MAY 1861

Ulysses S. Grant goes to war

On April 25, 1861, Ulysses S. Grant departed from Galena for Springfield, accompanying Jo Daviess County volunteers responding to President Lincoln’s call for soldiers to put down the insurrection. While in the state capital Grant came to the attention of Governor Richard Yates. Exactly how that happened is uncertain, since many claimed to have played a role in the process. In any event, the visit presented Grant with opportunity that put him on a road to acclaim.

Grant, a West Point graduate and former captain of infantry, had fallen on hard times, and was working in his father’s Galena leather-goods store when secessionists fired on Fort Sumter. Though Grant was a relative newcomer, local leaders including U.S. Congressman Elihu B. Washburne invited “Captain Grant” to preside over a meeting to enlist volunteers, and later to assist in their organization and to ride with them to the capital.

The day after arriving in Springfield, Grant wrote to his wife, Julia, that Washburne persuaded him to stay for a time, though he had intended to return immediately to Galena. Governor Yates hoped that Grant would organize and train additional volunteer companies to be accepted under the terms of legislation moving through the General Assembly. On April 29, Grant carried out his first military task for the governor— an inventory of weapons stored in the state arsenal. This and other duties did not seem challenging – “I am on duty with the Governer, at his request, occupation principally smoking and occationally giving advice as to how an order should be communicated &c.;” Still, Grant’s knowledge of military organization allowed him to serve Yates as a troubleshooter. He wrote to Julia, “I don’t see really that I am doing any good. But when I speak of going it is objected to….” On May 4 he was placed in command of Springfield’s Camp Yates, and a few days later departed for southern Illinois, where he assisted in organizing regiments and mustering them into service.

Though he recognized the importance of his civilian service, Grant hoped for command of a regiment with the rank of colonel. To accept lesser rank would not be acceptable, given his West Point training and previous army service. Achieving the rank, however, required his being elected by a regiment’s volunteer officers or favored by “log rolling” political leaders, “and I do not care to be under such persons,” wrote Grant. Still, he recognized that “the time I spend here [in Springfield]… has enabled me to become acquainted with the principle men in the state… I do not know that I shall receive any benefit… but it does no harm.” He offered his services to army officials in Washington by letter and in Ohio in person. No offer resulted.

While in Indiana, returning from the fruitless Ohio visit, Grant learned of his appointment as colonel in the Illinois volunteer force. Governor Yates had appointed him to command an infantry regiment that had been mustered at Mattoon but had since fallen into chaos due to incompetent leadership. Officials moved the regiment to Springfield and on June 18 Grant took command. His process of quiet but firm discipline and military instruction soon paid off. When officials asked the men, who had volunteered for a term of one month, to extend their enlistment for three years, the response was overwhelming. The regiment came into the service as the Twenty-first Illinois Infantry. Within weeks they headed for the front, to guard rail facilities in northern Missouri. While most regiments moved by rail, Grant decided that his would pick up some experience by marching the ninety-odd miles to the Mississippi River town of Quincy.

In mid-July Col. Grant received orders to deal with secessionist Missouri State Guard troops under Thomas Harris. After days of marching, Grant and his men finally closed in on their objective. He recalled later that

“my heart kept getting higher and higher until I thought it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to be back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there… but the troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards… I never forgot that [the enemy] had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.”

On July 31, 1861, Abraham Lincoln nominated Grant for promotion to brigadier general. Grant’s name was one of six sent to the president by the Illinois congressional delegation, placed at the top of the list by Galena’s own Elihu B. Washburne. On August 5 the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment.Interested in learning more?
Grant described his early wartime service in chapters 17 and 18 of his Memoirs.

Conflicting postwar memories as to how Grant came to the notice of Illinois officials and who assisted him are reviewed in Lloyd Lewis, Captain Sam Grant, chapter 23.

Grant’s service through the appointment as brigadier general is found in Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822-1865, chapter 6.

Grant’s correspondence during this period—and the whole of his life—can be found at