Grant’s Role in the Eastern Theater

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

General George Gordon MeadeUlysses S. Grant was appointed as the Union Army’s General-in-Chief on March 9, 1864. Over the following two months he spent his time planning his offensive strategy of coordination. He also visited those commanders who were nearby, Gens. George Gordon Meade and Ben Butler.

Some historians have said that he misjudged both of these men and should have replaced both army commanders. In the case of Butler they are probably correct. In a previous post, we pointed out that Butler who was a Radical Republican was important to Lincoln on the political side. The continuation of his command of the Army of the James meant that the Radical Republican faction in the Congress would continue to support Lincoln’s initiatives there.

Grant retained Meade due to his unselfishness in offering to resign from command and serve wherever Grant thought that it would be most beneficial to the Union war effort. Grant would come to regret his decision about Meade.

George Gordon Meade was a West Point-trained engineer. Like many engineers he was thorough and painstaking. He tended to look at a problem from all angles until he made a final decision. Grant had a somewhat decision-making process. He would changes plans on the fly and continue moving forward against the enemy.

Meade often proceeded slowly. After the victory at Gettysburg, Meade only sent part of his cavalry in pursuit of the defeated Confederates. His infantry didn’t move south with any speed. Meade did not pursue Lee’s army aggressively enough to destroy it before it crossed back over the Potomac River to safety in the South.

An excellent resource for this phase of the Gettysburg Campaign is One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4 – 14, 1863 by by Eric WittenbergJ. David PetruzziMichael F. Nugent

Based upon their divergent theories of the offensive, this was not a marriage that would go smoothly. On top of this, Grant decided to travel with the Army of the Potomac. Meade felt that Grant was looking over his shoulder.

Grant told his staff that his job was to give each of his army commanders an offensive plan. It was their job to select the best tactics and then carry out the plan through to success.

Sherman was the only army commander who carried out Grant’s plans with the least interference from the General-in-Chief and the most success. Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley was replaced with David Hunter after the defeat at New Market. Hunter was replaced by Philip Sheridan who handled his command the most like Sheridan.

Butler was tentative and required constant prodding from Grant. He was finally replaced in January 1865 when Lincoln no longer needed the support of the Radical Republicans in the Congress.

When it came to the Army of the Potomac Grant knew that he could not afford their slowness. The army had a history of withdrawing to regroup, rest and resupply as they had fought a battle. His planned campaign was to be one of moving forward after each engagement in order to maintain maximum pressure on Lee’s Army of North Virginia.

Grant felt that they only way that he could accomplish this was to be at Meade’s elbow. He needed to assure that the Army of the Potomac maintained the pace that he knew was necessary.

Meade was publicly supportive and courteous but in private he bridled at Grant’s proximity, his treatment by the press and amongst political circles. He wrote to his wife that he was deeply disappointed and resentful that Grant was traveling with his army.

Meade was something of a Philadelphia elitist who may have seen Grant as a rough westerner. However, after his initial meeting with Grant he wrote that the General-in-Chief “showed more capacity and character than I expected.”

The questions that arose revolved around Meade’s actual role and how far Grant would go in directing the Army of the Potomac. Even though Grant defined his role as the provider of broad directives, he told his staff something different.

Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s staff, wrote that Grant told his staff that he would take a more direct approach. He directed his staff to “critical points of the line to keep me promptly advised of what is taking place.”  When emergencies arose, he wanted them to communicate his “views to commanders, and urge immediate action” without waiting for orders from himself.

Finally, he told his staff that his headquarters would be near Meade’s and he would “communicate his instructions through that officer (Meade).” It would therefore seem that Grant saw himself as someone who would give overall direction but also specific commands during battles or campaigns.


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