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.



The Campaigns of 1864

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

1864 was a year that saw fighting across all areas of the South. Many of the campaigns would be of critical importance to the final outcome of the American Civil War. For those who would like to review the major campaigns the following list provides links to the first post of of each campaign series.

Western Theater

The Shenandoah Valley

The Eastern Theater


Sam Watkins’ “Company Aytch”

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Southern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

Sam WatkinsSam Watkins’ “Company Aytch: or, a Side Show of the Big Show” shows us the the Civil War in the Western Theater at the ground level. Watkins was a member of the Confederate States Army serving first in the “Bigby Greys” of the 3rd Tennessee Infantry. Shortly thereafter he transferred to First Tennessee Infantry, Company H (the “Maury Greys”) in the spring of 1861.

Sam Watkins was born in June 1839 near Columbia, Maury County, Tennessee, making him in his early to mid-twenties during the war. He was educated at Jackson College in Columbia.

Watkins served in the Confederate Army from the start of the war until the very end, surrendering with the rest of the Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in April 1865.

In between, he was at most of the major battles in the Western Theater: Cheat MountainShilohCorinthPerryville, Murfreesboro (Stones River), Shelbyville, ChattanoogaChickamaugaMissionary RidgeResacaAdairsvilleKennesaw Mountain (Cheatham Hill)New Hope Church, Zion Church, Kingston, Cassville, AtlantaJonesboroFranklin, and Nashville.

Watkins had the dubious distinction of being one of only seven men who survived the war of the original 120 men who enlisted in Company H in 1861. Of the 3,200 men who fought in the First Tennessee Infantry from the beginning of the war to the end, Watkins was one of only 65 men left standing at the surrender.

An enlisted man throughout the war, he began his service as a private and rose to the rank of fourth corporal for picking up a Union flag from the battlefield during the Battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864.

Soon after the war ended Watkins began writing his memoir of his life during the war. Initially, it was serialized by the Herald newspaper in Columbia, Watkins hometown. In 1882, it was published in book form with an initial printing of 2,000.

Historians have said that “Company Aytch” is one of the very best books written by a common soldier detailing life in the field. Watkins had an engaging style that skillfully captures every aspect of the war and his life as a soldier. His observations were used extensively by Ken Burns in the Civil War mini-series.

Watkins has handed down his description of a soldier from his reminisces of 1861:

A private soldier is but an automaton, a machine that works by the command of a good, bad, or indifferent engineer, and is presumed to know nothing of all these great events. His business is to load and shoot, stand picket, videt, etc., while the officers sleep, or perhaps die on the field of battle and glory, and his obituary and epitaph but “one” remembered among the slain, but to what company, regiment, brigade or corps he belongs, there is no account; he is soon forgotten. 

After his first battle at Cheat Mountain in western Virginia, Watkins made an interesting observation about his aims during a battle:

I always shot at privates. It was they that did the shooting and killing, and if I could kill or wound a private, why, my chances were so much the better. I always looked upon officers as harmless personages…. If I shot at an officer, it was at long range, but when we got down to close quarters I always tried to kill those that were trying to kill me. 

After the Battle of Perryville, Watkins wrote about the weariness of the long march:

Along the route it was nothing but tramp, tramp, tramp, and no sound or noise but the same inevitable, monotonous tramp, tramp, tramp, up hill and down hill, through long and dusty lanes, weary, wornout and hungry. No cheerful warble of a merry songster would ever greet our ears. It was always tramp, tramp, tramp.

After the Battle of Chickamauga, Watkins wrote about his impressions of the battlefield:

The Confederate and Federal dead, wounded, and dying were everywhere scattered over the battlefield. Men were lying where they fell, shot in every conceivable part of the body…. In fact, you might walk over the battlefield and find men shot from the crown of the head to the tip end of the toe. And then to see all those dead, wounded and dying horses….

Reader, a battlefield, after the battle, is a sad and sorrowful sight to look at. The glory of war is but the glory of battle, the shouts, and cheers, and victory.

After a visit to a field hospital in Atlanta, Watkins recorded his thoughts:

It was the only field hospital that I saw during the whole war, and I have no desire to see another. Those hollow-eyed and sunken-cheeked sufferers, shot in every conceivable part of the body; some shrieking, and calling upon their mothers; some laughing the hard, cackling laugh of the sufferer without hope, and some cursing like troopers, and some writhing and groaning as their wounds were being bandaged and dressed….

On the supposed glory of war:

Ah! reader, there is no glory for the private soldier…. The officers have all the glory. Glory is not for the private soldier, such as die in the hospitals, being eat up with the deadly gangrene, and being imperfectly waited on. Glory is for generals, colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants. They have all the glory, and when the poor private wins battles by dint of sweat, hard marches, camp and picket duty, fasting and broken bones, the officers get the glory. The private’s pay was eleven dollars per month, if he got it; the general’s pay was three hundred dollars per month, and he always got his.

Watkins’ description of the Battle of Franklin begins with:

The death-angel gathers its last harvest.

Kind reader, right here my pen, and courage, and ability fail me. I shrink from butchery. Would to God I could tear the page from these memoirs and from my own memory. It is the blackest page in the history of the war of the Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it. 

Finally, Watkins made it quite clear that “Company Aytch” was not a history of the war. “I do not pretend to write the history of the war,” he wrote. Rather, he wanted to “tell of the fellows who did the shooting and killing, the fortifying … ditching … drilling, and standing guard, for eleven dollars a month and rations.”

Watkins died on July 20, 1901 at the age of 62 in his home in the Ashwood Community. He was buried with full military honors by the members of the Leonidas Polk Bivouac, United Confederate Veterans, in the cemetery of the Zion Presbyterian Church near Mount Pleasant, Tennessee.

The song “The Kennesaw Line” describes the fighting at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on the morning of June 27, 1864. The words are adapted from Watkins’ “Company Aytch” describing the action that morning.


Union Spies: Philip Henson

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

Philip HensonUnion intelligence gathering during the American Civil War was not centralized as it is today. Very often, each major commander had his own spy or spies that concentrated on gathering intelligence in their particular area of operations. Philip Henson was just such a spy for General Ulysses S. Grant when he commanded operations in the Western Theater. (This is the only known picture of this daring spy.)

Henson was a native of Blount Springs, Alabama where he was born on December 28, 1827. He traveled widely accompanying his father, a Federal Indian Agent, on his travels to Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. At the start of the war Henson was a storekeeper in Corinth, Mississippi.

Alabama Governor A.B. Moore and Montgomery Mayor A.J. Noble appointed him Captain of the State’s Militia and the Confederacy’s Postmaster General, John Henninger Reagan selected him for the position of Field Supervisor in the Confederate Post Office Department.

His Post Office job required Henson to travel widely throughout the Southwest. During one of these trips he met with former Texas Governor Sam Houston who was a staunch Unionist. Houston persuaded Henson to become a spy for the Union Army. He had him travel to Illinois and meet with a little-known Union general by the name of Ulysses Grant.

Henson swore an oath of loyalty to the Union, because, as he’d attest to whenever asked about it, “I believed in it”. Thus began a twenty-five year relationship between the two men that would see them move together from Civil War battlefields to the White House.

Henson’s first opportunity to assist Grant was when he met with Confederate General Leonidas Polk, the “Fighting Bishop”. Polk thinking that Henson was a loyal Confederate confided in him that Confederate Generals Gideon Johnson Pillow and John Buchanan Floyd were in command of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, respectively. Henson immediately advised Grant of Polk’s admission that two “political” generals were in charge of defending the two key forts.

Grant realizing that he was dealing with amateurs immediately attacked Fort Henry with his naval and army forces. The fort fell after a brief struggle. He then marched to Fort Donelson where after a significant action delivered the first of his famous “Unconditional Surrender” demands. The Confederate suffered 13,846 total casualties out of a force of 16,171, including 327 killed, 1,127 wounded and 12,392 captured/missing.

Henson was responsible for introducing Grant to the Southern Unionists Andrew Jackson Hamilton and Charles Christopher Sheats, known as “The Mossbacks of Nickajack”, resulting in the enlistment of over 2,000 loyal Alabamans and Tennesseans in the legendary 1st Alabama Cavalry US Volunteers.

In 1863 Henson traveled to Vicksburg, Mississippi where he convinced Confederate General John C. Pemberton (the CSA commander of the city) that he would be an asset. Henson gave Pemberton misinformation about the inhumane treatment Confederate prisoners of war were supposedly receiving from their Union captors.

Pemberton had him speak to units throughout the fortress city. During these trips Henson was able to gather intelligence on the Confederate defenses. Grant was able to use the information to crack the formidable Confederate defenses and force the city’s surrender in July 1863.

In 1864 Henson was arrested by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and imprisoned. Henson was able to escape from prison after more than six months and escape to Union lines where he was reunited with Grant. Forrest was to call Henson “The most dangerous spy operating within the Confederacy”. For his contributions to the war effort Henson would receive brevets for the rank of Major.

After the war Henson remained in Grant’s service. After the assassination of President Lincoln, Grant asked him to conduct a “confidential and discrete” investigation to discover any and all details of Lincoln’s death. It was a task that continued during Grant’s Presidency and resulted in brevets for the rank of Lieutenant Colonel being bestowed upon him. Ultimately, it took over twenty years to complete.

Upon the election of U.S. Grant to the U.S. Presidency (1869–1877), Henson became the first Special Secret Service Agent of the United States of America, serving until Grant’s death in 1885. Henson died in Paris, Texas at the home of his eldest son, Phillip Edgar, a well-known cotton dealer, at 10:15 P.M. on Tuesday evening the 10th day of January, 1911.


Major Theaters of the Civil War

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series The Organization of the Armies

The War Department and the Union Army divided operations during the war into major theaters. These were for fixed geographical areas. The armies were generally assigned to those areas but as the war progressed the armies tended to move to the areas of contention rather than remain in pacified areas.

The most prominent and well-known to Civil War enthusiasts are the Eastern Theater and the Western Theater. However, there were four other theaters of the war: the Union Blockade, Lower Seaboard Theater and Gulf Approach, the Trans-Mississippi Theater and the Pacific Coast Theater.

The Eastern Theater of Operations included Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and the coastal fortifications and seaports of North Carolina. Major campaigns that took place in the Eastern Theater included the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven  Days Battles, the Maryland Campaign, the Gettysburg Campaign, the Overland Campaign, the siege of Petersburg and of course, the Appomattox Campaign that substantially ended the war in the Eastern Theater.

The Western Theater of Operations included the area east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachian Mountains. It excluded operations against the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard, but as the war progressed and William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union armies moved southeast from Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1864 and 1865, the definition of the theater expanded to encompass their operations in Georgia and the Carolinas.

The Union Blockade was a massive effort along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast areas. Its goal was to prevent passage of goods in and out of Southern ports. Based on General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”, its goal was to strangle the Confederacy and starve them into submission. It required the Navy to patrol 3,500 miles of coastline and close 12 major ports. The Union Navy built up its forces to 500 ships and captured some 1,500 blockade runners while enforcing the blockade.

The Lower Seaboard Theater encompassed major military and naval operations that occurred near the coastal areas of the Southeastern United States (in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas) as well as southern part of the Mississippi River (Port Hudson and south). Inland operations are included in the Western Theater or Trans-Mississippi Theater, depending on whether they were east or west of the Mississippi River. Coastal operations in Georgia, as the culmination of Sherman’s March to the Sea, are included in the Western Theater.

The Trans-Mississippi Theater included major military and naval operations west of the Mississippi River. The National Park Service includes 75 different battles and engagements in this theater. It included Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Louisiana west of the Mississippi River, Arizona and New Mexico. The Confederates had a mirror image theater that covered the same areas.

Finally, in the Far West was the Pacific Coast Theater. It included operations in California, Oregon, and Nevada, Washington Territory, Utah Territory, and later Idaho Territory. The operations of Union volunteer troop detachments primarily from California, some from Oregon and a few companies from Washington Territory were directed mostly against Indians in the theater. Union and Confederate regular forces did not meet directly within the Pacific Department.


Creating the Union Army

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series The Western Theater Part One

Creating the Union Army

The Union Army in the Western Theater were first created when President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 three-month volunteers in order “to suppress said combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.” His proclamation was announced on April 15, 1861, just two days after the brief siege and surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

Call for VolunteersThe first troops of these Union armies were raised by the various states of the Union who remained loyal to the Federal government. Each state was assigned a quota of troops to be raised. Without exception, the loyal states were oversubscribed. Four more states, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee, seceded from April 17th to June 8th, making a total of 11 states in the new-born Confederacy.

The United States Army had a total of 16,000 officers and men who were serving in ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted infantry. The regiments were scattered widely. Of the 197 companies in the army, 179 occupied 79 isolated posts in the West, and the remaining 18 manned garrisons east of the Mississippi River, mostly along the Canadian border and on the Atlantic coast.

Some of the Northern units were formed from pre-war militia companies that had been formed for a variety of reasons that ranged from protection from Indian raids to social clubs. Members were from all occupations from farmers to merchants to local officials. When Lincoln’s call for volunteers was announced, these local companies offered their services to their respective states almost immediately.

In some cases, prominent individuals in the community went about raising companies and regiments in which they would serve as the colonels. In Indiana Recruiting Posterother cases, companies were raised in towns and the captains of the companies elected one of their number as the regimental colonel. Al almost all cases officers and non-commissioned officers were elected by their fellow volunteers.

Volunteers with former military experience were often given preference by their communities or their governors. Many West-Point trained veterans were scattered around the North. Most had resigned from the Army either after their service in the Mexican War or simply out of the boredom of service in antebellum Army. Now was their opportunity to lead troops in the defense of their country.

One of these former veterans was Ulysses S. Grant of Galena, Illinois. Grant graduated from West Point in 1843, 21st out of 39. He was not considered a leading student but did excel in mathematics and geology. While at the academy, he was considered a fearless and expert horseman. After service in the Mexican War, where he was twice-brevetted for bravery, he was assigned to several different posts over the ensuing 6 years.

Army life was dull and boring during the antebellum period. Grant had reverted to the rank of lieutenant and his last posting did not allow him to Ulysses S. Grantbring his wife with him. Rumors began that he was drinking to excess. During this time, he had several failed attempts at business ventures. In July of 1854, he abruptly resigned from the Army and returned to the Midwest where he worked in a variety of jobs before settling in Galena, Illinois in 1860. However, the army was not done with Sam Grant.

Like many former West Pointers, Grant was offered the position as captain of Galena’s militia company. As a former officer who had actually seen wartime service, Grant felt that he should not be satisfied with such a lowly position but he did go with the company to Springfield where he volunteered his services to the governor, assisting in the formation of regimental organizations.

Each state regiment included 10 companies of approximately 100 men each. In most cases cases the equipment that the volunteers had was a misnomer. Uniforms had been made by local ladies and were of a variety of colors and types, ranging from all blue, to a combination of blue and gray or the colorful Zouave uniforms.

One of the major problems was the lack of weapons for the troops. The Federal government simply lacked sufficient small arms for so many volunteers. In order to train, some of the companies used sticks to simulate muskets. The numbers of volunteers had simply overwhelmed the Army quartermasters.

For example, Illinois had been assigned a quota of six regiments but enough men volunteered to fill an additional 10 regiments. Indiana had also had a quota of 6 regiments but within a week of the call for volunteers, there were enough companies to form a total of 13 regiments. Men flocked Zouave Cadets of Illinoisto the colors all across the Midwest. They were as green as the springtime grass that was beginning to appear.

Some many companies were formed that a bizarre competition for men took place. Late starting companies often took to enticing men from other companies with all sorts of inducements, including promotions, better rations and alcohol. Aspiring company captains sometimes used community pressure on reluctant volunteers.

In Illinois, the students of Illinois State Normal University enlisted en masse, led by their school president, Charles E. Hovey. After viewing the Union disaster at Bull Run, he returned to his school and raised a regiment that became the 33rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry. In Iowa City, a similar  regiment of college students was raised.

The Union soldiers, like many men who volunteered, were products of the communities that they came from. They were supported by their neighbors with uniforms, food and all sorts of equipment. Communities provided everything from shoes to underwear. One of the most important gifts was the unit flag that was carried into battle. They were usually presented with great ceremony to the departing contingent by local women and assembled dignitaries.

Once they were organized, the troops left for their assembly points, usually the state capital, where they joined their regiments. Here, they continued to train and drill in order to build unit cohesion. Hopefully, they received their weapons which they could use to train in the complicated loading and firing exercise. This essential training was necessary to create an army from an armed mob.