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 Descent Into Total War

This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Burning of the Shenandoah ValleyTotal War is an oft-used phrase in modern warfare. The textbook description of Total War is war in which a belligerent engages in the complete mobilization of fully available resources and population.

However, Total War in the American Civil War did not begin with a formal directive from the Lincoln administration. It was a gradual descent from a war conducted by rank amateurs to one in which increasingly veteran soldiers foraged throughout the countryside at will with the passive approval of their commanders.

The average Union soldier never accepted the policy of conciliation with the Confederacy. They looked upon them as the reason why they had left their homes and families to defend the Union. For northern soldiers the concept of the Union and its defense was paramount. They did not volunteer to free the slaves but to preserve the Union. Gary Gallagher in The Union War is very clear about this and backs his theory up with numerous quotations from contemporary sources.

Gallagher insists, abolition always “took a back seat” to the paramount goal of saving the Union. Most Northerners remained indifferent to the plight of the slaves. They embraced emancipation only when they concluded it had become necessary to win the war.

They fought because they regarded the United States as a unique experiment in democracy that guaranteed political liberty and economic opportunity in a world overrun by tyranny. Saving the Union, in the words of Secretary of State William H. Seward, meant “the saving of popular government for the world.”

They also saw the need to punish the South for their secession in a Biblical sense. One Ohio soldier wrote, “I believe, generally, there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood and the sin of rebellion is no exception. True here as very often, the blood of the innocent must mingle their blood with the guilty.”

Nearly every military order that touched on soldier’s conduct toward civilian populations emphasized that Southern property was to be respected. Soldiers were told that bad behavior would embitter the local populations and prevent reconciliation.

But tell that to cold, wet soldiers who have just marched 20 miles whose supply system was inadequate or downright broken. The supply systems of both armies were not capable of maintaining the ever-increasing sizes of both armies. Until the latter stages of the war the Union supply chain was unable to adequately feed their troops. As the Union armies picked the South clean, Confederate troops in all theaters suffered with shortages in all areas of supply.

Initially, Union troops offered to pay for food with greenbacks but in many cases most Southerners refused to accept payment. Union soldiers were always in need of firewood and rail fences and farm structures were always in danger to foragers. Anecdotes from throughout the war tell stories where deserted hamlets were quite literally taken apart for soldier’s needs.

Soldiers who felt that their normal rations were inadequate simply decided on their own to forage for food. Despite the official policy of issuing vouchers, local inhabitants constantly complained to higher authorities.

In some areas, local farmers engaged in a blatant form of price gouging. They raised the prices of all of their commodities to extremely high levels. In Unionist western Maryland farmers raised the price of watermelons from two cents to twenty-five cents. Other commodities also saw a precipitous rise in prices.

Civilians in the contested areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia often found that they were at the mercy of both armies. As the tide of battle ebbed and flowed across the countryside, soldiers from both armies foraged for food, livestock and wood.

Especially contested was the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, an area that was contested throughout the war. By 1864, the agricultural economy of the Valley was wrecked with barns burned, livestock taken and fields stripped of food sources. More importantly, farmers were drafted into the Confederate Army which further reduced the production from this vital area. Here is the link to a series that gives an overview of the destruction of the Shenandoah Valley.

Gradually, soldiers on both sides used foraging as a means of supplementing their diets. They regularly seized food stuffs, livestock and other supplies without compensation. Officers in some cases deliberately ignored orders and allowed their men to forage freely. Some Union commanders were well known for allowing their men to pillage at will.

Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker and Maj. Gen. David Hunter were two such commanders who used wholesale pillaging as a weapon against the secessionists. In Western Virginia, Col. Robert McCook‘s brigade was well-known for their pillaging the homes of secessionists. As early as October 1861, the brigade was already burning houses and public buildings along its line of march.

The success of the policy of conciliation was dependent on two variables: the willingness of Union soldiers to leave civilians alone and the willingness of civilians to leave soldiers alone. Almost from the outset, soldiers found that neither condition was possible.

Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley is still remembered today as “The Burning”.


Sherman’s “Bummers” and Total War

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Sherman's March to the Sea

Uncle Billy and the March to the SeaNo description of the March to the Sea would be complete with a description of the tactics of Total War that General Sherman laid out for his troops. Called “bummers” by many southerners, Sherman’s troops were mostly battle-hardened veterans who had fought their way through the South.

Most of the units were from the Midwest. Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Minnesota all contributed units. In fact, there was only one Pennsylvania and one New York regiment among the Midwesterners.

In the novel Andersonville by McKinley Kantor has one of his characters give a graphic description of the Union troops. He describes them as hard men from the hard land of the West. The ‘bummers’ became notorious among southerners, and did much to shatter the illusion that the Confederate Army was defending its territory on all fronts.

Sherman dispatched his foraging details very scientifically using  livestock and crop production data from the 1860 census to lead his troops through areas where he believed they would be able to forage most effectively. Cotton production was especially targeted because the Union Army knew that cotton was being used to trade for weapons and military supplies. The twisted and broken railroad rails that the troops heated over fires and wrapped around tree trunks and left behind became known as “Sherman’s neckties“.

Sherman gave explicit orders to his troops regarding foraging. Here is an excerpt of Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 120 that covered foraging:

…IV. The army will forage liberally on the country during the march. To this end, each brigade commander will organize a good and sufficient foraging party, under the command of one or more discreet officers, who will gather, near the route traveled, corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command, aiming at all times to keep in the wagons at least ten day’s provisions for the command and three days’ forage. Soldiers must not enter the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit any trespass, but during a halt or a camp they may be permitted to gather turnips, potatoes, and other vegetables, and to drive in stock of their camp. To regular foraging parties must be instructed the gathering of provisions and forage at any distance from the road traveled.

V. To army corps commanders alone is intrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, &c., and for them this general Sherman's Bowtiesprinciple is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.

VI. As for horses, mules, wagons, &c., belonging to the inhabitants, the cavalry and artillery may appropriate freely and without limit, discriminating, however, between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious, usually neutral or friendly. Foraging parties may also take mules or horses to replace the jaded animals of their trains, or to serve as pack-mules for the regiments or bridges. In all foraging, of whatever kind, the parties engaged will refrain from abusive or threatening language, and may, where the officer in command thinks proper, give written certificates of the facts, but no receipts, and they will endeavor to leave with each family a reasonable portion for their maintenance.

VII. Negroes who are able-bodied and can be of service to the several columns may be taken along, but each army commander will bear in mind that the question of supplies is a very important one and that his first duty is to see to them who bear arms.

Sherman’s staff kept meticulous records of their foraging. At the end of this part of his campaign, Sherman reported that his army had inflicted $100 million (about $1.4 billion in 2010 dollars) in destruction, about one fifth of which “inured to our advantage” while the “remainder is simple waste and destruction.” The Army wrecked 300 miles of railroad and numerous bridges and miles of telegraph lines. It seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle. It confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, and destroyed uncounted cotton gins and mills.