On March 2, 1864, Grant learned of Sherman’s success in the Meridian Campaign—the march through Mississippi that demonstrated Sherman’s ability to operate independently deep in enemy territory, far from Grant’s headquarters in Nashville, destroying more of the Confederate capacity to make war. Despite the failure of Sooy Smith and his cavalry to carry out their role in the campaign, Sherman’s execution of the large-scale raid, going to and from Meridian, fully justified Grant’s belief in him and foreshadowed the far greater movements that Sherman would soon be making. Grant said of that moment in March, “I was ordered to Washington on the 3rd to receive my commission.”
Grant’s promotion to lieutenant general and commander of all the Union armies was now official. On the same day, he wrote Sherman before he was to leave Nashville for Washington the following morning. In his letter, which he marked “Private” and began with, “Dear Sherman,” he included the name of the gifted and enterprising thirty-five-year-old Major General James B. McPherson, of whom they were both fond, and said:
I want to express my thanks to you and McPherson as the men to whom, above all others, I feel indebted for whatever I have had of success. How far your advice and suggestions have been of assistance you know. How far your execution of whatever has been given you to do entitles you to the reward I am receiving you cannot know as well as me …
This produced an effusive response from Sherman, writing from Memphis. Marked “(Private and Confidential),” it said in part:
You are now Washington’s legitimate successor, and occupy a position of almost dangerous elevation, but if you can continue as heretofore to be yourself, simple, honest, and unpretending, you will enjoy through life the respect and love of friends, and the homage of millions of human beings that will award to you a large share in securing to them and their descendants a Government of Law and Stability … You do General McPherson and myself too much honor … The chief characteristic in your nature is the simple faith in success, which I can liken to nothing else than the faith a Christian has in a Savior.
Looking back on their campaigns together, Sherman now expressed his feeling for Grant: “I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come if alive.” He continued, with equal candor, “My only points of doubt were in your knowledge of Grand Strategy and of Books of Science and History. But I confess your common sense seems to have supplied all these.”
Closing this warm statement of appreciation and praise, he said, “We have done much, but still much remains to be done.” Then Sherman, a man of the West speaking to another man of the West, urged Grant to leave Halleck in Washington, where Halleck knew how “to stand the buffets of Intrigue and Policy.” Sherman wanted Grant to run the whole war from the Western theater, and in expressing this he showed his willingness to give up his chance to be the man clearly in command in the West. “Come out West, take to yourself the whole Mississippi Valley. Let us make it dead sure, and I tell you the Atlantic slope and Pacific shores will follow its destiny as surely as the limbs of a tree live or die with the main trunk … From the West when our task is done, we will make short work of Charleston, and Richmond, and the … coast of the Atlantic.”
That was not to be. Grant, accompanied by his son Fred, now thirteen, arrived in Washington on March 8. A welcoming committee met the wrong train, so Grant, dressed in a nondescript linen duster that concealed the general’s stars on his uniform, made his own way to the Willard Hotel with Fred and asked the desk clerk for a room. Unimpressed by the appearance of this rumpled traveler, the clerk handed him a key to a small room on the top floor and asked him to register. When he saw the signature, “U. S. Grant and son, Galena, Illinois,” he took back the key, and Grant and Fred were escorted to the best suite in the hotel. After dinner at the hotel, during which everyone in the dining room rose and gave “three cheers for Lieutenant General Grant,” he found a note from the White House: President Lincoln was holding his weekly evening reception and would like General Grant to join him. Grant put Fred to bed and was soon shaking hands with the six-foot-four Lincoln, who looked down at his five-eight choice to lead the armies of the Union and said, “Why, here is General Grant! Well, this is a great pleasure, I assure you.” Lincoln then introduced Grant to Secretary of State William H. Seward. It was Seward who presented Grant to Lincoln’s wife, the mentally erratic and unpredictable Mary Todd Lincoln. On this occasion Mrs. Lincoln was calm and friendly, and began making social conversation with Grant.
The hundreds of guests at first tried to restrain themselves from walking over to get a close look at the man in whom the Union now reposed its hopes, but soon Grant found himself surrounded by a crowd of well-wishers; one guest said that Grant “blushed like a schoolgirl” as he tried to shake the scores of outstretched hands. When the room began to rock with cheers of “Grant! Grant! Grant!” he was persuaded to stand on a sofa so more people could see him, which produced louder cheers. A journalist who was present wrote: “It was the only real mob I ever saw in the White House … For once the President of the United States was not the chief figure … The little, scared-looking figure who stood on the crimson-covered sofa was the idol of the hour.”
The next morning, Grant was back in the White House, where Lincoln presented him with his commission as lieutenant general. After the short ceremony, the two men went upstairs to talk. They had a rapid and complete meeting of minds. As Grant remembered it, Lincoln told him that, in military matters, “all he wanted or ever wanted was someone who would take the responsibility and act, and call on him for all of the assistance needed, pledging himself to use all the power of the government in rendering such assistance.” Grant’s response: “Assuring him that I would do the best I could with the means at hand, and avoid annoying him or the War Department, our first interview ended.”
A British war correspondent who saw Grant during his initial visit to Washington underscored the same qualities that Lincoln liked so much in this general. “I never met a man with so much simplicity, shyness, and decision … He is a soldier to the core, a genuine commoner, commander of a democratic army from a democratic people. From what I learn of him, he is no more afraid to take responsibility of a million men than of a single company.”
After further conferences with Lincoln and Stanton, and an inspection trip to see General George Meade at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac sixty miles southwest of Washington, Grant got on a train to return for a short time to Nashville and close up his headquarters there. He knew what he wanted to do, and now he had the authority to do it. In line with a suggestion from Sherman that he stay out of Washington with all its intrigues and bureaucracy, Grant would leave Halleck to run the detailed administration of the army from the War Department in Washington, while he set up his headquarters as general in chief near those of Meade on the fighting front in Virginia. From that headquarters in the field, he would plan and oversee the overall campaigns of the Union military effort in the Eastern and Western theaters of war. In addition, he would become the de facto commander of the Army of the Potomac, fighting Robert E. Lee and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the broad battlefront area between Washington and Richmond, but he would issue those orders through Meade. (Grant’s worries about Meade’s potential resentment of being superseded vanished at their first meeting. Meade, the greatly famous victor of Gettysburg, immediately told Grant that he would understand if Grant wished to replace him with Sherman or any of the other generals who had served him well in the West. The important thing was to get on with the job, and he pledged, as Grant admiringly remembered it, to “serve to the best of his ability wherever placed.” Grant “assured him that I had no thought of substituting anyone for him.”)
Grant also had a number of ideas about promotions, demotions, and transfers. Although the Navy Department controlled the assignments of Admiral Porter, with whom Grant and Sherman had worked so well during the Vicksburg campaign, Porter would eventually move from the Mississippi theater to take command of what was known as the Northern Blockade Squadron, on the Atlantic coast. Addressing another aspect of the Union’s military posture and practices, Grant decided to end the virtual autonomy of the army departments such as those controlling supplies and commissary matters, and the legal department run by the adjutant general. Nearly half the soldiers in the Union Army were serving in various assignments well behind the fighting fronts, and Grant determined to reduce those positions “to the lowest number of men necessary for the duty to be performed.”
On March 17, thirteen days after receiving the official notification of his promotion, Grant arrived back in Nashville. At Grant’s request, Sherman had come from Memphis to meet him, bringing four other generals, including Grenville Dodge, who had done such remarkable work in building and repairing railway lines and bridges when construction rather than destruction was needed, and in running the Union spy network in the Western theater—the largest one operated by either side during the war. For two days these men conferred, as Grant handed over to Sherman the daily conduct of the war in the West and the Deep South. Adam Badeau, a journalist who had joined Grant’s staff as military secretary, now for the first time saw Grant and Sherman in the same room.
Sherman was tall, angular, and spare, as if his superabundant energy had consumed his flesh. His words were distinct, his ideas clear and rapid, coming, indeed, almost too fast for utterance, in brilliant, dramatic form …
Grant was calmer in manner a hundred-fold. The habitual expression on his face was so quiet as to be almost incomprehensible … In utterance he was slow and sometimes embarrassed, but his words were well-chosen, never leaving the remotest doubt of what he intended to convey … Not a sign about him suggested rank or reputation or power … [but] in battle, the sphinx awoke.
In a hurry to return to Washington, Grant had Sherman and General Dodge accompany him on the train to Cincinnati, with Sherman and Grant smoking cigars as they discussed the campaigns to come. In Cincinnati, Sherman had a brief, bittersweet reunion with Ellen. Her mother, who had raised Sherman from the time he came to live in the Ewings’ house at the age of nine, had died, which brought sorrow to him as well as her. Ellen was pregnant again; they had by letter discussed the idea of naming the baby Willy if it were a boy but decided that it would be too painful a reminder of their son who died the previous summer. Writing Ellen, Sherman had spoken of their feelings in these words: “On reflection I agree with you that his name must remain sacred to us forever [.] He must remain to our memories as though living, and his name must not be taken by any one. Though dead he is still our Willy and we can love him as God only knows we loved him.”
Grant rented a room in a Cincinnati hotel, and for two days he and Sherman pored over maps, as Dodge kept track of all the paperwork involved in their deliberations. The grand strategy was, as Sherman would famously say, “He was to go for Lee, and I was to go for Joe Johnston.” In the Confederate military hierarchy, Lee and Johnston were at this time de facto equals under the civilian direction of Jefferson Davis, with Lee leading his Army of Northern Virginia against the Army of the Potomac on the South’s northern front, while Johnston was reorganizing the South’s Army of Tennessee at Atlanta and intending to begin offensive operations. If both men and their armies could be defeated in their separate theaters of war, the South’s ability to fight on would be virtually at an end.
While Grant gave Sherman much latitude in how he was to “go for Joe Johnston,” he stressed certain points. Lee and Johnston had the advantage of operating at relatively short distances from their bases in the interior of the South, while Grant would be attacking from the north and Sherman would have to start his movements from a point 530 miles southwest of Grant and the Army of the Potomac. The danger was that Lee, who had shown immense skill in moving his forces from one critical point to another by railroad, might be able to send reinforcements to Johnston when Johnston needed them, and that Johnston could similarly send large and swift support to Lee. To forestall that, Grant’s and Sherman’s armies had to act in close cooperation, keeping constant pressure on their respective fronts so that there were no quiet moments when either Lee or Johnston could spare troops to send to the other.
Even after their lengthy session in Cincinnati, when Grant got to Washington he reinforced his priorities in a letter to Sherman in which he said, “You I propose to move against Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.” Sherman responded by saying, “Like yourself you take the biggest load and from me you shall have thorough and hearty cooperation.” To reassure Grant that he really understood what was wanted of him, he added, “I will not let side issues draw me off from your main plan in which I am to Knock Joe Johnston, and do as much damage to the resources of the Enemy as possible.” (Sherman was to characterize all this as being a policy of “Enlightened War.”)
Using this strategy, Grant hoped to close out the war in 1864. To strengthen this military policy and objective, he intended to issue orders that would bring back to the main Eastern and Western Union armies the smaller forces then operating in such places as Florida and Arkansas. If he and Sherman could accomplish what he hoped—smash and wear down the main Confederate armies in a two-pronged, coordinated effort—the enemy’s out-of-the-way outposts would wither on the vine.
As Sherman prepared to go on the offensive, Grant returned to Washington, took up his headquarters near Meade’s Army of the Potomac, and reiterated the pertinent part of this philosophy to General Meade. On April 9, he told Meade, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Although the capture of Richmond, the Confederate capital, remained an inevitable goal, the emphasis was going to be less on control of territory and more on destroying the Confederate armies and the South’s means of waging war. (In this latter area, that of drying up the South’s source of men and of supplies ranging from weapons to food, both Grant and Sherman had increasingly come to realize that the South was indeed a nation in arms and that the common European practice of having standing armies engage each other in set-piece battles to determine the outcome of a war was not enough to win this struggle. When Grant had told Sherman right after Vicksburg to set out after Joseph E. Johnston “and inflict on the enemy all the punishment you can,” he had already demonstrated at Jackson that he regarded all kinds of supplies as legitimate military targets, and Sherman’s burning of Randolph, Tennessee, and his Meridian Campaign had shown that he too was ready to lay waste anything and anyplace that could sustain the enemy’s ability and will to resist. Both men were ready to engage in what became known as total war.)
Bold as Grant was, he did not at that moment realize that Sherman was thinking even more boldly than he, in terms of getting “into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can.” By the end of April, Sherman had assembled ninety-eight thousand men in Chattanooga, ready to march southeast in an attempt to take Atlanta, a hundred miles away. This was not going to be a massive raid like the Meridian Campaign, in which he left Memphis, marched a hundred miles, struck, and then returned to Memphis. This was going to be straight-ahead fighting, with no intention of turning back.
Ulysses S. Grant. One of the finest horsemen ever to graduate from West Point, Grant was the most aggressive and resolute general in the Union Army. (Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)
Grant’s wife, Julia. Highly intelligent and charming, always believing in her husband’s destiny despite his prewar failures, she and Grant lived one of the great American love stories. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
This receipt shows that on December 23, 1857, at a time when he was down and out, Grant pawned his gold watch for twenty-two dollars so that he could buy Christmas presents for his family. Eleven years later, he was elected President of the United States. (courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)
During the war, numerous photographs were made of Grant by himself and with his higher-ranking officers, but this is the only one showing him against a background of his troops in the field. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
William Tecumseh Sherman. He said of his immensely successful military partnership with Grant during which they constantly supported each other’s effort. “We were as brothers, I the older man in years, he the higher in rank.” (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Sherman’s wife, Ellen Ewing Sherman. Their marriage was a difficult one, but it was impossible to imagine either of them being married to anyone else. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. /Art Resource. N.Y.)
Sherman’s devoted younger brother John. Already a United States senator when the Civil War began, John Sherman served in the Senate for thirty-two years, and is best known as the author of the legislation known as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. (University of Notre Dame Archives)
General Henry Halleck, sometimes wise and sometimes duplicitous. At various times he commanded both Grant and Sherman. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Admiral David Dixon Porter of the United States Navy, who worked effectively with Grant during amphibious operations such as those on the Mississippi that led to the great Union victory at Vicksburg. (National Archives at College Park)
One of the Navy’s “mud turtles.” flat-bottomed gunboats that furnished vital support for Grant and Sherman’s campaigns along the rivers of the South. (Collection of Hit New-York Historical Society)
Confederate general James Longstreet. Grant’s West Point classmate, he was a cousin of Grant’s wife, Julia, and best man at their wedding. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
General Joseph E. Johnston. Robert E. Lee’s West Point classmate and friend, Johnston was the Confederacy’s master of defensive and evasive maneuvers. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
During Grant’s attack on Lookout Mountain at Chattanooga., the weather deteriorated so rapidly that the upper part of the mountain disappeared from view. The ensuing fight became known as “The Battle Above the Clouds.” (U.S. Army Center of Military History, Army Art Collection, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.)
Johnston’s decisive repulse of Sherman’s attacks on Kennesaw Mountain in (Georgia underscored the fact that Sherman was better at executing such sweeping moves as his March to the Sea than at fighting pitched battles like this, (Rights owned by the University of Mississippi Press)
Sherman’s bold and brutal March to the Sea, moving from Atlanta to the coast, resulted in the capture of Savannah on December 21. 1864. Sherman wired Lincoln. “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah.” (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
A representation of the historic meeting at City Point, Virginia, on March 28, 1865, as Lincoln met with Grant and Sherman to Discuss the closing phases of the war. LEFT TO RIGHT: Sherman, Grant, Lincoln, Admiral Porter. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
General Robert K. Lee. This photograph was taken by Mathew Brady a few days after Lee’s return to his house in Richmond, Virginia, after surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Lincoln’s able, irascible, dictatorial secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
A contemporary drawing of the two-day Grand Review, held in Washington in May of 1865. It was the (Union’s farewell to its victorious army. With Grant and Sherman on the reviewing stand, 135,000 men, most of them soon to he demobilized, marehed past wildly cheering crowds, Rights owned In the of Mississipi Press)
When Grant understood what Sherman wanted to do, he gave his approval for the campaign to march into the heart of the South, headed for Atlanta, which was a vital center for manufacturing and the storage of supplies, as well as being a major railroad hub. Whether Sherman hoped even then to extend this immense movement another 225 miles from Atlanta to Savannah, to complete his epic March to the Sea, is not clear. What is abundantly clear is that, in good part due to his association with Grant, the Sherman of 1864 bore no resemblance to the man who in 1861 had begged Lincoln not to make him the departmental commander in Kentucky but to keep him always as a second in command, serving directly under a superior officer. Even to move his headquarters down to Chattanooga from Nashville meant that Sherman had to leave his most secure, heavily supplied base 110 miles to his rear, connected to his forward headquarters by a single-gauge railroad track that could be struck by Confederate cavalry raids, but he was not looking to his rear. Sherman needed thirteen hundred tons of supplies a day for his hundred thousand men and hoped that the railroad would bring forward as much of that as possible, but he also intended to live off the land, in the heart of the Confederacy, and travel light as he went. (Sherman underscored his intention to carry a minimum of supplies and equipment when he wrote, “My entire headquarters transportation is one wagon for myself, aides, officers, orderlies, and clerks.”)
As spring came to Washington, Grant first had a different kind of battle to fight. In his effort to add to the combat strength of the Union Army, he was sending to the front thousands of soldiers who had been assigned to garrison duty or to guard supply lines. Relying on the traditional civilian control of the military, Stanton told Grant that he was pulling too many men out of the defenses of Washington and ordered it stopped. When Grant politely replied, “I think I rank you in this matter, Mister Secretary,” Stanton answered, “We shall have to see Mister Lincoln about that,” and they walked from the War Department building over to the White House, which was next door.
While Lincoln listened, with Grant remaining silent, Stanton set forth the matter as he saw it. When he finished, Lincoln smiled and said, “You and I, Mr. Stanton, have been trying to boss this job, and we have not succeeded very well with it. We have sent across the mountains for Mr. Grant, as Mrs. Grant calls him, to relieve us, and I think we had better leave him alone to do as he pleases.”
As Grant readied himself to fight Lee, some of the officers of the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia made disparaging remarks about him. Now, they said, Grant would find out what real opposition was. Julia Grant’s cousin James Longstreet, back with Lee’s army in Virginia after seeing how Grant had turned around the situation after Chickamauga by the victory at Chattanooga, warned them not to underestimate his old West Point classmate and friend, whom he had seen in constant fiery action when they fought in the same regiment during the Mexican War. He said to one officer, “We must make up our minds to get into line of battle and stay there, for that man will fight us every day and every hour till the end of this war.”
Sherman was later to speak of the way the “magnetic telegraph” enabled him to keep in constant touch with Grant, despite their geographical separation. At this moment, he was sending daily reports to Halleck’s office in Washington, and Halleck was relaying what was relevant to Grant’s headquarters in the field. By the beginning of May, the only question was whether it would be Grant or Sherman, each now in his new role, who first engaged the enemy. As it happened, Grant was sitting in his tent near Germanna Ford on the Rapidan River in Virginia on the evening of May 4, smoking a cigar and talking with Meade as they prepared for the first day’s fighting in what became known as the Battle of the Wilderness, when he received by telegraph from Washington the news that Sherman was advancing from Chattanooga into Georgia.
Sherman’s march toward Atlanta began with several days of maneuvering toward Resaca, Georgia, but on his own front in Virginia, Grant ran straight into some of the war’s fiercest and most constant fighting. The two opposing leaders, Grant and Lee, were certainly different. Lee was a strikingly handsome, courtly Virginia aristocrat, while Grant was an ordinary-looking man who was once described as having a genius for vanishing into a crowd. Nonetheless, when Adam Badeau said of Grant, “In battle, the sphinx awoke,” he was paralleling a comment by a Southerner who observed that General Lee on the battlefield was a different man from General Lee in the drawing room, a remark echoed by Confederate general Henry Heth, who said that he found Lee to be “the most belligerent man in the Confederate Army.” There was no doubt that Grant and Lee were the two most aggressive generals to fight in the war; in this first clash it was Grant who crossed the Rapidan in an effort to move around Lee’s right flank and get between him and Richmond, and it was Lee who saw what he was trying to do and threw everything he had straight at him.
For two of the bloodiest days of the war, May 5 and 6, the armies of these two determined opponents fought each other in the tangled underbrush, fallen trees, and marshes of Virginia’s Wilderness, a rectangular area of sixty-four square miles. Before it was over, Grant had poured into the battle 101,895 foot soldiers and artillerymen, while Lee committed an estimated 61,000. A combination of gunsmoke and the smoke of fires started by battlefield explosions created such thick clouds that some commanders, seeing only murky thickets and losing all sense of direction, had to move their units by looking at pocket compasses. Captain Horace Porter of Grant’s staff described the inferno. “At times the wind howled through the tree-tops, mingling its moan with the groans of the dying, and heavy branches were cut off by the fire of artillery, and fell crashing upon the heads of the men, adding a new terror to battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames, and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing.” In an almost perfect metaphor of war, correspondent Charles A. Page of the New York Tribune described watching stretcher-bearers carrying wounded men to the rear and then seeing those stretcher-bearers rush back to the front, using the same stretchers to carry forward boxes of cartridges to maintain the supply of ammunition.
At the end of his first day fighting Lee, Grant threw himself down in despair on the cot in his tent: one of his staff, Captain Charles Francis Adams Jr., a member of the distinguished Massachusetts family that included two presidents, said, “I never saw a man so agitated in my life.” Other accounts describe him as being composed, but in any case on the next day Grant was right back in the thick of battle. A Northern soldier described the kind of combat he experienced: “We fought them with bayonet as well as bullet. Up through the trees rolled dense clouds of battle smoke, circling about the pines and mingling with the flowering dogwoods. Each man fought on his own, grimly and desperately.” The generals on both sides were right at the front. On the second day, Union General Alexander Hays of Pennsylvania was killed, as was Confederate General Micah Jenkins of South Carolina, and Union General James S. Wadsworth of New York was mortally wounded. In a nearly fatal repetition of what happened to Stonewall Jackson the year before, Confederate soldiers mistakenly fired at Longstreet, seriously wounding him in the throat and shoulder.
There were examples of how Lee, fighting Union forces that in this case outnumbered his men nearly two to one, could inspire the martial feats of the Army of Northern Virginia. Soon after sunrise on this same singularly bloody second day in the Wilderness, Lee found himself almost alone, mounted on his horse Traveller, as veteran Confederate regiments streamed past him, retreating in the face of a powerful federal assault that was about to capture a Confederate artillery battalion. The advancing blue lines were only two hundred yards away. Then, out of the drifting smoke through which Southern regiments were retreating, twenty men in ragged clothes ran forward with their muskets at the ready, entering the field at the end of a long forced march to reach the front.
“Who are you, my boys?” Lee shouted to these scarecrows, as scores more dashed up to form a line of battle.
“Texas boys!” they yelled. In a few more seconds, there were hundreds of them.
“Hurrah for Texas!” Lee stood in his stirrups and waved his hat. “Hurrah for Texas!” He rode to the left of the line, and the Texans realized that he intended to lead the counterattack, right at the blue lines.
“Go back, General Lee!” they shouted. “Go back! We won’t go on unless you go back!”
“Texans always move them!” Lee roared, about to spur Traveller right into the enemy. It was only when the combination of a sergeant, a colonel of his staff, and Brigadier General John Gregg of the Texans closed in on him, the sergeant grabbing Traveller’s reins and Gregg maneuvering his horse to block Traveller from plunging forward, that Lee was led back from the very front, still waving his hat and cheering on the Texans as they swept forward to save the Confederate artillery positions.
The men of the Army of the Potomac were learning about their new leader, Grant. Even before the horrible struggle in the Wilderness, with Grant ordering troops forward under conditions in which the Army of the Potomac’s previous commanders would have stopped them where they were, a veteran soldier from Wisconsin saw him for the first time and said, “He looks as if he meant it.” At one point on the morning of the terrible second day, when it appeared as if Lee’s forces might overrun Grant’s headquarters, an officer came up to Grant, who was standing on a knoll smoking a cigar as he studied the battlefield. “General,” the man said, “wouldn’t it be prudent to move headquarters to the other side of the Germanna road until the result of the present attack is known?” According to Horace Porter, “The general replied very quietly, between puffs of his cigar, ‘It strikes me it would be better to order up some artillery and defend the present location.’”
That evening, Porter saw his chief in yet another revealing situation. At sundown, the fighting had seemed to come to an end. Then, with darkness, a roar of gunfire began, as Lee struck in a surprise attack. As Porter recalled, “Aides came galloping in from the right, laboring under intense excitement, talking wildly, and giving the most exaggerated reports of the engagement.” One of the generals of the Army of the Potomac—Porter never did say who it was—appeared out of the night, “speaking rapidly and laboring under considerable excitement.” Telling Grant that he knew from experience what Lee was going to do next, he said that Lee was about to put his entire army behind Grant’s and cut them off from their communications and supplies. Grant “rose to his feet, took his cigar out of his mouth, turned to the officer, and replied, with a degree of animation he seldom manifested: ‘Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always think he is about to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.’”
The following morning, it appeared that Lee’s surprise attack had resulted in the capture of eight hundred Union soldiers, but this was a small part of the total picture: the losses on both sides during the two-day battle were frightful. Of the 100,000 troops that Grant had thrown into the Wilderness, 17,666 were either killed, wounded, or missing, while Lee, beginning with 60,000, lost about 11,000 of his gallant, outnumbered men. Except for some minor skirmishing on this third morning, the struggle in the Wilderness was over. Both sides had lost 18 percent of the men they sent into the battle, but it was easier for Grant, who smoked twenty cigars during the second day, to replenish his brave ranks. Of itself, the Wilderness was not an area worth fighting for; it was simply an obstacle between the federal troops and Richmond, an objective the Army of the Potomac had been fitfully trying to reach for three years. Grant’s army now possessed the smoldering battlefield; Lee had withdrawn into defensive positions some distance away.
In the confused aftermath of the terrible carnage, the men of the Army of the Potomac thought they might well have been beaten: a soldier from Massachusetts recalled: “Most of us thought it was another Chancellorsville.” Two correspondents, one from The New York Herald and one from the Tribune, certainly thought so, and that conviction was reinforced by the fact that Grant refused to let the journalists accompanying his army use the telegraph to send out their stories of the fighting.
For the Union troops, who had seen nearly one in five of their comrades become casualties in just two days, their past experiences with inadequate leadership led them to feel certain that, whatever the outcome of a specific battle, their sacrifices would probably come to naught. They would either be held in place, handing the initiative back to Lee, or they would be pulled back toward Washington—in this instance that would involve marching back across the Rapidan—to recuperate and reorganize. That is what their former commanders had done. McClellan, failing to exploit his advantages in the Peninsular Campaign of March to July of 1862, had been ordered by the then new general in chief Halleck to withdraw and reinforce Major General John Pope in the failed Second Bull Run campaign, also known as Second Manassas, which had ended with withdrawal into the defenses of Washington at the beginning of September; McClellan, once again commanding the Army of the Potomac after Pope’s failure, failed to move forward against the withdrawing Lee after the terrible Battle of Antietam with its action at Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, in which on the war’s single bloodiest day Union forces had twelve thousand casualties in all categories, with the Confederates losing nearly fourteen thousand. When this failure to exploit Lee’s retreat ended McClellan’s career, he was relieved by Ambrose Burnside, whose Fredericksburg Campaign of November-December 1862 ended with the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, in which Burnside lost 12,700 men while Lee lost 5,300. Joseph Hooker then commanded the Army of the Potomac from January 1863, being relieved in late June after Lee’s brilliant victory over him at Chancellorsville at the beginnng of May, a defeat that resulted in yet one more withdrawal to the north, this one being across the Rapahannock on May 6.
With the appointment of General George Gordon Meade as its new commander only two days before the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, the Army of the Potomac’s fortunes had changed, but even after that great victory for the Union, Meade was so slow in trying to follow Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia that Lincoln had been greatly disappointed in his failure to exploit his success.
Thus, the frustrations of the long-suffering rank and file of the Army of the Potomac had begun in 1862: in one week of that summer, from June 25 through July 1, during the Seven Days’ Battles of the Peninsular Campaign, Lee had beaten McClellan at Oak Grove, Mechanicsville, Gaines’s Mill, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill. Now, two years later, after the ghastly fighting in the Wilderness, on the afternoon of May 7 the orders came down to sling their packs and be ready to move out. The troops had no doubt that once again they had fought and bled on the soil of Virginia, only to march away from a battlefield and head back in the direction from which they had so often come. When the first column reached the crossroads where they would turn right to head back over the Rapidan, their officers on horseback turned to the left—south, toward the enemy, toward Lee, toward Richmond. Excited comments went up and down the line. Regiment after regiment turned left; there was no mistake. Grant was not giving up an inch; he was taking them south. “Our spirits rose,” a soldier from Pennsylvania said. “We marched free, and men began to sing.”
Dusk came; no one stopped. Everything was moving south: the artillery, the cavalry, the engineers who would build bridges, the ambulances, the wagons carrying food and supplies. Around nine in the evening, the word was passed down from the rear, “Give way to the right. Give way to the right.” Something was coming down the road, heading south, heading to the very front, and must be let through.
Ulysses S. Grant came down the road on his big bay horse Cincinnati, accompanied by Meade and their staffs. Horace Porter described what happened when the men saw Grant coming.
Wild cheers echoed through the forest. Men swung their hats, tossed up their arms [muskets], and pressed forward to within touch of their chief, clapping their hands, and speaking to him with the familiarity of comrades. Pine-knots and leaves were set on fire, and lighted the scene with their weird flickering glare. The night march had become a triumphal procession.
Regimental bands, going along through the night carrying their instruments with them, brought them out and began to play spirited marches. Thousands of men sang. When Sherman later spoke of that night, he called Grant’s decision to move on south the most important act of his life. Grant was going after Lee, whatever the cost, whatever lay ahead. Sherman was not there, but everything he learned confirmed what he knew about his friend’s mind, heart, and methods: “Undismayed, with a full comprehension of the work in which he was engaged, feeling as keen a sympathy for his dead and wounded as anyone, and without stopping to count his numbers, he gave his orders calmly, specifically, and absolutely.”
Grant was taking the Army of the Potomac to Spotsylvania Court House, nine miles southeast of his position in the Wilderness and forty-five miles northeast of Richmond, and into eleven more days of brutal fighting. Lee maneuvered his troops there just ahead of Grant, and on the morning of May 8 the two armies began blasting away at each other. Referring to the Wilderness and the continuing action at Spotsylvania collectively in a letter that he wrote Halleck at eight-thirty in the morning on May 11, Grant said, “We have now ended the sixth day of very hard fighting.” With an optimism he may not have felt, he added, “The result up to this time is much in our favor.” It was favorable in some ways—Grant was moving into Lee’s territory, meeting the great Southern leader move by move, causing Confederate casualties Lee could ill afford—but he also had to report this to Halleck: “We have lost to this time eleven general officers killed, wounded, and missing, and probably twenty thousand men.” (Lee had lost for the time being the severely wounded Longstreet, and his cavalry leader Jeb Stuart had been killed at Yellow Tavern.) In his way of combining the prosaic with the memorable, Grant finished that paragraph of his report with a statement of his commitment: “I am now sending back to Belle Plain all my wagons for a fresh supply of provisions and ammunition, and purpose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Two days after Grant wrote to Halleck, the regimental surgeon of the 121st New York Infantry underscored the intensity of the continuing clash in a letter to his wife: “After eight days of the hardest fighting the world has witnessed, I … am still alive … The rebels fight like very devils! We have to fairly club them out of their rifle pits. We have taken thousands of prisoners and killed an army; still they fight as hard as ever.”