The War of the Generals

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series The Western Theater Part Two

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 General Henry HalleckDonelson, 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 General Ulysses Grantwho 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.

General Don Carlos BuellGrant 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.






Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

From the beginning of the war Abraham Lincoln had searched for a military commander in the East. He was looking for a fighting general, one who had the ability to lead the Federal forces to victory in the East and end the war. It take him until March 1864 to find one: Ulysses S. Grant.

At first he appointed Irvin McDowell. McDowell was a professional soldier of no great ability. He led the Federal army to a crushing defeat at the First Bull Run (Manassas).

General George McClellanLincoln then replaced him with George B. McClellan who had served in western Virginia at the beginning of the war. He was a dashing, charismatic leader who forged the Army of the Potomac from the shattered fragments of McDowell’s army. However, McClellan was a perfectionist who did not wish to take his creation into battle under less than ideal conditions.

After a great deal of pressure McClellan embarked on a campaign to take Richmond. He embarked his massive force, moved them by water to Yorktown and marched them up the narrow Virginia Peninsula. After a number of battles, first against Joseph Johnston and then when he was wounded, against Robert E. Lee, McClellan forces where back where they began at Harrison’s Landing.

Rather than sacking McClellan Lincoln took the indirect approach and appointed a western general John Pope who was given the command of the Army of Virginia. Pope immediately blundered into a Confederate trap and was crushed at Second Bull Run. The Confederates then invaded Maryland.

Lincoln swallowed his pride and asked McClellan to resume complete command of the Army.  At Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland the Army of the Potomac fought what was to be the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. At Antietam McClellan was exposed as a timidBloody Lane at Antietam commander. Failing to use his overwhelmingly superior forces in a coordinated attack, he fed his forces into the battle piecemeal. The Confederates were able to blunt all of his assaults. He then compounded his mistakes and allowed the battered enemy to withdraw back to Virginia. Lincoln replaced McClellan for the final time.

He was replaced by Ambrose Burnside who in December 1862 tried to force the Confederate lines at Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. Showing his inability to improvise in the field Burnside persisted in frontal assaults on the main Confederate positions resulting in horrendous casualties. Burnside was replaced by debonair, self-promoting “Fighting Joe” Hooker.

Hooker proclaimed that his headquarters would be in the saddle. One newspaper said that Hooker had his headquarters in his hindquarters. At Chancellorsville Hooker was completely out-maneuvered and defeated by Robert E. Lee with a Confederate army half his army’s size. Lincoln was in complete despair saying: “My God! What will the country say?”

Hooker was replaced by George Gordon Meade in late June 1863 when Lee again led his Army of Northern Virginia on an invasion of the north. At Gettysburg Meade led the Federal army to victory in a three-day defensive battle. Like McClellan at Antietam, Meade failed to follow up his victory and the Confederates returned to the safety of Virginia to rest and refit. Lincoln again despaired for the Union.

That November Meade took his army on a half-hearted offensive that tried to force the Confederate entrenchments at Mine Run. The Army of the Potomac limped back to their encampments with nothing to show for it. Meade was not to answer Lincoln’s need for a fighting general.

Through all of the inept, timid commanders in the East one general in the West stood out as a commander who understood the need to destroy the General Ulysses S. Grantenemy’s army utterly: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was a West Point graduate who had served with some distinction in the Mexican War. After that war he had drifted into civilian life in St. Louis and Galena, Illinois where he worked at his father’s tannery.

At the onset of the war Grant recruited a company of volunteers and led them to Springfield. In the capitol he accepted a position from the governor to train troops. He was good at it but was anxious for a field command. At the end of August 1861 he was given the command of the District of Cairo. He was commanded to make an attack against Confederate forces at Belmont, Kentucky. In an amphibious assault he led 3,100 union troops against Fort Belmont on November 7, 1861. He initially held the fort but was forced to retreat by overwhelming force.

Grant then decided to work his way down the Mississippi River and capture Confederate water fortresses. The lightly manned Fort Henry fell on February 6, 1862. Fort Donelson was a different story. In cooperation with the Navy, his 25,000 man force took this fort ten days later. At Fort Donelson Grant coined what was to be his signature surrender demand:  “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender.” Lincoln promoted Grant to major general of volunteers.

By April the Federal army, known as the Army of the Tennessee, had increased to nearly 50,000 men. At Shiloh, Tennessee they fought a costly battle with Confederate forces number nearly 45,000. On the first day of the battle the Federal army was pushed back to the landing but on the second day Grant ordered a counterattack that defeated the Confederate force. The Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, was killed. Some 23,700 were killed or wounded at Shiloh making it the costliest battle of the war to date.

Grant was demoted by Henry Halleck to second-in-command of a combined 120,000 man army. It took the persuasions of his friend William T. Sherman to stop him from resigning his commission. Eventually, this massive force was broken up and Grant returned to his command of the Army of the Tennessee.

By December 1862 Grant was resolved to take the Confederate fortress city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi. At first he attempted an overland campaign that became stalled by Confederate cavalry attacks. After a series of unsuccessful river and bayou battles Grant changed his strategy andThe Mississippi River Squadron running the Confederate Blockade at Vicksburg moved his troops down the west side of the Mississippi. He then crossed over to the east side and attempted to take the city by storm. When that was unsuccessful he settled down for a seven week siege. Confederate commander John C. Pemberton surrendered on July 4, 1863.

With the fall of Vicksburg the Mississippi River was completely controlled by the Federal Army and Navy. The Confederacy was now cut in two. Lincoln gave Grant command of the entire Federal war front in the West with the exception of Louisiana.

Grant then commanded his combined armies in a series of battles in and around Chattanooga, Tennessee. These resulted in the eventual defeat of Confederate forces in this region. The decisive 1863 Chattanooga battle opened Georgia and the heartland of the Confederacy to Union invasion by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman.

Grant was promoted to Lieutenant-General, only the third man to hold that rank; George Washington and Winfield Scott being the other two. He was given complete command of all Federal armies in the field. Grant traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln and plan the next moves in the war. After realizing that eventual victory would need to come from the East he decided to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac.

In short order the country would come to learn more about the man that Lincoln had given the entire Federal army to. When some complainers spoke to Lincoln about rumors of Grant’s drinking, he exclaimed: “I can’t spare the man, he fights”.  Over the next year Grant’s armies would batter the Confederate forces on all fronts into utter defeat.