As Grant pressed on into almost constant bloody action against Lee in northern Virginia during the summer of 1864, Sherman would determine the fate of more than the success or failure of his march into Georgia to reach Atlanta. Without at first realizing it, Sherman and his army had become a force that could not only fulfill Grant’s strategy to destroy the Confederate military but also save Lincoln’s political future and ensure the prospects for the kind of peace for which the war was being fought.
On June 8, the Republican Convention in Baltimore nominated Abraham Lincoln for a second term as president, with Andrew Johnson to run for vice president, but the North was sick of the war. Later in the summer the Democrats chose as their presidential candidate General George B. McClellan. Relieved of command by Lincoln in September of 1862 because of his delay in pursuing Lee after Antietam, McClellan had gone to his home in New Jersey, still a general but waiting for orders that never came. The Democrats, many of whom were eager to explore ways to end the fighting, saw the well-known and personable McClellan as a candidate who could not be faulted for lack of patriotism and could add legitimacy to the desire for peace. Even among Republicans, a split developed; as a concession to the defeatists among them, the party’s executive committee went so far as to ask Lincoln to open communication with Jefferson Davis, to see if some kind of mutually acceptable terms for peace could be reached.
All this moved forward against a background of rising Union casualty figures. From the time Grant moved into the Wilderness on May 5 until he finished three unsuccessful days of throwing his army against Lee’s defenses at Petersburg on June 18, he had lost sixty-five thousand men killed, wounded, and missing—nearly 10 percent of the entire Union Army at that time.
Among the terrible days were those of the battle at Cold Harbor, only twelve miles northeast of Richmond, an engagement Grant later admitted he should never have fought. Although Grant, Lincoln, and Halleck realized that the destruction of Lee’s army was more important than the capture of Richmond, from June 1 to June 3, Grant made a series of attacks in an effort to break through Lee’s defenses that were so near Richmond, capture the Confederate capital, and possibly end the war right there. On June 3, the last day of these attacks, seven thousand Union soldiers were killed or wounded in thirty minutes at Cold Harbor, and the three-day total of Northern casualties came to twelve thousand.
None of this bloodshed had produced a decisive victory—no Shiloh, no Gettysburg, no Vicksburg, no Chattanooga—and, despite Grant’s expressed determination to finish the war in 1864, the people of the North could see no end in sight. President Lincoln’s highly nervous wife, who had chatted pleasantly with Grant at the White House the night he arrived from the West to be hailed as the man who would save the Union cause, now frequently said of him, “He is a butcher.” The Northern public started to distrust newspaper reports of what was happening to their soldiers in Virginia. The first bulletins from Petersburg were of a brilliant capture of the city. The next accounts said that Union troops were not in the city but were taking some of its outer defenses, suffering heavy losses as they did. Next came what proved to be the truth: after being thrown back repeatedly, Grant’s army was digging in opposite those outer defenses and starting to besiege Petersburg. In an effort to breach the formidable Confederate earthworks, a regiment of coal miners from Pennsylvania was set to work digging a tunnel under a sector of the enemy trenches, and this was filled with four tons of gunpowder. Grant was skeptical about the scheme, but on the morning of July 30, the explosion was set off, killing 278 of the Confederate defenders and creating a crater 170 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Rather than opening an avenue through which Grant’s forces could rush through Petersburg’s defensive line, this gigantic hole proved to act as a trap—in the crater and the area surrounding it, fifteen thousand Union soldiers milled about ineffectually under enemy artillery and musket fire, and in eight hours four thousand of them were killed or wounded in the disaster that became known as the Battle of the Crater. After this fiasco, which Grant himself termed “a stupendous failure,” there began to be calls for him to be relieved of command. One estimate was that he had lost ninety thousand men in a two-month period.
In fact, despite the severe losses, Grant was winning the war. (A month before Grant started into the Wilderness, Sherman wrote his brother that “Grant is as good a Leader as we can find … Let him alone.”) Lee had fought so hard and well in an effort to throw back Grant toward Washington, precisely to stop him from getting to a strategic position such as the one where he now stood. It was ironic that Grant, who had maneuvered so boldly in all his Western campaigns, was to be thought of only as the bulldog that fought it out toe-to-toe with Lee. Nine days after his costly failure at Cold Harbor, he had taken an enormous gamble: slipping his army away from their entrenchments facing Lee at Cold Harbor in darkness during the night of June 12-13, he had 115,000 of his men moving rapidly to the southeast by the time Lee’s picket line saw in the morning that the Union trenches were empty. The next night, going swiftly to the James River, risking destruction of some of his long columns that were vulnerably strung out on the march, he had an entire corps ferried across the river. By eleven o’clock the following night, his engineers had completed throwing across the James the longest pontoon bridge ever assembled, twenty-one hundred feet in length, and division after division poured across.
Only Lee could have recovered so quickly from this complete surprise. He countered rapidly enough to stop Grant, who was moving south along the east bank of the Appomattox River, from taking Petersburg, twenty-five miles south of Richmond. Nonetheless, Grant had gained a tremendous strategic advantage: he was facing and besieging Petersburg, with his headquarters at City Point on the James River, where his army could be supplied both by land and sea, the latter avenue secured by naval forces under Admiral Porter, his colleague from the Vicksburg campaign. Relentless military logic dictated what Grant could eventually accomplish: with superior forces, he could keep extending his lines to the west into Virginia south of Petersburg, forcing Lee to spread his lesser numbers thinner and thinner to avoid being outflanked, until Grant could break through somewhere. The public in the North, and many Northern politicians, saw only the casualty figures and not the strategy, but at seven a.m. on June 15, commenting on Grant’s enormously resourceful move away from Cold Harbor less than seventy-two hours after he got it under way, Lincoln had sent him a message that said, “I begin to see it. You will succeed—God bless you all.” At just the period when a storm of criticism began to surround Grant, Lee admitted privately that if Grant could get his army in position to besiege Petersburg—something he had now done-Confederate defeat would be “a mere question of time.”
Lee’s prediction, however, assumed that the North would maintain its will to win. From the war’s outset, the stakes had been different for the South and the North. The Confederacy had never dreamed of marching into the more distant Northern cities, nor did it need to do so. From the beginning, the South had hoped to inflict such dramatic defeats upon the North, such bloody losses, that the Northern public would lose heart and cease to support its invasion of an area which, even cut into as it now was in 1864, was larger than any European nation. To win, all that the Confederacy needed was not to lose, and to be left to go its own way, a separate American nation with its institution of slavery intact. For the North to have a fully meaningful victory, federal troops had to destroy the Confederate armies, bring the South to its knees, and impose a peace founded on the concept of one nation, a nation in every part of which slavery was abolished. (Even now, after three years of war, there was no guarantee that a Union military victory would bring an end to slavery. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, after his preliminary proclamation in 1862, declared that all slaves in the states “in rebellion” were free, but this left many questions unanswered. Of itself, the document did not free slaves in Northern or border states, and Lincoln’s authority to take action was based on his wartime powers rather than on an act of Congress. There was a widespread perception that a Union victory, bringing to an end the authority under which Lincoln acted, could render the freeing of the slaves invalid—a concern that would not be remedied until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, clearly abolishing slavery throughout the United States, was enacted on December 18, 1865, more than six months after the fighting ended.)
The Union’s will to see its overall war aims through appeared to diminish or be undercut every day during the summer of 1864. In a news leak, the Northern public learned that Lincoln had authorized Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribuneand a Republican who was an advocate of negotiations for peace, to meet with Confederate emissaries on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The meeting on July 18 had come to naught—the Southerners proved not to have the authority they claimed to have, and there was no indication that they would have accepted anything but the recognition of the Confederate States of America as a permanent sovereign nation, practicing slavery—but the fact that Lincoln had agreed to such a secret conference caused widespread worry and confusion.
Things got worse. Thurlow Weed, the editor of the Albany Evening, Journal and the boss of New York State’s powerful Republican political machine, came out in print with “Lincoln’s re-election is an impossibility.” Even Henry J. Raymond, founder of The New York Times, who was chairman of the Republican National Executive Committee, wrote Lincoln privately that “the tide is setting strongly against us.” Raymond laid it right out for Lincoln: Grant’s stalled drive in Virginia was a major and growing election issue. Fewer voters were ready to continue making such bloody sacrifices to ensure the emancipation of slaves, and more of them were ready to accept Southern secession as the price for peace. It was also true that in the coming election, the soldiers of the Union Army would be voting; nineteen Northern states had arranged for their troops to vote by absentee ballot, and the others expected their citizen-soldiers to receive furloughs to come home and vote. Would those hundreds of thousands of military voters endorse Lincoln and a national policy to fight on in a war in which increasing numbers of their comrades were being killed?
Even though Lincoln was the official Republican nominee and the election was scheduled for November 7, during August a number of prominent Republicans began planning to hold a political convention of their own in Cincinnati, to put forward what would in effect be a third-party candidate. On August 23, with the Democratic Convention in Chicago six days away, Lincoln wrote a remarkable memorandum that he intended to use if the Democrats won at the polls in November. He somehow got every member of his cabinet to sign the back side of the paper, without seeing his words, and commit themselves to act on what it said. Then he put it in a desk drawer. It read: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration …”
Lincoln wrote this memorandum to guarantee continuity and cooperation in the transition of administrations that would occur if he were defeated. As he did this, word was just reaching Washington that two days earlier the Confederate cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forrest boldly attacked Memphis, which was supposed to be solidly in Union possession, and held it for the day; two Union generals fled just in time to escape capture. At the same time came news that, in an action south of Petersburg, federal troops had repelled a Confederate counterattack but in doing so lost 4,445 of the 20,000 Union soldiers engaged. Lincoln, Grant, and the Northern cause desperately needed some good news. The New York World asked, “Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed at the opening of Grant’s campaign?”
Sherman, starting toward Atlanta from Chattanooga at the same time in May that Grant began fighting Lee in the Wilderness, found himself in a war of maneuver against his and Grant’s old opponent, Joseph E. Johnston. Robert E. Lee’s friend and West Point classmate, Johnston had been successfully aggressive at Bull Run in July of 1861; after he was wounded in 1862 at Seven Pines, Virginia, his command of Confederate forces in northern Virginia had been taken over by Lee. When he recovered, Johnston was sent west, where his actions during the Vicksburg campaign could be seen either as having been indecisive, contributing to Vicksburg’s fall, or as realistic decisions and clever elusive movements that saved tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers for further service to the Southern cause.
During the time that Grant and Lee locked their armies in close-quarters fighting for eleven days at Spotsylvania, Sherman’s forces outflanked Johnston at Resaca, Georgia. Although Grant and Sherman’s favorite young general James B. McPherson had failed to push through Snake Creek Gap to Resaca in a move that might have destroyed most of Johnston’s army, Sherman kept on outmaneuvering Johnston until the Union forces reached Allatoona Pass, only thirty miles from Atlanta. There Johnston’s divisions consolidated, and the Southern defenses stiffened; by the end of May, the running war between Sherman and Johnston had cost each side about nine thousand casualties, with Confederate general John Bell Hood playing an increasingly important part in the unfolding campaign. Hood, a blond, sad-eyed, aggressive six-foot-two Kentuckian and West Pointer who had been wounded in prewar frontier fighting against the Indians, had first gained fame commanding the Texas Brigade. He was then badly wounded in the arm at Gettysburg and subsequently lost his right leg at Chickamauga. Strapped into the saddle to keep him from falling off his horse when he went into action, Hood was a fearless leader who disliked Johnston and thought he was far too cautious a general. (Lee’s evaluation of Hood, expressed in a letter to Jefferson Davis, was, “Hood is a bold fighter … I am doubtful as to other qualities necessary.”) Later in the campaign, when a worried Jefferson Davis sent General Braxton Bragg south from Richmond to talk with Johnston about his continued withdrawals toward Atlanta and to make his own observation of Sherman’s march into Georgia, Hood wrote an out-of-channels letter to Bragg, subversively criticizing Johnston for being “so directly opposite” to his own view “that we should force the enemy to give us battle.”
After more maneuvering against Johnston and two weeks of rain, on the morning of June 27 Sherman entered into a situation reminiscent of what happened to his forces at Missionary Ridge, although this time he moved forward on a far wider front. It was the worst battlefield mistake he made as an independent commander, and he did it at a moment when the Confederates had eighteen thousand men to oppose the sixteen thousand he threw into this action.
Attacking Johnston’s formidable positions on Kennesaw Mountain, near Marietta, Georgia, eighteen miles northwest of Atlanta, Sherman mounted a major assault up the slopes and saw it fail and be thrown back. He ordered a second assault and saw it fail, and sent his forces up a third and final time, to be defeated again. One of the Confederate defenders described the scene: “A solid line of blue came up the hill. My pen is unable to describe the scene of carnage that ensued in the next two hours. Column after column of Federal soldiers were crowded upon that line. No sooner would a regiment mount our works than they were shot down or surrendered. Yet still they came … All that was necessary was to load and shoot. In fact, I will ever think that the only reason they did not capture our works was the impossibility of their living men to pass over the bodies of their dead men.” In his memoirs, Sherman succinctly summed up the morning’s action: “At all points the enemy met us with determined courage and great force … By 11:30 the assault was over, and had failed.” Sherman lost 1,999 men killed and wounded, while the defenders had only 270 casualties.
That was Sherman’s only attempt to win a head-on battle with Joseph E. Johnston. He kept up his war of maneuver, trying to get through to Atlanta by a number of routes; Johnston kept checking him. Despite demands from Jefferson Davis and John Bell Hood that Johnston stand his ground and produce another Kennesaw Mountain victory, there was no terrain quite like the slopes of Kennesaw Mountain near Atlanta, and Johnston managed to fight a remarkable series of delaying actions. A man of Sherman’s 104th Illinois, frustrated by seeing the smoke of the factories of Atlanta in the distance day after day, shouted across to an enemy outpost, “Hello, Johnny, how far is it to Atlanta?” and received the answer, “So damn far you’ll never get there!”
As Johnston continued his defensive maneuvers, he may also have been thinking in terms of more than military delay. There are questions as to how aware of Lincoln’s political crisis he was at that moment, but Johnston later said that his goal was to keep Sherman from taking Atlanta before November and thus help the Democrats “to carry the presidential election … [which] would have brought the war to an immediate close.”
In the midst of this, on July 17, Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood. The idea was to have the offensive-minded Hood drive Sherman away from Atlanta. Johnston took the news calmly, leaving his headquarters for his home in Macon within twenty-four hours. During this period, Hood, having received the command for which he lobbied, went through what seemed to be the charade of asking Jefferson Davis to suspend the order, on the grounds that it was not good to change commanders at just that moment. As for Grant, years later he said to Julia, “My satisfaction at Hood’s being placed in command was this … [Johnston] was a most careful, brave, wise soldier. But Hood would dash out and fight every time we raised a flag before him, and that was just what we wanted.” (Union intelligence about this Confederate change of command was good: Sherman read of it the same day in a copy of an Atlanta newspaper slipped out of the city by one of Grenville Dodge’s spies. After conferring with his division commander John M. Schofield, who had known Hood at West Point, Sherman readied his forces in conformance with Schofield’s opinion that Hood would attack within forty-eight hours.) On the next day, Hood attacked in what became known as the Battle of Peach Tree Creek, and Sherman’s prepared counterattack threw Hood’s men back so violently that they retreated to the earthworks that had been prepared for a final defense of Atlanta.
Four days later, Hood attacked the Union corps positioned east of the city and was defeated again. Midway through the battle, however, the commander of the federal troops engaged, Major General James B. McPherson, the man among the younger Union generals for whom both Grant and Sherman had the most admiration and affection, was killed. When McPherson’s body was brought to Sherman’s headquarters while the battle went on, tears ran down Sherman’s face, and he wept as he continued to receive reports and issue orders. That night, speaking to an aide, Sherman said, “I expected something to happen to Grant and me, either the Rebels or the newspapers would kill us both, and I looked to McPherson as the man to follow us and finish the war.”
The news had an equally strong effect on Grant, who earlier in the war brought McPherson onto his staff and later recommended him for his series of promotions. A man who saw Grant learn of McPherson’s death described his reaction: “His mouth twitched and his eyes shut … Then the tears came and one followed the other down his bronzed cheeks as he sat there without a word of comment.” Grant wrote McPherson’s eighty-seven-year-old grandmother, telling her that “the nation had more to expect from him than almost any one living … He formed for some time one of my military family. I knew him well. To know him was but to love him … Your bereavement is great, but cannot exceed mine.”
During this bloody summer of what Sherman had rightly said would be “the hardest year of the war,” Grant and Sherman stayed in close contact, despite the enormous challenges each faced in his day-to-day operations. When in early August Sherman sent Grant a report in which he sounded apologetic for his inability to cut right through to Atlanta, Grant replied with a telegram in cipher that said, “Your progress instead of appearing slow has received the universal commendation of all loyal citizens as well as of the President, War Dept, and all persons you would care for.” Sherman answered this on the same day with a telegram that began with, “I was gratified to learn you were satisfied by my progress,” and, in language that stressed the concept of their being a team, continued, “Let us give these southern fellows all the fighting they want and when they are tired we can tell them we are just warming up to the work[.] Any sign of a let up on our part is sure to be falsely construed and for that reason I always remind them that the siege of Troy lasted six years and Atlanta is a more valuable town than Troy.”
At a time when he was in almost daily battle with Lee, Grant never forgot that Sherman also needed reinforcements. On August 10, he sent a coded telegram to Halleck in Washington, saying in part, “We must try and get ten thousand replacements to Sherman by some means … I would like to hear of 1000 a day going.” Three days later, Grant wired Halleck, “Is [sic] there any recruits from the Western states going to Sherman?” Referring to troops en route to General John Pope, in the West, he added, “All the troops that Pope can relieve by this increase I want sent to Sherman.” During these same days, Grant wired this recommendation to Stanton: “I think it but a just reward for services already rendered that Gen. Sherman be now appointed a Maj. Gen. in the Regular Army.” Stanton wired back within hours, saying that the promotion “will be immediately made.”
In another development with implications not only for Sherman but also the entire Union cause, Halleck informed Grant that the mustering out of more than sixty regiments whose three-year enlistments had expired might require removing tens of thousands of Grant’s troops from the front. They would be needed to replace the newly discharged men in duties such as guarding prison camps and manning key garrisons. There was, however, something more, laden with explosive political problems. The men who were being released would be replaced by conscription, and Halleck explained: “The draft must be enforced, for otherwise the army cannot be kept up. But to enforce it may require the withdrawal of a very considerable number of troops from the field.”
Halleck went on to sketch out the possibility of numerous draft riots such as those that had caused a thousand deaths the year before in New York City when, running out of volunteers, the Union had begun conscription: “The people in many parts of the north and west now talk openly and boldly of resisting the draft, and it is believed that the leaders of this ‘Peace’ branch of the Democratic Party are doing all in their power to bring about this result … It is thought the attempt will be made. Are not the appearances such that we ought to take in sail and prepare the ship for a storm?”
This was the biggest challenge to the Union cause off the battlefield that Grant had encountered. As the Union’s supreme military commander, he was being asked to consider withdrawing so many men from the front, to enforce the essential induction of more soldiers from civilian life, that he might well have to give up his bitterly won strategic position in front of Petersburg. More than that was at stake: Grant realized that if he had to abandon many of the gains he had made since May, Lee would be able to send major reinforcements south to defend Atlanta. Grant replied to Halleck that “My withdrawel [sic] now from the James River would insure the defeat of Sherman,” and he urged Halleck to have Lincoln ask the Northern governors to mobilize their state militias to keep the peace and “deter the discontented from commiting any over act.” In this, Grant quickly found his most powerful ally: Lincoln was shown Grant’s reply to Halleck, and wired, “I have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.”
In the midst of the gathering political storm, on September 3 Sherman sent Halleck these electrifying words: “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” Hood had miscalculated. First he had sent out his cavalry under General Joseph Wheeler in an effort to cut Sherman’s supply line to the north, an effort that came to naught; the Confederate troopers had inflicted little damage and had ridden on into east Tennessee, thus depriving Hood of the force on which he depended for knowledge of Sherman’s movements. Thus Hood missed the fact that Sherman next boldly marched away from his base of supplies near the Chattahoochie River, which ran on a north-south axis west of the city, and, letting his men feed themselves on the march by roasting the ears of corn that had now ripened along the way, quietly moved almost his entire army from a point west of Atlanta to its more vulnerable southeast side. When spies told Hood that at various places they had seen Sherman’s men marching along without supplies, he concluded that Sherman was breaking off the siege, rather than moving to attack, and telegraphed Richmond that this was a “great victory.” Hood finally realized that Sherman’s forces had much of the railway mileage around Atlanta in their hands and might soon surround it completely, and evacuated his forces—he had approximately forty thousand men in or south of the city—detonating powder magazines and burning warehouses filled with supplies as he withdrew. Sherman, having climaxed a successful campaign with the capture of the Confederacy’s second most important city after Richmond, in effect let Hood go without further bloodshed—“I do not wish to waste lives by an assault,” he told his subordinate General O. O. Howard—and Sherman’s columns marched in.
Triumphant joy swept the North. Grant ordered every one of his artillery batteries on the Petersburg front to prepare to fire a salute in honor of the victory (using real cannonballs aimed at the enemy), and wired Sherman that the guns would go off “amid great rejoicing.” Grant urged Sherman to start another campaign soon: “We want to keep the enemy continually pressed to the end of the war.” When Grant had a little more time a few days later, he wrote Sherman that “you have accomplished the most gigantic undertak[ing] of any General in this War and with a skill and ability that will be acknowledged in history as unsurpassed if not unequalled.”
It had been a remarkable performance. Sherman had outmaneuvered first Joseph E. Johnston and then John Bell Hood, and inflicted casualties upon their forces across a large area of northern Georgia. In the process he had tied down tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers who could otherwise have been sent north to aid Lee in his pitched battles against Grant, and had captured the South’s second most valuable city. Fully as important, his timely march into Atlanta muffled the cries for peace throughout the North and saved the election for Lincoln. The Democratic candidate McClellan promptly repudiated the plank of his party’s platform that called the war a failure, and the prominent Republicans who had been planning to hold a rump convention in Cincinnati to produce a candidate other than Lincoln abandoned that idea. Demands that Grant be removed ceased.
Despite Grant’s desire to keep driving on and end the war in 1864, both Sherman’s forces and Grant’s Army of the Potomac needed some rest, as did the commanders themselves. Grant, whose health had been deteriorating and who had been suffering from migraine headaches, was restored by visits from Julia and the children to his headquarters on a bluff at City Point, Virginia, on the west bank of the James River where it is joined by the Appomattox River, nine miles northeast of besieged Petersburg and twenty-three miles southeast of Richmond. One morning, Horace Porter of Grant’s staff stepped into Grant’s tent and saw Grant playing with his children.
I found him in his shirt-sleeves engaged in a rough-and-tumble wrestling match with the two older boys … The lads had just tripped him up, and he was on his knees grappling with the youngsters, and joining in their merry laughter, as if he were a boy again himself. I had several despatches in my hand, and when he saw that I had come on business, he disentangled himself with some difficulty from the young combatants, rose to his feet, brushed the dust off his knees with one hand, and said in a sort of apologetic manner: “Ah, you know my weaknesses—my children and my horses.”
Speaking of the relationship between Ulysses and Julia, he said that, in the log cabin in which Grant and his family lived, “They would seek a quiet corner of his quarters of an evening, manifesting the most ardent devotion; and if a staff-officer accidentally came upon them, they would look as bashful as two young lovers spied upon in the scenes of their courtship.” On an evening earlier in the year, when Grant had asked Julia to come to City Point and she had been there without their children, a Confederate ironclad broke through on the river and was expected to begin firing at City Point. Although nothing finally came of the threat, no one could have known it then, and Porter observed: “Mrs. Grant, who was one of the most composed present, now drew her chair a little closer to the general, and with her mild voice inquired, ‘Ulys, what had I better do?’ The general looked at her for a moment, and then replied in a half-serious and half-teasing way, ‘Well, the fact is, Julia, you oughtn’t to be here.’” (Julia later wrote in mock indignation, “And he had sent for me, mind you!”)
As for the Shermans, on June 11, in the middle of the Atlanta campaign, Ellen had given birth to a son, Charles, and had been sick for the next two months. The baby also was not well. After the death of her mother earlier in the year, Ellen had tried to keep house for her ailing father in Lancaster, Ohio, but had recently found the combination of responsibilities too stressful. She decided to move herself and her children to South Bend, Indiana, which she had chosen both because it had Catholic schools into which she was putting the three older children and because of the good medical care it offered her and her baby. Ellen appears to have done this with a minimum of consultation with Sherman, who had always considered her tied to her parents and to Lancaster, but he consented to the move and was perhaps a bit bemused that after all these years she would leave the place and family that he had always found to be such powerful rivals for her affections. In a letter he wrote her just after taking Atlanta, he explained that “there is no chance of my getting north again and therefore you can choose a house utterly regardless of my movements.”
The letters that Sherman and Grant sent their wives throughout the war demonstrated the great respect they had for their intelligence. Sherman, tending to be far more verbose although not more profound, went much further than did Grant in discussing with Ellen the war’s military and political aspects. All through the summer’s campaign he had written her long letters that included clear accounts of his movements. Usually he went into some detail, but at one point he summed up the situation this way: “We have Atlanta close aboard as the Sailors say but it is a hard nut to handle. These fellows fight like Devils & Indians combined, and it calls for all my cunning & Strength.” In another letter, asking Ellen to help the children realize that at the moment he could not answer all their letters individually, he referred both to his army and the masses of both black and white refugees he was feeding when he wrote, “They must understand my present family is numbered by hundreds of thousands all of whom look to me to provide for their wants.”
At this point, the outlines of Grant and Sherman’s grand strategy were in some ways visible, but much remained to be seen. Sherman had indeed penetrated the enemy’s heartland, and Grant was bloodily engaging Lee on the Confederacy’s northern front in Virginia. Within the scope of the objectives still before them, Grant’s task was enormous but clear: defeat Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. When Grant had campaigned in the West, he had the opportunity to exploit those wider areas, which frequently offered him choices of where and how to maneuver his troops. He no longer had those advantages; Lee stood firmly before him in a smaller fixed area.
Sherman certainly had a goal—to tear up the South and defeat Joseph E. Johnston—but he still had the strategic luxury of deciding where to go and when to make his moves. Nonetheless, it was time to make decisions of the greatest importance. Sherman, in concert with Grant, had to decide exactly what to do next with this force of his, which had proved to be such a potent and flexible weapon.
To plan this next phase of the war, Grant sent his aide Horace Porter south, carrying a letter concerning the strategic options and to get Sherman’s ideas as to what should come now. Porter had never seen Sherman and wrote his impression of their first meeting at Sherman’s headquarters in Atlanta.
He was just forty-four years of age, and almost at the summit of his military fame. With his large frame, tall, gaunt form, restless hazel eyes, aquiline nose, bronzed face, and crisp beard, he looked the picture of “grim-visaged war” … I approached him, introduced myself, and handed him General Grant’s letter. He tilted forward in his chair, crumpled the newspaper in his left hand while with his right he shook hands cordially, then pushed a chair forward and asked me to sit down …
He exhibited a strong individuality in every movement, and there was a peculiar manner of energy in uttering the crisp words and epigrammmatic phrases which fell from his lips as rapidly as shots from a magazine-gun … He said, “I knew Grant would make the fur fly when he started down through Virginia. Wherever he is the enemy will never find any trouble about starting up a fight. He has all the tenacity of a Scotch terrier. That he will accomplish his whole purpose I have never had any doubt.”