The Civil War battle resulting in the Union capture of Fort Donelson, in northern Tennessee, is not nearly as well known as it ought to be, given the eclectic cast of characters serving as general officers who played a role there. But most notably, it was during the preparation for and execution of this campaign that the men who would come to be celebrated as the Union’s two greatest generals began working together. And their somewhat serendipitous coming together as a team was unintentionally brought about by our greatest president, who was fed up with the ineptitude and inaction, which up to this point had characterized the Union’s performance in every theater of the war.
Relatively early in the Civil War, in the fall/winter of 1861-1862, the higher ranking and higher profile Union commanders, like George McClellan, John C. Fremont, Henry Halleck, and Irvin McDowell had accomplished little except the manufacture of excuses for doing even less. Meanwhile, two relatively obscure Union officers, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman were battling demons of their own.
After the April 1861 Confederate artillery bombardment of Ft. Sumter formally commenced armed hostilities between North and South, Grant had been brusquely shunned by his former colleagues now in senior military positions and ignored for meaningful service. This treatment was in large part due to a rumor that drunkenness had been the reason for his seemingly sudden resignation from the Army in 1854. But through the sponsorship of Illinois Governor Richard Yates, Grant was eventually assigned the rank of Colonel with an Illinois volunteer brigade.
Sherman, on the other hand, was promoted to a general rank and assigned to the Army’s Department of the Cumberland. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming his new position, he apparently suffered something like a severe anxiety attack or a nervous breakdown, imagining (in McClellan-like fashion) that the unseen enemy forces far outnumbered his own and were about to attack, neither of which was true.
By November 1861, Grant, now a brigadier general, found an opportunity to attack the enemy at a place called Belmont, located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, across from the key Confederate stronghold of Columbus, KY. While the battle was neither decisive nor important from a military perspective, it gave Grant valuable experience at battlefield command. Furthermore, it was his first effort at joint Army/Navy battle operations, a practice he would continue to employ effectively at Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. Oddly, Grant’s commanding officer, General Halleck, resented that his subordinate began receiving credit for his aggressiveness and willingness to fight.
Simultaneously, Sherman was placed on leave and replaced by General Juan Carlos Buell as commander of the Union forces in the Department of the Cumberland. Thanks in part to insinuations made by General Halleck and Secretary of War Simon Cameron, the press began to publicly question Sherman’s mental and emotional stability. In a three-day period from December 9 to December 11, first The New York Times predicted that Sherman’s military career was effectively finished, due to his “disorders,” and then The Cincinnati Commercial published an article with the headline “General William T. Sherman Insane.”
Nonetheless, by February 1862, Sherman was back at work, but in a lower key role training newly recruited troops, and Grant was again looking for permission from Halleck for another military offensive.
And, as fate would have it, in early 1862 there occurred a sublime and fortuitous convergence of leadership in history: the triumvirate which would eventually win the Civil War (Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William T. Sherman) unknowingly first coalesced to produce the Union’s first major victory of the war-the capture of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson. On January 27, 1862, frustrated by the reluctance (bordering on outright refusal) of McClellan, Halleck and Buell to take any offensive military action, Lincoln issued his famous General War Order No. 1, demanding that each military department begin moving toward battle with the enemy within a month.
Halleck now had no choice but to approve Grant’s proposed joint Army/Navy attack on Ft. Henry, located on the Tennessee River, and Ft. Donelson, situated 12 miles overland to the east on the Cumberland River. But the unusual speed with which Grant launched his campaign (within 72 hours of receiving approval) was unsettling for the ponderous, overly cautious, jealous and mistrustful Halleck. So he placed his more subdued minion (or so he thought) Sherman in charge of Grant’s supply base at Paducah, KY. Halleck’s intention was that Sherman would not only be able to mange Grant’s supply lines and other rapidly moving logistics, but also to be available to possibly replace Grant if and when Halleck had the opportunity.
Over the next week and a half, from February 6-16, 1862, Grant and his naval support team, led by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, captured both Confederate forts, thus establishing a strategic position from which to launch subsequent assaults at Nashville and elsewhere deep in rebel territory. But equally important to long term Union success, these battles, and the legendary manner in which Grant insisted upon “unconditional surrender” of the Confederate Army defending Ft. Donelson, brought him a level of national public acclaim and presidential notice and approval that even the petty and venal General Halleck couldn’t quash (though he tried mightily to do so for another year). And the unassuming Grant took special notice of his gifted and committed new supply officer, Sherman, thus beginning the personal and professional friendship that would become the stuff of legend throughout the remainder of the Civil War.
There’s not enough space available in this column to do justice to the other characters who played key roles in the Ft. Henry/Ft. Donelson drama. But this was in fact the first major Civil War battle in the west, and the first of three Confederate Armies to surrender to General Grant (the other two were at Vicksburg and Appomattox). I’ll try again in the future to retell the story of the Confederate command structure at Ft. Donelson on the eve of surrender, because the behavior of the two senior officers, Generals John B. Floyd and Gideon Pillow, was not unlike a Laurel and Hardy skit, with an extra serving of personal cowardice thrown in. It fell to the third in command, General Simon Bolivar Buckner, to actually fulfill his duty by remaining with his troops until the end. Floyd and Pillow snuck out in the middle of the night, aboard Rebel boats. The future founder and Grand Wizard of the KKK, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest and his murderous Rebel cavalry made their escape in similar, if more swashbuckling, fashion, swimming their horses across the ice-cold Cumberland River. And the quiet, self-deprecating (but equally self assured) General Ulysses S. Grant, with unflagging support from his new, but soon to be lifelong best friend, General William T. Sherman, won the first of his many important victories.
Recommended Reading: Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won The Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood (2005, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War, by Jack Hurst (2007, Basic Books).
Patrick Teegarden is The Statesman’s chronicler of the Civil War for the 150th anniversary. He recently joined the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment as Legislative and Policy Director.