Saturday, February 16, 2008

“Unconditional Surrender Grant”

“Unconditional Surrender Grant”

Yesterday, Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand’s division on the Confederate left had had a blow blasted through it by determined Rebel infantrymen. Grant arrived on the scene to find McClernand’s forces in shambles. He then ordered Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith to attack the Confederate right at Fort Donelson. “I will do it, General,” said Smith without hesitation, and he personally led the charge on his horse, his ample moustaches streaming out in the breeze. Seeing some of his falter, he barked, “Damn you, gentlemen, I see skulkers. I’ll have none here! Come on, you volunteers, come on! This is your chance! You volunteered to be killed for love of country, and now you can be!” Smith was stopped short of the fort itself, but was able to occupy some of the Confederates’ outer works.

With the whipping of McClernand’s troops, the Confederates had an escape hatch which, amazingly, they did not use. Dismayed by Smith’s attack, fearful Union gunboats would return, and thinking they would soon be overwhelmed, Confederate commanders met last evening to agree to surrender in the morning. But during the night, two of those commanders were planning their own escapes, leaving many of their troops—and Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner—behind.

Nathan Bedford Forrest had been given authority to attempt a breakout, with fighting, if necessary—far on the Confederate left. Leading his horsemen and accompanied by a number of infantrymen, Forrest discovered that the area wasn’t guarded by Grant’s men, and he was able to escape and one of the war’s legendary cavalry commanders.

Meanwhile, Floyd and his staff slipped across the Cumberland River in a small boat and when two Confederate steamboats arrived Pillow commandeered them and was able to escape to Nashville—steaming furiously to escape possible pursuit.

This was termed “A Disgraceful Surrender” by modern military historian Kendall D. Gott in his 2003 analysis of the Fort Henry, Fort Donelson campaign, Where the South Lost the War. But what happened made Fort Donelson the first glorious victory for the North and Grant its first hero.

Grant and the Union were unaware of the escapes when a message arrived from the Confederate commander left holding the bag. It promised an armistice while the two side negotiated “terms of capitulation.” Grant looked this over and sent back the reply that made famous for the first time:

Yours this date…just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

Buckner capitulated in a grumbling reply that he would “accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose. Fort Donelson was a stunning victory: an estimated 15,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered.

News of Grant’s victory and the terms he sent Buckner spread quickly across the North and soon Grant had been given a nickname that played on his initials: “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. (Pictured above: The Harper’s Weekly of March 8, 1862, carried a worshipful article about Grant’s triumph.)

In Ohio, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, on leave from his duties with the 23rd Ohio in western Virginia, tomorrow will be returning to his home in Cincinnati after visiting relatives. As Rud and Lucy reach Crestline and Galion, they hear “of the decisive victory at Fort Donelson…Joy and excitement, cannon, flags, crowds of happy people everywhere.”

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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