Posted by: Aaron Lisec | March 30, 2012

“A big fight may be looked for someplace before a great while”

1950 postcard addressed to Ulysses S. Grant III. Grant Family Papers, SCRC.

On March 29, 1862–150 years ago–Major General Ulysses S. Grant wrote to his wife Julia from this house in Savannah, Tennessee.

Six weeks earlier and 120 miles up the Tennessee River, Grant had won his first big victory of the war, capturing Forts Henry and Donelson and more than 12,000 Confederate prisoners.  He captured a bit of the Northern mood as well, with his terse message to the Confederate commander at Donelson, Simon Bolivar Buckner.  Grant and Buckner were classmates twenty years before at West Point, but Grant refused to negotiate terms and demanded the “unconditional and immediate surrender” of the fort and its occupants.  The happy coincidence of the phrase “Unconditional Surrender” with Grant’s initials, which also stood for the nation, made him an instant hero in the North, where little had gone well in the first ten months of the war.  The capture of the forts was a strategic triumph, opening the Cumberland River from Paducah, Kentucky, to Nashville, which fell to the Union on February 25.  The Union navy also controlled the Tennessee River, leaving western Tennessee open to invasion.

In spite of his success and newfound acclaim, Grant spent the intervening weeks battling with his superior, General Henry W. Halleck.  Grant had not reported his movements and plans often enough to please Halleck, who ordered Grant to stay at Fort Henry while he tried to replace him.  Halleck failed–President Abraham Lincoln intervened and promoted Grant to major general.  Restored to command, on March 17 Grant followed his army up the Tennessee River (in this case, south) to Savannah, near the Mississippi border.  From his headquarters in the Cherry Mansion, he watched his forces gather a few miles away at Pittsburg Landing.  Many of the soldiers were untested recruits, and their training continued as the Confederate army massed in northern Mississippi.

Grant began his letter by reassuring Julia that he was now well, having weathered a bout of diarrhea and a malaria attack.  That said, he assessed the military situation:

Collection of Ulysses S. Grant materials, SCRC.

“Dont know when we will move.  Troops are constantly arriving so that I will soon have a very large army.  A big fight may be looked for someplace before a great while which it appears to me will be the last in the West.  This is all the time supposing that we will be successful which I never doubt for a single moment.”

Grant then updated Julia on staff matters before devoting the bulk of his letter to the feud with Halleck and the subsequent newspaper fallout.  He assured Julia that even Halleck would have regretted Grant’s removal.  And he concluded as he began, with a plain-spoken self confidence remarkable in a man who, a year earlier, seemed to have no future prospects–reduced to clerking in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, after failing as a farmer outside St. Louis.

“You need not fear but what I will come out triumphantly.  I am pulling no wires, as political Generals do, to advance myself.  I have no future ambition.  My object is to carry on my part of this war successfully and I am perfectly willing that others may make all the glory they can out of it.”

A week later, on the morning of Sunday, April 6, a Confederate force of near 45,000 attacked the Union camp at Pittsburg Landing.  The Battle of Shiloh had begun.


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