General U.S. Grant’s first major command was headquartered at Cairo, the southernmost town in Illinois. Southern Illinois was also called “Egypt” as a nickname, with Cairo as its center of influence, with the Mississippi River on its west side, the Ohio River on its east side, and the rest of Illinois to its north. At the confluence or meeting place of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Cairo was seen as an important port for both the Federals and Confederates during the Civil War.
Ulysses S. Grant was sent to take command of this key position as his military district headquarters. He was under the command of the commanding general, who resided in St. Louis, Missouri - first General John Fremont, otherwise known as “the Pathfinder,” then General Henry Halleck. As T. K. Kionka relates in Key Command, Cairo was swarming with secessionist sympathizers and other possible traitors. Grant and the Federals had to first gain control of the area and prevent southern Illinois from seceding from the Union and joining the Confederacy. Control of the area was accomplished by sending loyal Federal forces to the area and threatening any traitors to leave the region or to convert to supporting the Union.
Secessionists were only one of Grant’s problems. Others included the conditions of the hospitals of the district headquarters; many were unsanitary and unready to receive casualties. Grant brought in more doctors, nurses, and organizations like the Western Sanitary Commission, Sisters of the Holy Cross, and other groups and individuals to help improve the hospitals. Another problem was rampant alcoholism among his troops. He had saloons and other such businesses shut down or monitored, which cut down on drunkenness in the army. Grant also had competition with the U.S. Navy for depots and such, but the Navy and the Army were able to work things out and to operate against the Confederacy effectively. Grant learned from the first battles he and his troops were involved in, improving his strategies and methods in their aftermath and winning battles at Belmont, Forts Henry and Donnelson.
Kionka’s book is not a quick read, but it does present a rarely written about portion of General Grant’s illustrious military career. Cairo was at its beginning and eventually led to his becoming the commander of all Union forces, as well as helping to get him elected president. Black-and-white illustrations are featured in the centerfold of the book, with one map from the period of Cairo. A photograph of Grant opposite the title page shows him with a long scraggly beard. There are footnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Key Command is part of the University of Missouri’s Shades of Blue and Gray series and is recommended to Civil War enthusiasts interested in General Grant’s early command.