Written by Ned Lodwick, U.S. Homestead Association
This picture was taken in Cairo, Illinois of the newly appointed Brigadier General, U.S. Grant, in May of 1861.
By December of 1861 Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant had his headquarters in the St. Cloud Hotel in Cairo, Illinois. Cairo was on the north bank of the Ohio River were the Ohio empties into the Mississippi River. Ulysses had already occupied Paducah, Kentucky at the mouth of the Tennessee River and was fortifying that area. The Cumberland River emptied into the Ohio River just a few miles east of Paducah. Ulysses was poised at the crossroads of the western theater of the Civil War and he knew it.
In the 1860’s commerce and large armies moved most easily on the waterways of America. The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers flowed south and were essential to the Midwestern farmers to get their crops to markets in New Orleans. The Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers flowed north from Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to the Ohio River. Grant knew he had no force under his command that could directly open the Mississippi River at this time. The Confederate fortifications at Columbus, Kentucky, Island No.10, and Memphis; not to mention Vicksburg, would take many times the men and equipment available to this newly commissioned brigadier general.
But if a bold strike was to be made by traveling south on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and out flanking some of those forts on the Mississippi a breakthrough was possible. Ulysses could travel up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and get behind the garrisons of at least Columbus and force the Confederates to abandon that powerful position without a shot. This would be Ulysses’ campaign if he could get permission to try it.
Both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were defended by forts near the Kentucky and Tennessee border where only 12 miles of land separated to two rivers. The forts, Fort Henry on the Tennessee and. Ft. Donelson and the Cumberland, could reinforce each other if either one fort was attacked. First reports from scouts said both forts were nearly as formidable as the one at Columbus, Kentucky but more reliable intelligence said that Ft. Donelson was very strong with a garrison of 17,000 infantry and a river battery of very large cannon that commanded the approaches on the Cumberland River. A closer look at Ft Henry and its 3,000 man garrison and poorly placed river battery suggested it might be easily taken.
Ulysses plan would be to attack Ft. Henry in a combined force of infantry and gunboats and then attack Ft. Donelson in the same manner. On February 6th 1862 the Union forces under General Grant attacked Ft. Henry. The 15,000 infantry were put ashore a few miles from the fort and the gunboats under the command of Commodore Andrew H. Foote was to steam ahead and soften up the fort before the infantry could arrive to capture the fort. It took the infantry four hours to march to the fort all the while listening to the roar of the artillery duel ahead of them. As they neared the fort the roar stopped and when they could finally see the fort a white fly flew over it.
With Ft. Henry captured attention was placed on Ft. Donelson. The infantry now reinforced to number 27,000 marched overland and surrounded Ft. Donelson while the Navy had to go north on the Tennessee River to the Ohio then south on the Cumberland to reach the battle. By February 14, 1862 all of Grant’s forces were in place around Ft. Donelson and after failed assaults by the gunboats, the Union infantry, and the Confederates a siege seemed eminent.
Ulysses’ good friend, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, was in command of the Confederate forces and asked Ulysses what conditions he could expect if he surrendered his garrison. Ulysses reply is as follows: “Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except complete and unconditional surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works. I am sir, very respectfully Your obt. Svt. US. Grant Brig. Gen”
On February 17th the 17,000 man garrison of Ft. Donelson laid down their weapons and marched into captivity, the largest surrender of troops in North America up to that date. Several other events swiftly followed. The indestructible fort at Columbus, Kentucky was abandoned and President Lincoln promoted U.S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant to major general. Until this time Ulysses was a pipe smoker but a photographer took a photo of Grant smoking a celebratory cigar shortly after the surrender and from that time on Ulysses received hundreds of cigars a month from admiring fans. He felt it was his duty to smoke them. He smoked up to twenty five cigars a day and in 1885 died of throat cancer.