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- On the Trail of Grant and Lee - 10/31 -


response; and, to the astonishment of the local authorities who, at that period of the war, never dreamed of moving troops except by rail or river, the energetic Colonel assembled his regiment in marching order and started it at a brisk pace straight across country.

But, though he had moved with such commendable promptness, Grant was not nearly so confident as his actions seemed to imply. In fact, before he reached his destination, he heartily wished himself back again, and by the time he arrived at the point where the enemy was expected his nerves were completely unstrung. It was not the fright of cowardice that unmanned him, but rather the terror of responsibility. Again and again he had braved death in battle but now, for the first time, the safety of an entire regiment depended solely upon him as he approached the summit of the hill from which he expected to catch sight of his opponents he dreaded to fight them, lest he prove unequal to the emergency. But, while he was tormenting himself with this over-anxiety, he suddenly remembered that his opponent was just as new at his duties as he was and probably quite as nervous, and from that moment his confidence gradually returned. As a matter of fact, Colonel Harris, who commanded the Confederate force, displayed far more prudence than valor, for, on hearing of the advance of the Union troops, he speedily retreated and the 21st Illinois encountered no opposition whatever. But the march taught Grant a lesson he never forgot and, thereafter, in the hour of peril, he invariably consoled himself by remembering that his opponents were not free from danger and the more he made them look to their own safety the less time they would have for worrying him.

It was in July, 1861, when Grant entered Missouri, and about a month later the astonishing news reached his headquarters that President Lincoln had appointed him a Brigadier General of Volunteers. The explanation of this unexpected honor was that the Illinois Congressmen had included his name with seven others on a list of possible brigadiers, and the President had appointed four of them without further evidence of their qualifications. Under such circumstances, the promotion was not much of an honor, but it placed Grant in immediate command of an important district involving the control of an army of quite respectable size.

For a time the new General was exclusively occupied with perfecting the organization of his increased command, but to this hard, dull work he devoted himself in a manner that astonished some of the other brigadiers whose ideas of the position involved a showy staff of officers and a deal of picturesque posing in resplendent uniforms. But Grant had no patience with such foolery. He had work to do and when his headquarters were established at Cairo, Illinois, he took charge of them himself, keeping his eyes on all the details like any careful business man. In fact he was, as far as appearances were concerned, a man of business, for he seldom wore a uniform and worked at his desk all day in his shirt sleeves, behind ramparts of maps and papers, with no regard whatever for military ceremony or display.

A month of this arduous preparation found his force ready for active duty and about this time he became convinced that the Confederates intended to seize Paducah, an important position in Kentucky at the mouth of the Tennessee River, just beyond the limits of his command. He, accordingly, telegraphed his superiors for permission to occupy the place. No reply came to this request and a more timid man would have hesitated to move without orders. But Grant saw the danger and, assuming the responsibility, landed his troops in the town just in time to prevent its capture by the Confederates. Paducah was in sympathy with the South, and on entering it the Union commander issued an address to the inhabitants which attracted far more attention than the occupation of the town, for it contained nothing of the silly brag and bluster so common then in military proclamations on both sides. On the contrary, it was so modest and sensible, and yet so firm, that Lincoln, on reading it, is said to have remarked: "The man who can write like that is fitted to command."

Paducah was destined to be the last of Grant's bloodless victories, for in November, 1861, he was ordered to threaten the Confederates near Belmont, Missouri, as a feint to keep them from reŽnforcing another point where a real assault was planned. The maneuver was conducted with great energy and promised to be completely successful, but after Grant's raw troops had made their first onslaught and had driven their opponents from the field, they became disorderly and before he could control them the enemy reappeared in overwhelming numbers and compelled them to fight their way back to the river steamers which had carried them to the scene of action. This they succeeded in doing, but such was their haste to escape capture that they actually tumbled on board the boats and pushed off from the shore without waiting for their commander. By this time the Confederates were rapidly approaching with the intention of sweeping the decks of the crowded steamboats before they could get out of range, and Grant was apparently cut off from all chance of escape. Directly in front of him lay the precipitous river bank, while below only one transport was within hail and that had already started from its moorings. Its captain, however, caught sight of him as he came galloping through a corn field and instantly pushed his vessel as close to the shore as he dared, at the same time throwing out a single plank about fifteen feet in length to serve as an emergency gangway. To force a horse down the cliff-like bank of the river and up the narrow plank to the steamer's deck, was a daring feat, but the officer who was riding for his life had not forgotten the skill which had marked him at West Point and, compelling his mount to slide on its haunches down the slippery mud precipice, he trotted coolly up the dangerous incline to safety.

The battle of Belmont (November 7, 1861), as this baptism of fire was called, is said to have caused more mourning than almost any other engagement of the war, for up to that time there had been but little loss of life and its list of killed and wounded, mounting into the hundreds, made a painfully deep impression. In this respect, it was decidedly ominous of Grant's future record, but it accomplished his purpose in detaining the Confederates and he was soon to prove his willingness to accept defeats as necessary incidents to any successful campaign and to fight on undismayed.

Chapter XIII

Grant's First Success

Up to this time the war in the West had been largely an affair of skirmishes. A body of Union troops would find itself confronting a Confederate force, one of the two commanders would attack and a fight would follow; or the Confederates would march into a town and their opponents would attempt to drive them out of it, not because it was of any particular value, but because the other side held it. "See-a-head-and-hit-it" strategy governed the day and no plan worthy of the name had been adopted for conducting the war on scientific principles.

But Grant had studied the maps to some purpose in his office at Cairo and he realized that the possession of the Mississippi River was the key to the situation in the West. As long as the Confederates controlled that great waterway which afforded them free access to the ocean and fairly divided the Eastern from the Western States, they might reasonably hope to defy their opponents to the end of time. But, if they lost it, one part of the Confederacy would be almost completely cut off from the rest. Doubtless, other men saw this just as clearly and quite as soon as Grant did; but having once grasped an idea he never lost sight of it, and while others were diverted by minor matters, he concentrated his whole attention on what he believed to be the vital object of all campaigning in the West.

The Tennessee River and the Cumberland River both flow into the Ohio, not far from where that river empties into the Mississippi. They, therefore, formed the principal means of water communication with the Mississippi for the State of Tennessee, and the Confederates had created forts to protect them at points well within supporting distance of each other. Fort Henry, guarding the Tennessee River, and Fort Donelson, commanding the Cumberland River, were both in Grant's district, and in January, 1862, he wrote to General Halleck, his superior officer in St. Louis, calling attention to the importance of these posts and offering suggestions for their capture. But Halleck did not take any notice of this communication and Grant thereupon resolved to go to St. Louis and present his plans in person. This was the first time he had been in the city since the great change in his circumstances and those who had known him only a few years before as a poverty-stricken farmer and wagoner could scarcely believe that he was the same man. He had, as yet, done nothing very remarkable, but he held an important command, his name was well and favorably known and he had already begun to pay off his old debts. All this enabled his father and mother to regain something of the pride they had once felt for their eldest son, and his former friends were glad to welcome him and claim his acquaintance.

Pleasant as this was, the trip to St. Louis was a bitter disappointment in other respects, for Halleck not only rejected his subordinate's proposition for the capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, but dismissed him without even listening to the details of his plan. Most officers would have been completely discouraged by such treatment, but Grant had been accustomed to disappointments for many years and did not readily despair. Meeting Flag-Officer Foote who had charge of a fleet of gun boats near Cairo, he explained his idea and finding him not only sympathetic, but enthusiastic, he and Foote each sent a telegram to Halleck assuring him that Fort Henry could be taken if he would only give his consent. These messages brought no immediate response, but Grant continued to request permission to advance until, on the 1st of February, 1862, the necessary order was obtained and within twenty-four hours the persistent officer had his expedition well upon its way.

His force consisted of some 15,000 men and seven gun boats, and Halleck promised him reŽnforcements, sending a capable officer to see that they were promptly forwarded. This officer was Brigadier General Sherman who thus, for the first time, came in touch with the man with whom he was destined to bring the war to a close. Four days after the troops started they were ready to attack and the gun-boats at once proceeded to shell the fort, with the result that its garrison almost immediately surrendered (February 6, 1862), practically all of its defenders having retreated to Fort Donelson as soon as they saw that their position was seriously threatened.

Grant promptly notified his Chief of this easy conquest, at the same time adding that he would take Fort Donelson within forty-eight


On the Trail of Grant and Lee - 10/31

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