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General Ulysses S. Grant.


Personal Reminiscences of General U. S. Grant.

By Judge Jacob W. Wilkin.

However much we are interested in the written history of the lives of great men, we all like to hear persons tell what they have seen of them and heard them say. Some such feeling as this must have prompted your committee to invite me to give "personal reminiscences" of General U. S. Grant, for it is a painful fact that of those who were intimately associated with this remarkable man, as members of his staff, during the war and from whom we can hope to get personal recollections of him, most of them have gone before or followed him to the grave. By accepting this invitation I would not have you understand that I claim to have had exceptional opportunities for forming an estimate of General Grant. I was closely associated with him but a few months, beginning with the Vicksburg campaign in the spring of 1863 and ending shortly after the surrender of that city, during which time I was at his headquarters and saw him almost daily. I was, however, then a young and inexperienced officer, not very competent to judge of his characteristics either as a man or commanding general. I believe, however, we will all agree that some of his traits of character, especially as a soldier, were so marked that no one could see much of him without being impressed with his greatness as a military genius and observe the peculiarities of mind and character which gave him his world wide renown as a military captain. The few incidents which I shall attempt to relate tonight as occurring during the time I was with him may appear to be insignificant, and some of them even trivial, but they have seemed to me to be of a character calculated to throw some light upon his methods of thought and inner life, and for that reason to be worthy of repetition. They may tend to exemplify the modes of thinking and acting which marked his career from the rank of a colonel in the volunteer army to the crowning success of his life as lieutenant-general, commanding all the armies of the United States.

About the middle of March, 1863, while in camp at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, I was walking along the levy or boat landing one morning, with one of my lieutenants, when a man in semi-military dress and unassuming in appearance walked off of a steamboat that had landed that night, apparently absorbed in a newspaper, and I said to the lieutenant with me: "There is General Grant." To which he replied: "I guess not. How do you know General Grant?" He insisted that I


was mistaken, and in a jocular way said, "That fellow don't look like a general, or to have the ability to command a regiment, much less an army." Somehow I was at that time impressed with his appearance, possibly from the fact that I knew it was Grant, having previously seen him, and I replied: "You are very much mistaken. He is not only able to command a regiment, but he can and will capture Vicksburg." Of course, this was a casual conversation, not of a very serious character, but I was right as to the identity of the man. It was General U. S. Grant, who had come to take personal command of the army which was now to move against Vicksburg.

My regiment was the One Hundred and Thirtieth Illinois, of which Colonel Matheny, of blessed memory, resident of Springfield, was colonel and belonged to the Thirteenth army corps, which was to form the advance from Milliken's Bend down the west side of the Mississippi river in the campaign. The corps was commanded by that gallant soldier and splendid field officer, Major-General John A. McClernand, then also a resident of this city. General headquarters were established near our camp. Colonel Clark B. Lagow of the Twenty-first Illinois commanded in the field, and when it entered the three years' service by General Grant, was aid on his staff. Colonel Lagow had enlisted from Palestine, Crawford county, in which I was raised, and I had seen him while a boy on my father's farm and heard more or less of him. Major Bowers from Mount Carmel, Wabash county, was also a member of his staff, and I knew something of him. In the early days of the war we formed acquaintances more readily with others from the same county or district, and perhaps in that way I was attracted to the headquarters, where I frequently met the gentlemen whose names I have mentioned, especially Major Bowers, who, though older than myself, was still a young man and very genial and agreeable.

I then saw very little of General Grant himself. He was busy perfecting the organization of the army and issuing orders for the forward movement. A few days before breaking camp at the Bend an order came to send all sick and disabled men to the hospital boats lying in the river near by. A member of my company had an injured leg and could not march, though he was otherwise well, and he begged not to be sent to the hospital. He was from the same town and I had known him at home and felt much interested in him. I was anxious to obtain a furlough, that he might go home, where he had a wife and two little children, and there regain his strength. Every soldier knows how hospitals were dreaded in the army, and I started out one morning determined, if possible, to get the furlough, going first to regimental headquarters, where I was promptly rebuked for even making the application, and told that the general order was then in force that no furloughs whatever should be granted. I went from there to brigade and division headquarters, but met with the same discouraging refusal and information as to the existing order. I returned to my tent very much disheartened, but said to one of the lieutenants, "I believe I will go over to headquarters and talk with Major Bowers about the matter," which I did. Headquarters were established in a


large oblong tent, called a hospital tent, with a canvas partition through the center. The office business was done in the front end, and, as I afterwards learned, the back part was used as the sleeping apartment and private quarters of the general. I stated to Major Bowers my business, making the best plea I could for my friend; but he told me, as had others, that it was useless to talk about a furlough at that time, in view of the general order. But I said: "This is an exceptional case. The man is not sick, but with his abhorrence of a hospital, if sent there he will in all probability become sick and die. I wish he could be allowed to go home to his wife and children." Just then the fly or canvas partition in the tent was pushed aside and General Grant, appearing, said, "Major, give that man a furlough," and withdrew. I sank down on a camp stool, overcome with astonishment, because I did not know General Grant was anywhere near, and Major Bowers was as much surprised as I was. He laughed, however, and said, "Well, that is all right," and immediately filled out the furlough. That afternoon I saw the crippled soldier take passage on a steamboat up the river, happy and glad, in the hope of soon meeting his wife and babies.

On the afternoon of the 28th of March a general order was circulated through the camp for the thirteenth corps to move at an early hour the next morning, our point of destination being New Carthage, Louisiana, about twenty-seven miles below on the Louisiana shore. Every one who has had an experience in army life knows what a commotion precedes breaking camp before entering upon an extended campaign. That night the men were busily engaged preparing rations, packing knapsacks and writing letters home. My company was then busy as others, when about 9:00 o'clock there came an order for me to report with my company to headquarters for special duty. How I came to be selected I do not know. I had no reason then or afterwards to suppose that General Grant knew me or had ever heard of me. Perhaps if he had, another would have been chosen in my stead.

The order, no doubt, came in the usual way. A captain with his company had been called for from our brigades and the order transmitted to the colonel of my regiment, who, in turn, selected my company to fill it. However that may be, with not a little disappointment we saw the regiment, with the corps, march away the next morning on that memorable campaign, and we reported to headquarters.

I was directed to take charge of the abandoned camp and put my company on guard to protect the stores which had been left behind, myself to superintend the landing and movement of other troops, some of which were at that time above at Lake Providence and others below at Young's Point, as they landed at the Bend. If at no other time during my army experience I earned my pay, I did during the week or ten days following. The troops which were being landed — regiments, brigades and divisions — were all anxious to find camping places, and make hasty preparations for moving on after the thirteenth corps, and each officer insisted on being first recognized and first advanced, so that I had all sorts of controversies, quarrels and sometimes almost fights, to carry out the orders which had been given me.


On the night of the 16th of April three transports, heavily guarded by gunboats under command of Admiral Porter, passed the batteries at Vicksburg and Warrenton Landing, below, at, or near New Carthage, where our corps was by that time in camp. On the night of the 22d the experiment was to be made of running the blockade with six wooden transports towing twelve barges, all heavily loaded with rations, ammunition and forage. There were no iron-clad gunboats left to escort and guard them. These had all gone below with the first fleet. Colonel Lagow of the general's staff, of whom I have spoken, and Colonel William S. Oliver of the Seventh Missouri, a member of General McPherson's staff, had immediate charge of the fleet, with headquarters on the steamer Tigress. The other transports were the Empire City, Moderator, J. W. Chessman, the Anglo Saxon and the Horizon. I was on General Grant's headquarters boat, the H. Von Phul, that night and she ran down to a point several miles above the city, from which the boats were to form in line and start on their hazardous voyage. The night, as I have said, was the 22d of April; the hour was about 10:00 o'clock, and the most impenetrable darkness prevailed. The boats had orders to display no lights — the fires of their furnaces were concealed by bales of hay and cotton. They were to give no signals, but float silently down the river until they encountered the rebel batteries.

I will not forget that night, as I saw the Tigress, followed by her five companies, glide by the Von Phul, and saw standing on the upper deck of his headquarters boat a man of iron, his wife by his side. He seemed to me then the most immovable figure I ever saw. If the expression, "the silent man," ever described him, it did at that hour. No word escaped his lips, no muscle of his earnest face moved. He was indeed silent as the tomb and immovable as granite. As the fleet approached the upper batteries, the rebel picket boat on guard gave the signal, and instantly battery after battery opened upon the frail, defenseless transports. To say that we were all excited but feebly describes the situation. The excitement and commotion was, however, of that suppressed character which intensifies rather than conceals emotion. Conversations were carried on with bated breath of deepest anxiety and apprehension for our friends who were floating, as we feared, to certain death. Men were nervously moving about the boat, straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of the heroic fleet and the gallant men on board. Grant alone appeared oblivious to everything that was going on. Think of it. Upon the success of that expedition, for the time being at least, hung the fate of all his plans for the capture of Vicksburg. If those boats failed to reach the army below, it would be without provisions, without forage; and still worse, without adequate means of crossing the river and gaining the necessary footing on the east side. If the boats were sent to the bottom, as the rebels confidently hoped they would be able to do, thirty thousand men or more would be helpless upon the west bank of the river. And yet, on that eventful night when the crucial test was about to be made, no one could have detected in the appearance or conduct of the man a moment of hesitation, doubt or misgiving.


It has been suggested that the plan of running those batteries originated with other officers, but I heard Colonel Rawlins himself say, and he knew, that the first time General Grant put a field glass to his face, as he stood on the bow of a boat above the batteries and swept the bluffs of Vicksburg below, he turned and said, "Transports can be run by those guns with comparative safety," and proceeded to explain how it could be done. The batteries, he said, had been planted on the bluffs with a view of commanding the channel and west side of the river, and if boats should hug the Vicksburg shore closely, the guns could not be sufficiently depressed to strike them. From that hour he made his plans upon the correctness of this theory and never for a moment doubted it. It is a well known fact that the fleet pursued exactly the course indicated. The boats ran under the rebel guns and so to a great extent escaped their deadly fire.

It would be idle for me to attempt a description of the magnificence and sublimity of the tragic scene of that night. It is foreign to my subject, and besides the attempt would be worse than idle. No pen nor tongue and no painter's brush ever has or ever can approximate a portrayal of the scene. The description of the struggle of Colonels Lagow, Oliver and the heroic cruise on the Tigress that midnight, until finally, with more than thirty solid shots through her hull, she broke in two and went down, stirs the heart and commands the admiration of every one who feels a thrill of patriotism when he reads of the desperate deeds of men in their country's cause. When the sound of the last gun at Warrenton had died away, the headquarters boat headed up stream and went back to the Bend. I don't remember hearing General Grant speak a word that night.

Soon after that, in obedience to orders, I took my company up the Yazoo river and joined headquarters in the rear of the city, north of the Jackson and Vicksburg wagon road, and not far from where now stands the Illinois Memorial temple, erected to the memory of the Illinois soldiers who fought in that historic campaign — a monument which is indeed one of magnificence and beauty; said to surpass in splendor of design and architectural beauty anything of its kind on this continent, if not in the world. Thanks to the liberality of our Legislature, the loyalty of Governor Yates — the honored son bearing the honored name of Illinois' illustrious war Governor — and our present chief executive, Charles S. Deneen, himself the son of one who faithfully followed the flag in defense of our country. But I digress. It is difficult to confine myself to my subject. Too many temptations break in upon me.

The headquarters in the rear of the city were established upon one of the many ridges which extend back from the bluffs eastward, and in a little valley to the north my company was camped, furnishing the headquarters' guard. After the capture of Jackson, the battles of Champion Hill and the Black River, General Johnston remained in our rear with a formidable army, perhaps thirty thousand men; and there was more or less apprehension that he might attempt to cooperate with Pemberton inside of the breastworks and give us serious trouble. The precaution had been taken to place a force between Vicksburg and


Black River, in order to prevent any surprise or movement of that kind, but still the anxiety existed as to what Johnston might try to do. Scouts were frequently sent out for the purpose of watching and reporting his movements. One morning a number of these came in from the different corps and one came to my tent for breakfast. I was amused to find that he carried in his pocket a small twig or stick with a number of notches cut on it, which he explained to me to indicate the number of regiments he had counted in Johnston's army as he passed secretly through his camp.

Early that afternoon there was a meeting of corps and division commanders at headquarters. Of course, I was not a participant in that conference, but had sufficient curiosity to make it convenient to be near enough to hear some things that were said. It was plain that the officers who had met there were excited and anxious about the movements of Johnston and what he might do. Some tried to impress upon General Grant the danger of his throwing a heavy force against a single point on our line and force his way through into the city, or by attacking us in the rear, with Pemberton in front, forcing us to fight between their lines. General Sherman said something like this: "If Johnston should attack me on the extreme right, before I could be reinforced from other parts of the line, which was more than seven miles long, he would in all probability be able to cut his way through." I may not have fully comprehended their apprehensions, but I remember it was suggested that if Johnston should move in our direction it would be better to throw out a force to meet him and fight him on open ground and drive him back. General Grant sat upon a camp stool in front of his tent quietly smoking, taking no part whatever in the discussion and making no reply to any of the suggestions until all were through, and then he simply said: "I know General Johnston better than you do. He does not want to get into Vicksburg. Pemberton wants to get out. Johnston would like for me to do just what some of you suggest — withdraw enough of our troops to meet him, thus weakening our lines, when Pemberton would hope to force his way out. Nobody wants to get into Vicksburg. Everybody in there would like to get out." The conference ended, and Sherman, Ord and McPherson, with their division commanders, rode off, I suppose satisfied with the pointed and direct reply which the General made. At least we heard no more of an attack from the rear or of throwing out a force to meet Johnston. Grant had his hand on Pemberton's throat and he would not be tempted to let that go.

A sergeant in my company, Aus Griffin, a jolly, good-hearted fellow, before enlisting was a house carpenter, and one day he suggested to some of the officers, perhaps to Grant himself, that he would like to build a kitchen and dining room for the headquarters, and was given consent to do so. He took a squad of men and went down to a canebrake nearby, where he cut and carried up bundles of cane, which by means of posts planted in the ground, he wove into a sort of lattice work, making two very handsome rooms, one for a kitchen and the other for a dining room. Having completed the work, he asked permission to go out into the country and get a table and some chairs for


the dining room, and was allowed to do that. He took three or four men with him one morning and was gone all day, coming back in the evening with a marble top table, two goblets and a silver pitcher, which he set down in the dining room where the General happened to be. Griffin and the General had by this time become good friends. Grant said: "Sergeant, where did you get those things?" The sergeant was a smart fellow and at once realized that he was about to get into an embarrassing dilemma, but replied: "Oh, out in an old house in the country." "What kind of a house?" "Well, it is an old church, but they don't use it any more, and these things might be carried off and so I thought I might get them for you." But the General shook his head and said, "No, no, that won't do, Sergeant, you must take them back, they are used for sacred purposes and I will not suffer them to be devoted to any other, you must take them back." "Well," said the sergeant, "all right, can I wait until morning?" "Yes, but I want you to promise me that you will see that they are placed where you got them." "I will do that, of course." And so the next morning, Griffin and his squad shouldered up the heavy marble top table and with the goblets and pitcher marched off. And I have no doubt he faithfully did what he promised the General he would. Here was a man of cruel war with a Christian heart and reverence for sacred things.

One day while riding on the lines, he saw a teamster beating a mule, and riding up to him, ordered him to stop. Wearing an army blouse without shoulder straps, the man did not recognize him and not very politely told him to mind his own business, using profane language, whereupon Grant told his orderly to arrest him and bring him to headquarters. He was turned over to me with orders to tie him up by the thumbs. When the fellow realized that he had used insulting language to General Grant he was the most humiliated man imaginable and protested he did not know it was General Grant. His punishment lasted but a little while and because of my sympathy, was not the most severe of the kind, when I was directed to bring him up to the headquarters tent and there he renewed his protestation that he did not know it was the general he was talking to and that he would not under any circumstances have insulted him. But the general said, "You don't understand, it was not I that was hurt, it was the mule. I could defend myself but the poor dumb animal could say or do nothing for its own protection," and dismissed the culprit with the admonition that he would be closely watched and if again found abusing his team, he would be summarily dealt with. The man went away repeating "I did not know it was General Grant." I am aware that General Porter relates a similar occurrence during the campaign in the wilderness. Here was a man sometimes charged with inhumanly disregarding the lives of his men, manifesting the heart and sympathy of a humanitarian. He cared nothing for himself, but could not tolerate cruelty to a dumb brute.

An amusing incident occurred during the siege. A member of the company discovered a bee tree near the camp and the boys obtained permission to cut it down. When it fell, it broke near the place where


the bees had deposited their honey, but they were so hostile that it was impossible to get the tempting treasure. The men took their camp kettles and with torches marched in. But the bees as often charged and drove them back. Those of us who were out of range, standing on the hill above, were very much amused, Grant, with the rest of us, enjoying the fun. Finally a bald-headed, ill-tempered, quarrelsome, profane fellow swore he was going to have some of that honey anyhow. And he ventured in with his cap pulled over his head and face, and in spite of being stung, began to dig out the honey. The bees peppered him on the hands and face until finally he could stand it no longer and dropping his spoon began to strike right and left, first with his hands, but at last he jerked off his hat, jumped up and down and swore furiously. Fighting aimlessly in every direction. The bees, of course, took advantage of the situation and began to strike the top of his bald head, until at last he had to retreat. Grant laughed immoderately, and I do not think he ever saw that soldier afterward that he did not smile. He was a stern man, at times a melancholy one, but he could on occasions enjoy with others the amusements of the camp.

Some of you remember that General McClernand (I shall always believe thoughtlessly) published an order after the charge on the 22d of May, which Grant thought justified his being superceded by General Ord as commander of the 13th corps. On the morning the order was issued Col. Rawlins, who was more or less pugnacious and aggressive in his manner insisted that the conduct of General McClernand demanded more severe punishment than that of merely being relieved of his command, but Grant said no. "General McClernand has made a mistake but he is a brave soldier, and I will not humiliate him beyond that which is necessary to maintain discipline in the army." (Though not the stricest disciplinarian, he knew that an army without discipline soon degenerated into a mob.) Here was an exhibition of his great sense of justice, which in view of the jealousies engendered in the army among the rival officers was not always found. While I do not attempt to justify the conduct of General McClernand, I must be permitted to say that the men of the 13th corps, who fought under him on the bloody line that day, and many other fields, believed religiously in their beloved corps commander, both in his loyalty to the government and in his heroic courage. His presence was always an inspiration to his men, many of whom did follow him to the death.

One afternoon pandemonium broke loose from one end of the line to the other. The seven miles of batteries of siege guns and the thousands of muskets in the rifle pits on either side seemed to open fire in an instant. The sky was filled with flying shells and shot, smoke darkened the sun and the hills fairly trembled. For the time it lasted I am sure there was never such cannonading and rattle of musketry heard on this earth. Grant happened to be sitting on a stool near the mouth of his tent, as was frequently his habit, and he neither spoke or moved. Every one else was in a state of the wildest excitement and demoralization. Rawlins seemed to lose all patience with Grant's seeming obliviousness or indifference. He said "Hell has


broke loose." And that seemed to me the only proper way of expressing the situation. And, he added, "it seems to me there are times when even Grant ought to show some anxiety." But Grant was unmoved. He said nothing and did nothing. After the firing had ceased he quietly said, "Colonel, you may order the horses and we will ride out and see what has happened. The rebels have attempted to cut out and our men have driven them back." I need not say that it was exactly as he predicted. Here was an exhibition of that trait in his character which General Sherman denominated faith. A firm reliance upon the success of his own plans which was largely the secret of his success in every campaign.

He was, as I have intimated, at times criticized for a seeming recklessness of the lives of his soldiers. When inquiry was made at Shiloh whether there were sufficient transports to convey the army across the river in case our army should be compelled to retreat, he sternly replied, "When this army withdraws there will be plenty of boats for all the men who are left." And in the fearful losses in the wilderness, surrounded by the dead and dying, he did not hesitate, from time to time to repeat the order "the army of the Potomac will move by the left flank," which Lee soon learned meant continued bloody, deadly slaughter. When he said, "We will fight it out on this line if takes all summer," he uttered no mere idle or boastful sentiment. It was not, however, as I think every one who has studied his character believes, because he did not sympathize with his army and deprecate the loss of the brave men who fought and fell under him, but because he understood the philosophy of war, and knew that in every important battle many lives must be sacrificed; but, if victory was achieved, the dead would not have been killed without recompense; whereas, if the loss of life was followed by defeat, the sacrifice might be irreparable or without compensation. Hence, he always fought for victory. He early announced his estimate of the situation relative to the civil war. He believed that the government of the United States had superior strength both in men and money over the Confederacy and that it could successfully put down the rebellion by the persistent, aggressive use of its strength ultimately exhausting and defeating the rebel army, and followed that idea; whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself he threw the whole strength of his army into the conflict, sometimes, it may be true, without much regard to the losses he would suffer so long as he could see that his efforts weakened or destroyed the enemy. No one can doubt his great ability in conceiving and carrying out his plans, and in my judgment that genius grew out of his dogged persistency.

It has been said by military men of this and other countries that his campaign against Vicksburg was the most brilliant in conception and execution mentioned in history. None of the great campaigns equaled it. Whenever and however he appeared before his army during that campaign he was the personification of a conquering hero. We have read of his splendid horsemanship and of his unattractive appearance dismounted. To me he always had an impressive personality. It is true when he mounted his splendid horse (he never rode an inferior


one) he seemed to grow in stature and commanding presence, but whether so mounted or on foot he inspired his army with confidence and courage whenever and wherever they saw him. Finally the victory came. I saw the white flag creep slowly out of the rebel works and heard the shouts of victory as they rolled along and moved slowly toward our Union lines. The Gibraltar of the Confederacy, with all its garrisons, had surrendered, and on the 4th of July we moved in and took possession. Soon after, headquarters were established in one of the residences of the city. The general's wife and children joined him there, and I often saw him surrounded by his family — a kind, considerate, indulgent and loving husband and father. Duties soon called him to other fields and I returned to my regiment seeing no more of him until after the close of the war. I then saw him as we all did, upon the very summit of earthly fame. No jealousies or ill feelings approach him there.

His subordinates with one accord recognized his superiority and even the enemy pronounced him the great, generous and noble-hearted victor. He was then in a military atmosphere purified by the red fire of battle, and there he might have remained without a stain upon or an insinuation against his fair fame.

I have sometimes said to myself, "Oh, why did he ever leave that proud position, and why was he ever tempted to enter the turmoil and strife of party politics and animosities and humiliations there engendered and from which we must all admit he keenly suffered." No doubt, in some of his executive acts as President of the United States, he maintained his character for greatness, but he was essentially a soldier and not a statesman, certainly not a politician.

A few years ago I walked into that marvel of architectural beauty on the bank of the Hudson and stood inside the granite walls of that splendid mausoleum in which rests the ashes of my ideal soldier and that beloved wife. I wore a grand army button as did the veteran Irish soldier on guard. Looking into the vault upon his granite coffin deposited there, I could not help thinking of his wonderful career, of the battles he fought, the victories he won, how from obscurity in four short, stormy, perilous years he forced his way to the pinnacle of military glory, and my mind went back to that dark night in April, 1863, when I saw him standing in front of the pilot house on the H. Von Phul, the same gentle wife by his side, and had impressed upon my young mind the conviction, Grant alone is invincible; Grant is unconquerable, and tears coursed their way down my cheeks and as I turned to go saluted the Irish soldier, who said, "Comrade, perhaps you knowed the mon."