March 3, 1862 – Major General Henry W. Halleck received authorization to remove Major General Ulysses S. Grant from command after Halleck alleged that Grant had neglected his duty.
Grant commanded the Federal District of West Tennessee within Halleck’s Department of Missouri. Following the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, Halleck directed Grant to occupy the forts with small detachments while leading his main force up the Tennessee River as far as Eastport, Mississippi. The Federals were to destroy railroad bridges along the way but “avoid any general engagement with strong forces”; to Halleck it would be “better to retreat than to risk a general battle.”
Grant did not respond to this directive and instead went to confer with Major General Don Carlos Buell, who had recently captured Nashville. Halleck, frustrated by Grant’s lack of response, became especially irritated upon learning that Grant had gone to meet with the head of another military department without his knowledge or permission. Halleck contacted his superior, General-in-Chief George B. McClellan:
“I have had no communication with General Grant for more than a week. He left his command without my authority and went to Nashville. His army seems to be as much demoralized by the victory of Fort Donelson as was that of the Potomac by the defeat of Bull Run. It is hard to censure a successful general immediately after a victory, but I think he richly deserves it. I can get no returns, no reports, no information of any kind from him. Satisfied with his victory, he sits down and enjoys it without any regard to the future. I’m worn-out and tired with this neglect and inefficiency.”
Halleck suggested that Grant be replaced by Brigadier General Charles F. Smith, one of Grant’s division commanders, as he “is almost the only officer equal to the emergency.” McClellan immediately responded:
“The future success of our cause demands that proceedings such as Grant’s should at once be checked. Generals must observe discipline as well as private soldiers. Do not hesitate to arrest him at once if the good of the service requires it, & place C.F. Smith in command. You are at liberty to regard this as a positive order if it will smooth your way.”
That same day, Grant received a message from McClellan requesting a report on the current situation. The message was dated February 16, or 15 days before it finally reached Grant. Messages from Halleck were also delayed in getting to their intended recipient. This led Halleck to believe that Grant was simply ignoring him. The next day, Halleck wrote McClellan speculating about why Grant may be doing this: “A rumor has just reached me that since the taking of Fort Donelson General Grant has resumed his former bad habits (i.e., drunkenness on duty). If so, it will account for his neglect of my often-repeated orders.”
Seizing the authority that McClellan had given him, Halleck telegraphed Grant: “You will place Gen. C.F. Smith in command of expedition, and remain yourself at Fort Henry. Why do you not obey my orders to report strength and positions of your command?”
Grant was shocked upon receiving Halleck’s order. He had received no messages inquiring about strength and positions as Halleck had indicated. Grant had been planning for the drive up the Tennessee, but now he turned his command over to Smith as ordered and asked Halleck for an explanation. Grant contended that he had sent daily updates to Halleck’s chief of staff, along with a general listing of troop strength.
Halleck responded: “Your going to Nashville without authority, and when your presence with your troops was of the utmost importance, was a matter of very serious complaint at Washington, so much so that I was advised to arrest you on your return.”
This message was the first indication to Grant that Halleck had objected to his meeting with Buell. Grant had merely gone to Nashville to discuss coordinating operations with Buell’s army, not to move his troops there as Halleck feared. Moreover, the borders of Grant’s military district were “not defined,” so Nashville was not necessarily outside his jurisdiction.
Over the next week, Smith led Grant’s army up the Tennessee, with a new division under Brigadier General William T. Sherman reconnoitering around southern Tennessee (particularly Pittsburg Landing) and into northern Mississippi. Smith’s Federals were to ultimately join forces with Buell’s Army of the Ohio coming south from Nashville, and together they would advance on the vital railroad center at Corinth, Mississippi.
Meanwhile, Grant and Halleck continued exchanging messages, with Halleck accusing Grant of not adequately reporting troop strength. Grant responded, “You had a better chance of knowing my strength whilst surrounded Fort Donelson than I had. Troops were arriving daily, by your order, and immediately assigned to brigades.” Finally, Grant became exasperated and asked to be relieved of duty after sending a precise headcount of “infantry present and fit for duty, 35,147.”
Halleck did not respond, during which time Grant received news from an anonymous source that Halleck was questioning Grant’s report of captured stores from Fort Henry. Grant repeated his request to be relieved, this time adding a threat to go over Halleck’s head to clear his name: “There is such a disposition to find fault with me that I again asked to be relieved from further duty until I can be placed right in the estimation of those in higher authority.”
On the 13th, Halleck seemed to have a sudden change of heart:
“You cannot be relieved from your command. There is no good reason for it. I am certain that all which the authorities at Washington ask is that you enforce discipline and punish the disorderly. The power is in your hands; use it, and you will be sustained by all above you. Instead of relieving you, I wish you as soon as your new army is in the field to assume command and lead it on to new victories.”
Grant replied that Halleck’s latest message had put “such a different phase upon my position that I will again assume command.” Halleck informed his superiors at Washington that the matter had been settled: “Grant has made the proper explanation and has been directed to resume command in the field.”
Halleck blamed the lack of communication on bad telegraph lines, and his unauthorized trip to Nashville on his “praiseworthy, though mistaken, zeal.” Halleck did not mention rumors of drunkenness. It was later revealed that a Confederate sympathizer in the telegraph office had interfered with the transmissions between Grant and his superiors, causing the delays.
On March 17, Grant resumed command of what became known as the Army of the Tennessee, with headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee. By that time, Smith was bedridden due to an infected cut on his leg, and he soon died of blood poisoning.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 281, 283; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12927; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 136, 143; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 116; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12927; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 316-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 116-17, 122-23; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 167-68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 177-78, 185