The military situation that developed at Chattanooga in the days from November 23 through November 25 bewildered almost everyone involved. In many battles, commanders lose some measure of their control of the situation, but at Chattanooga, this happened frequently. During the fighting, a number of the Union commanders behaved strangely, and people looking at the same actions on the same terrain said they saw different things. At a crucial point, Grant indecisively delayed a major attack. In the final hours of November 25, the eighteen thousand foot soldiers of Thomas’s division disregarded orders, took matters into their own hands, and achieved one of the great successes of the war by advancing to their objective with a nearly fanatical bravery. Miscommunications and misunderstandings occurred among generals on both sides. When it was over, there was reason to think that Grant slanted his report of the Battle of Chattanooga in a way that covered up both Sherman’s battlefield failure and his own uncharacteristic hesitation at a critical point. Sherman may have believed his own accounts of what happened in front of Chattanooga, but they were laden with inconsistencies.
There were ample causes for confusion and disharmony. The weather thwarted Grant’s plans for Sherman’s movements. Union generals from both the Eastern and Western theaters of war were required to work together for the first time, with mixed results. There were rivalries and mistrust: although Thomas had saved the day when Rosecrans failed at Chickamauga, he had liked and admired Rosecrans and was reluctant to become his replacement. Beyond that, Thomas had strongly disagreed with some of Grant’s first ideas for movements that Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland should make in breaking the siege, plans that Grant himself revised. Hooker was a headstrong, outspoken man, a heavy drinker, and something of a rake. He felt for good reason that Grant’s favorite general, Sherman, had a low opinion of his military abilities, and this made him dislike them both.
Friction existed on the Confederate side as well. Despite Braxton Bragg’s victory at Chickamauga, Longstreet had soon thereafter fired off a letter to the Confederate secretary of war in which he said of Bragg, “I am convinced that nothing but the hand of God can save us or help us as long as we have our present commander … Can’t you send us General Lee?” In the Union ranks, Sherman’s men, veterans of Shiloh and the Vicksburg campaign, thought of the Easterners as pampered, better-supplied, parade ground soldiers, an opinion that did not sit well with the men who had defeated Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.
Finally, an eclipse of the moon took place during the first night of battle. A Union major conversant with mythology said that “it was considered a bad omen,” not for the Union troops but for the Confederates, because up on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge they were closer to the capricious gods in their heavens. One account of all the discrepancies and unusual behavior reported at Chattanooga simply observed that “the most sensible explanation seemed to be that the eclipse of the moon had made everybody a little crazy.”
After the action at Wauhatchie, Grant’s Confederate opponent Braxton Bragg had sent Longstreet and his corps off to try to capture Knoxville, then held by the Union general Ambrose Burnside. It is unknown whether this bad idea was Bragg’s or was an order from Jefferson Davis, but this sudden removal on November 3 of a force of twenty thousand men and eighty guns that had been facing Grant at Chattanooga, coupled with the arrival of Hooker’s eighteen thousand men, had given Grant a superiority in numbers. Sherman, who had arrived in advance of his divisions on November 14, and whose force could have joined him sooner if he had left his wagon trains behind in the last days of his march, found that his entire column was mired in autumn storms that stopped him from getting into position. (General Thomas was always to believe, with some evidence, that Grant delayed because he planned for Sherman to take the major role throughout and get the credit for it, and Sherman wrote Grant, “I need not express how I felt, that my troops should cause delay.” As for Grant, he tried to protect Sherman by shifting the blame to himself, saying that he should have ordered Sherman to rush on to Chattanooga without his wagons, and failed to do that.)
On November 23, Grant went ahead, giving only a secondary role to Sherman’s forces, which were now in position on his left flank. He swiftly seized Orchard Knob, a big hill three-quarters of a mile west of Missionary Ridge, and positioned Hooker’s troops for an attack the next day on Lookout Mountain. Grant said that at Chattanooga, unlike other battlefields, the commanders could see everything—a panorama in which one could in this case study the slopes up which the Union troops would have to attack and the positions near and at the top that the Confederates would be defending. On the next day, however, when Grant sent Hooker and his men up Lookout Mountain, recent heavy rains had created so much cloud and fog that the federal troops disappeared from Grant’s view in what became known as “the Battle above the Clouds.”
Hooker was making a supreme effort to redeem himself for his failure against Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville. Not only did he throw his foot soldiers at the steep rock-strewn slope, but he also had his batteries of field artillery bring their horse-drawn cannon right up behind them. The horses struggled as they hauled the caissons and cannon up the slope through rocks and bushes, with the gunners heaving at the wheels and helping to pull with ropes. One of Sherman’s just-arrived officers, watching this from his temporarily quiet position near Missionary Ridge, found it hard to believe that these Easterners from the Army of the Potomac were doing something so aggressive. Speaking of Hooker, he turned to a fellow officer and said, “It isn’t possible the fool is taking artillery up there! … They’ll never get a gun back [intact]. Didn’t I tell you they’d better have stayed at home where they were well off—kid gloves and all?”
The cannon finally could not be tugged farther up the twelve-hundred-foot slope. When they were unlimbered and turned uphill to face the enemy, they could not be elevated high enough to fire and still avoid hitting the Union foot soldiers advancing ahead of them, but everyone on that mountain, federal and Confederate, felt the spirit fueling this attack. When the Confederate artillerymen tried to fire down at the advancing Union troops, they could not depress the muzzles of their cannon sufficiently to aim at them, but they nonetheless kept shooting, to shore up the morale of the outnumbered Confederate infantrymen defending the trenches near and at the crest of the ridge. In the meantime, the storm clouds and fog had thickened. An account described how the attackers disappeared: “Up and up they went into the clouds, which were settling down upon the lofty summit, until they were lost from sight, and their comrades watching anxiously in the Chattanooga valley could hear only the booming of cannon and the rattle of musketry far overhead, and catch glimpses of fire flashing from moment to moment through the dark clouds.”
Near the top, the Fortieth Ohio, which had come up the slope in the second wave of attackers, passed through the men of the first wave who were lying on the ground, panting from exhaustion and temporarily unable to advance another step. One of the men who had fought his way up at the very front cried out through the mist, “Here come fresh troops to relieve us. Go to it, boys. We’ve chased them up for you. Pour it into them! Give ’em hell!” The Fortieth Ohio charged right on over the crest; as they did, their commanding officer fell, shot through the heart. Beside him, the color-bearer carrying the regimental battle flag was killed.
At two in the afternoon, the clouds were thicker than ever. With his men’s ammunition nearly gone and no targets left to shoot at that they could see, Hooker ordered his men to cease fire. No one on the top of Lookout Mountain was certain of what the situation was, nor was anyone else. Grant, sending a message to General Thomas about the overall picture, reported that on his left “General Sherman carried Missionary Ridge as far as the [railroad] tunnel with only slight skirmishing,” but Grant appeared uncertain of Hooker’s fate on Lookout Mountain, which was straight in front of him but wrapped in clouds. All Grant could suggest was to find an alternate route of attack if Hooker sent word that it was “impracticable to carry the top from where he is.”
That was all Grant seemed to know about Hooker’s situation, and as night fell the rest of the Union soldiers down below Lookout Mountain had no idea of what had happened to their comrades whom they last saw advancing up the slope into the mists. All they knew was that it was silent up there in the dark.
By contrast with this generally held picture, and as an example of the conflicting stories that were to come out of the days at Chattanooga, a seemingly impeccable source offered an entirely different description of the conditions that night. Charles Dana was back with the army. No longer acting as an unofficial spy for Secretary of War Stanton (after Vicksburg he had written Stanton that yes, Grant drank, but the situation was under control), he had been named assistant secretary of war and, on an inspection trip, had been with the Army of the Cumberland since Chickamauga. He said this of those hours when no one including Grant knew where Hooker and his men were: “A full moon made the battlefield as plain to us in the valley as if it were day, the blaze of their camp fires and the flash of their guns displaying brilliantly their position and the progress of their advance.” He did, however, concur that “no report of the result was received that night.”
Whatever the midnight weather conditions—and in all accounts the weather did eventually clear—during the night every Confederate soldier left on Lookout Mountain was being quietly marched down the reverse slope in a skillful movement over to Missionary Ridge, where Sherman’s men were now ready for full-scale action. At first light the next morning, November 25, thousands of Union soldiers in the valley stared up as the dark mass of Lookout Mountain began to be visible. The dawn sky was clear and the air frosty. As the sun rose, they saw the Stars and Stripes flying at the very top of the mountain, and they began to cheer. A salute from fifty cannon was fired in honor of Hooker’s men. At the summit, the exhausted soldiers heard the army’s bands far below play “Hail to the Chief” in tribute to them.
Although most of the Confederates had been able to avoid being captured to this point in the battle, a number were taken prisoner, many of them wounded. As one of these men was being herded along to the rear, his group was halted beside a road to make way for several Union generals and their staffs who were crossing a bridge on horseback. The Confederate remembered this: “When General Grant reached the line of ragged, filthy, bloody, starveling, despairing prisoners strung out on each side of the bridge, he lifted his hat and held it over his head until he passed the last man of that living funeral cortege. He was the only officer … who recognized us as being on the face of the earth.”
After Lookout Mountain, it was Sherman’s turn to go into action. Grant’s plan apparently was to take Missionary Ridge, to the left of Lookout Mountain as he faced it on Orchard Knob, by having Sherman make the major attack on it from its northeast or left end, with Hooker striking it from its southwest end. One reasonable interpretation of the plan was that Sherman was to break through and keep going along the top of Missionary Ridge, “rolling up” the rebel lines running along the crest by hitting them from the side.
Thomas, who had saved the day at Chickamauga but still wanted to avenge that overall defeat, stood beside Grant on Orchard Knob. In command of eighteen thousand men who also wanted to show what they could do, it appeared that Thomas and his subordinate Gordon Granger were being held back from attacking the center of Missionary Ridge while Grant’s favorite, Sherman, and “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who now had the credit for taking Lookout Mountain, were given the chance to collapse the Confederate defense by attacking Missionary Ridge from its flanks. Many of Thomas’s officers believed that Sherman’s attack was to be the main effort. Sherman, on the other hand, wrote in his official report of the battle that he had received orders from Grant that included the information “that General Thomas would attack early in the day.” Later in the report, he repeated this, again underlining for emphasis: “I had watched for the attack of General Thomas ‘early in the day.’”
Those standing around Grant on Orchard Knob noticed that their usually dead-calm commander seemed nervous. He soon had reason to be. Sherman was marching his divisions down into a gap in Missionary Ridge that, until the day before, Sherman had not known existed. One account had it that the maps furnished to him showed Missionary Ridge as having a continuous crest, whereas, in the skirmishing the day before, he had discovered that, coming at it from the side, he had not reached his objective, Tunnel Hill, but was on another hill, short of that, and still had to deal with a deep ravine that ran between his men and the place they were supposed to be. Stunned by the discovery, Sherman stopped where he was, fortified his side of the ravine, and, having thrown away the momentum Grant so prized in military movements, spent the night there.
Whatever Sherman now expected, this morning his men soon came under a withering fire from several angles. The terrain at the northeast end of Missionary Ridge was such that it was hard for Sherman to send much of his numerically superior force up the narrow slope at one time, and his first attack was decisively thrown back. Then a counterattack made by the outnumbered Confederates captured five hundred of his men and eight of his regimental battle flags. Sherman went on attacking all morning, losing men and failing to advance, while on Orchard Knob Grant made no sign that Thomas, who stood a few yards from him, should throw his eighteen thousand soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland at the long center of the ridge. In his official report, Sherman was to say that he saw “vast masses” of Confederate reinforcements being sent to oppose him, reinforcements that would otherwise have remained in the middle of Missionary Ridge awaiting Thomas’s attack. Several Union generals concurred in Sherman’s statement, but that was not the conclusion reached by Colonel James Harrison Wilson, Grant’s inspector general. Wilson later reviewed other reports and documents, including a statement by the Confederate officer commanding the artillery on Missionary Ridge that no reinforcements were sent to oppose Sherman, and decided that no such movements occurred.
A possible reason for Sherman’s belief that his attacks were encountering constantly replenished Confederate forces was that the fighting abilities of the one division opposing his four divisions may have led him to overestimate how many enemies his men faced. Its commander was Major General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, an Irishman born in Cork on St. Patrick’s Day, who as a young man served in the British Army before coming to the United States and settling in Arkansas, where he became a pharmacist and then a lawyer. Cleburne had risen quickly within the Confederate Army, and the brigade he commanded at Shiloh fought valiantly in that defeat, losing nearly 40 percent of its men. In subsequent actions on battlefields ranging from Richmond and Perryville in Kentucky to the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Cleburne was wounded three times and earned the confident loyalty of his soldiers. Promoted to lead the division that was repelling Sherman’s attacks on Missionary Ridge, his regiments, some of which he had led for two years, were filled with combat veterans from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. Cleburne’s men were fighting with everything they had, and more: in addition to firing their weapons, they hurled back one of Sherman’s attacks by rolling large rocks down the slope at the advancing Union troops and then threw stones at them.
At noon, still attacking, making no progress, and able to see that Thomas’s forces were not advancing up the center slope of Missionary Ridge, Sherman had a signalman wave his handheld flags, asking Grant, “Where is Thomas?” From Orchard Knob, Grant signaled back that Thomas was starting to move, but in fact Thomas was standing right there beside Grant, just where he was supposed to be and easily accessible for Grant to command, and that was not happening.
Now the officers of Grant’s staff began conferring among themselves, some yards away from Grant. Their understanding was that Grant had told Thomas to hold his attack until Sherman turned the enemy’s right flank and Hooker turned the left, but both Sherman and Hooker were stopped where they were. Wilson noted that Grant, still standing there silently, looked discouraged. Something had to be done. Grant’s chief of staff Rawlins walked up to him and said that surely it was time for Thomas’s division to go into action.
Grant turned, went the few steps to Thomas, who was studying the enemy trenches on Missionary Ridge through his binoculars, and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time to advance against the rifle pits?”
Thomas, who was to say that he was resentful of being held back while Grant gave Sherman the chance to win the day, gave no answer and kept studying the enemy positions through his glasses.
More time passed, with Sherman’s men trying to move forward and failing, while Grant and Thomas stood immobile within a few yards of each other. It is certain that both Grant and Thomas, like all the generals in the Union and Confederate armies, knew what had happened at Gettysburg, four months before, when Lee had finally sent Pickett’s division and other units up Cemetery Ridge—a slope far less formidable than the rocky, steeper, six-hundred-foot-high face of Missionary Ridge—only to see those able, willing, experienced men slaughtered in a doomed charge that sealed the fate of the battle.
At three in the afternoon, after his fourth major attack was bloodily repulsed, Sherman stopped to rest his men. On Orchard Knob, seeing and hearing the cessation of action, Grant sent Sherman a message by signal flag: “Attack again.” At this point, as Sherman remembered it, “I thought ‘the old man’ was daft, and sent a staff officer [Major L. B. Jenney] to inquire if there was a mistake.” Jenney said that Sherman did not send him, but told him, “Go signal Grant. The orders were that I should get as many as possible in front of me and God knows there are enough. They’ve been reinforcing all day.”
Whatever message Major Jenney sent, it stirred Grant into action. Rawlins received it, walked over to Grant, and started badgering him, telling him he must make Thomas attack. Colonel Wilson, also standing there, said that Grant strode over to Thomas and, “with unusual fire, ordered Thomas to command the attack.” Thomas promptly started issuing orders for his regiments to be ready for a signal: six quick cannon blasts in a row. When they heard the last boom, they were to advance and take the trenchlike enemy rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. Grant was later to say that there had been difficulty in passing this order down to the forward commanders, and that the orders were to take the rifle pits at the bottom of the hill and then stop and reorganize “preparatory to carrying the ridge.”
When Thomas’s men heard that they were to enter the battle at last, they were eager to fight: a man of the Sixth Indiana said, “We were crazy to charge.” Thomas’s subordinate Brigadier General William B. Hazen found that every man in his brigade intended to line up and get into the attack: “All servants, cooks, clerks, found guns in some way.” When the signal of six successive cannon shots started at three-forty p.m., with the fifth shot everyone started running forward, cheering. A tremendous fusillade and barrage of enemy rifle and cannon fire poured down Missionary Ridge: a Union soldier said, “A crash like a thousand thunderclaps greeted us.” The fire came at them from everywhere: the rifle pits low on the slope, defensive positions halfway up, and the last line of trenches, six hundred feet up on the crest. Nothing stopped Thomas’s men. Encountering tree trunks that had either been knocked down by artillery or felled to slow their advance, the troops jumped, climbed, or vaulted over these obstacles, shouting and cursing as they rushed ahead. The enemy soldiers retreated from their rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, firing as they backed up the slope.
As Thomas’s men leapt into the abandoned Confederate positions at the bottom of the slope, their officers began telling them to build up the back ends of the enemy holes, to protect themselves from the intense enemy fire still pouring down on them. They were to do that, and wait for further orders. The troops had other ideas; whatever Grant thought that they were supposed to do in terms of reorganizing “preparatory to carrying the ridge,” they were going up right then, and they began running upward into the enemy fire. For a minute their officers stood on the edge of the now-empty rifle pits, waving their swords at the backs of their advancing men and shouting orders that they should return; then they too started running up Missionary Ridge, trying to get in front of their troops. In a minute the first of the Union soldiers were overtaking the slowest of the retreating Confederates, and in another few minutes they were at the suddenly evacuated second line of enemy rifle pits, farther up the slope. Alternately shouting and gasping for air, no longer in any semblance of organized formations, Thomas’s men kept going.
Watching from Orchard Knob, Grant turned to Thomas, who was still standing in the appropriate place for a commander of one of Grant’s armies, and asked sternly, “Thomas, who ordered those men up the ridge?”
Thomas replied, “I don’t know. I did not.”
Grant turned to Thomas’s second in command. “Did you order them up, Granger?”
“No,” Granger answered. “They started up without orders. When those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.”
Grant muttered that someone would face disciplinary action if the attack failed and went on watching. Regimental battle flags were advancing up Missionary Ridge, moving up through thickets, past boulders, fallen trees, and little suddenly appearing ravines. The enemy was firing, but few Union soldiers stopped to fire back. It had become a race to the top. The man carrying the banner of the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin, shouting the battle cry, “On, Wisconsin!” was Captain Arthur MacArthur, who would one day have a son named Douglas. On another part of the slope, Captain C. E. Briant of the Sixth Indiana had managed to get ahead of his entire company, but as he neared the crest a private named Tom Jackson started to sprint past him. The captain reached out and grabbed Jackson’s coattail, yanking him back as he forged ahead, but the private came on again and beat him to the top in the last yards. Looking down the reverse slope, Jackson called out to the winded men of his company who were coming over the top, “My God, come and see ’em run!”
A comrade who walked up beside Jackson recalled, “It was the sight of our lives. Gray clad men rushed wildly down the hill into the woods, tossing away knapsacks, muskets and blankets as they ran.” (In the rout, Bragg was nearly captured; four thousand of his scattered troops were eventually taken prisoner.)
Now the higher officers began catching up to the men who had been supposed to reorganize at the bottom of the slope and wait for orders. Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood came over the crest on his horse. After shouting “You’ll all be court-martialed!” at a crowd of his men, he laughed delightedly. As General O. O. Howard rode up the slope, he stopped near the top to try to comfort a dying soldier. In answer to his question of where he was hurt, the man replied, “Almost up, Sir.” When Howard explained that he meant what part of the man’s body had been hit, not where he had been on the slope, the soldier said again, “Oh, I was almost up and but for that”—he finally pointed to his mortal wound—“I’d have reached the top.”
Gasping from their efforts, the victors compared notes. The color-bearer of the Thirty-eighth Indiana told his comrades who were still coming over the crest, “A fellow of the Twenty-second Indiana was up here first, but he wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t had on my overcoat.” A captain of the Nineteenth Illinois had come up unscathed but was now examining his overcoat and discovered fourteen bullet holes in it.
Sherman’s report of what his men were doing while all this was going on described his own force as having “drawn vast masses of the enemy to our flank” and said that “it was not until night closed in that I knew that the troops in Chattanooga [Thomas’s men] had swept across Missionary Ridge and broken the enemy’s centre. Of course the victory was won, and pursuit was the next step.”
Sherman added that he ordered his reserve “to march at once” and “push forward,” but the only officer who successfully exploited the situation was Brigadier General Philip Sheridan, a short, fiery West Pointer who was the son of Irish immigrants. Sheridan had been one of the Union generals brought south with his men to face the emergency at Chattanooga. Now, while Union soldiers of all ranks acted in the spirit of “My God, come and see ’em run!,” Sheridan quickly organized a combination of moves to follow the fleeing Confederates; in an effort that did not stop until two in the morning, men of his division captured seventeen hundred prisoners and seventeen artillery pieces. Praised by Grant for his “prompt pursuit,” Sheridan had redeemed an earlier indifferent performance at Chickamauga and soon would return to the Northern theater of war, from which he would emerge as the Union’s great cavalry leader.
The Battle of Chattanooga, a most important strategic victory for the North, was finally over. The most brilliant part of it had been the impromptu assault on Missionary Ridge, which took the troops exactly fifty minutes to execute. Charles Dana had witnessed this final attack. At four-thirty that afternoon, his first report to Washington began, “Glory to God! The day is decisively ours. Missionary Ridge has just been carried by a magnificent charge of Thomas’s troops, and rebels routed.” The following day he added, “The storming of the ridge by our troops was one of the greatest miracles in military history. No man who climbs the ascent by any of the roads that wind along its front can believe that eighteen thousand men were moved in tolerably good order up its broken and crumbling face unless it was his fortune to witness the deed … Neither Grant nor Thomas intended it.”
That was the reality; as soon as the battle finished, the interpretations of what had happened during the great victory began. Hooker recalled that, soon after Missionary Ridge was taken, he heard Grant say, “Damn the battle! I had nothing to do with it.” Grant almost immediately sent Sherman a letter that started with, “No doubt you witnessed the handsome manner in which Thomas’s troops carried Missionary Ridge this afternoon, and can feel a just pride too in the part taken by the forces under your command in taking first so much of the same range of hills, and then in attracting the attention of so many of the enemy as to make Thomas’ part certain of success.”
There it was: the beginning of the debate as to whether Sherman’s attacks on the flank did in fact draw off large Confederate reinforcements whose absence weakened the enemy center. Sherman wanted to believe not only that this had happened but also that the entire strategy had been to do just that. In a letter to his brother John, he wrote, “The whole philosophy of the Battle was that I should get by a dash the extremity of Missionary Ridge from which the enemy would be forced to drive me,” and later commented that “the whole plan succeeded admirably.” The overall victory was indeed a military success, but the evidence is that Grant had intended Sherman’s effort to be the winning attack that broke through on the northeast flank of Missionary Ridge and went right along its crest, with Thomas playing a secondary role in the center, and that Sherman failed in that assignment.
Like Sherman, Grant believed what he wanted to believe. In an official report of the action, he said, “Discovering that the enemy in his desperation to defeat or resist the progress of Sherman was weakening his center on Missionary Ridge, determined me to order the advance at once. Thomas was accordingly directed to move forward his troops, constituting our center.” The “at once” is difficult to comprehend. Grant, a man of proven military intuition who said that at Chattanooga the commanders could see every part of the battlefield perfectly, had been watching Sherman unsuccessfully attack the enemy’s right flank all day. Why it took Grant until after three in the afternoon to discover that the enemy was sending reinforcements to face Sherman that were “weakening his center on Missionary Ridge”—something that Colonel Wilson of Grant’s own staff said was not the case—is either a mystery, or his statement was simply a convenient way of covering for Sherman and of putting the best face on a day when it was other men who won a crucial Union victory.
Reverting to his usual form, Grant wanted to keep up the momentum gained by scattering Bragg’s forces on Missionary Ridge and ordered Sherman and Thomas to pursue the fleeing Confederates, who were heading for Atlanta, as quickly as they could go. Once again, however, as happened after Shiloh and Vicksburg, the Union troops were exhausted, and some of the Confederate forces eluded the follow-up movements that would have destroyed them completely.
Meanwhile, Grant had remained constantly aware of Burnside’s threatened situation at Knoxville. On November 27, two days after the victory at Missionary Ridge, Burnside wrote Grant that he had no more than a few days’ supplies left and might have to surrender by December 3. Grant turned to Sherman, whose men were still spent from their part in the battle, and ordered Sherman to organize and lead an eighty-five-mile forced march to aid Burnside. (Sherman was to say that he did not want his men to have to make this grueling march, and reluctantly started them off for Knoxville.)
After six days of pushing his men along through cold weather on frozen roads that tore up the soles of their boots, Sherman rode into Knoxville at the head of his troops. The first thing he saw was a pen “holding a fine lot of cattle, which did not look much like starvation.” Burnside (whose way of wearing his facial hair gave rise to the term “sideburns”) and his officers were “domiciled in a large, fine mansion, looking very comfortable.” After having a turkey dinner with them, served at a table complete with linen and silver, Sherman observed to Burnside that this did not look like the headquarters of a starving army on the verge of surrender. Burnside admitted that he had exaggerated his plight; in the meantime, on November 29, his troops had thrown back decisively an attack made by Longstreet, who gave up the effort to take Knoxville on December 3—the day that Burnside had told Grant he might have to surrender Knoxville—and withdrew his badly beaten forces far into the hills to the north to reorganize. The siege that Sherman’s men had made a suffering march to help lift no longer existed. Still, Burnside said, he felt better about the overall situation, now that Sherman’s reinforcements had arrived.
By now, Sherman’s men were in the condition in which he had expected to find Burnside’s troops; he described his soldiers as suffering in the cold with “bleeding feet wrapped in old clothes or portions of blankets that could ill be spared from shivering shoulders.” Sherman set about making them comfortable, giving them rest and getting them resupplied and reequipped. Then, while his troops were marched back to the Chattanooga area, Sherman traveled west to Nashville, where Grant, who had been joined there by Julia, was conferring with some generals of his recently enlarged command.
There in the capital of Tennessee, Grant took Sherman and several other generals to pay a call on Andrew Johnson, who was to become far more important in their lives than they—or anyone—could then imagine. The sixty-three-year-old Johnson had been the one senator from the South who did not resign from the United States Senate at the time of secession—an act of loyalty to the Union deeply appreciated by Lincoln, who subsequently appointed the Tennesseean a Union brigadier general and named him to the position he now held, that of the state’s military governor.
The man who recorded the details of this meeting and the rest of the day was Brigadier General Grenville Dodge, a former civil engineer, businessman, and lobbyist. In addition to commanding troops, Dodge did exceptional service for Grant in constructing and repairing bridges and railroad tracks, and quietly ran the largest and most effective network of spies, including notable women spies, that either side possessed during the war.
As Grant led his handful of generals into Andrew Johnson’s handsome, well-furnished new house, he became aware of the contrast in appearance between Johnson, sitting there in comfort, and that of his officers, some of whom had come straight from the rough conditions of living in the field. (Dodge called them “a hard-looking crowd.”) When Grant apologized for the way they all looked, Johnson responded by studying them with what Dodge termed “a very quizzical eye.” Then the governor began to give these soldiers who did the fighting an exhortation about the evils of their Confederate enemies, saying that he would show the rebels no mercy. To emphasize a point in his gratuitous tirade, Johnson pounded his fist on a piano so hard that these combat leaders, used to cannon fire, jumped when he did it. Dodge felt himself “rather disgusted” by this self-righteousness, because his experience with Andrew Johnson was that “I hardly ever got my hands on rebel stock or supplies that I did not find Johnson trying to pull them off” for his own benefit.
After they left Johnson’s house, Sherman told his colleagues that Hamlet was to be performed in a local theater that evening, and they went to see it. Looking down from their seats in the first row of the balcony, they saw many Union soldiers in the audience. The play began, and the actors performed so badly that some of the soldiers began laughing. Sherman turned and said angrily, “Dodge, that is no way to play Hamlet!” He went on criticizing the performance in such a loud voice that Dodge warned him that the soldiers would look up at the balcony, recognize Grant and Sherman, and begin cheering them. It would bring the play to a halt. Sherman continued making his disparaging comments, “so indignant,” as Dodge put it, “that he could not keep still.” This went on until Hamlet’s graveyard soliloquy, in which Hamlet picks up the skull of “Poor Yorick.” At that point a soldier in the back of the theater called out, “Say, pard, what is it, Yank or Reb?” This produced a complete uproar; amid the confusion, Grant led Sherman and his other generals out of the theater and off to have supper. Sherman said that he wanted to have some oysters, and they ended up in a basement oyster shop. Halfway through their meal, the female proprietor, who could see that they were Union officers but had no idea that one of them commanded the entire region from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, came to their table. Apologizing, she explained that the hour of the army-imposed military curfew had arrived and that her restaurant must close. Rather than telling her that she was talking to the de facto law of the land, Grant accepted the situation with good grace. He and his fellow generals stood up and left.
While Sherman was still in Nashville, Grant gave him permission to go home to Lancaster for a week’s leave at Christmas. Before he left, Sherman had a troubled conversation with Grant about the rumors he had heard of various officers criticizing his leadership at Chattanooga. Grant remained completely supportive of Sherman and discussed plans for campaigns that they would undertake in the coming new year, with Sherman playing his usual important role.
Nonetheless, it was true that Sherman’s reputation had suffered, both among some of the Union generals and by newspaper accounts that Grant characterized as “being calculated to do injustice.” Thomas, determined to have full recognition of his men’s brilliant action at Missionary Ridge, was not the only one with an axe to grind. Hooker, pleased by his own success at Lookout Mountain, wrote his friend Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, a man close to Lincoln and also a friend of Sherman’s father-in-law, that Sherman’s repulses at Missionary Ridge could “only be considered in the light of a disaster … Sherman is an active, energetic officer, but in my judgment is as infirm as Burnside. He will never be successful. Please remember what I tell you.” (On the other hand, Sherman was a few weeks away from receiving a joint resolution of Congress, thanking him and his men “for their gallantry and heroism in the battle of Chattanooga, which contributed in a great degree to the success of our arms in that glorious victory.”)
As 1863 came to an end, with the forces under Grant and Sherman temporarily at rest, Grant was having to face the fact that his increasing military fame now had political dimensions. Barnabas Burns, the chairman of the wing of the Democratic Party in Ohio that favored strongly prosecuting the war effort, wrote Grant asking if he would “permit your name to be used” as a candidate for president of the United States at the Democratic National Convention in the coming May of 1864. Grant replied:
The question astonishes me. I do not know of anything I have ever done or said that would indicate that I could be a candidate for any office …
Nothing likely to happen would pain me so much as to see my name used in connection with a political office. I am not a candidate for any office nor for favors from any party …
I … above all things wish to be spared the pain of seeing my name mixed with politics … Wherever, and by whatever party, you hear my name mentioned in connection with the candidacy for any office, say that you know from me direct that I am “not in the field,” and cannot allow my name to be used before any convention.
Sherman, arriving home in Ohio on December 25 to join his family for a heartbreaking Christmas without their beloved Willy, soon realized the full extent of Grant’s popularity with the Northern public. In Washington, the Senate and House passed a joint resolution praising Grant and his forces for their victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, and instructed that a gold medal be made honoring Grant, to be given him “in the name of the people of the United States.” The New York Herald, which supported the Democratic Party, said that Grant (who had at this time no meaningful party affiliation) should run against Lincoln in the coming year’s presidential election and expressed the belief that he would win. (Lincoln would in fact sound out Grant’s congressman Elihu Washburne concerning what political ambitions Grant might have. Washburne turned to J. Russell Jones, a friend of Grant’s from Galena days who had recently received a letter from Grant saying, “Nothing could induce me to become a presidential candidate, particularly so long as there is a possibility of having Mr. Lincoln re-elected.” When Jones went to Washington at Lincoln’s request and handed him that letter, a relieved Lincoln placed his influence behind a movement for further promotion for Grant.)
Thinking about the fame that now surrounded his friend—the man the press had so often defamed earlier in the war—on December 29, Sherman wrote a letter to Grant.
You occupy a position of more power than Halleck or the President. There are similar instances in European history, but none in ours … Your reputation as a general is now far above that of any man living, and partisans will maneuver for your influence; but if you can escape them, as you have hitherto done, you will be more powerful for good than it is possible to measure … Preserve a plain military character, and let others maneuver as they will. You will beat them not only in fame, but in doing good in the closing scenes of this war, when somebody must heal and mend the breaches made by war.
Although at earlier moments in the conflict both Grant and Sherman had thought the South might soon collapse, Sherman, despite his reference to “the closing scenes of this war,” was not thinking in terms of imminent victory. Before coming home for this bleak family Christmas of 1863, he had written to Ellen that “the next year is going to be the hardest of the war.” At the moment, he did not foresee that his policies and actions were in some ways to be the harshest thing in that hardest year, but he was ready to do whatever he thought must be done.
More than ever, Sherman believed in what he said in a retort he finally made to a Southern lady at a dinner party in Nashville who “pecked and pounded away” at him about his troops stealing food as they marched through the countryside: “Madam, my soldiers have to subsist themselves … War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” If ever Sherman had hoped to see political arrangements that might shorten the war, he hoped for them no longer. Writing to Ellen’s brother Philemon, he said that he understood his brother-in-law’s pleasure in the results of the Ohio gubernatorial election, a popular endorsement of Lincoln’s war policy, but added, “The only vote that now tells is the cannon & the musket.”
For Grant, December of 1863 had its lighter moments. Brigadier General Isaac F. Quinby, a West Point classmate on recruiting duty in Rochester, New York, wrote Grant that his wife wanted a lock of Grant’s hair, which would be auctioned off to the highest bidder at a bazaar being held to raise funds for a wartime charity appeal. This was Grant’s reply to his friend’s wife.
MY DEAR MADAM,
The letter of my old friend and classmate, your husband, requesting a lock of my hair, if the article is not growing scarse [sic], from age, I presume he means, to be put in an ornament, (by the most delicate of hands no doubt) and sold at the Bazaar for the benefit of disabled soldiers and their families, is just received. I am glad to say that the stock is yet as abundant as ever though time, or other cause, is beginning to intersperse here and there a reminder that Winters have passed.
The object for which this little request is made is so praiseworthy that I can not refuse it even though I do, by granting it[,] expose to the ladies of Rochester that I am no longer a boy. Hoping that the citizens of your city may spend a happy week commensing [sic] to-morrow, and that their Fair may remunerate most abundantly, I remain,
Very truly your friend,
U. S. Grant
Maj. Gen. U.S.A.
In the last two days of 1863, it was back to duty. On December 30, Sherman wrote a letter to his brother John in which he said of Grant, “With him I am as a second self. We are personal and official friends.” He added that he was leaving Ohio to return to Memphis to take up his duties as commander of the Army of the Tennessee, the post to which he had succeeded when Grant was given overall command of that army and two others before the Battle of Chattanooga. Grant wrote Halleck on December 31 that he had just arrived at Knoxville and “will go to the front [this] evening or in the morning … Longstreet is at Morristown [Tennessee].”
The year 1864, which Sherman had told Ellen would be “the hardest of the war,” began badly for the Grants. In the third week of January, their son Fred suddenly fell ill in St. Louis with what Julia said was “camp dysentery and typhoid fever,” the combination of diseases that carried off Willy Sherman. Julia rushed to St. Louis from Nashville, where she had been with Grant, and found that Fred was already beginning to recover.
Leaving his military duties, Grant hurried to see Fred soon after Julia arrived, and the relieved Grants were briefly reunited in St. Louis, near her family’s farm where they had met. (From St. Louis, Grant wrote Sherman that “I come here to see my oldest boy who has been dangerously ill of Typhoid Pneumonia. He is now regarded by his physician as Out of danger.”) The crisis involving Fred had passed, but Julia received news concerning a less serious medical matter. She was now thirty-seven. All her life she had been conscious of her strabismus, the condition that made one of her eyes go out of focus and squint. When she was younger, an eye specialist in St. Louis had told her several times that he could perform a simple operation that would correct the condition. Julia said of that, “I had never had the courage to consent, but now that my husband had become so famous I thought it behooved me to look as well as possible.” Now, with Fred recovering, she had time to consult with the specialist, and he told her that it was, as she wrote of it, “too late, too late.” Unhappy, she shared this with Grant.
I told the General and expressed my regret.
He replied: “What in the world put such a thought in your head, Julia?” I said: “Why, you are getting to be such a great man and I am such a plain little wife. I thought if my eyes were as others are I might not be so very, very plain, Ulys; who knows?” He drew me to him and said: “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes? I like them just as they are, and now, remember, you are not to interfere with them. They are mine, and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you had not better make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”
Returning quickly to his headquarters at Nashville, Grant plunged back into the problems awaiting him. He referred to the immediate military situation in a typically direct letter to General Thomas: “Longstreet has also been reenforced by troops from the East. This makes it evident the enemy intend to secure East Tennessee if they can, and I intend to drive them out or get whipped this month.”
While making plans that resulted in his forces successfully keeping Longstreet away from his objectives, Grant also gave his attention to the many and varied other matters that inevitably came to his desk. He wrote Halleck of the results of an investigation he had ordered as a result of his suspicions “that there was much useless extravigance [sic] in the Quartermaster’s Dept.” His conclusion: “The result has been already to find that Govt. is being constantly defrauded by those whos [sic] duty it is to protect and guard the public interest. The guilty parties will be relieved and brought to trial.” In addition, his headquarters in Nashville was being besieged by the wives of Confederate soldiers who wanted to go farther south to see their husbands. Deciding that these requests should no longer be dealt with on an individual basis, Grant informed General Thomas of his solution to the problem. “As it is rather desirable that all such should be where their affections are set, I propose giving notice through the papers setting a day when all who wish will be permitted to go[,] and fix the point where they will be allowed to pass through our lines. Let me know where and when they should be allowed to go.”
Grant had not forgotten the most southerly area of his widespread command and wanted to continue putting pressure on the overall Confederate military effort. Four days after Longstreet broke off his unsuccessful attacks on Knoxville, Grant had written Halleck that he would like to try a previously considered movement to capture the port of Mobile, Alabama. As Grant saw it, whether Mobile fell or not, this would open the prospect of a campaign that would move his forces east from the Mississippi River into Alabama, with a further thrust that might take a Union offensive on into Georgia. This would not only “secure the entire states of Alabama & Mississippi,” but also, as Grant saw it, force Robert E. Lee to give up his positions in Virginia, in order to save the Deep South.
This was imaginative strategic thinking, but it received little support in Washington, where there was doubt that anything could pull Lee out of Virginia. Both Halleck and Lincoln felt that a higher priority should be given to following up against Longstreet in east Tennessee—an idea with which Grant did not disagree, but he felt it could not be implemented during winter weather in the mountains north of Knoxville.
Still wanting to keep the ball moving somewhere, Grant approved Sherman’s idea of making a massive raid on the Confederate railroad center at Meridian, Mississippi, a hundred miles east of Vicksburg. Here, again, Grant was demonstrating his complete confidence in Sherman, and Sherman responded with a successful performance that could have gone badly wrong. He left Vicksburg on February 3 with twenty thousand men, moving under orders that showed that he had learned from Grant’s move against the city of Jackson ten months before. Prefiguring larger moves that he would make, Sherman’s orders stressed the need to move swiftly and to carry only essential equipment. Within days, just the news of Sherman’s advance, which was blasting aside every enemy in its way, convinced Confederate general Leonidas Polk to give up Meridian without defending it. Reaching Meridian, Sherman’s men spent nearly a week destroying everything in the area: 115 miles of railroad track, sixty-one bridges, and twenty-one locomotives, in addition to arsenals, warehouses, and workshops. They returned to Vicksburg, herding along five thousand slaves they had freed, along with another, newer category of refugee—a thousand white Southerners who wanted to place themselves under Union control. The destruction of the Confederate warmaking capacity was the greatly successful side of the military ledger, but on his way to Jackson, Sherman was nearly captured. Another part of the effort, in which seven thousand horsemen under Grant’s cavalry chief General William Sooy Smith were to defeat the four thousand cavalrymen led by the mercurial Nathan Bedford Forrest, failed when Smith did not coordinate successfully with Sherman, and Forrest’s lesser numbers outmaneuvered and occasionally routed the federal troopers. (On the day he got back to Vicksburg, Sherman wrote Ellen, “Somehow our cavalry is not good. The Secech with poor mean horses make 40 & 50 miles a day, whereas our fat & costly horses won[’]t average 10. In every march I have ever made our Infantry beats the Cavalry & I am ashamed of them.”)
Grant and Sherman were to be remembered for their dramatic campaigns, but both men valued the clandestine side of warfare represented by military intelligence. As he was leaving Vicksburg aboard the naval gunboat Silver Cloud to return to his headquarters in Memphis, Sherman wrote Grant concerning Confederate troop strength remaining in Mississippi; as for the information he did not yet have, Sherman said, “I have one of my best Memphis female spies out, who will be back in time to let me know all we want.” The Meridian campaign had given Sherman added confidence: a few days after he sent Grant his letter about the female spy, he telegraphed Grant from Memphis, regarding another thrust he intended to make: “Enemy is scattered all over Mississippi and I think the movement indicated will clean them out.”
During the time that Sherman was conducting what became known as the Meridian Campaign, Grant wrote a brief letter to Julia. In it he said, “It now looks as if the Lieut. Generalcy bill was [sic] going to become a law. If it does and is given to me, it will help my finances so much that I will be able to be much more generous in my expenditures.”
This was Ulysses S. Grant’s way of telling his wife that Congress was going to name him as the first lieutenant general since George Washington received that rank. The promotion would automatically make him general in chief, placing him above Halleck, who under General Orders 98 ceased to hold that position and was “assigned to duty in Washington as Chief of Staff of the Army, under the direction of the Secretary of War [Stanton] and the lieutenant general commanding [Grant].” Ulysses S. Grant would command all the Union armies. He could therefore stay in the West or go east, but he decided to leave his vast Western theater of war, which he intended to turn over to Sherman, and base himself in or near Washington, ready to face Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
There were things that Grant already knew he wanted to do. The man who had grown up with horses was to say that, until now, the campaigns of the armies of the Union had reminded him of draft horses that were pulling the same wagon, but doing it in an awkward and inefficient way. To this point in the war, despite individual Union victories such as Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Gettysburg, the Union Army was divided into nineteen geographical military departments, with the Army of the Potomac an entity unto itself. Generals in all those sectors had been acting, when they did, on their own initiative, often without consultation or coordination with their peers in adjoining departments. This had resulted in sporadic, uncoordinated attacks and campaigns: the South, often given time to recover after a limited Union offensive ground to a halt in one area, was able to move its troops considerable distances and consolidate its forces to counter a new Union threat.
Grant intended to impose a cohesive Union strategy. He was going to be one of the two major figures in implementing that—the other was Sherman. As usual, any officer talking to Grant about a military matter was left in no doubt as to what he wanted and was left with great latitude in accomplishing the objective. Soon, Grant and Sherman would be conferring face-to-face, and Sherman would always remember the overriding concept: “He was to go for Lee, and I was to go for Joe Johnston.”
There was no date on the letter in which Grant told Julia the news of his promotion—Sherman would be informed of it as soon as the promotion became official, and a warm exchange of letters between the two men would ensue—but Grant’s letter to Julia was written about February 10, 1864. On that date three years before, Ulysses S. Grant was sitting in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, bored and doing poorly at the job his father had created for him—a retired army captain who had resigned from the service rather than face a court-martial on charges of drinking while on duty. Now he commanded a continually growing army of seven hundred thousand men—seven hundred times the size of the Twenty-first Illinois, the regiment he began to lead thirty-one months before—in the struggle that would decide whether the United States would be two nations or one.