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Chapter 20

  • Grant's narrow escape at Hatcher's Run discussing the March to the sea
  • -- why Grant never held Councils of War -- how the March to the sea was conceived and executed

Even before the completion of Sheridan's victory in the Valley, Grant was planning another movement for the purpose of threatening Lee's position, keeping him occupied, and attacking his communications. On October 24 he directed both Meade and Butler to prepare for a movement which was to be made on the 27th. Meade was to move against the South Side road, while Butler was to go to the north side of the James again, and make a demonstration there against the enemy.

Early on the morning of October 27 General Grant, with his staff, started for the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, and rode out to the front, accompanied by Meade. The morning was dark and gloomy, a heavy rain was falling, the roads were muddy and obstructed, and tangled thickets, dense woods, and swampy streams confronted the troops at all points. The difficulties of the ground made the movements necessarily slow. After a conference with Warren, Grant and Meade rode over to Hancock's front, and found that the enemy was there disputing the passage of Hatcher's Run at Burgess's Mill. His troops were strongly posted, with a battery in position directly in front of the head of Hancock's [309] [310] corps, and another about eight hundred yards to our left. Unless this force on the opposite side of the stream could be driven back, our lines could not be thrown forward for the purpose of making the contemplated movement. Prompt action had to be taken, and General Grant rode out farther to the front, accompanied by General Meade and the members of their staffs, to give orders on the spot. As this group of mounted officers formed a conspicuous target, the enemy was not slow to open upon it with his guns; and soon the whistling of projectiles and the explosion of shells made the position rather uncomfortable. One of our orderlies was killed, and two were wounded. It looked at one time as if the explosion of a shell had killed General Meade, but fortunately he escaped untouched. A little speck of blood appeared on Hancock's cheek after the bursting of a shell. It was probably caused by a bit of gravel being thrown in his face. Staff-officers were sent forward to the principal points to reconnoiter. General Grant, as was his constant practice, wished to see the exact position of the enemy with his own eyes. He stopped the officers who were riding with him, called on one aide-de-camp, Colonel Babcock, to accompany him, and rode forward rapidly to within a few yards of the bridge. Before he had gone far a shell exploded just under his horse's neck. The animal threw up his head and reared, and it was thought that he and his rider had both been struck, but neither had been touched. The enemy's batteries and sharp-shooters were both firing, and the situation was such that all the lookers — on experienced intense anxiety, expecting every moment to see the general fall. The telegraph-lines had been cut, and the twisted wires were lying about in confusion upon the ground. To make matters more critical, the general's horse got his foot caught in a loop of the wire, [311] and as the animal endeavored to free himself the coil became twisted still tighter. Every one's face now began to wear a still more anxious look. Babcock, whose coolness under fire was always conspicuous, dismounted, and carefully uncoiled the wire and released the horse. The general sat still in his saddle, evidently thinking more about the horse than of himself, and in the most quiet and unruffled manner cautioned Babcock to be sure not to hurt the animal's leg. The general soon succeeded in obtaining a clear view of the enemy's line and the exact nature of the ground, and then, much to our relief, retired to a less exposed position. The advance of the troops was impeded by the dense underbrush, the crookedness of the Run, the damming of its waters, the slashed trees, and other obstacles of every conceivable description which had been placed in the line of march. It was seen by afternoon that an assault under the circumstances would not promise favorable results, and it was abandoned. The success of the operation depended upon reaching the objective point by a rapid movement; and as unexpected obstacles were presented by the character of the country and by the weather, instructions were now given to suspend operations, and Grant and Meade rode to Armstrong's Mill. General Grant then took a narrow cross-road leading down to the Run to the right of Hancock's corps; but it was soon found that there were no troops between our party and the enemy, and that if we continued along this road it would probably not be many minutes before we should find ourselves prisoners in his lines. There was nothing to do but to turn around and strike a road farther in the rear. This, as usual, was a great annoyance to the general, who expressed his objections, as he had done many a time before, to turning back. We paused for a few minutes, and tried to find some cross-cut; but there was [312] not even a pathway leading in the proper direction, and the party had to retrace its steps for some distance.

General Grant was now becoming anxious to get in telegraphic communication with Butler, and he rode on to a point on the military railroad called Warren Station, reaching there about half-past 5 P. M.

After giving some further instructions to General Meade, he started back to City Point. On the way to general headquarters he discussed the events which had just taken place, and said: “To-day's movement has resulted, up to the time I left, only in a reconnaissance in force. I had hoped to accomplish more by means of it, but it has at least given us a much more thorough knowledge of the country, which, with its natural and artificial obstacles, is stronger than any one could have supposed. This movement has convinced me of the next course which will have to be pursued. It will be necessary for the Army of the Potomac to cut loose from its base, leaving only a small force at City Point and in front of Petersburg to hold those positions. The whole army can then swing completely round to the left and make Lee's present position untenable.” There was some doubt in his mind as to what action the enemy would take in front of Hancock and Warren. News came that evening, showing that Lee had assumed the offensive, and that severe fighting had occurred. Between four and five o'clock a heavy force of the enemy passed between Hancock and Warren, and made a vigorous assault on the right and rear of Hancock's corps; but Hancock struck the enemy in flank, threw him into confusion, and captured nine hundred prisoners and a number of colors. The enemy was unable to reform his troops, and did not attempt any further offensive operations. This day's engagement is known as the battle of Hatcher's Run. [313]

Butler had sent a force to the north side of the James; but the enemy retired to his intrenched works whenever our troops advanced against him, and only one attack was made.

These operations closed for the winter the series of battles in front of Petersburg and Richmond, cold weather and the condition of the roads rendering further important movements impracticable. While there was much skirmishing and some spirited fighting, no more general engagements occurred until spring.

Since my return from Atlanta a number of communications had been exchanged between Grant and Sherman regarding the contemplated “march to the sea.” Jefferson Davis had visited Hood's headquarters, and at different points on his trip had made speeches, assuring the people that Atlanta was to be retaken, that Sherman's communications were to be cut, and that his retreat would be as disastrous as Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. When General Grant received the reports of these speeches, which were widely published in the Southern newspapers, he remarked: “Mr. Davis has not made it quite plain who is to furnish the snow for this Moscow retreat through Georgia and Tennessee. However, he has rendered us one good service at least in notifying us of Hood's intended plan of campaign.” In a short time it was seen that Hood was marching his army against the railroad which constituted Sherman's only line of communication with his base of supplies. Sherman now called for reinforcements, and Grant directed all recruits in the West to be sent to him.

On September 29 Hood crossed the Chattahoochee River. This was the day on which Grant made the movements herein-before described against Richmond and Petersburg, with a view to preventing Lee from detaching any troops. There were some who thought [314] Grant manifested unnecessary anxiety on this subject: but it must be remembered that just one year before, Lee had sent Longstreet's whole corps to northern Georgia; that it was not discovered until it was well on its way to join Bragg's forces against Rosecrans's army at Chickamauga; and that it accomplished the reverse which occurred to our arms on that field. Besides, Grant's mind seemed always more concerned about preventing disasters to the armies of his distant commanders than to the troops under his own personal direction. He was invariably generous to others, and his self-reliance was so great that he always felt that he could take ample care of himself.

General Rawlins had now returned, and it was very gratifying to see that while his health was not restored, it was greatly improved. He still, however, was troubled with a cough. The day he arrived General Grant saw that he was still far from well, and said with much distress, when Rawlins was out of earshot, “I do not like that cough.” When Rawlins learned the plan proposed in regard to Sherman's future movements, he was seriously opposed to it, and presented every possible arguent against it. Rawlins always talked with great force. He had a natural taste for public speaking, and when he became particularly earnest in the discussion of a question, his speech often took the form of an oration; and as he grew more excited, and his enthusiasm increased, he would hold forth in stentorian tones, and emphasize his remarks with vehement gesticulation and no end of expletives. As I had been sent to confer with Sherman, and had studied the subject in all its bearings, and felt absolute faith in the success of the movement, I became the chief spokesman in its favor; and many evenings were occupied in discussing the pros and cons of the contemplated movement. The staff had in fact [315] resolved itself into an animated debating society. The general-in-chief would sit quietly by, listening to the arguments, and sometimes showed himself greatly amused by the vehemence of the debaters. One night the discussion waxed particularly warm, and was kept up for some time after the general had gone to bed. About one o'clock he poked his head out of his tent, and interrupted Rawlins in the midst of an eloquent passage by crying out: “Oh, do go to bed, all of you! You're keeping the whole camp awake.”

Rawlins had convinced himself that if Hood kept his army in front of Sherman to bar his progress, Sherman, having cut loose from his base, would not be able to supply himself, and his army would be destroyed; and that, on the other hand, if Hood turned north, Sherman's army would be unavailable, and it would be difficult to assemble sufficient force to prevent Hood from reaching the Ohio River. Against this view it was argued that if Hood decided to confront Sherman to prevent his passage across the country, Sherman would always have a force large enough to whip him in a pitched battle, or so threaten him as to compel him to keep his forces concentrated, while Sherman could throw detachments out from his flanks and rear and obtain plenty of provisions in a country which had never been ravaged by contending armies; or, if Hood started north, that Sherman could detach a large force to send against him, which, when reinforced by the troops that could be hurried from Missouri and other points, would be amply able to take care of Hood, while Sherman, with the bulk of his army, could cut the Confederacy in two, sever all its lines of communication, and destroy its principal arsenals and factories. In fact, Sherman was so far away from his base, with only a single-track railroad, liable constantly to be broken by raiders, that it became a necessity for [316] him either to fall back or to go ahead. Rawlins was possessed of an earnest nature, and was devoted to General Grant's interests, and his urgency against this movement was not a factious opposition, for he had really convinced himself that nothing but an absolute calamity would be the result. In this case General Grant, as usual, paid but little attention to the opinions of others upon a purely military question about the advisability of which he really had no doubt in his own mind.

It was suggested, one evening, that he instruct Sherman to hold a council of war on the subject of the next movement of his army. To this General Grant replied: “No; I will not direct any one to do what I would not do myself under similar circumstances. I never held what might be called formal councils of war, and I do not believe in them. They create a divided responsibility, and at times prevent that unity of action so necessary in the field. Some officers will in all likelihood oppose any plan that may be adopted; and when it is put into execution, such officers may, by their arguments in opposition, have so far convinced themselves that the movement will fail that they cannot enter upon it with enthusiasm, and might possibly be influenced in their actions by the feeling that a victory would be a reflection upon their judgment. I believe it is better for a commander charged with the responsibility of all the operations of his army to consult his generals freely but informally, get their views and opinions, and then make up his mind what action to take, and act accordingly. There is too much truth in the old adage, ‘Councils of war do not fight.’ ”

On October 6 General Grant went to Washington to consult with the authorities in regard to the raising of additional troops, and to learn upon what number of reinforcements he could rely before deciding definitely [317] upon the course to be pursued in the West. Hood had now turned north, and was operating against Sherman's railroad in his rear. Sherman had left the Twentieth Corps in Atlanta to hold that place, and had marched with the rest of his army as far north as Marietta. On October 10 Sherman telegraphed Grant: “Hood is now crossing the Coosa, twelve miles below Rome, bound west. If he passes over to the Mobile and Ohio road, had I not better execute the plan of my letter sent by Colonel Porter, and leave General Thomas with the troops now in Tennessee to defend the State?” The situation was such, however, that General Grant disliked to see a veteran army like Sherman's marching away from Hood without first crippling him; and he replied to Sherman the next day (the 11th), saying, among other things: “. . . If you were to cut loose, I do not believe you would meet Hood's army, but would be bushwhacked by all the old men, little boys, and such railroad guards as are still left at home. Hood would probably strike for Nashville, thinking by going north he could inflict greater damage upon us than we could upon the rebels by going south. If there is any way of getting at Hood's army, I would prefer that, but I must trust to your own judgment. . . .”

It will be seen from the above despatch that Grant's military foresight had enabled him to predict at this time precisely what afterward took place as to Sherman's army not meeting Hood's. At the same hour at which Grant wrote this despatch at City Point, Sherman had sent a telegram to him, saying that he would prefer to start on his march to the sea, and that he believed Hood would be forced to follow him. A little before midnight on the 11th, Grant sent Sherman the following reply: “Your despatch of to-day received. If you are satisfied the trip to the sea-coast can be made, holding [318] the line of the Tennessee firmly, you may make it, destroying all the railroads south of Dalton or Chattanooga, as you think best.”

General Sherman informed me long after the war that he did not receive this reply, which was accounted for, no doubt, by the fact that his telegraph-wires were cut at that time. He was ignorant of the existence of this despatch when he wrote in his “Memoirs,” in 1875, that November 2 was “the first time that General Grant ordered the march to the sea.”

General Grant was now actively engaged in making additional preparations for Sherman's reception on the sea-coast. He directed that vessels should be loaded with abundant supplies, and sail as soon as it became known that Sherman had started across Georgia, and rendezvous at Ossabaw Sound, a short distance below the mouth of the Savannah River.

On October 29, finding that the movement of the troops ordered from Missouri to Tennessee was exceedingly slow, the general directed Rawlins to go in person to St. Louis, and confer with Rosecrans, the department commander, and see that all haste was made. The Secretary of War now sent a telegram to General Grant, wishing him to reconsider his order authorizing the march to the sea. In fact, the President and the Secretary had never been favorably impressed with Sherman's contemplated movement, and as early as October 2 Halleck had written to General Grant advocating a different plan. Grant felt that as there was so much hesitation in Washington, he ought once more to impress upon Sherman the importance of dealing a crushing blow to Hood's army, if practicable, before starting on his march eastward, and telegraphed him accordingly. To this Sherman replied that if he pursued Hood he would have to give up Atlanta, and that he preferred to strike out for the sea. [319]

At 11:30 A. M., November 2, before Grant had received the above reply from Sherman, he sent another message to that officer, closing with the words: “I really do not see that you can withdraw from where you are to follow Hood without giving up all we have gained in territory. I say, then, go as you propose.”

Several additional despatches were interchanged, and at 10:30 P. M., November 7, Grant telegraphed Sherman: “I see no present reason for changing your plan; should any arise, you will see it; or if I do, will inform you. I think everything here favorable now. Great good fortune attend you. I believe you will be eminently successful, and at worst can only make a march less fruitful of results than is hoped for.” The telegraph-wires were soon after cut, and no more despatches could be sent. It was not until the 15th that Sherman was entirely ready to move. On the morning of that day Atlanta was abandoned, and the famous march to the sea was begun.

Extracts from the correspondence between the general-in-chief and the distinguished commander of the armies of the West, and the views expressed by them regarding the conception and execution of this memorable movement, are given in some detail in order to correct many erroneous impressions upon the subject. Over-zealous partizans of General Grant have claimed that he originated and controlled the entire movement; while enthusiastic admirers of Sherman have insisted that Grant was surprised at the novelty of the suggestion, and was at first opposed to the march, and that Sherman had to exert all his force of character to induce Grant to consent to the campaign. The truth is that the two generals were in perfect accord in this, as in all other movements undertaken while Grant was in supreme command of the armies. These two distinguished officers acted in entire [320] harmony, and the movement reflects lasting credit upon both. Long before Sherman's army started upon his Atlanta campaign it was clear to Grant, and others with whom he discussed the matter, that after that army reached a point in the interior of the South too far from its base to maintain a line of supplies, communication would have to be opened up with the sea-coast, and a new base established there. Sherman, however, is entitled to the exclusive credit of the plan of cutting loose entirely from his source of supplies, moving a long distance through the enemy's country without a base, and having in view several objective points upon which to direct his army, his selection to depend upon the contingencies of the campaign. It was the same sort of campaigning as that which Grant had undertaken when operating in the rear of Vicksburg. General Grant said more than once: “I want it to be recorded in history that Sherman is entitled to the entire credit of the detailed plan of cutting loose from his base at Atlanta and marching to Savannah. As to the brilliancy of the execution of the plan on Sherman's part there can never be any dispute. The plan was entirely in accord with my views as to the general cooperation of our widely separated armies.” He approved the suggestions at the start, in spite of the doubts expressed by army officers about him and by some of the authorities at Washington; he encouraged and aided Sherman in all the work of preparation; and when the time for final action came he promptly gave his consent to the undertaking. About the only point upon which their military judgments differed was as to the action of Hood, Grant being firmly convinced that he would turn north, while Sherman thought their armies might encounter each other.

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