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Grant Moves South
By Bruce Catton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 William B. Catton
All rights reserved.
"Tomorrow I Move South"
The Governor of Illinois remembered that "he was plain, very plain," and men said that he usually went about camp in a short blue coat and an old slouch hat, wearing nothing that indicated his rank, nothing indeed that even proved he was in the Army. The men of his regiment spoke of him as "the quiet man," and afterward they admitted that they never exactly understood him. He was not in the least impressive, but somehow he took charge, subduing the disobedient without, apparently, using anything more than a hard look and a soft word. (It was told that one time he personally jumped a drunken private who had overawed the guard, knocking the man down and then sitting on him while applying bonds and a gag; but this, if not exactly out of character, was at least out of the ordinary. For the most part men seemed to obey him simply because he expected them to do so.) An admiring chaplain, looking back at the end of the war, said that no stranger, seeing this man in a crowd, would ever be moved to ask who he was.
There was nothing about Ulysses S. Grant that struck the eye; and this puzzled people, after it was all over, because it seemed reasonable that greatness, somewhere along the line, should look like greatness. Grant could never look like anything, and he could never make the things he did look very special; and afterward men could remember nothing more than the fact that when he came around things seemed to happen. The most they could say, usually, was that U. S. Grant had a good deal of common sense.
His experience in the early summer of 1861 with the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry was quite typical.
The 21st Illinois might have been set up on purpose to test a colonel. It had been formed, as the Seventh District Regiment, in the spring of 1861, made up of about one thousand farmboys from the prosperous, strongly Republican counties in the east-central part of the state, and it numbered about six hundred when it mustered for three years as the 21st Infantry. Its members were "vigorous, hardy boys," as a veteran remembered, "unused to any kind of restraint, every man much inclined to think and act for himself." There had been a colonel, but he had not lasted. He had been "literally ridiculed and badgered out of camp," and of him nothing remained but a dim memory of drunken, posturing incompetence. In mid-June the Lieutenant Colonel was despondently noting in the regimental order book that the Company Commanders had "entirely lost sight of" the rules of discipline. The Company Commanders had never known anything about these rules to begin with, and so could not have lost sight of them; but fundamentally the officer was correct: discipline did not exist. A detail of eighty men armed with clubs had been set up to patrol the fences and keep the recruits from climbing out after dark to go and see the girls, or seek some other diversion, but it was accomplishing nothing; the 21st, "a little restive under military restraint," was flitting past these guards as if they were not there. The regiment was becoming known as "Governor Yates's Hellions," and no farmer within miles of camp considered his chickens safe.
The Lieutenant Colonel, conscientious John W. S. Alexander, was doing his best. (As a man, his best was good: he would die, a little more than two years later, under the Confederate guns at Chickamauga, a place that no man in Illinois had so much as heard of, in this early summer of 1861.) On June 16, which was the same day Grant wandered in on the regimental Adjutant and remarked that he "guessed he'd take command," Alexander issued a regimental order demanding stricter discipline, following it with other orders setting up a very tight routine. The men were to be turned out each morning at five o'clock, and at 7:30 — breakfast and ordinary camp chores having been disposed of — the day's work would begin, with three-and-one-half unbroken hours of drill by squad, by company and by battalion. At 2:30 in the afternoon the same would begin all over again; two hours of company drill and an hour of battalion drill, with regimental dress parade scheduled for 5:30, retreat at sundown, and tattoo sounded at 9 P.M. All of this made a fairly full day for these farmboys who were so unused to restraint; furthermore, it seems to have occurred to no one (except to the privates themselves, possibly) that it gets very warm on the Illinois prairie at midday in summer and that five or six hours of pack drill on the infield of a state fairgrounds may be a little more than any human being can take.
Officially, Grant took command of the 21st Illinois on June 16, at the state fairgrounds at Springfield, but his first formal order to the regiment, announcing his assumption of command, was issued on June 18. In this order Grant briefly declared himself:
In accepting this command, your Commander will require the cooperation of all the commissioned and noncommissioned officers in instructing the command and in maintaining discipline, and hopes to receive also the hearty support of every enlisted man.
The emphasis, then and thereafter, was on the officers, who had much to learn and who now had a colonel who was prepared to teach them. Many years afterward, writing his Memoirs, Grant confessed: "I found it very hard work for a few days to bring all the men into anything like subordination; but the great majority favored discipline, and by the application of a little regular army punishment all were reduced to as good discipline as one could ask."
Actually, it was not quite that simple. Grant had the Regular Army way of doing things at his finger tips, but he was always aware that the volunteer soldier was not the Regular, and he never treated Volunteers as regular recruits were commonly treated. He would impose discipline, to be sure, but it would not be the discipline of the Prussian guards, and he would always act as if these raw soldiers were men who could be reasoned with, men with a sense of responsibility that would respond if anyone bothered to appeal to it. (Toward the end of the war fellow officers noticed that one of Grant's favorite remarks was that "the common soldiers are as smart as town folks.") His first major order, dated June 19, is worth a look. It is typically Grant, from its refusal to strike an attitude down to its carelessness about capitalization and spelling, and it reads as follows:
Hereafter no passes to soldiers to be out of Camp after sundown will be valid unless approved by the Commanding Officer of the Regt.
From Reveille until Retreat no passes will be required. In extending this privilege to the men of this command the Col Commanding hopes that this leniency will not be so abused as to make it necessary to retract it. All men when out of Camp should reflect that they are Gentlemen — in camp soldiers; and the Commanding Officer hopes that all of his command will sustain these two characters with fidelity.
Absence from Camp will not be received as a paliation for any absence from duty, on the contrary will be regarded as an aggrivation of the offence and will be punished accordingly.
The guards are required in all cases to arrest all men coming into Camp after retreat unless provided with a pass countersigned by the Regimental Commander.
This was not the way an officer talked to recruits in the Regular Army, but it was laying it on the line, and the 21st began to respond. Long after the war a veteran said that "the effect of that order was wonderful," and went on to say that the camp guards were abolished and that there was no absenteeism thereafter. As a testimonial to a remembered change, this was good enough, but it was an overstatement; no Middle Western troops at any time in the war ever displayed a pious refusal to slip out after tattoo and go a-roving, and that the guard continued to exist is clear from an order Grant himself signed two days later. The guard, indeed, was behaving no better than the guarded, and Grant's handling of the matter is another illustration of the touch he used in dealing with the Volunteers.
"The following," Grant wrote, dating the order June 21, "is published for the benefit of this command":
It is with regret that the commanding officer learns that a number of men composing the Guard of last night deserted their posts and their guard. This is an offense against all military rule and law, which no punishment can be prescribed for by a commanding officer at his discretion but must be the subject for a General Court Martial to decide upon. It cannot, in time [of] peace, be accompanied with a punishment less than the forfeiture of 10$ from the pay of the soldier, together with corporal punishment such as confinement for thirty days with ball & chain at hard labor. In time of war the punishment of this is death.
The Col. Commanding believing that the men of his command, now in confinement for this offence were ignorant of the magnitude of it, is not disposed to visit them with all the rigor of the law, provided for such cases, but would admonish them, and the whole command against a repetition of the offence, as it will not be excused again in this Regt.
Not all of this was just a matter of writing orders in the book. There were times, in these Middle Western regiments, when the personal force of the Colonel was all that mattered. He had it, or he lacked it, and that was that. There was a tough private called "Mexico," rated a dangerous roughneck, who showed up on Grant's second morning with the regiment in what was officially described as a drunk and disorderly condition, and Grant sent him to the guardhouse.
Mexico glared at the 135-pound Colonel, and growled: "For every minute I stand here I'll have an ounce of your blood."
Grant told the guards to gag Mexico, and pursued his other duties. Some hours later Grant came back, walked up to Mexico, undid the gag with his own hands, and turned the man loose. Mexico took no ounce of anybody's blood, but went quietly about his business; and it was recorded that "all question of Grant's power to command both himself and his men" vanished from that moment.
Grant cut down the excessive amount of drill which had been prescribed by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander, stipulating that there would be squad drill between six and seven every morning, with company drill running from 10 to 11 A.M. and from five to six in the evening. The wording of the order hints at previous deficiencies in the work:
Company commanders will have their companies divided into convenient squads and appoint suitable persons to drill them. The officers of Companies are expected to be present and give their personal supervision to these drills, and see that all their men not on duty are present.
Indeed, it was the company officer rather than the enlisted man at whom Grant seemed to be aiming in his first steps toward proper military training. A week after he had taken command he was warning that at least one commissioned officer must be present at all roll calls, this officer to be responsible for making sure that all absentees not properly excused were reported. He went on to spell out the responsibilities of an officer:
All officers not reported sick, or otherwise excused by competent authority, will attend all Drills and Parades. They will give strict attention that the men of their respective commands receive proper instruction. Officers wishing to be absent from Camp at night are required to get the countersign from the Comdg. Officer of the Camp. No one having the countersign will be permitted to communicate it to another for the purpose of enabling him to pass the Guard.
In centering his attention on the company officers, Grant was approaching the great, enduring weakness of the Volunteer Armies of the Civil War. The volunteer system made it almost certain that neither platoon nor company officers would know anything about their jobs during the precise moment when such ignorance would have the worst effect — the first, formative period in training camp. Company officers were either self-appointed, or elected by vote of the recruits, and in neither case was proper qualification for the job a factor. In time many of these became good officers — like the enlisted men, they were as smart as townfolks, and most of them were almost painfully conscientious — but in the beginning, almost without exception, they knew nothing about what they were supposed to do, and, by the time they had learned, a regiment almost inevitably developed certain defects that could never be cured. Any colonel who hoped to train and discipline his men had to start with the company officers, simply because it was their deficiencies that made discipline so lax and training so imperfect; for although the volunteer system drew into the armies the most superb human material ever put into uniform, it guaranteed that this material would not be used to the best advantage. Taking command of a regiment in which riotous indiscipline had become standard, Grant would have made scant progress if he had simply invoked the brutal code of punishment which the Articles of War made available to him. He had to begin with the subalterns, to whom nobody had ever spelled out the duties and responsibilities that go with shoulder straps. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander had complained, only a few days earlier, that these officers had lost sight of the rules of discipline; Grant now was undertaking to show the officers just what these rules were.
Before June ended the 21st Illinois was formally mustered into the Federal service for three years. Almost immediately after this happened, the regiment got marching orders: Move to Quincy, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, preparatory to going into Missouri. Training camp days were over: to go into Missouri was to get into the war.
From Springfield to Quincy is about one hundred miles, and the original plan was to send the 21st there by rail. Instead the regiment went on foot, by Grant's decision. All the surviving accounts agree that the march did the regiment a great deal of good, and the only question seems to be why Grant made the decision. Governor Richard Yates remembered that he did it "for the sake of discipline"; a regimental veteran believed that it was "because we needed the drill"; and Grant himself wrote that he thought making the march on foot would be good preparation for the regiment's later experiences. A variant is that the authorities had provided railroad cars, and that a long string of these were backed into a siding at Camp Yates for the 21st to board. The cars were freight cars, they were very dirty, and the soldiers made outcry when they saw them. As free-born Americans they would ride in no filthy freight cars: if the government wanted to send them off by rail let the government bring passenger cars. Grant heard them out and remarked that if they did not want to ride in freight cars they did not have to: they could walk, and they would do so at once, with a few wagons to carry tents and other equipment.
However all of this may have been, the 21st did make the hike on foot, and it learned a bit more about soldiering as it hiked. It left Springfield on July 3, 1861, and Grant as a troop commander was beginning his first cross-country movement. (He was exactly two years away from Vicksburg, and the talk with John Pemberton under a tree on a sun-baked hill; a world of marching would lie between this day and that one.) As they trudged along, the soldiers reflected that this colonel of theirs meant business, and when he was near they had a way of breaking into a then popular gospel tune, "Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel," with much rolling of eyes at the figure of the Colonel. Grant paid no attention, except that once he was heard to say to the Adjutant: "Yes, Jordan may be a hard road to travel. So is the road to discipline. Both have to be traveled."
Excerpted from Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton. Copyright © 1988 William B. Catton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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