Boldness, good luck, and the United States Navy served Grant well at Fort Henry. As his convoy went east through the February night, going up the Ohio and turning southeast into the Tennessee River at Paducah, dark clouds made the ships hard to see. There were Confederate spies at both their embarkation point in Cairo and at Paducah, but no warning messages reached Fort Henry. The defenders first knew of the impending attack when Grant’s fleet appeared downriver in the morning, and his troops began to disembark on both shores some distance away. Fully alert and by no means intimidated, the Confederate commander, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman, rushed his thirty-four hundred men into their entrenchments and telegraphed General Albert Sidney Johnston to the northeast at Bowling Green, Kentucky, saying, “If you can reinforce [us] strongly and quickly, there is a glorious chance to overwhelm the enemy.”

No Confederate reinforcements were dispatched, but as Grant moved his troops ashore all day in pouring rain, preparing to fight the next morning, he had no idea of how many enemy troops he faced or how many more might soon arrive. He had come to a full appreciation of what naval vessels could do in this theater of war, and he had both the right ships for the day and the right commander. Four of the seven gunboats were “mud turtle” ironclads mounting thirteen cannon apiece: these maneuverable little paddle-wheelers, 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, with flat-bottomed hulls that required only six feet of water in which to operate, could go virtually anywhere on the Mississippi and its network of large and small tributaries.

The man leading the naval force was Commodore Samuel Foote, who had entered the navy forty years before and sailed every ocean, fighting on several. As aggressive as Grant, in 1856 he became involved in the Arrow War in China. During that conflict the United States was neutral, but when Foote came under fire from Chinese artillery while his squadron evacuated American soldiers stationed at the treaty port of Canton [Guangzhou], he fired back, giving much more than he got. Sending his United States Marines and other landing parties ashore, he captured four forts and 176 Chinese cannon.

On the eve of battle, Grant wrote Julia that despite the rainy weather, “The sight of our camp fires on both sides of the river is beautiful, and no doubt inspires the enemy with the idea that we have full 40,000 men. Tomorrow will come the tug of war. One side or the other must rest tomorrow night in possession of Fort Henry.” He closed with, “Kiss the children for me. Kisses for yourself. Ulys.”

Commodore Foote’s action at Canton six years before was the perfect rehearsal for Fort Henry. At thirty minutes after noon on February 6, having told his ship captains, “It must be victory or death,” Foote opened his barrage amid a downpour. Within an hour, his total of fifty-nine cannon destroyed all but four of the Confederate guns, and the enemy commander ran up the white flag. Because it all happened so quickly, while one wing of Grant’s force was struggling through deep mud to take up positions and encircle Fort Henry, a large part of the Confederate force escaped.

As befitted what was an inland naval victory, Commodore Foote accepted Fort Henry’s surrender, but Grant had to work out its details with a Confederate captain named Taylor, who sized up Grant as being “a modest, amiable, kind-hearted but resolute man.” As they got down to business, Taylor described one of the things that happened: “[A Union] officer came in to report that he had not yet found any papers giving him information about our forces, and, to save him further looking, I informed him that I had destroyed all the papers on the subject, at which he seemed very wroth, fussily demanding, ‘By what authority?’ Did I not know that I laid myself open to further punishment, etc., etc. Before I could fully reply, General Grant quietly broke in with, ‘I would be very much surprised and mortified if one of my subordinate officers should allow information which he could destroy to fall into the hands of the enemy.’”

This had been a real if not large victory, with Grant’s troops occupying the enemy positions and staying there. The Northern press, still thirsty for signs of large-scale progress, read much into it, the New York Tribune saying that “a few more events such as the capture of Fort Henry, and the war will substantially be at an end.”

Grant had been thinking ahead. Within hours of Fort Henry’s surrender on February 6, he remarked that while his forces had momentum in that area he thought he would move right over to Fort Donelson, a far stronger Confederate position twelve miles to the east, on the Cumberland River, which roughly paralleled the Tennessee. That night, probably in an effort to forestall Halleck from slowing him down, he wired Halleck’s headquarters that he could accomplish this within two days, but the relentless rains inundated the roads and reduced his effort the next day to making a reconnaissance of the fortress, approaching within a mile of it on horseback accompanied by some of his staff and a body of cavalry. Grant remained determined to attack Fort Donelson at the earliest moment, rather than waiting for more regiments to support him; knowing that the Confederates would be speeding reinforcements there, he said of his own force, “I felt that 15,000 men on the 8th would be more effective than 50,000 a month later.”

Despite Grant’s desire “to keep the ball moving as lively as possible”—an expression he was to repeat, and one that characterized his aggressive approach to warfare—floods swamped the terrain between Forts Henry and Donelson, and the extreme February temperatures, which at one point dropped to twelve degrees and had his troops camping in the snow, made an early attack impossible. “You have no conception of the amount of labor I have to perform,” Grant wrote on February 9 from his temporary headquarters at Fort Henry to his sister Mary, in Covington, Kentucky. “An army of men all helpless looking to the commanding officer for every supply. Your plain brother has, as yet, had no reason to feel himself unequal to the task and fully believes that he will carry on a successful campaign against our rebel enemy. I do not speak boastfully but utter a presentiment.” The next evening, Grant’s son Fred, now twelve, arrived at his headquarters, sent there by Julia to share again in his father’s military life. Writing Julia that night, Grant told her that “I will let him remain here for a few days but will not take him into danger,” and soon sent him home.

Within three more days, Grant’s force had Fort Donelson surrounded by land, and Foote’s gunboats, having gone back down the Tennessee to come up the Cumberland, were on the way to take part in the attack. The stakes were high, with a strategic position in the balance and both North and South yearning for a major victory. After some probing attacks on February 13 during which the Union troops suffered heavy losses, the following morning Grant had his reinforced army of twenty-seven thousand men closing in around Fort Donelson, with Foote’s flotilla still some distance down the river. Behind formidable fortifications on a bluff that at places rose 150 feet above the water, with cannon strongly emplaced on three levels, close to twenty thousand Confederates prepared to repulse attacks from any direction.

As for what had been going on at Halleck’s headquarters in St. Louis between the fall of Fort Henry and this moment, Grant recalled that Halleck, who never did congratulate Grant on that victory, “did not approve or disapprove of my going to Fort Donelson. He said nothing whatever to me on the subject.” While Halleck had his staff working diligently to fulfill Grant’s requests for troops and supplies, he was also deep in his game of military politics. In response to McClellan’s telegraphed suggestion that either Halleck or Don Carlos Buell take over Grant’s expeditionary force with a view to expanding it into an effort to take not only Fort Donelson, but go on up the Cumberland to capture Nashville, Halleck responded that “I have no desire for any larger command than I have now.” Then he undercut Buell, whom he considered to be a rival, by pointing out that Buell was outranked in seniority by Sherman. Completely reversing himself on Sherman, whom he had a few weeks earlier described to McClellan as being “entirely unfit to command,” Halleck said that Sherman was ready for an important assignment. On the same day, Halleck telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton a suggested solution to some promotion problems that would have worked to his advantage and would also have placed the headstrong Grant under an additional level of command. Nothing came of Halleck’s ideas, and soon after this he moved Sherman to the position in which he had the responsibility of forwarding men and supplies to Grant.

From the Northern point of view, the major attack on Fort Donelson began shockingly. At three in the afternoon of February 14, as Grant watched from high on a distant riverbank, Commodore Foote brought his ships up the Cumberland, but this swift-running stream, with a narrow channel that reduced the Union ships’ maneuverability and made them easier to hit, was a different body of water from the slower-moving Tennessee at Fort Henry, and here the Confederate cannon were protected by earth-and-log parapets sixteen feet thick. As the gunboats came on, opening fire a mile away, cannonballs from Fort Donelson started tearing into them. During the first volleys, shots hit the pilothouse of Foote’s flagship St. Louis, killing the man at the wheel, wounding the commodore in the ankle, and destroying all of the steering mechanism. Hit fifty-nine times, the St. Louis drifted downriver away from the fight, and the Confederate barrage soon disabled or forced the other Union ships to abandon the battle, killing or wounding fifty-four sailors while the defenders lost not a single cannon. Coupled with the casualties suffered in the probing land attacks the previous day, by nightfall the effort to capture Fort Donelson had thus far failed.

Responding to a request from the wounded Foote that he come to his anchorage seven miles downstream to confer, Grant left his headquarters the next morning at first light, having ordered his senior commanders to stay in their positions besieging the fortress and make no attacks until he returned. As he rode off for this meeting on a spirited stallion named Jack, Grant later said of that moment, “I had no idea that there would be any engagement on land unless I brought it on myself.” When he came ashore at noon from his meeting with Commodore Foote aboard the shattered St. Louis, “I met Captain Hillyer of my staff, white with fear, not for his personal safety, but for the safety of the National troops. He said the enemy had come out of his lines in full force and attacked and scattered [Brigadier General John] McClernand’s division, which was in full retreat.”

If ever Grant needed his skills as a horseman, this was the moment, and in this crisis he had the right horse for his seven-mile gallop up icy, rutted roads to the scene of action. By the time Grant approached Fort Donelson, all the Confederates had fallen back inside their own lines after bloody fighting because of the resistance they met from two of his three divisions, but fifteen hundred Union soldiers had been killed or wounded. When he came to McClernand’s division, “I saw the men standing in knots talking in the most excited manner. No officer seemed to be giving any directions. The soldiers had their muskets, but no ammunition, while there were tons of it at hand.” As Grant calmed the men, some of them mentioned that when the Confederate soldiers had come out, they had their knapsacks strapped on and had haversacks containing rations slung over their shoulders. To Grant, this suggested that the enemy had attacked not so much to destroy the Union besiegers but to clear an avenue of escape for a days-long flight during which they would need blankets and food. Turning to a colonel of his staff, Grant said, “Some of our men are pretty badly demoralized, but the enemy must be more so, for he has attempted to force his way out, but has fallen back: the one who attacks now will be victorious.” Grant rode on, calling out to the soldiers he saw, “Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape.” Grant said that “this acted like a charm. The men only wanted some one to give them a command.”

Riding up to the commander of his best division, Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, a Mexican War veteran of forty years’ service who had a flowing white mustache, Grant ordered him to make this crucial attack up one of Fort Donelson’s slopes. “The general was off in an incredibly short time.” Grant had the right general: ordering his men to use only their bayonets and riding at the head of his lead regiment, the foot soldiers of the Second Iowa, Smith kept his horse abreast of the man carrying the regimental colors. As the troops advanced through a constant fusillade of musket balls, the man carrying the flag fell. Another soldier picked up the flag and was soon hit and went down, and a third man snatched up the flag and was hit. The fourth man to take the Iowa banner forward, a corporal with the unmilitary name of Voltaire P. Twombley, was struck by a musket ball fired from so far away that it had only the force to knock him down. Getting to his feet, Twombley continued to carry the flag forward beside Smith: together, the general on his horse and the corporal with the flag made a huge target as they led the Iowans up the slope through a defensive network of felled trees under ever-heavier fire. The fifty-seven-year-old Smith kept raising his cap high and calling over his shoulder, “No flinching now, my lads, this is the way—Come on!” Twombley stayed right beside his general, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in the attack. As the Iowans broke through the enemy rifle pits at the crest of the slope, Grant’s other divisions also attacked. By nightfall, the total of Union killed, wounded, and missing climbed to twenty-eight hundred, but the defenders were penned inside the remaining inner parts of their bastion. Grant wrote of that evening, “General Smith with much of his division, bivouacked within the lines of the enemy. There was now no doubt that the enemy must surrender or be captured the next day.”

During the night, more than three thousand of the defenders escaped, including the two most senior generals and a cavalry force under the brilliant and dashing but then little-known Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. (Ever resourceful, Forrest had a foot soldier swing up on a horse behind each of his seven hundred cavalrymen, thus doubling the number of troops he led away from certain capture.) Despite these escapes, Grant had demonstrated great military insight.

Before daylight, a Confederate soldier emerged from the enemy earthworks carrying a white flag of truce and a letter. It came from the general left in command, Simon Bolivar Buckner, who had been a year behind Grant at West Point, served with him in Mexico, and loaned him money when he passed through New York City in 1854, arriving by ship and out of funds after resigning from the army in California. In language that frequently governed arrangements for surrender, Buckner proposed “the appointment of Commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and fort under my command.”

Grant replied with a sentence that made him famous: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”

“Unconditional surrender.” The North had been waiting to hear these iron words. U.S.: United States; U.S.: Unconditional Surrender Grant. The nation knew him now. As the day of surrender went on, the size of the victory became apparent: in addition to suffering greater casualties, fourteen thousand Confederate soldiers had been captured, along with twenty thousand muskets, sixty-five cannon, and more than two thousand horses. It was, as Grant wrote Julia during the day, “the largest capture I believe ever made on the continent.” The numbers exceeded those surrendered by the British at Yorktown, and the victory had an effect greater than simply the destruction of one Confederate army. Northern confidence soared, The New York Times saying of the Confederacy that “the monster is already clutched in his death struggle,” while the South realized that its heartland was suddenly vulnerable. Nashville was now within striking distance of these Union amphibious efforts, and between the actions at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson three of Foote’s lighter gunboats had ventured up the Tennessee as far as Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The news reached Europe, dampening support for the Southern cause in England, a sympathy connected in good part to British textile mills’ desperate need for the vast amounts of cotton usually exported by the South and now drastically reduced by the Union blockade.

As at Fort Henry, the details of the surrender had to be addressed. After Grant’s harsh words to Buckner, which Buckner referred to in his forced letter of acceptance as “ungenerous and unchivalrous,” when the two met later that morning the former cordiality between them returned. They agreed swiftly on procedures for burying the dead. Buckner explained that the cutoff fortress had run out of food, and Grant told him that his supply officers would provide rations for the thousands of captured Confederates. Seeing that Grant’s staff was overwhelmed with everything involved in handling fourteen thousand prisoners, including many wounded men, Buckner had his own staff help assemble them to board Grant’s ships that would take them downstream to be interned at Cairo.

Early in the day, as Grant and Buckner settled these matters, a Union Army surgeon, thinking there would be some formal surrender ceremony, with the Confederates parading up to a designated point to lay down their arms, asked when and where this would occur. Grant looked at him and said, “There will be nothing of the kind … We have the fort, the men, the guns. Why should we go through vain forms and mortify the spirit of brave men, who, after all, are our countrymen?” When it finally came time for Buckner to leave on a transport taking him as a prisoner to Cairo, Grant accompanied him down to the landing. Walking Buckner off to the side, Grant said, “You are separated from your people, and perhaps you need funds. My purse is at your disposal.” Buckner declined the offer with thanks, afterward remarking that they both had in mind the time when Grant was penniless in Manhattan.

As Grant reorganized his victorious force at Fort Donelson, congratulations as well as administrative paperwork poured in from every direction, but during the battle and its aftermath Grant received two communications that particularly impressed him. At a time when Union generals everywhere were quarreling about seniority and promotions, a message came from Sherman, who was senior to Grant. Sending it from Paducah late on the afternoon of February 15, when the results of the battle were in doubt, Sherman told Grant that he was rushing an additional regiment up the river to support him, and added that he would “do everything in my power to hurry forward to you reinforcements and supplies, and if I could be of service myself would gladly come, without making any question of Rank.” The same day Sherman telegraphed Grant, in reference to the enemy’s potential to reinforce Fort Donelson, “I feel anxious about you as I know the great facilities they have of concentration by means of the River & R [rail] Road, but have faith in you—Command me in any way.”

This began a flow of communications between Grant and Sherman. Grant later commented: “At that time he was my senior in rank and there was no authority of law to assign a junior to command a senior of the same grade. But every boat that came up with supplies or reinforcements brought a note of encouragement from Sherman, asking me to call on him for any assistance that he could render and saying that if he could be of service at the front I might send for him and he would waive rank.”

Soon after this, and his promotion to major general of Volunteers that followed it, Grant, wanting to seize the opportunity to move up the river from Fort Donelson toward Nashville, told Sherman, “Send all reinforcements up the Cumberland,” and added, “I feel under many obligations to you for the kind tone of your letter, and hope that should an opportunity occur you will win for yourself the promotion, which you are kind enough to say belongs to me. I care nothing for promotion so long as our arms are successful, and no political appointments are made.” In saying that he cared “nothing for promotion,” Grant was being disingenuous—four months before this, he had written Julia to see if she could do a little quiet lobbying with Congressman Washburne’s wife to increase Washburne’s interest in having him made major general, and the previous September he had engaged in a dispute over seniority with Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss—but he was touched by Sherman’s eagerness to help in any capacity.

On the same day Grant thanked him for his congratulations, Sherman wrote that he was sending up a riverboat loaded with grain, and told Grant he was coping with the many family members who were converging on his headquarters, seeking news of men who had been in the battle. He added, “Some of your wounded are here, and no efforts have been or will be spared to make them as comfortable as possible … The whole [surrounding] country is alive to the necessity of caring for the wounded.” After explaining that he was forwarding some of the wounded on to hospitals as far away as Cincinnati, Sherman asked Grant to tell him what more he needed. “Do you wish surgeons, nurses—the wives of officers, Laundresses or any thing?” Even in the midst of everything else he had to do, Grant, a former supply officer, realized that this former supply officer down the river knew how to get things done and was even anticipating his needs.

As the news of the big victory came to St. Louis, Halleck telegraphed McClellan, “Make Buell, Grant and Pope major generals of Volunteers, and give me command in the West. I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson.” He claimed Grant’s two victories as if he had won them himself and virtually demanded a far larger command that would keep Grant under him and place him above his rival Buell. Halleck never directly congratulated Grant, simply commending Grant and Commodore Foote strongly for their victories in his general orders while continuing to portray himself as the paramount leader in the West.

In Washington, Lincoln knew exactly who had won Fort Donelson. The day after the victory, when Secretary of War Stanton brought him the papers nominating Grant for promotion to major general of Volunteers, a rank still junior to Halleck’s commission as a major general in the Regular Army, the president from Illinois signed them and said, “If the Southerners think that man for man they are better than our Illinois men, or Western men generally, they will discover themselves in a grievous mistake.”

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