Monday, November 19, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 1861

“Paper Trails”

Eager for combat, Grant wastes no time contacting Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, who took command of the Department of the Missouri only yesterday. Grant had been talking with Halleck’s predecessor, General Frémont, about sending an expedition down the Mississippi River. Grant carefully does not mention this in his telegram to Halleck, Instead, he only asks to be allowed to see Halleck personally in St. Louis “with the view of making known in person the wants & conditions of this command.” We can guess what Grant’s biggest “want” is.

Halleck, who is endowed with an abundance of caution but a shortage of patience, either sees through Grant’s little subterfuge or is just too busy settling into his new office. He snaps back by wire, “You will send reports, in writing….[You] cannot just now be ordered to St. Louis.” So there.

Grant, who knows how to attack on more than one front, also writes a letter to his Congressman, Elihu B. Washburn, who lives in Galena, Illinois, where, for about a year, Grant lived as well. Washburn helped Grant win his appointment to the volunteer army and now is the general’s patron and advocate in Washington. He has helped secure improved weaponry for Grant’s forces.

Grant thanks Washburn for “the very flattering interest you have taken in my personal welfare and advancement” and promises to pay the Congressman back by “exerting my utmost.”

But Grant obliquely works into the Washburn letter some of the thought behind the doomed telegram to Halleck. Because of its strategic location on the Mississippi, he writes, Cairo should be the launching pad for a thrust southward to wrest control of the river from the Confederacy.

Grant disavows asking for anything for himself, but he is asking to be turned loose against the enemy. He wants to raise the curtain on some action in the Western Theater. In the Eastern Theater, on the other hand, the problem is quite the opposite: Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan seems rooted to the soil near Washington, always citing reasons why the time is not right to strike the enemy. The contrast between the two generals could not be greater.

And, with time, the contrasts between the eastern and western theaters will only grow.

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