In Command, but Defanged
On Thursday, July 11, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, had received a cryptic telegram from his superior, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck. Halleck was commander of the Union’s Western Department, headquartered in Corinth, Mississippi.
Grant commanded the Army of the Tennessee and, with headquarters in Memphis, was busy trying to suppress Confederate raiders in western Tennessee. It was a sullenly Confederate region the Union had reclaimed but was barely holding onto. Union victories at Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, Tennessee, as well as the takeover of Corinth, had supposedly wrested away chunks of the western Confederacy—but the Confederates weren’t quite ready to give up and leave.
Halleck’s telegram told Grant, “You will immediately repair to this place [and] report to these headquarters.” Puzzled, Grant wired back immediately: “Am I to repair alone or take my staff?” Having had his command taken away from once before, Grant was understandably wary. He didn’t know that Lincoln had just appointed Halleck general-in-chief of the Union armies and had been ordered to Washington, where—among other things—he was expected to bring the slow-footed, argumentative Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan into line.
That was an assignment Halleck had resisted, but Lincoln’s orders left him no choice. In a day filled with flying telegrams, Halleck immediately replied to Grant, “This place will be your headquarters. You can judge for yourself.”
Grant had been in command at Memphis for only a short time. With wife Julia in tow, he rushed to Corinth, where he learned he was taking over much of Halleck’s old command In addition to the Army of the Tennessee, he would be in command of the Army of the Mississippi, Maj. Gen. John Pope having also been summoned east. Grant would now be in charge of a vast area encompassing north Mississippi, west Tennessee, and Kentucky west of the Cumberland River. Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell would have a separate command, meaning the Western Department would revert to the divided responsibility to which Halleck had successfully objected only months before.
All this was good news and bad news for Grant. The good part was that the overbearing and underperforming Halleck would now be hundreds of miles away, still Grant’s commander, but less able to look over his shoulder and micro-manage him.. The bad news was that Halleck had broken up the massive force of 120,000 men that he had led into Corinth. He ordered its fragments to hunker down in defensive positions through the Western department, thereby forcing Grant into strictly defensive warfare.
Unlike Halleck, Grant was an aggressive fighter. Now, however, he was pinned down, forced into swatting Confederate raiders right and left and unable to mount meaningful offenses. In his memoirs years later, Grant could sigh for what might have been. If Halleck had only left him a sizeable force, Grant wrote, “The positive results might have been a bloodless advance to Atlanta, to Vicksburg, or to any other desired point south of Corinth in the interior of Mississippi.”
It was yet another of the war's might-have-beens, one of its greatest lost opportunities.