With Vicksburg’s fall, Grant began planning the overall exploitation of the position in which the campaign had placed the forces under his command, while Sherman headed east to find and attack Joseph E. Johnston. His men found themselves marching day after day through the blazing heat of a Mississippi summer. Private Leander Stillwell of the Sixty-first Illinois described their encounters with thunderstorms: “The dirt road would soon be worked into a loblolly of sticky, yellow mud. Thereupon we would take off our shoes and socks, tie them to the barrels of our muskets … and roll up our breeches. Splashing, the men would swing along, singing ‘John Brown’s Body’ or whatever else came handy.”
Pushing ahead swiftly, Sherman came once again to the Mississippi state capital of Jackson, where Johnston had paused in his retreat to consider whether to make a stand there with his thirty thousand men. By this time, Sherman’s exhausted soldiers had little heart for singing “John Brown’s Body” or anything else. On July 12, he tried to storm the city in a frontal assault. Although Sherman had twice the number of soldiers Johnston had, his troops were thrown back with losses he did not wish to repeat. He decided to put Jackson under siege, lobbing shells at the enemy every few minutes, but before he could encircle the city, Johnston slipped his army away on the night of July 16.
The following day brought Sherman and his men to a breaking point. As the siege of Vicksburg had come to a close, both Grant and Sherman had thought beyond the city’s fall: the plan was not only for Grant to capture Vicksburg but also for Sherman to complete months of campaigning by bringing Johnston to battle in the area east of the captured city. He was to find Johnston’s army and destroy it if possible. Sherman had found it and tried to encircle it, but Johnston was gone, again. Learning that Johnston had evacuated his men from Jackson during the night, Grant wired Sherman, “If Johnston is pursued, would it not have the effect to make him abandon much of his [supply wagon] trains and many of his men to desert?” Aware of the conditions under which Sherman’s men had been operating, Grant added, “I do not favor marching our men much but if the Cavalry can do anything they might do it.”
Sherman and his men had come to the end of their strength. He wired Grant that “the weather is too hot for a vigorous pursuit,” and in another telegram added that he would destroy enemy equipment captured in and around Jackson, but “I do not pursue because of the intense heat, dust & fatigue of the men.” Grant replied from Vicksburg, “Continue the pursuit as long as you have reasonable hopes of favorable results, but do not wear your men out. When you stop the pursuit return by easy marches to the vicinity of this place.”
Trying to explain that his army was in a state of near collapse, Sherman sent a telegram back at nine that evening, saying in part, “All of the Division Brigade & Regiments are so reduced and so many officers of rank sick & wounded determined on furloughs … Every officer & man is an applicant for furlough.” Half an hour later he sent yet another telegram, written without punctuation and saying that the force with him under Major General Edward Ord “is very much out of order & mine reduced by sickness Casualties & a desire for rest Genl W. S. Smith is really quite ill & says he must go home Cols. Giles, Smith, Tupper, Judy & others are urging their claims to furloughs & I repeat that all the army is clamorous for rest The constant stretch of mind for the past two months begins to tell on us all”
Hearing nothing more from Grant, Sherman closed the exchange with a telegram indicating that, after his men destroyed anything that was left of use to the Confederates in Jackson, he was bringing his spent army back toward Vicksburg. “Our march back, will be slow and easy, regulated by [camping where there is] water.”
With Johnston clearly beyond pursuit and posing no threat—he needed to rest his own men—Grant and Sherman settled down for a respite for themselves and their soldiers. Julia Grant and their four children came to be with him in what she described as “a large, white, colonial house” in Vicksburg that he was using for headquarters. Ellen Sherman brought their four oldest children to the vast camp Sherman’s divisions constructed beside the Big Black River, thirty miles east of Vicksburg. Writing to his stepfather Thomas Ewing, Sherman spoke of the encampment: “It combines comfort, retirement, safety and beauty … I have no apprehensions on the Score of health and the present condition of my command satisfies me on this score.” Headquarters was in a grove of large oaks. Two big hospital tents served as quarters for Sherman, Ellen, and their daughters, Minnie, now thirteen, and Lizzie, ten. Nine-year-old Willy and six-year-old Tommy stayed with their uncle Charley, now Sherman’s inspector general, in one of the regular military headquarters tents.
It was a happy time. Soon after Julia Grant arrived, she and Grant drove out to call on Sherman and Ellen. Lest Grant take himself too seriously after what he had achieved in capturing Vicksburg, Julia began calling him “Victor” when they were among close friends. She enjoyed Sherman’s witty conversation and appreciated his loyalty to Grant. All the Shermans occasionally went into Vicksburg and visited with the Grants and their children; Sherman took his family on a tour of the recently surrendered fortifications and let his children pick up battlefield souvenirs. Out at the Big Black River encampment, the atmosphere was often that of an outing under the trees. In the evenings, a black man known as “Old Shady” sang songs for the Shermans and their guests, and military bands frequently gave concerts. A battalion of the United States Thirteenth Regular Infantry Regiment—the regiment that Sherman was assigned to command at the beginning of the war but that he never led as a colonel because of his duties inspecting the defenses of Washington—treated Willy and Tommy as their own. Tommy had his corporal’s uniform from an earlier visit, and a regimental tailor now made Willy a uniform with sergeant’s chevrons. The boys were happy in the midst of camp life. Willy, his father’s favorite child and a boy who showed real enthusiasm for the military, frequently rode on a pony to accompany his father on inspections and reviews.
During this quiet time, Grant and Sherman each received a letter from General Halleck in Washington, asking them for their views on what forms of civil government should be set up in the areas of the South now firmly under Union control. Halleck added, of the answers he was soliciting, “I may wish to use them with the President.”
Although the question was framed in terms of the immediate situation, it opened the subject of how the entire South should be dealt with in the event of a final Union victory. While Grant and Sherman had been making their great contributions toward achieving such a victory, Lincoln had been trying to balance and control the political progress of the war. In Washington, he had his continuing differences with the Radical Republicans, who were adamant in their efforts not only to free every slave swiftly, but looked forward to giving these freedmen the vote as soon as possible in a conquered South that was to be governed under a strict federal rule that would rearrange its entire society. For the Radicals, the question was not whether the freed slaves should be given the vote, but whether white Southern men who had fought against the federal government should not be placed on a form of probation before they were allowed to reenter the political process. Lincoln, while firmly committed to a vigorous prosecution of the military effort and to the eradication of slavery, had as his priority the return of the rebellious states to the Union and took a more measured and conciliatory approach to reaching that goal.
It was a time in the war when much was being tried. In June, the forty-eight counties of western Virginia had been admitted to the Union as the new state of West Virginia. Earlier in the year, the experimental government set up in areas of Louisiana under federal control resulted in two congressmen from that state being seated on the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, but they were later disqualified. On June 30, the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission created by the War Department had issued its report titled “A Social Reconstruction of the Southern States.” Its three members, all prewar abolitionists, had toured the parts of the South occupied by the Union Army and recommended the creation of a Bureau of Emancipation to safeguard the interests of the slaves, an idea that eventuated in the later Freedmen’s Bureau. In addition, the commission called for complete equality for the freed blacks: one member recommended that the lands of Southern planters should be confiscated and redistributed among former slaves—an idea popular among many Radicals.
Answering Halleck’s request for ideas on what measures should be instituted in occupied areas, Grant took a conciliatory line. Although the man famously linked with “unconditional surrender” believed that the Confederate Army must be destroyed, he said of the white population now under Union control in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, “The people of these states are beginning to see how much they need the protection of Federal laws and institutions. They have experienced the misfortune of being without them.” In essence, Grant believed that the white civilian population could be brought back into the Union as full citizens; as for the men of the rebel armies, they must indeed be defeated, but “I think we should do it with terms held out that by accepting they could receive the protection of our laws.” As Grant saw it, if these soldiers surrendered and swore allegiance to the United States of America, they too should regain their status as citizens.
Sherman took a harsher line, although he sometimes remembered his happy prewar times in the South and, the past spring, had even written Ellen a letter in which he conjured up the image of his own army being “Rude Barbarians” invading from the north. He was at the moment trying with mixed success to keep his own troops from looting and was distributing food to civilians in the areas under his control, but he kept thinking in terms of a hard policy. Knowing that savage fighting lay ahead, he had little patience with what he had increasingly seen of the hostile attitude of all Southerners, both soldiers and civilians. Ten weeks before, he had written to Ellen, “I doubt if History affords a parallel of the deep & bitter enmity of the women of the South. No one who sees them & hears them but must feel the intensity of their hate.”
Now, in a twenty-seven-hundred-word reply to Halleck, Sherman carefully considered many of the problems of dealing with the conquered portions of the Confederacy. As for restoring civil rights to the people who had seceded from the Union, he saw all of those individuals as traitors and said that to give them “a Civil Government now … would be simply ridiculous.” He added, “I would not coax them, or even meet them halfway, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass” before they thought of taking up arms as a solution to a political problem.
Apart from the questions put to him by Halleck, Sherman had begun to realize that he, whose ideas were solicited by Halleck with the thought that “I may wish to use them with the President,” was becoming a national figure himself. With all his fondness for Grant and his occasional paeans of praise for Grant’s achievements, Sherman still had some reservations about the man with whom he had, in every sense, come so far. Even after Vicksburg, Sherman seemed not to understand that Grant had intuitive military gifts that simply exceeded his own great abilities. Sherman was better read, a frequently brilliant conversationalist, brave, imaginative, energetic, ambitious, a man who Grant said “boned” [studied hard in planning] his campaigns—how could one have and be and do more than that? After Shiloh, he had written Ellen, of Grant, “He is not a brilliant man … but he is a good & brave soldier tried for years, is sober, very industrious, and as kind as a child.” More than a year later, writing to Ellen the day after Vicksburg fell, he said that “we have in Grant not a great man or a Hero—but a good, plain, sensible, kind-hearted fellow.” Two paragraphs later, he tried to do Grant justice, but it was hard for him: “I am somewhat blind to what occurs near me, but have a clear perception of things & events remote. Grant possesses the happy medium and it is for this reason I admire him. I have a much quicker perception of things, but he balances the present & remote so evenly that results follow in a normal course.”
The man who later said of Grant, “To me he is a mystery,” was demonstrating that this remained true, but he sounded happily confident when he spoke of their demonstrated ability to work together. Looking back on a planning session for the Vicksburg campaign that he and Grant had held the year before, in this same letter he told Ellen, “As we sat in Oxford [Mississippi] in November we saw in the future what we now realize and like the architect who sees the beautiful vision of his Brain, we feel an intense satisfaction at the realization of our military plans.” He did not mention that on several occasions, questioning Grant’s intuitions, he had wanted to change those blueprints, but their partnership was working. Grant and Sherman were developing an ever-greater respect for each other’s views and often listened patiently to each other, but these two West Pointers understood that, once Grant reached a decision, discussion ceased and vigorous action began.
The idyll for the Grant and Sherman families, the Grants in Vicksburg and the Shermans at the encampment on the Big Black River, and the needed rest for the troops themselves came to a sudden end. On September 18, Braxton Bragg threw sixty-two thousand Confederate soldiers at badly positioned Union forces in the mountainous Georgia countryside eleven miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The battle, centering on Chickamauga Creek, went on for three days. At its close, the total casualties suffered on both sides came to thirty-four thousand; among the Confederates killed was Lincoln’s brother-in-law Brigadier General Ben Hardin Helm, a Kentuckian who had married Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister Emilie Todd. (Lincoln’s family was torn apart by the war; in addition to the loss of Helm, three of Mrs. Lincoln’s half brothers were killed fighting for the South.)
At Chickamauga, the Union commander, William Rosecrans, was saved from disaster only through the heroic stand made by Major General George Thomas, a Virginian who had chosen to fight for the Union. Because of the skillful rear-guard action under Thomas, who became known as “the Rock of Chickamauga,” the demoralized Union forces were able to retreat north to Chattanooga. In their flight, however, the Union regiments reached the city itself but failed to secure the arc of towering ridges just outside the city that hemmed it in from three sides. Bragg’s men, advancing behind them, soon looked down on the city from Raccoon Mountain, to the city’s west, Lookout Mountain on the south side, and Missionary Ridge to the east. Chattanooga was a vital communications hub, the principal southern rail center, an X that connected lines running southwest-northeast and northwest-southeast. If Chattanooga, only recently taken by Union forces, were recaptured by the Confederate Army, it would be both a great strategic loss for the Union and a rejuvenation for Southern morale after the defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
In Washington, it became clear that this new flaming area of war needed both troop reinforcements and some new commanders, and needed them swiftly. (Lincoln said that Rosecrans, whom he would soon remove from command, was “stunned and confused, like a duck hit in the head.”) Halleck, already sending a reinforcement of eighteen thousand men south from Meade’s Army of the Potomac under Joseph Hooker, ordered Grant to send another twenty thousand from his Army of the Tennessee and to go to Chattanooga himself.
For Grant’s forces, the movement of so many men, horses, artillery pieces, and supply trains was going to be exceptionally difficult. As the crow flies, Vicksburg is 340 miles southwest of Chattanooga. But Grant’s and Sherman’s divisions of troops would first go north by riverboat for 220 miles up the Mississippi to Memphis. Then, to reach Chattanooga, they would make their way east through 240 miles of country subject to Confederate raids. (One estimate was that the actual distance, counting river bends and winding roads, came to 600 miles.) Different units would have to use combinations of railways, some of them torn up by the enemy, roads that could deteriorate in bad weather, bridges the enemy would try to destroy, and riverboats steaming slowly on the meandering Tennessee River. Grant, in bed at Vicksburg with a severe leg injury sustained in a fall from a horse during a brief trip to New Orleans, instructed Sherman to take five divisions, which would comprise the required twenty thousand men, and organize them for the movement to Chattanooga. Grant would start for Chattanooga himself as soon as he was able and would probably arrive there ahead of Sherman.
On September 27, Sherman shifted his headquarters to the steamboat Atlantic, loaded with troops, including those of the Thirteenth Infantry, ready to head north up the Mississippi. His family was with him. The plan was for Sherman, his staff, and the troops aboard to disembark at Memphis and prepare for the final part of the movement to Chattanooga. Ellen and the children were to go on to Cairo, Illinois, and then travel by train to her family’s house in Lancaster, Ohio. Sherman’s son Willy, wearing his sergeant’s uniform and carrying a shotgun, came aboard, still thinking of himself as a soldier bound for high adventures but complaining of diarrhea.
The ship cast off; as they went on upstream, leaving Vicksburg behind, Sherman stood at the rail, pointing out to Ellen and the children the places where his men had camped and fought. Glancing at Willy, he saw that his son’s face was pale and that he was feverish. Ellen hurried Willy to a bunk below. The word was passed that a doctor was needed. The regimental surgeon of the Fifty-fifth Illinois examined Willy, found symptoms of typhoid fever with possible complications of dysentery, and told Sherman that his son’s life was in danger. The important thing was to get to Memphis as soon as possible so that Willy could be treated by the physicians there, but the Atlantic was a slow riverboat, making its way upstream at the season when the water was low. For a week the ship moved as fast as it could, while Sherman, Ellen, and the doctor remained constantly at their suffering son’s bedside.
At ten-thirty on the night of October 2, Willy was carried ashore at Memphis. Every soldier in the battalion of the Thirteenth Infantry wanted to help the nine-year-old boy who was their little mascot, and none could. Sherman summoned two more doctors, who hurried to a room at the Gayoso House and examined their patient as he lay pale in bed. The following morning, Ellen Sherman called in Father J. C. Carrier, a French priest from the University of Notre Dame who was serving as a chaplain for troops who were Catholics. When he visited Willy and they were alone together, “Willy then told me in very few words,” the priest recalled, “that he was willing to die if it was the will of God but that it pained him to leave his father & mother.” Trying to reassure him, the priest “told him it was not certain he would die.” Willy seemed unconvinced, and Father Carrier finally promised him that “If God wishes to call you to him—now—do not grieve for he will carry you to heaven & there you will meet your good Mother & Father again.” Ellen entered and began crying; Willy reached up and patted his mother’s face.
At five o’clock on the afternoon of October 3, eighteen hours after the Shermans reached Memphis, Willy died. Sherman said, “Mrs. Sherman, Minnie, Lizzie, and Tom were with him at the time, and we all, helpless and overwhelmed, saw him die.” At noon the following day, the battalion of the Thirteenth Infantry, marching to the beat of muffled drums and carrying their rifles reversed in a military funeral march, escorted Willy’s body, in a steel casket, to the waterfront. There the Grey Eagle had steam up, ready to depart for Cairo, from where the Shermans would go on to Lancaster. Sherman went aboard with Ellen, Minnie, Lizzie, and Tom, said good-bye to them, and returned to his headquarters at the Gayoso. That night he wrote Grant that “this is the only death I have ever had in my family, and falling as it has so suddenly and unexpectedly on the one I most prized on earth has affected me more than any other misfortune could. I can hardly compose myself enough for work but must & will do so at once.” He then proceeded to add a report of approximately 750 words, telling Grant in Vicksburg what the situation was at Memphis and his plans for readying his forces for the movement east to Chattanooga. (Three days later, Grant had one of his generals forward to Sherman, who was still in Memphis, what Grant referred to as a “private letter.” The contents are unknown.)
Having momentarily discharged his military responsibilities with his report to Grant, Sherman gave way to his emotions in a letter to Captain C. C. Smith, commander of the battalion of the Thirteenth Infantry, which had made Willy an honorary sergeant and had furnished the troops that gave him full military honors as his body left Memphis earlier in the day. Dated “October 4, Midnight,” it began with a salutation not usually found in communications from major generals to captains.
My Dear Friend:
I cannot sleep tonight till I record an expression of the deep feelings of my heart to you, and to the Officers and Soldiers of the Battalion, for their kind behaviour to my poor child. I realize that you all feel for my family the attachment of kindred; and I assure you of full reciprocity. Consistent with a sense of duty to my profession and my office, I could not leave my post, and sent for my family to come to me in that fatal climate, in that sickly period, and behold the result! The child who bore my name … now floats a mere corpse, seeking a grave in a distant land, with a weeping mother, brother, and sisters clustered about him …
But, my poor WILLY was, or thought he was, a Sergeant of the 13th. I have seen his eyes brighten and his heart beat as he beheld the Battalion under arms … Child as he was, he had the enthusiasm, the pure love of truth, honor, and love of country, which should animate all soldiers. God only knows why he should die thus young …
Please convey to the Battalion my heartfelt thanks, and assure each and all, that if in after years they call on me and mine, and mention that they were of the 13th Regulars, when poor WILLY was a Sergeant, they will have a key to the affections of my family that will open all it has, that we will share with them our last blanket, our last crust. YOUR FRIEND,
W. T. SHERMAN
So many of Captain Smith’s men wanted copies of the letter that he had it printed and gave each man in the battalion a copy.
Two mornings later, in a letter to “Dearest Ellen” dated as being written at seven a.m., Sherman began:
I have got up early this morning to Steal a short period in which to write you but I can hardly trust myself. Sleeping—waking—everywhere I see Poor Little Willy … Why oh Why should that child be taken from us? … I will always deplore my want of judgment in taking my family to so fatal a climate at so critical [a] period of the year … If human sympathy could avail us aught, I Know and feel we have it—I see it in every eye and in every act—Poor Malmbury, an old scarred Soldier, whom the world would Style unfeeling, wept like a babe as he came to See me yesterday, and not a word was spoken of Poor Willy …
I follow you in my mind and almost estimated to the hour when all Lancaster would be shrouded in gloom to think that Willy Sherman was coming back a corpse.
Four days later, in his third letter to Ellen since they parted, he continued his lament and self-recrimination. “The moment I begin to think of you & the children, Poor Willy appears before me as plain as life. I can see him now, stumbling over the Sand hills on Harrison Street [in] San Francisco … running to meet me with open arms at Black River & last, moaning in death in this Hotel.” Of their children, he said, “Why should I ever have taken them to that dread Climate? It nearly kills me to think of it. Why was I not killed at Vicksburg and left Willy to grow up to care for you?”
Ellen was equally distraught and unable to comfort her husband. “My heart is now in heaven,” she wrote him, “and the world is dark and dreary.” Everything threatened and frightened her. “Since we lost our dear Willy, I feel that evils of all sorts are likely to come upon us.” More earnest a Catholic than ever, she begged Sherman to embrace the religion in which he had been baptized but had never believed in or practiced, so “that you will die in the faith that sanctified our holy one whom we have just given up to God.” Sherman made no known response to that, but he soon wrote Ellen of Willy, “He knew & felt every moment of his life our deep earnest love for him … God knows and he knows that either of us and hundreds of others would have died to save him.” To his daughter Lizzie he wrote, “We must all now love each other the more that Willy watches us from Heaven,” and told her always to appreciate “the Soldiers who used to call Willy their brother. I do believe Soldiers have stronger feelings than other men, and I Know that every one of those Regulars would have died, if they could have saved Willy.” Usually he signed his letters to his children simply with W. T. Sherman, but in this one he added above that, “Yr. Loving Father.”
As Sherman remained in Memphis, grieving for his son as he prepared his forces for the long and difficult move east to Chattanooga, Grant, who said in a letter to another general “I am very glad to say that I have so far recovered from my injuries as to be able to move about on crutches,” started his own painful journey from Vicksburg to the besieged but not entirely surrounded city. Even from the outset, his route was a roundabout one. On October 14, he passed Memphis by boat, going on up the river to Cairo, and on October 16, reaching Indianapolis by train, found no less a person coming aboard than Secretary of War Stanton. On their ride to Louisville, Stanton handed him orders that named him commander of all Union forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. In this reorganization, directed specifically by Lincoln, Grant would have three subordinates. Sherman would take over Grant’s position as commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Stanton told Grant that he could replace the defeated Rosecrans as commander of the battered Army of the Cumberland that was now at beleaguered Chattanooga, and Grant decided to give that command to George Thomas, “the Rock of Chickamauga.”
The third force, the Army of the Ohio, would continue under the command of Ambrose Burnside, who had succeeded McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, only to be replaced by Lincoln after he failed abysmally when he opposed Lee at Fredericksburg. Burnside was not part of the crisis at Chattanooga; in command at Knoxville, eighty-five miles northeast of Chattanooga, he had a crisis of his own. Facing strong Confederate forces in eastern Tennessee, Burnside was begging for supplies and men; Grant, now responsible for that area as well, felt a great responsibility to save Chattanooga quickly, if it could be done at all, so that he could release forces to come to Burnside’s aid. There were questions too about Joseph Hooker, the Union general bringing the twenty thousand reinforcements from the Eastern theater by a circuitous route. Called in to replace Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker had been soundly outgeneraled by Lee at Chancellorsville. Lincoln had in effect demoted him, giving command of the Army of the Potomac to George Meade, the victor at Gettysburg. “Fighting Joe” Hooker—a nickname he never liked—was in effect on a form of high-level probation.
Grant’s responsibilities had just been greatly multiplied, but he had no time to dwell on his rise in the Union Army hierarchy. Staying at the Galt House in Louisville, where he heard reports that the federal forces might be giving up Chattanooga at any time, on October 19 Grant fired off a telegram to General Thomas: “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards. I will be there as soon as possible.” The next morning he was assisted onto a train for Nashville, continuing on toward Chattanooga. A Union soldier who looked into the window of the train as it passed through Murfreesboro wrote home that Grant “was seated entirely alone on the side of the car next to me. He had on an old blue overcoat, and wore a common white wool [cap] drawn down over his eyes, and looked so much like a private soldier, that but for the resemblance to the photographs … it would have been impossible to have recognized him.” At Bridgeport, Alabama, the railroad line had been torn up by Confederate raiders; the only way left open to Chattanooga was to go by foot or on horseback through mountain passes. Grant was placed on a horse, with his crutches strapped to the saddle. In a letter to Julia, he said of the next two days that he endured “a horse-back ride of fifty miles through the rain over the worst roads I ever saw.” At times, Grant had to be lifted off his horse and carried across washed-out places where horses might slip and fall. On the second day, his horse slipped coming down a mountain while he was in the saddle, further damaging his leg. In pain, on the evening of October 23, having gotten through the remaining open land route, Grant arrived at George Thomas’s headquarters, a one-story frame house in the middle of Chattanooga, and had to be lifted off his horse and helped in out of the rain.
Captain Horace Porter, a twenty-six-year-old West Point graduate, was serving as the ordnance officer on Thomas’s staff. He described his first glimpse of Grant: “In an arm-chair facing the fireplace was a general officer, slight in figure and of medium stature, whose face bore an expression of weariness. He was carelessly dressed, and his uniform coat was unbuttoned and thrown back from his chest. He held a lighted cigar in his mouth, and sat in a stooping posture, with his head bent slightly forward. His clothes were wet, and his trousers and top-boots were spattered with mud.”
Grant declined Thomas’s suggestion, made only after an aide to Thomas quietly mentioned the new commander’s bedraggled condition, that he retire to a warm bedroom, change his clothes, and have something to eat. He lit a second cigar and asked for a report on the situation at Chattanooga. Thomas and his chief engineer officer began pointing out the Union and Confederate positions on a large map.
General Grant sat for a time immovable as a rock and as silent as the sphinx, but listened attentively to all that was said. After a while he straightened himself up in his chair, his features assumed an air of animation, and in a tone of voice which manifested a deep interest in the discussion, he began to fire whole volleys of questions at the officers present. So intelligent were his inquiries, and so pertinent his suggestions, that he made a profound impression upon everyone by the quickness of his perception and the knowledge which he had already acquired concerning the army’s condition. His questions showed from the outset that his mind was dwelling not only upon the prompt opening of a line of supplies, but upon taking the offensive against the enemy.
The meeting broke up, but Grant detained Porter, asking him questions about the dangerously depleted ammunition supply. Then, at about nine-thirty, when Porter felt certain that Grant would finally eat and go to bed, the new commander began writing telegrams. The first was to Halleck in Washington, telling him that he had arrived. Uncertain of how the orders handed to him by Stanton concerning the reorganization of the Western armies had been distributed, his second sentence read, “Please approve order placing Genl Sherman in command of Dept. & army of the Tennessee with Hd. Qrs. in the field.” Porter later wrote of Grant, “He had scarcely begun to exercise the authority conferred upon him by his new command when his mind turned to securing advancement for Sherman.” Once again, Grant was using and relying on Sherman as his leading subordinate.
The next day, Grant was taken on an inspection of Union positions. It was a chilling tour. The Union defenders down in the city, which was in a bowl of high hills, numbered forty-five thousand. On the ridges hemming them in on three sides were seventy thousand Confederates. The enemy had cut the principal waterborne supply line that came up the Tennessee River from Bridgeport, Alabama, reducing the defenders’ food supply so much that the hungry troops had been subsisting on half rations. Facing south, with the river at his back, Grant had Raccoon Mountain on his right, Lookout Mountain to the front, and Missionary Ridge on his left. Using his field glasses, Grant studied Lookout Mountain, which loomed twelve hundred feet above him. He could see Confederate cannon and artillerymen up there. Those gunners were in perfect position to drop shells anywhere in Chattanooga in support of Southern infantrymen who might be able to swarm down the slopes and engulf the city. Grant saw all this and decided to go on the offensive.
That night, Captain Horace Porter had his second look at Grant. Told to report at headquarters, he found Grant pointing to a chair and saying “bluntly but politely, ‘Sit down.’” After Grant asked him several questions concerning the type and placement “of certain heavy guns which I had recently assisted in putting in position,” Grant began writing dispatches. When Porter rose to go, Grant said, “Sit still.”
My attention was soon attracted to the manner in which he went to work at his correspondence … His work was performed swiftly and uninterruptedly … He sat with his head bent low over the table, and when he had occasion to step to another table or desk to get a paper he wanted, he would glide rapidly across the room without straightening himself, and return to his seat with his body still bent over at about the same angle at which he had been sitting when he left his chair.
Upon this occasion he tossed the sheets of paper across the table as he finished them, leaving them in the wildest disorder. When he had completed the dispatch[es], he gathered up the scattered sheets, read them over rapidly, and arranged them in their proper order. Turning to me, he said, “Perhaps you would like to read what I am sending.”
The captain thanked the general and began to read. He found that Sherman’s entire expeditionary force of twenty thousand, en route from the areas of Vicksburg and Memphis by train and road, was being urged to proceed to within “supporting distance” of Chattanooga as quickly as possible. A message to Halleck explained how attacks were going to reopen supply lines. Measures would be taken “for the relief of Burnside in east Tennessee.” Most of the hungry and exhausted horses now with the army in Chattanooga were to be sent to quiet areas “to be foraged.” Paging through the sheaf of papers, Porter noted that “directions were also given for the taking of vigorous and comprehensive steps in every direction throughout his new and extensive command.”
As Grant bade him good night and went off to bed, Porter concluded from what he had seen of Grant while he was writing, and from what he had just read: “His thoughts flowed as freely from his mind as the ink from his pen; he was never at a loss for an expression, and seldom interlined a word or made a material correction.” What Porter did not know was that Grant had decided to add him as a future member of his staff.
While Grant came east to take control at Chattanooga and begin planning immediate counterstrokes, Sherman had experienced some perilous moments as he made his own way east toward his commander in their new theater of war. On the morning of Sunday, October 11, Sherman had left Memphis for Corinth on what he described as “a special train, loaded with our orderlies and clerks, the horses of our staff, the battalion of the Thirteenth United States Regulars, and a few officers going forward to join their commands, among them Brigadier-General Hugh Ewing [Ellen’s brother].” Some men of Sherman’s beloved Thirteenth Infantry were assigned to guard the train by sitting on the roofs of the cars with their muskets beside them. As the train rattled along east of Memphis on this peaceful Sunday morning, these soldiers waved as they passed and left behind them the men of Sherman’s Fourth Division who were marching along a road, beginning their long eastward march to the relief of Chattanooga.
At noon, just as the train passed the depot at Collierville, Tennessee, twenty-six miles east of Memphis, a force of enemy raiders that Sherman described as “about three thousand cavalry, with eight pieces of artillery” tried to surround it. Sherman took command of the situation, quickly having the train back up into the station and linking up with the 250 Union soldiers of the Sixty-sixth Indiana who comprised the Collierville garrison. For defensive positions, he had his greatly outnumbered combined force use the train station, a nearby blockhouse, and what he described as “some shallow rifle-trenches near the depot.” As the enemy horsemen were about to cut the telegraph line out of Collierville, Sherman sent out a call for help; before the line went dead, he received the words, “I am coming,” from Brigadier General John M. Corse, commander of the first brigade of the Fourth Division the train had passed that morning and whose men were still hours away from Collierville.
A blazing battle between five hundred Union soldiers and the three thousand Confederates ensued, in which the South just missed capturing what would have been its most important prisoner of the war. At one point, when a sergeant begged Sherman to stop standing up amid a fusillade of bullets “as though he was standing on parade,” Sherman told him to mind his own business. The train’s conductor remembered this: “I was somewhat frightened at first, but when I saw such a great man as he so unconcerned amid all the balls flying around him, I did not think it worthwhile for me to be scared.” Sherman’s matter-of-fact account mentioned none of that.
The enemy closed down on us several times, and got possession of the rear of our train, from which they succeeded in getting five of our horses, among them my favorite mare Dolly; but our men were cool and practiced shots (with great experience acquired at Vicksburg), and drove them back. With their artillery they knocked to pieces our train; but we managed to get possession again, and extinguished the fire … The fighting continued all round us for three or four hours, when we observed signs of drawing off, which I attributed to the rightful cause, the rapid approach of Corse’s division, having marched the whole distance from Memphis, twenty-six miles, on the double-quick. The next day we repaired damages to the railroad and locomotive, and went on to Corinth.
With Sherman still on the way, at Chattanooga Grant started his surprise counteroffensive about seventy-seven hours after he arrived. The object was to reopen the principal supply line, closed by the enemy. At midnight on October 26, his subordinate commander W. F. Smith started a march down the looping north bank of the Tennessee River with twenty-eight hundred men. Three hours later, in a move that in its way was as bold as Grant’s running the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg, Brigadier General William B. Hazen put eighteen hundred men aboard pontoons made for river crossings, and that force glided silently down the Tennessee, passing Smith’s troops who were quietly marching along beside the river. At five in the morning, Hazen’s soldiers captured the startled Confederate guards at Brown’s Ferry on the opposite bank and started using their pontoons to ferry Smith’s men across the river as they arrived. Smith’s troops, all across by seven a.m., started digging in, and Hazen’s soldiers stopped using their pontoons as ferryboats and started lashing them together so that a bridge could be built on top of them. By ten in the morning, a powerful Union position was in place, well behind the Confederate lines, where nothing had existed the day before. The following afternoon, completing the execution of Grant’s quickly improvised plan, General Joseph Hooker brought his force up the river from Bridgeport.
Reinforcements began to pour into Chattanooga; the question now was whether this reopened supply line could be kept open. Captain Porter commented on the situation: “As soon as the enemy recovered from his surprise, he woke up to the importance of the achievement; Longstreet was despatched to retrieve, if possible, the lost ground.”
For the first time in the war, Grant was facing his old West Point classmate, Julia’s cousin who had fought beside him in the Mexican War and was the best man at his wedding. Longstreet waded right in, coming to Wauhatchie (in Lookout Valley, just west of Lookout Mountain) south of Chattanooga at night on October 28 and making a midnight attack on an outnumbered division commanded by Union general John W. Geary. After four hours, Longstreet’s men were routed in the darkness by the most unusual charge made during the war. Captain Porter explained what happened.
During the fight Geary’s teamsters became scared, and had deserted their teams, and the mules, stampeded by the sound of battle raging around them, had broken loose from their wagons and run away. Fortunately for their reputation and the safety of the command, they started toward the enemy, and with heads down and tails up, with trace-chains rattling and whiffletrees snapping over the stumps of trees, they rushed pell-mell upon Longstreet’s bewildered men. Believing it to be an impetuous charge of cavalry, his line broke and fled.
The quartermaster in charge of the animals, not willing to see such distinguished services go unrewarded, sent in the following communication: “I request that the mules, for their gallantry in action, may have conferred upon them the brevet rank [an honorary promotion] of horses.” Brevets in the army were being pretty freely bestowed at the time, and when this recommendation was reported to General Grant he laughed heartily at the suggestion.
Delayed by weather and the need to repair railways and roads in order to keep his men on the move, Sherman arrived at Chattanooga ahead of his troops on November 14, and he and Grant quickly resumed their familiar manner with each other. One of the people who had never seen them together before was Major General Oliver Otis Howard of Maine, who had graduated from Bowdoin College in 1850 and then from West Point in 1854. Howard’s right arm had been amputated as a result of a wound received eighteen months before at Seven Pines, Virginia, and earlier in this year he had commanded his XI Corps at both the Union defeat at Chancellorsville and the victory at Gettysburg. Sent to Chattanooga from the Eastern theater of war to serve under Grant in this emergency, he left a vivid description of one of Sherman’s entrances into Grant’s headquarters. When Sherman came “bounding in after his usual buoyant manner,” Grant beamed on seeing him.
“How are you, Sherman?”
“Thank you, as well as can be expected.”
Grant offered Sherman a cigar, which Sherman took and managed to light without stopping a flow of words on some subject that had come to his mind. Grant pointed to the best seat in the headquarters, a high-backed rocking chair, indicating that Sherman should sit down.
Sherman demurred. “The chair of honor? Oh, no! That belongs to you, general.”
Grant, two years younger than Sherman, came back with, “I don’t forget, Sherman, to give proper respect to age.”
Sherman surrendered. “Well, then, if you put it on that ground, I must accept.”
Howard, accustomed to Grant’s businesslike manner with everyone else at headquarters, noted that when Grant talked to Sherman, he was “free, affectionate, and good humored.” The friendship was there for all to see.