Grant Attacks Pemberton at Champion Hill and Advances to the Big Black River

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

We left off in January with General Grant’s three corps of about 30,000 soldiers advancing westward toward Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant had just defeated General Johnston, who was in overall command of rebel troops in the west, at the state capital, Jackson. On May 16, 1863, Grant had McPherson’s corps on or near the railroad line with McClernand’s corps south of McPherson’s. Following close behind was Sherman’s corps after carrying out Grant’s orders to destroy the military and manufacturing value of Jackson – he burned the city so badly to the ground that henceforth it became known as “Chimneyville.”

Continue reading “Grant Attacks Pemberton at Champion Hill and Advances to the Big Black River”

Grant Defeats Johnston at Jackson, Mississippi and Turns toward Pemberton

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the January 2021 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

We left off last December with General Grant having advanced from his Mississippi River Bruinsburg landing south of Vicksburg. From there, he went on to win a small but sharp battle in front of Raymond, just west of the Mississippi capital, Jackson. However, before we progress I would like to pause and thank our president, Steve Pettyjohn, for providing modern photos from his extensive collection of some of the places mentioned in these history briefs last month and going forward.

Continue reading “Grant Defeats Johnston at Jackson, Mississippi and Turns toward Pemberton”

Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part II

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

We resume where we left off in October with General Grant having decided to move ahead with Admiral Porter’s daring plan to help achieve Grant’s goal of ultimately landing troops on dry ground on the east bank of the Mississippi south of Vicksburg. Porter’s plan was to slip by fortress Vicksburg “running the batteries” under the cover of darkness. However, before we venture further, one of our members, Brian Kowell, after reading last month’s history brief submitted some additional research to me on the ironclads in Porter’s fleet that I believe readers of this history brief would enjoy.

Please recall from last month that four river ironclads of the “City Class,” also known as the “Cairo Class,” and lastly also known as “Pook’s Turtles” after the name of their designer would make up a substantial portion of the fleet, namely the Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, and Carondolet. The sister ships were identically constructed and armed but were fascinatingly differentiated by multi-colored rings painted on the smokestacks of each ship. Further, although by the time of this engagement various armaments had been modified as to type and caliber, Brian’s research shows that they each still carried 13 guns.

Ed Bearss

For readers who have visited Vicksburg, you know that the Cairo, also one of “Pook’s Turtles,” was sunk in the Yazoo River on December 12, 1862 by Confederates employing an electronically detonated mine. This is widely thought to be the first vessel in naval history to be sunk by such a device. About 100 years later the Cairo was dredged up, under the direction of Edwin C. Bearss, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service. Mr. Bearss spoke at our Roundtable numerous times and for the final time at our Roundtable on December 12, 2018 during my CCWRT presidential year. May Mr. Bearss Rest in Peace. Further, under his direction, the Cairo was refurbished and put on display in Vicksburg. Brian Kowell was able to research the precise armament found at the wreckage of the Cairo in the early 1960’s:

  1. 8-inch Navy gun with carriage, salvaged 9/14/1960, loaded with canister
  2. 30 pounder Naval Parrot rifle, salvaged 10/20/1963, loaded with explosive shell (against regulations)
  3. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 10/20/1963, not loaded, presumably had just been fired
  4. 8-inch Navy gun, salvaged 10/25/1963, loaded with double charge of canister
  5. 42 pounder rifle (originally smoothbore but had been rifled), salvaged 10/27/1963, port bow gun loaded with explosive shell filled with shrapnel
  6. 42 pounder rifle, salvaged 10/27/1963, starboard bow gun loaded with 87-pound explosive shell
  7. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 10/27/1963, no. 1 port gun double loaded with canister, its tube dismounted from torpedo explosion
  8. 42 pounder rifle, salvaged 10/31/1963, no. 1 starboard gun loaded with 87-pound explosive shell
  9. 8-inch Navy gun, salvaged 11/6/1963, no. 3 port gun loaded with grape
  10. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 11/6/1963, no. 3 port gun
  11. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 11/1963, no. 4 port gun loaded with solid shot
  12. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 11/6/1963, no. 4 starboard gun
  13. 32 pounder smoothbore, salvaged 11/6/1963, stern starboard gun

When Mr. Bearss was here in 2018, he mentioned that his first visit to our Roundtable was during the Kennedy Administration’s Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. So at the time of his initial visit, Mr. Bearss was actively working on the Cairo dredging project. How impressed our members must have been at that time to hear all about it!

The mortal remains of the USS Cairo

Having digressed, let’s go back to 1863. Accordingly, four of Cairo’s sister ships and other vessels were assembled in Admiral Porter’s flotilla on the evening of April 16, 1863. They were floating in the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg and configured in a line bow to stern about 150 feet apart. Each captain was to steer slightly leftward to avoid the ship ahead should it become disabled once the fleet proceeded and came under fire.

Ironclad Benton was at the head of the van. She was lashed to the tug Ivy, followed by ironclad Lafayette, which was lashed to General Price. Thence came ironclads Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and Carondolet followed by three army transports and finally the ironclad Tuscumbria. To ensure surprise, the attempt to run the batteries would be made at night sans lighting except what was needed for signaling purposes. That illumination was shielded under hooded lanterns that would not be visible to Confederate cannoneers. The van would move at low speed until sighted to keep engine noise to a minimum; they would essentially depend on the mighty river’s strong current to advance.

Anchors were weighed in at about 10:30 p.m. under a clear, star-filled night. At this very moment, General Pemberton, the Confederate commander at Vicksburg, his officers, and townsfolk were at a dance celebrating recent events that they misinterpreted as a retreat by Grant. How better to describe what happened next during arguably the most pivotal moment of the Civil War than to turn to the eyewitness account of General Grant, himself, from his Memoirs:

“Soon after the start a battery between Vicksburg and Warrenton opened fire across the intervening peninsula, followed by the upper batteries, and then by batteries all along the line. The gunboats ran up close under the bluffs, delivering their fire in return at short distances, probably without much effect. They were under fire for more than two hours and every vessel was struck many times, but with little damage to the gunboats. The transports did not fare so well. The Henry Clay was disabled and deserted by her crew. Soon after a shell burnt in the cotton packed about the boilers, set the vessel on fire and burned her to the water’s edge. The burning mass, however, floated down to Carthage before grounding, as did also one of the barges in tow. The enemy were evidently expecting our fleet, for they were ready to light up the river by means of bonfires on the east side and by firing houses on the point of land opposite the city on the Louisiana side. The sight was magnificent, but terrible. I witnessed it from the deck of a river transport, run out into the middle of the river and as low down as it was prudent to go. My mind was much relieved when I learned that no one on the transports had been killed and but few, if any, wounded. During the running of the batteries men were stationed in the holds of the transports to partially stop with cotton shot-holes that might be made in the hulls. All damage was afterwards soon repaired under the direction Admiral Porter.”

Running the guns of Vicksburg

The Union broadsides, unleashed in response to the South’s plunging fire from positions on the east bank bluffs of the Mississippi, were blindly fired toward the Confederate batteries above to no avail. Conversely, about 530 rounds were fired by the rebel batteries, of which about 70 found targets. Porter later in a private letter indicated that he incurred heavier damage than mentioned in the official reports stating: “as it will not do to let the enemy know how often they hit us, and show how vulnerable we are. Their heavy shot walked right through us as if we were made of putty.” Nevertheless, the venture was a resounding success with all of the ironclads and two of three transports making it successfully past the fortress at the human cost of 14 wounded men. In the meantime, Grant had ordered Sherman to deceive General Pemberton with a feint along the Yazoo River to coerce him into thinking that a major Union attack would be mounted from north of Vicksburg.

Benjamin H. Grierson

Further, Grant ordered cavalry Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher, composer, and abolitionist, whose formative years were spent in Youngstown, Ohio, to depart with three regiments of cavalry to raid central Mississippi. The purpose of the raid was to destroy rebel communications, supplies, and munitions and to generally create havoc. Grierson’s rampage went on for 16 days from April 16 to May 2. His 1,700 troopers of the heretofore often maligned Union cavalry performed a raid that was among the most successful use of cavalry by either side during the entire war. As some termed it, Grierson’s cavalry rode “Roughshod through Dixie” and not only did they destroy all manner of extremely hard to replace southern goods, they also drew thousands of rebel troops away from Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, soldiers that were consequently woefully out of position to counter Grant’s soon to be launched attack on Vicksburg. Also of importance, according to Sergeant Surby, one of Grierson’s ablest and most distinguished scouts, the troopers “played smash with the railroads.” For example, the damage wrought to the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad was so thorough that it was rendered useless for the remainder of the war. In sum, the raid spectacularly augmented Grant’s campaign both materially and strategically.

On April 20, with the fleet below Vicksburg, Grant’s immediate goal was within grasp as he wrote the open-ended order for his command to “obtain a foothold on the east bank of the Mississippi River, from which Vicksburg can be approached by practicable roads.” General McLernand thusly was in motion with three corps marching southward along the west bank of the Mississippi. They were to rendezvous with Porter’s fleet in anticipation of being transported to the east bank in the vicinity of Grand Gulf about 25 miles as the crow flies south of Vicksburg.

Now Grant was orchestrating and bringing heavily to bear on the unwitting Confederate General Pemberton the full might of the combined arms resources of the Union’s infantry, cavalry, and navy in that part of the western theater of war. Truly a man of vitality and confidence, any notion of Catton’s “slouchy little man” from This Hallowed Ground leading up to April 1863 was now cast asunder. One of Grant’s officers at this juncture wrote about Grant, “None who had known him the previous years could recognize him as being the same man…From this time his genius and his energies seemed to burst forth with new life.”

While probably not quite yet the Civil War’s “indispensable man,” we will track Grant’s next steps toward earning that sobriquet in December’s history brief. We will see Union troops endeavor a military crossing of the Mississippi River in enemy territory and watch Grant begin to explore for those “practicable roads”!

Related links:
Grant’s Winter of 1862-3: Three Attempts at Vicksburg (September 2020 history brief)
Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part I (October 2020 history brief)
Grierson’s Raid

Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part I

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Please recall last month’s history brief where we left off with the end of Grant’s creative winter efforts of 1862-3 to bypass Vicksburg, which sputtered out in a haze of impracticability. From the engineering attempts for a proposed trench to reroute the Mississippi River along the neck of a peninsular bend near the fortress city, itself, and the push for a channel through marshy terrain to ultimately join with the Red River and its tributaries and thence to the Mississippi and finally a military effort to land troops just north of Vicksburg through the Yazoo River environs, all of these endeavors came to naught. But not for lack of effort; Grant recorded in his “Memoirs” that he was proud of the hard work his troops had undertaken, which had at least kept them productive outside the campaigning season. Now Grant huddled with Admiral Porter to devise a daring combined arms effort to achieve his goal of landing his troops on dry ground on the east side of the river below Vicksburg.

Having been born on the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, Ohio and growing up in nearby Georgetown a mere ten miles from the river, Grant had a unique appreciation for the country’s water highways, which were useful for moving all manner of goods and materials in mid-1800s America. As such, U.S. Grant acquired in his youth an intuitive ability to make use later in life of the waterborne and naval assets that the largesse of the northern economy made available for commanders that realized the potential. Accordingly, at his very first substantial battle at Belmont, Grant used river steamers to land and evacuate his troops – and here he famously followed his men as the last person boarding the escape vessels while slip sliding his horse down a muddy bank and scurrying his mount over a narrow wooden plank to complete an improbable last minute escape of his person.

Ulysses Grant’s boyhood home in Georgetown, Ohio

Next, Grant subdued Forts Henry and Donelson and aggressively used the substantial firepower of the powerful river ironclads built at various shipbuilding facilities along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. At Shiloh, the Tennessee River was used as a supply line by Grant, and he exploited the river to military advantage in the adroit shelling of the Confederates by the Union gunboats Tyler and Lexington at a critical stage of the battle late on the first day, blunting what had thus far been a Confederate success and demoralizing the rebel troops’ spirit.

Now Admiral Porter told Grant that he believed that with proper preparation, he could “run the guns” of the Vicksburg fortress at night, minimizing the effect of the Confederate batteries under partial cover of darkness, and take his river fleet with its ironclads and sufficient supplies on the Mississippi past Vicksburg to ultimately meet Union troops that Grant would march down the west bank. At that point, Porter’s vessels could transport the Union troops across the Mississippi River to the coveted dry location below Vicksburg, where Grant could launch an offensive to capture the city over dry approaches. Of course, “running the guns” came with a huge risk, as the fleet could become heavily damaged and lose critical firepower, transport capability, and manpower. Further, once south of Vicksburg, in the event that they needed to do so, the ships would not likely be able to steam back up past Vicksburg, as the strong southerly river current would slow the vessels to such a degree that the Confederate batteries would be expected to obliterate the fleet.

Most often, the fighting vessels employed by Grant and Porter at Vicksburg are only briefly mentioned with little detail. So let’s examine them more closely, as they would be crucial to Grant’s effort – noted below as they were armed at the time of the Vicksburg run and presented corresponding to their positions in the line.

Benton – catamaran “snagboat” converted to an ironclad at James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis Missouri; commissioned February 24, 1862; speed 5 ½ knots; armament: eight nine-inch smoothbores; three 42-pound rifles; three 32-pound rifles; two 100-pound rifles. Benton was lashed to the tug Ivy at the head of the van; Benton was the most powerfully armed ironclad in the line.

USS Benton

Lafayette – former river steamer converted to ironclad ram at James B. Eads Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned February 27, 1863; speed 4 knots; armament: two 24-pound howitzers; two 12-pound howitzers; two 11-inch smoothbores; two nine-inch smoothbores; two 100-pounder rifles. Lashed to the General Price.

USS Lafayette

Louisville – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 16, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: one 8-inch smoothbore; three 9-inch smoothbores; two 42-pound rifles; two 32-pound rifles.

Mound City – built as a River casemate ironclad at Mound City Yard, Mound City, Illinois; commissioned January 16, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: three 8-inch smoothbores; two 42-pound rifles; six 32-pound rifles; one 12-pound rifle; one 30-pound rifle; one 50-pound rifle.

USS Mound City

Pittsburgh – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 25, 1862; speed 9 knots; armament: two 8-inch smoothbores; two 9-inch smoothbores; two 32-pound rifles; two 30-pound rifles; one 100-pound rifle.

Carondelet – built as a River casemate ironclad at Carondelet Yard, St. Louis, Missouri; commissioned January 15, 1862; speed 7 knots; armament: four 8-inch smoothbores; three 9-inch smoothbores; one 42-pound rifle; one 32-pound rifle; one 30-pound rifle; one 50-pound rifle.

USS Carondelet

Carondelet was followed by three army transports.

Tuscumbia – built as a River casemate ironclad at Joseph Brown Yard, New Albany, Indiana; commissioned March 12, 1863; speed 10 knots; armament: three 11-inch smoothbores; two 9-inch smoothbores. Tuscumbia was the final ship in the van.

USS Tuscumbia

Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburgh, and Carondelet were sister ships of the “City Class,” alternately called the “Cairo Class.” They were a novel design of shallow-draft ships and the vision of Samuel Pook; they became known as “Pook’s Turtles” and by now were veterans of most of the North’s and Grant’s river-related campaigns in the Western Theater. To make all of the vessels in the line less susceptible to the plunging fire of the Confederate batteries on the cliffs above, timber, cotton and additional iron were lashed to their upward decks and surfaces. Sailors would have wet cotton available to stuff holes made by rebel projectiles.

Confident in Admiral Porter’s ability and buoyed by his past combined arms successes, Grant’s patience with other potential endeavors to reduce Vicksburg had left him. So on March 29, 1863 he ordered General McClernand to send his four-division corps on the march along the west side of the mighty river and committed the Union to this daring plan.

In his “Memoirs,” General Sherman indicated his disagreement with running the guns for a variety of reasons and thought it better to go back to Memphis and then proceed down the rail line again in central Tennessee. Bruce Catton in his famous book This Hallowed Ground characterized it in a way that many of Grant’s detractors of the time would have phrased it in a somewhat condescending sentence: “It was perhaps the crucial federal military decision of the war; and it was made by a slouchy little man who never managed to look like a great captain, who had a casual unbuttoned air about him and seemed to be nothing much more than a middle-aged person who used to be a clerk in a small town harness shop – a man who unexpectedly combined dogged determination with a gambler’s daring.”

We will learn how Grant’s daring plan unfolds and whether the “slouchy little man” transforms into the “indispensable man” in next month’s history brief!

Related link:
Grant’s Winter of 1862-3: Three Attempts at Vicksburg (September 2020 history brief)
Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part II (November 2020 history brief)

Grant’s Winter of 1862-3: Three Attempts at Vicksburg

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2020-2021, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2020 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Please recall Grant’s campaign in the West to capture Vicksburg where we left off at the CCWRT December 2019 meeting with the “Battle of Chickasaw Bayou.” This was a defeat for General Grant, who commanded a two-pronged attack to vanquish the fortress. The first prong was his own movement through central Mississippi that would hopefully draw Confederate troops from Vicksburg to allow a direct thrust at the fortress. The second prong along the Mississippi River was under his friend and colleague, General Sherman. Grant’s drive was short-lived as his supply lines were disrupted by “that devil” General Nathan Bedford Forrest amongst others. Accordingly, Confederate General Pemberton maintained the majority of his troops in the Vicksburg defenses and decisively repulsed Sherman’s attack through the Chickasaw Bayou.

Soon after, a small Union tactical victory occurred at Arkansas Post which gave no strategic advantage to the North, so Grant pondered how to use the winter months to his advantage. Always an innovator and unafraid to try unconventional means to defeat the South, he contemplated unique methods to bypass Vicksburg altogether. Grant mentions in his “Memoirs” that his goal was to find a way to get his 40,000 or so troops on dry land on the east side of the Mississippi below Vicksburg. Further, he wanted to improve the morale of his men that winter by involving them in gainful pursuits. Therefore, he would endeavor to employ his troops with spades to attempt to reroute the Mississippi River. President Lincoln, being familiar with the mighty Mississippi, supported Grant’s efforts.

The first attempt was made where the river bends near Vicksburg and forms what could be characterized as a peninsula. The idea was to dig a ‘trench’ to reroute the Mississippi River away from the Vicksburg bluffs. Work began on the trench, which was to be dug northwest to southeast across the peninsula with a dam to hold back the water on the most northwestern point. Once the trench was completed, the idea was to open the dam and hopefully the force of flow through the trench would carve out a deeper channel than the Mississippi River itself. Grant’s river transports could then navigate through the newly trenched channel and bypass the fortress. Unfortunately for Grant, on March 8, 1863 the river rose so high from heavy rains that it naturally overwhelmed the dam on the northwest end of the trench, spreading inundation and destroying the soldiers’ camps and equipment. As such, the first attempt thereby failed chaotically.

Map showing the route of the proposed canal to by pass Vicksburg

A second creative engineering attempt was made at roughly the same time, using the sizable Lake Providence about 50 miles northwest of Vicksburg on the west side of the Mississippi River. The lake was separated by a levee from the river. Grant thought that if the levee was breeched, river water would flow through the opening, forcing a navigable channel through the many swamps, streams, and small tributaries that dominated the terrain. From that vicinity and then to a point about 150 miles below Vicksburg, the flow would join the Red River and its tributaries and on to the Mississippi. It might not be very deep, but substantial enough for shallow-bottom boats to transport men, munitions, and supplies. To make it feasible, another different contingent of Grant’s troops would need to hack, cut, yank, and pull numerous trees and tree stumps from the deeper potential channels and marshes. Over time, much effort and toil were spent, but frustration mounted at the slow pace of progress and led Grant to conclude this second project impractical. However, as noted in Grant’s “Memoirs,” it was at least a fine way to keep the troops from idleness.

David Dixon Porter

A third creative effort, perhaps more warlike in nature than those just noted, was made on the east side of the river about 200 miles north of Vicksburg at Yazoo Pass. This was a swampy area of marsh and streams through which an amphibious assault could perhaps be launched to land troops down in the vicinity of Chickasaw Bluffs where Sherman was recently defeated. In late February of 1863, a mine was set off in an embankment at Yazoo Pass, allowing swollen waters of the Mississippi River into this swampy area. Grant ordered two gunboats and transports with about half a division of soldiers through the breach to head downstream. Shortly thereafter, Confederate troops caught wind of this and began chopping down trees in the path of the Union vessels. The fallen trees needed to be individually removed, wasting time and exhausting the laborers. Further, in this densely wooded area low-hanging branches snapped the vessels’ smokestacks, and submerged tree stumps were a threat to rupture their hulls. Often, the currents were so strong that the ships lurched out of control, and other times shallow sluggish waters loaded with driftwood slowed them to a crawl. Mosquitoes and insects bit mercilessly. Upon reaching the Yazoo River, itself, the Union force found its way blocked by rebel guns positioned on a rare piece of dry ground now named “Fort Pemberton.” This was at a narrow stretch of flow where the superior firepower of the gunboats could not be maneuvered into position. Admiral Porter ordered a retreat.

The Admiral suggested another route through Steele’s Bayou to avoid Fort Pemberton. This was a narrow, winding, wooded, and circuitous route, but hopes were still high for success. Porter used the gunboat bows to ram through trees. This venue featured all manner of wildlife dropping out of low-hanging trees, which then had to be swept from the decks. Thence emerged rebel sharpshooters picking off those exposed sailors. Eventually the Union leadership became aware that this narrow route was being blocked from behind by Confederates felling trees. As this activity was recognized as having the potential to trap and surround the entire fleet, Sherman was ordered to send some of his regiments to subdue these rebels. Sherman’s men then helped haul the vessels backwards until the Yazoo was wide enough once again for the vessels to turn around and head back out under their own propulsion. So much for the last of Grant’s unique winter projects!

Grant had at least kept his troops busy, but there were now rumblings amongst the troops and some of the nastier Northern press as these efforts bore no fruit in getting the Union closer to solving the Vicksburg dilemma. Accusations reemerged that Grant had been drinking again and should be replaced. Some wanted the troops withdrawn to Memphis for a fresh start, but this would be seen as a demoralizing retreat. However, back in Washington Lincoln and General Halleck stood firmly by Grant. In his “Memoirs” Grant wrote, “With all the pressure brought to bear on them, both President Lincoln and General Halleck stood by me to the end of the campaign. I had never met Mr. Lincoln, but his support was constant.”

Next month we will learn more of Grant’s continued persistence in overcoming Vicksburg as the spring campaign season resumes for the Northern and Southern armies!

Related links:
Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part I (October 2020 history brief)
Grant’s Combined Arms Generalship at Vicksburg – Part II (November 2020 history brief)

Ulysses S. Grant in Georgetown, Ohio – The Indispensable Man’s Boyhood Home

By Daniel J. Ursu
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved

If you believe, as I and many others do, that the Civil War would not have been won by the North but for U.S. Grant, then a visit to his boyhood home in our own State of Ohio at Georgetown, about ten miles north of the Ohio River and 40 miles east of Cincinnati, will be inspiring, informative and worthwhile.

I made the trip on March 11, 2017 in conjunction with renowned Civil War historian Ed Bearss’ presentation to the U.S. Grant Homestead Association “Grant in the Wilderness” in Georgetown’s historic Gaslight Theater. This venue has become virtually a Mr. Bearss annual pilgrimage to Georgetown this time of year.

Ulysses S. Grant in 1843

On a sunshiny but brisk winter day sans snow, the small town was certainly evocative of what it must have been like during Grant’s childhood. In his Memoirs Grant states “I was born on the 27th of April, 1822, at Point Pleasant, Clermont County, Ohio. In the fall of 1823 we moved to Georgetown, the county seat of Brown, the adjoining county east. This place remained my home until the age of seventeen, when in 1839, I went to West point.”

Smartly preserved, the two-story red brick home itself sits a few blocks from the town square at a slightly lower elevation relative to the square. It is open to the public. As told by Ulysses, his father Jesse R. Grant “carried on the manufacture of leather and worked at the trade himself” at the tannery, a stout, white structure that is now a private residence across the street, easily visible but not open to the public.

Ulysses S. Grant’s boyhood home in Georgetown, Ohio

Quite apparent from the visit: Ulysses himself did not enjoy tannery work at his father’s business. Paradoxically, scholars assert that his work at the family business created a lifelong aversion to bloodshed – ironic in light of his future role in command of Union Armies at many of the most violent battles of the Civil War. He was labeled by some of the press and other critics of the time as a “butcher.”

On view in Grant’s home are the original quarters and bedroom where the family slept, as well as a later addition in which Ulysses had his own bedroom. His father Jesse was in Grant’s words “from my earliest recollection, in comfortable circumstances, considering the times,” and the home is furnished and decorated with period objects reflective of that standing. A visitor can easily imagine sitting in one of the rooms in the early 1800s on the south side of the home and looking through windows at the scene of the tannery’s prosperous business activity unfolding across the street.

Two other themes of Grant’s early life stood out as part of visiting the home. First, U.S. Grant as a boy thoroughly enjoyed horses and became an expert equestrian – that being one of the only distinguishing features during a mostly lackluster academic career at West Point. In wartime, his personal mount figured prominently in at least two battles. At Belmont, Grant was courageously the last man at the end of an organized retreat as his troops evacuated down steep banks to the Mississippi River onto awaiting steamboats. Grant skillfully maneuvered his sliding horse bottom down on the bank and onto a single, narrow wooden plank – and then at a trot into the waiting vessel – all within firing range of Confederate General Polk and his troops. On another occasion, during an intense rainstorm at the start of the Battle of Shiloh, muddy footing unfortunately caused his mount to collapse and fall heavily on Grant’s foot. The injury necessitated that the General be on crutches for the remainder of the battle.

Second, young Grant also enjoyed the nearby Ohio River, escaping there for recreation whenever he could elude his duties at the tannery. He also must have observed the many commercial vessels using this all-important transportation artery of the time. I have been involved in many a discussion at our Roundtable on Grant’s prowess in amphibious operations and his strategic understanding of the use of rivers to his military advantage. This advanced level of skill was exceptional and unique for a non-naval military officer of the time. One cannot discount that his frequent boyhood trips to the Ohio River might well have subconsciously embedded this later war talent into his psyche.

Ulysses S. Grant (left) and Alexander Hays (right) in 1845 during their journey to Mexico to serve in the Mexican-American War

A statue of U.S. Grant proudly overlooks the town square where the North’s most important General and future 18th President must have passed on foot innumerable times. The statue is modest but impressive, much like the man himself.

Most of what can be seen in the Georgetown area related to U.S. Grant is nurtured by the previously mentioned U.S. Grant Homestead Association. The organization can be further explored online at If you visit Georgetown, check ahead as times vary when Grant’s home is open.

Related link:
U.S. Grant Boyhood Home Rededicated

Sources: (Click on any of the book links to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, Fort Sumter to Perryville, 1958; Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, New York, NY.

Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S .Grant & Selected Letters 1839-1865, 1990 edition; Library of America, New York, NY.

Wiley Sword, Shiloh: Bloody April, 1974, reprinted 1983; Morningside House, Inc., Dayton, OH.

The Underground Railroad in Ohio

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2019-2020, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Our speaker this evening will be focusing on Colored Troops during the Civil War. As many of you know, he also portrays a personage involved with the Underground Railroad. So, it seemed a natural for this evening’s history brief to focus on the Underground Railroad and especially in Ohio.

The Underground Railroad can trace its beginnings to 1804. A system for runaway slaves to escape the South was begun by General Thomas Boude, who served in the Revolutionary War and purchased a slave named Stephen Smith and brought him to Columbia, Pennsylvania. Stephen was soon followed by his mother, who had escaped to find her son. A few weeks later the slaveowner appeared and demanded the return of her slaves. The Boudes refused, and when the other townsfolk gave their support, it was decided going forward as a town to champion the cause of fugitive slaves.

By 1815, this sentiment had spread to Ohio, and soon methods were being explored to help slaves escape. The term “Underground Railroad” came into usage about 1831. There were many secret “roads” along the Ohio River to rescue slaves. At this time, a slave named Tice Davids eluded his pursuers along the Ohio River near Ripley, Ohio southeast of Cincinnati. Davids dove into the water with his slaveowner following close behind in a rowboat, but Davids disappeared from view. The owner became frustrated and gave up his search, stating that Davids “must have gone off on an underground road.”

The Rankin house in Ripley, Ohio
Owned by ardent abolitionist, John Rankin, the Rankin house was one of the most famous stations on the Underground Railroad and is now a National historic Landmark.

This term caught on. In about 1835, antislavery workers began using this metaphor and started to use railroad terminology for their activities: tracks, trains, agents, stationmasters, conductors and stations. Paths of escape were labeled “tracks.” Helpers were known as “conductors” or “stationmasters.” Groups of runaways were “trains,” and homes for hiding them were “stations” or “depots.”

The Underground Railroad was begun by what we call today a “grass roots” movement. But, when professional slave catchers were sent to recover runaway slaves, the system became an elaborate network of secret contacts between free blacks and white sympathizers to move runaways safely and efficiently to the North and then to Canada. However, it could not become an organized business because of the fact that its activities were technically “illegal.”

Branches of escape existed in every state, but extensive networks blossomed in Ohio due to its central location on the Mason-Dixon Line and its border with two important slave states of Virginia and Kentucky. In part because of this geography, Ohio became one of the most successful Underground Railroad states. The Ohio River was extremely important to runaways, and over half of them used it. There were 23 railroad access locations along the Ohio, five departure points on Lake Erie and about 3,000 miles of track in between. Ohioans were credited with operating one of the most effective systems for aiding runaways and was especially critical to those in and coming through Kentucky.

Map showing routes on the Underground Railroad
The extensive network of Underground Railroad tracks in Ohio can be seen.
Map compiled from The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert.

Ohio’s importance was also borne out by statistics. The total known voluntary railroad workers in the North numbered about 3,200, and roughly 1,500 of those were in Ohio – nearly 50%! Major stations were in Marion, Mansfield and Salem with numerous smaller stations throughout the state.

A monument to the Underground Railroad in Oberlin, Ohio
Oberlin played a prominent role in abolitionism and in the Underground Railroad.
No runaway slave in Oberlin was ever returned to bondage.

At first, most runaways were men, but later many women also escaped. Travel was usually by foot, but when women and children started appearing in greater numbers, escorts and vehicles were provided. Conductors carried the runaways in covered wagons, closed carriages and farm wagons specially equipped with hidden compartments. Some were even put in boxes and shipped as freight by rail or boat. Movement usually took place at night for security. When traveling by foot, fugitives were guided by the North Star or the many northward tributaries of the Ohio River. Stations had to be relatively close to make the journey during a night’s long march.

The Cozad-Bates House in Cleveland, Ohio
The Cozad-Bates House reputedly was a station on the Underground Railroad.

For instance, about 16 abolitionists from Salem, Ohio established their homes as stations. Many used secret rooms, hidden staircases, root cellars, false walls and basements to conceal fugitives. Church members were heavily involved, although because of the illegal nature of the endeavor, the churches themselves were not formally involved. For instance in Salem, the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, Wesleyan Methodists and Presbyterian churches had important members in what was known in Salem as the “Western Anti-Slavery Society” headquartered in Salem. Members provided shelter, clothing, food, medical care and transport for black fugitives.

An antislavery newspaper began in nearby Lisbon in June of 1845 and was soon transferred to Salem in September. It was called the “Anti-Slavery Bugle” with its motto “No Union With Slaveholders.” The final issue came out on May 4, 1861, fittingly 22 days after the start of shelling on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War itself.

Related link:
The Southbound Underground Railroad

The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou: Grant’s First Attempt to Vanquish Vicksburg

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2019-2020, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

The “war was won in the West” – or so they say – and has been our monthly focus of these history briefs paralleling the same months in 1862. And so we come to December of 1862, which is widely known as the start of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.

However, we pick up where we left off in November 1862 in the wake of the “Second Battle of Corinth” which secured that major and important rail junction for the North and for Grant’s thrust toward central Mississippi, his ultimate target being the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg on a 200-foot bluff overlooking a fish hook-like bend in the Mississippi River. To capture it would fulfill the Western Theater’s role in the North’s strategic “Anaconda Plan” essentially cutting the South in two- and coupled with the seaboard blockade – strangling the heart of the Confederacy.

As mentioned last month, Vicksburg was the largest city in Mississippi by the time of the Civil War and a major port for cotton and other goods flowing north and south on the mighty river.

Grant’s initial strategy was somewhat obvious (see top map) and the most direct geographically. He would send his trusted friend General Tecumseh Sherman with several divisions south from Memphis in transports along the Mississippi River, disembark them on the marshy terrain, but very close to Vicksburg in the vicinity of the Yazoo River tributary and pressure Confederate commander Pemberton in Vicksburg, effectively pinning him in position. Meanwhile, Grant himself would lead two divisions south from the vicinity of Corinth (see map) along the Central Mississippi railroad and put Pemberston’s smaller force on the horns of a dilemma. That is: should Pemberton emerge from Vicksburg in the direction of Grant to stop him while leaving only a small garrison to hopefully keep Sherman out – or stay put and defend the fortress which would then submit Pemberton to a siege? This would put the North’s numerical and naval superiority to its optimal employment in December of 1862.

In mid December, Grant indeed headed south with two divisions along the railroad as planned using it as a line of supply; and at about the same time Sherman boarded vessels with his troops, using the Mississippi River and Union naval dominance as his line of supply.

However, on December 20th, while Grant penetrated to Oxford and beyond, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn with a mere 3,500 cavalry circled behind Grant’s advance and raided his second largest supply depot at Holly Springs (see map) destroying much of the food, horse forage and ammunition that Grant relied on to sustain his force. Not to be outdone, that Devil Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry had been ranging widely in north Mississippi and further destroyed rail and telegraph communications in that vicinity. His supply lines disrupted, Grant now begrudgingly withdrew. However, the cut telegraph lines proved critical since when Grant decided to fall back from Oxford, Sherman failed to timely learn of Grant’s retreat.

Thus, Pemberton was now off of the horns of the dilemma and could turn his full attention to Sherman’s impending assault. On December 26th, Sherman’s troops landed at “Johnson’s Plantation” (see lower map) on the banks of the Yazoo River only about a half dozen miles north of Vicksburg. With Grant in retreat, Pemberton adroitly repositioned troops he had previously sent toward Grenada to bolster the Vicksburg garrison. They rapidly occupied prepared positions along the top slopes of a long line of cliffs and ridges known as Chickasaw Bluffs, which dominated the ground that Sherman’s four divisions would have to cross.

Sherman would have to push through a tangle of lakes, swamps and bayous inundated from recent rains and move uphill before he would reach the Confederate lines. The attack began on the morning of the 29th, with Sherman’s numbers only slightly greater than Pemberton’s and violating the three to one maxim for an attacking force to carry a prepared position. The result was a Union slaughter with a loss of about 2,000 killed, wounded or missing. In stark contrast, Confederate losses in killed, wounded or missing were only about 210. Sherman accepted the defeat in his memoirs, but despite the daunting odds, pointed to the cowardice of one of his divisional commanders, George W. Morgan, for the tactical failure, asserting that Morgan did not accompany his troops to the point of advance which he told Sherman he would do. Morgan hotly disputed this, saying that Sherman rashly attacked the strongest position of the Confederate line.

Grant said of the battle in his memoirs: “The waters were high so that the bottoms were generally overflowed, leaving only narrow causeways of dry land between points of debarkation and the high bluffs. These were fortified and defended at all points. The rebel position was impregnable against any force that could be brought against its front.” And he shortly later wrote “the real work of the campaign and siege of Vicksburg now began.”

From the South’s perspective, President Davis’ controversial decision to put Confederate General Pemberton, a northern native from Philadelphia, in charge of Vicksburg now looked smartly done. Further, the North’s cavalry had shown it was still inferior to their Southern counterparts led by the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

That said, U.S. Grant indicated that he learned important lessons from the defeat – such as to seek dry ground from which to stage further assaults on the fortress Vicksburg.

Related links:
This history brief is the third in a series of three.
The first in this series is: “The Civil War Was Won in the West” – or so they say.
The second in this series is: The Second Battle of Corinth and the Start of the Vicksburg Campaign.