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What do the restaurants, shops, bars and other businesses along Belmont Avenue, including the beloved "Punkin' Donuts," hangout of generations of brooding Chicago area teenagers, have in common with our 18th President? Why, Belmont Avenue itself, which was named for an indecisive battle of the Civil War that also marked the Civil War debut of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio. After a largely unremarkable childhood, he was accepted at West Point military academy in 1839. As a kid, Grant preferred to go by the name Ulysses and sometimes signed his name as Ulysses H. Grant. However, when he entered West Point, an error was made when the congressman who had recommended him to the military academy assumed Ulysses was Grant's first name and added his mother's maiden name, Simpson, as a middle name. Grant never bothered to correct the error and thereafter became Ulysses S. Grant.

After finishing at West Point, Grant fought in the Mexican War from 1845-48. But he resigned his commission in the army in 1854 after being dogged by rumors of excessive drinking. When the Civil War broke out, Grant was working as a clerk in his father's leather store in Galena, Illinois.

In 1861 Grant joined the army again and was appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteers. By September of that year, he had risen to the rank of brigadier general in command of the District of Southeast Missouri, headquartered in Cairo, Illinois.

Grant's command was tested when Confederate troops under the leadership of Brigadier General Gideon Pillow and Major General Leonidas Polk captured Columbus, Kentucky, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Just across the river from Columbus was Belmont, Missouri, which was occupied by a small Confederate garrison at Camp Johnston.

Grant decided to attempt to retake Columbus by first overcoming the troops at Camp Johnston. So, on November 6, 1861, Grant left Cairo with 3,000 Union troops on steamers, accompanied by two gunboats, and traveled downriver to Belmont. The troops disembarked a few miles above Camp Johnston and proceeded on foot towards the camp.

As the fighting began in Belmont, Polk and Pillow across the river in Columbus heard the gunfire. Pillow, along with about 2,500 Confederate troops crossed the Mississippi to come to the aid of the few men stationed at Camp Johnston. Grant, however, pressed the attack and captured the camp while Pillow and his troops hastily retreated back to the river.

The Union troops celebrated by looting the camp, despite attempts by officers to retain order. Unfortunately, while Grant's men celebrated, the Confederate troops seized their chance to retake the camp. Major General Polk sent additional reinforcements to rescue Pillow and recapture Belmont. As Confederate guns opened fire on Camp Johnston and reinforcements began crossing the river, Grant ordered his men to abandon the camp and retreat.

Pursued closely by the newly energized Confederate regiments, Grant and his troops quickly headed back to the steamers left upriver and returned to Cairo. The Battle of Belmont accomplished little, but despite the fact that the Confederates were left in control of both Camp Johnston and Columbus, Grant still claimed the battle as a Union victory.

The fact that Belmont Avenue in Chicago would be named after such a battle seems a bit odd to me. However, the skirmish is notable because it was Ulysses S. Grant's first Civil War battle, and regardless of the dubious success of the affair, the Battle of Belmont did give Grant's superiors a hint of the energy and determination that would lead him to victory in the battles to come.

Resources

Bernstein, Arnie. Hoofs and Guns of the Storm: Chicago's Civil War Connections. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2003.

Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social and Military History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

Hughes, Nathaniel. The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Ulysses S. Grant Network. A comprehensive website from Marie Kelsey, a professor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. Everything you've ever wanted to know about Grant can be found here.

Chicago Authors: First Lines

"In September 1939, a few days after the German armies invaded Poland and England declared war, John Everett went back to the University of Chicago, a sophomore now, to find a room for himself. No more living in the dorms. This year he was on his own."
-- Robert Hemenway, from At the Border (Atheneum Publishers, 1984)

 

About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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