In 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.