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Chapter 28.

  • Grant Lieutenant
  • -- General-interview with Lincoln -- Grant visits Sherman -- plan of campaigns -- Lincoln to Grant -- from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor -- the move to city Point -- siege of Petersburg -- early menaces Washington -- Lincoln under fire -- Sheridan in the Shenandoah valley
    The army rank of lieutenant-general had, before the Civil War, been conferred only twice on American commanders; on Washington, for service in the War of Independence, and on Scott, for his conquest of Mexico. As a reward for the victories of Donelson, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, Congress passed, and the President signed in February, 1864, an act to revive that grade. Calling Grant to Washington, the President met him for the first time at a public reception at the Executive Mansion on March 8, when the famous general was received with all the manifestations of interest and enthusiasm possible in a social state ceremonial. On the following day, at one o'clock, the general's formal investiture with his new rank and authority took place in the presence of Mr. Lincoln, the cabinet, and a few other officials.

    General Grant,” said the President, “the nation's appreciation of what you have done, and its reliance upon you for what remains to do in the existing great struggle, are now presented, with this commission constituting you Lieutenant-General in the Army of the United States. With this high honor devolves upon [394] you, also, a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you. I scarcely need to add that with what I here speak for the nation, goes my own hearty personal concurrence.”

    General Grant's reply was modest and also very brief:

    Mr. President, I accept this commission with gratitude for the high honor conferred. With the aid of the noble armies that have fought on so many fields for our common country, it will be my earnest endeavor not to disappoint your expectations. I feel the full weight of the responsibilities now devolving on me; and I know that if they are met, it will be due to those armies, and above all to the favor of that Providence which leads both nations and men.

    In the informal conversation which followed, General Grant inquired what special service was expected of him; to which the President replied that the country wanted him to take Richmond; and being asked if he could do so, replied that he could if he had the troops, which he was assured would be furnished him. On the following day, Grant went to the Army of the Potomac, where Meade received him with frank courtesy, generously suggesting that he was ready to yield the command to any one Grant might prefer. Grant, however, informed Meade that he desired to make no change; and, returning to Washington, started west without a moment's loss of time. On March 12, 1864, formal orders of the War Department placed Grant in command of all the armies of the United States, while Halleck, relieved from that duty, was retained at Washington as the President's chief of staff.

    Grant frankly confesses in his “Memoirs” that when he started east it was with a firm determination to accept no appointment requiring him to leave the West; [395] but “when I got to Washington and saw the situation, it was plain that here was the point for the commanding general to be.” His short visit had removed several false impressions, and future experience was to cure him of many more.

    When Grant again met Sherman in the West, he outlined to that general, who had become his most intimate and trusted brother officer, the very simple and definite military policy which was to be followed during the year 1864. There were to be but two leading campaigns. Sherman, starting from Chattanooga, full master of his own movements, was to lead the combined western forces against the Confederate army under Johnston, the successor of Bragg. Grant would personally conduct the campaign in the East against Richmond, or rather against the rebel army under Lee. Meade would be left in immediate command of the Army of the Potomac, to execute the personal daily directions of Grant. The two Confederate armies were eight hundred miles apart, and should either give way, it was to be followed without halt or delay to battle or surrender, to prevent its junction with the other. Scattered as a large portion of the Union forces were in garrisons and detachments at widely separated points, there were, of course, many details to be arranged, and a few expeditions already in progress; but these were of minor importance, and for contributory, rather than main objects, and need not here be described.

    Returning promptly to Washington, Grant established his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, at Culpepper, and for about a month actively pushed his military preparations. He seems at first to have been impressed with a dread that the President might wish to influence or control his plans. But the few interviews between them removed the suspicion which [396] reckless newspaper accusation had raised; and all doubt on this point vanished, when, on the last day of April, Mr. Lincoln sent him the following explicit letter:

    Not expecting to see you again before the spring campaign opens, I wish to express in this way my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plan I neither know nor seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster or capture of our men in great numbers shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it. And now, with a brave army and a just cause, may God sustain you.

    Grant's immediate reply confessed the groundlessness of his apprehensions:

    From my first entrance into the volunteer service of the country to the present day, I have never had cause of complaint — have never expressed or implied a complaint against the administration, or the Secretary of War, for throwing any embarrassment in the way of my vigorously prosecuting what appeared to me my duty. Indeed, since the promotion which placed me in command of all the armies, and in view of the great responsibility and importance of success, I have been astonished at the readiness with which everything asked for has been yielded, without even an explanation being asked. Should my success be less than I desire and expect, the least I can say is, the fault is not with you.

    The Union army under Grant, one hundred and twenty-two thousand strong, on April 30, was encamped [397] north of the Rapidan River. The Confederate army under Lee, numbering sixty-two thousand, lay south of that stream. Nearly three years before, these opposing armies had fought their first battle of Bull Run, only a comparatively short distance north of where they now confronted each other. Campaign and battle between them had surged far to the north and to the south, but neither could as yet claim over the other any considerable gain of ground or of final advantage in the conflict. Broadly speaking, relative advance and retreat, as well as relative loss and gain of battle-fields substantially balanced each other. Severe as had been their struggles in the past, a more arduous trial of strength was before them. Grant had two to one in numbers; Lee the advantage of a defensive campaign. He could retire toward cumulative reserves, and into prepared fortifications; knew almost by heart every road, hill, and forest of Virginia; had for his friendly scout every white inhabitant. Perhaps his greatest element of strength lay in the conscious pride of the Confederate army that through all fluctuations of success and failure, it had for three years effectually barred the way of the Army of the Potomac to Richmond. But to offset this there now menaced it what was before absent in every encounter, the grim, unflinching will of the new Union commander.

    General Grant devised no plan of complicated strategy for the problem before him, but proposed to solve it by plain, hard, persistent fighting. He would endeavor to crush the army of Lee before it could reach Richmond or unite with the army of Johnston; or, failing in that, he would shut it up in that stronghold and reduce it by a siege. With this in view, he instructed Meade at the very outset: “Lee's army will be your objective point. Where Lee goes, there you will go, [398] also.” Everything being ready, on the night of May 4, Meade threw five bridges across the Rapidan, and before the following night the whole Union army, with its trains, was across the stream moving southward by the left flank, past the right flank of the Confederates.

    Sudden as was the advance, it did not escape the vigilant observation of Lee, who instantly threw his force against the flanks of the Union columns, and for two days there raged in that difficult, broken, and tangled region known as the Wilderness, a furious battle of detachments along a line five miles in length. Thickets, swamps, and ravines, rendered intelligent direction and concerted maneuvering impossible, and furious and bloody as was the conflict, its results were indecisive. No enemy appearing on the seventh, Grant boldly started to Spottsylvania Court House, only, however, to find the Confederates ahead of him; and on the eighth and ninth these turned their position, already strong by nature, into an impregnable intrenched camp. Grant assaulted their works on the tenth, fiercely, but unsuccessfully. There followed one day of inactivity, during which Grant wrote his report, only claiming that after six days of hard fighting and heavy losses “the result up to this time is much in our favor” ; but expressing, in the phrase which immediately became celebrated, his firm resolution to “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

    On May 12, 1864, Grant ordered a yet more determined attack, in which, with fearful carnage on both sides, the Union forces finally stormed the earthworks which have become known as the “bloody angle.” But finding that other and more formidable intrenchments still resisted his entrance to the Confederate camp, Grant once more moved by the left flank past his enemy [399] toward Richmond. Lee followed with equal swiftness along the interior lines. Days passed in an intermitting, and about equally matched contest of strategy and fighting. The difference was that Grant was always advancing and Lee always retiring. On May 26, Grant reported to Washington:

    Lee's army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the action of his army shows it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee's army is already assured.

    That same night, Grant's advance crossed the Pamunkey River at Hanover Town, and during another week, with a succession of marching, flanking, and fighting, Grant pushed the Union army forward to Cold Harbor. Here Lee's intrenched army was again between him and Richmond, and on June 3, Grant ordered another determined attack in front, to break through that constantly resisting barrier. But a disastrous repulse was the consequence. Its effect upon the campaign is best given in Grant's own letter, written to Washington on June 5:

    My idea from the start has been to beat Lee's army, if possible, north of Richmond; then, after destroying his lines of communication on the north side of the James River, to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat. I now find, after over thirty days of trial, the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive behind breastworks, or feebly on the offensive immediately in front of them, and where, in case of repulse, they can instantly retire behind [400] them. Without a greater sacrifice of human life than I am willing to make, all cannot be accomplished that I had designed outside of the city.

    During the week succeeding the severe repulse at Cold Harbor, which closed what may be summed up as Grant's campaign against Richmond, he made his preparations to enter upon the second element of his general plan, which may be most distinctively denominated the siege of Petersburg, though, in fuller phraseology, it might be called the siege of Petersburg and Richmond combined. But the amplification is not essential; for though the operation and the siege-works embraced both cities, Petersburg was the vital and vulnerable point. When Petersburg fell, Richmond fell of necessity. The reason was, that Lee's army, inclosed within the combined fortifications, could only be fed by the use of three railroads centering at Petersburg; one from the southeast, one from the south, and one with general access from the southwest. Between these, two plank roads added a partial means of supply. Thus far, Grant's active campaign, though failing to destroy Lee's army, had nevertheless driven it into Richmond, and obviously his next step was either to dislodge it, or compel it to surrender.

    Cold Harbor was about ten miles from Richmond, and that city was inclosed on the Washington side by two circles of fortifications devised with the best engineering skill. On June 13, Grant threw forward an army corps across the Chickahominy, deceiving Lee into the belief that he was making a real direct advance upon the city; and so skilfully concealed his intention that by midnight of the sixteenth he had moved the whole Union army with its artillery and trains about twenty miles directly south and across the James River, on a pontoon bridge over two thousand feet long, to [401] City Point. General Butler, with an expedition from Fortress Monroe, moving early in May, had been ordered to capture Petersburg; and though he failed in this, he had nevertheless seized and held City Point, and Grant thus effected an immediate junction with Butler's force of thirty-two thousand. Butler's second attempt to seize Petersburg while Grant was marching to join him also failed, and Grant, unwilling to make any needless sacrifice, now limited his operations to the processes of a regular siege.

    This involved a complete change of method. The campaign against Richmond, from the crossing of the Rapidan and battle of the Wilderness, to Cold Harbor, and the change of base to City Point, occupied a period of about six weeks of almost constant swift marching and hard fighting. The siege of Petersburg was destined to involve more than nine months of mingled engineering and fighting. The Confederate army forming the combined garrisons of Richmond and Petersburg numbered about seventy thousand. The army under Grant, though in its six weeks campaign it had lost over sixty thousand in killed, wounded, and missing, was again raised by the reinforcements sent to it, and by its junction with Butler, to a total of about one hundred and fifty thousand. With this superiority of numbers, Grant pursued the policy of alternately threatening the defenses of Lee, sometimes south, sometimes north of the James River, and at every favorable opportunity pushing his siege-works westward in order to gradually gain and command the three railroads and two plank roads that brought the bulk of absolutely necessary food and supplies to the Confederate armies and the inhabitants of Petersburg and Richmond. It is estimated that this gradual westward extension of Grant's lines, redoubts, and trenches, when added to [402] those threatening Richmond and Petersburg on the east, finally reached a total development of about forty miles. The catastrophe came when Lee's army grew insufficient to man his defensive line along this entire length, and Grant, finding the weakened places, eventually broke through it, compelling the Confederate general and army to evacuate and abandon both cities and seek safety in flight.

    The central military drama, the first two distinctive acts of which are outlined above, had during this long period a running accompaniment of constant underplot and shifting and exciting episodes. The Shenandoah River, rising northwest of Richmond, but flowing in a general northeast course to join the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, gives its name to a valley twenty to thirty miles wide, highly fertile and cultivated, and having throughout its length a fine turnpike, which in ante-railroad days was an active commercial highway between North and South. Bordered on the west by the rugged Alleghany Mountains, and on the east by the single outlying range called the Blue Ridge, it formed a protected military lane or avenue, having vital relation to the strategy of campaigns on the open Atlantic slopes of central Virginia. The Shenandoah valley had thus played a not unimportant part in almost every military operation of the war, from the first battle of Bull Run to the final defense of Richmond.

    The plans of General Grant did not neglect so essential a feature of his task. While he was fighting his way toward the Confederate capital, his instructions contemplated the possession and occupation of the Shenandoah valley as part of the system which should isolate and eventually besiege Richmond. But this part of his plan underwent many fluctuations. He had scarcely reached City Point when he became aware [403] that General Lee, equally alive to the advantages of the Shenandoah valley, had dispatched General Early with seventeen thousand men on a flying expedition up that convenient natural sally-port, which was for the moment undefended.

    Early made such speed that he crossed the Potomac during the first week of July, made a devastating raid through Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, threatened Baltimore, and turning sharply to the south, was, on the eleventh of the month, actually at the outskirts of Washington city, meditating its assault and capture. Only the opportune arrival of the Sixth Army Corps under General Wright, on the afternoon of that day, sent hurriedly by Grant from City Point, saved the Federal capital from occupation and perhaps destruction by the enemy.

    Certain writers have represented the government as panic-stricken during the two days that this menace lasted; but neither Mr. Lincoln, nor Secretary Stanton, nor General Halleck, whom it has been even more the fashion to abuse, lacked coolness or energy in the emergency. Indeed, the President's personal unconcern was such as to give his associates much uneasiness. On the tenth, he rode out as was his usual custom during the summer months, to spend the night at the Soldiers' Home, in the suburbs; but Secretary Stanton, learning that Early was advancing in heavy force, sent after him to compel his return to the city; and twice afterward, intent on watching the fighting which took place near Fort Stevens, he exposed his tall form to the gaze and bullets of the enemy in a manner to call forth earnest remonstrance from those near him.

    The succeeding military events in the Shenandoah valley must here be summed up in the brief statement that General Sheridan, being placed in command of the [404] Middle Military Division and given an army of thirty or forty thousand men, finally drove back the Confederate detachments upon Richmond, in a series of brilliant victories, and so devastated the southern end of the valley as to render it untenable for either army; and by the destruction of the James River Canal and the Virginia Central Railroad, succeeded in practically carrying out Grant's intention of effectually closing the avenue of supplies to Richmond from the northwest.

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