Lawmaker Gives Constituent Grant His Start; 18th President Rewards His Early patron.(SATURDAY)(THE CIVIL WAR)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Lawmaker Gives Constituent Grant His Start; 18th President Rewards His Early patron.(SATURDAY)(THE CIVIL WAR)


Byline: John M. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

On a hot August day in 1861, the Illinois congressional delegation huddled in the Capitol in Washington. With war under way in earnest, the 37th Congress was meeting in emergency session, and one of its responsibilities was to nominate 34 generals of volunteers.

Illinois had been allocated six slots - two more than any other state, but then, President Lincoln happened to be from Illinois. After some discussion, Rep. Elihu Washburne urged that one of the commissions be awarded to a constituent, Ulysses S. Grant. Few of those present had heard of Grant, but Washburne was the senior congressman present, and Grant got his commission.

If Grant was unknown at the time, his mentor was not. Washburne, a native of Maine, had attended Harvard Law School. He had moved west in about 1840 and established a law practice in Galena, Ill. There his legal practice, together with some successful land speculation, made him sufficiently wealthy that he began to dabble in politics.

He affiliated with the Whig Party, where he came to know a rising local politician named Abraham Lincoln. By 1844, Washburne had a national reputation and was chosen to nominate Henry Clay for president at the Whig convention that year.

Washburne failed in a bid for Congress in 1848 but was successful four years later, and in March 1853, he began the first of 16 years in the House of Representatives. A newspaper correspondent described him as a "broad-shouldered, good-bellied man, eastern in his appearance but western in his thinking." In Congress, he gained a reputation for integrity and frugality, if not conviviality.

Why Washburne chose to be Grant's patron in 1861 is not entirely clear. Whereas Grant was apolitical and enjoyed a drink, Washburne was an ardent abolitionist who neither smoked nor drank. Also, whereas Washburne had been an active supporter of Lincoln for president, Grant had vaguely favored Stephen A. Douglas. Although both men came from Galena, they appear to have had little contact before the war. One author speculates, "Washburne, dedicated to the war effort, wanted to do what he could for his hometown, and at that point Grant was the only Galenian qualified for higher rank."

Soon, Grant commanded a military district in western Illinois. Writing to a colleague in Washington, Washburne called his fellow townsman one of the best officers in the army, adding, "He is doing wonders in bringing order out of chaos" in his district. Then, in February 1862, Grant vindicated his mentor's confidence with the capture of two Confederate strongholds, Forts Henry and Donelson. When Grant subsequently quarreled with his commanding officer, Gen. Henry W. Halleck, Washburne interceded with Lincoln on Grant's behalf.

Grant nearly lost it all in April 1862 when, at Shiloh, his army was surprised by the Confederates under Gen. Albert S. Johnston and barely escaped defeat. Although Grant was denounced roundly in the Northern press, Washburne stood by his protege, as did Lincoln, who remarked, "I can't spare this man - he fights."

After Grant captured Vicksburg and again became a hero in the North, Washburne sponsored legislation to revive the rank of lieutenant general, with Grant the intended beneficiary.

A year later, Washburne was visiting Grant's army in Virginia when the general asked him to take a letter to Halleck in Washington. In it, Grant included his famous vow, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer. …

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