Thursday, February 7, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Saturday, Feb. 8, 1862

“Perfectly locked in”

Having captured Fort Henry on the Tennesssee River, today is the day Grant (right) intends to start his advance on Fort Donelson, 12 miles away on the nearby Cumberland River. The idea is to capture it before the Confederates have time send in reinforcements, but the weather is not cooperating. Grant writes Halleck’s chief of staff, “At present we are perfectly locked in by high water and bad roads and prevented from acting offensively as I should like to do.”

There is also the question of whether Halleck approves of Grant’s Donelson venture. Halleck’s original orders to Grant said nothing about Donelson, telling him only to “take and hold” Fort Henry. Nor, until two days ago, had Grant ever indicated—in telegraphic and written communication—any intention to do otherwise.

Herein lies one of the small mysteries of the Civil War, with hints of personality differences peeping through. Halleck is the quintessential desk soldier—known throughout the army as “Old Brains,” a man who knows everything there is to know about warfare but lacks the urge to actually conduct it. He is cranky, overly cautious, and a micro-manager. Grant’s quiet façade conceals a relentless aggressiveness that will, in time, win this war, but at the moment manifests itself in a determination to strike and strike again at the enemy.

It looks as if President Lincoln’s “General Order Number 1” has given the impatient Grant license to charge ahead. Since the beginning of this campaign, the tone of his wires to Halleck has been assertive, almost defiant, as if to dare Halleck to try to stop him.

Halleck is not only cautious, however, he is reluctant to give Grant the credit he is due. He wires Grant neither congratulations for Fort Henry nor explicit permission to move on Fort Donelson. Years later, Grant will write, “General Halleck did not approve or disapprove of my going to Fort Donelson. He said nothing whatever to me on the subject.”

While the published records suggests this is technically true, the records also indicate Halleck was quite aware of the Donelson move and even ordered troops to support it. But his caution kept him from committing himself to Grant in writing and his jealousy prevented sending of congratulations or even encouragement.

In his excellent study of Grant and Lee (Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship), British Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller wrote in 1957 that “the supreme value of military history is to be sought in the personalities of the generals who shaped them. At base, seven-eighths of the history of war is psychological.” That was certainly true in the cases of Grant and Halleck.


At this early stage of the war, Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside of Rhode Island is doing well, belying—so far—history’s poor opinion of him. In October 1861, Burnside got the go-ahead for his plan to organize a special division of troops to attack the Confederacy along the Atlantic coast. Aboard a fleet of 65 transports, escorted by warships, Burnside entered North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound and yesterday landed 7,500 troops on Roanoke Island. Today he defeated a Confederate force and took, 25,000 prisoners as well as inflicting 150 other casualties while suffering fewer than 300 himself. What was a glorious start to a campaign that could eventually take the Confederate capital of Richmond is largely forgotten—because it did no such thing.

As if President Abraham Lincoln didn’t have enough to worry about, he now agonizes over son Willie, deathly sick with typhoid. But the work of the war must go on. The President queries his obstinate, going-nowhere general in chief, George B. McClellan: “Have you any farther news from the West [regarding efforts to get Buell and Halleck to cooperate] [McClellan’s answer: No] ; “Have you determined, as yet, upon the contemplated movement we last talked of?] [Mac asks to until Monday “to give a final opinion”]

From western Virginia, Capt. Marcus Spiegel of the 67th Ohio writes Caroline, his “Beloved Wife!”: “Tell me every little thing; you do not know how much it interests me to hear from you everything that happens…” It is the typical plea from the lonely soldier accompanied by the not-untypical reassurances to the worried wife: “Keep up spirit my love, all will be right. I will come out of this with honor and money.” Marcus closes, “Good by my sweet, my good, my dear little Cary, may God bless you and keep you in good health so that you may enjoy a many, many pleasant time in the arms and on the breast of you true and ever loving, Marcus….”

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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