even colonels were nominally elected by ballot, “candidates” named by the governor of Illinois would lead regiments composed of ten Volunteer companies, each regiment having a thousand men. With the Regular Army still trying to keep many of its officers with their prewar Regular regiments, the new Volunteer regiments desperately needed qualified commanders, wherever they might come from, but Grant was appalled by the inadequacy of the applicants he saw. To his father he wrote, “I might have got the Colonelcy of a Regiment possibly, but I was perfectly sickened at the political wire-pulling for all these commissions, and would not engage in it.”

Grant took a civilian job that Congressman Washburne found for him in the office of the state adjutant general, where he efficiently processed paperwork for the mobilization of the Illinois regiments, using forms that were in some cases the same ones he had often filled out during his army service. He would soon write a letter to Washington, trying to get back into the Regular Army, and it was known that, although he would not enter the political dogfight, he wanted command of one of the Illinois regiments. The elected captain of the Jo Daviess Guards, who saw him working “at a little square table, of which one leg was gone and which had been shoved into a corner to keep it upright,” said that Grant, wearing his “one suit that he had worn all winter, his short pipe, his grizzled beard and his old slouch hat did not … look a very promising candidate for the colonelcy.”

When, frustrated and discouraged, Grant finished his various duties involving mobilization and was once again unemployed, he took a train for Cincinnati and appeared at the office of Major General George B. McClellan, who had been three years behind him at West Point and whom he had known during the Mexican War. In 1855, McClellan had been one of three United States Army officers sent to Europe to observe the war being fought on the Crimean Peninsula between Russia on the one hand, and the armies of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Turks on the other. Then a captain, McClellan had been present during the siege of Sebastopol, and during his year abroad had the opportunity to study other European armies as well; his modification of the Hungarian saddle used by the Prussian army became known as the McClellan Saddle that the army adopted in 1859 and would use for generations. In 1857, he had resigned his captain’s commission to enter a business career that brought him to prominence: on the eve of war, he had the largest salary of any railroad executive in the United States.

Here was an example of a combination of solid military experience and superb political connections: “Little Mac,” who had left the army with the same rank of captain as had Grant and Sherman, was appointed by the governor of Ohio to organize and lead that state’s regiments, holding the rank of major general. Able, painstaking, and vain, his efficiency, coupled with a flair for dramatic appearances and confident statements, was swiftly gaining him wide recognition not only in Ohio but also in Washington, where President Lincoln was one of his acquaintances. Although Grant had wanted a regiment of his own, he too held McClellan in high regard and was now ready to serve under him. “I thought he was the man to pilot us through,” Grant recalled, “and I wanted to be on his staff.”

At McClellan’s headquarters, Grant was greeted by Major Seth Williams, a West Pointer from the class ahead of his who had been Robert E. Lee’s adjutant when Lee served as superintendent of West Point from 1852 to 1855. Word was sent in to McClellan’s office that Grant would like to see him. After waiting for two hours, Grant left, telling someone that he would come by the next day. The following day, Grant reappeared, was asked to wait, and once again left after two hours, later writing that “McClellan never acknowledged my call.”

In his determination to enter the war in some capacity, there was something that Grant may have forgotten, or blocked from his mind. Eight years before, while serving on the West Coast as quartermaster of the Fourth Infantry Regiment, one of Grant’s responsibilities had been to equip a survey party led by McClellan, then a captain in the army’s elite Corps of Engineers, who was setting out to map the Cascade Range in the Oregon Territory. According to another officer, during the time Grant supervised the issuing of supplies and assignment of horses required by McClellan’s detachment, he “got on one of his little sprees, which annoyed and offended McClellan exceedingly, and in my opinion he never quite forgave Grant for it, notwithstanding the necessary transportation was soon in readiness.”

This rebuff plunged Grant into gloom. “I’ve tried to reenter service in vain,” he told a friend in Ohio. Recalling his varied experiences as a regimental supply officer in both Mexico and California, he added, “Perhaps I could serve the army by providing good bread for them. You remember my success at bread-baking in Mexico?”

When Grant returned to Springfield after his humiliating experience at McClellan’s headquarters in Cincinnati, his fortunes changed. Among his various duties during the Illinois mobilization had been a temporary appointment as a “mustering officer and aide,” during which he had the task of swearing several of the new regiments into the service of the state. Doing this, he had spent two days in Mattoon, Illinois, eighty miles west of Springfield, with the Twenty-first Illinois, whose officers liked him. One of them, who had spent two years as a West Point cadet, observed, “[We] saw that he knew his business, for everything he did was done without hesitation. He was a little bit stooped at the time, and wore a cheap suit of clothes and a soft black hat. Anyone who looked beyond that recognized that he was a professional soldier.”

At the time Grant spent two days with the Twenty-first, it was commanded by a man whose first appearance among them, striding into camp at the head of the Volunteer company from Decatur who made him their captain, had so impressed everyone that he was in effect elected colonel by acclamation, rather than becoming a “candidate” through political influence at Springfield. Tall, erect, shooting piercing glances in every direction, newly elected Colonel Simon S. Goode wore high boots and a broad-brimmed hat, and for weapons carried a big bowie knife and no fewer than six small pepper-box revolvers. It soon became apparent that he was a drunk, given to moving around the camp at night in a long cloak while he quoted Napoleon and told bemused sentries, “I never sleep.” After Grant left at the end of his two-day visit, under Goode’s unsteady hand the regiment rapidly deteriorated: the new recruits rioted, protesting the lack of proper food, and when the guardhouse became infested by vermin, they burnt it. Men dug tunnels under the fence at night to carouse through the streets of Mattoon and roam the countryside, stealing food: an old sergeant commented that “there wasn’t a chicken within four miles of us.” At one point, Colonel Goode went to a tavern with the men who had been assigned to guard duty that night and were supposed to be at their sentry posts. Scores of men of the Twenty-first began to desert.

In response to vociferous complaints from the authorities and citizens of Mattoon, the governor’s office ordered the Twenty-first Illinois to be brought to Springfield by train; on the way, they created disturbances in the coaches carrying them. Once in camp at Springfield, Colonel Goode tried unsuccessfully to restore discipline by surrounding their regimental area at the state fairgrounds with a guard detachment of eighty men who wielded clubs in an effort to keep them from breaking out of what they regarded as a prison.

Desperate to improve the situation, two lieutenants of the Twenty-first went to call on the Illinois secretary of state. They were ushered in to see Governor Richard Yates, who was aware that all the Illinois volunteers, currently in the status of state militia, believed that they would soon have the option of going home or being sworn into federal service for a three-year term of duty as was intended. Yates took the complaints about the worst-behaving Illinois regiment at face value and convened a meeting of the regiment’s officers. They told him they wanted a new colonel, “preferably Captain Grant,” and Grant was offered the colonelcy. He accepted.

Ulysses S. Grant, who at this moment had neither a uniform nor a horse, went out to his new command by riding on the horse-drawn trolley to the state fairgrounds. A man who saw him walk into the encampment said that the new colonel “was dressed very clumsily, in citizen’s clothes—an old coat, worn out at the elbows, and a badly dinged plug hat.”

As Grant headed toward headquarters and the word spread that this was the new commanding officer, the recruits began to jeer, shouting, “What a colonel! Damn such a colonel!” One private asked another, “What do they mean by sending a little man like that down to command this regiment? He can’t pound sand in a dry hole.” According to an observer, “Rustic jokes were passed upon him, and one young fellow made insulting gestures behind his back. Another daredevil slipped up behind him, and flipped his hat from his head. Grant turned and said, ‘Young man, that’s not very polite,’ and walked on.”

Grant took command on June 17, 1861. He had eleven days in which to turn this insubordinate mob into a unit that would, man by man, choose either to go home or to sign up for three years of dangerous service. After Grant’s first night in camp, there were twenty men under arrest for leaving the post without permission, some facing additional charges of being drunk and disorderly. In addition to those arrested was a notorious troublemaker known as “Mexico,” who appeared drunk in front of Grant’s tent, defying anyone to touch him. When Grant had him tied to a post, Mexico shouted at him, “For every minute I stand here I’ll have an ounce of your blood!” Grant turned to a sergeant, said, “Put a gag in that man’s mouth,” and went about his duties. When Grant decided that Mexico had stood there long enough in the June weather, tied to a post with a gag in his mouth in the middle of camp where everyone could see him, he took off the gag and the ropes himself, and stood back waiting to see what Mexico would do next. The man saluted and silently walked away. A sentry greeted Grant by saying, “Howdy, Colonel?” while standing with his musket at his side. Grant asked the man to hand him his musket, which Grant then snapped up to the saluting position of present arms. Handing it back, he said, “That is the way to say ‘how do you do’ to your Colonel.” When the different companies all held morning roll call an hour late, with the men getting up whenever they pleased, they found no breakfast waiting for them.

Within forty-eight hours Grant had set up a simple daily schedule, understood by all: the men would drill in small groups as squads from six to seven in the morning and as companies from ten to eleven, and again as companies from five to six in the afternoon. Other than these times, the men could go into Springfield during the daylight hours, as they wished. Grant’s words regarding their conduct were set forth in his Orders No. 8: “All men when out of Camp should reflect that they are gentlemen—in camp soldiers; and the Commanding Officer hopes that all of his command, will sustain these two characters with fidelity.”

The men began to feel that Grant considered them responsible individuals. The regiment’s chaplain spoke of Grant’s “unostentatious vigor and vigilance,” saying that he “would correct every infraction on the spot,” and do it in a “cool and unruffled manner.” Each day, there were fewer disciplinary cases. Some soldiers who thought that they were still back in Mattoon, with a colonel who would go out drinking with them when they slipped away from guard duty, left their sentry posts and found themselves under arrest, with Grant’s Orders No. 14 stating that they could be fined ten dollars apiece and face “corporal punishment such as confinement for thirty days with ball and chain at hard labor.” Bearing in mind the recent history of this regiment and its deficient commander, Grant let the offenders off lightly but reminded them that if they left a sentry post in the face of the enemy, “the punishment of this is death.”

As Grant took his regiment out on a short route march, someone told him that many of the men’s canteens were “loaded,” filled not with water but whiskey. He halted the column, ordered everyone to pour out the contents of his canteen, and resumed the march. A lieutenant wrote his wife that the guardhouse was packed with miscreants for the first few “nights and days but yesterday there was but two or three in and to day none.” The colonels of the other new regiments began coming around to see what Colonel Grant was doing with the Twenty-first.

Grant made a swift trip home to Galena and returned wearing a new uniform, riding a newly bought horse named Rondy, and accompanied by his oldest son, eleven-year-old Fred, who Julia felt should see what his father was doing. Julia had always believed that her Ulys would eventually do splendid things, and she wanted their son to see him commanding his regiment. Likening her husband to Philip of Macedon and their son to Alexander the Great, going off to conquer in ancient campaigns, she wrote Grant, “Alexander was not older when he accompanied Philip. Do keep him with you.” For his part, Grant was thinking not of Julia’s romanticized view of history but of his daily work with one steadily improving regiment of recruits in Illinois. In a letter to Julia that he signed, “Your Dodo,” Grant said, “The men I believe are pleased with the change that has taken place in their commander,” and added that the greatest change was “the order in camp.”

On June 28, 1861, after patriotic speeches by two Democratic congressmen, the soldiers of the Twenty-first Illinois had their opportunity to go home or to sign up to be in the Union Army for three years. As Grant put it, “They entered the United States service almost to a man.”

Five days after this, Grant started moving his regiment west toward Quincy, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, to aid the Union forces in Missouri who were attempting to prevent that state from joining the Confederacy. The movement was taking him into the region where his and Sherman’s military destiny lay. Other than Lincoln, Grant and Sherman would have more to do with winning the war that preserved the Union than anyone else, yet at this moment Grant commanded fewer than a thousand men in an army that he would command when it would number more than a million, and he had an unrealistic view of what lay ahead. Two months before, writing to his undemonstrative father, a man he yearned to impress, Grant offered these views, in words that were frequently misspelled:

My own opinion is that this War will be but of short duration. The Administration has acted moste [sic] prudently and sagaciously so far in not bringing on a conflict before it had its forces fully martialed [sic]. When they do strike[,] our thoroughly loyal states will be fully protected and a few decisive victories in some of the southern ports will send the secession army howling and the leaders in the rebellion will flee the country. All the states will then be loyal for a generation to come, negroes will depreciate so rapidly in value that no body will want to own them and their masters will be the loudest in their declamations against the institution [slavery] in a political and economic view. The nigger will never disturb this country again. The worst that is to be apprehended from him is now; he may revolt and cause more destruction than any Northern man, except it be the ultra abolitionist, wants to see. A Northern army may be required in the next ninety days to go south to suppress a negro insurrection.

Sixty days had elapsed since Grant wrote that letter to his father, who cared far more about the injustices of slavery than he did. No “negro insurrection” had occurred, but in his indifference to the condition of blacks, an attitude similar to Sherman’s, Grant echoed a widespread Northern point of view: what was bringing volunteers forward, what had compelled Sherman to leave Louisiana, was not a desire to eradicate slavery but the conviction that secession was treason and that the Union must be preserved as one nation by force of arms if necessary. Grant’s and Sherman’s views on several issues would change—indeed, Lincoln himself was not yet the Lincoln of the Emancipation Proclamation—but Grant’s mind was now devoted entirely to daily military matters and decisions. When state officials started making arrangements to move his Twenty-first Illinois by rail to Quincy, 116 miles from Springfield, Grant startled Governor Yates by saying that his men would go there on foot. “This is an infantry regiment,” he said. “The men are going to do a lot of marching before the war is over and I prefer to train them in friendly country, not the enemy’s.”

And so Grant marched his men to war, riding one horse while his eleven-year-old son Fred rode beside him on Rondy, the horse he had bought for himself. In a letter to Julia written several days into the regiment’s movement west through peaceful farmland, Grant said, “Fred enjoys it hugely … The Soldiers and officers call him Colonel and he seems to be quite a favorite.” He closed his letter: “Kisses to you. Ulys.”

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