The War of the Generals
After the capture of Fort Donelson, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck continued his campaign of undermining Brig. Gen. Ulysses Grant, unbeknownst to Grant this was a war of the generals. Halleck was not a particularly good military general but in the field of bureaucratic infighting, he was a polished warrior.
Halleck had attempted to diminish Grant’s stature in the eyes of Washington from the very beginning. He constantly badgered Grant on every detail of his planning. It seemed that Grant could do nothing right.
At the head of the Department of Missouri, Halleck wanted as much of the credit for Grant’s victories as he could garner. After the victory at Fort Donelson, Halleck recommended that Don Carlos Buell, Grant and John Pope be promoted to the rank of major general of volunteers and that he himself be given the overall command in the West. General-in-chief George B. McClellan. “I ask this in return for Forts Henry and Donelson”, wrote Halleck.
By adding Buell and Pope, who had done absolutely nothing, Halleck sought to diminish Grant’s achievements. Halleck sought to expand his sphere of command by absorbing Buell’s Department of the Ohio into his own. Fort Donelson only fell to Grant because Halleck’s orders to halt the advance was intercepted by a Confederate-synpathizer in the Cairo telegraph office.
Halleck also persisted in setting up a reasonable alternative to Grant by continuing to ask for Charles F. Smith’s promotion to major-general. Smith, indeed, deserved promotion but Halleck’s only desired it to diminish Grant. McClellan turned down all of Halleck’s requests except for Grant’s promotion which President Lincoln immediately sent to the Senate who approved it without delay. Smith was promoted at a decent interval after Grant.
It seems that Ulysses Grant was not very aware of Halleck’s attempts to sideline him. He continued to plan for further advances after Fort Donelson. After the capture of the fort, the Confederates had evacuated Columbus, Kentucky on the Mississippi and the Tennessee River towns of Clarksville and Nashville.
Grant continued to keep Halleck informed of his activities. On February 19th, he informed Halleck’s chief of staff that he was sending General Smith to occupy Clarksville. He also suggested a further advance to Nashville which was there for the taking. On the 20th, Grant accompanied by General John McClernand and other staff officers sailed down to Clarksville and toured the town. General Smith and part of his division set out for the same destination on the 21st.
By now, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee number 27,000 men. He reorganized his growing force into four division with the addition of the Fourth Division under the command of Brig. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut. The new division commander was an Illinois lawyer who had been born in South Carolina to New England parents. He was a partisan politician who had been elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1859 and again in 1861.
Hurlbut was another bureaucratic infighter who had been favored by Halleck for his administrative skills. Halleck had recommended him to Grant who gave him the Fourth Division. He was not well liked by his troops and there was some question about his character.
With the contemplated movement to Nashville, Grant was beginning to encroach into the department of Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell. Buell was a general who was very much like Halleck. While Halleck fretted over the possibility of a Confederate attack on Cairo, Buell became decidedly nervous when his troops came within a three day march of the enemy.
Nashville was in Buell’s department and despite constant prodding from McClellan and Halleck, he was not about to be rushed. The constant bickering between Buell and Halleck was becoming a problem for the Union fortunes in the Western Theater.
When Grant thought that he needed reinforcement, Halleck asked for the use of a division for the Fort Donelson campaign. In typical Buell fashion, the division of Brig. Gen. William Nelson a week after the Confederates had surrendered. Grant dispatched them back to Buell by way of Nashville.
When Buell arrived in the city on February 25th, Nelson and his troops were already there, sent by steamboat from Fort Donelson. Buell was quite upset and complained to Smith at Clarksville that with Nelson in possession of the city, he would now have to hold the south bank at Nashville. He opined that the enemy was about to attack at any time, which was purely delusional. Buell ordered Smith, who was technically in his department, to report to him in Nashville with his entire force.
Grant chose this moment to visit Nashville. When he stopped in Clarksville, Smith showed him Buell’s order. Grant agreed that it was nonsensical but told Smith to obey it anyway. Arriving in Nashville, Grant toured the city and happened to meet Buell as he was leaving. According to a member of Grant’s staff, Buell was an angry man. When Grant told Buell of his intelligence that the Confederates were actually heading south as fast as possible, Buell said it was not so.
On March 2nd, Halleck ordered Grant to move his army to the southern Tennessee border. It was at this point that Halleck attempted to relieve Grant. He accused him, in a telegram to McClellan, of not communicating with headquarters. He also suggested that the army was demoralized after the victory at Fort Donelson, a charge that was patently false.
McClellan responded that Halleck had his permission to relieve the victorious Grant at his discretion. Halleck immediately ordered Grant to turn over command of the army to Smith and remain at Fort Henry. The most successful general in the Union Army had been relieved for being just that. Halleck followed this up with a series of condescending dispatches, lecturing Grant on the importance of “order and system” in the army. Grant was thunderstruck by Halleck’s actions and followed his commands to the letter.
Henry Halleck had won this battle of the bureaucratic war. However, on the evening of March 12th, Smith suffered a freak accident while boarding a rowboat. Within two weeks of his relief Grant was back in command. He had sent Halleck a response to all of his accusations, explaining his action.
Then Grant did something that Halleck never thought that he would do, he forwarded copies to Congressman Elihu Washburne. Washburne was Grant’s patron and also a friend of Lincoln’s. Washburne went to Lincoln who instructed the adjutant general of the army to demand a full report from Halleck. Providentially for Halleck, McClellan had been relived of command and Halleck had been promoted to replace him.
Halleck, in order to begin his new job on the right foot, restored Grant to command and left for Washington. A truce had been declared in the war of the generals. Grant hurried upriver and arrived at Savannah, Tennessee on March 17th to find Smith in poor health. His injured shin had become inflamed and shortly after Grant’s arrival took to his bed. Smith died on April 25, 1862 from his injury, a deep loss for the Army of Tennessee and Ulysses Grant.