Chapter XIII. Grant's First Success
Up to this time the war in the West had been largely an affair of skirmishes. A body of Union troops would find itself confronting a Confederate force, one of the two commanders would attack and a fight would follow; or the Confederates would march into a town and their opponents would attempt to drive them out of it, not because it was of any particular value, but because the other side held it. "See-a-head-and-hit-it" strategy governed the day and no plan worthy of the name had been adopted for conducting the war on scientific principles.
But Grant had studied the maps to some purpose in his office at Cairo and he realized that the possession of the Mississippi River was the key to the situation in the West. As long as the Confederates controlled that great waterway which afforded them free access to the ocean and fairly divided the Eastern from the Western States, they might reasonably hope to defy their opponents to the end of time. But, if they lost it, one part of the Confederacy would be almost completely cut off from the rest. Doubtless, other men saw this just as clearly and quite as soon as Grant did; but having once grasped an idea he never lost sight of it, and while others were diverted by minor matters, he concentrated his whole attention on what he believed to be the vital object of all campaigning in the West.
The Tennessee River and the Cumberland River both flow into the Ohio, not far from where that river empties into the Mississippi. They, therefore, formed the principal means of water communication with the Mississippi for the State of Tennessee, and the Confederates had created forts to protect them at points well within supporting distance of each other. Fort Henry, guarding the Tennessee River, and Fort Donelson, commanding the Cumberland River, were both in Grant's district, and in January, 1862, he wrote to General Halleck, his superior officer in St. Louis, calling attention to the importance of these posts and offering suggestions for their capture. But Halleck did not take any notice of this communication and Grant thereupon resolved to go to St. Louis and present his plans in person. This was the first time he had been in the city since the great change in his circumstances and those who had known him only a few years before as a poverty-stricken farmer and wagoner could scarcely believe that he was the same man. He had, as yet, done nothing very remarkable, but he held an important command, his name was well and favorably known and he had already begun to pay off his old debts. All this enabled his father and mother to regain something of the pride they had once felt for their eldest son, and his former friends were glad to welcome him and claim his acquaintance.
Pleasant as this was, the trip to St. Louis was a bitter disappointment in other respects, for Halleck not only rejected his subordinate's proposition for the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, but dismissed him without even listening to the details of his plan. Most officers would have been completely discouraged by such treatment, but Grant had been accustomed to disappointments for many years and did not readily despair. Meeting Flag-Officer Foote who had charge of a fleet of gun boats near Cairo, he explained his idea and finding him not only sympathetic, but enthusiastic, he and Foote each sent a telegram to Halleck assuring him that Fort Henry could be taken if he would only give his consent. These messages brought no immediate response, but Grant continued to request permission to advance until, on the 1st of February, 1862, the necessary order was obtained and within twenty-four hours the persistent officer had his expedition well upon its way.
His force consisted of some 15,000 men and seven gun boats, and Halleck promised him reenforcements, sending a capable officer to see that they were promptly forwarded. This officer was Brigadier General Sherman who thus, for the first time, came in touch with the man with whom he was destined to bring the war to a close. Four days after the troops started they were ready to attack and the gun-boats at once proceeded to shell the fort, with the result that its garrison almost immediately surrendered (February 6, 1862), practically all of its defenders having retreated to Fort Donelson as soon as they saw that their position was seriously threatened.