Chapter XII. Opening Moves

It was to no very agreeable task that Lee was assigned at the outset of his command. The forces of the Confederacy were even less prepared to take the field than those of the United States, and for three months Lee was hard at work organizing and equipping the army for effective service. This important but dull duty prevented him from taking any active part in the first great battle of the War at Bull Run (July 21, 1861), but it was his rare judgment in massing the troops where they could readily reenforce each other that enabled the Confederate commanders on that occasion to form the junction which resulted in the overwhelming defeat of the Union army. This fact was well recognized by the authorities and, when the situation in western Virginia assumed a threatening aspect, he was ordered there with the highest hopes that he would repeat the success of Bull Run and speedily expel the Union forces from that part of the state.

A more unpromising field of operation than western Virginia could scarcely have been selected for the new commander. The people of that region generally favored the Union, and the Federal troops had already obtained possession of the strongest positions, while some of the Confederate commanders were quarreling with each other and otherwise working at cross purposes. For a time, therefore, Lee had to devote himself to smoothing over the differences which had arisen among his jealous subordinates, but when he at last began an aggressive movement, bad weather and a lack of cooperation between the various parts of his small army defeated his designs, and in October, 1861, the three-months' campaign came to an inglorious close.

This complete failure was a bitter disappointment to the Confederate hopes and Lee was severely blamed for the result. Indeed, for the time being he was regarded as an overrated individual who had had his opportunity and had proved unequal to the task of conducting military operations on a large scale. It was not easy to suffer this unjust criticism to pass unnoticed, but the discipline of the army life had taught Lee to control his tongue, and he made no protest even when he found himself removed from the front to superintend the fortifying of the coast. A small-minded man would probably have retired in sulky silence under such circumstances, but Lee entered upon his new duties with cheerful energy, and in four months he devised such skillful defenses for Charleston, Savannah and other points on the Confederate coast line, that they were enabled to defy all assaults of the Union army and navy until almost the close of the war. This invaluable service attracted no public attention, but it was fully appreciated by the Confederate authorities, who in no wise shared the popular opinion concerning Lee's talents. On the contrary, President Jefferson Davis, himself a graduate of West Point, continued to have the highest regard for his ability, and in March, 1862, he reappointed him as his chief military adviser at Richmond.

It was about this time that the roar of cannon in the West attracted the attention of the country, making it realize for the first time how far flung was the battle line of the contending armies; and on hard-fought fields, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from Washington and Richmond, the mud-splashed figure of Grant began to loom through heavy clouds of smoke.

It was by no brilliant achievement that Grant regained his standing in the army. The unruly 21st Illinois had been sufficiently disciplined within a fortnight after he assumed command to take some pride in itself as an organization and when its short term of service expired, it responded to the eloquence of McClernand and Logan, two visiting orators, by reenlisting almost to a man. Then the Colonel set to work in earnest to make his regiment ready for the field, drilling and hardening the men for their duties and waiting for an opportunity to show that this was a fighting force with no nonsense about it. The opportunity came sooner than he expected, for about two weeks after he had assumed command, his regiment was ordered to northern Missouri, and a railroad official called at his camp to inquire how many cars he would need for the transportation of his men. "I don't want any," was the bluff response; and, to the astonishment of the local authorities who, at that period of the war, never dreamed of moving troops except by rail or river, the energetic Colonel assembled his regiment in marching order and started it at a brisk pace straight across country.

But, though he had moved with such commendable promptness, Grant was not nearly so confident as his actions seemed to imply. In fact, before he reached his destination, he heartily wished himself back again, and by the time he arrived at the point where the enemy was expected his nerves were completely unstrung. It was not the fright of cowardice that unmanned him, but rather the terror of responsibility. Again and again he had braved death in battle but now, for the first time, the safety of an entire regiment depended solely upon him as he approached the summit of the hill from which he expected to catch sight of his opponents he dreaded to fight them, lest he prove unequal to the emergency. But, while he was tormenting himself with this over-anxiety, he suddenly remembered that his opponent was just as new at his duties as he was and probably quite as nervous, and from that moment his confidence gradually returned. As a matter of fact, Colonel Harris, who commanded the Confederate force, displayed far more prudence than valor, for, on hearing of the advance of the Union troops, he speedily retreated and the 21st Illinois encountered no opposition whatever. But the march taught Grant a lesson he never forgot and, thereafter, in the hour of peril, he invariably consoled himself by remembering that his opponents were not free from danger and the more he made them look to their own safety the less time they would have for worrying him.

It was in July, 1861, when Grant entered Missouri, and about a month later the astonishing news reached his headquarters that President Lincoln had appointed him a Brigadier General of Volunteers. The explanation of this unexpected honor was that the Illinois Congressmen had included his name with seven others on a list of possible brigadiers, and the President had appointed four of them without further evidence of their qualifications. Under such circumstances, the promotion was not much of an honor, but it placed Grant in immediate command of an important district involving the control of an army of quite respectable size.

For a time the new General was exclusively occupied with perfecting the organization of his increased command, but to this hard, dull work he devoted himself in a manner that astonished some of the other brigadiers whose ideas of the position involved a showy staff of officers and a deal of picturesque posing in resplendent uniforms. But Grant had no patience with such foolery. He had work to do and when his headquarters were established at Cairo, Illinois, he took charge of them himself, keeping his eyes on all the details like any careful business man. In fact he was, as far as appearances were concerned, a man of business, for he seldom wore a uniform and worked at his desk all day in his shirt sleeves, behind ramparts of maps and papers, with no regard whatever for military ceremony or display.

A month of this arduous preparation found his force ready for active duty and about this time he became convinced that the Confederates intended to seize Paducah, an important position in Kentucky at the mouth of the Tennessee River, just beyond the limits of his command. He, accordingly, telegraphed his superiors for permission to occupy the place. No reply came to this request and a more timid man would have hesitated to move without orders. But Grant saw the danger and, assuming the responsibility, landed his troops in the town just in time to prevent its capture by the Confederates. Paducah was in sympathy with the South, and on entering it the Union commander issued an address to the inhabitants which attracted far more attention than the occupation of the town, for it contained nothing of the silly brag and bluster so common then in military proclamations on both sides. On the contrary, it was so modest and sensible, and yet so firm, that Lincoln, on reading it, is said to have remarked: "The man who can write like that is fitted to command."

Paducah was destined to be the last of Grant's bloodless victories, for in November, 1861, he was ordered to threaten the Confederates near Belmont, Missouri, as a feint to keep them from reenforcing another point where a real assault was planned. The maneuver was conducted with great energy and promised to be completely successful, but after Grant's raw troops had made their first onslaught and had driven their opponents from the field, they became disorderly and before he could control them the enemy reappeared in overwhelming numbers and compelled them to fight their way back to the river steamers which had carried them to the scene of action. This they succeeded in doing, but such was their haste to escape capture that they actually tumbled on board the boats and pushed off from the shore without waiting for their commander. By this time the Confederates were rapidly approaching with the intention of sweeping the decks of the crowded steamboats before they could get out of range, and Grant was apparently cut off from all chance of escape. Directly in front of him lay the precipitous river bank, while below only one transport was within hail and that had already started from its moorings. Its captain, however, caught sight of him as he came galloping through a corn field and instantly pushed his vessel as close to the shore as he dared, at the same time throwing out a single plank about fifteen feet in length to serve as an emergency gangway. To force a horse down the cliff-like bank of the river and up the narrow plank to the steamer's deck, was a daring feat, but the officer who was riding for his life had not forgotten the skill which had marked him at West Point and, compelling his mount to slide on its haunches down the slippery mud precipice, he trotted coolly up the dangerous incline to safety.

The battle of Belmont (November 7, 1861), as this baptism of fire was called, is said to have caused more mourning than almost any other engagement of the war, for up to that time there had been but little loss of life and its list of killed and wounded, mounting into the hundreds, made a painfully deep impression. In this respect, it was decidedly ominous of Grant's future record, but it accomplished his purpose in detaining the Confederates and he was soon to prove his willingness to accept defeats as necessary incidents to any successful campaign and to fight on undismayed.