On February 16, 1862, Brigadier General Simon Buckner surrendered Fort Donaldson and about 13,500 men to Brigadier General Grant. Buckner and Grant had been friends in their previous and now different lives. The military leaders of both the North and the South had often been in the old United States Army together and most had gone to West Point together. When the Civil War started, the majority of the seasoned officers were from the South and most of them deserted the Union. Simon Buckner was one of these.
Buckner had been born in Kentucky but went north to go to West Point and graduated one year after Grant. He fought in the Mexican-American war and then Buckner returned to New York to teach at West Point but – and I love this part – he quit the teaching post as a protest of West Point’s policy of compulsory chapel attendance. About this time, he married a woman from Connecticut. When the war broke out, Buckner was offered a generalship in the Union army by President Lincoln himself, but he turned it down and, eventually ended up in the Confederate army. And then ended up at Fort Donaldson under a general who deserted his post, leaving Buckner to face Grant.
Ulysses S. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant but his mother dropped the Hiram when he went to West Point. She realized his initials would be HUG when she was stenciling his footlocker and she was afraid that he would be teased which, at 5′-1″ and 117 pounds was probably right (the Congressman that sponsored Grant to West Point added the S for Grant’s mother’s maiden name of Simpson, but, in a clerical error, it was changed to S for Sam and he became Sam Grant at West Point). Like Buckner – and Robert Lee, for that matter – Grant fought in the Mexican-American war. He then hoped to teach math at West Point; instead, he ended up at the almost end of the world, Fort Vancouver in Oregon Territory.
Away from his wife and probably bored, Grant left the Army in disgrace for binge drinking. On his way home, broke and in disgrace, Grant ran into Buckner in New York and – probably very embarrassed – borrowed money from him while he was waiting for money to be sent from Ohio so that Grant could get back to his wife and his home. Buckner and Grant met again, almost eight years later, at Fort Donaldson.
The surrender of Fort Donaldson and an army of 13,500 men was the first major victory for the Union and the first of only three times during the Civil War when an entire army was captured – all by Grant. It was an equally major catastrophe for the South. The victory kept Kentucky in the Union and opened up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers for the North to start driving south in a campaign to open the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans.
Buckner expected his old friend, Sam Grant, to be sympathetic to his position and asked for special consideration in his and his army’s loss, but for Grant, war was war and it trumped friendship. He replied to his old friend and one time benefactor, in a letter that included the famous quotation, “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” A pissed off Buckner replied “Sir:—The distribution of the forces under my command, incident to an unexpected change of commanders, and the overwhelming force under your command, compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.”
Grant offered to loan Buckner money and to help him with his imminent imprisonment, but a still pissed Buckner declined and was sent to prison in Boston. Five months later, he was exchanged for another general. Grant became instantly famous and was promoted to Major General U. S. – “Unconditional Surrender” – Grant.
While Grant only had about 500 killed, he did have another 2,000 wounded and the battle was not as easy as it later looked. Grant made several major mistakes – like leaving the battlefield to meet with the Navy but not leaving anybody in command – that he was able to overcome and Grant being Grant, they were mistakes that he never made again.