The Near Capture of Ulysses Grant by Confederate General Jackson

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in January 2022.

Perhaps the two most intriguing words in history are “What if?” This is true whether the word “history” is used in the context of the past, itself, or in the context of the study of the past. In the latter context, “What if?” leads to interesting, enjoyable, thought-provoking, and sometimes intense discussions. When people who are interested in history concoct alternative histories based on some event happening differently (i.e., a what-if), the discussions that follow are one of the things that contribute to people’s interest in history. In the former context of the word “history,” a real-life what-if strategically placed into the past (if such a thing were possible) could, as George Bailey learned, produce a substantially different present than the one in which we now live, and this is a significant reason for those interesting, enjoyable, thought-provoking, and sometimes intense discussions when “What if?” is inserted into the study of the past.

Wars, because of their capricious nature, are arguably one of the most fertile fields in history for what-ifs, and the Civil War is no exception. A change in one event can produce a significant change in the course or even the outcome of a war. What if Robert E. Lee had given his services to the Union military effort? What if the Army of Northern Virginia had been victorious at the Battle of Gettysburg? (This was the subject of the annual Dick Crews Debate at the January 2019 Roundtable meeting.) What if Atlanta had not fallen prior to the presidential election of 1864, with the result that Abraham Lincoln’s fears about that election came to pass, and war-weary Northerners elected George McClellan president? In one of the most frequently discussed what-ifs about the Civil War, what if Stonewall Jackson had not been taken away from the Confederacy shortly after the Battle of Chancellorsville? This last what-if involves the elimination of a major loss from the Confederacy’s war effort. Subtractions such as the one caused by Stonewall’s death are always a possibility in an enterprise like war. As Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest declared, “War means fighting, and fighting means killing.” When there is killing going on, sometimes that killing befalls someone whose removal is so significant that that person becomes the subject of a future what-if.

Ulysses Grant in 1862

The Confederate army had its share of significant losses among its high-ranking commanders. Stonewall Jackson was certainly the most significant, but there were also Albert Sydney Johnston, Jeb Stuart, Patrick Cleburne, A.P. Hill, and Leonidas Polk. Some of the significant losses among high-ranking commanders in the Union army were James McPherson, John Reynolds, and John Sedgewick, although there was no subtraction on the Union side comparable to Stonewall Jackson. But what if there had been, if not by death, then by capture? One such potential subtraction was Ulysses Grant who was almost captured by the Confederates in June 1862. By Grant’s own estimation, this was not just something that could have happened, but something that very nearly happened. How would the Union’s war effort have been affected by the loss of Grant? What would have been the fate of Vicksburg if Grant had not been available to lead the campaign to capture the Gibraltar of the Confederacy? Where would Abraham Lincoln have looked for an overall commander of the Union army if he no longer had access to the one officer whom Lincoln said he “can’t spare” because “he fights”? In other words, what if Grant had been subtracted from the Union’s war effort? This almost happened when the Civil War was only 30% toward its eventual end, and Grant, himself, wrote about it in his Memoirs.

In Chapter XXVII of his Memoirs, Grant wrote about an incident that occurred on June 23, 1862 while he and a small party were riding from La Grange, Tennessee to Memphis, Tennessee after Grant had moved his headquarters to Memphis. In Grant’s words, “The 23d of June, 1862, on the road from La Grange to Memphis was very warm, even for that latitude and season. With my staff and small escort I started at an early hour, and before noon we arrived within twenty miles of Memphis. At this point I saw a very comfortable-looking white-haired gentleman seated at the front of his house, a little distance from the road. I let my staff and escort ride ahead while I halted and, for an excuse, asked for a glass of water. I was invited at once to dismount and come in. I found my host very genial and communicative, and staid longer than I had intended, until the lady of the house announced dinner and asked me to join them. The host, however, was not pressing, so that I declined the invitation and, mounting my horse, rode on.

“About a mile west from where I had been stopping a road comes up from the southeast, joining that from La Grange to Memphis. A mile west of this junction I found my staff and escort halted and enjoying the shade of forest trees on the lawn of a house located several hundred feet back from the road, their horses hitched to the fence along the line of the road. I, too, stopped and we remained there until the cool of the afternoon, and then rode into Memphis.

“The gentleman with whom I had stopped twenty miles from Memphis was a Mr. De Loche, a man loyal to the Union. He had not pressed me to tarry longer with him because in the early part of my visit a neighbor, a Dr. Smith, had called and, on being presented to me, backed off the porch as if something had hit him. Mr. De Loche knew that the rebel General Jackson was in that neighborhood with a detachment of cavalry. His neighbor was as earnest in the southern cause as was Mr. De Loche in that of the Union. The exact location of Jackson was entirely unknown to Mr. De Loche, but he was sure that his neighbor would know it and would give information of my presence, and this made my stay unpleasant to him after the call of Dr. Smith.

“I have stated that a detachment of troops was engaged in guarding workmen who were repairing the railroad east of Memphis. On the day I entered Memphis, Jackson captured a small herd of beef cattle which had been sent east for the troops so engaged. The drovers were not enlisted men and he released them. A day or two after one of these drovers came to my headquarters and, relating the circumstances of his capture, said Jackson was very much disappointed that he had not captured me; that he was six or seven miles south of the Memphis and Charleston railroad when he learned that I was stopping at the house of Mr. De Loche, and had ridden with his command to the junction of the road he was on with that from La Grange to Memphis, where he learned that I had passed three-quarters of an hour before. He thought it would be useless to pursue with jaded horses a well-mounted party with so much of a start. Had he gone three-quarters of a mile farther he would have found me with my party quietly resting under the shade of trees and without even arms in our hands with which to defend ourselves.”

In other words, Grant was in the process of riding to Memphis when he stopped at the house of a Union sympathizer. While Grant was at the house, his presence became known to a Confederate sympathizer, who, evidently, made Grant’s presence known to Confederate General Jackson. Jackson pursued Grant and his party, but, because Jackson thought that he would not be able to overtake them, he gave up the pursuit when he was just three-quarters of a mile from Grant’s location, where Grant and his party were not riding further, but were resting in the shade. Grant was completely vulnerable to capture by Jackson and avoided capture only because Jackson gave up the pursuit. It was a momentous near-miss, a what-if that would have had substantial far-reaching consequences for the Union.

Who was this General Jackson who nearly captured Ulysses Grant? When Civil War enthusiasts hear the words “General Jackson,” the first person they think of is Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson. In Chapter XXVII of his Memoirs, when Grant describes his near capture, he mentions the General Jackson who almost captured him seven times, but nowhere in his Memoirs does Grant give this General Jackson’s first name. Who, then, was this General Jackson? On June 23, 1862 Stonewall Jackson was 700 miles from Memphis in Virginia and in the process of being assimilated into Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after Stonewall had led his brilliant and highly successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Thus, unless Stonewall, mythical as he was, had access to some sort of rapid transportation that did not exist in 1862, Stonewall Jackson could not have been the General Jackson who nearly captured Ulysses Grant. And he wasn’t. The General Jackson who almost made a prisoner of war out of Ulysses Grant was William Hicks Jackson.

William Hicks Jackson

William Hicks Jackson was born on October 1, 1835 in Paris, Tennessee, which is about 90 miles west of Nashville and now has a 70-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower in it. Jackson graduated from West Point in 1856, number 38 in a class of 49. For comparison, the much more famous General Jackson, namely Stonewall, graduated number 17 out of 59 in his Class of 1846. One of William Hicks Jackson’s classmates was Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of Robert E. Lee, who was a cavalry general in the Army of Northern Virginia, and who, at number 45, graduated even lower than William Hicks Jackson in the Class of 1856. After graduation, Jackson the lesser served in the western frontier and participated in fighting against Native Americans.

On May 16, 1861 Jackson resigned from the U.S. army and received a commission in the Confederate army as a captain of artillery. He fought in the Battle of Belmont, where he opposed a Union army under the command of the person whom he almost captured later in the war. Jackson was seriously wounded in this battle when a minie ball struck him in the right side, and he carried that minie ball inside him for the rest of his life. Upon his return to action five months later, he was appointed colonel of the 1st Tennessee Cavalry. By year’s end he was promoted to brigadier general and, hence, became General Jackson, although he held the rank of colonel at the time that he nearly had a fateful encounter with Ulysses Grant.

Jackson later commanded a cavalry division under Joseph E. Johnston, first in the Vicksburg Campaign and then in the Atlanta Campaign. Jackson remained in that role after John Bell Hood replaced Johnston, and he participated in Hood’s disastrous campaign into Jackson’s native Tennessee. He then served under Nathan Bedford Forrest in the paltry force that opposed the spring 1865 raid through the South that was led by James Wilson. The war ended for Jackson on May 9, 1865 at Gainesville, Alabama when Forrest surrendered, after which Forrest told his men in his final order, “I have never, on the field of battle, sent you where I was unwilling to go myself; nor would I now advise you to a course which I felt myself unwilling to pursue. You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous.” It can be argued that Forrest did not heed his own words, but Jackson followed Forrest’s advice, as Jackson’s post-war life demonstrated.

Jackson married Selene Harding in 1868. Selene’s father, William Giles Harding, was the owner of Belle Meade Plantation near Nashville, Tennessee. Harding had an interesting Civil War connection in that his second wife, Elizabeth Irwin McGavock, was the daughter of Randal McGavock, the owner of Carnton Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee. It was on the back porch of Carnton House that the bodies of four dead Confederate generals were laid after the Battle of Franklin, including Patrick Cleburne and Ohio-born Otto Strahl. Although Harding was not part of the Confederate military in the Civil War, he became a prisoner of war when Union forces occupied Nashville in 1862. Harding, who had donated $500,000 to the Confederate army, was a wealthy and prominent civilian official in the Confederate government in Tennessee, which led to his arrest and six-month imprisonment on Mackinac Island in Michigan.

After the 1868 marriage of William Hicks Jackson to Selene Harding, Jackson worked with his father-in-law in the management of Belle Meade, where they became proficient and renowned in breeding horses. A number of prominent people visited Belle Meade, including President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland and Robert Todd Lincoln. In 1874 William Hicks Jackson’s older brother, Howell Edmunds Jackson, married Mary Harding, the younger sister of William Hicks Jackson’s wife, Selene (which made William Hicks Jackson and Howell Edmunds Jackson not only brothers, but also brothers-in-law). After the death of William Giles Harding in 1886, the brothers Jackson co-managed Belle Meade, which became very well-known for breeding and raising horses. The elder Jackson brother, who had been a U.S. senator and a judge between 1881 and 1893 eventually became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and served for over two years until his death in 1895. The younger Jackson brother died in 1903 at Belle Meade. The grandson of William Hicks Jackson, William Harding Jackson, served as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, which means there is a connection between the near capture of Ulysses Grant and U.S. espionage. How much better would have been William Hicks Jackson’s chances of capturing Ulysses Grant had Jackson had access to the surveillance resources available to his grandson rather than just the information from the neighbor of the house where Grant stopped for a drink of water on a hot Tennessee day?

Grant’s near capture by William Hicks Jackson was not the only time that Grant came close to being subtracted from the Union war effort. Grant recorded in his Memoirs a number of times when this almost happened, and each one of these constitutes another what-if involving the loss of Ulysses Grant. Two of the better known incidents are his narrow escape at the close of the Battle of Belmont and his nearly being struck by a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh. In the former, Grant related (Chapter XX) that after the Confederates overran the Union position and the Union troops retreated, almost all of the Union troops had boarded transports on the Mississippi River, but Grant was still on the battlefield. When Grant became aware that, as he wrote, “I was the only man of the National army between the rebels and our transports,” he rode toward those transports, but the transports had already pushed off. Fortunately, the “captain of a boat that had just pushed out…recognized me” and “had a plank run out for me. My horse seemed to take in the situation…My horse put his fore feet over the bank without hesitation or urging, and with his hind feet well under him, slid down the bank and trotted aboard the boat, twelve or fifteen feet away, over a single gang plank.” In this instance, Grant was saved from capture in part by the remarkable agility of his horse.

James B. McPherson

In the incident at Shiloh, Grant wrote in his Memoirs (Chapter XXV) that on the battle’s second day, “I had been moving from right to left and back, to see for myself the progress made. In the early part of the afternoon, while riding with Colonel McPherson and Major Hawkins, then my chief commissary, we got beyond the left of our troops. We were moving along the northern edge of a clearing, very leisurely, toward the river above the landing. There did not appear to be an enemy to our right, until suddenly a battery with musketry opened upon us from the edge of the woods on the other side of the clearing. The shells and balls whistled about our ears very fast for about a minute. I do not think it took us longer than that to get out of range and out of sight.” When the three men were in safety, they assessed their condition and found that “Major Hawkins lost his hat,” and McPherson’s horse had been struck by a bullet “forward of the flank just back of the saddle” and soon thereafter “the poor beast dropped dead.” McPherson was not struck, but a little over two years later at Atlanta, he was not so lucky. As for Grant, “A ball had struck the metal scabbard of my sword, just below the hilt, and broken it nearly off.” Before the battle ended, the scabbard “had broken off entirely.” Grant lost his scabbard, but he, and the Union army, came very close to losing much more than that. Grant very nearly joined Albert Sydney Johnston in the afterlife, which would have thereby distinguished the Battle of Shiloh as one in which the commanders of both opposing armies lost their lives.

Grant recorded other near misses in his Memoirs. At the aforementioned Battle of Belmont, after Grant’s horse managed to carry its rider along the plank and onto the departing transport boat, Grant recounted (Chapter XX) that he went into the captain’s room “and threw myself onto the sofa.” He remained there only a short time before going out “on the deck to observe what was going on. I had scarcely left when a musket ball entered the room, struck the head of the sofa, passed through it and lodged in the foot.” Grant related another near miss when he was at Chattanooga (Chapter XLI). In Grant’s words, prior to the Battle of Chattanooga, when the two armies were facing each other, “The most friendly relations seemed to exist between the two armies. At one place there was a tree which had fallen across the stream, and which was used in drawing water for their camps.” Grant indicated that some of the Confederate soldiers “wore blue of a little different shade from our uniform. Seeing a soldier in blue on this log, I rode up to him, commenced conversing with him, and asked what corps he belonged to,” whereupon the soldier made clear from his reply that he was in the enemy’s army. Grant continued, “I asked him a few questions—but not with a view of gaining any particular information—all of which he answered, and I rode off.” It is frightful to imagine the man who was arguably the most important person for the Union war effort exposing himself to danger by fraternizing unknowingly with an enemy soldier.

John Mosby

Later in the war, after Grant had come east to direct the operations of the Army of the Potomac, Grant wrote (Chapter XLVII) that he regularly took a train to Washington “to confer with the Secretary of War and the President.” On one of these train trips back to Virginia, “a heavy cloud of dust was seen to the east of the road as if made by a body of cavalry.” When the train reached the next station and stopped, those on board asked the “man at the station” about this, and “he informed us that (John) Mosby had crossed a few minutes before at full speed in pursuit of Federal cavalry. Had he seen our train coming, no doubt he would have let his prisoners escape to capture the train. I was on a special train, if I remember correctly, without any guard.”

C.B. Comstock

About a month later, when Grant had ordered the southward movement of the Army of the Potomac after the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant began to move with the army. Grant recorded (Chapter LI), “With my staff and a small escort of cavalry I preceded the troops. Meade with his staff accompanied me…We had passed but a little way beyond our left when the road forked. We looked to see, if we could, which road Sheridan had taken with his cavalry during the day. It seemed to be the right-hand one, and accordingly we took it. We had not gone far, however, when Colonel C.B. Comstock, of my staff, with the instinct of the engineer, suspecting that we were on a road that would lead us into the lines of the enemy, if he, too, should be moving, dashed by at a rapid gallop and all alone. In a few minutes he returned and reported that Lee was moving, and that the road we were on would bring us into his lines in a short distance.” What if Colonel Comstock had not succumbed to “the instinct of the engineer,” but had simply assumed that Grant’s party, which included Meade, had chosen the correct road at the fork, and Comstock had not bothered to expend the effort required to check the route that Grant’s party was taking? Would there have been any benefit to Robert E. Lee by having the Army of the Potomac’s high command ride into his lines?

While all of these wartime near misses involving Ulysses Grant certainly could have affected the course of the war had they not gone favorably for the Union, there was a possibility that Grant could have missed the war entirely because of a bureaucratic blunder. Grant related in his Memoirs (Chapter XVII) that very early in the war he sent a letter offering his services and requesting reinstatement in the army. However, as Grant wrote, “This letter failed to elicit an answer from the Adjutant General of the Army.” Years later Grant learned the fate of his letter. As he recorded in his Memoirs, “Subsequent to the war General Badeau having heard of this letter applied to the War Department for a copy of it. The letter could not be found and no one recollected ever having seen it…Long after the application of General Badeau, General Townsend, who had become Adjutant General of the Army, while packing up papers preparatory to the removal of his office, found this letter in some out-of-the-way place. It had not been destroyed, but it had not been regularly filed away.” It is unfathomable for Civil War enthusiasts, knowing the utmost importance of Ulysses Grant to the Union victory, to think of Grant sitting out the Civil War because his letter offering his services to the Union army was misplaced. Fortunately for the United States, Grant did find his way into the Union army. Nevertheless, each of the near misses described above represents a what-if in which Grant’s services could have been lost to the Union war effort, which could have changed the course of the Civil War significantly if not substantially.

Adam Badeau and Ulysses Grant (left); Edward D. Townsend (right)

What if William Hicks Jackson had captured Ulysses Grant on June 23, 1862? How would subsequent events in the Civil War have been altered by the subtraction of Grant from the Union army? This speculation is left to those interesting, enjoyable, thought-provoking, and sometimes intense discussions among Civil War enthusiasts. Grant wrote in his Memoirs (Chapter LXVII), “Wars produce many stories of fiction, some of which are told until they are believed to be true,” and there is abundant evidence to prove that Grant’s statement is accurate. Similarly, post-war discussions in which wartime events are closely analyzed likewise “produce many stories of fiction.” But in this case, many of these “stories of fiction” are what-ifs that include alternative histories based on some change in a particular wartime event, such as the capture of Ulysses Grant by William Hicks Jackson.

One thing about the near capture of Grant by Jackson can be stated with certainty, because Grant wrote it in his Memoirs. Grant related a post-war encounter with the man who almost captured him and stated (Chapter XXVII), “I never met General Jackson before the war, nor during it, but have met him since at his very comfortable summer home at Manitou Springs, Colorado. I reminded him of the above incident (i.e., Jackson’s near capture of Grant), and this drew from him the response that he was thankful now he had not captured me.” Grant did not recount if Jackson gave a reason that he was thankful he did not capture Grant. Perhaps post-war reflection led Jackson to reconsider the cause for which he fought and to realize that, as Grant asserted in his Memoirs (Chapter LXVII) “that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Maybe Jackson was grateful that he did not capture Grant because he came to realize that Grant’s capture may have led to a favorable outcome in the war for the Confederacy, and that a favorable outcome for the Confederacy, in spite of Jackson’s choice for wartime loyalty, was less desirable for everyone involved in the war, both Union and Confederate.

Ulysses Grant writing his Memoirs

In light of Grant’s opinion about the Confederate cause and its disastrous objective of dissolving the Union, it is not surprising that Grant predicted that there almost certainly would never again be a movement in his reunited country that would resort to civil war in order to attain its objectives. Grant wrote (Conclusion), “There can scarcely be a possible chance of a conflict, such as the last one, occurring among our own people again.” The wording of Grant’s prediction is interesting. When Grant made his prediction that another civil war in the United States was extremely unlikely, he did so not in the impersonal and more abstract context of a civil war happening again in the nation, but of it “occurring among our own people again.” Implicit in Grant’s wording is the fact that it is not from a nation that a civil war arises, but from people, people who feel vehemently discontented and aggrieved, who perceive that their government is denying them their rights and is intractably unreceptive to their demands, and who view civil war as the only remedy for their situation.

Obviously, Grant could not foresee America of the 21st century and consider how that America and the people living in that America compare to the nation and the people that he knew in America of the late 19th century at the time that he made his prediction. But what if Ulysses Grant could see what is happening nowadays in the country that he was instrumental in saving? After Grant witnessed the turbulence of the pre-Civil War years, such as the actions taken by some vehemently discontented people in Harpers Ferry in October 1859, what would he think if he had seen the actions taken by some vehemently discontented people at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021? After seeing what happened in Kansas beginning in the mid-1850s, what would Grant think if he saw what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 and realized that what happened there was precipitated by some vehemently discontented people over the removal of a monument to one of the leading figures who fought against the United States for the cause that Grant called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought”? After hearing the fire-eaters of the pre-Civil War South and observing what they did after the presidential election of 1860, what would Grant think if he read what was written by Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, a group that participated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, who stated that unless measures were taken to redo the 2020 presidential election, “we the people will have to fight a bloody revolution/civil war”? Grant maintained that there is only a scarce chance of “a conflict, such as the last one, occurring among our own people again,” and his prediction has held up for over 150 years. What if there is an expiration date on Grant’s prediction?

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