The Decision that transformed the Civil War

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Ulysses S. GrantOver the course of his presidency Abraham Lincoln made a number of decisions that changed the direction of the war. His initial response to the firing on Fort Sumter was one such decision. Another was the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation that added a new dimension to the conflict: the freeing of the slaves.

But the decisions that he made on March 9, 1865 were to to have ramifications right through to the end of the war and beyond. For it was on that day that he appointed General Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of all of the Union armies and General William T. Sherman as his replacement as overall commander of the Union armies in the Western Theater.

Up to this point in the conflict, Lincoln’s record of appointments of general officers was mixed at best. At the onset of the war the Union armies had a mix of professional soldiers and politicians as their commanders. George McClellan was a professional while his successor Ambrose was both a professional and a politician. Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks were both politicians.

Lincoln felt that he needed the Democrat politicians on his side in order to have the Union war effort be seen as bi-partisan. All of the above officers and a number of other ones were by and large Democrats.

As the war progressed most of these men were found wanting and the professional, West Point-trained officers began to rise to the top of the command hierarchy. That’s not to say that they were always the best choice but overall they were the most competent officers available.


We also need to understand that not one single general officer, North or South, had experience commanding large bodies of troops. The antebellum United States Army numbered about 16,000 officers and men scattered in company-size units throughout the country. Like their raw recruits the army commanders were learning on the job. At First Manassas (or Bull Run), both armies could best be characterized as ‘armed mobs’.

Grant and Sherman were the products of the Union armies in the Western Theater. At the start of the war Grant began the war as the sole military professional in Galena, Illinois. He recruited a company of volunteers and accompanied them to the state capital of Springfield where he was offered a position training new recruits.

But Grant was not satisfied with that role and lobbied hard for a field command. With the help of family friend, Illinois congressman Elihu B. Washburne, Grant rose from colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment to commander of the District of Cairo.

From his base at Cairo, Grant led increasingly large forces against the Confederates at Belmont, Missouri, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. At Fort Donelson Grant demanded the unconditional surrender of the Confederates from his one-time friend Simon Bolivar Buckner.

At Shiloh proved his ability to respond to the reverse of the first day of combat and whipped his foes on the second day. Shiloh was the costliest of the war to date, with total Union and Confederate casualties of 23,746. Grant received high praise from many corners. He later remarked that the carnage had made it clear to him that the Confederacy would only be defeated by complete annihilation of its armies.

After Shiloh the commander of the Western Theater, General Henry W. Halleck, promoted Grant to the meaningless position as his second-in-command. After it took Halleck 19 days to move 30 miles to Corinth, Mississippi which allowed the entire Confederate to retreat unchallenged, Lincoln ordered Grant’s reinstatement as the commander of the Army of the Tennessee.

Grant’s next challenge was the capture of the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Jefferson Davis said the Vicksburg was the nail that held the two haves of the Confederacy together. Vicksburg was surrounded by swamps and bayous that called for an imaginative circuitous approach.

Grant who was a master of combined arms used river boats to ferry his troops across the Mississippi River south of the city. He then circled to the east of the city where he engaged the Confederate defenders in a series of battles that forced them back into the city. After a campaign that last over two months, General John C. Pemberton surrendered the city and its garrison of some 33,000 men on July 4, 1863.

Lincoln put Grant in command of the newly formed Division of the Mississippi in October 1863, giving Grant charge of the entire western theater of war except for Louisiana. After General William Rosecrans was defeated at Chickamauga, he was forced to retreat to Chattanooga, Tennessee where his army was besieged by Confederate General Braxton Bragg.

Grant was able to organize a relef force with his use of the famous “Cracker Line”. Once the siege was broken Grant organized three armies to attack Bragg’s troops on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. On November 25, 1863 they drove the Confederates into headlong retreat and opened Georgia and the heartland of the Confederacy to Union invasion. Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General, a position that had previously been given only to George Washington and Winfield Scott.

Grant was recalled to Washington in March and was given overall command of the Union armies throughout the country. His first action was to articulate a new strategy. It would be a comprehensive effort of coordinated Union offensives, attacking the rebel armies at the same time to keep the Confederates from shifting reinforcements within southern interior lines. Grant ordered the offensives to commence in May 1864.


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