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Chapter 14:

  • Military situation early in 1864
  • -- political situation -- need of one real head to the army -- Grant made lieutenant-general -- his predecessors in that grade -- action of the government -- Grant's quiescence -- instructions to Sherman -- private correspondence between Grant and Sherman -- dispatches from Halleck -- journey to Washington -- arrival -- Presentation of commission -- speeches of President and of Grant.

Early in 1864, the civil war in America had reached one of its most important crises. The political and the military situation of affairs were equally grave. The rebellion had assumed proportions that transcend comparison. The Southern people seemed all swept into the current, and whatever dissent had originally existed among them, was long since, to outside apprehension, swallowed up in the maelstrom of events. Ten states resisted with all their force, civil and military, and apparently with the additional armament of unanimity and popular enthusiasm, the whole strength of the national government. New Orleans, the greatest city of the would-be Confederacy, had, indeed, early fallen into the hands of the government; but Mobile, Wilmington, and Charleston, the next three commercial towns of importance, although blockaded and besieged by sea, held out as bravely and as stubbornly as ever. The Mississippi [566] had been opened to national vessels, though hardly yet to national trade, and the severest blow the rebel lion had sustained was undoubtedly dealt when Vicksburg fell. Still, the snake, if scotched, was not killed; it had been cut violently in twain, but the severed parts retained each a convulsive life, while the more important portion, though shorn of its strength and resources, seemed to have lost none at all of its vitality. Kentucky and Tennessee, although in the possession of national forces, were yet debatable ground, and suffered all the ills of border territory in time of civil war; and Grant, ordered to the command of the entire region between the Mississippi and the Alleghanies, had checked the advance of Bragg, it is true, but even he had not yet driven the great rebel army of the West far beyond the northern boundaries of Georgia; for Johnston, the successor of the unlucky Bragg, still confronted the most formidable force that the government could accumulate in all its Western territory, and Longstreet occasionally threatened to assume the offensive in East Tennessee.

In the Eastern theatre of war, no real progress had been made during three disastrous years. The first Bull Run early taught the nation that it had to contend with skilful, brave, and determined foes. Then came McClellan's labors in the organization of an army, and his sad campaign on the Richmond Peninsula; after this, the still heavier reverses of Pope's career—heavier, because they followed so close on the heels of earlier defeats. Antietam saved the North from the perils of invasion, but, although a positive victory, it had only negative results. Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were positive enough, [567] but made terrible drafts on the endurance of the nation, as well as on the life-blood of its soldiers. Gettysburg again stayed the tide of invasion; and, on the soil of the Northern states, a battle was fought, in the third year of the war, on whose result depended, for three long summer days, the fate of the second city in the land. This hardly seemed like the easy progress that had been anticipated for the national arms. Gettysburg saved Washington and Philadelphia; but even this victory had not resulted in the destruction of Lee; for, in the succeeding January, the rebel chief, with undiminished legions and audacity, still lay closer to the national capital than to Richmond; and Washington was in nearly as great danger as before the first Bull Run.

Halleck, succeeding McClellan in the ostensible command of all the armies, if he really exercised supreme control, had failed. It seemed as if, when successes came, they were oftener the result of blind courage on the part of the troops, than of brilliant combinations on the part of their commanders; and that the victories of a great general in one theatre of operations were sure to be neutralized by the disasters of an unsuccessful one on the other side of the continent. Success, it was evident, could only come from greater unity of plan and greater concentration of effort. The veriest tyro, or the stupidest critic, could see that all the strength of the national armies must be made cooperative, and that this had never yet been done. The need of one head, of a mastermind, to perceive and to do, to grasp all the varied necessities, to control all the varied operations, to evolve order out of chaos, to make generals and armies and marches and battles all tend to the accomplishment [568] of one great and decisive object, this need was universally felt and acknowledged. But there was no such head; no such master-mind controlled the military policy.

It is not to be denied that the spirit of the nation was sorely tried by all these misfortunes. Political dissensions were rife, and those in opposition to the administration did not fail to exaggerate the disasters in the field. Accusations of political or personal interference with the movements of troops and the dispositions of generals, abounded, and were listened to by many; the frequent changes in important commands gave color to such charges, and were certainly discouraging; a large number of the political sympathizers with the administration were personally hostile to the President, or to members of his government; a presidential election was at hand, and even the presence of a terrible and still uncertain civil war, was insufficient to calm the outcries of partisans or suppress the aspirations of place-seekers. It was said that in the very cabinet of the President, cabals and dissensions found place; that he had his rivals among his own ministers; while, among his generals, whether off duty or on, not one of prominence but was mentioned, in some quarters, as the probable successor of the head of the government. The grave questions of the rights of states and the freedom of the person, of the abolition of slavery, and of finance, as well as those of a purely military character, were violently debated all over the North; great anxiety was felt as to the ability or disposition of the country to continue the supply of its resources; the draft was unpopular, and the temper of foreign nations unfavorable, if not hostile. [569]

It was true, the South must be approaching exhaustion, but its devotion and heroism seemed to supply the lack of all resources. It is true, the nation was really as determined as ever, but all these considerations that have been mentioned, were gloomy in their character, and seemed to defer indefinitely the wished — for consummation.

Under these circumstances, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, by the Honorable Elihu B. Washburne, to revive the grade of lieutenant-general in the armies of the United States, with the idea of conferring this rank upon Grant, and giving him command of all the military forces of the country. The proposition was debated for several months, but finally, on the 26th day of February, 1864, it received the sanction of both Houses of Congress. On the 1st of March, the President approved the bill, and nominated Grant to the office; and on the 2d, the Senate confirmed the most important appointment ever made in America.

By this bill it was provided that ‘the grade of lieutenant-general be, and the same is hereby, revived in the Army of the United States of America; and the President is hereby authorized, whenever he shall deem it expedient, to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, a commander of the army, to be selected during war, from among those officers in the military service of the United States, not below the grade of major-general, most distinguished for courage, skill, and ability; and who being commissioned as lieutenant-general, shall be authorized, under the direction of the President, to command the armies of the United States.’

Grant had but two predecessors in this exalted [570] rank. In 1798, the grade was created for Washington, who held it but one year; and upon his death, it was discontinued, but conferred by brevet, in 1855, upon Major-General Winfield Scott.

The government had neither favored nor opposed the bill. During the long debate, its influence had been entirely passive. Apparently, the administration had become convinced that, in purely military matters, it was better for civilians not to attempt to interfere; and, the terrible responsibility thus sought to be laid on a single man, neither the President nor his cabinet assisted to impose. They simply left the matter in the hands of the representatives of the people, and these, after full consideration, decided by a majority that raised the measure entirely out of the domain of politics.1

Grant himself used no influence, wrote no line, spoke no word to bring about the result. I was with him while the bill was being debated, and spoke to him more than once on the subject. He never manifested any anxiety or even desire for the success of the bill; nor did he ever seem to shrink from the responsibilities it would impose upon him. If the country chose to call him to higher spheres and more important services, whatever ability or energy he possessed he was willing to devote to the task. If, on the contrary, he had been left at the post which he then held, he would not have felt a pang of disappointed pride.

The Honorable Mr. Washburne said of him, during the debates on the bill: ‘No man with his consent has ever mentioned his name in connection with any [571] position. I say what I know to be true, when I allege that every promotion he has received since he first entered the service to put down this rebellion, was moved without his knowledge or consent. And in regard to this very matter of lieutenant-general, after the bill was introduced and his name mentioned in connection therewith, he wrote me, and admonished me that he had been highly honored by the government, and did not ask or deserve any thing more in the shape of honors or promotion; and that a success over the enemy was what he craved above every thing else; that he only desired to hold such an influence over those under his command, as to use them to the best advantage to secure that end.’

On the 3d of March, Halleck sent the following dispatch to Grant: ‘The Secretary of War directs that you will report in person to the War Department, as early as practicable, considering the condition of your command. If necessary, you will keep up telegraphic communication with your command, while en route to Washington.’ The next day Grant started for the capital.

At the same time he sent instructions to Sherman, now on his return from Meridian. That commander was directed to use the negro troops, as far as practicable, to guard the Mississippi river; and, adding to this element what he deemed necessary for the protection of the river, to assemble the remainder of his command at Memphis. ‘Have them in readiness to join your column on this front, in the spring campaign.’ This was with a view to the movement against Atlanta and Mobile, which, notwithstanding his promotion, Grant still intended to lead in person. This operation had now been frequently explained [572] by him to his staff. It was his plan, at this time, to fight his way to Atlanta, and then, holding that place and the line between it and Chattanooga, to cut loose with his army, either for Mobile or Savannah, which ever events should designate as the most practicable objective point. He meant to concentrate Sherman, Thomas, and Schofield's armies for this purpose, and entertained no doubt whatever of entire success. When he started for Washington, it was his firm intention to return to Chattanooga, and, while he retained control of all the armies, to lead in person those which moved towards the sea. On the 3d of March, he said to Sherman, ‘I am ordered to Washington; but as I am directed to keep up telegraphic communication with this command, I shall expect, in the course of ten or twelve days, to return to it.’

I carried these instructions to Sherman, and with them, also, the following extraordinary private letter:

dear Sherman,—The bill reviving the grade of lieutenant-general in the Army has become a law, and my name has been sent to the Senate for the place. I now receive orders to report to Washington immediately, in person, which indicates a confirmation, or a likelihood of confirmation. I start in the morning to comply with the order.

Whilst I have been eminently successful in this war, in at least gaining the confidence of the public, no one feels more than I, how much of this success is due to the energy, skill, and the harmonious putting forth of that energy and skill, of those whom it has been my good fortune to have occupying subordinate positions under me.

There are many officers to whom these remarks [573] are applicable to a greater or less degree, proportionate to their ability as soldiers; but what I want is, to express my thanks to you and McPherson, as the men to whom, above all others, I feel indebted for whatever I have had of success.

How far your advice and assistance have been of help to me, you know. How far your execution of whatever has been given to you to do, entitles you to the reward I am receiving, you cannot know as well as I.

I feel all the gratitude this letter would express, giving it the most flattering construction.

The word you I use in the plural, intending it for McPherson also. I should write to him, and will some day, but starting in the morning, I do not know that I will find time just now.

Your friend,

U. S. Grant Major-General.

Sherman received this letter near Memphis, on the 10th of March, and immediately replied:

dear General,—I have your more than kind and characteristic letter of the 4th instant. I will send a copy to General McPherson at once.

You do yourself injustice, and us too much honor, in assigning to us too large a share of the merits which have led to your high advancement. I know you approve the friendship I have ever professed to you, and will permit me to continue, as heretofore, to manifest it on all proper occasions.

You are now Washington's legitimate successor, and occupy a position of almost dangerous elevation; [574] but, if you can continue, as heretofore, to be your self, simple, honest, and unpretending, you will enjoy through life the respect and love of friends and the homage of millions of human beings, that will award you a large share in securing to them and their descendants a government of law and stability.

I repeat, you do General McPherson and myself too much honor. At Belmont, you manifested your traits—neither of us being near. At Donelson, also, you illustrated your whole character. I was not near, and General McPherson in too subordinate a capacity to influence you.

Until you had won Donelson, I confess I was almost cowed by the terrible array of anarchical elements that presented themselves at every point; but that admitted a ray of light I have followed since. I believe you are as brave, patriotic, and just, as the great prototype Washington—as unselfish, kind-hearted, and honest as a man should be—but the chief characteristic is the simple faith in success you have always manifested, which I can liken to nothing else than the faith a Christian has in the Saviour.

This faith gave you victory at Shiloh and Vicksburg. Also, when you have completed your best preparations, you go into battle without hesitation, as at Chattanooga—no doubts—no reserves; and I tell you, it was this that made us act with confidence. I knew, wherever I was, that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would help me out, if alive.

My only point of doubt was, in your knowledge of grand strategy, and of books of science and his [575] tory; but, I confess, your common-sense seems to have supplied all these.

Now, as to the future. Don't stay in Washington. Come West: take to yourself the whole Mississippi valley. Let us make it dead-sure—and I tell you, the Atlantic slopes and Pacific shores will follow its destiny, as sure as the limbs of a tree live or die with the main trunk. We have done much, but still much remains. Time, and time's influences, are with us. We could almost afford to sit still, and let these influences work.

Here lies the seat of the coming empire; and from the West, when our task is done, we will make short work of Charleston and Richmond, and the impoverished coast of the Atlantic.2

Your sincere friend.

Before Grant reached Washington, he received the following magnanimous dispatch from the man whom he was about to supersede: ‘The Secretary of War directs me to say that your commission as [576] lieutenant-general is signed, and will be delivered to you, on your arrival at the War Department. I sincerely congratulate you on this recognition of your distinguished and meritorious services.’ His journey to Washington was made as rapidly as possible, and by special trains; but wherever the people knew of his approach, they thronged around the railway stations in prodigious crowds; cheering, and struggling to catch a glimpse of the new commander of their armies.

On the 8th of March, he arrived at the capital, where he had never spent more than one day before. The President had never seen his face, and the Secretary of War had met him, for the first time, at Louisville, in the October preceding.

At one o'clock, on the 9th of March, Grant was formally received by the President, in the cabinet chamber. There were present all the members of his cabinet, Major-General Halleck, general-in-chief, two members of General Grant's staff,3 the President's secretary, a single member of Congress, and Grant's eldest son, who had been with him at Jackson, and Vicksburg, and at Champion's hill.

After Grant had been presented to the members of the cabinet, Mr. Lincoln read the following words: ‘General Grant, the nation's appreciation of what you have done, and its reliance upon you for what remains to be done 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 you, also, a corresponding responsibility. As the country herein trusts you, so, under God, it will sustain you. [577] I scarcely need to add, that, with what I here speak for the nation, goes my own hearty personal concurrence.’

Grant read, from a paper, this reply: ‘Mr. President, I accept the commission, with gratitude, for the high honor conferred. With the aid of the noble armies that have fought in 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.’ [578]

1 The vote in the House of Representatives, where the bill originated, was one hundred and seventeen to nineteen.

2 On the 29th of December, Sherman had written to Grant: ‘In relation to the conversation we had in General Granger's office, the day before I left Nashville, I repeat, you occupy a position of more power than Halleck or the President. There are similar instances in European history, but none in ours. For the sake of future generations, risk nothing. Let us risk—and when you strike, let it be as at Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Your reputation as a general is now far above that of any man living, and partisans will manoeuvre for your influence; but, if you can escape them, as you have hitherto done, you will be more powerful for good than it is possible to measure. You said that you were surprised at my assertion on this point, but I repeat that from what I have seen and heard here, I am more and more convinced of the truth of what I told you. Do as you have heretofore done, preserve a plain military character; and let others manoeuvre as they will, you will beat them, not only in fame, but in doing good in the closing scenes of this war, when somebody must heal and mend up the breaches made by war.’

3 Brigadier-General Rawlins and Lieutenant-Colonel Comstock.

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