During the Civil War, Cairo, Illinois, held a uniquely strategic position: it was not only the southernmost northern city, but it was also located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Union strategists believed that the importance of securing it could not be overestimated, and Cairo was occupied by the first volunteer regiments organized in the western theater of the war. Arriving six months later, an underappreciated general named Ulysses S. Grant decided that the Union could do more with Cairo than simply guard it, and using the town as his headquarters, he set about reclaiming the Mississippi valley from Rebel forces. This book reveals the story of how Grant honed his strategic skills in those campaigns while also telling of the changes that came to Cairo.Key Command
examines Grant’s tenure at his first district command from both military and administrative perspectives. T. K. Kionka has written the first book-length study of the district, exploring the town’s Civil War legacy while shedding new light on Grant, the war in the West, and other important Union generals such as Logan and McClernand. From this command post, Grant led troops to the first great Union victories at Belmont, Fort Henry, and Fort Donelson, and Kionka explores their role in Grant’s military evolution while highlighting the contributions of civilian volunteers through first-person accounts.
Nineteenth-century Cairo was home to an unruly, ethnically diverse population, and Kionka interweaves the story of Grant’s military campaign with a social history of the town, describing the men and women associated with the Cairo camps who played significant roles in Grant’s command. Grant’s victories not only sealed his own reputation, but they also brought unprecedented wealth to a town that before the war had failed to develop under two different land companies. Kionka’s work tells how local entrepreneurs made money supplying Grant’s troops and how unscrupulous speculators poured into Cairo as Grant coped with dissension, supply shortages, and refugees. It also examines the prewar movement to create a new state out of southern Illinois and its implications both for Cairo and for Union strategy.
More than a military history, Key Command
gives readers a glimpse of the social and cultural atmosphere of an important military base that proved to be the decisive training ground for the most successful general in the war. With its insight into a polarized society and wartime corruption, Kionka’s readable account sheds new light on our own times as it tells the story of a town struggling to survive and a man fighting to succeed.
About the Author:
T. K. Kionka is an independent scholar based in Fairview Heights, Illinois.
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