Ulysses S. Grant In Missouri 1861

Brigadier General U. S. Grant, Cairo, IL, October, 1861. (From "U. S. Grant Album" by Lawrence A. Frost)

Brigadier General U. S. Grant, Cairo, IL, October, 1861. (From “U. S. Grant Album” by Lawrence A. Frost)

If you have been reading the recent exchange of comments here regarding Missouri’s loyalty to the Union during the Civil War, you might have noticed a quote attributed to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was very familiar with politics in Missouri, having lived in the state from 1854 to early 1860. The outbreak of hostilities in early 1861 however, found him residing in Galena, IL, and so he volunteered his services from that state. Perhaps ironically, he soon found himself back in Missouri. I thought it might be instructive to look at Grant’s observations in Missouri in 1861, including the entire letter in which the quote mentioned can be found. (See the letter dated Nov. 22.) If there is one thing these letters show, it’s that simplistic explanations of the time aren’t possible. The Aug 3 letter is particularly intriguing in this regard, because it challenges our assumptions of what constituted a “secessionist” or a “unionist.” These letters also challenge the assertion that it was only federal forces oppressing innocent Missourians. (See the highlighted passages.)


From Macon City, MO, July 19, 1861, to his wife, Julia:

…I have been on the road between here and Quincy, and marching South of the road for nine days. When we first come there was a terrible state of fear existing among the people. They thought that evry horror known in the whole catalogue of disa[sters] following a state of war was going to be their portion at once. But now they are becoming more reassured. They find that all troops are not the desperate characters they took them for. Some troops have behaved badly in this part of the state and given good grounds for fe[ar] but they have behaved no worse than their own people. The Secessionist commit evry outrage upon the Unionests. They seize their property, drive them out of the state & c. and destroy the railroad track wherever they find it without a guard. Yesterday, I returned to camp on the line of the R.R. from a little march south as far as the town of Florida. As we went down houses all appeared to be deserted. People of the town, many of them, left on our approach but finding that we behave respectfully and respected private property they returned and before we left nearly evry lady and child visited Camp and no doubt felt as much regret at our departure as they did at our arrival. On our re[turn] evry farm house seemed occupied and all the people turned out to greet us. I am fully convinced that if orderly troops could be marched through this country, and none others, it would create a very different state of feeling from what exists now…


From Mexico, MO, Aug 3, 1861, to his father, Jesse Root Grant:

…I find here however a different state of feeling from what I expected existed in any part of the South. The majority in this part of the State are Secessionist, as we would term them, but deplore the present state of affairs. They would make almost any sacrifice to have the Union restored, but regard it as dissolved and nothing is left for them but to choose between two evils. Many too seem to be entirely ignorant of the object of present hostilities. You can’t convince them but what the ultimate object is to extinguish, by force, slavery. Then too they feel that the Southern Confederacy will never consent to give up their State and as they, the South, are the strong party it is prudent to favor them from the start. There is never a movement of troops made that Secession journals through the country do not give a startling account of their almost annilihation at the hands of the States troops, whilst the facts are there are no engagements. My Regt. had been reported cut to pieces once that I know of, and I don’t know oftener, whilst a gun has not been fired at us. These reports go uncontradicted here and give confirmation to the conviction that one Southron is equal to five Northerners. We believe they are deluded and know if they are not we are.

Since I have been in Command of this Military District (two weeks) I have received the greatest hospitality and attention from the Citizens about here. I have had every opportunity of conversing with them freely and learning their sentiments and although I have confined myself strictly to the truth as to what has been the result of the different engagements, the relative strength etc. and the objects of the Administration, and the North Generally, yet they don’t believe a word I don’t think…


From Ironton, MO, August 9, 1861 to Capt. J. C. Kelton, Asst. Adj. Genl U. S. A., St. Louis:

…Spies are said to be seen evry day within a few miles of our camp, and marauding parties are infesting the country, and pillaging union men within ten miles of here. At present I can spare no force, in fact have not got suitable troops, to drive these people back and afford the Union citizens of this neighborhood the protection I feel they should have…


From Cape Girardeau, MO, August 31, 1861, to Julia:

…there is a large rebel force in this section of the state and they are committing all sorts of depridations upon the Union people…


From Cairo, IL, Nov. 17, 1861, to Chauncey McKeever, A. A. Western Department, St. Louis:

…I have also been called upon to-day by a lady from Bloomfield who states that the Union people of that district are not only depredated upon but their lives are constantly in danger. many have already been murdered for entertaining Union sentiments, and people of this class  are not permitted to leave on pain of death.

She urges, on behalf of the Union people, that troops be sent there either to garrison the place perminantly, or for a stated period, giving citizens notice of the length of time they intend remaining so that they might take advantage of their protection to get away…


From Cairo, IL, Nov 22, 1861, to Capt. John C. Kelton:

I have frequently reported to the Western Department that the line of steamers plying between St. Louis and Cairo, by landing points on the Missouri shore were enabled to afford aid and comfort to the enemy.

I have been reliably informed that some of the officers, particularly the Clerks, of these Boats, were regularly in the employ of the Southern Confederacy, so called

The case of the Platte Valley, a few days since, confirms me in this belief

I have heretofore recommended that all the carrying trade between here and St. Louis, be performed by Government, charging uniform rates. I would respectfully renew the suggestion, and in consideration of the special disloyalty of South East Missouri I would further recommend, that all commerce be cut off from all points south of Cape Girardeau.

There is not a sufficiency of Union sentiment left in this portion of the state to save Sodom

This is shown from the fact that Jeff Thompson, or any of the Rebels, can go into Charleston and spend hours or encamp for the night, on their way north to depredate upon Union men, and not one loyalist is found to report the fact to our Picket, stationed but one & a half miles off

Missouri slave map


The shaded areas of the above map show the concentration of enslaved people in Missouri in 1860. The Grant letters are in chronological order. Grant’s first letters were written from north of Columbia, (notice Macon County had relatively few slaves), but by the end of the year when he writes the letter about South East Missouri, he is at Cairo, IL. Notice he specifically mentions Charleston, MO.  Charleston was the major river city of Mississippi County, MO, across from Cairo. It is that dark spot in the bottom right corner of the map. Many Missouri slaveholders remained loyal Unionists, but it should not be surprising that the strongest secession sentiment in the state was located in the areas where there was the highest concentration of enslaved people.





2 thoughts on “Ulysses S. Grant In Missouri 1861

  1. The information presented here is a very strong indicator that the common Lost Cause claim that Union forces oppressed Missourians is far from true. This was a civil war and both sides were oppressing each other with civilians taking the brunt from both government soldiers and civilians alike. Unfortunately civil wars are nasty affairs, but the people who started this particular war didn’t think very well about the long term effects of such a war or whether or not they could even win such a conflict.
    I particularly like the letter about his regiment being cut to pieces. False information in papers was common in that war as it was in every war. I’m working on an article about an incident in the American Revolution right now and it appears that the wildly incorrect stories in Philadelphia newspapers may very well have contributed to a report on the state of affairs in December 1775 that persuaded the French to loan money to the Americans.

    This is why gathering a body of sources is important for historical work. Context is everything. Grant’s letters in conjunction with other letters from both sides, government and civilian establish a picture of what was going on in Missouri.

    • “I particularly like the letter about his regiment being cut to pieces.”

      Yes, liked that one also. Don’t we still hear today that the media can’t be trusted? Being a historian isn’t as easy as some would like to believe. Even when you have primary materials, you still have to verify from many sources and, as you say, have context.

      Thanks for the comment.

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