It is a fact, ignored by academic historians, but well known among their contemporaries, that General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were both strong believers in the paranormal. This was in large part due to their own experiences on a number of occasions over the years.
While the Grant’s paranormal experiences were covered in some depth in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, this present essay deals more narrowly with one incident that occurred in the first year of the war.
On the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant had had some trouble volunteering his services for the U.S. Army. Although they were in dire need of experienced officers, the Regular Army would have nothing to do with him. His peacetime reputation as an officer in service in California had earned him an odious reputation, whether deserved or not. However, the Governor of Illinois, who had an abundance of raw recruits but a shortage of officers to train them, had no such compunctions and Grant quickly rose to the rank of Colonel and then General of Volunteers.
In November of 1861, Grant was in charge of the Union command at Cairo, Illinois, in close proximity to large Confederate garrisons lining both sides of the Mississippi River in Missouri and Kentucky. To forestall a Rebel attack and also to give Federal troops under his command a taste of combat, Grant organized an amphibious raid across the river to the enemy camp of “Fort Johnson” at Belmont.
The main Confederate defenses were actually across the river in “neutral” Kentucky, on the commanding heights of Columbus, where the Secessionists had emplaced 140 big guns. The formidable array of artillery menaced any steamboats that dared come within range and effectively controlled the entire Mississippi River.
Rather than attempt to storm the steep heights where the enemy fortress lay, Grant resolved instead to attack the smaller Rebel camp nearby at Belmont, Missouri in a bend of the river. His troops were still green and he hoped an easy victory on the small camp there would prepare them for bigger fights to come.
At first, everything seemed to go as planned. The blue-clad troops debarked from the flotilla of steamships and made haste to attack the Rebel camp, while the gunboats Tyler and Lexington fired their heavy ordinance at the Columbus heights in a show of force.
The Secessionists, as green as the Federal troops were, after a sharp initial fight fled Fort Johnson in haste, leaving all sorts of booty to loot.
Grant’s plan had been to move on and secure the entire area, taking advantage of the element of surprise to eliminate all resistance before returning to the boats. But his soldiers, still more civilian than soldier and ill disciplined, saw all the spoils of war in the Rebel camp—especially cooked meals ready to be eaten—abandoned all thought of the enemy and set to pillaging the Rebel camp and, “demoralized from their victory,” congratulated themselves on their glorious victory.
Even as the Union soldiers celebrated their incomplete triumph, however, the enemy was busy ferrying troops across the river from the Kentucky side and massing for a counter attack.
Soon the tables were turned and Grant’s force was in imminent danger of being surrounded. The overconfident troops now fell into despair and called out to surrender. To the cries to give up, Grant simply replied, “”well, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in!”
Grant tried to re-organize his panicked troops and make an orderly withdrawal, but when he went to look after his rearguard, he found they’d fled helter-skelter along with the other troops, leaving Grant an army of one with Rebel troops closing in all around him.
Taking advantage of tall grass, Grant calmly led his horse around the advancing enemy columns until he got close to the shoreline. Then Grant made a mad dash on his horse towards an awaiting steamboat, bullets whizzing past his ears all the time. Grant spurred his horse up the proffered gangplank and onto the last departing boat, barely ahead of charging grey ranks, the steamer then making haste to escape the surging enemy mass.
This much the histories tell us. But the rest of what transpired that day remains largely unreported, even to this day. Mrs. Grant’s memoirs, although known about for a long time, remained unpublished until 1975 and even since, Civil War historians have been highly selective in what they choose to use from her account.
On the same day that her husband led the raid against the enemy camp at Belmont, Julia Grant was busy packing her belongings to be with her husband at the border town of Cairo, Illinois. Grant had managed to organize the garrison there into something resembling order and located less rough accommodations for his family than had been the case when he first arrived.
That afternoon, Julia was busy packing her trunks in preparation to board the train for Cairo. In the mid of this flurry of activity, suddenly she had an overwhelming sense of foreboding take hold of her.
Julia could not understand why she should feel such dread and thought that perhaps she might be coming down with some disease. Unable to breathe and feeling like she might faint, Julia excused herself from her companion and made her way upstairs to lie down till the spell passed.
In the Room Where it Happened
When Julia entered her bedroom, however, she was startled to see a vivid apparition. It was no ordinary ghost, but the quite real-looking image of her husband Ulysses.
Julia could see the general’s head and upper torso quite clearly, and the image seemed real enough. However, his upper body seemed to hang suspended in mid-air, with his lower body not visible. It seemed as if he were mounted on horseback, but with the rest of the apparition and background not visible to her eyes.
Julia intuitively sensed that her Ulyss was in grave danger, although she knew not why or how. What she did know was that the vision before her was quite real and very disturbing. Julia let out a shriek, and instantly fainted away.
When Julia awoke, the vision was gone, but her apprehension remained. Unable to account for this vision, Mrs. Grant made haste to get to Cairo, to see what danger her husband may be in. While on the train, Julia received word about the Battle of Belmont that her Ulyss had been in. At the train station she found Grant waiting for her and he seemed well enough.
During the ride to their quarters from the station, however, Julia told her husband all about her waking vision of him and her extreme apprehension for his well being as a result.
After listening to her story, Grant replied, “that is singular. Just about that time, I was on horseback and in great peril, and I thought of you and the children. I was thinking of you, my dear Julia, and very earnestly too.”
In his memoirs, Grant later confessed that, throughout the war, he never felt so close to death in any other battle as he did that afternoon at Belmont.
It was a singular event indeed.
For more about uncanny and unusual aspects of the Civil War, read Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, published by HarperCollins Publishers.