“In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.”
-- U. S. Grant
John Rawlins (left) and Grant (center) (Chernow, Grant’s Wartime Staff)
April 12th, 1861: Confederate brigadier-general P. G. T. Beauregard ordered the shelling of Fort Sumter, much to the enjoyment of South Carolina’s citizens. Following Lincoln’s order to mobilize 75,000 volunteers, four more states seceded, and the nation had officially entered a civil war (U.S. Senate, pars. 1).
In Grant’s residence of Galena, Illinois, passions flared up. As Grant’s lawyer and friend John Rawlins, who would become Grant’s right-hand man in the days to come, emotionally proclaimed: “I don’t know anything about party now… All I know is, traitors have fired on our flag” (Chernow 125). Walking home that night with his brother, Grant decided that he would enroll in the army. (Chenerow 126).
Grant’s hunt for a position befitting of his experience was initially unsuccessful: he lacked the political connections and the charisma needed for appointments and was thus confined to desk jobs and some temporary positions. Finally, in June of 1861, Grant received a telegram promoting him to colonel of the Twenty-First Illinois.
Grant’s first objective was to apprehend General Thomas Harris, who was leading secessionists in the border state of Missouri (the border states were the states of Delaware, Missouri, West Virginia, and Kentucky, which had slaves but did not secede from the Union). Grant admitted in his memoirs that when he saw Harris’s encampment, he would have “given anything then to have been back in Illinois” (Grant Ch. 18). Yet, by the time Grant’s troops had moved closer, Harris had fled. Grant realized then that Harris had been just as afraid as he was. Regarding that epiphany, Grant wrote, “From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy… I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his” (Grant Ch. 18).
In Virginia at that time, the first major engagement of the war at Bull Run resulted in a Union loss. Although criticized for thinking that a rush towards Richmond (the capital) would swiftly end the war, the Lincoln administration was correct in believing that capturing Richmond would dramatically hasten the Confederacy’s collapse. Some also use Bull Run as an example of how the Union commanders were overall incompetent. However, its commanders, such as Irvin McDowell, were given little time to prepare. (Historian’s Forum 109 - 10).
In early August of 1861, Lincoln asked the Illinois delegation to name several brigadier-generals. Grant was chosen and Rawlins was to be his assistant adjutant-general. Before they set out for Missouri, Rawlins made Grant pledge that he would not drink alcohol until the war ended. Although Grant would fail this promise several times, the uptight Rawlins never abandoned him, always monitoring his drinking (Grant Ch. 16); (Chernow 142, 149, 151).
Overview of the Western Theater from September 1861 until the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Grant is shown (in blue) starting from Cairo (CW Maps)
After the Confederate forces under Leonidas Polk broke Kentucky's neutrality, Grant was permitted to enter Kentucky and decided to sail down the Ohio River with two gunboats. Grant had to assure the anxious civilians of his pure intentions, issuing a proclamation that began with, “I have come among you, not as an enemy, but as your friend and fellow-citizen, not to injure or annoy you.” Lincoln, after reading Grant’s words, was impressed by the general’s magnanimity, bravery, and political awareness (Grant, pars. 1); (Chernow 155).
Afterward, Grant moved down to Belmont, Mississippi. The engagement there was bloody for both sides and resulted in both Grant and the opposing commander Polk claiming victory (Chernow 153 - 5, 158). Historians have criticized Grant’s performance at Belmont, particularly his failure to block Confederate reinforcements from Columbus which contributed to the high casualty count (Chernow 160).
Grant’s next major task was to attack the Confederate positions in Tennessee: at Forts Henry and Donelson. Fort Donelson was particularly essential because its capture would leave Nashville helplessly vulnerable (Grant Ch. 21).
Starting with Fort Henry, Grant concocted a multi-pronged approach for the fort’s capture: gunboats under officer Andrew Foote would assault the fort; a division of brigades under General Smith would attack and occupy another fort nearby; and General McClernand and his division would attack from the rear, thus preventing anyone from escaping. The plan worked and facilitated a quick defeat of the fort. Nevertheless, despite the crushing victory, Grant treated the defeated Confederate officers with generosity, setting a tone of reconciliation that he continually emanated throughout and after the war (Chernow 170, 172, 174 - 5, 177).
Map of positions of Fort Henry and Donelson. Donelson was positioned on the Cumberland River (on the right) and Henry was situated on the Tennessee River (on the left) (Grant Ch. 22)
At Donelson, Grant similarly coordinated with his gunboats during the assault, creating a vice that the besieged Confederate generals saw little hope in escaping. When the enemy forces made a desperate breakout attempt, Grant swiftly ordered a counterattack, sending the Confederates back to the fort (Grant was able to deduce this action from the age of the cooked rations taken from captured Confederate soldiers). Grant’s ability to read the enemy’s intentions and counter them with calculated offense set him apart from generals such as George McClellan, whose inert nature lost him many opportunities.
Within the fort, two of the three Confederate generals had abandoned their men and retreated, leaving only Simon Bolivar Buckner, a friend of Grant, in charge (Chernow 182). Hoping to reason with Grant, Buckner offered an armistice, to which Grant famously replied,
“... No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.
I am, sir, very respectfully,
Your ob't se'v't,
U. S. GRANT” (Grant, Ch. 22).
The reply would earn him the moniker “Unconditional Surrender Grant” and came as a surprise to Buckner, who last saw Grant in 1854 as a broke, depressed man. Buckner had little choice but to accept, however, despite his capture of at least thirteen thousand men, Grant treated Buckner kindly when they met (Chernow 183). It is notable that Grant’s contemporary Robert E. Lee, to whom he is most compared, failed to capture a single army throughout the entire war. The performance had Grant explode in stardom and be promoted to major general (Chernow 186).
Grant’s next objective was to capture Corinth, Tennessee - a railroad hub vital for supply movement. If Corinth was taken, it would unlock the gates to Vicksburg (the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River and thus a necessity for completion of the Anaconda plan: the Union initiative to block Confederate ports and split the Confederacy in two). In this new era of warfare, it was rivers and rails that were the lifeblood of the army. Due to the cautious nature of Grant’s superior, Henry Halleck, Grant was told to encamp his army near Pittsburg Landing (situated on the Tennessee River) and wait for reinforcements. Despite initial skirmishes with the enemy, Grant kept his campaign as one of offensive pressure, failing to construct a defensive position (Chernow 197). Opposing General Albert Sidney Johnston, understanding that Grant would soon grow in size, decided to act quickly and initiate the Battle of Shiloh.
Battle of Shiloh statistics. U.S. Grant on right and Albert Sidney Johnston on left. (Statistics from American Battlefield Trust)
Grant, despite his claims, was caught unprepared for the massive Confederate offensive (Chernow 198). Early in the morning on April 6th, a Confederate division swarmed Grant’s right flank held by William Tecumseh Sherman, who, after Shiloh, would work closely with Grant until the war’s closure (American Battlefield Trust).
Realizing the need for reinforcements, Grant sent a message to Lew Wallace to usher his division from Crump’s Landing to the battlefield. Grant needed these reinforcements to hold his line, yet they never materialized. What had occurred was a mismaneuver: Wallace had accidentally marched his troops away from Pittsburg Landing and was forced to circle back. Despite this, the Union army managed to survive for the day. With appalling casualties on both sides, the night was haunted by the moans of wounded soldiers in make-shift hospitals or still lying on the battlefield. (Chernow 202 - 4); (American Battlefield Trust). That evening, as rain poured, Sherman found Grant standing under a tree. After Sherman commented on the carnage of that day, Grant replied, “Yes… lick’ em tomorrow though” (Chernow 205).
Shiloh battle map (Library of Congress). Blue represents Union; red represents Confederates.
The next day, Johnston pushed back Grant’s forces further towards Pittsburg Landing. With the river behind them, Grant’s soldiers would have been eviscerated in the case of a rout. However, when Johnston was rallying his troops, a mistaken shot from his own soldiers resulted in his death; he is the highest-ranking officer who died during the Civil War (American Battlefield Trust). P.G.T. Beauregard took command and continued the assault on Grant’s last line the following day. However, on the morning of April 7th, with fresh reserves bolstering his numbers, Grant’s forces proved too potent for the battle-weary Confederates, and Beauregard retreated (American Battlefield Trust).
Grant admitted in his memoirs that the brutality of Shiloh eviscerated any hopes for a swift end to the war. Technological advances in firearms combined with the colossal sizes of both armies resulted in a staggering death toll of 23,746 (the deadliest engagement in the United States’s history at that point). Although the battle certainly proved Grant’s competence as a general in the face of great adversity, he was subjected to scathing criticisms by the northern press (Chernow 207 - 8). Despite this, Shiloh resulted in the capture of Corinth by the end of May, clearing the path to Vicksburg. When pressured to dismiss Grant by his advisors, Lincoln, understanding the magnitude of these gains, stood firm, pressing, “I can’t spare this man, he fights” (American Battlefield Trust).
Chernow, Ron. Grant, New York, Penguin Books, 2017.
Grant, Ulysses S. “ General Grant’s Proclamation to the citizens of Paducah, Kentucky on September 6th, 1861,” September 6th, 1861, in the “Reflecting on History with John Cashon” collection, https://johncashon.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/general-grants-proclamation-to-the-citizens-of-paducah-kentucky-on-september-6th-1861/
Grant, Ulysses S. PERSONAL MEMOIRS OF U. S. GRANT, New York, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885.
“Historians’ Forum: The First Battle of Bull Run.” Civil War history. 57.2 (2011): 106–120. Web.
Kamphoefner, Walter D. “Remember Lee's betrayal of his country.” The Eagle, Sep 22, 2021. https://theeagle.com/opinion/columnists/remember-lees-betrayal-of-his-country/article_1fcd8f7a-1b23-11ec-9b93-6f942c5f12ee.html
Matz, Otto H., “Map of the field of Shiloh, near Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., showing the positions of the U.S. forces under the command of Maj. Genl. U. S. Grant, U.S. Vol. and Maj. Genl. D. C. Buell, U.S. Vol. on the 6th and 7th of April 1862.” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3962s.cw0436000/?r=0.716,0.684,0.136,0.064,0
“Shiloh: Shiloh: Animated Battle Map,” American Battlefield Trust, June 27, 2019, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tlhlk3bp-f4
“Shiloh: Pittsburg Landing,” American Battlefield Trust, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/shiloh