The Year of Three Generals: Robert E. Lee

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Robert E. Lee in dress uniformAt the end of 1863 both sides could each see a path to victory. The Confederacy realized that their path to victory needed to include the defeat of Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential elections and the defeat of his armies in the field. The Union side realized that their path to victory needed to be the utter defeat of the armies of the Confederacy.

Both sides began 1864 with relative equilibrium. But the events of the year would turn on the leadership of three generals: Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Lee was the commander of the preeminent Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He had assumed command after the severe wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines. Despite his disappointing results in western Virginia and along the coast earlier in the war, Lee seized command of the army and outfought George B. McClellan in the Seven Days Battles.

Lee was no longer the earlier ‘King of Spades’ or ‘Granny’ Lee. He became Marse Robert, the master of the battlefield. At the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) he whipped John Pope and forced him to withdraw to the safety of the Washington Defenses.

He attempted a plan that was much too complicated during the Maryland Campaign and his army suffered severe casualties at Antietam. Returning to Virginia, he bested the new Union commander, Ambrose Burnside, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, inflicting serious casualties on the enemy.

He then followed it up with what has been called his ‘perfect battle’ at Chancellorsville where he defeated another new Union commander, Joe Hooker, whose army outnumbered his by a 2-to-1 margin. However, his strong right arm, General Stonewall Jackson, was mortally wounded by his own troops while scouting after the first days’ fighting. He died several days later and Lee never adequately replaced the Great Stonewall.

At Gettysburg, almost two months later he would miss Jackson tactical skill and offensive verve. During a three-day battle, capped by a full frontal assault on the Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge, Lee’s army sustained over 23,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing. It amounted to almost one-third of his army.

But yet another Union commander, George Gordon Meade, did not take advantage of his victory and Lee held off the Army of the Potomac  in a series of battles in northern Virginia that took place from October 13th to November 7th. The Bristoe campaign was a series of five minor battles that ended with the 2nd Battle of Rappahannock Station, a Confederate defeat. It forced Lee to order his army yo retreat southward.

Meade attempted to slip through the Wilderness, the site of the Battle of Chancellorsville, in late November 1863. His goal was to strike the right flank of the Confederate Army south of the Rapidan River. Meade’s goal for a speedy advance was thwarted when Maj. Gen. William H. French‘s III Corps got bogged down in fording the river at Jacob’s Ford. French caused traffic jams when he moved his artillery to Germanna Ford, where other units were attempting to cross.

Meade advanced on the Confederate positions at Mine Run but after concluding that a Confederate line was too strong to attack, he called off the assault. Meade ordered his army into winter quarters, ending the 1863 campaign season. Lee was disappointed that Meade had withdrawn, saying: “I am too old to command this army. We never should have permitted those people to get away.”

1864 would prove a trial for Robert E. Lee and test his skills as a tactical commander. He would need to confront a Union Army under the overall command of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant who would control all of the Union armies in the field. Grant understood that the destruction of the Confederate armies, especially Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, would spell the end of the Confederacy.


Grant Takes Command

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Ulysses S. GrantUlysses S. Grant had been a failure as a peace-time army officer, a farmer, a real estate agent and finally, a clerk in his father’s stare. But Ulysses S. Grant knew how to make war. His career as a commander was a an unbroken series of successes. Even though his earlier battles were rough around the edges, Grant learned from his mistakes and continued to improve as a tactician.

As a former quartermaster he was able to keep his troops well provisioned, always a plus in the eyes of his soldiers. He was perhaps least pretentious officer in either army, never striving to place himself in the forefront when the accolades were being handed out. Most importantly, Sam Grant (his West Point nickname) understand the volunteer and in an army of almost all volunteers that counted the most.

Grant understood the tactics of combined arms both on land and on the water. The Western Theater was interlaced with rivers and Grant understood that he could move his troops swiftly along the rivers. Supplies and reinforcements could be brought to the battlefields expeditiously along the rivers of the South. Grant worked well with his counterparts in the Navy and many a battle was won by this.

Grant was not one to leave things to his staff. They acted as extensions of their commanding general, reporting to him throughout the course of battles so that he could rapidly respond to changes on the battlefield. Ulysses Grant wrote his own orders. They were meticulous and to the point. It was a natural gift that many other Civil War commanders never really mastered. As an example, Joseph E. Johnston’s orders to his commander before the Battle of Seven Pines were so confusing that James Longstreet’s unit were on the wrong road.

Grant also developed the ability to command with what today we would call a hands-on approach. In some cases, he developed his tactics on the fly. His plan to attack Fort Henry and Fort Donelson was initially turned down by General Henry Halleck. Halleck eventually relented but only approved the Forty Henry phase of the operation.

In the same dispatch to Halleck reporting his success at Fort Henry, Grant informed his commanding general that he was moving on Fort Donelson. It was not a proposal but a statement of fact. Halleck responded that he was gathering reinforcement and would have them there within the month.

Rather than wait, Grant advanced on his second objective. When Halleck instructed him to dig in at Fort Henry and await reinforcements, Grant chose to ignore Halleck’s orders. Fort Donelson surrendered on February 16, 1862, just ten days after the fall of Fort Henry.

As his responsibilities grew Grant came to trust certain officers like William T. Sherman. Grant also evaluated Admiral David Porter as an excellent officer with remarkable talents. Other officers were less worthy of his trust like John McClernand.

McClernand’s constant political maneuvering annoyed Grant but he understood that President Lincoln needed the Illinois Democrat’s support. However, when McClernand violated Grant’s order about press releases without his permission, Grant summarily relieved him of his command in June 1863.

He also realized that he would need to give written orders rather than verbal ones. At Shiloh he instructed his staff officers to order General Lew Wallace to bring his much-needed division to Pittsburg Landing. Wallace interpreted this in his own way and a six-mile hike took all day and most of the night.


After this episode Grant made sure to send all orders in writing. Most often, they were written by Grant himself. Grant’s orders were so clear and concise that even today they are considered ideal models of command communications. Horace Porter, a member of his staff, has left us a description of his order-writing process:

At this time, as throughout his later career, he wrote nearly all his documents with his own hand, and seldom dictated to any one even the most unimportant despatch. His work was performed swiftly and uninterruptedly, but without any marked display of nervous energy. His thoughts flowed as freely from his mind as the ink from his pen; he was never at a loss for an expression, and seldom interlined a word or made a material correction. He sat with his head bent low over the table, and when he had occasion to step to another table or desk to get a paper he wanted, he would glide rapidly across the room without straightening himself, and return to his seat with his body still bent over at about the same angle at which he had been sitting when he left his chair.

Many army commanders operated by consensus calling councils of war to make decisions. Ulysses S. Grant was not included in this group. His comment to one staff member, Horace Porter says it all:

It was suggested, one evening, that he instruct Sherman to hold a council of war on the subject of the next movement of his army. To this General Grant replied: “No; I will not direct any one to do what I would not do myself under similar circumstances. I never held what might be called formal councils of war, and I do not believe in them. They create a divided responsibility, and at times prevent that unity of action so necessary in the field. Some officers will in all likelihood oppose any plan that may be adopted; and when it is put into execution, such officers may, by their arguments in opposition, have so far convinced themselves that the movement will fail that they cannot enter upon it with enthusiasm, and might possibly be influenced in their actions by the feeling that a victory would be a reflection upon their judgment. I believe it is better for a commander charged with the responsibility of all the operations of his army to consult his generals freely but informally, get their views and opinions, and then make up his mind what action to take, and act accordingly. There is too much truth in the old adage, ‘Councils of war do not fight.’

The next post will outline Grant’s strategic thinking in the fall and winter of 1862-1863.







The Opposing Sides’ Strategies

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant and LeeStarting with the Overland Campaign and continuing until the end of the war, the two sides had diametrically opposing military and political strategies. 1864 was not only a year with military objectives but also political ones.

The Union government and their army, now completely under the control of Ulysses S. Grant, had one military goal and one political one. Grant’s military goal was to defeat the armies of the Confederacy in the field.

Grant had proposed and Abraham Lincoln had approved a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Lee near Richmond, Virginia; Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman to invade Georgia, defeat Joseph E. Johnston, and capture AtlantaGeorge Crook and William W. Averell to operate against railroad supply lines in West Virginia; and Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama. This was the first time the Union armies would have a coordinated offensive strategy across a number of theaters.


In the east he gave George Meade one overriding command: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Richmond was no longer the primary goal of the Army of the Potomac. Their primary goal was to be the destruction and surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant knew that with the defeat of Lee’s army would precipitate the fall of Richmond.

In the Western Theater, Sherman had been tasked with the capture of the rail center of Atlanta. He would then seek the destruction of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Finally, Sherman would wreak destruction through Georgia, South Carolina and South Carolina, gutting the Deep South and preventing the supplying of the various Confederate armies.

Not all of Grant’s armies were led by professional soldiers and they would fall short of his goals. Butler’s mission was to deploy his 33,000-man army via the James River to the Virginia Peninsula and strike northwest to Richmond. His objective was to cut the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, a critical Southern supply line, and force Lee to send reinforcements to that front, weakening him against Grant and Meade. Ben Butler would be bottled up at Bermuda Hundred by General P.G.T. Beauregard with a force of 18,000.

Sigel would be defeated at the battle of New Market by John C. Breckinridge. Sigel staged a rapid retreat northward to Strasburg, leaving the field and the Valley to Breckinridge’s army. After learning of the Union defeat, Grant became furious and replaced Sigel with David Hunter.

Hunter waged an aggressive campaign in the southern Valley forcing Lee to dispatch Jubal Early and his Second Corps to face the Union Army. Early forced the Union forces out of the Valley and proceeded to march north into Maryland. He eventually threatened Washington, forcing Grant to send a corps to protect the city.

He returned to the Valley but Grant appointed Philip Sheridan to command the Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan conducted an aggressive campaign against Early, eventually annihilating the Second Corps and forcing the remnants to rejoin Lee. The Valley was lost as a breadbasket for the Confederacy.

Robert E. Lee had a purely defensive strategy. His initial goal was two-fold: preserve his army from attrition and defend Richmond. With an army that on occasion half the size of the Army of the Potomac, Lee would become the master of the terrain of his native state. He used every topographical feature that was available to his army.

He fought a masterful defensive campaign during May and June of 1864. Battles in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and North Anna featured the Confederates skillful use of the terrain to bleed the Union Army. Outnumbered almost 2-to-1 his army inflicted 55,000 casualties on their enemy while sustaining 33,600. However, the Confederate losses represented about half of their army.

Grant knew that he could bleed Lee’s army while his own armies had a much larger pool of manpower available. However, looming in November was the Presidential election. Lincoln needed victories in the field in order to fend off the challenge from George McClellan, the Democrat nominee. The rising casualty lists would drive the voters into the arms of the Democrats unless they saw the hope of victory on the horizon.

Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee realized that their only hope of achieving independence was the defeat of Abraham Lincoln at the polls.  1864 would therefore become the most important year of the war. Victory would hang in the balance for the greater part of the year.





William Tecumseh Sherman: Uncle Billy to his troops

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Uncle Billy at AtlantaUnlike his commanding officer, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman was successful in almost every endeavor that he embarked upon. Sherman’s father was a successful lawyer who served on the Ohio Supreme Court. But Charles Sherman died when Sherman was about leaving a widow and eleven children with inadequate financial resources.

Sherman was raised by a neighbor and family friend Thomas Ewing, a prominent member of the Whig Party who served as senator from Ohio and as the first Secretary of the Interior. At the age of 16 Sherman, Ewing secured an appointment for the 16-year-old Sherman as a cadet in the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1840 ranking as number 6 in his class and excelling in drawing, chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy.

He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery and fought in the Seminole Wars in Florida and Georgia. Sherman spent the Mexican War in the captured territory of California.

Despite his promotion to captain, Sherman was disappointed about his lack of a combat assignment. In 1850 Sherman married the daughter of his patron, Eleanor Boyle (“Ellen”) Ewing. They went on to have 8 children. In 1853 Sherman resigned from the army and became manager of the San Francisco branch of the St. Louis-based bank, Lucas, Turner & Co.

Sherman’s San Francisco branch closed in May 1857, and he relocated to New York on behalf of the same bank. When the bank failed during the financial Panic of 1857, he closed the New York branch. In early 1858, he returned to California to wrap-up the bank’s affairs there. Later in 1858, he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he tried his hand at law practice.

The following year, Sherman accepted a job as the first superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy in Pineville, which would later become Louisiana State University (LSU). Colonel Joseph P. Taylor, the brother of the late President Zachary Taylor, declared that “if you had hunted the whole army, from one end of it to the other, you could not have found a man in it more admirably suited for the position in every respect than Sherman.”

Sherman resigned from his position in January of 1861 rather than compromise his integrity by cooperating with a secessionist state government. He took a position in St. Louis but after several months his brother, Senator John Sherman, secured him a commission as as colonel of the 13th U.S. Infantry regiment, effective May 14, 1861.

Sherman was one of the few officers to distinguish himself at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, where he was grazed by bullets in the knee and shoulder. Sherman began to question his abilities but Abraham Lincoln thought better and promoted him to brigadier general of volunteers (effective May 17, 1861, with seniority in rank to Ulysses S. Grant, his future commander).

He was assigned to serve under General Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame in the Department of the Cumberland but Anderson resigned but in October Anderson resigned and Sherman moved up to his spot. But Sherman who was always afraid of failing had what many consider a nervous breakdown and was put on leave to recover.

Upon his return to active duty in December, Sherman was assigned rear-echelon duties where he became acquainted with Ulysses S. Grant who had just captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.

Sherman got his wish to serve under Grant when he was assigned on March 1, 1862, to the Army of West Tennessee as commander of the 5th Division. His first major test under Grant was at the Battle of Shiloh. Sherman was surprised by the Confederate assault but he rallied his division and conducted an orderly, fighting retreat that helped avert a disastrous Union rout.

Meeting Grant who was sitting under a tree calmly smoking a cigar, Sherman said: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” After a puff of his cigar, Grant replied calmly: “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.” Sherman proved instrumental to the successful Union counterattack of April 7, 1862. Sherman was wounded twice and had three horses shot out from under him. His performance was praised by Grant and Halleck and after the battle, he was promoted to major general of volunteers, effective May 1, 1862.

Sherman’s military record in 1862–63 was mixed. In December 1862, forces under his command suffered a severe repulse at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Soon after, his XV Corps was ordered to join Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand in his successful assault on Arkansas Post, generally regarded as a politically motivated distraction from the effort to capture Vicksburg.

Before the Vicksburg Campaign in the spring of 1863, Sherman expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of Grant’s unorthodox strategy, but he went on to perform well in that campaign under Grant’s supervision.

Command in the West was unified under Grant (Military Division of the Mississippi), and Sherman succeeded Grant in command of the Army of the Tennessee. Under his leadership, the Army of the Tennessee fought at Chattanooga, Knoxville, Meridian, Mississippi and the long Atlanta Campaign. The latter culminated in the capture of that key rail center on September 2, 1864.

With Grant’s promotion to General-in-Chief in March 1864, Sherman was appointed to succeed Grant as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi. In essence, he was in command of all Union troops in the Western Theater: the 60,000-strong Army of the Cumberland under George Henry Thomas, the 25,000-strong Army of the Tennessee under James B. McPherson, and the 13,000-strong Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield.

After the burning Atlanta, Sherman and the 62,000-man strong army began his famous March to the Sea. He moved from Atlanta to the port city of Savannah causing by his own estimation $100 million in damage. His troops captured Savannah on December 21, 1864. Sherman then dispatched a famous message to Lincoln, offering him the city as a Christmas present.

“I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

Rather than leapfrog to Virginia by steamer, Sherman convinced Grant to allow him to march north through the Carolinas. Upon capturing the South Carolina capital of Columbia, a Union soldier said to his comrades, “Here is where treason began and, by God, here is where it will end!” No one knows who started the fires but by the morning most of the central city was destroyed.

Sherman’s forces defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Bentonville on March 19 to March 21, 1865. On April 26, 1865, General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman.


Grant’s Original Strategy

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant as a Lieutenant GeneralIn the late summer of 1863, Ulysses S. Grant was asked by then-General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to outline his plans on a broader strategy against the South. After all, Grant was the most successful commander that the Union Army had. He had led the Western armies in an almost unbroken series of victories against his nation’s foe. Why wouldn’t the high command in Washington wish to know his thinking?

Halleck had been Grant’s direct commander in the West and based on they way that he treated him thought little of his intellect and military knowledge. Either Halleck realized that his earlier judgments of Grant were wrong or he realized that change was in the air. He better begin to find out Grant’s thinking before he became the boss.

Grant responded with two letters to Halleck. In them he outlined a bold campaign scheme. Grant had called for the consolidation of the Western armies under one consolidated command. Grant was widely viewed by the Easterners as a plodding butcher who achieved his victories by sheer overwhelming force. However, his views on strategy both in the Western Theater and in the overall war changed that dismissive attitude.

It turned out the Ulysses S. Grant was a strategic thinker of considerable ability and sophistication. Earlier, Grant had called for the consolidation of the Western armies under one consolidated command.

He put forward a plan that called for his own Army of the Tennessee and Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf to start at Mobile and drive north to capture Montgomery, Alabama.

Meanwhile, General William S. Rosecrans was to advance overland from Chattanooga to Atlanta. All military resources in the area were to be destroyed, depriving the Confederacy of vital supplies.

Grant ran in to Lincoln’s desire to send Banks up the Red River to ‘show the flag.’ The French had installed  Maximillian, the archduke of Austria, as emperor in Mexico, a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Lincoln wanted to make it clear that the United States would defend its territory despite the Civil War. Grant’s military plans fell victim to Lincoln’s political plans.

In October 1863, all of the armies in the West, except Banks’ Army of the Gulf, were consolidated under Grant’s command. In November Grant was victorious at Chattanooga and he wasted little time in putting forward his strategic plan for the Western Theater. Grant once again proposed his Mobile to Montgomery campaign and once again Lincoln pointed out the needs of Union diplomacy with regards to Mexico.

Grant was encouraged by Washington to expand his plans to include the entire war zone. In his second letter Grant proposed what must have seemed like heresy to Eastern-centric high command. Grant proposed flanking Lee by moving deep into North Carolina and cutting off his supply lines from the South.

He proposed a starting point of Suffolk in southeastern Virginia and Raleigh, North Carolina as the objective point. He proposed to use New Bern as his supply base until the strategic port of Wilmington, North Carolina could be captured. He proposed using a force of 60,000 men to carry out the destruction of the rail lines south of Richmond. Should Lee move South to counter this force, a large force would not be required on the Potomac.

Grant saw this line of attack as most productive. It would destroy key lines of communication and supply. It would also increase desertion rates among North Carolina troops who would be eager to defend their homes. Slaves would be encouraged to leave their plantations, further diminishing the Confederate supply base. Finally Grant felt that it would “virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee.”

In summation, Grant felt that there would no longer be the need for an attack on Richmond since it would be necessary for the Confederate government to abandon their capital. Once Lee would find it necessary to move South, Richmond would cease to be important to the enemy.

In putting forward his radical plan, Grant was making the point that the destruction of the Confederate armies were the objection rather than capturing cities and towns. Grant’s plans also emphasized the use of the offensive by the Union armies would deny the offensive to Lee who many in both armies viewed as an offensive genius.

Henry W. Halleck was conservative to the core and he viewed Grant’s plan both in the East and the West as too risky. Removing so many troops from northern Virginia would leave the capital defenseless in his view. Grant’s Western strategy would never be approved by Lincoln. The President had a continued desire to control more parts of Louisiana and the Tran-Mississippi Region. The troops that Grant had designated for the Mobile Campaign were sent to Banks for his ill-advised Red River Campaign.

In the next post we’ll look at how Grant’s strategy evolved in light of the risk-averse thinking in the Washington high command.

If you’re interested in reading about Nathaniel Banks’ Red River Campaign, here is the link to the first post in the five-part series.



Grant’s Final Strategy

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant in full uniformAfter being turned down by the high Command and the President, Grant revisited his strategic plan. Washington was a risk-averse town and the military and civilian leaders of the Union government were the most risk-averse of all. Grant’s initial plans for the campaigns across the South were extremely radical.

His proposal to drive across North Carolina in order to cut off Lee’s supply lines was, in their view, the riskiest of all. Moving troops from northern Virginia would uncover the nation’s capital would risk raids by the Confederates. What if Lee didn’t take the bait and drove right up Pennsylvania Avenue? No, that just wouldn’t do.

Grant’s pincer attack from Mobile to Montgomery was rejected because Abraham Lincoln was fixated on a show of strength for the French in Mexico. He felt that the Union government needed to send a message by sending an expedition up the Red River. It was as if he was saying that we can protect all of our territory. So, it was back to the drawing board for General Grant.

Grant now proposed a new strategy. Grant had seen the war from a Western Theater point of view. In the Eastern Theater the war was mostly confined to Virginia with two confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the Western Theater the view was very different.

The war in the Western Theater exposed Grant to a war against the entirety of Southern society. He understood that the Southerners were unrepentant, their armies were resilient and the war zone was expansive.

In Virginia, the war was a one-on-one conflict between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. In the Western Theater, the war had to carried out against all of the elements: the population, the Confederate Army and Southern society. Therefore, Grant tailored his strategy based on these principles.

When asked about his opinion on Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini’s book on strategy, Grant was said to have replied:

I have never read it carefully; the art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on. 

Seems simple enough.

Grant’s first element of his strategy was the destruction of the Confederate field armies. His plan called for placing as much pressure as possible on Robert E. Lee’ Army of Northern Virginia and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. His plan was to draw them out into the open field and destroy them by a series of major engagements.

In order to successfully carry out these objective, Grant planned to coordinate all of the Union armies. By doing this the Confederates would not be able to shift their forces across theater lines, as they had done when General James Longstreet’s Second Corps had been sent to the Western Theater. This would eliminate the Confederacy’s advantage of interior lines of supply.

Grant estimated that if he couldn’t annihilate his enemies in battle, he would be able to exhaust them logistically, economically and psychologically. It has been characterized by historians either as a annihilation or attrition or both.

Grant and his disciples, the foremost being William T. Sherman, saw war as brutal and unpleasant. They believed in the “hard war” or total war that would be necessary in order to bring the Civil War to swift and successful conclusion.

In order to carry out his strategy, Grant would need commanders that agreed with his belief in “hard war” but here he ran into the political realities of the war.

Sherman was a logical choice as commander of the Army of the Tennessee and eventually overall commander of the Western Theater. Today, he is best remembered for his pronouncement: “All war is hell” but in a letter to the mayor and city council of Atlanta he wrote:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.

Sherman was an easy position to fill but the others were not so easy. General Nathaniel Banks was in command of the Army of the Gulf. He was a former Massachusetts Congressman and Governor with very little military experience. His Red River Expedition was defeated before the campaigns in Virginia and Georgia could even begin. This gave Grant the opportunity to replace him with General Edward Canby. By then Grant lamented that the Red River Expedition had eliminated the use of 40,000 troops for the Sherman’s campaign and the attack on Mobile.

The commander in the Shenandoah Valley was General Franz Sigel, a German immigrant. So far, Sigel was a best inept and at worst incompetent. He had been appointed to his position by Lincoln who hoped to secure German immigrant support for the Republican Party. Sigel failed miserably at the Battle of New Market on May 15th and retreated North to safety. Grant was furious and replaced him with General David Hunter.

Grant’s plan called for the movement of the Army of the James to threaten Richmond from the East. The commander of the Army of the James was another Massachusetts politician, General Ben Butler. Butler was a former Democrat turned Radical Republican. Lincoln needed the support of that wing of his party so Butler’s appointment was a foregone conclusion.

Initially, Grant was favorably impressed with Butler when they met at Fortress Monroe in April. Grant’s initial judgment of Ben Butler was a serious mistake. He was indecisive and needed constant supervision. Grant constantly needed to prod him to take action. He was unable to break through the Confederate lines at Bermuda Hundred even though he outnumbered General P.G.T. Beauregard 33,000 to 18,000. This allowed Lee to move troops from this line.

Finally, Grant kept George Gordon Meade as the commander of the Army of the Potomac even though he offered to resign. Grant was impressed by Grant’s willingness to step aside for the welfare of the nation. Grant kept him on but decided to travel with the Army of the Potomac where he could guide his chief weapon.


You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.


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.