Tuesday, January 29, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1862

Reversal of Fortune

Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (right), commander of the District of Cairo, returns this morning to his southern Illinois headquarters from a fruitless audience in St. Louis with his immediate superior, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck. Determined to carry the fight to the enemy, Grant wants to lead an assault on Fort Henry, the Confederacy’s gatekeeper on the Tennessee River.

But Grant ran into a stone wall of obstinacy. Not only did Halleck display the extreme cautiousness that would become his hallmark, he met Grant with a lack of enthusiasm akin to McClellan's months earlier. In both cases, Grant’s unjustified reputation as a drunkard may have played a part.

In his Memoirs, Grant would recall of his meeting with Halleck, “I was received with so little cordiality that I perhaps stated the purpose of my visit with less clearness than I might have done, and I had not uttered many sentences before I was cut short as if my plan was preposterous. I returned to Cairo very much crestfallen.”

But in one of the sudden reversals of fortune that will dot the history of the Civil War, Grant gets encouraging news at Cairo: In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln has just issued General War Order No. 1 demanding—not suggesting, as hitherto—that his generals begin moving against the Confederacy. And the force at Cairo is mentioned by name as one of those he expects to get moving.

In the wink of an eye, everything has changed—and Grant knows it. By telegraph, he fires off a terse message to Halleck: “With permission I will take Fort McHenry [Henry] on the Tennessee & hold and establish a large camp there.” Obviously, Grant thinks the shoe is on the other foot now.

Almost simultaneously, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foot, a well-regarded Naval commander attached to Grant’s command, also telegraphs Halleck: “Grant and I are of the opinion that Fort Henry on the Tennessee can be carried with four iron-clad gun-boats and troops….”

Halleck is cornered: Grant is a man with a plan, the esteemed Foote will support it, and the President is demanding action. And so…it will not be long before Grant, until now an obscure Western officer, will suddenly take the spotlight in the Civil War. Stay tuned.

ELSEWHERE IN THE CIVIL WAR: Beginning today, for several days the 1st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry has been engaged in skirmishing near Greensburg and Lebanon, Kentucky, as it clears the area of Confederate guerrillas. A select and highly trained regiment, the 1st Ohio will develop an almost legendary reputation during the war. In western Virginia, Capt. Tom Taylor of the 47th Ohio is so peeved at having received no letters from wife Netta in 20 days that he suggests he might find “nice rebel lasses” and will “need all your matronly care to keep me from temptation.” Netta—whose regular letters have been delayed in the wartime postal system—will be furious when she gets this snarky letter. And at Camp Jefferson in Kentucky, Cpl. Robert Caldwell of the 21st Ohio sends his sister, Juliet, some samples of hardtack, which he calls “crackers,” to give her friends (“the girls”) at Oberlin, where Juliet is a student. On each of the crackers, Robert has considerately written the name of a girl. Army “crackers” are notoriously hard, but Robert tells Juliet not to worry, as “we are all getting fat on them….This evening, after supper, I intend to place myself outside about a dozen of them.”

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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