Pedaling a Piece of Kentucky and Tennessee

A Little Civil War History

If you drive in from the north, as I did, you can park your car in the little town of Grand Rivers and approach the forts in the same direction General Ulysses S. Grant took in early 1862. At times he plodded overland with his army, at others he sloshed upriver in an ironclad gunboat, chewing his unlit cigar and poring over maps with Commodore Foote. Looking back in time, all seems correct (as almost everything does when viewed from this present vantage), the famous general and later president planning the battle with the red-eyed, gray-whiskered Connecticut Yankee seaman.

But things looked different at the time. If Grant was famous for anything at all, besides his gallantry under fire in the Mexican-American War a decade earlier, it was for drunkenness. It was widely believed this had forced an early end to his army pre Civil War career. Upon resigning he had to borrow travel money from a friend and fellow soldier, Simon Bolivar Buckner, just to make it home. Then came eight years of failure at farming near St. Louis, of attempts to sell real estate in that city, and finally of working as a clerk in his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois. When war broke out and Grant was given a second chance to make good, his father wrote,"Be careful, Ulyss, you're a general now; it's a good job, don't lose it."

Commodore Andrew H. Foote, in contrast, had spent the last forty of his fifty-six teetotaling years as a career officer in the U.S. Navy. He had chased slave ships across the South Atlantic, personally conducted Sunday church services for his men, had the very first ship in the navy from which alcohol was banned completely, and was known throughout the service for his daring attack against the Chinese. Yes, the Chinese. It seems a fort at Canton fired upon his ship during the Sino-British war in 1856. He demanded an apology; receiving none, he attacked the four Chinese forts in the region, storming the largest when its walls had been breached and attacking in the face of gunfire across a rice paddy carrying — it was reported — a parasol over his head for protection from the hot Asian sun.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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