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The Union Military Effort in the West, Grant Emerges

by John Y. Simon

One of the myths of the Lost Cause is that Confederates were aware from day one that they were a minority, that they lacked the resources to win, but battling for principle, fought anyway. Nonsense; not true. The population advantage was nineteen million to twelve million in the Union's favor, and this included four million slaves who were an uncertain factor when the war began. It is true that the North had twice the railroad mileage, five times greater industrial production, but it is important to remember also that the South almost won the Civil War. A particular moment which remains very dear to Southern hearts occurred during the battle of Gettysburg when Pickett's charge just barely missed success. The war hung on contingencies; there were times when the South indeed could have won and, furthermore, if there had been a war really pitting North against South, Southerners definitely would have won.
    So the question arises, why did the Confederacy not win? To begin with, came the firing on Fort Sumter. War began when a fort with a pathetically small garrison belonging to the United States of America in Charleston Harbor was ringed by artillery. The South, through its Confederate government, organized in Montgomery, demanded that the fort be turned over to the Confederate States of America, and the United States resisted. Ultimately, President Abraham Lincoln decided that if there would be war, the South would begin that war. Thus he deferred the decision to Jefferson Davis, who was told by Secretary of State Robert Toombs, the brains of the Confederacy, that to fire on Fort Sumter would cost the rebels support all through the region that it had counted upon for the establishment of the Confederate States of America and, furthermore, would unite the North. In an act of rash emotionalism, Jefferson Davis gave permission to fire on Fort Sumter, a small and basically indefensible fort with a weak garrison, but with an American flag flying over it. Confederates pounded it into submission.
    What was the effect of this? It meant the war began over the wrong issue. If the war had begun over a controversy involving slavery, which commanded support in the North as well as throughout what we think of as the Confederacy, the South would have united in support of that war. After the firing on Fort Sumter, of eight slaveholding states that remained uncommitted at the time, four went with the South and four remained with the North. Those that remained with the North included Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Those were crucial states, especially Kentucky which commanded 700 miles of the Ohio River. "[T]o lose Kentucky," said Lincoln, "is nearly the same as to lose the whole game."1 On another occasion he reportedly said that he wanted to have God on his side but that he had to have Kentucky.2
    Kentucky declared itself neutral between North and South, and both sides were willing to violate that neutrality. Which side actually violated it? It was the South. Generals Leonidas Polk and Gideon J. Pillow impulsively violated that neutrality by occupying what they thought were key points along the Mississippi River: Hickman and Columbus, Kentucky.3This gave the North an advantage in Kentucky, allowing General Ulysses S. Grant, an untried commander at Cairo, Illinois, the opportunity to take the vital point of Paducah commanding both the Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers. In consequence, this was not a war between North and South, it was a war pitting the North, with the entire North virtually united, against a South that was seriously divided. Moving from South Carolina over to the Mississippi Valley, we discover burgeoning unionism even in Mississippi.
    Finally, as a factor in the outcome of the war, there was Grant, a commander responsible for a series of victories in the western theater. In the South it may seem a little strange to praise Grant. He holds a reputation as a battlefield butcher who won with a combination of luck and larger armies. As a consequence of being commanding general at the close of the Civil War he was accidentally elected president. He then served ineptly, serving as an example to others that anybody can be elected President of the United States regardless of qualifications. This is a lesson that seems to have been reinforced by several recent presidential elections, if we need further examples.
    The story is a little more complex than that. Grant was a young man who never wanted to be a soldier. He was raised in Ohio by a father who was known to be an aggressive businessman and, according to a neighbor, was willing to follow a dollar to hell. Jesse Grant acquired wealth partially through shrewd business dealings and partially by parsimony. When he learned that a neighbor's son had flunked out of the United States Military Academy at West Point and had created a vacancy in his congressional district, he went after that appointment. It was the only opportunity he had to give his oldest son more education, completely at public expense. He did not ask Ulysses about this; he pursued the political connections that would lead to an appointment to West Point. When he had succeeded, then he told his son Ulysses. Ulysses said, "I won't go." His father replied that "he thought I would, and I thought so too if he did."4 Ulysses left home a few months later. On the way to West Point, he hoped that a steamboat would blow up. He did not want to die in a steamboat explosion, but he did want to be injured just seriously enough so that he would not have to attend the military academy.
    He wanted to go back home, but unfortunately for him, the steamboats survived, and he had to enroll at West Point where he found the first decent library he had never known. There he began to read novels, something he had been deprived of all his life. In earlier years, his studies were not particularly attractive to him; he read his lessons over only once. He realized that he did in fact have a natural ability in mathematics and on the strength of that he graduated in his class number twenty-one out of thirty-nine. Considering that half of the class had flunked out, that put him in the upper half of his class.
    As a young officer Grant went into the Mexican War, which he considered one of the most unjust ever waged by one nation against another. He remained in the army after that although he would have much preferred to teach mathematics in some college. He was even willing to teach in a girls' school, knowing that he would be paid more for teaching girls than he was paid as an army officer.5
    In 1852, he was assigned to the Pacific Coast, where two years later he still lacked the money to bring his family to join him. There in an isolated post he suffered from malaria, and he knew that promotion in the army required that somebody higher in rank die. They rarely did, at least not in peacetime. They went on forever; there was at least one colonel ninety-four years old still serving. As long as officers could draw a breath, they would continue. Just before the Mexican war, the old colonel of the Fourth Infantry came to New Orleans to drill his regiment. It was a hot day; the colonel drilled the regiment and dropped dead on the spot. Everybody regretted the demise of the old colonel, but all the young officers knew that they moved up one notch toward promotion when the colonel dropped dead. So their feelings were somewhat mixed.
    In 1854, Grant recognized that he had to wait a long time for another promotion; he was a captain then. So he resigned with fifteen years of military experience. When the Civil War broke out, he offered his services to the government but had difficulty finding anyone in government who would accept him. He had a reputation in the old army as somebody who might have enjoyed drinking too much, might possibly have imbibed excessively, or so other army officers thought. "Why would anybody resign from anything so wonderful as the U.S. Army," they asked. But William T. Sherman had resigned, George B. McClellan had resigned, even Ambrose E. Burnside had resigned. Many officers resigned from a stagnant peacetime army to follow better opportunities, but old army officers always had an explanation that, in Grant's case, involved drinking.
    It was a long time before anybody would put Grant in a military role but eventually he became colonel of an Illinois regiment and was sent into Missouri. There he advanced against some Confederates who were reported to be nearby. He tells us in his Memoirs that, as he went up a hill to approach the enemy, his heart went higher and higher in his throat, but when he reached the top of the hill, he discovered that the Confederates had run away. He realized then that the Confederates were as afraid of him as was afraid of the Confederates and it was a lesson that he never forgot.6 This was a lesson that he carried to his other assignments, including that at Cairo, Illinois, at the tip of the state. He had been promoted to brigadier general not because he had shown much great skill but because there was a congressman from his home district who had seniority, a friendship with Abraham Lincoln, and nobody better than Grant to recommend for brigadier general.
    Grant had become a brigadier general by accident. He decided to make the most of these opportunities; and, when Confederates invaded Kentucky, he quickly occupied Paducah even with-out orders from St. Louis, where his commander John C. Frémont had apparently not responded to a request he made to launch this expedition. In reality, Frémont had responded. He had one of his staff officers send a telegram of authorization in Hungarian. There was nobody in Cairo who read Hungarian, but Frémont had acquired a staff of foreign officers who had decided that the best way to communicate without revealing their plans to the enemy was in Hungarian, a language that none but Hungarians could understand and not all Hungarians could understand it either. The message came, but Grant left without orders anyway.7
    Later, Frémont was removed, and there was an interim before the new commander, General Henry W. Halleck, arrived to assume command. During that interim, Grant actually launched an expedition against Belmont, Missouri. It was an encounter with the enemy that he had wished for, and it brought initial success. The enemy was surprised, driven from its camp, and then recovered with the aid of reinforcements brought over from Columbus. Grant's army was forced back to its transports in disorder. In this battle, Grant had lost control of his men. He had not coordinated well with the navy. In other words, he had done several things wrong, but he learned from these mistakes and he got away with it.8
    Back in Cairo, he planned an expedition up the Tennessee River, making use of the new Union strength in naval vessels. He went to St. Louis where he asked Halleck for permission to advance. Halleck treated him rudely. But Grant would not give up, and Halleck reluctantly agreed.
    Halleck was a man well respected in the old army. He was to have been Winfield Scott's successor as general in chief as Scott had mapped it out. But Halleck arrived back from California a little too late and had to take command in the West instead of over all armies. In another culture, Halleck would have been a success. He was called "Old Brains" because he always knew the right thing to do, although he rarely did it. He was a superb desk general, proud of keeping a clean desk, of disposing of all correspondence promptly--not always wisely, but always promptly. It was just the characteristic one would expect from an administrator.
    Grant received permission to attack the lesser of two Confederate forts in Tennessee, Fort Henry, but not Fort Donelson. Fort Henry, which was virtually underwater at the time of the gunboats' approach, surrendered without a true fight. Much of the garrison fled about eleven miles to Fort Donelson, a much stronger fortification on the Cumberland River. Grant, who had no orders to do so, then advanced on Fort Donelson. The roads were not necessarily commodious in that part of the world, so Grant split his army and used two of them because he was dealing with General Pillow and General John B. Floyd, two generals that the Confederacy had acquired that it did not really need and did not particularly want. Grant had contempt for both of them.
    Grant's army, after reaching Fort Donelson, although inferior in strength to the garrison, put it under siege. You don't besiege a larger army with a smaller army. You do so if you are Grant; you do so if you are aggressive; you do so if you know that the commanders of the fort are incompetent.
    Grant was successful; the gunboats made it around to Fort Donelson on February 14th. They attacked, then were driven back by the batteries at Fort Donelson, and the next day Grant visited the naval commander who had played a major role in the fighting. He had learned to coordinate with the navy, but while he was away, the Confederates counterattacked. They actually broke through part of Grant's line. This was a force under General Pillow, who was astonished to win a victory; it had never happened before and it would never happen again. He was so bewildered by having won that he retired to the fort to think about what to do next. Should he leave the fort? Or should he stay there? He decided to stay. When Grant returned, he surrounded the fort again, advanced on his own left, and made it impossible for the Confederates to stay at Fort Donelson. The next day Grant sent a surrender letter to General Simon Buckner, third in command. Floyd and Pillow had fled as had General Nathan B. Forrest, Shelby Foote's favorite general.
    But most of the garrison remained under General Simon B. Buckner, who was an old friend of Grant. Buckner wrote to Grant proposing an armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation. "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works."9 That letter deserves a little more attention. This letter shows who Grant is.
    First of all, he wrote it without thinking about it in advance. It revealed the way his mind worked. First sentence: "Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of commissioners, to settle terms of capitulation is just received." He was not afraid of the passive voice; he simply repeated to Buckner the contents of his letter. This is what Buckner proposed. The second sentence is precisely Grant's response: "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted." The letter would become important because unconditional surrender matched the initials of Grant's name; he became known as Unconditional Surrender Grant. And then in his response to what Buckner proposed, he said: "I propose to move immediately upon your works." Could it be simpler than that, more direct? Buckner, who received the letter, crumpled it into a ball and threw it on his tent floor. One of Grant's staff was astute enough to pick it up. He knew that it was an important letter and ultimately, perhaps, would become an American classic. So if you see a letter on the floor that Grant has written, pick it up for heaven's sake, you never know how valuable and important it might be.
    Fort Donelson, in fact, surrendered. Buckner referred to Grant's terms as "ungenerous and unchivalrous."10 He was an enemy general. What in the world did he expect? Ungenerous? Unchivalrous? These people had guns in their hands. Later, Buckner would whine that he would have to go to prison camp and give up his side arms. Imagine that: an officer having to give up his side arms just to go to prison. He thought that was absolutely awful. Well, Grant set some precedents. Today, federal prisoners do not have side arms. And we are just as happy about that.
    The fall of Fort Donelson was important because it cracked the entire Confederate defense line in the West. Grant captured 15,000 enemy troops. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, overall commander in the West, not knowing what to do about Fort Donelson, not knowing whether to abandon it or reinforce it, put in some reinforcements but not enough to hold it, a typical Albert Sidney Johnston thing to do. Thus he managed to lose 15,000 Confederate troops. This was the first major Union victory of the entire war and led to the fall of Nashville, not only an important city, but also the state capital of a Confederate state.
    Back in St. Louis, Halleck was beside himself, not with jubilation, but with jealousy. One of his subordinates had accomplished something that was celebrated throughout the country and he could not stand that. He looked for excuses to punish Grant, eventually sending word to Washington that Grant had resumed his "former bad habits."11Now in the old army, that was always understood. Grant's former habits didn't mean chasing women or sleeping late in the morning. It meant only one thing in Washington: that he was drinking again. Halleck had no evidence to sustain the allegation, but through those charges managed to replace Grant in command of his army with General Charles F. Smith, a man whom everybody respected.
    The fall of Fort Henry had opened the Tennessee River, and Union gunboats went all the way through Tennessee, all the way to Muscle Shoals in Alabama. In the northeast corner of Mississippi, near the Tennessee River, is Tishomingo County. Some people from that county went down to the river to watch the Union gunboats go by. They cheered the Star-Spangled Banner the instant they saw it. It was a wonderful moment in the history of Mississippi.
    After he lost Fort Donelson, Johnston had to withdraw as far away as Corinth, Mississippi, where he concentrated his troops at an important railroad intersection. To assist him, Jefferson Davis had kindly sent General P. G. T. Beauregard to serve as second in command because Davis hated Beauregard. Beauregard, incidentally, later blamed final Confederate defeat on Jefferson Davis, the one man, he said, who made the Confederacy lose the war that it should have won. But Davis had confidence in Johnston saying that if he "is not a general, we had better give up the war, for we have no general."12 Those two men had been together at Transylvania University and at the military academy. Johnston had commanded the Second U.S. Cavalry with Robert E. Lee serving as lieutenant colonel of the regiment. Johnston would have a second chance.
    In the meantime, Smith, who had replaced Grant, had injured himself in a freak accident. In getting into a boat, he scraped his leg. The leg became infected and gangrene developed. This eventually cost Smith his life. Grant was placed back in command and sent to Pittsburg Landing down the Tennessee River, where the U.S. Army was preparing to move on Corinth. Grant was to move from Pittsburg Landing joined by General Don Carlos Buell, who was advancing from Nashville in a leisurely fashion. General Sherman occupied Pittsburg Landing along with four other divisions. From Pittsburg Landing, there was a good road to Corinth about twenty-two miles away. Two sizable creeks protected the flanks of the army.
    Neither Sherman nor Grant expected any attack even though Halleck had issued a warning before Buell arrived. Johnston decided to attack and began to move up from Corinth. Hampered by rain, he engaged an unsuspecting Federal force in some minor skirmishes on the 4th and 5th of April. In response, an alert Ohio colonel warned Sherman, who responded, "Take your damn regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy closer than Corinth."13 They were out there in the woods. They were waiting.
    Normally, in such situations, defending troops are warned by the approach of forest animals. As an army moves out, the deer run away. Squirrels run away. Rabbits run away. In the Federal lines, some of the younger soldiers were surprised. "Look at all the rabbits, look at all those squirrels, isn't this remarkable?" They had no idea what it meant when the forest emptied out. They were about to learn.
    Johnston was informed that there was no point in attacking because his army had been out in the woods for two days. Everybody knew that he was there. The Union Army was not going to be surprised. Still he said, "I would fight them if they were a million."14 And, in fact, the surprise was still there. So the attack came at Shiloh church, a name derived from the Hebrew word meaning peace.
    When the Confederates attacked, it was a surprise attack. Johnston had about 45,000 men on the field, Grant had about 40,000 men, so the Confederate advantage lay in both surprise and in numbers. Union forces began to retreat, Grant's positions were overrun, and then most of the divisions begin to stream back toward the Tennessee River. In the meantime, advance elements of Buell's force had arrived at Pittsburg Landing to reinforce Grant, but troops who had fled to the river warned them to "go back, go back, we are overrun, save yourselves." This was not very encouraging to those reinforcements.
    Grant had been staying at Savannah, nine miles downriver from the main body of his troops at Pittsburg Landing. There he planned to meet Buell to coordinate the advance on Corinth. He was seated at breakfast, raising his coffee cup to his lips, when he heard that distant roar that meant the battle was on. He put the coffee cup down; he jumped from his seat, and rushed away. As he passed Crump's Landing, he left word for General Lew Wallace to take his men to Pittsburg Landing.
    General Lew Wallace marched in exactly the wrong direction. Lew Wallace was later the author of the celebrated novel, Ben Hur. This may now be more familiar in movie form than as a novel, but it was a literary sensation in the nineteenth century. It was considered a triumph of fiction, but could not compare to Wallace's achievement in explaining how he was absolutely right in marching in exactly the wrong direction for an entire day and then turning his whole army around when he realized this. He did not simply order the men in the back to turn around but marched his front unit to the back of the division. On a narrow Tennessee road this took forever. A whole division was lost to Grant on the first day of battle.
    In the meantime, Confederates, after some initial success, began to loot the Federal camps. Johnston was pushing his forces forward when a bullet hit him. One of his subordinates said, "General, are you wounded?" Johnston said, "Yes, and I fear seriously."15 He had been hit behind the knee, blood was pouring into his boot, but his staff did not know where he had been hit. All he had to say was "yes, you damn fool, it is my leg." Then they could have put on a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Johnston would have lived, but Confederates, with unusual medical skill, tore off Johnston's clothes in all places other than the right one. Johnston soon bled to death, which put his second in command, Beauregard, in full control on the field.
    Northern resistance, especially in the center, at a position that became known as the Hornet's Nest, enabled Union lines to hold until about 5:30 p.m. when some 2200 Union troops were captured. At that time there was a possibility that the victory that the South had gained at Shiloh might become complete.
    Grant had been everywhere on the battlefield, observing all the divisions. "I never deemed it important to stay long with Sherman," he remembered, because Sherman knew what he was doing.16 At least Grant thought so. Because the other division commanders were not professional soldiers, they needed more guidance, and Grant spent more time with them. By the close of the day, Grant's army had virtually been pushed into the Tennessee River. One last line lay between Confederates and complete victory, and Federal artillery under Joseph D. Webster held that line. Already a few troops from Buell's army were streaming out on the field, making a slight difference, but not much. At this point Confederates could have won the entire day; this was their last chance to break the demoralized enemy. Beauregard considered the losses in his own army and the condition of his troops and decided not to press the attack. The question has often been asked if Albert Sidney Johnston had lived, would he have launched the final attack on the first day of Shiloh. My guess is no. Grant's guess was no. Johnston had previously been indecisive; but, of course, we will never solve this mystery.
    Lew Wallace's division finally arrived after dark and was available for fighting the next day. The rain poured down that night. Grant looked into a house to find some shelter. It was already occupied by Union medical officers and filled with the screams of those who had arms and legs amputated. Grant went out in the rain. There he was approached by Sherman who said, "Well, Grant we've had the devil's own day haven't we." Grant said, "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though."17 This was typical Grant. A man badly beaten in battle was thinking not about how much he had suffered but what would happen the next day.
    On Monday, as he did at Donelson, Grant counterattacked. He employed the fresh troops supplied by Lew Wallace and by General Buell. The Confederates expected to mop up the defeated foe, but with Grant advancing along a three mile line, Confederate lines began to disintegrate at about 2 o'clock. Grant did not pursue victory. He was under orders from Halleck to avoid attack, he lacked cavalry, and he was also conscious of the exhaustion of his own army.
    I have discussed at length the battle of Shiloh because it tells us something about the nature of this war and about the nature of Grant. The casualties of Shiloh over two days were the heaviest of any previous battle in U.S. history and equaled all those of the previous wars fought by the armies of the United States. Those of the United States were in excess of 13,000, and those of the Confederacy in excess of 10,000. The number of actual deaths was roughly equal.
    This battle was largely a bloody encounter of young men, twenty-one years of age or younger. This was a boy's battle on both sides; and on both sides there were notable examples of valor and bravery. There is often a tendency to think that the Civil War was fought by older men; indeed it is not true. Boys have fought in all American wars.
    Because the loss of life was so heavy, both Grant and Sherman were attacked in the newspapers. Grant was accused of drinking and of neglecting his position through military ineptitude. Sherman, of course, was attacked for his unpreparedness for attack. Newspapers reported that the enemy had bayoneted his men in their beds.18
    Because there was such an outcry after the battle of Shiloh, General Halleck finally took the field to take command. Halleck had a force of approximately 100,000 men: the full force of Grant's army, the full force of Buell's army, and a force he brought over from the Mississippi, the army of John Pope, just victorious at Island No. 10. With 100,000 men, he pursued the Confederates on the twenty-two miles to Corinth. His advance, which consisted chiefly of marching a few miles and throwing up entrenchments, took him weeks. This gave the Confederates time to recover. Indeed, the Confederates had never acknowledged defeat at the battle of Shiloh.
    The battle of Shiloh was significant. It represented, to a large extent, the last chance the Confederates had to win in the West, the last chance that they had to win the entire Civil War. They never again had numerical advantages like that. They never had surprises like that. They never saw again the advantages they possessed at Shiloh. Furthermore, Halleck had moved back into command and had shelved Grant as second in command. Then Halleck's dream came true. Halleck was called to Washington to take over the biggest desk in the army as general in chief. While he asserted that none of his subordinates had exhibited any particular skill, he left his command to Grant, who planned to advance as soon as possible on Vicksburg. The war in the West continued, but now under Grant and Sherman, the military architects of Union victory.


1. Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), 4: 532.
2. See Lowell H. Harrison, Lincoln of Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000), 135.
3. Steven E. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and his Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1990), 34-45.
4. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster, 1885-86), 1: 32.
5. John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 1: 59, 63.
6. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, 1: 249-50.
7. Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 2: 191-92. See Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, 1: 265, 267.
8. See Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
9. Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 4: 218.
10. Ibid.
11. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: 1880-1901), Series I, Volume IV, 682.
12. Charles P. Roland, Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), 299.
13. Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960), 219.
14. Geoffrey Perret, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (New York: Random House, 1997), 187.
15. Roland, Albert Sidney Johnston, 336.
16. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, 1: 343.
17. Catton, Grant Moves South, 242.
18. Ibid., 256.