When Confederates Saluted Ulysses S. Grant Instead of Shooting Him in the Civil War
By the Autumn of 1863 General Ulysses S. Grant was the most important soldier in the entire Union army. Yet when Confederate soldiers confronted him only yards away, they lined up and saluted him instead of shooting him.
In the movie "How The West Was Won" there's a scene set during the Civil War. A disillusioned Union private (played by George Peppard) and a similarly disillusioned Confederate soldier (Russ Tamblyn) befriend one another during the battle of Shiloh, and the two decide to desert their respective armies.
But as they hide together before running off, they find themselves in close proximity to Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Realizing that the Union commanding general is within his reach, the would be rebel deserter raises his rifle to shoot Grant. But Peppard's character stops him, killing him in the process, and saves Grant's life.
For the screenwriters, interested in highlighting the human drama of the story, I'm sure that scene made a lot of sense. It seems perfectly reasonable that a soldier who saw a chance to take out the opposing side's commander would seize the opportunity if he could.
And yet, that's not at all what happened in real life. Civil War soldiers just didn't seem to think that way.
There were occasions during the war when Confederate soldiers did come face to face with General Grant. Yet, far from making aggressive moves toward him, they treated him with respect.
Two such incidents happened during the Chattanooga campaign in the Fall of 1863.
Grant Goes to Chattanooga
Grant had just taken command of Union forces that were under siege in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They had been decisively defeated in the Battle of Chickamauga by a Confederate army under Braxton Bragg. When Grant arrived on the scene, the besieged soldiers of his new command were close to starving for lack of supplies. But Grant quickly drove the Confederates away from his supply routes and got the flow of food and ammunition going again.
Now he wanted precise information about the disposition of his own men as well as the Confederates facing them. He decided to go down to Chattanooga Creek, where Union and Confederate soldiers confronted one another across the little stream, and take a look for himself. Knowing that he would have to get close to where Confederate pickets were stationed, and not wanting to attract attention to himself, Grant left his staff behind and went to the picket line alone.
Union and Confederate Soldiers Call an Informal Truce at Chattanooga Creek
Horace Porter, one of Grant’s staff aides, reports in his memoir Campaigning With Grant that the soldiers on both sides of the creek had, without permission from their officers, declared an informal truce. Men from both armies could go to the creek for water without being fired on by the other side. As Grant himself would later say, “The most friendly relations seemed to exist between the pickets of the two armies.”
Grant recorded in his memoirs what happened when he got to the picket line:
When I came to the camp of the picket guard of our side, I heard the call, “Turn out the guard for the commanding general.” I replied, “Never mind the guard,” and they were dismissed and went back to their tents. Just back of these, and about equally distant from the creek, were the guards of the Confederate pickets. The sentinel on their post called out in like manner, “Turn out the guard for the commanding general,” and, I believe, added, “General Grant.” Their line in a moment front-faced to the north, facing me, and gave a salute, which I returned.
To me this is an amazing scene. General Grant had just broken the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, and it was clear that he would soon launch an all-out attack on the rebel troops stationed on the heights around the city. Eliminating him would be a huge, perhaps decisive blow to the Union force that was getting set to pummel its Southern adversary. Yet not one of the rebel soldiers looking across Chattanooga Creek at Grant seems to have even thought of turning his rifle on the fully exposed and vulnerable commander of the Union army.
Should Confederate soldiers have shot General Grant when they had the chance?
A Rebel Soldier Is Respectful and Polite to General Grant
Another instance of Grant being treated with respect rather than hostility by Confederate soldiers occurred on that same inspection trip. Grant went on to say in his memoirs:
At one place there was a tree which had fallen across the stream, and which was used by the soldiers of both armies in drawing water for their camps. (Confederate) General Longstreet’s corps was stationed there at the time, and wore blue of a little different shade from our uniform. Seeing a soldier in blue on this log, I rode up to him, commenced conversing with him, and asked whose corps he belonged to. He was very polite, and, touching his hat to me, said he belonged to General Longstreet’s corps. I asked him a few questions—but not with a view of gaining any particular information—all of which he answered, and I rode off.
VIDEO: A Brief Biography of U. S. Grant
Shooting Grant Might Have Won the War for the Confederacy
Ulysses S. Grant would go on to become the man most responsible, after Abraham Lincoln, for the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Without him there is a very real possibility that the Union would not have won that war. If the Confederates who saw Grant along that creek at Chattanooga had shot him instead of saluting him, it's quite possible the whole course of world history might have been changed.
But they didn't. Civil War soldiers just didn't think that way.
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© 2014 Ronald E Franklin