‘Unconditional Surrender Grant’: The Civil War rolls on

By Sherman Fleek USMA Historian

February 14th, 2019 | News, News and Features
 Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner sought reasonable surrender terms from his friend “Sam” Grant. That night in a log cabin with a roaring fire, Grant asked Brig. Gen.  Charles F. Smith, his older and more experienced subordinate, his opinion. Smith said, “No terms to the damned Rebels!” (Above) This simple and direct message like the man himself, sent a shock wave through the nation, both north and south; especially to Buckner who surrendered his remaining 13,000 men garrison the next day, Feb. 16, 1862. Grant was focused on one thing only: total victory. The reporters and press had a field day, Gen. Grant was now, “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”  Courtesy Graphic

The political loyalties of Ulysses S. Grant prior to the Civil War best describe him as an independent. He was attached to the different parties at times—Whig, Democrat and then he became a true Republican once the war commenced.
He was not an abolitionist like his father Jesse Grant, but he detested slavery. His father-in-law, Frederick Dent was a militant Democrat and pro-slavery. So, Ulysses Grant was torn by the growing debate and dissension dividing the country.
Wasting away in the leather goods store in Galena, along the Mississippi River in far northern Illinois, most of the people were staunch Unionists, including all his siblings and friends.
Grant’s basic loyalty was to the Constitution and the nation, right or wrong. When national events rose to political strife during the 1860 election year, Grant did not participate.
He was not a supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and the secession crisis in 1861 hardened his patriotism for the flag. Outraged by the Confederate attack on federal property and U.S. troops in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, Grant decided to re-enter the army and fight for the Union.
“Whatever may have been my political opinions before, I have one sentiment now,” he wrote his father on April 21, “that is we have a Government and laws and a flag and they must all be sustained. There are but two parties now. Traitors & Patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter.”
Gaining more personal confidence, he knew his West Point education and training and his combat experience would entitle him to a colonelcy and command of a regiment.
He wrote letters to the War Department offering his services and made contacts with local and state authorities. Unbeknownst to him, officers at the War Department, many of them academy graduates, knew of his less than honorable resignation in California and the reason, and basically ignored him.
As difficult as Grant’s year at Galena was personally, he made friends with two men who would champion his life and career in separate ways. First, there was Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, a Republican and friend of Abraham Lincoln, who would guide, shepherd and sponsor Grant’s military service. Second, John Rawlins, a young New York lawyer, a Democrat, who would serve as Grant’s military aide, personal confidant and defender, and most importantly, Grant’s guardian concerning his drinking. Washburne was soon working behind closed political doors in Washington to assist Grant.
In May 1861, Grant was summoned to Springfield, the capital of Illinois, by Governor Richard Yates to serve as an administrative officer in the state militia.
Grant labored tirelessly for weeks performing administrative and logistical tasks as thousands of Illinois militiamen and volunteers were mustered for duty. His ability and efficiency convinced Governor Yates to commission Grant as colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Col. Grant was riding a crest. In days he impressed new raw soldiers that he was the officer in charge and that he was to be obeyed.
One reckless fellow challenged the new colonel one day and Grant simply knocked him down with several pounding blows. Grant soon forged his regiment into an efficient and disciplined unit by tough training and then marching the men 120 miles in the dread summer heat to Quincy on the Mississippi River rather than taking a train.
Col. Grant and his Illinois regiment crossed the Mississippi and served in Missouri for a couple weeks, when in early August, Grant read in a newspaper that he had been promoted to brigadier general in the volunteers.
On Aug. 8, 1861 he assumed command of the Ironton District of the Department of West (later Missouri) under Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont, the famous explorer and Pathfinder of the West.
Brig. Gen. Grant participated in a couple minor missions through October 1861, then he conducted his first real battle as a commander at Belmont, Missouri, on Nov. 7, 1861 when he led his 3,000 troops.
He drove the Confederates out, but then his men broke ranks and looted the camp. Meanwhile, the Rebels counterattacked and forced Grant to withdraw under fire. Not a victory, but Grant learned that his men were not ready for a serious campaigning, which he endeavored to correct.
The new commander of the Department of the West replacing Gen. Fremont was Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, class of 1839 at West Point. Halleck had no combat experience, was a snobbish intellectual and had little regard for Grant because of his reputation that “he was fond of the bottle.”
For the next three years, Grant and Halleck had a relationship that went from near hostility to collegian cooperation and finally a mutual partnership to win the war. But the first several months was awful for Grant.
Looking at options from the strategic situation of early 1862 along the Mississippi River and the river networks in Kentucky and Tennessee, Grant saw an opportunity for a decisive and quick campaign against the twin forts on the adjacent Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.
Forts Henry and Donelson were a few miles apart overland, undermanned and vulnerable to both waterborne and ground assaults. Grant allied with U.S. Navy Commodore Andrew Foote, an old salt, many years senior to him. Joining a small flotilla ironclad and converted riverboats, Grant formulated a plan with Foote to first capture Fort Henry on the east bank of the Tennessee. In early February, the seaborne Army troops landed north of the fort, and then a brigade under Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith on the opposite bank of the river. (Smith, an 1825 graduate, was commandant of cadets over Cadet Grant at West Point.)
On Feb. 6, at noon, Foote and his armed vessels opened fire on Fort Henry while the ground forces on both sides of the river struggled through bogs, swamps and icy wetlands to get into position.
After an hour of bombardment, the Confederates surrendered the fort. In the days that followed, Grant became an instant national hero, but he doggedly pursued the more challenging prize of Fort Donelson eleven miles east on the Cumberland River.
Fort Donelson had been reinforced and improved with outer trenches, three tiered earthworks on the river side, and boasting a dozen large siege guns and some 16,000 Confederates. Grant by February had some 25,000 men and several ironclads ready to attack.
The weather turned bitter cold with ice on the bogs and wetlands, though earlier an unseasonably warm weather caused many Union troops to discard their heavy overcoats and blanket, but now they suffered. Anxiety gripped the Confederate leaders, three brigadier generals commanding the Southern forces. Only one, Simon Bolivar Buckner, was an experienced soldier and knew Grant at West Point besides lending him money after Grant’s return from California in 1854.
Encircling the fort with Grant’s three divisions, Foote’s flotilla led off. (Grant for his era was an advanced master strategist for joint operations, often combining with the Navy especially at Vicksburg in 1863.) Foote’s vessels took a ugly beating from the strong Confederate batteries.
The next day the Confederates attempted a breakout to escape to Nashville, which succeeded initially when one of the Union divisions gave ground and was nearly routed, but the Confederates returned to the fort for their baggage. Arriving on the scene about noon, Grant considered his options, reviewed the lines, met with senior commanders and then ordered an attack which routed the Confederates, who knew that they would have to surrender to Grant.
That evening, the three Rebel leaders held a council of war when Gideon Pillow and John Floyd, lifelong politicians individually relinquished command, and escaped with some of their troops.
Buckner sought reasonable surrender terms from his friend “Sam” Grant. That night in a log cabin with a roaring fire, Grant asked Gen. Smith, his older and more experienced subordinate, his opinion.
Smith said, “No terms to the damned Rebels!” Grant then scribbled out his answer to a waiting courier:
“Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works. I am Sir.”
                                Very respectfully
               Your obt. sevt.
               U.S. Grant Brig. Gen.
This simple and direct message like the man himself, sent a shock wave through the nation, both north and south; especially to Simon Buckner who surrendered his remaining 13,000-manned garrison the next day, Feb. 16, 1862. Grant was focused on one thing only: total victory.
The reporters and press had a field day, Grant was now, “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series on Ulysses Grant until his statue dedication at West Point on April 25.)