Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 1862


Grant’s campaign for Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee is a triumph, the result of his aggressiveness. Aggressiveness is an all-too-rare commodity among Lincoln’s generals at this early stage in the war.

For some time, Grant’s buggy-eyed superior, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, had been sitting at his headquarters in St. Louis, as immobile as a frog on a lily-pad during a sunny day. But while Halleck temporized, Grant was hatching plans and training his soldiers. He was ready to take off in a flash when President Lincoln ordered that armies advance. Hence, the first great Union victories of the war, an ecstatic North, and the sudden fame of the previously unknown Grant.

Today, while his army is processing 15,000 prisoners and cleaning up the mess after the Fort Donelson battle, Grant orders another advance—this by Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith’s division. Smith is told to move east and take possession of the abandoned Confederate base at Clarksville, about half-way up the Cumberland River to Nashville.

Once again, without orders or even a congratulatory note from Halleck about Fort Donelson, Grant is thinking ahead. Clearly, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston (commander of the Confederacy’s Western Department) is vulnerable. With the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson, the center of his so-called “Kentucky line” has collapsed under Grant’s assault. His wings invite attack.

Now Grant wants to advance against Nashville, Tennessee’s capital and a strategic and logistical center for the western Confederacy. He writes Halleck’s chief of staff that Nashville would be “an easy conquest.” But Halleck is engaged in a struggle with Washington to gain control over Brig. Gen Don Carlos Buell, with whom he now divides command of the Western Theater. He thinks Grant’s advance might imperil that.

Grant is stunned when Halleck vetoes the Ohioan’s plan to take Nashville. Ironically, Halleck not only fails to gain control over Buell, but Buell snatches Nashville out from under Halleck’s nose.

To the end of his days, Grant believed he could have ended the war in 1862 if he had been allowed to advance, destroy the armies of Johnston, and capture the western Confederacy. Grant’s reasons? He wanted to fight and believed he could win. Halleck’s reasons? His desire to advance his career.

But while Halleck's wartime career will rise and fall, Grant's--like the man--will only advance.

ELSEWHERE IN THE CIVIL WAR: Capt. Marcus Spiegel of the 67th Ohio, now in western Virginia, writes his cousin, Moses Joseph of Uniontown, Ohio, that a general had told Spiegel he “was the best officer he had met since he took this command.” And he writes “My dear and good wife” that the war will improve him in two ways: First, he apparently has learned to “eat anything;” Second, “I will not be half as much a ‘complainer.’”

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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