Illinois in Combat, 1862-63
by Drew VandeCreek
Most Illinois soldiers served in the western theater of the war, which saw far less activity than the East during the first season of fighting. But the start of a Union offensive in the West brought Illinois troops to action, and an Illinoisan to prominence in command. Ulysses S. Grant was a graduate of the United States military academy at West Point, but after service in the Mexican War he had left the Army and taken up work in his father's leather shop in Galena. After the firing upon Fort Sumter Grant had raised a volunteer company there and worked his way up the chain of command. Somehow, despite his military training and combat experience, Grant began his Civil War service as an assistant quartermaster general.
Shortly Grant found himself in command of the federal forces at Cairo, which had become a major military installation. Strategically located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Cairo served as a huge military camp housing most of the Illinois regiments in the war's early years. It also contained seven hospitals and a large supply operation. Grant used Cairo as a staging area for forays into Missouri, which although technically still a part of the Union, contained significant and dangerous Confederate forces.
In January of 1862 Grant led a federal force made up of troops and gunboats up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in Kentucky, taking Forts Donelson and Henry from Confederate forces. At the same time General John Pope moved down the Mississippi, seizing strategic islands and clearing the way for navigation. Grant's continued push southward met a sharp challenge when Confederates attacked at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. On April 6 and 7, 1862 Grant narrowly avoided a crushing defeat at the Battle of Shiloh.
Grant took heavy losses at Shiloh, and faced severe criticism in Illinois and around the Union. But his campaign moved forward again, seizing the strategic town of Corinth, Mississippi and Memphis as well. By the summer of 1863 Grant's troops, including some 20,000 Illinoisans, had laid siege to Vicksburg, Mississippi, high on a bluff above the Mississippi River. After a prolonged standoff which saw Grant's armies attempt to divert the course of the Mississippi River by digging a large canal, the southern bastion fell on July 4, 1863. News of Grant's triumph reached Washington shortly after word of the great Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the same date.
Lee's defeat at Gettysburg (below) insured that the remainder of the Civil War's major battles would take place on southern soil. Grant's triumph at Vicksburg effectively finished the Confederacy in the West, severing Texas, Arkansas and large parts of Louisiana from the remainder of the insurgent states. Thus Illinois units increasingly moved eastward with the fight.