February 6–16, 1862: The Rise of Ulysses Grant and the Fall of Forts Henry and Donelson

Painted portrait of Ulysses Grant in hat and uniform
Ulysses Simpson Grant / Ole Peter Hansen Balling / Oil on canvas, 1865 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Ulysses S. Grant (above) began life as Ulysses Hiram Grant, but because of a mix-up on his West Point application and acceptance, he would afterwards be known as Ulysses S. Grant. It was simply a mistake on the part of the recommending congressman, but it would stay with Grant the rest of his days. His heroics would be recorded under that name—Ulysses S.—and not his given name. The chapters in his life beginning with February of 1862 were to yield another moniker altogether: “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

Photograph portrait of Andrew Foote in uniform
Andrew Hull Foote /
Mathew Brady Studio /
Albumen silver print, c. 1862 /
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution

Early 1862 brought the need for action to the federal armies in the Mississippi River and Ohio River valleys. In February, General Henry Halleck ordered Grant to reduce Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson, a much more defendable entity, on the Cumberland River, both in northwest Tennessee. On February 6, Grant brought the war to the poorly prepared Fort Henry and it was taken in less than two hours, mainly by the actions of United States Navy Flag Officer Andrew Foote (right).

Over the next ten days, Grant brought 15,000 troops east to Fort Donelson (the sister fort of Henry—some dozen miles away by the thin strip of land separating the two rivers) and the battle for it began on February 13. After being reinforced with several thousand more troops, Grant was able to take Fort Donelson; the terms of capitulation were simply “unconditional and immediate surrender.”

Old Civil War cannons looking over a river on an overcast day
Fort Donelson, photograph by Warren Perry

Grant’s army would fight one of the bloodiest battles of the war at Shiloh within two months of this victory at Donelson. They would be at Vicksburg to lay siege to that city in the late spring and early summer of the following year. The last sword to be handed to Grant in unconditional surrender would be yet another three springs beyond that upcoming season of war in 1862.

—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery