Grant's Early Battles

Fun Interactive Military History

Grant at Fort Donelson

Introducing Sam Grant

In June of 1861, no one would have predicted Ulysses S. Grant would end the war as Commanding General of the US Army, with the rank Congress gave George Washington. To be sure, the Colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteers, “Yates’ Hellions”, was a West Point graduate who had served with distinction in the War with Mexico. But after Mexico came an unfortunate tour of duty in Gold Rush California, far from his family. A combination of inflation and bad luck prevented him from supporting them or, nearly, feeding himself. Depressed, Grant took to drink. His commanding officer pressed him to resign, ironically just after his seniority gave him promotion to Captain. Grant returned to his father’s home in Galena, IL, and tried to make a go of civil life, with little success. In 1861, he was a clerk in his father’s store.

After appealing in vain to the War Department for a command, Grant became military secretary to Governor Yates of Illinois, largely because, of the men in the governor’s vicinity, he knew which forms to fill out to make completely ignorant men into Colonels of regiments. Grant spent weeks insuring Illinois volunteers’ paperwork was in order, their men had pay, clothes, weapons and horses on order. Yates, curious about Grant, who never asked for any preferment, was enlightened when a friend told him, “Grant is Regular Army. He won’t ask favors. Just give him the position you want.” So Yates offered command of the 21st Illinois, 600 roughnecks who were currently embarrassing the Government. Grant ordered his Colonel’s uniform.

Within 4 weeks “Yates’ Hellions” were tamed.The traditional reward — a more difficult job — followed. Congressman Washburn’s share of his parties’ spoils entitled him to name a Brigadier General. Grant was the son of an influential local businessman and the only West Pointer in his district. Newly minted Brigadier Grant was sent to a troublesome Missouri post.

Grant learns his business

While still a Colonel, Grant had his first experience in battlefield command. Sent to drive off a Rebel regiment under Thomas Harris, Grant put his men into line and advanced with a bold front — and some trepidation — to find his enemy had run away. Grant speculated that his foe might be as worried as he, a new notion, but one Grant kept in mind ever after.

The new Brigadier’s first major command was a short one, because inept General John C. Frémont sent a political general, Benjamin Prentiss, to take overall command, without realizing that Prentiss was junior to Grant, and, by the regulations, Ulysses was therefore out of a job. Frémont recovered nicely by giving Grant command at Jefferson City, then being threatened by Price’s Army. Grant organized the town’s garrison into a useful fighting force, then moved on to a more important post, the river town of Cairo, IL, where a gunboat and transport flotilla was fitting out.

This time Grant's mission was to keep an eye on neutral Kentucky, while subduing southeastern Missouri and returning the region to Federal control. Frémont considered Cairo a key post, but currently had his hands full, so Grant was largely on his own. Kentucky’s neutrality proved short lived. Leonidas Polk, Confederate Mississippi valley commander, decided Columbus was the best place to site his main forces, and occupied it forthwith. Grant countered by occupying Paducah, using the newly organized Western River Flotilla as his transport & heavy artillery.


Grant next organized a series of moves to threaten all the Confederate forces inside his district in Missouri, feint at Columbus, and, with two brigades under his personal command, board ship to attack the Confederate outpost at Belmont, opposite Columbus. He hoped to pin the Southern garrison while his other columns defeated various partisan forces in Missouri.

Belmont initially went well. Grant’s force pushed back the little Corps of Observation and an ad hoc brigade sent to reinforce it. This was made much the easier by the Confederate brigadier, Gideon Pillow, whom Grant remembered from Mexico.

Pillow, whose martial ardor was untempered by any skill, or much common sense, formed up in an open field, across from a wood which Grant’s skirmishers used as cover while shooting down Pillow’s men. When the Southern line broke, Grant’s volunteers followed and stormed the work, aided by a Union regiment which got lost trying to find its place in line and stumbled into combat square on the enemy flank.

The politician-officers of Grant's little army wasted time and created much confusion by making speeches on the Camp parade ground, while the men milled, looted and generally gave themselves up to disorder.

Back in Columbus, Polk realized something would have to be done, and sent a much better general, Frank Cheatham, with more troops, then got on board himself with cavalry and artillery support.

Cheatham and Pillow reorganized fugitives from the first fight at a new rallying point just north of the camp, then put everybody in line for an advance.

Meanwhile, Columbus’ heavy batteries opened fire, bringing everyone’s attention back to the war. Grant hurried the process along by ordering the camp tents set afire, which may have inadvertently trapped some Confederate wounded, but certainly encouraged the men to fall back in ranks. Some of his force panicked at being cut off by Cheatham’s advance, but enough stayed under control to cut their way back, so that nearly the whole force boarded ship and sailed off. Except Grant’s hapless flank regiment, which again became lost, and wandered around southeast Missouri for a day before being retrieved.

Battle of Belmont

Battle of Belmont Grant’s initial advance is shown dark blue at left. Pillow’s lines of defense is light red, followed by Cheatham’s counterattack (dark red) and Grant’s retreat to the gunboats (light blue). Union gunboats engaged at long range, then covered the retreat. Everyone except the 27 IL Regiment boarded ship under fire from pursuing Confederates. The 27 IL retreated west and reached safety the next day.

Polk thought Belmont was a Southern victory. Most people up North were inclined to agree, except Grant and his men, who thought they’d done some plain and fancy fighting, whupped the Rebels, and were now hardened veterans.

Polk soon had second thoughts. He decided this was a Union reconnaissance in force for a major campaign on the Missouri shore. So he spent his energies preparing to meet the threat, neglecting the half-built forts on the other side of his command: Fort Henry, on the Cumberland, and Donelson on the Tennessee.

Then followed a reorganization of the US high command. Frémont’s political failures caught up with him. He was relieved by David Hunter, who pretty much ignored Grant. Then Hunter was succeeded by Henry Halleck, a military intellectual whose Regular Army sobriquet, “Old Brains”, spoke volumes.

Halleck was appalled that Grant, reformed drunk, should be senior to Brigadier C. F. Smith, whose Army reputation was sky high, not least with Grant, who had been at West Point when Smith was Commandant of Cadets. Halleck was inclined to rectify this irregularity, but before he could get his correspondence in line, he learned that his great rival Don Carlos Buell was preparing to advance on Nashville.

If Halleck didn’t have a campaign of his own, he would have to give troops to Buell’s army and let Buell take credit for the resulting success. So, when Grant reported that he thought he had enough men to take Fort Henry if somebody wanted him to try, Halleck said “Go”.

In short order, Grant’s good relations with Flag Officer Andrew Foote, his naval opposite number, paid off. Foote was anxious to try out his gunboats, so on Feb. 2nd, Grant’s troops boarded ship & everyone set off.

Forts Henry & Donelson

Fort Henry, poorly designed and inundated by high waters, was no match for Foote’s gunboats. The fort surrendered to the Navy before Grant even got his men off their transports. Mission accomplished.

One of Grant’s best traits was his tendency to keep pushing until somebody made him stop. After a few days waiting for fresh troops to hold his new base, he set off overland to invest Fort Donelson. He arrived after a hot march on dusty roads. That night an inch of snow convinced the men that tossing their overcoats away in the road was a big mistake. Everybody huddled around campfires.

While the troops shivered, the Confederates tried to make up their minds. Their confused telegrams failed to elicit a definite order to either retreat or hold on. They decided to stay. Next day, heavy guns drove off Foote’s ships. The next move was up to Grant. Foote asked for a conference on the night of Feb. 14th. On his way back next day, Grant learned the Confederates were storming his lines.

Battle of Fort Donelson

Fort Donelson: the battle - Confederate breakout on the morning of Feb. 15 shown with red arrows. McClernand’s US Division was pushed back and a clear route out of the fort opened up by midafternoon. Reinforcements from Lew Wallace’s Division brought the Confederate advance to a halt. Gideon Pillow, directing the Southern battle, then chose to return to his fortifications.
Grant then ordered McClernand to reestablish his lines, which he was able to do before dark (blue arrows). At about the same time, C.F. Smith’s US Division breached the outer line of fortifications. Buckner’s counterattack re-established a perimeter a bit to the east, then it grew too dark to fight.

Only Gideon Pillow stood between the Confederacy and victory, but Pillow was up to the task. He ordered his forces back into the fort. McClernand re-formed the circle around Donelson and C.F. Smith, on Grant’s orders, took Donelson’s outer ramparts.

The Confederate command dithered, then asked for terms. “Unconditional Surrender.” came the reply, “I propose to move immediately on your works.” That bold summons, plus 15,000 captives hastily shipped upstream to ease Grant’s supply problems, electrified the North. Johnston’s cordon was broken down its middle, and the South needed a new strategy.

Grant next proceeded to demonstrate the usefulness of naval supremacy, taking Nashville to link up with Buell’s advance, then concentrating his army at Pittsburg Landing, far into the interior of the Confederacy. The seat of war had just jumped deep into the Southern heartland. Grant’s army threatened to cut off the Mississippi valley or lunge east toward Chattanooga to sever Tennessee from the South.

Stung, and a little desperate, Albert Sidney Johnston called together troops from deep in the Confederate interior, Mississippi, the Carolinas and Georgia, molding them into an army of 42,000 men to strike Grant’s 33,000 at Pittsburg Landing. Another 9,500 of Grant’s men and, eventually, 18,000 of Buell’s were nearby, but the South had created its best opportunity to smash a whole Union Army.


Once more, Grant was away when the blow fell. Worse, C.F. Smith was ill, and Grant’s deputy, Sherman, hadn’t fortified or deployed the troops for defense. Hard fighting bought Grant time, and his indomitable will and his men’s valor held things together. But it was the bravery of men too green to recognize defeat, and Buell’s timely arrival with 3 more Divisions of the Army of the Ohio pulled the Union through to a barely recognizable victory.

Battle of Shiloh

Shiloh: the battle - Confederate surprise assault drives Grant’s army back to Pittsburg Landing. Benjamin Prentiss’ and WHL Wallace’s Divisions, with assorted regiments from other commands, held the Sunken Lane against most of the Southern Army. A combination of bombardment by 58 cannon and uncoordinated infantry assaults forced the surrounded men to surrender about 5:30pm. By that time, Grant formed a defensive perimeter lined with cannon & advance elements of the Army of the Cumberland arrived at Pittsburg Landing.
On April 7, Grant’s Army, reinforced by Lew Wallace & Buell’s 3, later 4 Divisions, pressed the Confederacy back until their battle line unravelled. The North lost 13,047 (@25%) to the South’s 10,794 (28%). Pursuit was perfunctory.

Shiloh shocked North and South alike. It was the bloodiest battle to date. Congressmen flocked to demand Grant’s removal. Rumors of drunkenness, incompetence, treason flew. But Lincoln only replied, sadly, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

In six months of relentless pressure, US Grant had conquered more than the South could afford to give up. The war would go on, but in the West the initiative was decided. Now the conflict was the Union’s to lose, not the Confederacy’s to win.

Grant changes the War

Grant in the Early War. Grant's attack at Belmont convinced Polk that the Union would concentrate on Missouri operations, so he refused to send troops to Fts. Henry & Donelson. This left the Confederate cordon weak in the center. A.S. Johnston, Confederate C-in-C in the West, felt unable to weaken Hardee's men at Bowling Green, opposite Buell's larger army.
When Grant pushed down the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, the Southern defenses broke in two. Grant continued his drive, occupied Nashville, then sent his men down the Tennessee River to Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh). From there he intended to begin a new drive when Buell joined him with the Army of the Cumberland. In response, A. S. Johnston abandoned KY and concentrated his whole force to attack Grant at before Buell could come up. When Grant won, the whole Confederate western strategy was ruined.


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