“The effect was electrical,” wrote Charles Dana, describing the fall of Fort Donelson along the Cumberland River in February 16, 1862. “It was the first significant victory over the rebellion, and it filled the country as well as the army which gained it with confidence and enthusiasm. . . .”
Yet Dana, a well-regarded reporter in New York, wasn’t writing this account in February of 1862–or even 1862 at all.
It was July 24, 1885. Ulysses S. Grant, the man responsible for the capture of the Confederate bastion, had died the previous day.
Grant’s pending death was the biggest news story of the summer. He was dying of terminal throat cancer, and word of his condition had leaked to the public in late March 1885. At the time, he was trying to finish his memoirs to stave off destitution following the collapse of his investment firm the previous spring (thanks to perfidy by a Ponzi-scheming business partner).
Grant died on Thursday, July 23, 1885 at 8:08 a.m. Testimonials began to appear in newspapers that very afternoon. After all, editors had almost four months of prep time to generate advance copy for the event.
Dana had first made his name working for the New York Tribune as the right hand of Horace Greeley. He left the paper and took a job instead working as the right hand of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Dana carried the fancy title of “Assistant Secretary of War,” but really, he was Stanton’s spy, investigating all sorts of things Stanton wanted more info about (his work investigating cotton speculation was especially useful).
In March, Stanton sent Dana to the Army of the Tennessee, then trying to crack the nut of Vicksburg, to keep tabs on Grant, who seemed to sit at the center of all sorts of rumors, innuendo, and unclear reports. Dana became a fan—a big fan—calling Grant “sincere, thoughtful, deep, and gifted with a courage that never faltered.” He worked as a tireless Grant advocate ever after.
In1868, Dana returned to journalism, taking over ownership of the New York Sun, which served as a Grant-boosting paper during Grant’s tenure as president.
So Dana hardly stands as a model of objective journalism when he recounts the fall of Donelson—a fort captured by a man he deeply admired and worked to promote—written as part of a memorial on the occasion of Grant’s death.
That said, Dana was right. As the first major Union victory of the war, the fall of Donelson sent an electric jolt through flagging northern morale.
Dana makes another insightful observation in his tribute the fort’s surrender. “[T]he Government and its military chiefs were amazed,” Dana wrote. “They could hardly understand that this unknown man and undisciplined army had gained such an advantage over the public enemy, while the Army of the Potomac, with its perfect equipment and organization, its large number of trained officers and its enormous preponderance of force, had not yet begun its forward movement.”
Such a comparison, if made in the real-time media environment of 1862, would surely have rankled the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Such comparisons did circulate through Washington, New York, and the north in general, which might help explain why McClellan was all-too-glad to support Halleck’s jealous attempts in March to undercut Grant’s success. “It is hard to censure a successful general . . .” Halleck groused to McClellan on March 2, referring to the “electrical” effect Donelson had created, “but I think he richly deserves it.” McClellan, replying the next day, urged Halleck to “arrest him at once if the good of the service demands it.” Grant, for his part, new nothing of their duplicity, writing to his wife, Julia, that “there are not two men in the United States who I would prefer serving under than Halleck and McClellan.”
Donelson, although not a pretty win, opened the door toward more success for Grant even as it opened cans of worms. From Dana’s privileged point of 1885 hindsight, it was easy to look overlook all the troubles, particularly in that moment of summer mourning. It was enough to remember, “The effect was electrical.”