General US Grant Tries to Win the War in ’64

This was a presentation by Ranger Matt Atkinson as part of Gettysburg National Military Park’s 2014 Winter Lecture Series.

The rangers at Gettysburg always deliver outstanding material, and Matt is one of the best.  He mixes humor with impeccable research to produce presentations that are both informative and entertaining.  This was no exception, as he packed a great deal of information into a presentation that held our attention throughout.  The only criticism I have is that he actually had too much information outside the topic of the talk, causing him to go overtime by about a half hour.  Some better discipline in adhering more strictly to the specific topic and some judicious cutting of material that was interesting but didn’t add to the topic at hand would have kept him on time.  He didn’t need to give us the full story on Grant like he did.  The pre-1864 Grant could have been covered with one slide and no more than ten minutes.

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Matt told us that Grant possessed a remarkable personality.  He tells us the pictures of Grant always show the same type of person–strong and silent.  Grant is not easily rattled, and he usually has mastered his self-control.  He always looks determined.  One officer said Grant looked like a person who has decided to drive his head through a brick wall.  Up until Grant was made the commander of all Union armies, the Union had never sought to put simultaneous pressure on the confederates.  Grant sought to end that in 1864.

He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant on April 27, 1822 in Point Pleasant, Ohio.  At 17 he entered West Point where his name was mistakenly recorded as Ulysses S. Grant.  He was 5’1″ tall and weighed 170 pounds.  He graduated from West Point 21st in a class of 39 and was assigned to be a regimental quartermaster.

0111041343  At his first assignment, Jefferson Barracks just outside St. Louis, in September of 1843, he met Julia Dent, the sister of one of his West Point classmates.  They were married in 1848.  Julia’s father actually tried to get Grant to marry Julia’s sister instead of Julia, but Grant was dead set on Julia.  The marriage was very happy.  Before that marriage, though, the Mexican War intervened.

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Grant was with Zachary Taylor in 1846.  Grant said, in his memoirs, that Taylor was the inspiration for his leadership.   At the Battle of Monterrey he carried a dispatch through enemy fire in Wild West show fashion by hanging off the side of his horse.  Grant was an excellent horseman.

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Grant also served with Winfield Scott at Vera Cruz, Chapultepec, and in Mexico City.  In 1847 the force landed at Vera Cruz and marched toward Mexico City.  Grant was recognized for heroism at Chapultepec.  He drug a howitzer into a belfry to use against the Mexican troops.  In September they enter Mexico City.

0111041345a    In 1848 the Mexican War ends.  After the Mexican War, Grant saw service in various army posts, including Detroit and New York, and in 1852 he was assigned to Fort Vancouver on the West Coast, leaving behind his wife and three children, one of whom he hasn’t seen yet.  He desperately wants to be able to bring his family to the West Coast.

0111041346  At Fort Vancouver, legend has it that Grant began drinking and while assigned to Fort Humboldt, on July 31, 1854 he resigned from the Army.  Again, legend has it that it was due to his drinking, and the story was told that he was given the choice of either resigning or facing a court-martial.  Grant was 32 years old when he resigned.

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For the next seven years, Grant made many futile attempts at a new career.  He took up farming around his father-in-law’s house in St. Louis and built a house Julia called “Hardscrabble.”  By 1857 he was so poor he had to sell his pocket watch in order to have money to buy Christmas presents for the children.  By 1858 he gave up on farming and rented a small home in St. Louis.  He tried to make a living as a bill collector but failed at that.  He tried to make a go of it by selling firewood.  By 1860 he was working as a clerk for his father in Galena, Illinois in a dry goods store.

Grant was molded by his experiences–the Mexican War, his family, his setbacks in life.

0111041348  In 1861 Fort Sumter is fired on and the Civil War begins.  Trained officers are needed on both sides, and Grant is a West Point-trained officer.

0111041349  Grant gets the backing of his local Congressman, Elihu Washburne, and he finds temporary employment as a clerk in the Adjutant’s Office of the Governor of Illinois, Richard Yates.  In June he’s made the Colonel of the 7th District Regiment of Illinois.  The last colonel had been run off by the men.  He takes the 7th and molds them into a fit force.

0111041351  Grant does well and in July of 1861 he’s promoted to Brigadier General, serving in the West.

0111041352  Chafing under the inactivity, in January of 1862, he went to his superior, Henry W. “Old Brains” Halleck, and asked to be able to go on the offensive.  Halleck acquiesced.  The two men were very different.  Halleck was brilliant and a great administrative officer, but he couldn’t implement the vision.  Halleck wants his thumb on everything that happens, but he can’t keep up with it.  His style is to have his subordinates come to him to suggest something and he would give permission, but he was always standing over them with a club waiting to beat them if they failed.  The two men had to work together.  Halleck appreciated Grant’s organizational skills and the discipline he instilled in his men, but thought Grant overly willing to risk men in battle.

0111041354  Halleck gave Grant permission to take Fort Henry, which was an easy conquest as the fort, on February 6, was flooding due to the high state of the Tennessee River.  Grant then marched to take Fort Donelson, 12 miles away on the Cumberland River, which proved to be a tougher nut to crack.

0111041354a  The Navy tried to take the place but were repulsed.  The confederates counterattack on February 15.  Grant wasn’t there at the time, but he arrived on the field to find confusion because the confederates had outflanked the Union army, driven in the right flank, and everything is going to pieces.  He reestablished order.  He says the first to attack will win the day.  He keeps his cool and attacks, and captures 12,000 confederate soldiers on February 16.  That is a big blow to the confederates.

0111041355 0111041356  As the result of his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, Grant is promoted to Major General.

0111041356a  In March, Grant moves down to Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.  He unloads his men, fails to fortify, and places his men on the western side of the river–the side the confederates are on.

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On April 6, the confederates surprise attack and the Battle of Shiloh is on.  Grant’s men are pushed back to the edge of the river, but he forms a defensive perimeter that holds.  That evening, William T. Sherman sees Grant.  Sherman is about to talk about withdrawing, but doesn’t do so.  Instead, he tells Grant, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”  Grant replies, “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”  During the night, Don Carlos Buell arrives with about 20,000 men to reinforce Grant, and the next day Grant counterattacks and drives the confederates back to Corinth.  He pulls victory out of the clutches of defeat.

0111041358a 0111041359  Amid charges that Grant was surprised at Shiloh, Halleck arrives on April 28 to take charge and Grant is made Halleck’s second in command.  This is a meaningless title under Halleck.  Grant chafes under this.  He and Halleck are different generals.  Grant is much more offensive-minded than Halleck, beginning to learn that the way to defeat the confederates is to go right at them.  Halleck, though, went by the book, and Grant is so frustrated he decided to resign from the Army, but Sherman talked him out of it.  Halleck is promoted to general-in-chief and moves to Washington, DC, leaving Grant back in command.  This was very fortuitous for the Army.

0111041400  Grant now embarked on several attempts to take Vicksburg, Mississippi from the fall of 1862 through May of 1863.  This included Chickasaw Bayou, Grant’s Canal, Lake Providence, Yazoo Pass, and Steele’s Bayou.  All these attempts are failures.  He has come to a crucial point.  Grant’s back is against the wall.  The Lincoln administration is under a lot of pressure from the Western States to get the Mississippi opened.

0111041402 0111041402a 0111041403  Grant now begins his final campaign for Vicksburg.  He marches down the west bank of the Mississippi River while the Naval force under David Dixon Porter runs past the Vicksburg defenses and the two meet and Porter ferries Grant’s men across the Mississippi.  Grant then cuts loose from his supply lines and completely overwhelms a confederate force that outnumbered him almost 2:1 collectively, but he destroys them in detail, fighting and winning five battles in two weeks.

0111041403a  After a 47-day siege, Grant captures Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.  When the garrison surrendered, Grant captured 30,000 troops, 25,000 pounds of gunpowder, 50,000 rifles, and 172 cannon.  This was a huge blow to the confederacy, not only in prestige and morale but also regarding the cannon.  It took a month to forge a cannon, and the confederacy didn’t have many facilities that could forge cannon, so losing those 172 cannon was something from which they would not soon recover.

0111041404  Grant’s next feat will be at Chattanooga.

0111041406a   William Starke Rosecrans with the Army of the Cumberland had maneuvered the confederate force under Braxton Bragg from Murfreesboro to Tullahoma and driven him completely out of the state of Tennessee.  He maneuvers Bragg out of Chattanooga without firing a shot.  Bragg stopped at Chickamauga and was reinforced on September 20 by James Longstreet and his corps from the Army of Northern Virginia.  The Union force was defeated.  Only the last-minute effort by George Thomas saves the Union army, and they fell back into Chattanooga, where Bragg commenced a siege.  Grant is summoned from the Vicksburg area to go to Chattanooga to retrieve the situation, bringing Sherman and his corps as reinforcements.

0111041406b   Grant arrives along with Sherman.  He relieves Rosecrans and puts George H. Thomas in charge in his place.  At this time also, Thomas is reinforced by the arrival of the XI and XII Corps from the Army of the Potomac, who are combined into the XX Corps.  Grant relieves the siege by opening the cracker line and orders an attack.  They drive up Lookout Mountain, Sherman goes against Cleburne on the confederate right, and Thomas assaults the bottom of Missionary Ridge.  They were only supposed to demonstrate in front, but they took the bottom and didn’t stop, going all the way to the top and driving the confederates off.  Grant wins again.  Grant has delivered everytime he needed to.

0111041410 0111041411 0111041412  As a result of his victories, in March, 1864, Grant is promoted to Lieutenant General.  He goes to Washington to receive his commission.  When he gets to Washington on March 8, he checks into the Willard Hotel, his son Fred with him.  There were many generals in Washington, and the Willard was filled with them, so the clerk wasn’t impressed when he saw the rumpled little man with general’s stars.  He told Grant they were filled, but he could have a little room up on the top floor.  Grant said that would be fine and the clerk pushed over the register.  Grant signed it, “U. S. Grant and Son, Galena, Illinois.”  The clerk saw it and immediately offered Grant one of the best rooms in the hotel.  He went to dinner that night and people were clanging their forks on their glasses.  So many people were coming over to him he couldn’t eat and had to take his food up to his room.


That night, Grant went to the White House to meet with Lincoln.  Bruce Catton described the scene:  “The crowd parted like the Red Sea waves, leaving an open lane for him, everybody telling his neighbor that this really was General Grant; and at the far end of the lane there was Abraham Lincoln, all lanky six feet four of him, wearing (as a sympathetic friend confessed) a collar one size too large and a necktie ‘rather broad and awkwardly tied.’ Lincoln stepped forward, his hand outstretched, a smile on his face, and Grant walked toward him; a White Hosue secretary considered it ‘a lon gwalk for a bashful man, the eyes of the world upon him,’ and when the walk ended and the two men shook hands President Lincoln’s three-year search for a general had ended.”  [Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command, p. 125] There were so many people at the reception, because Grant was so small he had to stand on one of the couches so everyone in the room could see him.  He received his commission the next day.


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Between mid-March and April Grant nailed down the strategy that he hoped would win the war.  Not since 1861 had the Union redefined its strategy.  Winfield Scott had designed the Anaconda Plan in 1861.  Early in the war it was thought that most southerners wanted to come back into the Union and just needed the ability to do that, so Scott proposed this plan which would contain the confederacy and allow the “cooler heads” to prevail.  It called for a blockade of southern ports plus a move down the Mississippi to gain control of that river and split the confederacy in half.  But it didn’t go any further.  There was no provision for any other battles or for the destruction of industry or confederate armies in that plan.  It relies on the Union holding the territory and waiting for the southerners to come to them.  By 1864 a new blueprint was needed because it was obvious now the south wasn’t coming back.

Prior to 1864 there had been no synchronization of movements.  Halleck wanted to emphasize the Tennessee River while McClellan wanted to emphasize the East.  Grant’s vision was that the Union war machine had never been utilized all at once.  The Union strategy lacked unity and coordination.  He wanted coordinating offensives across a broad front to bring simultaneous pressure against an undermanned confederacy.  They would be hard-pressed to meet all these offensives at once.

Grant proposed to turn his Western Army over to Sherman, and he tells Sherman to go after the industrial center of Atlanta.  Sherman actually had three armies under him:  The Army of the Tennessee under James B. McPherson, the Army of the Cumberland under Thomas, and the Army of the Ohio under John M. Schofield.  Sherman will be opposed by the other principal confederate army under Joe Johnston with about half the size of Sherman’s force.

Grant’s plan involved troops under General Nathaniel Banks going to Mobile, Alabama, an industrial center and port.  In January and February, the Meridian Campaign was originally slated to go to Mobile, but William Sooy Smith’s column out of Tennessee met up with Nathan Bedford Forrest, who turned them back.  This forced Sherman to march back to Vicksburg.  Lincoln had other designs preventing Grant from going against Mobile.  There was a campaign under Banks launched up the Red River in the Red River Campaign and Grant couldn’t use those troops to move against Mobile.

George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac were to go up against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, Franz Sigel was to move his men up the Shenandoah Valley, and Benjamin Butler was supposed to move the Army of the James up the Peninsula between the York River and the James River.  This would put simultaneous pressure on the confederates, not allowing them to transfer troops from one theater to meet a threat in another theater the way they had done with Longstreet’s corps for the Battle of Chickamauga.  Grant’s overall strategy called for an unyielding offensive action along a broad front.  It was not a strategy of mathematics or attrition.

Grant tells Meade that Lee’s army is his objective, but Grant is also playing the south’s weaknesses against them.  Lee had always played on Lincoln’s fear of losing Washington, DC.  Grant turns the tables and forces Lee to worry about Richmond and to make Johnston worry about Atlanta.  Because the confederates have to defend Richmond and Atlanta, Grant plans to force Lee and Johnston to fight.  Grant is trying to bring the war to an end.

0111041431  Grant is also shrewd enough to know who he needed on his side–Lincoln.  In 1864 Lincoln says to one of his secretaries [paraphrasing], “I finally have a general.  I’ve had generals before who I’ve told, ‘ Here are the keys.  I want you to win,” and every one of them would come to me and they would say, ‘I don’t think I can do this but If you order it I will try,’  which places the onus back on me.  General Grant does not ask this of me.  He does not ask for impossibilities.”  Lincoln finally finds a general who is willing to take responsibility.

Grant’s plan, however, is no better than the generals who are responsible for its execution.

0111041435  Banks is up the Red River in Louisiana.  His goal is to take Texas, to keep the French out of the area, and to acquire cotton for speculators to sell.  He gets off late and runs into Richard Taylor at Mansfield.  Taylor attacks and routs Banks.  The next day they meet again at Pleasant Hill, and Taylor drives him back again.


All awhile, Porter’s gunboats are in danger of being captured because they confederates have destroyed the dam leading into the tributaries leading into the Red River, which means the Red River loses water and is at dangerously low levels, almost too low for the gunboats to move.  When Banks retreats back to Alexandria the Union soldiers had to build a series of dams along the Red River to float the gunboats to get them out of there.

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Sherman is going against Johnston in the Atlanta campaign.  Sherman starts out in early May, the same time Grant and Meade are going against Lee.  Johnston is a conservative general, though.  Johnston doesn’t want to fight a pitched battle, so he employs a strategy much like Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” strategy.

Rumble-in-the-Jungle-001 [Photo suggested by Matt]

When Ali was older and still boxing, he didn’t have the same speed and stamina that he had as a younger man, so he would lean against the ropes and let his opponent pound away, which would tire out the opponent and then Ali would be able to beat him while he was almost too tired to even raise his gloves to defend himself.  Johnston would get into a strong position and invite Sherman to attack him and thus expend men and resources in a fruitless assault.  Sherman, though, maneuvered around these positions and Johnston will always move back, while Sherman would slide to Johnston’s left.  Johnston keeps falling back to another position, using up time.  The fast campaign that’s supposed to be knocking the confederacy out is way behind what Grant had envisioned.  Then Davis made the fatal decision to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood.  On hearing that Hood had taken command, Sherman asked his subordinates if anyone knew anything about him.  Schofield and McPherson knew him at West Point, and George H. Thomas had served with him.  They all agreed Hood was bold and impetuous, and not an intellectual.  Supposedly another officer said of Hood, “I seed Hood bet $2,500 with nary a pair in his hand.”  Hood attacks and is repulsed.  The confederates lose about 34,000 men in the campaign in costly assaults trying to turn Sherman back, and eventually Hood has to evacuate Atlanta on September 1.

If you look at the entire picture, Grant’s not beating Lee, Banks is not in Mobile, Sherman in front of Atlanta.  The war, to the Northern populace, isn’t looking good.  Sherman captures Atlanta, and this gives Lincoln a bright victory to show to the Northern populace for the election.


Meade is in command of the Army of the Potomac at the end of Gettysburg.  Lee escapes back to Virginia.  Lincoln is constantly pushing Meade to take the offensive against Lee.  This will end up with the Bristoe Campaign, which is not really an offensive action by the Union forces, and then Meade comes back with the Mine Run Campaign.  Meade is not battling Robert E. Lee, though.  Lincoln is fed up.  He tells Grant he can put in whoever he wants in place of Meade.

Grant wants to replace Meade with William F. “Baldy” Smith.  But he visits Meade at Brandy Station, and Meade says to Grant that he would be willing to serve in any capacity.  Grant describes this in his memoirs:

“On the following day, as already stated, I visited General Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, at his headquarters at Brandy Station, north of the Rapidan. I had known General Meade slightly in the Mexican war, but had not met him since until this visit. I was a stranger to most of the Army of the Potomac, I might say to all except the officers of the regular army who had served in the Mexican war. There had been some changes ordered in the organization of that army before my promotion. One was the consolidation of five corps into three, thus throwing some officers of rank out of important commands. Meade evidently thought that I might want to make still one more change not yet ordered. He said to me that I might want an officer who had served with me in the West, mentioning Sherman specially, to take his place. If so, he begged me not to hesitate about making the change. He urged that the work before us was of such vast importance to the whole nation that the feeling or wishes of no one person should stand in the way of selecting the right men for all positions. For himself, he would serve to the best of his ability wherever placed. I assured him that I had no thought of substituting any one for him. As to Sherman, he could not be spared from the West.

“This incident gave me even a more favorable opinion of Meade than did his great victory at Gettysburg the July before. It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.”

Grant decides to retain Meade as the Commander of the Army of the Potomac.

The original plan was for Grant to return to the West, but on reflection, when he saw all the intrigue in Washington, he decided to stay in the East and make his headquarters in the field with Meade and the Army of the Potomac.  This is an awkward situation for both, but they try to make the best of it.  This serves to overshadow Meade, and the Cropsey Incident [discussed here] was another factor in Meade’s image being diminished.


Grant loses 60,000 to 70,000 men in 6 to 8 weeks.  He hasn’t destroyed Lee, but he’s forcing Lee back to his weak point, the one thing he couldn’t afford to lose–Richmond.  Grant will transfer his army south of the James and they’ll lay seige to Petersburg, and Lee will hold out for another nine months.

0111041453 0111041454  Benjamin F. Butler, known as “Spoons,” for allegedly stealing silverware in New Orleans, is infamous in the confederacy for his notorious General Orders Number 28, the “Woman Order.”  Jefferson Davis declares him an outlaw and a villain, and says that anyone who captures Butler can hang him on the spot.

0111041454a  Butler’s assignment is to come up the James River and disembark with the Army of the James and to sever the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad.  Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard is at Petersburg and he attacks Butler at Bermuda Hundred, forces Butler back, and in Grant’s words, has Butler “bottled up.”

0111041457 0111041459   Franz Sigel had his best day in the Civil War in March of 1862 at the Battle of Pea Ridge against Earl Van Dorn and is a factor in winning the battle.  He commanded the I Corps at Second Manassas and briefly in the winter of 1862 and 1863 will command the XI Corps, which had a large number of German-Americans.  Sigel is out of the Army from February of 1863 until March of 1864, when he returns.  His assignment is to go up the Shenandoah Valley.  He gets to Harrisonburg and meets John C. Breckinridge.  Breckinridge bluffs Sigel into retreating.  They fight a battle at New Market, known for the charge of the VMI cadets, and Sigel retreats to Strasburg.  Sigel is replaced by David Hunter, who moves up the Valley again.  He gets to the outskirts of Lynchburg, and Lee detaches Early’s corps to Lynchburg.  At Lynchburg, Hunter meets Jubal Early, who forces Hunter to retreat into West Virginia.  This allows Early to move down the Valley and threaten Washington.  Grant’s strategy is falling apart.

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Sheridan takes over in the Valley and he’s the one who breaks things up in the Shenandoah Valley from August to October of 1864.

0111041503  This slide shows the territory the Union forces held at the end of 1864.  Nothing speaks to an enemy more than your ability to do anything to them anytime you want.   Sherman really sent a message to the South with his March to the Sea.  When he completed it the confederacy was effectively broken apart, and his next move would be to march north into the Carolinas.

0111041504  Grant didn’t win the war in 1864, but he was still very successful.  He put the confederacy on the ropes.  He has Lee by the jugular and Lee is stretched to the limit.  Winter stops the advances and both Sherman and Grant have to wait until 1865 before they can move again.  The war hasn’t ended as quickly as Grant wanted to end it, but Grant gives the North the blueprint that does win the war.  Once Lee gets into the trenches at Richmond, as he said earlier, it was only a matter of time.  Grant had the vision and the courage to stick his neck out to see it through.

As you can see, the presentation is heavily weighted toward events prior to 1864.  Matt undoubtedly felt that background was necessary, but with only an hour block for the presentation and questions, much of the pre-1864 information, as good as it is and as well-delivered as it was, should have been cut out.  That would have allowed him to more fully cover Grant’s plans and the execution of those plans and to go further into the results at a more leisurely pace.  Instead, he had to move very quickly at the end.

He would also have been able to go into Grant’s original plan that he presented to Lincoln and Halleck.  Brooks Simpson gets into this plan in the first volume of his biography of Grant:  “In conversation with Baldy Smith, he had listened as Smith outlined operations in the eastern theater over the past two years.  Of special interest was a plan Smith and William B. Franklin had proposed in the aftermath of the debacle at Fredericksburg, featuring a thrust by a sizable Union army up the James River to cut Richmond’s rail connections southward.  Grant thought highly of Franklin, and he had been impressed by Smith at Chattanooga.  Moreover, the idea resembled Grant’s own musings about Mobile.  He instructed Smith and Cyrus Comstock, a promising engineer and top West Point graduate who had joined the staff the previous year, to draw up a plan.  The two officers did so, and on January 19 Grant forwarded the result to Halleck.”  [Brooks D. Simpson, Triumph Over Adversity:  Ulysses S. Grant, 1822-1865, p. 250]

Here’s Grant’s plan as forwarded to Halleck:

[begin quote]GENERAL: I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in lieu of these one be taken farther south. I would suggest Raleigh, N. C., as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured, I would make New Berne the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured.

A moving force of 60,000 men would probably be required to start on such an expedition. This force would not have to be increased unless Lee should withdraw from his present position. In that case the necessity for so large a force on the Potomac would not exist. A force moving from Suffolk would destroy first all the roads about Weldon, or even as far north as Hicksford. From Weldon to Raleigh they would scarcely meet with serious opposition. Once there, the most interior line of railway still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then have, would be so threatened as to force him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee. It would throw our armies into new fields, where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy. It would cause thousands of the North Carolina troops to desert and return to their homes. It would give us possession of many negroes who are now indirectly aiding the rebellion. It would draw the enemy from campaigns of their own choosing, and for which they are prepared, to new lines of operations never expected to become necessary. It would effectually blockade Wilmington, the port now of more value to the enemy than all the balance of their sea-coast. It would enable operations to commence at once by removing the war to a more southern climate, instead of months of inactivity in winter quarters. Other advantages might be cited which would be likely to grow out of this plan, but these are enough. From your better opportunities of studying he country and the armies that would be involved in this plan, you will be better able to judge of the practicability of it than I possibly can. I have written this in accordance with what I understand to be an invitation from you to express my views about military operations, and not to insist that any plan of mine should be carried out. Whatever course is agreed upon, I shall always believe is at least intended for the best, and until fully tested will hope to have it prove so.[end quote]  [OR, Series I, Vol 33, pp. 394-395; see also Papers of US Grant, Vol 10, pp. 39-40]

As Prof. Simpson describes it, “The Grant/Smith/Comstock plan reveals Grant’s thinking about how best to dislodge Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia from the Old Dominion.  In the previous two years, attempts to defeat Lee by advancing across the Rapidan-Rappahannock river network had failed four times (Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Mine Run) and had once not even gotten under way (Burnside’s ‘Mud March’ of January 1863).  McClellan’s attempt to use water routes to threaten Richmond from the east had also failed, and any effort to revive it would be rebuffed by the authorities at Washington, in part because success would raise the question of whether political influences had thwarted Little Mac.

“As a result, the two major field armies occupied virtually the same position they had the year before; despite all the dramatic battles and clever campaigns, stalemate prevailed.  Better, Grant thought, to seek another way to get at Virginia–by going around it.  A Union army sixty thousand strong, based in the southeast corner of Virginia, would strike at Raleigh, North Carolina.  Once that city was in Federal hands, Grant would shift his base of supplies southward to New Bern, on the North Carolina coast, and mount a second campaign against the port of Wilmington, North Carolina.  By threatening Lee’s logistical links to the Confederate interior, Grant hoped to pull him out of Virginia altogether; aware of Hallecks continuing insistence to secure East Tennessee, Grant opined that the Confederates would have to abandon that as well to muster sufficient manpower to protect what was left of their rail net.  The invaders could forage liberally off the land, as at Vicksburg; their presence would energize the Unionist movement in North Carolina and would liberate slaves.  Finally, the campaign might break the Virginia stalemate.”  [Brooks D. Simpson, Triumph Over Adversity:  Ulysses S. Grant, 1822-1865, pp. 250-251]

Halleck responded to Grant’s plan on February 17:

[begin quote]The condition of affairs in East Tennessee and the uncertainty of General Banks’ operations in Texas and Louisiana have caused me to delay answering your former communication in regard to the operations of the campaign. In one of these you suggest whether it might not be well not to attempt anything more against Richmond and to send a column of 60,000 men into North Carolina. In the first place, I have never considered Richmond as the necessary objective point of the Army of the Potomac; that point is Lee’s army. I have never supposed Richmond could be taken till Lee’s army was defeated or driven away. It was one of Napoleon’s maxims that an army covering a capital must be destroyed before attempting to capture or occupy that capital. And now, how can we best defeat Lee’s army-by attacking it between here and Richmond, on our shortest line of supplies, and in such a position that we can combine our whole force, or by a longer line and with a force diminished by the troops required to cover Washington and Maryland?

Such movement through North Carolina alluded to by you, and also one from Port Royal on Savannah and into Georgia, have been several times suggested here, and pretty fully discussed by military men. It is conceded by those suggesting these expeditions that neither of them can be safely undertaken with a less force than that estimated by you, viz, 60,000 effective men. Some require a still larger force.

If we admit the advantage of either of these plans, the question immediately arises, where can we get the requisite number of troops?

There is evidently a general public misconception of the strength of our army in Virginia and about Washington. Perhaps it is good policy to encourage this public error. The entire effective force in the fortifications about Washington and employed in guarding the public buildings and stores, the aqueduct, and railroads does not exceed 18,000 men. We have a few thousand more in the convalescent and distribution camps, and in the cavalry and artillery depots, but thee are mostly fragments of organizations, temporarily here for equipments and distribution, and could contribute very little to the defense of the place. This force is, therefore, less than one-half of what General McClellan and several boards of officers recommended as the permanent garrison. Considering the political importance of Washington, and several boards of officers recommended as the permanent garrison. Considering the political importance of Washington, and the immense amount of military stores here, it would be exceedingly hazardous to reduce is till further.

The effective force of the Army of the Potomac is only about 70,000. General Meade retreated before Lee with a very much larger force, and he does not now deem himself strong enough to attack Lee’s present army.

Suppose we were to send 30,000 men from that army to North Carolina, would not Lee be able to make another invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania? But it may be said that by operating in North Carolina we would compel Lee to move his army there. I do not think so. Uncover Washington and the Potomac River, and all the forces which Lee can collect will be moved north, and the popular sentiment will compel the Government to bring back the army in North Carolina to defend Washington, Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. I think Lee would to-morrow exchange Richmond, Raleigh and Wilmington for the possession of either of the aforementioned cities.

But suppose it were practicable to send 30,000 men from Meade’s army to North Carolina, where shall we get the other 30,000? We have there now barely enough to hold the points which it is necessary to occupy in order to prevent contraband trade. Very few of these would be available for the field. Maryland is almost entirely stripped of troops, and the forces in Western Virginia are barely sufficient to protect that part of the country from rebel raids. The only other resource is South Carolina.

Generals Foster and Gillmore were both of opinion at the commencement of operations against Charleston that neither that place nor Savannah could be taken by a land force of less than 60,000 men. Large land and naval forces have been employed there for nearly a year without any important results. I had no faith in the plan at first, and for months past have ineffectually urged that 10,000 or 15,000 men from Gillmore’s command be sent against Texas or Mobile. And now these troops are sent upon another expedition which, in my opinion, can produce no military result.

I always have been, and still am, opposed to all these isolated expeditions on the sea and Gulf coast. It is true they greatly assist the Navy in maintaining the blockade and prevent contraband trade, but I think the troops so employed would do more good if concentrated on some important line of military operations. We have given too much attention to cutting the toe nails of our enemy instead of grasping his throat.

You will perceive from the facts stated above that there are serious, if not insurmountable, obstacles in the way of the proposed North Carolina expedition. Nevertheless, as it has much to recommend it, I shall submit it with your remarks to the consideration of the President and Secretary of War as soon as troops enough return from furlough to attempt any important movement in this part of the theater of war.

Lee’s army is by far the best in the rebel service, and I regard him as their ablest general. But little progress can be made here till that army is broken or defeated. There have been several good opportunities to do this, viz, at Antietam, at Chancellorsville, and at Williamsport, in the retreat from Gettysburg. I am also of opinion that General Meade could have succeeded recently at Mine Run had he persevered in his attack.

The overthrow of Lee’s army being the object of operations here, the question arises, how can we best attain it? If we fight that army with our communications open to Washington, so as to cover this place and Maryland, we can concentrate upon it nearly all your forces on this frontier, but if we operate by North Carolina or the Peninsula, we must act with a divided army and on exterior lines, while Lee, with a short interior line, can concentrate his entire force on either fragment.

And yet, if we had troops enough to secure our position here, and at the same time to operate with advantage on Raleigh or Richmond, I would not hesitate to do so, at least for a winter or spring campaign. But our numbers are not sufficient, in my opinion, to attempt this, at least for the present. Troops sent south of James River cannot be brought back in time to oppose Lee, should he attempt a movement north, which I am satisfied would be his best policy.

Our main efforts in the next campaign should unquestionably be made against the armies of Lee and Johnston, but what particular lines we shall operate cannot be positively determined until the affairs of East Tennessee are settled, and we can know more nearly time, it will be well to compare views and opinions. The final decision of this question will probably depend, under the President, upon yourself.

It may be said that if General McClellan failed to take Richmond by the Peninsula route, so also have Generals Burnside, Hooker, and Meade failed to accomplish that object by the shorter and more direct route. This is all very true, but no argument can be deduced from this bare fact in favor of either plan of operations. General McClellan had so large an army in the spring of 1862 that possibly he was justified in dividing his forces and adopting exterior lines of operations. If he had succeeded, his plan would have been universally praised. He failed, and so also have Burnside, Hooker, and Meade on an interior route; but their armies were for inferior in number to that which McClellan had tow years ago. These facts in themselves prove nothing in favor of either route, and to decide the question we must recur to fundamental principles in regard to interior and exterior lines, objective points covering armies, divided forces, &c. These fundamental principles require, in my opinion, that all our available forces in the east should be concentrated against Lee’s army. We cannot take Richmond [at least with any miliary advantage], and we cannot operate advantageously on any point from the Atlantic coast, till we destroy or disperse that army, and the nearer to Washington we can fight it the better for us. We can here, or between here and Richmond, concentrate against him more men than anywhere else. If we cannot defeat him here with our combined force, we cannot hope to do so elsewhere with a divided army.[end quote]  [OR Series I, Vol 32, Part 2, pp. 411-413; see also Papers of US Grant, Vol 10, pp. 110-112 ]

Prof. Simpson comments on this:  “Apparently misunderstanding the thrust of Grant’s comments, Halleck, following a line set forth by Lincoln, declared that the primary objective in the East was not Richmond but Lee’s army.  The best way to fight Lee was by choosing as the field of battle an area that did not unduly lengthen or tax supply lines.  A movement into North Carolina, he continued, was not exactly a new idea.  It would be impossible to raise the army to do it without reducing the Army of the Potomac from its present strength of seventy thousand to about forty thousand, at which point it would be vulnerable to an offensive strike by Lee, who would prefer going north to coming south to check the North Carolina force.

“A close examination of Halleck’s analysis reveals why he and others had struggled without success to solve the Virginia stalemate.  For Meade, even with just seventy thousand men, outnumbered Lee, who awaited Longstreet’s return. … Halleck assumed that Lee would never leave Virginia unless it was to invade the North; this matched Lee’s own preferences … If the Army of the Potomac could hold Lee in check for a short period, the threat to North Carolina might well achieve that end–and in any case Lee would have to do something to provide for the security of the region.  The implication of Halleck’s reasoning was clear:  he did not think that the Army of the Potomac could deal with Lee using even numbers, for Lee’s army was better led.  Nor was he willing to contemplate other ways to raise a force sufficient to carry out Grant’s North Carolina operation, although there would be plenty of excess manpower once soldiers returned from reenlistment furloughs and recruiting trips.”  [Brooks D. Simpson, Triumph Over Adversity:  Ulysses S. Grant, 1822-1865, pp. 251-252]

Had Matt gone into this aspect, it would have been fresh information for a lot of his audience, because most Civil War enthusiasts don’t know about this plan.  And think of the discussion about Grant that would ensue.  This isn’t the popular image of Grant many people have:  “The plan also reveals Grant’s preferences in fighting this war.  One looks in vain for the unimaginative slugger and butcher; instead, one finds a strategist who knew the importance of logistics, considered the wider implications of military operations, and was willing to try something different.  Grant’s plan was bold, imaginative, and achievable; it took a broad view of the eastern theater, transcending Virginia and surmounting the obsession with Lee; it promised a war of maneuver, not of bloody attrition.  In combination with his proposed twin offensives against Mobile and Atlanta, it threatened to rip the Confederacy apart.  Its only shortcoming was that it was not acceptable to Lincoln or Halleck.  That alone proved to be an insurmountable–but not necessarily permanent–obstacle.”  [Ibid., pp. 252-253]

Including that aspect would, I think, have turned an already great presentation into an outstanding presentation, and cutting down significantly on the pre-1864 information would have provided the room in the presentation to do this fully and with time for questions at the end while still remaining within the one-hour block of time.

Even so, it was very enjoyable and fun to hear.


  1. jfepperson · · Reply

    The Comstock-Smith plan is an interesting concept, but a lot depends on who commands it. Since it would be launched out of the Norfolk area, it almost surely would have been led by Butler, at which point my enthusiasm dims 😦

    1. Not necessarily. If Grant expected Lee to go after that force, he surely would have had the First Team.

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