150 Years Ago This Week: Grant earns his nickname

During February, Atlantic Monthly magazine published a poem, as it often did; this one was submitted anonymously, but it and the author’s name (once it became known) would not be soon forgotten. Written on the outskirts of Washington one night the previous November, Julia Ward Howe, of the prominent Ward family of Boston, saw the multitude of army campfires from her bedroom window and sat down to pen these words: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . .” Soon the poem, set to music, would be called the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and it would become one of the most memorable of the Union war songs. The song inspired and re-inspired Northern hearts and hopes that the “terrible swift sword” would become swift and strike home.

The Federal attack on Fort Donelson in Tennessee began on Thursday, Feb. 13, and included an attack by four Union ironclads and two wooden gunboats on the Cumberland River the next day. Flag Officer Foote was wounded, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s hopes for a quick fight, as was seen at Fort Henry 10 days earlier, were dashed when the gunboats were forced to withdraw under the withering Confederate fire.

At 5 a.m. on Feb. 15, the Confederate division of Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow assaulted the Federal lines at Fort Donelson. The fighting continued back and forth the entire day, with neither side obtaining a distinct advantage. That night, a conference of the Confederate generals was held at a tavern in Dover, Tenn. It was agreed that Brig. Gen. Simon Buckner would surrender Fort Donelson; there was no other alternative. The Federal forces were far too strong; Grant’s command numbered about 27,000 while Buckner’s troops numbered about 12,000.

On Saturday, Feb. 16, Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest managed to escape the Federal lines rather than surrender, and the Confederate troops under Gen. Pillow and Gen. Wise also managed to escape. Gen. Buckner asked Gen. Grant for terms of surrender of the fort. Grant’s response was to make him a hero in the North: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Gen. Buckner, wanting no further bloodshed, accepted the terms. Federal casualties had been 2,832 in the fight, Confederate casualties about 1,500. Northern newspapers would soon proclaim that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s initials stood for “Unconditional Surrender.”

Over in Nashville, Gov. Isham Harris packed up the state papers and fled; the capital of the state was in terror of the approaching Yankees. On Feb. 17, Grant was promoted to major general, and in Richmond, the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States adjourned.

In Richmond on Feb. 18, the First Congress of the Confederate States of America convened. Before this, the earlier sessions had been the provisional congress, but elections in autumn 1861 established a formal two-house legislature. There was fighting this day in Independence and Mount Vernon, Mo.; at Bentonville, Ark.; and near Winton, N.C. President Lincoln proclaimed that the people should celebrate George Washington’s birthday. On Feb. 19, the new Confederate Congress counted the electoral vote from the 1861 elections, and ordered the release of 2,000 Federal prisoners of war.

In the late afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 20, William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln died in the White House at age 12, of typhoid fever; his death threw personal tragedy on the Lincolns and diminished the elation from the victories in Tennessee. The surrender of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson forced the evacuation of the Confederate occupation of Columbus, Ky., on the Mississippi River, and left the Bluegrass State almost devoid of organized Confederate troops. Tennessee’ Gov. Harris announced that the state capital had been moved to Memphis.

The focus of military operations was shifting now to the Southwest, and the Confederate Army of New Mexico. A pitched battle there was about to begin, following an embarrassing “mule charge.”

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.