Major General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the Federal District of West Tennessee within Major General Henry W. 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 and track 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.”
Messages between Halleck and Grant were being delayed due to intermittent breakdowns in the telegraph lines, so Grant did not get Halleck’s directive. Instead, he informed Halleck that he was going to Nashville to confer with Major General Don Carlos Buell. Halleck did not get Grant’s message, and he was greatly annoyed to learn from another source that Grant had gone to meet with the head of another military department without his knowledge or permission. He fumed to his chief of staff, “What is the reason that no one down there can obey my orders?” Halleck then 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. C.F. Smith (one of Grant’s division commanders) 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, and place C.F. Smith in command. You are at liberty to regard this as a positive order if it will smooth your way. I appreciate the difficulties you have to encounter, and will be glad to relieve you from trouble as far as possible.”
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. Grant had resigned from the U.S. Army before the war, partly for drunkenness on duty, and there was speculation that he had returned to the bottle. Halleck wrote McClellan:
“A rumor has just reached me that since the taking of Fort Donelson General Grant has resumed his former bad habits. If so, it will account for his neglect of my often-repeated orders. I do not deem it advisable to arrest him at present, but have placed General Smith in command of the expedition up the Tennessee. I think Smith will restore order and discipline.”
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 returned to his headquarters aboard the steamboat Tigress, docked at Fort Henry, where he found Halleck’s directive waiting for him.
Grant was shocked when he read the order. He had received no messages asking about strength and positions as Halleck had indicated. Grant had been planning for the drive up the Tennessee as Halleck had directed, but now he turned his command over to Smith as ordered and responded to Halleck:
“I am not aware of ever having disobeyed any order from headquarters–certainly never intended such a thing. I have reported almost daily the condition of my command and reported every position occupied… My reports have nearly all been made to General Cullum, chief of staff, and it may be that many of them were not thought of sufficient importance to forward more than a telegraphic synopsis of… In conclusion I will say that you may rely on my carrying out your instructions in every particular to the very best of my ability.”
Halleck reiterated his original orders for the advance up the Tennessee, and on March 6 he informed Grant that McClellan required a daily report of troop strength and positions. Halleck then offered a more detailed explanation as to why he removed Grant from command:
“Your neglect of repeated orders to report the strength of your command has created great dissatisfaction, & seriously interfered with military plans. Your going to Nashville without authority & 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. Grant replied, “My going to Nashville was strictly intended for the good of the service, and not to gratify any desire of my own.”
Grant then sent a copy of his correspondence with Halleck to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, his benefactor on Capitol Hill. Fully aware that politics played a key role in this war, Grant wanted it known in Washington that he had done nothing wrong.
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- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
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- Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton and Co. (Kindle Edition), 1889.
- Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2005.