Holding the Western Army in Check

Major General Ulysses S. Grant had 63,000 Federal troops in his District of West Tennessee. But they were spread throughout western Tennessee and northern Mississippi:

  • The divisions of Major Generals Stephen A. Hurlbut and William T. Sherman were stationed at and around Memphis
  • Major General John A. McClernand’s division was at Jackson, Tennessee, guarding the Mobile & Ohio Railroad
  • Major General E.O.C. Ord’s division was at Corinth, Mississippi, 55 miles south of McClernand, also protecting the M&O
  • Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Mississippi was stationed east of Corinth around Iuka, guarding the Memphis & Charleston Railroad
  • Brigadier General Isaac F. Quinby’s contingent was east of Rosecrans at Columbus, Mississippi

Grant had a large amount of territory to defend as well as an extensive network of supply lines, but he had tried to protect civilian property within his domain as best he could. This changed in early August, when General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck directed him to “handle rebels within our lines without gloves… If necessary, take up all active sympathizers, and either hold them as prisoners or put them beyond our lines. Handle that class without gloves, and take their property for public use.” However, Grant imprisoned very few civilians within his jurisdiction.

Halleck was also under pressure from Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to promote cotton trading in areas of the South under Federal occupation. The northern states had been starving for this valuable commodity ever since the southern secession, and by this time a bale of cotton was worth $300 in gold. Some condemned trading with southerners since the money paid for cotton could be used to aid the Confederate war effort, but Federal officials asserted that if they did not buy the cotton, then southerners would trade it to foreign nations in exchange for war supplies anyway. So Halleck directed Grant to open the cotton trade in his military district, with Treasury agents replacing military personnel as the new trading partner.

One of the fiercest critics of this new policy was Sherman, who bitterly denounced the speculators that rushed down south to get at the cotton by any means necessary. Noting that many of the goods were coming down the Mississippi to Memphis by way of Cincinnati, Sherman fumed, “Cincinnati furnishes more contraband goods than Charleston, and has done more to prolong the war than the State of South Carolina.”

By this time, Memphis was entering its second month of Federal military occupation. There was still much hatred for the Federal troops by the city residents, but Sherman expressed confidence that the people were slowly submitting to authority. He wrote Grant in mid-August:

“I find them much more resigned and less presumptuous than at first. Your orders about property and mine about ‘niggers’ make them feel that they can be hurt, and they are about as sensitive about their property as Yankees. I believe in universal confiscation and colonization… I have taken some of the richest Rebels and will compel them to buy and pay for all of the land, horses, cattle and effects, as well as damages, and let the Union owner deed the property to one or more of them. This they don’t like at all.”

Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln and his advisors began taking a closer look at ways they could open the Mississippi River for northern shipping. Federals controlled the river as far south as Vicksburg, Mississippi, and as far north as Port Hudson, Louisiana, but the span between these two cities still belonged to the Confederacy. The Midwestern states especially relied on river trade, and the longer that the Mississippi remained closed to them, the more they turned against the war.

Interior Secretary John P. Usher recommended raising a new army with the sole objective of seizing complete control of the Mississippi. This idea received positive feedback from the administration, and the matter went to Halleck for consideration. Halleck agreed that the river needed to be in Federal control, but he resisted the idea of raising a special force for the task. The matter was set aside for the time being, but it would be revived in the coming fall.

With Grant’s forces scattered throughout the region, they could do little more than hold their positions and defend against potential Confederate attacks. One garrison was stationed in the area of Fort Donelson and Clarksville, Tennessee, and it consisted of six companies of the 71st Ohio under Colonel Rodney Mason. Grant had placed Mason in command because, as he wrote in his memoirs:

“Colonel Mason was one of the officers who had led their regiments off the field at almost the first fire of the rebels at Shiloh. He was by nature and education a gentleman, and was terribly mortified at his action when the battle was over. He came to me with tears in his eyes and begged to be allowed to have another trial. I felt great sympathy for him and sent him, with his regiment, to garrison Clarksville and Donelson.”

On August 18, a Confederate force surrounded Mason’s garrison at Clarksville and demanded surrender. Mason replied that he would not unless the Confederates could prove that they outnumbered his force. The Confederates allowed one of Mason’s subordinates to come out and count enemy heads, and he reported to Mason that there were at least 800, including some “armed with volcanic rifles.” This was good enough for Mason, and he promptly surrendered his garrison and the Confederates regained Clarksville. Mason also contacted the commander at Fort Donelson and recommended that he surrender as well, but that commander had more resolve and he was able to drive the Confederates away.

The loss of Clarksville proved that Grant’s lack of cavalry was making it increasingly difficult to deal with Confederate guerrillas on horseback. As for Mason, he had blown his last chance. Grant reported the loss to Washington, and President Lincoln responded by cashiering Mason and 12 of his officers from the army “for repeated acts of cowardice in the face of the enemy.”

By month’s end, the main threats to Grant’s military department were the two Confederate armies in Mississippi, led by Major Generals Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn at Tupelo and Vicksburg respectively. The main Confederate offensive in the Western Theater was being led by General Braxton Bragg’s army, so Grant reported that Van Dorn and Price were most likely planning to just “hold the Western army in check.” That would change in September, when the Confederates in Mississippi began moving to support Bragg. But for now, Grant could do very little in the way of offensive operations with his forces so scattered.


  • Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
  • 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.
  • Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I. New York: D. Appleton and Co. (Kindle Edition), 1889.

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