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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.