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Chapter 20: Confederate operations in Northern Virginia

On June 21, 1864, the President and a small party, including the Secretary of War, arrived at City Point on a short visit to General Grant and the army. Dana joined them at once, and when the visit was ended accompanied them to Washington for a few days. As both the President and Secretary of War “were anxious to have his daily reports of the operations around Petersburg,” he made haste to return, arriving at headquarters on July 1st. Here he found a condition of affairs far from encouraging. Instead of waiting for Sheridan's return from his movement against the railroads north of Richmond, Grant sent the rest of his cavalry straight out into the Confederacy to break up those leading west and south from Petersburg. Meade had tried to extend his left to cover the highways and railroads, but had failed and settled down supinely on the defensive. He was now engaged in quarrelling with Warren, but would probably settle the matter at issue without proceeding to the extreme remedy of relieving him. Butler was “pretty deep in controversial correspondence with Balky Smith,” in which it will be noted that Grant says, “Butler was clearly in the wrong.” Rumors had just come in that the movement against the Danville and Southside railroads had [333] come to grief, while Sheridan had stopped north of the James River to rest. To make matters worse, Grant was losing confidence in Meade, who had the reputation of being ill-tempered towards his subordinates, and was becoming unpopular with them. He had besides begun to show signs of impatience and discouragement. It had come to be almost a habit with him to ask, “When is Grant going to take Richmond?” His position was doubtless embarrassing; he had but little independent authority, but was expected to receive orders and arrange all the details for their execution, while others would necessarily get most of the credit. The staff arrangements could not well be worse; the organization of the forces was fatal to close and efficient co-operation. While Grant, as generalissimo, had full power, and was primarily responsible, he was disposed to place much of the blame for the inconclusive results on Meade, and by July 7th seriously thought of relieving him from command. This is shown by Dana's despatch of 8 A. M. that day, stating that

A change in the commander of the Army of the Potomac now seems probable. . . . Grant seems to be coming to the conviction that Meade must be relieved. The facts in the matter have come very slowly to my knowledge, and it was not until yesterday that I became certain of some of the most important. I have long known Meade to be a man of the worst possible temper, especially towards his subordinates. I do not think he has a friend in the whole army.... At the same time — as far as I am able to ascertain-his generals have lost their confidence in him as a commander. His orders for the last series of assaults upon Petersburg, in which he lost ten thousand men without gaining any decisive advantage, was to the effect that he had found it impracticable to secure the co-operation of corps commanders, and therefore each one was to attack on his own account, and do the best he could by himself. Consequently, each gained [334] some advantage of position, but each exhausted his own strength, . . . while for the want of a general purpose and a general commander to direct and concentrate the whole, it all amounted to nothing but heavy loss to ourselves. Of course there are matters about which I cannot make inquiry, ... but I know that General Wright has said to a confidential friend that all of Meade's attacks have been made without brains and without generalship.

Additional light is thrown on the state of affairs treated of above by certain private notes which Dana wrote me that week. From one of July 2d, I quote as follows:

You can't imagine how delighted we were yesterday to hear of your safety. Kautz's report had made us fear that most of your command might have been captured. Still we knew that you were a hard fellow to catch, and that if any way could be found you would find it. Let us have your official report as soon as possible.

... The state of affairs here is better than when you left.

Judging by what I saw in Washington, the people are very despondent and anxious.

Twenty thousand men are on their way here from the Department of the Gulf.

Come over and see us as soon as you can.

From a note of the 7th, I quote as follows:

... I can tell you as a great secret not to be spoken of that Butler is ordered to Fort Monroe and Smith put in command of the troops in the field.

Franklin and Ord are here on a visit.

Porter has just gone out on a flag of truce. Nothing important.

... I was out at Petersburg with a lot of senators this morning.


The Official Records show that Grant requested Halleck to obtain an order assigning Smith to the command of the Eighteenth army corps and sending Butler back to Fort Monroe, on July 6th, at 10 A. M., and that the order was issued by the War Department on July 7th. They also show that two days thereafter Smith took advantage of ten days leave of absence, which had been granted to him the day before on account of his head, and that before leaving he turned over the command of his corps to the next in rank, and notified Butler accordingly. He appears to have started that afternoon, and to have spent the night at Fort Monroe. The next day Butler is said to have called upon Grant with a request for Smith's removal. Exactly what he based this upon, or what took place in the interview which followed, has never been fully stated. From the Official Records it is certain, however, that an order was issued from Grant's headquarters on July 19, 1864, relieving Smith, while still absent, from the command of the Eighteenth army corps, and that this order was followed by Smith's farewell address, dated July 20th.

As the circumstances related above led to one of the most persistent and acrimonious controversies connected with the Civil War, every detail throwing light upon it has been looked upon as important.

Grant ignores the subject in his Memoirs, but Dana, who was sitting with Grant when Butler called, described the meeting to me many times afterwards as an embarrassing one, in which Butler, clad in full uniform, with a haughty air and flushed face, held out a copy of the order directing him to re-establish his headquarters at Fort Monroe, and asked, “General Grant, did you issue this order?” To this Grant replied, in a hesitating manner, “No, not in that form.” Whereupon, perceiving that the interview was likely to be an unpleasant one, Dana took his leave [336] with the impression in his mind that Butler “had in some manner cowed his commanding officer,” and this impression was never effaced.

It was now becoming evident at Grant's headquarters that Ewell and Early, whose detachment from Lee's army had been reported by Meade, were moving down the Shenandoah Valley. Having disposed of Hunter and forced him to withdraw in the direction of the Ohio, they were quick to perceive that there was no force in the way to stay their march towards Washington. On July 6th Grant came to the conclusion that Washington was their objective, and as he was now charged with the management of all military operations, defensive as well as offensive, he became exceedingly anxious to know exactly what was taking place so far to the rear. To that end, several days later, he asked Dana to return to Washington, for which place he started at once, arriving there for duty on the 11th. He found both Washington and Baltimore in a state of great excitement. The air was filled with alarming rumors, the Confederate forces were reported as advancing on Baltimore; several Confederate generals were said to have dined at Rockville a day or two before; houses had been burned near Washington, and clouds of dust could be seen in several quarters. Having sifted reports and rumors as carefully as he could, he summed them all up in a despatch, which he sent to Grant at ten o'clock that night.1 In this despatch he reported the burning of the Gunpowder Bridge, beyond Baltimore, the capture of General Franklin, the defeat of Wallace at Monocacy, heavy skirmishing by Lowell's cavalry in front of Washington, and great activity on the part of Augur, Gillmore, McCook, and Ord in preparing for the defence of the capital. He reported also a great destruction of mills, workshops, and factories, [337] and the breaking of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for many miles. This despatch ends as follows:

No news from Hunter. The force of the enemy is everywhere stated at from twenty to thirty thousand. The idea of cutting off their retreat would seem to be futile, for there are plenty of fords and ferries now in their control, where they can cross the Potomac and get off, in spite of all our efforts to intercept them, long before our forces can be so concentrated as to be able to strike an effective blow.

Dana gave emphasis to the foregoing despatch by two others which he sent to General Grant the next day. The first was dated July 12th-11.30 A. M., and after reciting the fact that no attack had been made on either Washington or Baltimore, it reiterated the statement that “nothing can possibly be done towards” cutting off the enemy for want of a commander, and added that Augur commands the defences of Washington, Wright the Sixth corps, Gillmore a part of the Nineteenth corps, and Ord the Eighteenth corps, “but there is no head to the whole, and it seems indispensable that you should appoint one.” It then called attention to the fact that “Hunter will be the ranking officer if he ever gets up, but he will not do,” that in the judgment of the secretary he ought instantly to be relieved, as he had proved himself far more incompetent than Sigel. In conclusion he added:

... The secretary also directs me to say that advice or suggestions from you will not be sufficient. General Halleck will not give orders except as he receives them; the President will give none, and until you direct positively and explicitly what is to be done, everything will go on in the deplorable and fatal way in which it has gone on for the past week.


This portentous despatch, showing the complete paralysis of the government at Washington, was followed at 12 M. the same day by another which reported Longstreet's corps as “coming rapidly down the Valley,” and that possibly the “inactivity of the rebels in this vicinity is because they are waiting for reinforcements.”

It is evident from these despatches that the greatest confusion existed, but it turned out that the prognostication of rebel intentions was unfounded, and that notwithstanding the great opportunity offered them, they had concluded, perhaps in ignorance of the chance they had thrown away, to withdraw to the Shenandoah Valley, which they did without interruption or serious delay.

To meet the great emergency thus forced upon him, Grant made haste to send the Sixth corps to Washington and then to go in person. After looking over the situation, he concluded to put Sheridan in command with orders to dispose of the Confederate forces in the Valley as a condition precedent to the resumption of operations in front of Petersburg. Meanwhile, this rendered it necessary to maintain a defensive attitude in front of Petersburg, and as this relieved Dana from the necessity of further service in the field, Stanton directed him to resume his duties in the War Department.

It will be seen, however, that his last services as a correspondent had resulted in his becoming the eyes of Grant as well as of the government, and that he had for the third time played an important, if not a determining, part in connection with the fortunes of both Grant and the country. It can scarcely be denied that had Dana, during the Vicksburg campaign, taken a different course, and instead of doing all in his power to strengthen Grant's hands, had reached the conclusion that the risks were too great, and that Grant was not only unfit to be trusted with such great responsibilities, but ought to be relieved, the career of [339] that general might very well have come to a premature end. It is almost equally certain that had Dana, after Chickamauga, done what he could to strengthen Thomas's hands and to build him up as the successor to Rosecrans, Grant might have failed to get the opportunity to add the salvation of Chattanooga and the victory of Missionary Ridge to his previous victories. Again, had Dana minimized Grant's merits and joined the hostile critics in denouncing his management of the campaign against Lee, instead of doing all in his power to magnify his performances, he might have seriously weakened the confidence of the government in the general's abilities and character even at that late day. Finally, had Dana proved unequal to the duties of his position on his return to Washington, and left Grant to learn from others the disagreeable facts which he communicated to him on July 11th and 12th, or had he failed to transmit to Grant the vigorous opinions of the Secretary of War as to the headless condition of military affairs about Washington, or had Grant elected to remain at City Point, and to leave to others the management of the campaign against Early and Ewell, his reputation must have suffered greatly in the public mind, as well as in the estimation of the administration.

Viewing the circumstances as set forth in this narrative, and drawing such conclusions from them as we may, no one can read Dana's letters or consider his connection with the facts related in them without reaching the conclusion that he acted with unusual prudence, good sense, promptitude, and fearlessness in presenting the best interests of the army to the government in reference to the Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge, Knoxville, and Petersburg campaigns, as well as in presenting the views of the government to Grant during the Confederate demonstration in the direction of Washington. [340]

It has fallen to the lot of no other American to serve as the confidential medium of communication between the army and the government, and between the government and the general-in-chief, as it did to Dana during the War of the Rebellion.

1 I Official Records, Dana to Grant, July 11, 1864-10 P. M.

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