Military history

CHAPTER THIRTEEN


Cutting the Chattanooga—Atlanta Link

THE MIDSUMMER VICTORIES of 1863, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, transformed the fortunes of the Union. In the East Meade’s reluctance to compromise his great and unexpected success at Gettysburg deterred him from pursuing Lee as hard as Lincoln wished he would. Meade and Lee would confront each other across the Rapidan without seriously engaging each other for the next six months. In the West, the fall of Vicksburg allowed Union forces to campaign against the Confederate garrisons of Kentucky and Tennessee and opened up a line of advance into Georgia. Militarily, the situation in the border states was thoroughly confusing. Since February 1863 the states across the Mississippi had been organised by President Davis into the Trans-Mississippi Department, under General Edmund Kirby Smith, which he would run as a virtually independent fiefdom, “Kirby Smithdom.” Davis had made it clear that Kirby Smith would need to manage on his own, which he did very well. He used the Trans-Mississippi’s enormous wealth in cattle, horses, mules, and produce, together with the cotton crop, no longer transportable to the East since the loss of control of the Mississippi River, to set up a trading empire, with outlets in Mexico, the West Indies, and as far away as Europe. He also built his own arsenal at Tyler, Texas, and found ways of substituting for the military supplies from which he was now cut off. The Trans-Mississippi’s self-sufficiency, however, could not translate into military success, since Kirby Smith lacked the troops and the battlefield talent to beat Union armies, which sensibly left him alone until the war was over.

In the summer of 1863, the main Union armies in the West, apart from those of Grant and Sherman, were in Tennessee and Kentucky. In Tennessee, Rosecrans maintained a sizable Army of the Cumberland, with which he had driven off Bragg’s Army of Tennessee from Murfreesboro at the battle of Stone’s River at Christmas 1862. Since that success he had not been active. In June, however, Rosecrans had surprised Bragg by driving through gaps in the Cumberland Mountains and forced him to retire, via the Duck River valley, as far as Chattanooga. At the same time Burnside, with the Army of the Ohio in Kentucky, pushed forward to take Knoxville, the centre of Tennessee Unionism. The causes of Bragg’s failure in Kentucky were manifold. He himself had come to despair of Kentucky Confederates’ declarations of Southern patriotism. He repeated frequently to his principal staff officer that the Kentuckians, for all their protestations of belligerence, “had too many fat cattle and were too well off to fight.” His retreat to Chattanooga marked the end of the Confederacy in Kentucky. Jefferson Davis was, however, determined to sustain Bragg, despite his manifest inability as a commander. Though Bragg was on bad terms with his subordinate commanders and not popular with his soldiers, Davis had him reinforced with troops from Johnston’s army in Mississippi, tried to persuade Lee to join him with the Army of Northern Virginia, a move which Lee particularly resisted, and organised the transfer of Longstreet’s corps from northern Virginia by train to Georgia, in a circuitous 900-mile journey over a dozen different railroad lines.

These reinforcements strengthened Bragg’s army enough for him to contemplate going over to the attack. It was clear that the Union troops in Tennessee had as their aim to invade Georgia and to seize the vital Chattanooga-Atlanta rail link. Their route forward was a difficult one for the way into Georgia was blocked by the line of the Tennessee River and by the southern tail of the Appalachian Mountains, in particular the heights of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, which overlooked Chattanooga. Bragg’s plan was to tempt Rosecrans into the mountains and then to fall on his columns as they emerged through the gaps. His first efforts to do so failed because of his subordinates’ timidity in springing the trap. In mid-September, however, the arrival of Longstreet’s reinforcements gave the Confederates superiority of numbers and emboldened the faint hearts. Four of the generals present had served in the same unit in Mexico. One of them, George Thomas, was Southern by birth but serving on the Union side. He was to play a critical role in the battle that was about to unfold. When Bragg made a heavy and concentrated thrust at the Union left on the morning of September 19, Thomas’s corps had just arrived in the theatre. Thomas himself was able to position such troops as he could find to stand, though fortunately the front at the point Thomas chose to defend had been strengthened with timber barricades during the night. One of the units deployed, the 39th Indiana Mounted Infantry, was armed with Spencer repeating carbines, which inflicted huge casualties on the weaker Confederates opposite. The Confederates had taken a position on the west bank of Chickamauga Creek, a small tributary of the Tennessee River running south of Chattanooga. Bragg’s plan was to get around Rosecrans’s left flank and to seize its communications with Chattanooga. Rosecrans frustrated this move by extending his line. By dawn, 60,000 Federals faced 62,000 Confederates and both sides were poised for battle.

THE BATTLE OF CHICKAMAUGA

What followed would develop into the bloodiest and bitterest of all battles fought in the western theatre. Local circumstances brought the fight on, since the brush and timber covering the banks of the creek meant neither side could properly see each other, close though they were. “The two armies came together like two wild beasts,” recalled an eyewitness, “and each fought as long as it could stand up in a knockdown and drag-out encounter.” By mid-morning the undergrowth was filled with clouds of dense gray powder smoke and the ground was covered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. The slaughter went on all afternoon “as if all the fires of earth and hell had been turned loose in one mighty effort to destroy each other.” As dusk drew in, Patrick Cleburne’s Confederate division, composed of Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas troops, launched a final attack which bent but did not break the Union line. The Northern soldiers built barricades of timber during the night and prepared themselves to withstand another Confederate assault.

The battle began again at 8:30 a.m. with a Confederate attack on the Union centre. Bragg still hoped to get round the Union left and cut its communications with Chattanooga but the attacks broke on the Union barricades. Rosecrans should have maintained his position without difficulty had he not made a grave and almost inexplicable mistake. One of his staff officers misread the battle line and told Rosecrans that there was a gap, where none in fact existed; the poor visibility on the battlefield may have been to blame. Rosecrans, however, without looking for himself, took a division out of the line to fill the supposed gap, thus creating a real one, into which charged Longstreet’s corps, pushing the Union back nearly a mile at that point.

The effect was disastrous: panic took hold, shamefully affecting not only the rank and file but Rosecrans and several of his subordinate commanders as well, who made off for the safety of Chattanooga. The only senior officer of the Union left on the field was General George Thomas, who was a friend of his Confederate opponent opposite, James Longstreet. Thomas managed to rally some troops of his corps at Snodgrass Hill and form a line of defence. This line held for the rest of the day, preventing the Confederates from getting into the rear of the disorganised Union army and thus saving the day. Thomas, a quiet, slow-spoken man, was known forever after as “the Rock of Chickamauga” and came to be rated by Ulysses S. Grant as one of the few indispensable generals of the Union army. He saw his men ride out the attacks, which persisted all afternoon until, as evening came, he ordered their retreat to Rossville, a little short of Chattanooga on Missionary Ridge, where Rosecrans was attempting to reorder his broken ranks. General Emerson Opdycke, who observed Thomas’s conduct during the closing stages of the battle, wrote inspiringly of his direction of the defence across the line of retreat. Only six divisions, Opdycke saw, held the line. “In front stood the whole army of the enemy, eager to fall upon us with the energy that comes from great success and greater hopes. But close behind our line rode a general whose judgement never erred, whose calm, invincible will never bent; and around him thirty thousand soldiers resolved to exhaust their last round of ammunition, and then to hold their ground with their bayonets. Soldiers thus inspired and commanded are more easily killed than defeated.”1

Thomas kept close to the battle line throughout, speaking frequently to his troops and encouraging them. Encouragement was needed, for the casualties rose to terrible heights: 2,312 Confederates killed, 14,674 wounded, 1,468 missing; 1,657 Union killed, 9,756 wounded, 4,757 missing. The battle was counted a victory by the Confederacy though it could afford few more at that price. In the aftermath, Rosecrans withdrew into the defences of Chattanooga, to which Bragg laid siege. He succeeded in drawing his siege lines tight, cutting off all supplies to the trapped Union soldiers except for what could be brought in by one narrow and awkward road to the north, which was frequently raided by Confederate cavalry at great cost in destroyed wagons and slaughtered horses and mules. Bragg’s army took up positions on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, from which they commanded the Union line of retreat.

Halleck took steps to see that Rosecrans was not abandoned. In early October Hooker arrived in Chattanooga from Virginia with 20,000 troops. Hooker was sent by train, completing a journey of 1,200 miles in eleven days, a logistic movement not to be bettered until the twentieth century, and in mid-November Sherman brought 16,000 from Mississippi. Most important of all, Grant was appointed to command a new, all-embracing Division of the Mississippi, running from the river to the borders of Georgia, overseeing the armies of the Tennessee and the Cumberland. Rosecrans was relieved of command of the Army of the Cumberland and replaced by Thomas. Grant had already identified him as a battle-winning soldier, and his admiration would grow. Grant’s first act was to open a line of supply into the city, known to the soldiers as the “Cracker Line” because down it came steady supplies of hard bread, as well as beef and “small rations”—which comprised coffee, rice, sugar, and desiccated vegetables. Grant noted their transforming effect: the disappearance of lassitude and the return of energy and good cheer.

The Cracker Line was open by October 28, and on November 23 Grant began the attacks on Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge which would raise the siege for good. While the reinforcements were arriving and Chattanooga was being resupplied with food and war matériel, Grant had put in hand a great deal of repair and rebuilding of the region’s infrastructure. In their effort to deny the Union the chance to capture positions in the state of Mississippi and to conduct operations against their soldiers, the Confederate commanders had been forced to destroy a great deal of railroad line and stock and road-works also. Grant was soon supervising a railroad-building business, constructing wagons and the tools with which to work. Fortunately he was able to find enough skilled men in his army who knew how, evidence of the extent to which the railroad boom had caught up the working population of the United States during the 1850s. In Chattanooga’s hinterland, 182 bridges had to be rebuilt, including several spans a mile long. The workforce also constructed a large number of pontoons, for use both in the laying of bridges and as ferries.

The battle to capture Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain began with a secretive crossing of Chickamauga Creek in pontoons, rowed with oars that had been brought up by the wagonload and dumped beside them. The Union advance parties got across undetected under cover of darkness on the morning of November 23. By early afternoon they had captured a hill, Orchard Knob, on which they set up an artillery position. The assault on Lookout Mountain began the next day, that on Missionary Ridge on November 25. Both were formidable natural fortresses. Lookout Mountain culminates at an altitude of 1,100 feet, in a precipitous rocky platform, while Missionary Ridge has steep sides 500 feet high. Both features had been improved for defensive purposes by digging and were crisscrossed by trenches and lines of rifle pits. An entrenchment had also been dug to connect the two heights.

Grant began his grand assault on the mountain stronghold on November 25, following a preliminary success the day before on Missionary Ridge. Grant had now received the reinforcements brought from Mississippi by Sherman and had strength enough to press Bragg hard. Bragg’s ability to hold the position was weakened by the deterioration of his relations with his subordinates, which, never good, now trembled on the brink of the mutinous. Jefferson Davis had been forced to come from Richmond to adjudicate between them, only to be met by demands that Bragg be dismissed and replaced by either Johnston or Longstreet. Johnston was not trusted by Davis, while Longstreet, as an officer of the Army of Northern Virginia, felt he lacked the authority to command western soldiers. So Bragg had been left in his post, with consequences he, the president, and the army would regret.

The consequences ensued soon after the opening of Grant’s assaults on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, led by Hooker and Sherman. On November 24 Hooker’s men got to grips with the Confederates on a narrow bench on the slopes of Lookout Mountain. The day was misty and the mist became thick fog, which made it difficult for the warring parties to see each other. As a result, the fight was broken off, though it would be known thereafter as “the Battle Above the Clouds.” In the night that followed, the Confederate defenders slipped away to join those on Missionary Ridge. For November 25 Grant had made a new plan which required Sherman’s corps to attack the Confederate right, Hooker’s the Confederate left, while Thomas held the centre sector but did not attack. After a morning and early afternoon of heavy fighting Grant decided that neither Sherman nor Hooker could do any more and sent orders to Thomas to advance. The orders entailed an advance by 25,000 men across a mile of open ground from Orchard Knob into the enemy centre. Thomas’s men were anxious to vindicate their performance at Chickamauga and advanced to contact in a headstrong mood calling out “Chickamauga! Chickamauga!” as they moved. They quickly took the line of rifle pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge and then began to move up its slopes, ignoring their officers’ orders to halt and re-form. The supports and reserves joined in and soon all 25,000 were racing to storm the summit, driving the demoralised Confederates ahead of them.

Grant, who was watching the action with Thomas from the prominence of Orchard Knob, began questioning his entourage in a testy fashion, believing he had been disobeyed. “Thomas, who ordered those men up the ridge?” Thomas answered that he did not know and that it had not been he. Then to General Gordon Granger, commander of the Fourth Corps in Thomas’s army, he said, “Did you order them up, Granger?” “No, they started up without orders. When those fellows get started, all hell can’t stop them.” Grant warned that if things did not turn out well, someone would suffer. General Joseph Fullerton, a staff officer of Thomas’s army, then rode about to make enquiries, but also to give orders to push on if that were possible. General Philip Sheridan said, “I didn’t order them up but they are going to take that ridge.” He raised his canteen in salute, at a group of Confederate officers who were watching from a vantage point, and was fired on by Confederate artillery in response.

During the night, Bragg’s army withdrew completely from the Chattanooga position and did not attempt to re-enter Tennessee. His vanguard was already thirty miles inside Georgia. Bragg wrote to Jefferson Davis to tender his resignation in recognition of the completeness of the defeat he had suffered and was replaced by Johnston, an unwilling change by Davis but he had exhausted his reserve of generals.

Given the intensity of the fighting on the two mountains, and the amount of ammunition expended, casualties, on both sides, were lower than might have been expected: 753 Union killed, 4,722 wounded, 349 missing; 361 Confederates killed, 2,160 wounded, 4,146 missing.

THE SIEGE OF KNOXVILLE

Knoxville was the major city of eastern Tennessee, the mountainous region for which Lincoln felt such concern as it was the centre of Union sentiment inside the Confederacy. From the beginning of the war, he was anxious to bring it under Federal control, and throughout 1862-63 he urged a succession of Union commanders to move against it. In March 1863 General Ambrose Burnside, who had been so heavily defeated at Fredericksburg the previous December, was transferred to the West. He was ordered to move against Knoxville as quickly as possible, while General William Rosecrans was ordered to operate against Braxton Bragg in what became the Tullahoma campaign. Burnside commanded the Army of the Ohio, Rosecrans the Army of the Cumberland.

Burnside intended to advance from Cincinnati with two corps, the Ninth and the Twenty-third, but lost the Ninth when it was given to Grant for the campaign against Vicksburg. While awaiting the return of the Ninth Corps, Burnside sent a brigade and some cavalry to advance on Knoxville. During June, this force, led by General William Sanders, destroyed railroads around the city, where General Simon Buckner was in command.

In August Burnside began his advance on Knoxville. His direct route ran through the Cumberland Gap, heavily defended by the Confederates. To avoid them Burnside made a flank movement to the south, by forced marches through the broken country. As the Chickamauga campaign began, Buckner was ordered to take most of his troops to join Bragg at Chattanooga and was left with only two brigades, one in the Cumberland Gap, on the northeastern border of the state, and another east of Knoxville. In these circumstances Burnside pressed forward and was able to send a cavalry brigade into Knoxville on September 2. It was unopposed and found the city empty of rebel troops. He was enthusiastically welcomed by the loyal population. Burnside arrived with his army the next day.

He then set about dealing with the Confederates at the Cumberland Gap in order to open up a more direct route to Kentucky. He had two forces in position to confront the new Confederate commander, General John Frazer; though outnumbered, Frazer refused to surrender. Burnside then led a brigade from Knoxville to the gap, making a march of sixty miles in fifty-two hours. On his arrival, Frazer, accepting that he was hopelessly outnumbered, surrendered on September 9. Burnside recruited new units of Tennessee volunteers and set about clearing the roads and gaps leading northward towards Virginia. Meanwhile, Grant, who had now captured Chattanooga, was preparing to fight at Chickamauga, to which Lincoln and Halleck ordered Burnside to detach troops in order to support Rosecrans, who was in difficulty. But, unwilling to surrender Knoxville, Burnside procrastinated; he was having difficulty supplying his troops in the desolate country to the east of Knoxville. During September and early October he was forced to fight two small battles, at Blountsville and Blue Springs, both minor victories, which led to the reestablishment of Union authority in eastern Tennessee.

Braxton Bragg, fearing that Burnside might reinforce the Union troops at Chattanooga, asked Jefferson Davis to order Longstreet to concentrate against him. Longstreet objected, knowing he would be severely outnumbered, since large Union reinforcements were approaching Chattanooga to add to the imbalance. He also objected to the division of force involved, which, he said, would expose both Confederate commanders to defeat. He therefore resumed his preparations to move against Knoxville. The move was to be made by rail, but the journey proved difficult. The trains did not arrive on time, so that the advance had to begin on foot. When the trains did arrive, the locomotives proved underpowered, forcing the troops to dismount on the steeper gradients. They also had to collect wood for the engines. Food ran short. Longstreet’s advance nevertheless cheered Lincoln, who, having previously told Burnside to leave Knoxville, now ordered him to stay and defend the city. Grant prepared to send reinforcements from Chattanooga, but Burnside now convinced him that he could detach sufficient troops to hold Longstreet at a distance. Grant willingly concurred. Next the Confederates attempted to encircle Knoxville with cavalry, but Union resistance thwarted their plan and the cavalry joined Longstreet in the north. Burnside manoeuvred outside the city and successfully reached a vital crossroads. Burnside won a brisk minor victory at this point, Campbell’s Station, which allowed him to withdraw his strength inside Knoxville. On November 17 Longstreet laid siege. His assault on the defences was delayed, and Longstreet took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen his earthworks. Longstreet eventually attacked a week after the siege had begun, at a point he judged weak, Fort Sanders, but which was deceptively strong. The Union had surrounded the earthworks with a network of telegraph wire strung between trees. The Confederate attack launched on November 29, 1863, was effectively checked by the defences and Union covering fire. There were 813 Confederate losses, only 13 Union.

The defeated Longstreet considered his options. He had been ordered to join Bragg, who had just been defeated at Missionary Ridge on November 25. He felt that move impracticable and told Bragg that he would withdraw with the Army of Tennessee to Virginia, but would keep up the siege of Knoxville as long as possible, to prevent Grant and Burnside concentrating against him. Longstreet’s stubbornness had the effect of causing Grant to send Sherman with 25,000 men to raise the siege of Knoxville. Longstreet accordingly abandoned the siege on December 4 and retired northwards to Rogersville, Tennessee, where he prepared to go into winter quarters. Sherman left part of his force at Knoxville and took the rest back to Chattanooga. General John Parke, Burnside’s chief of staff, pursued the retreating Confederates with 8,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, though he did not press the pace. Longstreet’s route took him through Rutledge and Rogersville, followed by General John Shackelford with 4,000 cavalry and infantry. On December 9, he was near Bean’s Station when Longstreet decided to turn and attack. The Confederates got Shackelford in a pincer movement but the Union troops defended so stoutly that they repelled all Confederate attacks until reinforcements joined in. Shackelford was then forced to withdraw to Blain’s Crossroads. Longstreet followed but declined to attack their entrenchments. Both sides withdrew and left the area to go into winter quarters. Longstreet, who blamed subordinates for his failures in the campaign, asked to be relieved of command but was refused. His troops suffered in a severe winter, and he was unable to return to Virginia until the spring. His reputation and self-confidence were damaged by the campaign, while Burnside’s reputation was restored. The campaign of Knoxville, together with Grant’s victory at Chattanooga, returned eastern Tennessee to Union control for the rest of the war.

The battles of Chattanooga, Knoxville, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge had now altered the balance of advantage in Tennessee very much in the Union’s favour. With Rosecrans in strength at Chattanooga, Burnside operating in upper eastern Tennessee, and Grant free to strike in several directions from Tennessee eastward or southward, Lincoln’s long-cherished ambition, to liberate Unionist Tennessee from the Confederacy, could be safely regarded as achieved. Grant, as overall commander in the western theatre, was now at liberty to propose, if he so chose, a broad strategy for the Union’s conduct of the war in the western theatre. In the spring of 1864 he did so choose. Grant did not affect to be a high-level strategic thinker. Nothing in his manner or appearance suggested that he was anything but a commonsense, down-to-earth fighting soldier. Common sense and down-to-earthness are among the most valuable qualities, however, that a strategist can possess and he possessed them in abundance. What isvaluable to those who interest themselves in his career is that in his Personal Memoirs he describes with engaging frankness how he formed his way of thinking. Grant also preferred to attack, if possible. He was not a “wait and see,” but a “go and see” general, as his conduct after Chattanooga showed. He then decided to lay plans before Lincoln for the next stage of the campaign in the West. He may have done so because he had at his headquarters a “special commissioner” from Washington, Charles Dana, formerly of theNew York Tribune. Dana had been sent partly because a trickle of unflattering reports about Grant continued to reach Washington about his bad habits and Lincoln, who already wanted to promote Grant, sought his own source of information. Grant used Dana as a messenger to take his ideas for the West to Washington. He proposed leaving a reduced Army of the Tennessee to watch Bragg and to take the largest part down the Mississippi to New Orleans and then via the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, Alabama, whence he would strike at important points in Alabama and Georgia. He had proposed such a scheme before and continued to believe in it. Those in power in Washington, however, did not. Lincoln, Halleck, and Stanton feared that if Grant’s force was moved so far away, the rebels would reawaken the war in eastern Tennessee. Communication with Washington had the result, however, of involving Grant in highlevel strategic discussion. Halleck explained to Grant that the president’s anxieties in the West remained fixed on Tennessee and its Unionists, and that before any move was made elsewhere he wanted the surviving Confederate forces in Tennessee chased down and defeated; he also wanted the Confederate army in southern Georgia pushed far enough away from the Tennessee border to ensure that it could not intervene in the state; only when those things had been achieved would he consider approving wider operations in the West.

Grant’s plan for an operation against Mobile was—surprisingly, given how clearly Grant thought—not a sound one. The Union lacked the troops in the West to mount two large operations at the same time. It could not move on Mobile and yet continue to menace the Confederates in Georgia. To attempt to find the necessary troops would inevitably result in weakening the position around Chattanooga and so encourage Johnston to strike into Tennessee. Chattanooga was that rare thing in strategy, a genuinely critical point. Held by the Union, it allowed the retention of Tennessee and the menacing of Georgia. Should it pass back into Confederate possession, Tennessee would be lost and so would the future dominance of Georgia. Halleck wrote to Grant vetoing the plan, on the grounds that the president would not approve it, a perfectly legitimate thing for Halleck to say, so perfectly did he understand Lincoln’s mind.

Later in January 1864, Grant wrote again to Halleck outlining a plan for the next stage of operations in the East. He proposed abandoning the direct advance upon Richmond for an indirect approach. The navy should embark 60,000 troops of the Army of the Potomac and land them on the coast of North Carolina, whence they could march to sever the Confederate capital’s rail connection with the Lower South and so force Lee to abandon Richmond. Halleck answered Grant as he had done earlier in January: Lincoln would not approve, since the scheme would encourage Lee to move in force against any Union army in the Carolinas; moreover, it would weaken the defences of Washington. He pointed out to Grant that his scheme contained no plan to fight Lee’s army, which should be the proper object of an eastern strategy, and was the president’s favoured aim. The best way to defeat Lee, he insisted, was to fight him in the open field near Washington. He concluded his second letter to Grant, however, by hinting that he would soon have a hand in drafting strategy for the eastern theatre, a closer hint that Grant was about to be appointed to the supreme command.

There had been strong rumours circulating to that effect, of which Grant cannot have been unaware. In February Congress passed an act reviving the rank of lieutenant general. The Confederacy appointed generals in the rank of brigadier, major general, lieutenant general, and by 1864 (full) general. In the Union army, however, major general was the highest rank granted and most Union generals held the rank in the United States volunteers, as Grant had done until his victory at Vicksburg. Then he was made a major general in the regular army. The new rank of lieutenant general was open to regular major generals, so Grant qualified for the promotion. The law allowed the lieutenant general to be appointed general in chief. In early March, Grant, still in Tennessee, received orders to go to Washington, where he arrived on March 8. He stayed first at Willard’s Hotel, where he received an invitation to attend a reception at the White House that evening. On his arrival there was a rise in the noise level. Grant knew almost no one in the capital, but since Vicksburg he was widely known there. The president recognised the signal and approached Grant with the words, “This is General Grant, is it?” After a few words, Grant was drawn away by the crowd, but later that evening Lincoln and Stanton took him into the Blue Room, where he was told that Lincoln would present him with his commission in the morning. The president also said that he would show him beforehand the draft of the short speech he would make. Lincoln may also have already known that Grant was tongue-tied and a hopelessly inept public speaker. He did, however, suggest that Grant should say something to forestall jealousy among other commanders and something to please the Army of the Potomac. It was entirely characteristic of Grant that when the time came he did neither. When nominated for the presidency, in 1868, his speech of acceptance ran to five words. On this occasion, when appointed by Lincoln in the White House room where the cabinet met, the president made a short but elaborate speech. “With this high honour devolves upon you also a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you. I scarcely need add that with what I here speak for the nation goes my own hearty personal concurrence.”2 Grant had an answer written on a half sheet of paper but read it so haltingly that his words were not recorded.

The day after his appointment the U.S. War Department announced the termination of Halleck’s position as general in chief but his reappointment in the new office of chief of staff. Thus was inaugurated in the United States what would become the normal arrangement of a modern command system, with Lincoln as supreme commander, Grant as operational commander, and Halleck as principal military administrator. Over the course of the next century the high command structure of all large armies would be adjusted to conform, beginning with the Prussian, where, in 1870-71, Bismarck acted as supreme commander and Moltke the elder as chief of operations. The rationalisation of the Federal or, as Grant called them, the national armed forces was essential, for under him, on his assumption of the generalship in chief, there were seventeen different Union commanders overseeing 533,000 men. The most important was the Army of the Potomac, which still lingered in northern Virginia opposite Lee’s army but was not at that time undertaking active operations. Elsewhere the military situation was determined by the Confederate deployments, which principally included that of Johnston’s Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia, on the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which ran from Chattanooga to Atlanta. The other large Confederate force in the West was the cavalry corps under Nathan Bedford Forrest, located in eastern Tennessee. Forrest was a potential threat since he might raid as far as Cincinnati but as long as he was detached from either of the big Confederate armies, Lee’s and Johnston’s, he did not really multiply Confederate power.

Grant, as general in chief, could now consider what large operations he might launch. His first act in high command was to return to the West, to confer with Sherman, who, at his behest, had been appointed to succeed him. Grant had already identified Sherman as the most competent of his subordinates, a true battle-winning soldier of indefatigable temperament. He had also secured the advancement of Sheridan, another western general who had won his good opinion, to come east as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, replacing Pleasanton, who was competent but lacked the aggressiveness by which Grant set such store.

On his visit to Sherman, Grant outlined his general philosophy for what he intended to be the closing stages of the war. It coincided with and may have been inspired by what was now Lincoln’s fixed conception of strategy, formed by trial and error in three years of frustration. Lincoln in 1861 had known nothing of war, but harsh experience had now taught him some essentials which he held with the force of unshakable conviction. He had abandoned altogether the conventional thought that the capture of the enemy’s capital would bring victory. Instead he now correctly perceived that it was only the destruction of the South’s main army that would defeat the Confederacy and he had enlarged that perception to believe that it would be achieved by attacking the enemy at several points simultaneously.

This is what the French have called a “rich solution” to the problem of the Civil War, open only to the side with greater numbers and several armies, as opposed to the South’s strategy of a “poor power” with weaker numbers and effectively only one or at most one and a half armies. Halleck, an extremely orthodox military thinker, had replied that the proper response to the rebellion was to concentrate the North’s force at decisive points: “To operate on exterior lines against an enemy occupying a central position will fail, as it has always failed, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred. It is undermined by every military authority I have ever read.” Lincoln had read almost no military textbooks while Grant had profited from the notoriously patchy West Point syllabus by avoiding most of them also. It was a merit of West Point that its teaching, though dusty to a degree, was practical—mathematics and engineering—which were actually useful, particularly during his efforts to alter the geography of the Mississippi Valley in 1863. A doctrine that Grant might have imbibed but did not was that of the climactic battle, which at a single strike resolved a conflict and ended it. The doctrine has been called Napoleonic, and with reason. Napoleon was the master of the great battle and his name was associated with several which had ended conflicts and altered history. Lee aspired to fight such battles and to end the war with the Union by a single overpowering act, as Napoleon had ended the conflict with Prussia in 1806 by winning the battles of Jena-Auerstedt and had almost ended the war with Russia by fighting at Borodino in 1812. Ultimately Napoleon, however, had been the victim of his own method, Waterloo having been the outstandingly decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Since 1815, moreover, there had been few, if any, decisive battles. Indeed the era of decisive battles was drawing to a close. There would be several during Prussia’s wars of unification in 1866-71, notably the victory of Königgrätz-Sadowa against Austria, and Sedan against France in 1870. At the end of the era, states were learning to deny an enemy the chance of decisive battle by enlarging the size of their armies to a point at which it became difficult, if not impossible, to dispose of them in a single passage of fighting, while at the same time resorting to unorthodox tactics which would involve an opponent in guerrilla warfare or the tactics of protracted warfare should the main field army suffer defeat. France would cheat Prussia of a clear-cut decision in 1870-71 by resorting to a war in the provinces with irregular forces after the defeat of Sedan.

In mid-1863, the Union was approaching the point where it would have to decide by what military means the war was to be concluded: by pursuing the object of the final decisive battle or by some less direct method. Likewise, the Confederacy, which was rapidly losing the power to fight and win large-scale battles, would have to consider whether it should turn to protracted guerrilla tactics if it was to stave off defeat. The instructions Grant gave to Sherman on his visit to the western armies following his appointment as general in chief would soon confront the Confederacy with the necessity of fighting a small-scale, low-level war within its own territory, as opposed to a conventional army-to-army war on its frontier. Grant’s written instructions to Sherman were “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 was perfectly willing to carry out such instructions since he had already formed the conclusion that the quickest way to break the Confederacy was to make its ordinary people suffer.

To Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, Grant sent the order, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant had already decided, with Lincoln’s approval, to make his headquarters with Meade, while leaving him as much freedom of action as possible. That would require nice judgement, not always achieved. Meade would complain frequently in his letters to his wife that any achievement of the Army of the Potomac was credited by the press to Grant, any failure to himself. Still, Grant’s intentions were fair and honest, and the two men would sustain an equable working relationship throughout the rest of the campaign in the East.

Meanwhile, in the West, Sherman was beginning what would become the culminating campaign of the war.

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