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Dedication of U.S. Grant Trail sign in Cape Girardeau, Missouri

U. S. Grant in Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Grant Moves Through the Ranks

     The nation’s eighteenth President, Ulysses S. Grant, began his military career as a humble soldier. During the Civil War, Grant quickly rose through the ranks and achieved the status of Brigadier General of Volunteers. Officially notified of his new appointment in mid-August while stationed in Ironton, Missouri, Grant arrived in Cape Girardeau from St. Louis on August 30, 1861. Grant took command of the Union District of Southeast Missouri and the beginning of his historic campaign for control of the Mississippi River would start here.

Grant promptly sent out orders that the Union regiments stationed at Ironton should proceed to Cape Girardeau, in order to prepare to go on the offensive. The troops arrived on September 2, which resulted in a dispute between General U.S. Grant and General Benjamin Prentiss.

Prentiss had been born in Virginia, but moved to Quincy, Illinois in the 1840’s in his early twenties. He had been a lawyer during his civilian career, but served in the military during the Mexican American war. Grant and Prentiss, along with ten other men, were nominated and confirmed to the rank of Brigadier General on August 7, 1861. Because of Grant’s previous service as an officer in the regular Army, he held seniority over Prentiss. When the two had met in Ironton previously, Prentiss had made clear that he believed himself to be the senior Brigadier.

After that altercation, when Prentiss arrived in Cape Girardeau with the troops that he had brought from Ironton, he expected to be placed in command of the whole of the forces amassed. However, when he was met by Grant, Prentiss was surprised to learn that Grant was to take command. The two exchanged words resulting in Prentiss placing himself under arrest in order to plead his case in St. Louis. Unfortunately for Prentiss, Grant’s authority over him was upheld.

Two days after their exchange in Cape Girardeau, Grant moved his headquarters from Cape Girardeau to Cairo, Illinois on September 4, 1861. Then, on the evening of September 5, Grant developed a plan to occupy Paducah, Kentucky, as a response to the actions of the Confederate army which had entered Kentucky in spite of the state’s declared neutrality early in the war. After this successful occupation of Paducah, Kentucky, Grant returned to Cape Girardeau, Missouri on September 7, 1861 to advise the troops still posted there.

     Grant’s last campaign in southeast Missouri was from Cairo, on November 7, 1861 in which he attacked Belmont, Missouri . From Cairo, Grant would move on to Fort Donelson, Tennessee and later, Shiloh. Seven months after their altercation, at the Battle of Shiloh, it would be Prentiss and his troops which fought so valiantly to provide protection for Grant’s defensive lines in the “Hornet’s Nest.”

About the Author
Whitney E. Tucker is the Member Services Coordinator for Missouri's Civil War Heritage Foundation. She completed her masters in Historic Preservation at Southeast Missouri State University. Contact her at
  1. Mike Maxwell Reply

    Whitney E. Tucker
    Thank you for discussing the important role Cape Girardeau played during the Civil War (another interesting character who served at Cape Girardeau was John Wesley Powell — helped build the forts.)
    In regard to “that dispute” between Grant and Prentiss… it is important to remember that the waning days of April, following the firing on Fort Sumter, were chaotic and confusing. But it was recognized that several sites in the West were key: to lose them meant difficulty (for the North) in winning the war. One of these key sites was St. Louis; another was Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. A secret-as-possible expedition was launched by Governor Richard Yates of Illinois, on April 21st 1861, to secure that strategic location for the Union. Brigadier General Richard Kellogg Swift, Illinois State Militia, headed the movement of over 500 troops from Northern Illinois into Little Egypt (known for its Southern sentiment), and arrived at Cairo in the evening of April 22nd. On 24 April, Colonel Benjamin Prentiss (10th Illinois Infantry) replaced BGen Swift as leader of the State Militia expedition at Cairo (and Richard Swift returned to Chicago to drive recruiting efforts.) Colonel Prentiss fortified Cairo; suspect steamers were stopped, and contraband cargoes seized; and four infantry regiments and several sections of artillery contributed to the defense of Cairo.
    In order to “make official” Benjamin Prentiss’s status as military commander of Post of Cairo, Governor Yates permitted the soldiers of the regiments assigned to Cairo (in accordance with Illinois State Law enacted in Special Session, beginning 23 April 1861) to vote for their choice of leader. Their choice was Benjamin Prentiss, who was acknowledged as Brigadier General, effective 8 May 1861.
    Now, consider U. S. Grant (who was still signing his correspondence as “Colonel U.S. Grant” on 3 August 1861. No doubt Colonel Grant heard of his pending promotion, early in August (he had a “special relationship” with Congressman Elihu Washburne); and he began signing his correspondence as “Brigadier General Grant” on August 8th. However, when BGen Prentiss first met BGen Grant on 17 August 1861, Prentiss was senior, due effective date of rank. (U.S. Grant attempted to “pull rank” on Prentiss, but the orders assigning the “pecking order” among General Officers had not yet been signed: Grant jumped the gun.)
    When BGen Grant and BGen Prentiss next met (early September 1861) General Orders No.62 had been signed and promulgated on 20 August 1861… and Grant was indeed senior to Prentiss. (But Major General John Fremont defused the conflict between the two Brigadiers of Volunteers by assigning Prentiss to Northern Missouri; while Grant stayed in the east, and based himself at Cairo.) Which was fortunate, because on September 6th 1861, following on the Confederate occupation of Columbus Kentucky, Brigadier General U.S. Grant occupied Paducah (and initiated the aggressive drive that eventually won the war.) [All information found in Papers of US Grant vol.2 pages 78-87; Laws of the State of Illinois, passed by 22nd General Assembly in extraordinary session convened 23 April 1861; (website) R. K. Swift, 1st Brigade Illinois Volunteers; and (website) Shiloh Discussion Group.]

    Mike Maxwell

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