The Power is in Your Hands

Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal District of Western Tennessee, had been ordered to remain at Fort Henry, Tennessee, while his command went southward up the Tennessee River to Savannah. Grant’s commander, Major General Henry W. Halleck, had accused him of failing to respond to his queries and orders in a timely manner. Grant had responded that if his superiors no longer had confidence in him, he would like to be relieved of duties.

Halleck told Grant of an anonymous report alleging various wrongdoings at Fort Donelson such as reselling captured goods and equipment at Federal expense. Halleck wrote, “The want of order and discipline and the numerous irregularities in your command since the capture of Fort Donelson are matters of general notoriety, and have attracted the serious attention of the authorities at Washington. Unless these things are immediately corrected I am directed to relieve you of the command.”

Grant replied, “Yours of the 6th instant, inclosing an anonymous letter to the Hon. David Davis, speaking of frauds committed against the government, is just received. I refer you to my orders to suppress marauding as the only reply necessary. There is such a disposition to find fault with me that I again ask to be relieved from further duty until I can be placed right in the estimation of those higher in authority.”

Halleck then accused Grant of not adequately reporting troop strength as required. Grant responded, “You had a better chance of knowing my strength whilst I 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.”

Generals H.W. Halleck and U.S. Grant

By this time, news of Grant’s removal as commander had reached the White House. President Abraham Lincoln was in desperate need of fighting generals, and he did not want the conqueror of Fort Donelson to be taken out of the field without just cause. He directed Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to communicate with Halleck:

“It has been reported that soon after the battle of Fort Donelson Brigadier General Grant left his command without leave. By direction of the President the Secretary of War desires you to ascertain and report whether General Grant left his command at any time without proper authority, and, if so, for how long; whether he has made to you proper reports and returns of his force; whether he has committed any acts which were unauthorized or not in accordance with military subordination or propriety, and, if so, what.”

Halleck had requested that his department be enlarged, and the administration had granted this request. Now the administration had an implicit request of its own: specify the charges against Grant or reinstate him. Halleck, having gotten what he wanted, chose the latter. On the 13th, he replied to Grant’s latest request to relieve him:

“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 had intercepted many of the telegraphic messages between Halleck and Grant, thereby causing Grant to operate without orders since he had received none, and causing Halleck to believe that Grant was insubordinate by not responding to him.

Grant arrived at Savannah on March 17 and resumed command of what became known as the Army of the Tennessee. He took up headquarters in the mansion of W.H. Cherry, a local Unionist. By this time, the army had expanded to five divisions, under the command of Brigadier General Charles F. Smith. Smith was bedridden due to an infection caused when he slipped while trying to climb into a boat and cutting his leg. Smith had taught Grant at West Point, and Grant considered him a mentor. He turned command over to Grant and would soon die of blood poisoning.


  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
  • 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.
  • McFeely, William S., Grant. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981.
  • 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.

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