Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The 106th Pennsylvania at Harpers Ferry, 150 years ago

The winter of 1861 and 1862 was very quiet for the new soldiers of the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Having joined the army in August of 1861, the first several months of the regiment’s service were spent in camp, training and waiting for action. In late February of 1862, for the first time, the regiment began to move out for active campaigning. Starting on February 25, the regiment began moving west into Maryland, heading toward Harpers Ferry, where their division had been temporarily assigned to the command of Major General Nathaniel Banks’s command. Banks was about to stage a campaign into the Shenandoah Valley, and the 106th was but one of the regiments sent as reinforcements for the movement.

On February 27, after arriving at Sandy Hook, Maryland, the 106th Pennsylvania led a column of Union soldiers across the Potomac and into Harpers Ferry, Virginia. After arriving in the town, the men were put up in homes and buildings abandoned by their previous tenants on account of the war. On their way across the bridge, the men of the 106th saw a most peculiar incident take place, peculiar enough in fact for the Josiah R.C. Ward to include it in his regimental history:

Part of the uniform of the Regiment consisted of high black felt hats with black feather plumes, and were worn with one side of the rim fastened up by a gilt eagle; a gilt bugle ornamented the front; these hats had never been much liked by the men and many were the attempts to get rid of them only to have a new one issued and the cost charged against the delinquent; but when about the head of the column was on the bridge a hat was mysteriously seen to drop overboard; soon another followed; that was sufficient; the signal had been given, the opportunity was just what the men wanted, and it was astonishing to see how easily the light breeze that hardly affected the surface of the water carried those hats overboard; their number increased as each succeeding company stepped on the bridge, until they presented the appearance of a large flock of ducks or other water fowls quietly floating down stream, or as if any army had been swept overboard and lost, with nothing left to tell the tale but their hats. Notwithstanding the positive orders of the officers and their strenuous efforts to prevent it, the number of hats increased until the last company had landed. The two day’s march and the night spent in the [railroad] cars but increased the men’s dislike to them, and some of those who had not taken advantage of the kindness of the breeze, disposed of their in other ways until upon coming on the first dress parade thereafter, so many were found missing that they were ordered to be abandoned.

Following the peculiar, if not comical, incident regarding the soldiers’ hats, some of the men of the 106th began to explore the town of Harpers Ferry. After all, this was the fabled place where, two and a half years earlier, the infamous John Brown had led a group of raiders in an attempt to launch a slave insurrection in Virginia. As the 106th Pennsylvania never saw action during Banks’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, there was ample time for exploring Harpers Ferry. As Ward recalls,

During that time we remained quiet, and the writer availed himself of the opportunity to take a run of the town, now deserted, many houses still containing the furniture, but the owners gone. A visit to what was the government buildings presented a deplorable sight; the buildings all burnt to the ground; nothing but the blackened wall standing [this is a reference to the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, which had been burned in early 1861]. These buildings, together with a large quantity of stores, had been destroyed. We also visited the old Engine House made famous by John Brown, and occupied by him during his invasion of Virginia in 1859 for the purpose of liberating the slaves, and in which he so long defended his life. We looked through the same hole that he fired through, sang “John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the ground, but his soul goes marching on;” and finally chipped from the window-sash pieces of wood to be sent home as relics.

By March 2, the men of the 106th were ordered out of the town and sent to Bolivar Heights, west of Harpers Ferry. After marching through a fierce snow storm, the men bivouacked in their tents, quarters which were much less hospitable than those which they had enjoyed while in the town of Harpers Ferry. Thus, with this inauspicious start, the men of the 106th Pennsylvania had begun their first active campaign of the war.

Josiah R.C. Ward, The History of the 106th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (Philadelphia: Grant, Faires, & Rodgers, 1883), 21-22. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Presidents in the Maryland Campaign

On this President's Day, let us take a moment to remember two of our nations chief executives who served bravely and gallantly in the Maryland Campaign of 1862, 150 years ago. Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes and Sergeant William McKinley, both of the 23rd Ohio, made contributions to their regiment and the Union army during that campaign. At Antietam, while under fire, McKinley was noted for bravely leaving his post in the safety of the army's rear to bring hot coffee and rations to the men of the 23rd Ohio while they were pinned down under fire. Because of his contributions, McKinley was honored with a large monument by the state of Ohio. Dedicated on October 13, 1903, the McKinley monument cost roughly $5,000, more than three times the cost of the monuments honoring the Ohio regiments at Antietam (they came in at a much more reasonable $1,500 a piece). For more on the 23rd Ohio at the Battle of Antietam, you can check out a blog post I did on the regiment detailing their service that day here.

William McKinley Monument at Antietam National Battlefield

Regimental Monument to the 23rd Ohio at Antietam National Battlefield

While McKinley's monument at Antietam attracts great attention, the 23rd Ohio's greatest test of the campaign came a few days earlier at South Mountain, when they were a part of General Jacob Cox's 9th Corps division's morning assault against Confederates holding Fox's Gap. It was there on South Mountain where the regiment took its heaviest casualties, among whom was the regimental commander that day, Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes. Below you can read Hayes's diary account of his wounding, along with the several days before and after during the crucial Maryland Campaign:

September 12, entered Frederick amidst loud huzzahs and cheering--eight miles. Had a little skirmish getting in; a beautiful scene and a jolly time.
September 13, marched to this town, entered in night -- Middletown, Maryland.
September 14, Sunday. Enemy on a spur of Blue Ridge, three and one-half miles west. At 7 A. M. we go out to attack. I am sent with [the] Twenty-third up a mountain path to get around the Rebel right with instructions to attack and take a battery of two guns supposed to be posted there. I asked, "If I find six guns and a strong support?" Colonel Scammon replies, "Take them anyhow." It is the only safe instruction. General Cox told me General Pleasanton had arranged with Colonel Crook of [the] Second Brigade as to the support of his (General Pleasanton's) artillery and cavalry, and was vexed that Colonel Scammon was to have the advance; that he, General Cox, wished me to put my energies and wits all to work so that General Pleasanton should have no cause to complain of an inefficient support.
The First Brigade had the advance and the Twenty-third was the front of the First Brigade. Went with a guide by the right flank up the hill, Company A deployed in front as skirmishers. Seeing signs of Rebels [I] sent [Company] F to the left and [Company] I to the right as flankers. Started a Rebel picket about 9 A. M. Soon saw from the opposite hill a strong force coming down towards us; formed hastily in the woods; faced by the rear rank (some companies inverted and some out of place) towards the enemy; pushed through bushes and rocks over broken ground towards the enemy; soon received a heavy volley, wounding and killing some. I feared confusion; exhorted, swore, and threatened. Men did pretty well. Found we could not stand it long, and ordered an advance. Rushed forward with a yell; enemy gave way. Halted to reform line; heavy firing resumed.
I soon began to fear we could not stand it, and again ordered a charge; the enemy broke, and we drove them clear out of the [356] woods. Our men halted at a fence near the edge of the woods and kept up a brisk fire upon the enemy, who were sheltering themselves behind stone walls and fences near the top of the hill, beyond a cornfield in front of our position. Just as I gave the command to charge I felt a stunning blow and found a musket ball had struck my left arm just above the elbow. Fearing that an artery might be cut, I asked a soldier near me to tie my handkerchief above the wound. I soon felt weak, faint, and sick at the stomach. I laid [lay] down and was pretty comfortable. I was perhaps twenty feet behind the line of my men, and could form a pretty accurate notion of the way the fight was going.
The enemy's fire was occasionally very heavy; balls passed near my face and hit the ground all around me. I could see wounded men staggering or carried to the rear; but I felt sure our men were holding their own. I listened anxiously to hear the approach of reinforcements; wondered they did not come. I was told there was danger of the enemy flanking us on our left, near where I was lying. I called out to Captain Drake, who was on the left, to let his company wheel backward so as to face the threatened attack. His company fell back perhaps twenty yards, and the whole line gradually followed the example, thus leaving me between our line and the enemy. Major Comly came along and asked me if it was my intention the whole line should fall back. I told him no, that I merely wanted one or two of the left companies to wheel backward so as to face an enemy said to be coming on our left. I said if the line was now in good position to let it remain and to face the left companies as I intended. This, I suppose, was done. The firing continued pretty warm for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, when it gradually died away on both sides.
After a few minutes' silence I began to doubt whether the enemy had disappeared or whether our men had gone farther back. I called out, "Hallo Twenty-third men, are you going to leave your colonel here for the enemy?" In an instant a half dozen or more men sprang forward to me, saying, "Oh no, we will carry you wherever you want us to." The enemy immediately opened fire on them. Our men replied to them, and soon the battle was raging as hotly as ever. I ordered the men back to cover, telling [357] them they would get me shot and themselves too. They went back and about this time Lieutenant Jackson came and insisted upon taking me out of the range of the enemy's fire. He took me back to our line and, feeling faint, he laid me down behind a big log and gave me a canteen of water, which tasted so good. Soon after, the fire having again died away, he took me back up the hill, where my wound was dressed by Dr. Joe. I then walked about half a mile to the house of Widow Kugler. I remained there two or three hours when I was taken with Captain Skiles in an ambulance to Middletown—three and a half miles--where I stopped at Mr. Jacob Rudy's. I omitted to say that a few moments after I first laid [lay] down, seeing something going wrong and feeling a little easier, I got up and began to give directions about things; but after a few moments, getting very weak, I again laid [lay] down.
While I was lying down I had considerable talk with a wounded [Confederate] soldier lying near me. I gave him messages for my wife and friends in case I should not get up. We were right jolly and friendly; it was by no means an unpleasant experience. Telegraphed Lucy, Uncle, Platt, and John Herron, two or three times each. Very doubtful whether they get the dispatches. My orderly, Harvey Carrington, nurses me with the greatest care. Dr. Joe dresses the wound, and the women feed me sumptuously. Don't sleep much these nights; days pretty comfortable. [Yesterday, the] 17th, listened almost all day to the heavy cannonading of the great battle on the banks of the Antietam, anxiously guessing whether it is with us [or] our foes. [Today, the] 18th, write letters to divers[e] friends.
September 19. -- Begin to mend a little.
September 20. -- Got a dispatch from Platt. Fear Lucy has not heard of my wound; had hoped to see her today, probably shan't [sic, won’t]. This hurts me worse than the bullet did.

Below is a letter which Hayes wrote to his mother on September 18th, updating her on his recovery, as well as the events at Antietam the day before. 

      MIDDLETOWN, MARYLAND, September 18, 1862, (P. M.)

DEAR MOTHER:--I am steadily getting along. For the most part, the pain is not severe, but occasionally an unlucky move of the shattered arm causes a good deal of distress. I have every comfort that I could get at home. I shall hope to see Lucy [his wife] in two or three days. The result of the two great battles already fought is favorable, but not finally decisive. I think the final struggle will occur soon. [358]We feel encouraged to hope for a victory from the results thus far. We have had nearly one-half our fighting men in the Twenty-third killed or wounded. Lieutenant-Colonel Jones of Thirtieth Ohio, in our Brigade, of Columbus, is missing; supposed to be wounded. Colonel [Augustus H.] Coleman of the Eleventh Ohio, killed. Love to all.--Send this to Uncle.
                     Affectionately, your son,
Altogether, at South Mountain and Antietam, the 23rd Ohio sustained 199 casualties, over 50% of its fighting strength, in less than one week. It should be noted that not only did the regiment contain two future presidents, but it also contained three future governors of Ohio, one future Lieutenant Governor, a future U.S. Senator, a future Supreme Court Justice, a future Minister to the Hawaiian Islands, as well as several other soldiers who went on to hold high office in Cuyahoga County and Cleveland, Ohio. Clearly, the 23rd Ohio was a remarkable regiment which made a remarkable sacrifice during the battle of South Mountain and the Battle of Antietam. As we remember our nation's greatest presidents today, let us not forget the contributions and service of Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes and Sergeant William McKinley during the Maryland Campaign.

The Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes, Nineteenth President of the United States, Vol. 2, edited by Charles Richard Williams (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society, 1922), 354-358.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fort Donelson and the Rise of Ulysses S. Grant: 150 Years Ago

150 years ago today, Ulysses S. Grant was a Brigadier General on the cusp of either victory or defeat. On the afternoon of February 15, 1862, he found himself galloping over icy roads to salvage his army and his chances of capturing the Confederate forces at Fort Donelson. After three days sitting outside of Fort Donelson along the Cumberland River in northern Tennessee, the moment of crisis had arrived—a moment that would determine not only the course of the war in the West, but would also launch Grant on to a career of unsurpassed fame.

Ulysses S. Grant (www.generalandbrevets.com)

On the afternoon of February 6th, just hours after Fort Henry had surrendered to Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Western Gunboat Flotilla on the Tennessee River, Ulysses Simpson Grant—born Hiram Ulysses Grant, and changed thanks to a clerical error during his acceptance to West Point—immediately seized upon his next move. He wired Major General Henry Halleck in St. Louis, informing him that by February 8th, Grant and his force of infantry and navy gunboats would move on and take Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, 12 miles to the east of Fort Henry. While his goals were ambitious, necessities slowed his advance. Foote’s gunboats were forced to retire to Cairo, Illinois, for repairs before making another attack on a river fortress, such as the one they had undertaken on the 6th at Fort Henry. By February 12th, after days of reconnoitering Confederate lines, Grant was finally ready to move in concert with his gunboats. That morning, Grant set out on the 12 mile march east to Donelson. Arriving late in the day, he began making his troop dispositions so as to close off escape routes for Donelson’s defenders. Grant positioned the division of Brigadier General C.F. Smith, his former Commandant of Cadets at West Point, on the Union left, with John McClernand stretching his division to cover the Union right, forming from the area around Indian Creek to the town of Dover and Lick Creek near the Cumberland. On the 13th, there was skirmishing along the lines, but not much more. The major action was being held off for the 14th.

(Map of Fort Donelson from Grant's Memoirs)

Following a failed Confederate advance around noon on the 14th, the action shifted to the choppy brown waters of the Cumberland. There, Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, aboard the USS St. Louis, began his second assault of the campaign against a river fortress. While at Fort Henry, Foote had the advantage of moving against a fortress with low lying guns, 50% of which were under flooding river waters, the guns of Fort Donelson sat atop 100 foot high bluffs, greatly compromising the accuracy and abilities of the Federal gunboats. With the USS St. Louis, USS Pittsburg, USS Carondelet, and USS Louisville leading the way, Foote began his attack at 3:00 p.m. Steaming upriver against the swift currents of the Cumberland, Foote battled both Confederate gunners and the river itself. He was seen from the St. Louis with a bull horn directing the assault of the gunboats so that they would advance in concert. Yet, despite his best efforts, events went terribly awry for Andrew Foote. The guns of Fort Donelson were simply too much for his gunboats to bear. As Commander Henry Walke of the USS Carondelet later recalled:

Soon a 128 pounder struck our anchor, smashed it into flying bolts, and bounded over the vessel, taking away a part of our smoke stack; then another cut away the iron boat [crane]s as if they were pipe-stems, whereupon the boat dropped into the water. Another ripped up the iron plating and glanced over; another went through the plating…another struck the pilot house, knocked the plating to pieces, and sent fragments of iron and splinters into the pilots, one of whom fell mortally wounded, and was taken below… and still they came, harder and faster, taking flag-staffs and smokestacks and tearing off the side armor as one tears the bark from a tree.

The fight was especially harrowing for the men inside the Carondelet, as one of the 12 artillery pieces exploded inside the ship, killing and wounding almost 2 dozen men. As the fighting intensified, the deck of the USS Carondelet became so slick with the blood of its crewmen that sand was laid down to soak up the heavy price being exacted by the Confederate guns of Fort Donelson.

(Gunboat's firing on Fort Donelson, Battles and Leaders)

Confederate soldiers and gunners alike watched with anticipation as their shells clanked off of the Union gunboats, wreaking great havoc. One member of the 49th Tennessee later remembered the scene vividly:
The bumbs, shells ware burstings in the air with loud and wild confusion threatening sudden death and distrucktion and stil th[ey] came onn while our [biggest guns] we[re] threatening them with sudden distrucktion and also while [the shorter range] 32 pounders we[re] hailing down on them with a vengeance.

After an hour and a half of such brutal fighting, Foote’s flag ship, the St. Louis, was hit directly in the pilot house, wounding Foote, demolishing the steering wheel, and causing the ship to lose control, drifting wildly downstream with the currents of the Cumberland. With the damage to the St. Louis, the Union flotilla retired downriver, abandoning their fight against Fort Donelson.

That evening, as Confederate soldiers felt secure in having driven back the Union flotilla, Confederate generals John Floyd, Gideon Pillow, and Simon Bolivar Buckner were less sure of their success. Despite having wired Confederate officials of a great victory, these men still realized that they were essentially pinned down by Grant. Thus, the following morning, February 15, 1862, a breakout attack was to be launched at dawn. Gideon Pillow was to lead the attack against the Federal right, prying open the Forge Road leading to Nashville and safety. Buckner was to follow with the troops from the Confederate right, providing a wedge to keep the escape road open for Pillow’s men to leave the fort. Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner hoped the plan would give them enough time to escape the approaching jaws of defeat and surrender awaiting them just outside their defensive works.

On the morning of the 15th, as the Confederates inside the fort were preparing their breakout attempt, Ulysses Grant was riding north to meet Foote aboard the St. Louis. Grant did not anticipate an attack while he was gone, and thus had ordered his commanders not to make any offensive movements. As Grant met with Foote several miles away, too far to hear the action at Donelson, the Confederate counter attack began at dawn with great success. By mid-morning, the Federal lines were being torn apart by Pillow’s attack, and by noon, the Confederate attack had opened their escape route. John McClernand, desperate for help, sent word to recently christened division commander Brigadier General Lew Wallace to his left, begging for reinforcements. Despite having been ordered by Grant not to make any offensive movements, Wallace acted on his own and send one of his two brigades to the aid of McClernand. By the time that the Confederate attack had reached its zenith, Wallace had moved his other brigade, commanded by John Thayer, closer to McClernand’s lines so as to further reinforce the Federal right.

As McClernand and Wallace were struggling to stop the Confederate onslaught, confusion began to flow through the Confederate ranks. Just as Buckner’s men were preparing to do leave their lines so as to strengthen the Confederate breakthrough, inexplicably, Pillow ordered a halt to his attack and sent his men back into the Fort Donelson works to retrieve their supplies and artillery pieces which he felt necessary for the move to Nashville. The evening before had clearly left holes in the Confederate plan, as it was not articulated well nor fully understood by each of the Confederate leaders that day. Gideon Pillow believed his men needed to retire back to their earlier lines before moving on to Nashville; Buckner strongly disagreed, believing such a move would abandon the initiative that just been seized. Upon Pillow and Buckner taking their case to John Floyd, the commanding officer sided with Pillow, thus rebuffing Buckner’s pleas to maintain the offensive. This decision would prove to be quite costly for the Confederates at Donelson. While the Confederates delayed and argued, the seemingly defeated Federals found an opportunity.

In the late morning hours, upon leaving the St. Louis, Grant was met by an aide, white faced with fear. Quickly learning of what had occurred, Grant mounted his horse and sped his way to his lines to reclaim some sense of order. On this fateful ride, Grant was riding to the salvation of his army, riding against all odds to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. Grant was a man much accustomed to finding success out of failure; after all, he had done it with his own personal life. In the 1850s, after resigning from the army due to charges of alcoholism, personal loneliness, and depression, Grant fell into very difficult times. At one point, he borrowed money from friend and former West Point classmate Simon Bolivar Buckner, the man against whom he was now battling. In 1857, Grant pawned off a gold watch for the price of $22 to provide for his family. Now, five years later, a Brigadier General in the Union army, Grant was riding to the rescue not only of his forces outside of Fort Donelson; he was riding to the rescue of his military career and to the rescue of his country in its greatest hour of peril.

Arriving on the scene, Grant surveyed the situation and took stock of what needed to be done. He spoke first with C.F. Smith on the Federal left, then rode on to meet Wallace and McClernand on the chaotic Federal right. In his article on Fort Donelson in the Battles and Leaders series on the Civil War, Brigadier General Lew Wallace recalled the scene:
“In every great man’s career there is a crisis exactly similar to that which now overtook General Grant, and it cannot be better described that as a crucial test of his nature. A mediocre person would have accepted the news as an argument for persistence in his resolution to enter upon a siege. Had General Grant done so, it is very probably his history would have been then and there concluded. His admirers and detractors are alike invited to study him at this precise juncture. It cannot be doubted that he saw with painful distinctiveness the effect of the disaster to his right wing. His face flushed slightly. With a sudden grip he crushed the papers in his hand. But in an instant these signs of disappointment or hesitation—as the reader pleases—cleared away. In his ordinary quiet voice he said, addressing himself to both officers, “Gentlemen, the position on the right must be retaken.” With that he turned and galloped off.” (Battles and Leaders, Volume 1, 422).
As Grant left Wallace and McClernand, he rode back to his old mentor C.F. Smith on the Union left. Correctly assuming that the Confederate counterattack against McClernand had weakened the Confederate forces facing the Union left, Grant ordered Smith to make a full assault on the Confederate works. Smith quickly went to work gathering his forces, and by 2 p.m., he was ready to advance. Riding out front of his lines on a magnificent white horse, Smith placed his hat on the tip of his sword and ordered his men to fix their bayonets and to not cap their guns, thus assuring the men would not stop to fire during their charge against the Confederate works. Smith exhorted the men to give their all to the Union cause, proclaiming, “Come on, you volunteers, come on. This is your chance. You volunteered to be killed for love of your country and now you can be!” Shortly after 2 p.m., Smith began his advance, and what was up to that time the greatest Federal feat of arms in the West had begun.

As the gallant Smith rode into battle, directly behind him followed the 2nd Iowa. Being one of the lead regiments, the 2nd Iowa suffered particularly great casualties, especially among the flag bearers. Seeing the regimental standard fall time and time again, a series of brave souls stepped to the forefront to hold their nation’s symbol aloft. In the midst of the counterattack, Color Sergeant Harry Doolittle, wounded four times that day, noted that the flag took on a transcendent meaning to it:

It was no longer a combination of stripes and stars in silken texture, but the vital personification of human liberty battling for its own life, and its downfall, though but temporary, seemed like the triumph of wrong, injustice, and oppression.

The fourth and final man to pick up the flag that day was 19 year old Corporal Voltaire P. Twombley. Racing behind Smith, Twombley led the Federal rise up the Fort Donelson works. Standing atop the parapet, Twombley waved the Union flag high as his brothers in blue descended into the outer works of Fort Donelson, cheering, yelling, running, and driving back the remaining Confederate defenders. Firmly planting the Federal colors atop Fort Donelson’s outer works, that day Corporal Twombley earned himself the Congressional Medal of Honor.

(Capture of Fort Donelson, Harper's Weekly)

That evening, as the sun set on the blood covered fields around Fort Donelson, Grant’s counterattack had worked. Smith had taken the outer defenses of Donelson and could now fire into the fort with artillery. On the Federal right, Wallace and McClernand had retaken significant amounts of the ground lost that morning. Inside the Confederate fort, the Confederate high command saw the writing on the wall. John Floyd, the commanding officer, passed command off to Gideon Pillow and set off for Nashville to avoid capture and the likely event of being tried for treason for his pro-Southern activities as Secretary of War from 1857 to 1860. Pillow likewise passed off the command, setting out across the Cumberland in a small skiff barely big enough for he and his chief of staff. Thus, Simon Bolivar Buckner, the man who had once loaned Ulysses S. Grant money, was now left to send Grant a message of a very different nature.

The following morning, a party bearing a flag of truce entered Union lines held by C.F. Smith’s division. Smith escorted the part to Grant’s nearby headquarters, understanding the significance of the occasion. Upon receiving a message from Buckner asking what terms of surrender he might offer, and with the helpful and stern advice of C.F. Smith, Grant replied in the only way he knew how:

Gen. S.B. Buckner, Confederate Army


Yours of this date, 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 obedient servant,

U.S. Grant Brigadier General

Buckner responded with frustration at Grant’s terms, noting that his position was doomed to fall:

The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.

("Unconditional Surrender Grant," Harper's Weekly)

Thus, on Sunday, February 16, 1862, Ulysses S. Grant completed his ride to save his campaign for Donelson by riding once again. Unlike the day before, his ride this morning was relatively calm. He was making his way to the Dover Hotel to meet his old friend Simon Bolivar Buckner to accept the first of three Confederate surrenders which he would receive during the American Civil War. With his famous message to Buckner, the man born Hiram Ulysses Grant, and who was then known as Ulysses Simpson Grant, would soon be known to millions across the nation as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. His success at Fort Donelson catapulted Grant to great fame throughout the north: he had busted open the Confederate defensive line in the West, forcing Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston to retreat to southern Tennessee. The success of Grant and Foote had also opened the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, facilitating Federal movement deep into Tennessee and the subsequent surrender of Nashville. Yet, most importantly, he had given hope for the people of the north that they could indeed win the war because men like “Unconditional Surrender” Grant were willing and able to do what it took to make victory a reality. As the acclaimed Shelby Foote wrote:
To them [the nation] the whole campaign was an absolute marvel of generalship, a superb combination of simplicity and drive, in welcome contrast to all that had gone before in the West and was continuing in the East. They did not dissect it in search of flaws, did not consider that Grant had started behind schedule, that men had frozen to death because of a lax discipline which let them throw away coats and blankets in fair weather, that individual attacks had been launched without coordination and been bloodily repulsed, nor that the commanding general had been absent from his post for better than six critical hours while one of his divisions was being mauled, the other two having been barred by his own orders from lending assistance. They saw rather, the sweep and slambang power of a leader who marched on Wednesday, skirmished on Thursday, imperturbably watched his fleet’s repulse on Friday, fought desperately on Saturday, and received the fort’s unconditional surrender on Sunday. Undeterred by wretched weather, the advice of the tactics manuals, or the reported strength of the enemy position, he had inflicted about 2,00 casualties and suffered about 3,000 himself—which was as it should have been, considering his role as the attacker—and now there was something more than 12,000 rebel soldiers, the cream of Confederate volunteers, on their way to northern prison camps to await exchange for as many Union boys, who otherwise would have languished in southern prisons under the coming summer sun. People saw Grant as the author of this deliverance, the embodiment of the offensive spirit, the man who would strike and keep on striking until this war was won. Fifteen years ago, during a lull in the Mexican War, he had written home to the girl he was to marry: “If we have to fight, I would like to do it all at once and then make friends.” Apparently, he still felt that way about it (Shelby Foote, The Civil War, Volume One, 214-5).

The rise of Ulysses S. Grant from a relatively unknown Brigadier General to a national hero was one of the main storylines of 1862, as it was one which had long lasting implications for the war and the country. A year and a half after his victory at Fort Donelson, Grant was the commander of the Union Division of the Mississippi. Two years after Fort Donelson, Grant was preparing to assume the title of Lieutenant General, a rank previously held only by George Washington. Six years after Fort Donelson, Ulysses S. Grant had been elected the 18th President of the United States. 150 years ago today, on his fateful ride to resurrect his hopes of capturing Fort Donelson, Ulysses S. Grant was riding on to his future fame and destiny as one of the great heroes in all of American history.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fort Henry: 150 Years Ago

On February 6, 1862, 150 years ago today, a flotilla of Union gunboats led by Commander Andrew Hull Foote assaulted Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. While the fight lasted little over an hour, its implications were great for the nation.

Fort Henry was the object of a southward movement by a joint force of infantry and naval gunboats commanded by Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. After weeks of fighting with his commanding officer, Henry W. Halleck, Grant was finally given approval for a movement against Fort Henry on the Tennessee. Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman had an impossible task of defending the fort. The flooding Tennessee had incapacitated all but 9 of the forts guns by the 6th, as well as flooding Fort Henry's gun powder supply. After a direct movement against the fort and a fierce artillery exchange, several Union gunboats forced the fort's surrender. A small Union vessel actually sailed into the fort to pick up Tilghman for the surrender ceremony. While Foote's flotilla had taken the fort, they missed on capturing most of its garrison. On the 4th and 5th, in an act of great foresight, Tilghman sent nearly the entire Fort Henry garrison 12 miles east to the much more formidable Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River.

The fall of Fort Henry opened the Tennessee River for Union vessels to move deep into Southern territory. Three gunboats were quickly sent upriver, making their way to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, 125 miles behind Confederate lines, burning railroad bridges and destroying Confederate ships along the way. Perhaps even more importantly, Fort Henry set the stage for an even bigger struggle; while Halleck ordered Grant to stay at Fort Henry (a foolish request, considering that the fort was completely under water by February 8th), Grant wired his superior to tell him that he would soon advance upon and sieze Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. With the capture of Donelson, the Cumberland River would be opened, Nashville, Tennessee would be vulnerable, and a deep fissure would be forged in Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston’s defensive line across the state of Kentucky, forcing Confederates to withdraw from the crucial border state and retreat into the Deep South. 150 years ago today, with the capture of Fort Henry, these outcomes were still possibilities, yet their realization was coming into focus for Ulysses S. Grant.

Over the next three years, Grant’s journey from failure to glory would reach its critical stage. In 1854, Grant resigned from the army out of drunkenness, loneliness, and depression. In 1857, he was forced to pawn a gold watch for $22 to provide for his family. At the start of the war, Grant achieved command through political appointment; however, unlike many political appointees, Grant would make the most of his opportunities, forever changing the course of the Civil War and of the nation. 150 years ago today, Grant stood upon the verge of limitless success beyond his wildest dreams and aspirations. The upcoming campaign for Fort Donelson would begin to redefine his name and identity not just for his men, but for the nation, and for all of history as well.

For those who wish to learn more about this riveting campaign and exciting chapter in American history, you are welcome to attend a program at the Mentor Public Library (in Mentor, Ohio) this Wednesday, February 8th at noon, where I will be speaking about the campaign for Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. The program is free, and is a part of a series on Major Battles of the Civil War, given by the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. If you would like to make reservations or ask for directions, please see the links below. If you are in the Northeastern Ohio area, I hope to see you on Wednesday!

Major Battles Speaker Series

Mentor Public Library

Event Info/Registration