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‘No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.’

In February 1862, newspapers all over the North were reporting the capture of Confederate Fort Donelson in Tennessee and rapturously quoting Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s electrifying ultimatum to Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner. This was the way Unionists wanted their generals talking to Rebel commanders. At least this was the way most Union men wanted to see their generals quoted in the newspapers. But one powerful Northern commander, Major General Henry W. Halleck, was unhappy with the situation and resolved to cut Grant back down to size after his victory.

Grant was enjoying a major triumph at the moment. He had divested the South of two key forts, Henry and Donelson, at the Kentucky-Tennessee line and opened the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers to Union boats. At Donelson, Grant had also captured a garrison of about 15,000 men, “the greatest number of prisoners of war ever taken in one battle on this continent,” as he informed his men in a congratulatory order. His success meant that the Confederate defensive line from the Mississippi through Kentucky to the Alleghenies was untenable. The Southern positions in Kentucky were at best outflanked and possibly in danger of being cut off entirely. The line in central Kentucky was abandoned.

In the wake of Southern withdrawals and under pressure from Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, Nashville, Tenn., soon became the first Confederate state capital to fall to the Union. Unleashed by the fall of Fort Henry, Federal gunboats raided down the Tennessee River, wrecking Confederate targets as far south as Muscle Shoals, Ala.

Grant’s victory was one of the most decisive of the war. The fall of the forts was a tonic for Northern morale, which had not recovered from the humiliation of Bull Run in July 1861. Everyone was delighted with Grant—and had forgotten Halleck, the superior officer who had given Grant the green light for the campaign.

As he was commander of Grant’s department, it would not have been a stretch if Halleck had gotten the credit for those victories. But Halleck had been in St. Louis, hundreds of miles away from the action, and the public in those days tended to give the credit to the generals close to the actual shooting. It must have come as an unpleasant surprise to him that Grant had gotten all the glory.

Halleck soon began a series of communications to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the general-in-chief of the Army at that time, in an effort to undermine Grant. He may have been motivated by nothing more complicated than sheer jealousy at the lionization of Grant. It might also have been professional disdain: Halleck had met Grant in person not long before the campaign began and had not been impressed by the slight, undistinguished-looking officer—who was once described by one of his own staff officers as resembling “a fly on a shoulder of beef.” Grant was unmilitary looking and sometimes seemed shy and hesitant early in the war, at least when dealing with superiors. Despite Grant’s rousing victory, Halleck believed himself to be far and away the military and intellectual superior of the unprepossessing Illinoisan. After all, Halleck had once been lionized as one of the Army’s best and brightest too.

Henry Wager Halleck was born in Westernville, N.Y., on January 16, 1815. Throughout his college career, he won honors for his academic achievements. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Union College and graduated third in his class at West Point (1839), where he stayed on as a second lieutenant of engineers and taught as an assistant professor of engineering for two years (during which time he almost surely met a cadet named U.S. Grant).

After visiting Europe as the guest of a French marshal, Halleck returned home to write a “Report on the Means of National Defense,” which was later published as an official Senate document. Based on this fame, Halleck was invited by the Lowell Institute of Boston to deliver 12 lectures on military matters. Published in book form in 1846 as Elements of Military Arts and Science, they were widely read by American officers up to and during the Civil War, and established Halleck’s reputation as the country’s supreme military thinker.

Halleck was promoted to first lieutenant of engineers in 1845 and spent most of the Mexican War in California. In civilian life there, he made good as a lawyer and businessman. With secession he was appointed a general in the California militia and returned to the national colors in 1861. He wound up in command of the Department of Missouri, taking over for Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont in St. Louis.

It was here that Halleck first took up the problem of capturing Henry and Donelson, seeing clearly the strategic value of such a campaign. Halleck wired McClellan that he could take the forts—if he were given 60,000 more men, and if Buell were made subordinate to him. Neither request was granted.

It was at about this time that Grant, in command down at Cairo, Ill., asked to see Halleck to discuss a proposal to advance on Fort Henry. Halleck allowed the visit, but the interview was not successful. Halleck was recovering from the measles and was probably in no mood to listen to the brainstorms of an officer he considered his intellectual inferior. Grant failed to convince Halleck of anything, and came away feeling as if he had committed some terrible gaffe. For his part, Halleck was unimpressed by Grant and weighed the idea of demoting him.

Halleck changed his mind after Grant wired him news of a reconnaissance up Tennessee by Brig. Gen. C.F. Smith. Now under Grant’s command, Smith was an old Regular Army man whom Halleck respected. Smith found that Fort Henry was ripe for the taking. It had been built on low ground and was in constant danger of being inundated by the Tennessee River. On January 18, 1862, Grant wired Halleck for permission to mount an expedition to take the fort. Halleck granted the request.

The rest, as they say, was history. Worse, it was news— news proclaiming in every Northern paper that the victor of Henry and Donelson was Grant, not Halleck. News is history’s first draft, and Halleck may well have felt cheated by the papers—as his behavior in the days that followed, which resembled that of a vindictive man suffering from acute jealousy, suggests. The things he did to relieve that jealousy do not reflect well on the man and show that his passion was capable of trumping his common sense.

The Official Records contain Halleck’s correspondence in the weeks after Henry and Donelson. Halleck’s wires to and from Washington demonstrate that the general schemed to have Grant cashiered, shelved or demoted. The campaign began with a slight to Grant in Halleck’s wire of February 19, naming Commodore Andrew H. Foote before Grant in the message of congratulations to the Department of Missouri. Halleck then suggested to McClellan that the Army honor not Grant but his subordinate, C.F. Smith, who had indeed played a key role on the left flank during the battle for Donelson. Halleck recommended that the Army promote Smith over Grant’s head, pointing out that “by his coolness and bravery at Fort Donelson when the battle was against us, [Smith] turned the tide and carried the enemy’s outworks. Make him a major-general. You can’t get a better one. Honor him for this victory and the whole country will applaud.”

The following day Halleck brazenly suggested an appropriate reward for himself in a wire to McClellan: “I must have command of the armies in the West. Hesitation and delay are losing us the golden opportunity. Lay this before the President and Secretary of War. May I assume the command? Answer quickly.”

In a March 3 dispatch—two weeks having gone by since Halleck suggested the promotion of Smith over Grant and asked for overall command of the West for himself, and with neither request having been granted—Halleck stopped pussyfooting and planted the knife squarely in Grant’s back. He made accusations McClellan could not ignore: “I have had no communication with General Grant for more than a week. He left his command without my authority and went to Nashville. His army seems to be as much demoralized by the victory of Fort Donelson as was that of the Potomac by the defeat of Bull Run. It is hard to censure a successful general immediately after a victory, but I think he richly deserves it. I can get no returns, no reports, no information of any kind from him. Satisfied with his victory, he sits down and enjoys it without any regard to the future. I am worn-out and tired with this neglect and inefficiency. C.F. Smith is almost the only officer equal to the emergency.”

The assertion that Grant’s army was in the same disorder as the defeated Federals at Manassas was a gross fabrication. Grant had been wiring regular returns—counts of army strength and supply—to headquarters in Cairo, but a telegraph operator with Rebel sympathies was intercepting and discarding the reports. It was true that Grant had left his command to go to Nashville, but he did so to meet with Buell.

McClellan’s answer to these wires must have given Halleck immense satisfaction: “Your dispatch of last evening received. The future success of our cause demands that proceedings such as Grant’s should at once be checked. Generals must observe discipline as well as private soldiers. Do not hesitate to arrest him at once if the good of the service requires it, and place C.F. Smith in command. You are at liberty to regard this as a positive order if it will smooth your way….”

Halleck now had the go-ahead to disgrace Grant. He wired McClellan on March 4: “A rumor has just reached me that since the taking of Fort Donelson General Grant has resumed his former bad habits. If so, it will account for his neglect of my often-repeated orders. I do not deem it advisable to arrest him at present, but have placed General Smith in command of the expedition up the Tennessee. I think Smith will restore order and discipline.”

With a sneering reference to Grant’s alleged drinking problems, Halleck had now unwittingly revealed that he was removing a victorious commander on the basis of a rumor. Nonetheless, Halleck directed Grant to turn his command over to Smith. He told Grant that he was embarrassed by having to reply to War Department telegrams that he did not know what Grant’s troop strengths were. The War Department had sent no such wires.

Suddenly, with victory over Grant seemingly in his grasp, Halleck’s fortunes began to reverse. He had set a trap for himself by passing on rumors as fact and making up charges against Grant. The charges were so serious that the adjutant-general of the Army, Lorenzo Thomas, snapped the trap shut by asking for a full account of Grant’s misdeeds. This demand for details originated with President Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to know just what it was that his most successful combat general had done to deserve such a blizzard of disapproval from his immediate commander. Halleck was caught in the position of having to give substance to rumors and his own lies. As a lawyer, he must have appreciated how a full investigation of the matter would make him look.

The heartbroken Grant—now without a command and residing in virtual arrest on a gunboat at Fort Henry— had three times requested relief from service in Halleck’s department and demanded a review of the charges against him. This too would require Halleck to come up with substantial facts to flesh out his charges.

Halleck’s campaign of deceit was now in shambles, and the preservation of his own hide was a pressing issue. Thus Halleck’s reply to General Thomas on March 15:

In accordance with your instructions of the 10th instant I report that General Grant and several officers of high rank in his command, immediately after the battle of Fort Donelson went to Nashville with out my authority or knowledge. I am satisfied, however, from investigation, that General Grant did this from good intentions and from a desire to subserve the public interests….During the absence of General Grant and a part of his general officers numerous irregularities are said to have occurred at Fort Donelson. These were in violation of the orders issued by General Grant before his departure, and probably, under the circumstances, were unavoidable. General Grant has made the proper explanations, and has been directed to resume his command in the field. As he acted from a praiseworthy although mistaken zeal for the public service in going to Nashville and leaving his command, I respectfully recommend that no further notice be taken of it. There never has been any want of military subordination on the part of General Grant, and his failure to make returns of his forces has been explained.

Grant was at the head of his troops again, just in time for Shiloh, but Halleck’s mistrust and jealousy persisted. He continued to lie to his subordinate, telling him he had been shielding him from enemies in Washington who were seeking Grant’s ouster from command, and falsely claimed that McClellan had complained about the command of the Tennessee River expedition. Halleck’s jealousy and dishonesty created and sustained the crisis.

This was not to be Halleck’s last shot at humiliating his talented subordinate. On April 6-7, 1862, Grant’s army was surprised by a Confederate force under General Albert Sidney Johnston at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn. The battle, which swirled around the Shiloh meetinghouse, was the bloodiest engagement fought by American soldiers up to that time. Grant received a lot of newspaper criticism after the fact, particularly for having been caught off guard by the enemy.

Halleck came down to take command of Grant’s army in person, combining it with Buell’s force and the army of Maj. Gen. John Pope, which had taken the Rebel position on the Mississippi’s Island No. 10. The combined army, more than 100,000 strong, was to be commanded in the field by Halleck, with Brig. Gen. George H. Thomas in charge of Grant’s old force, and Buell and Pope retaining command of their respective legions. Grant was kicked upstairs to the position of second in command to Halleck, with no duties—not even those of a chief of staff. Grant was pushed out of the way as Halleck himself inched his mighty army a few thousand yards a day from Pittsburg Landing to Corinth, Miss. It took the better part of a month to make the 20-mile march. Halleck stopped early enough every day to fortify his camp and make sure there was no repeat of the surprise at Shiloh. There was no surprise, nor was there destruction or capture of the enemy army. The Confederates slipped out the backdoor of Corinth to the south and safety even with Halleck’s behemoth army lumbering up to the city’s northern gates.

Grant, left without a voice or duties, considered retiring from the Army. His friend, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, happened upon him one night while Grant was packing and getting ready to take his leave. Sherman pleaded with his friend to be patient and wait things out, reminding Grant that war is a strange business and that anything might happen.

And it did. Halleck himself was kicked upstairs in July 1862. His exploits at the gates of Corinth and the march to that city might look relatively insignificant from the distance of time, but compared to McClellan and his results in the East, Halleck cut the figure of a conquering hero. Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton decided to make Halleck the grand architect of the war and named him general-in-chief of the United States.

Thus Grant got his old job back. His army was widely scattered to defend communications on the Tennessee River as well as rail lines in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. He was on the strategic defensive for the first time in his Civil War career. But Grant had weathered the worst that Halleck could throw at him.

Soon Grant and Halleck found themselves in a strange alliance, thanks to another Illinois general, John A. McClernand, who had served with Grant through Shiloh and was a personal friend of Lincoln’s. He had gone to Washington to directly plead with Lincoln and Stanton for a command of his own to sweep down the Mississippi, take Vicksburg and link up with Federal troops in Louisiana. This would split the Confederacy in two and capture the entire Mississippi River for the Union. McClernand conferred only with Lincoln and Stanton. The three did not consult Halleck as they worked out the idea of McClernand leading an army of volunteers to Vicksburg.

If the scenario sounds irregular, that’s because it was. Lincoln, Stanton and McClernand were organizing a private army outside the U.S. Army’s chain of command. It was an unintended insult to Halleck and a serious breach of protocol for a subordinate general to bypass his department commander (Grant) and the general-in-chief (Halleck) to appeal directly to the president and secretary of war. It was predictable that Halleck, a lover of military order, would find the scheme objectionable. So did Grant, who, at the time he got wind of the plan, had been attempting to march down the middle of the state of Mississippi to take Vicksburg from the rear. The McClernand scheme marked the beginning of an unofficial alliance between Grant and Halleck. Halleck disliked Grant, but he disliked McClernand going over his head even more.

Halleck found a useful loophole in Stanton’s orders to McClernand on October 21, 1862 (emphasis added): “Major-General McClernand…is…directed to proceed to the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, to organize the troops remaining in those States and to be raised by volunteering or draft, and forward them with all dispatch to Memphis….When a sufficient force not required by the operations of General Grant’s command shall be raised, an expedition may be organized under General McClernand’s command against Vicksburg and to clear the Mississippi River and open navigation to New Orleans. The forces so organized will remain subject to the designation of the general-in-chief, and be employed according to such exigencies as the service in his judgment may require. EDWIN M. STANTON”

In other words, McClernand could raise and organize an army, send it to Memphis and march it down the Mississippi. But the army belonged to Halleck and Grant, who could take it back any time they liked.

McClernand journeyed to Indianapolis and Springfield, Ill., where he achieved great success recruiting six regiments of infantry and a six-gun battery that were sent to Columbus, Ky. An equal force was raised and sent to Memphis. That Columbus and Memphis lay in Grant’s department was no small detail. The presence of the new troops in Memphis also brought into question Sherman’s role. Grant telegraphed Halleck on November 10: “Am I to understand that I lie still here while an expedition is fitted out from Memphis, or do you want me to push as far south as possible? Am I to have Sherman move subject to my order, or is he and his forces reserved for some special service? Will not more forces be sent here?”

Mindful that McClernand’s plan was one of Lincoln’s pet projects, Halleck’s reply to Grant was careful and short: “You have command of all troops sent to your department, and have permission to fight the enemy where you please.”

Halleck, who still needed to keep McClernand (and by extension Stanton and Lincoln) happy, telegraphed Grant on November 15 that he would like to see the enemy “turned by a movement down the river from Memphis as soon as sufficient force can be collected.” Sherman, who was to command the right wing of a massive army sweeping down central Mississippi, returned to Memphis. The question now was whether the downriver offensive against Vicksburg should wait for the arrival of McClernand. Neither Grant nor Halleck thought so. Grant wired Halleck on December 8 that he would send Sherman down the river with 40,000 men while he led an overland advance against Vicksburg.

Before he got Grant’s wire, Halleck sent one of his own, stating: “The President may insist upon designating a separate commander [i.e., McClernand]; if not, assign such officers as you deem best. Sherman would be my choice as the chief under you.”

McClernand was in the dark concerning the arrangements being made between Halleck, Grant and Sherman. Grant cleared that up for him in a telegram on December 18. He told McClernand that he would be commanding an army corps, not an army, on the expedition down the Mississippi.

“Written and verbal instructions have been given General Sherman,” Grant’s dispatch continued, “which will be turned over to you on your arrival at Memphis. I hope you will find all the preliminary preparations completed on your arrival and the expedition ready to move.”

McClernand did not know that he had orders allowing him to go to Memphis, and Sherman had no orders requiring him to stay there. So Sherman set out for Vicksburg. By the time McClernand was able to arrive in Memphis on December 28, not only was the expedition ready to move, it had already left.

McClernand caught up with the troops after they had been repulsed at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou and took command, naming the force the Army of the Mississippi. He took the army out of Grant’s department to capture a Confederate fort at Post of Arkansas. McClernand then proposed pushing all the way up to Little Rock, in the opposite direction from Vicksburg. Grant vented his dismay to Halleck: “General McClernand has…gone on a wild-goose chase to the Post of Arkansas. I am ready to re-enforce, but must await further information before knowing what to do.”

Halleck replied, “You are hereby authorized to relieve General McClernand from command of the expedition against Vicksburg, giving it to the next in rank or taking it yourself.” Grant took the advice in Halleck’s wire and replaced McClernand with himself. McClernand found himself in corps command, where in the months to come he would remain a thorn in Grant’s side.

McClernand was relieved from duty during the siege of Vicksburg, when the outcome was beyond doubt and Grant could no longer be hurt by McClernand’s friendship with the president. Grant and Halleck worked harmoniously through to the conflict’s end. It was nearly two decades after the end of the war, when Grant was researching the Official Records for his memoirs, that he finally found out what a committed foe he had had in Halleck, and how close he had come to dismissal and disgrace.

Brian J. Murphy writes from Fairfield, Conn.

Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times.