We are in the second year of the Civil War sesquicentennial, which means celebrating the 150th anniversary of its beginning.
We are in the second year of the Civil War sesquicentennial, which means celebrating the 150th anniversary of its beginning. It had been going on for 10 months this time 150 years ago, and yet the North, or U.S. Army, which had an overwhelming ratio in every category of modern warfare, had yet to achieve a significant victory.
That was about to change. The South, or Confederate States of America, was surrounded by its enemy, and the plan was to split the Confederacy in two. Back then rivers were key geographic targets, and the capture of major ones was crucial.
The Tennessee River was a key strategic target and capturing major forts along it would open the way for a march southward into the heart of the Confederacy. But that would take the joint cooperation of Army and Navy commanders and forces, and getting along together back then was about as difficult as it has always been for humans with turf designs and egos.
The command of the Union Army was in the hands of graying old men, most of whom had had combat experience some 20 years before in the Mexican War. But a lot of junior officers were now gaining posts in the upper commands of the military.
One of these was an unknown brigadier general named U.S. Grant. The U.S. stood for Ulysses Simpson, as it was erroneously recorded upon admission to Westpoint (his real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant), but that too was about to change.
In February 1862 Grant was, according to the official U.S. Army history book, "at the time an inconspicuous district commander at Cairo, Ill." He had been in several minor skirmishes, but not yet in a major battle. That too was about to change.
Grant proposed a plan to his boss of a joint Army and Navy attack down the Tennessee River to capture two major Confederate forts known as Henry and Donelson, near present-day Fort Campbell, Ky. Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck needed lots of prodding, but Grant provided it, and his plan was reluctantly approved.
Fort Henry fell after a short fight, and the defending Confederates lowered their flag even before Grant's infantry began its attack. He sent a telegram to Halleck saying "I shall take and destroy Fort Donelson on the 8th and return to Fort Henry."
Bad weather precluded that date from being prophetic, but Grant's army headed for Donelson, which was immediately reinforced. At first another naval bombardment ensued, but unlike at Henry it did not induce the defenders to surrender. So Grant ordered his infantry to attack.
But lack of cooperation and egos did not affect only the Union Army. Three Confederate brigadier generals at Donelson could not agree on strategy and split their forces, and Grant defeated each in detail.
One was Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, an old friend of Grant, who asked Grant for surrender terms. The reply changed Grant's name forever. It was "No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works."
From that day forward, Grant was known as "Unconditional Surrender" Grant, rather than Ulysses Simpson.
The fall of Donelson brought Grant from 12,000 to 15,000 prisoners, 20,000 rifles, 48 pieces of artillery, 17 heavy guns, from 2,000 to 4,000 horses, and a large quantity of commissary stores. Although not a well known victory today, it was one at the time from which the Confederacy never fully recovered.
The surrender was Feb. 15, 1862, exactly 151 years ago yesterday. As of 151 years ago today, U.S. Grant was inconspicuous no more.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.