Shortly after General Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Donelson in mid-February 1862, his superior, Henry Halleck, ordered Grant’s main force on an expedition up the Tennessee River under a subordinate, General Charles Smith. Grant was to remain downriver at Fort Henry. He was certainly not, however, “virtually in arrest and without a command,” as claimed in his Personal Memoirs.
Such noted biographers as Ron Chernow, Dr. Brooks Simpson, and Bruce Catton have repeated the story of Colonel John Thayer, who supposedly called to see General Grant at this point. A tearful Grant “said mournfully: ‘I don’t know what they mean to do with me…. What command have I now?’”
The source of this account came from Hamlin Garland, one in the long line of biographers who have taken Grant’s side on issue after issue, despite clearly contradictory evidence. McClure’s Magazine lauded the “new and valuable material” that Garland found about Grant’s life and stated one reason that they chose Garland to write: “he has always loved and admired Grant.” Garland claimed that his intention was to “keep as closely to original sources as possible,” and he interviewed hundreds of people. Notwithstanding this assurance, he was dismissive of interviewees who were critical of Grant.
A different problem existed with the narrative that Thayer provided Garland. The transcript reads: “I never shall forget the expression of sadness on Grant’s face as I called at his headquarters at Fort Henry to say goodbuy[sic] before going up the river. He was compelled to witness the departure of the Army of the Tennessee which he had organized and which was now under the command of General Smith. The army which he had handled so splendidly and so successfully at Henry and Donelson. [Next paragraph] In a couple of weeks, Grant came to see Smith at Crump’s landing. I saw he was in great depression of spirits. He referred to his humiliating position and drew from his pocket a dispatch which he handed to me to read. It was a curt message from Halleck which said: ‘Why don’t you report?’ As I handed the dispatch back, I raised my eyes and saw the tears coursing down his face, as he uttered these sorrowful words: ‘l don’t know what they intend to do with me. I have sent in my reports daily.’ and then he added: ‘But what command have I now?’”
Therein lies a huge discrepancy. After having been instructed to remain at Fort Henry on March 4th, Grant had made explanations about his shortcomings to Halleck, who reversed his decision. Two weeks later, Grant was upriver and in command of the expedition. Any meeting with Thayer at Crump’s Landing—where part of Grant’s main force was stationed at this time—could not have Grant bemoaning, “what command have I now?” Thayer’s anecdote can not have happened as he described it to Garland.
More dismaying is how Garland did not let this obvious inaccuracy get in the way. His book, Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character, twisted Thayer’s text so that Grant was apparently left behind downriver when he complained of having no command: “One of his subordinates called to see him at Fort Henry, and was much moved by the expression of deep sadness on the face of his general. He was in great dejection. The army he had organized and led so splendidly was passing out of his hands. ‘After alluding to his position, the general took from his pocket Halleck’s curt despatch. When his friend looked up from reading it he saw tears on General Grant’s face. He said mournfully: “I don’t know what they mean to do with me.” Then he added with a sad cadence in his voice: ‘What command have I now?’”
Catton and Simpson cited Ulysses S. Grant: His Life and Character in this matter and may have been fooled by Garland’s falsehood. Ron Chernow, on the other hand, cited USC’s Hamlin Garland Papers. With the transcript—and a basic knowledge of the chronology between the Battles of Fort Donelson and Shiloh—he should have understood the utter implausibility of Thayer’s rendering.
So, unless other evidence exists showing otherwise, this episode should be considered mythical.