There is a spring that flows on the grounds of a church in Ironton, Missouri, as it has flowed since 1861, and no doubt for eons before that. The spring has gained some improvements over the years – a gazebo, and near by a bronze statue that commemorates an event in the life of Ulysses Grant. What the Ironton spring lacks is the notoriety it deserves.
It is a fact that U. S. Grant received his commission as Brigadier General in his tent near the spring, while he commanded Union troops in Ironton in August, 1861. It is true that in 1886, not long after the General’s passing, veterans of his first regiment erected a statue of a lone infantryman where his tent stood. Although Ironton is full of Civil War history, because a bloody battle was fought there in 1864, the statue by the spring would be reason enough for U. S. Grant fans to find their way to the Ste. Marie du Lac Catholic Church.
As a matter of legend and lore, and perhaps as a matter of fact, the Ironton spring is far more important. According to a man who ought to have known, General Grant sipped from this spring in 1861 and he said:
“This water runs into the Mississippi, the Mississippi into the sea; and it must run with unfettered freedom.”
John Wesley Emerson, born in Massachusetts to the family that gave us Ralph Waldo, was an early settler in Ironton. The town sprung up just years before the Civil War, when a railroad reached there from St. Louis. Emerson – later Colonel of a Missouri regiment of infantry – was a country lawyer when Grant came to town. As Emerson wrote in 1898, he made his acquaintance with the new general and within several days Grant asked if Emerson had a map of the Mississippi valley. Grant sat with Emerson’s map, at a pine table outside his tent, and marked Xs and lines – some in the direction of the great bend of the Tennessee River we know for Shiloh. Emerson gushed that Grant sat at that table and formulated his great campaign to open the Mississippi River, “the final accomplishment of which was to eventually bring him imperishable renown.”
Emerson was a great admirer of Grant. He accomplished many things in the legal world and he built a fortune in investments. An indication of his high regard for the General: after the War, Emerson purchased a grand estate that occupied the Ironton ground that had been Grant’s headquarters. He saw to it that the statue was erected at the place that he remembered to be the site of Grant’s tent. In his declining years, he determined to become one of Grant’s biographers. What Emerson did accomplish, before he died in 1899, was a series of articles carried over the course of several years by the Midland Monthly magazine. Emerson covered the whole scope of Grant’s life and career. His installment of January, 1898, is the one that tempts us to believe that the campaign that ended at Vicksburg began at a remote Missouri spring.
John Wesley Emerson’s name lives on through a start-up company he funded in 1890, Emerson Electric Company of St. Louis.