By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2021-2022, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
For those of you who have been following my recent history briefs regarding Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, you know that we left off at the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. However, before we move on, there is one often overlooked aspect that I believe is uniquely interesting. During the campaign Grant was accompanied by his oldest son, Frederick Dent Grant. The young Grant sent letters and otherwise wrote about his experiences from his youthful perspective as a 12-year-old.
Frederick had been on Grant’s previous march to Missouri when Grant was a colonel, but by the time Julia Grant gave him permission to join her husband on the Vicksburg campaign, Grant had ascended to general. Julia accompanied Frederick to Memphis in March of 1863, where he boarded a steamer downstream to reunite with his father.
As we all know, by this time Grant had decided to attack Vicksburg from the east, which required him to “run the guns” with Porter’s fleet. Grant and his son were aboard the Benton when shortly after midnight the flotilla moved out. Frederick wrote, “Suddenly a racket shot up from shore. A cannon blazed and a projectile whizzed across Benton’s bow.” The Confederates then set fire to buildings on the west bank, silhouetting the fleet. Further wrote Frederick, “Our gunboats, looking like large black turtles, poured a rapid fire barrage into the enemy positions. The defenseless transports hugged the opposite shore, but one of them, the Henry Clay, was set afire and burned to the water’s edge. I stood with my father on the hurricane deck of the Benton. We could see the residents of the city congregating on nearby hills and cheering their defending forces with great enthusiasm. The general was contemplatively smoking, but the intense light that shined in his eyes was vividly etched into my mind and will remain with me always.”
Having successfully passed the Vicksburg batteries, the ironclads were assigned to suppress the batteries at Grand Gulf. This did not go as well. Each ship was riddled with round shot. Frederick wrote, “Father and I were aboard a small tug. I stayed close to him and watched all that was going on…After the firing ceased…the Admiral asked me if I wanted to remain on his ship and take the place of a gunner he’d lost. The scene around me, however, had dampened my enthusiasm for naval glory, so I replied, ‘I don’t believe papa would permit me to serve in the navy.’”
It was then on to the landing. Frederick recalled, “The following morning, Father and I steamed onto Bruinsburg…I was feeling tired and fell asleep on deck. When I awoke, I learned my father had left for the front. He had given strict orders I was not allowed off the ship. After considerable begging, however, I was finally permitted to join a shore party that was foraging for rabbits…I decided to join a detachment of soldiers who were busy collecting the dead for burial. But the sight was too horrible, and I ran on ahead to help another group of men attending to the wounded. A log house had been appropriated for the use as a hospital. The scene inside, however, was so terrible that I became ill and sat down under a tree, completely unnerved by what I had witnessed. I was, without doubt, the most woebegone 12 year old lad in America.”
Totally worn out, Grant the younger fell asleep, and when he awoke, U. S. Grant was nearby drinking a cup of coffee. After a good dressing down of his son, Grant decided that it would be too difficult to send him back to the ships, and so he made him an “orderly” as Grant was about to head toward Jackson. Frederick wrote, “The burning question was transportation. Horses were scarce, but I managed to find a mount. Two large, white artillery horses had been captured the day before, and I was allowed to have one. I improvised a harness using clothesline and a sidesaddle without stirrups. The sight of a small boy on that big white horse, with the unusual saddle, was considered hilarious by the foot soldiers I passed.”
After the battle of Raymond and capturing the capitol Jackson, the young Grant wrote, “A short time later, I saw Col. Cornelius Cadle and followed him into the statehouse. I soon located the governor’s office. It had been hastily abandoned. The governor’s pipe was on his desk – still smoking. I confiscated the pipe – primarily for my country – but actually for my own private use. Returning to the street, I watched Col. Cadle raise our flag over the capitol.”
After the battle of Champion Hill and then approaching the Big Black River, Frederick wrote, “We started out early the next morning for Big Black River, but soon halted near a railroad bridge. My father and his staff occupied the porch of a beautiful plantation house. They were discussing a matter of ‘great military importance’ – how to grab a flock of squabs from under the noses of the Rebels. Apparently, however, the enemy wanted the birds as bad as we did. They opened up a heavy barrage of gunfire, and made the neighborhood so hot that we beat a hasty retreat. I was wrong to try and steal pigeons anyway.”
During the assault on the Big Black bridgehead, the misfortunes of war caught up with Frederick, “I became enthused with the spirit of the attack. I galloped across a cotton field with a cavalry troop and jumped over the enemy’s hastily constructed defense works. When we reached the banks of the Big Black, I watched as the Rebels tried to swim across the river. My balloon of elation, however, was suddenly busted. A sharpshooter on the opposite bank caught me in his sights and fired, striking me in the leg. The wound was very painful, and I suppose I became quite pale. An officer rode up and asked what was the matter. I promptly replied, ‘I’m killed!’ Perhaps because I was a youngster, he presumed to doubt my word and asked, ‘Move your toes,’ – which, surprisingly, I was able to accomplish.”
Later, as the Federals made their first assault on the Vicksburg defenses, young Grant’s wound had worsened with a fever. He was ordered to headquarters and confined by a doctor. Frederick then overheard discussion that his leg would be amputated. So he escaped the tent and limped to a nearby swiftly running stream. There, young Grant held his foot under the cold water until it was numb and then limped back to the tent to sleep. When he awoke, the wound was healing and his fever had left.
Vicksburg surrender flags eventually came out on the 4th of July. Frederick recorded the scene of his father’s meeting with the rebels, “The conference lasted only a short time, then both groups withdrew behind their own lines. When father reached his tent, he was immediatly joined by the largest assemblage of high ranking officers I had ever seen in one place. After a serious consultation, a note was dispatched to the general commanding the enemy forces. Our officers then left, but I remained in the tent while my father sat as his desk writing. A short time later a messenger arrived with a letter. Father opened it, gave a sigh of relief and calmly remarked: ‘Vicksburg has surrendered’ I was the first to hear the announcement, and ran from the tent to spread the news.” Upon taking possession of Vicksburg, “Our reception by the enemy was cold. Gen. Pemberton, along with a group of his officers, was seated on the porch of a large house. When father expressed a desire for a glass of water, he was told to hunt for it in the kitchen.”
Soldiering was now in young Grant’s blood, literally and figuratively. Frederick Grant later attended West Point, graduating in 1871 to launch his official military career. He served out west with Generals Sherman and Custer during the Indian wars and with the elder Douglas MacArthur in the Philippine Insurrection of 1899. He achieved the rank of major general and died on April 12, 1912 at the age of 61.