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.

Grant promptly notified his Chief of this easy conquest, at the same time adding that he would take Fort Donelson within forty-eight hours, but he soon had reason to regret this boast - one of the few of which he was ever guilty. Indeed, his troops had scarcely started on their journey when rapid progress became impossible, for the rain descended in torrents, rendering the roads impassable for wagons and cannon, and almost impracticable for infantry or cavalry. Moreover, many of the men had foolishly thrown away their blankets and overcoats during the march from Fort Henry and their suffering under the freezing winter blasts was exceedingly severe, especially as camp fires were not permitted for fear that their smoke would attract the gunners in the fort. Under these circumstances the advance was seriously delayed, and it was February 14, 1862 - six days after he had prophesied that he would take the place - before Grant had his army in position. By this time, however, the gun-boats had arrived and he determined to attack at once, although Halleck had advised him to wait for reenforcements to occupy Fort Henry, lest the Confederates should recapture it while his back was turned. There was, of course, a chance of this, but Grant felt sure that if he delayed the Confederates would seize the opportunity to strengthen Fort Donelson, and then 50,000 men would not be able to accomplish what 15,000 might immediately effect. He, accordingly, directed Foote to bombard the fort at once from the river front and try to run its batteries. Desperate as this attempt appeared his orders were instantly obeyed, the fearless naval officer forcing his little vessels into the very jaws of death under a terrific fire, to which he responded with a hail of shot and shell.

Grant watched this spectacular combat with intense interest, waiting for a favorable moment to order an advance of his troops, but to his bitter disappointment one after another of Foote's vessels succumbed to the deadly fire of the water batteries and drifted helplessly back with the current. Indeed, the flagship was struck more than sixty times and Foote himself was so severely wounded that he could not report in person, but requested that the General come on board his ship for a conference, which disclosed the fact that the fleet was in no condition to continue the combat and must retire for repairs.

There was nothing for Grant to do, therefore, but prepare for a siege, and with a heavy heart he returned from the battered gun-boat to give the necessary orders. He had scarcely set his foot on shore, however, before a staff officer dashed up with the startling intelligence that the Confederates had sallied forth and attacked a division of the army commanded by General McClernand and that his troops were fleeing in a panic which threatened to involve the entire army. Grant knew McClernand well. He was one of the Congressmen who had made speeches to the 21st Illinois and, realizing that the man was almost wholly ignorant of military matters and utterly incapable of handling such a situation, he leaped on his horse and, spurring his way across the frozen ground to the sound of the firing, confronted the huddled and beaten division just in the nick of time. Meanwhile, General Lew Wallace - afterwards famous as the author "Ben Hur" - had arrived and thrown forward a brigade to cover the confused retreat, so that for the moment the Confederate advance was held in check. But despite this, McClernand's men continued to give way, muttering that their ammunition was exhausted. There were tons of ammunition close at hand, as the officers ought to have known had they understood their duties, but even when assured of this the panic-stricken soldiers refused to return to the field. They were in no condition to resist attack, they declared, and the enemy was evidently intending to make a long fight of it, as the haversacks of those who had fallen contained at least three days' rations. This excuse was overheard by Grant and instantly riveted his attention.

"Let me see some of those haversacks," he commanded sharply, and one glance at their contents convinced him that the Confederates were not attempting to crush his army, but were trying to break through his lines and escape. If they intended to stay and defend the fortress, they would not carry haversacks at all; but if they contemplated a retreat, they would not only take them, but fill them with enough provisions to last for several days. In reaching this conclusion Grant was greatly aided by his knowledge of the men opposing him. He had served in Mexico with General Pillow, the second in command at Fort Donelson, and, knowing him to be a timid man, felt certain that nothing but desperation would ever induce him to risk an attack. He also knew that Floyd, his immediate superior, who had recently been the United States Secretary of War, had excellent reasons for avoiding capture and, putting all these facts together, he instantly rose to the occasion.

"Fill your cartridge boxes, quick, and get into line," was his order to the men as he dashed down the wavering lines. "The enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so!"

The word flew through the disordered ranks, transforming them as it passed, and at the same time orders were issued for the entire left wing to advance and attack without a moment's delay. This unexpected onslaught quickly threw the Confederates back into the fortress, but before they again reached the shelter of its walls the Union forces had carried all the outer defenses and had virtually locked the door behind their retreating adversaries.

From that moment the capture of the imprisoned garrison was only a question of time, and within twenty-four hours Grant received a communication from the Confederate commander asking for a truce to consider the terms of surrender. To his utter astonishment, however, this suggestion did not come from either General Floyd or General Pillow but from Simon Buckner, his old friend at West Point, who had so generously aided him when he reached New York, penniless and disgraced after his resignation from the army. This was an embarrassing situation, indeed, but while he would have done anything he could for Buckner personally, Grant realized that he must not allow gratitude or friendship to interfere with his duty. He, therefore, promptly answered the proposal for a truce in these words:

"No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works."

[NOTE from Brett: The full letter is also shown in Grant's handwriting which leaves something to be desired. I will do my best to transcribe it below:

Hd Qrs. Army in the Field Camp Fort Donelson, Feb. 16th 1862

Cmdr. S. B. Buckner Confed. Army.


Yours of this inst. proposing armistice, and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.

I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am Sir, very respectfully, your obt. svt. [obedient servant], U. S. Grant Brig. Gen.

A portion of this letter is found at http/]

But no more fighting was necessary, for Buckner yielded as gracefully as he could, and on February 16, 1862, he and the entire garrison of about 15,000 men became prisoners of war. Generals Pillow and Floyd, it appeared, had fled with some 4,000 men the night before, leaving Buckner in charge and as Grant's force had by that time been increased to 27,000 men, further resistance would have been useless.

The capture of these two forts gave the Union forces command of the Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers, and to that extent cleared the way for the control of the Mississippi. It was the first real success which had greeted the Union cause and it raised Grant to a Major-Generalship of Volunteers, gave him a national reputation and supplied a better interpretation of his initial than West Point had provided, for from the date of his letter to Buckner he was known as "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.