Grant’s Civil War Strategy


Grant’s Civil War Strategy

Ulysses S. Grant developed his Civil War Strategy for the defeat of the Confederacy on a national level in the Spring of 1864. After his appointment to overall command of all Federal armies, Grant returned to his headquarters in Nashville in mid-March. He met with a number of high officers. He turned over command of the Army of the Tennessee to his friend and collaborator, William T. Sherman. At this meeting he told these associates that he had taken command with two significant conditions. The first condition was that Washington would not interfere with his plans. No more suggestions be they subtle or overt from the sidelines. His other condition was that he would control all aspects of the Army: the commissary, the quartermaster corps, ordinance and all other staff departments. Lincoln agreed to both of these conditions.

It was at this meeting that Grant told them of his decision to move his headquarters to the East, taking several of the top Western officers with him. This last was strongly resisted by Sherman who protested that he would be left with second-raters. After some discussion Grant took Philip Sheridan, his cavalry commander, James Harrison Wilson, another cavalry general, William “Baldy” Smith, a corps commander and John A. Rawlins, his chief of staff.

During this same visit Grant laid out his Civil War Strategy for the coming year. He told them that he intended that all of the Federal armies would be set in motion on a particular day. This would prevent the Confederates from shuttling reinforcements from one location to another. Grant gave Sherman clear and detailed instructions in two letters that were prepared in April 1864.

Gran’ts Civil War strategy was simple and somewhat reminiscent of the Anaconda Plan that General Winfield Scott had proposed at the beginning of the war.The North had imposed a naval blockade that inhibited Southern trade with Europe. This cut the Confederacy off from their markets for cotton, trade goods and armaments on the Continent. With the growth of the United States Navy it was fairly successful. A measure of this success was the reduction of exported cotton bales from 10 million in 1858 to a mere 500,000 during the blockade period. The capture of Vicksburg and the rest of the Mississippi River cut the Confederacy in half, reducing the movement of reinforcements and supplies to zero.

Now Grant presented a strategy that proposed to attack everywhere at once and he had the troops to do it. The Army of the Potomac had roughly 102,000 men. Ambrose Burnside’s independent IX Corps brought that strength to 121,500. General Benjamin Butler’s army was to advance up the James River with 53,000 men. Franz Sigel commanded a force of about 10,000 in the Shenandoah Valley.  Each of Grant’s subordinate commanders had their faults and several would be replaced over a period of time.

Against this formidable assemblage Robert E. Lee had 62,000 men and his own unquestioned military genius. Lee’s first Confederate command was as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia after the wounding of General Joseph Johnston. He had gone from success to success with the aid of able subordinates. However, after Gettysburg and the calamitous Pickett’s Charge he was forced to go on the defensive.

Grant on the other hand was a general who had learned from his mistakes. Throughout the Western fighting Grant corrected errors of command and staff. He continued to move forward, fighting his enemy with everything that he had learned in previous battles. Thus man and mission seemed to be in sync for the coming campaigns.

On March 23rd Grant returned to Washington and by the 25th had moved his headquarters to Culpepper Court House in northern Virginia. Observers in Washington and Culpepper sensed the particular air of determination that Grant exhibited. Colonel Theodore Lyman noted that Grant “habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it”. Late in life Grant observed that a successful general needed resilience, energy and health that he would not put one in the field past fifty. Ulysses Grant was 42 and was about to begin the campaign of his life.

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