Intra-service squabbling between Union generals Don Carlos Buell and Henry Halleck had brought the Western Theater of the American Civil War to screeching halt after successfully securing most of Kentucky in late 1861. This was despite the many readily available invasion corridors into the South defended by the under-strength armies of Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston who was given the unenviable task of securing a 300 mile front from the Cumberland Gap to the Mississippi River. President Lincoln, frustrated with the timidity of all his top commanders, issued an ultimatum in January 1862 that all Union armies must be on the move by Washington’s Birthday: 22 February.
At Paducah Kentucky, Commodore Andrew Foote and an unknown brigadier general, Ulysses S. Grant, seized upon Lincoln’s order, and convinced Halleck, their superior, that if he allowed them to attack it would fulfill the letter of Lincoln’s order, if not the spirit. Halleck, whom Lincoln once called a “damn fine clerk”, agreed. Not wasting time, the duo attacked on 3 February, three weeks earlier than Lincoln’s deadline.
Foote and Grant executed a joint Army/Navy plan to break into Tennessee by taking forts blocking access to the parallel Tennessee and Cumberland River valleys. From Paducah, Foote’s “iron and timber-clads” sailed down the river to bombard Fort Henry while Grant’s men marched. But the river was flooded, and Grant made slow progress in the boggy ground. Foote arrived on 6 February, well ahead of Grant. He was surprised to find Fort Henry poorly sited and nearly underwater; so much so that the Confederates were hastily attempting to build another fort, Fort Heiman, across the river on higher ground. Foote seized the moment, sailed his gunboats to within ¼ mile of Fort Henry, and pounded the Confederates point blank. They surrendered one hour later.
Grant arrived the next day and took advantage of the victory by moving on Ft Donelson, 12 miles away across the neck of land that separated the two rivers. On the 11th, he invested the fort. Foote attempted to do the same to Donelson as he had Henry and bombard the Confederates into surrender, but was fought off. Nonetheless, this small rebel victory couldn’t change the fact that Grant had them in a vise, and if they weren’t crushed, they’d surely starve.
After three days of fighting, the Confederate command began breaking down. The recently arrived cavalry commander, Lt Col Nathan Bedford Forrest, snuck out with his men on the night of the 15th. Along with Forrest, the top two overall fort commanders disappeared after abdicating their responsibilities to their third, Simon Bolivar Buckner, a friend of Grant’s from West Point. Buckner was convinced he could get good terms from Grant, a man he personally helped when Grant was deep into alcoholism and unemployment. He was mistaken.
On the 16th, after a failed breakout attempt by the rest of the cut off Confederates, Buckner asked for terms of surrender. Grant succinctly replied: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Buckner surrendered immediately.
Brigadier General U.S. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant gave America its first significant victory of the Civil War. Foote’s “Brown Water Navy” were masters of Tennessee’s waterways and even bombarded Confederate targets in Mississippi and Alabama. The large confederate base on the Mississippi at Columbus Ky was untenable and abandoned. Grant took Nashville a week later, the first rebel state capital to fall to Union armies during the war.