The first two months of 1862 began in fine fashion for the Union as Fort Henry and Fort Donelson fell, opening the way for a Federal advance into Tennessee. With the Confederate army seemingly in full flight, it was up to Major General Henry Halleck to set aside his personal dislike for Brigadier General U. S. Grant and continue to press their advantage.
Even before his victory at Fort Donelson, Halleck disliked Grant. Years before the Civil War, Grant resigned from the military in disgrace as an alcoholic. Civilian life had not been kind to Grant as he was penniless working in his father’s store when the war started. The Civil War gave Grant an opportunity to resurrect his military career.
Grant found that his reputation as an alcoholic still lingered among many of his superior officers. Halleck thought Grant was careless and impulsive. These were two traits that Halleck, called “Old Brains” by his soldiers, could not tolerate. He often chafed at Grant’s less-than-stellar ability to keep Halleck informed with daily reports.
Immediately after Fort Donelson, Halleck sent President Abraham Lincoln a wire, asking for command in the west and for Brigadier Generals Don Carlos Buell, John Pope and U. S. Grant to be promoted to major general. This was in return for the Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson.
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Halleck dared not congratulate or promote just Grant. Instead, he included Grant in a blanket promotion of other generals serving in the western theater. Halleck was angry at Grant due to a lack of communication with his command.
Although orders were issued for the Union army to move south along the Tennessee River, Grant was told to remain at Fort Henry. It was Halleck’s own sort of punishment for Grant. Major General Charles F. Smith, who was nominated for promotion by Halleck after Fort Donelson, was placed in command of the new Tennessee expedition.
Lincoln answered Halleck’s request by promoting Grant, and only Grant, to the rank of major general. This made Grant second only to Halleck in command in the western theater. To soothe his feelings, Lincoln also gave Halleck overall command in the west. Lincoln also told Halleck to either press charges against Grant for his “infractions” or drop them. Lincoln wanted his fighting general back in the field.
In the south, the loss of Fort Donelson was akin to losing the entire war. Donelson’s loss opened Tennessee for Federal invasion and occupation. Nashville was sure to fall as General Albert Sidney Johnston’s forces moved into western Tennessee as well as northern Alabama and Mississippi.
Tennesseans loyal to the Confederate cause wanted a scapegoat for the loss of Fort Donelson and were quick to cast all blame on Johnston. Some even traveled to Richmond, seeking a meeting with President Jefferson Davis. Upon their meeting with Davis, the Tennessee delegation sought the removal of Johnston. Davis dismissed them, saying “Gentlemen, I know Sidney Johnston well. If he is not a general, we had better give up the war for we have no general.”
For his part, Johnston suffered through the aftermath of the fall of Fort Donelson with the dignity of which he was known. In a letter to Davis, Johnston said, “I observed silence, as it seemed to me to be the best way to serve the cause. The test of merit in my profession, with the people, is success. It is a hard rule, but I think it right.”
As February gave way to March, soldiers on both sides knew the warm weather meant renewed campaigns. Johnston was busy reorganizing his army and getting even more soldiers for a possible attack on Grant. Johnston eventually chose Corinth, Miss., as his rallying point.
Grant resumed command of his army due to a mishap by Smith. At the first of March, Smith jumped from one boat to another at Savannah, Tenn. He misjudged his leap and severely cut his lower right leg to the bone. Smith’s injury grew worse and it was expected that he would never recover. He died in the Cherry mansion in Savannah after the battle of Shiloh.
Whether Halleck liked it or not, Grant was back in command of the Army of Tennessee. In a short period of time, Grant would face another potential military disaster before rallying for another Union victory.