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.


The Hard Hand of War

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series The James River Campaign

On March 3, 1865, Union Cavalry under the command of Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer occupied the city of Charlottesville in Albemarle County, Virginia. From this base the conducted operations against their main objectives: the Virginia Central Railroad and the James River and Kanawha Canal. The hard hand of war was inflicted on an area of the Virginia Piedmont that had not seen a “Yankee” (other than wounded prisoners) up until then.

Up until late 1862, the Union government of Abraham Lincoln had conducted what has been referred to as a “war of conciliation” against the Confederacy. The major proponents of this approach were the Generals Winfield Scott and George McClellan. They were constantly hoping for a peaceful settlement to the war.

The Hard Hand of WarAfter the Battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, it became apparent to the Union authorities that the war would be settled only one way: by the use of hard war against every institution on the South. That included a hard war against civilians and their capacity to supply the Southern armies.

After the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the “war in earnest” began. Union forces, particularly those in the Western Theater, found it necessary to sustain themselves off the fat of the land and to deal more harshly with Confederate communities abetting behind the lines.

Union policy further intensified in 1864 as Union armies, in conjunction with Grant’s multi-pronged offensive, launched large scale raids into the Confederate interior, including Sheridan’s and Sherman’s famous campaigns. These raids served the purposes of targeting the Confederacy’s manufacturing, agricultural, and transportation means of supplying its troops as well as demonstrating to Southern civilians the inability of Jefferson Davis’ government to defend them.

Thus by late 1864 and into 1865, parts of the Southern Confederacy were laid waste in order to deny much-needed supplies to the Confederate armies. The “Burning” in the Shenandoah Valley that was conducted by the Union army under the command of Maj. General Philip Sheridan was a precursor of coming events. General Ulysses Grant told Sheridan to “eat out Virginia clean and clear…. So that crows flying over it will have to carry their own provender”.

Now Sheridan was ordered to carry out the same level of destruction on the Virginia Piedmont. And his veteran cavalry forces did so with a vengeance, sensing that the end was near in Virginia.

The 2nd Ohio Cavalry had fought in many major engagements starting in the Western Theater and eventually moving to the East. They had been with Sheridan in the Valley and knew how to conduct hard war. On the night of March 6th along the Lynchburg Road towards Lovingston in Nelson County south of Charlottesville, they set fire to the split rail chestnut fences on each side of the road. The did this, according to one trooper, “to keep from freezing and towards midnight we could trace our path by the reflection of light for miles.”

A newspaper reported the raiders near Norwood in Nelson County on March 8-9th, “They burned every mill that they could find along the James General Thomas DevinRiver, destroyed all tobacco and tobacco houses and carried away all the horses and negroes they could lay their hands on. They shot about 300 of their broken down horses…”

At Scottsville in southern Albemarle County, the Brig. Gen. Thomas Devin‘s Union troops burned the tobacco warehouses along the James River. To this day, Sheridan’s Raid is still remembered in the small James River town. Several years ago the local weekly ran a front page story that featured a picture of General Sheridan with the screaming headline “Townburner” in large type. (Note: I live about 10 miles north of Scottsville.)

Another local resident along the James River reported,” We had the full benefit of seeing Sheridan’s ruthless raiders possess themselves of everything of value on the place. What they could not take off, they destroyed. The house was ransacked, from top to bottom by the relentless foe, who with rough words and clashing swords were passing in and out, riding into the porch, crowding into the house, and quarreling at such a rate that they even went so far as to draw their swords…”

Sheridan’s original plan was to move south to the city of Lynchburg. However, he received information that the city had been reinforced. Between that news and the fact that the James River was impassable due to high water, he changed the direction of his movement. Dividing his force, his various columns spread out from Charlottesville to create havoc in the surrounding area.

On March 6th, Custer’s three brigades rode south down the Charlottesville & Lynchburg Railroad towards Amherst Court House. Custer’s and Devin’s columns reunited at New Market (now Norwood) in Nelson County. Everything that was remotely of military value in their path was put to the torch: bridges, fences, mills, factories, government facilities.

Tan yards, barns, candle factories, flour mills, woolen mills, machine shops, tobacco warehouses and saddle makers all were considered legitimate targets for the hard hand of war. Livestock and fowl were either killed or eaten. Horses, mules and donkeys were either confiscated or shot. It is believed that as many as 2,000 freed slaves joined the Union cavalry column.

Of particular attention were the railroad facilities along the route. Every railroad bridge was burned. Rail were pulled up and methodically burned, melted and twisted into bowtie shapes to prevent their further use. The Union army had learned the lessons of hard war well.

The army was unable to damage the James River and Kanawha Canal itself because of the permanent nature of its construction. However, at several points along the way, lock gates, swivel posts and balancing beams that were made of wood were destroyed. The canal could also be emptied by diverting water from it.

Sheridan’s march through the Virginia Piedmont was rather swift because he was determined not to miss the end game around Petersburg. By March 10th, his forces passed through Columbia in Fluvanna County and four days later they were at Hanover Junction (now Doswell), north of Richmond. On March 27th, Sheridan’s forces arrived at Petersburg. On April 1st, Sheridan commanded the victorious Union V Corps at the Battle of Five Forks.

Sheridan offered his philosophy of hard war to German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck when he visited Europe as an observer, “The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with.” Although hard war was a harsh way of conducting warfare it became the standard of modern warfare from the American Civil War to the present day.