The Magazine

Grant Takes Charge

150 years ago—the appointment that won a war

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The ships made it downriver, enabling Grant to move his troops from the west to the east bank and assume the offensive. But, to the alarm of both his superiors and his subordinates, he was cut off from his own bases and lines of supply. So his army lived off the land. They fought and won several engagements east of Vicksburg and effectively prevented any relief of the city from that direction. Then, with the Confederate Army of General John Pemberton trapped inside the city, they laid siege. Grant accepted Pemberton’s surrender on July 4, 1863, one day after George Meade’s army had broken Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg.

Meade, in Lincoln’s opinion, had allowed Lee to escape across the Potomac and return to the relative safety of his old lines in Virginia when it would have been entirely possible to pursue and annihilate him. And when Meade did, at last, move, he found himself in an alarming approximation of the situation faced by his predecessor, General Joseph Hooker, on the eve of his catastrophic defeat at the battle of Chancellorsville. Meade escaped Lee’s trap, but there were no victories in the East following Gettysburg.

Grant, meanwhile, had turned his sights on Chattanooga. And, again, he was successful. After the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, the way was open to Atlanta, which would fall in a few months to Sherman.

Grant’s string of victories was now unbroken and conclusive. Still, there was something of a “yes, but” quality to his record. He had won battles and campaigns, but not in what people in Washington and other Eastern cities considered the main theater, against the principal enemy. One soldier in the Army of the Potomac caught the essence of this sentiment when he said, “Vicksburg wasn’t much
of a fight. The rebels were out of rations and they had to surrender or starve. They had nothing but dead mules and dogs to eat, as I understand.”

It wasn’t until the war was over and years had passed that the Vicksburg and Chattanooga battles came to be appreciated for what they were. In his Decisive Battles of the Western World, J.F. C. Fuller writes, “Grant’s victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga sealed the eventual doom of the Confederacy. The one severed the states east of the Mississippi from those to the west of it, and the other blocked the main approach northward into Tennessee and opened
the road to Atlanta—the back door of Lee’s army in Virginia.”

Grant’s successes also moved Lincoln to summon him East, where Lee was not the only one waiting for him to make a mistake. The Union Army had been infiltrated by politics and political generals from the beginning. Its upper echelons were populated by generals with political ambitions and politicians lusting after military glory. The settling of scores and the advancement of personal agendas went on almost ceaselessly and shamelessly. After the battle of Missionary Ridge, Joseph Hooker, who had been humiliated at Chancellorsville and was now under Grant’s command in the West, wrote a letter to a supporter in Lincoln’s cabinet calling Sherman “an active, energetic officer,” but adding, “in judgment [he] is as infirm as Burnside. He will never be successful.” 

Hooker, the man who had lost his nerve at Chancellorsville, sniping at Sherman: Here, anyway, was audacity to go with the pettiness that was all too typical of Union generals.

Grant had been the target and the victim of political sniping and backbiting since the opening of the war, when he was suspect in the eyes of many. Though he had been formally educated and trained in the profession and had served ably and honorably in the Mexican War, his military services were not at first in demand. He reached out to an old West Point acquaintance, George McClellan, who was soon to assume command of all the Union armies, earn the sobriquet “Little Napoleon,” and in 1864 run for president. In Cincinnati in 1861, however, McClellan did not have time to meet with Ulysses S. Grant, who spent three futile days waiting for an audience.

But then, McClellan knew the stories about the drinking, and by some accounts he may have witnessed an episode of drunkenness when he and Grant served together. Certainly McClellan, who was hauteur itself, would have considered it a waste of his time and beneath his dignity to deal with a man who had resigned from the Army under conditions bordering on disgrace, who had then failed first as a farmer and next in the real estate business, and who was, when the war began, clerking in his father’s dry goods store. Perhaps McClellan had even heard the story of how one of their old West Point contemporaries, in full uniform, had come upon Grant one day, shabby in work clothes, handling a team and a wagon loaded with firewood and asked, “Why, Grant, what in blazes are you doing here?” 

“Well, General,” Grant said, “I’m hauling firewood.” 

Now, in 1864, Grant, having won his battles in the West, had been ordered to Washington to assume the responsibilities and command that had once been McClellan’s. The Little Napoleon had not measured up to his duties or his press clippings or his generous estimation of his own talents. This last he was happy to share with his admirers and supporters in Washington, where he considered himself superior to all, including Lincoln, his own commander in chief, whom he described as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.” McClellan likewise disparaged his adversaries, describing Lee as “too cautious and weak under grave responsibility. Personally brave and energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility, and is likely to be timid and irresolute in action.” This was shortly before Lee chased McClellan away from Richmond and all the way back to Washington. 

Before McClellan, there had been Irvin McDowell. And then, there was John Pope, who had come from the West, where, like Grant, he’d had some success. But Pope, unlike Grant, was a blowhard who treated the people of Virginia and the countryside vindictively. Lee made up his mind to “suppress” him and did so, decisively and humiliatingly.

McDowell had been beaten in the First Battle of Bull Run. Pope was routed, on the same ground, in the Second, then transferred out to the far West to wage war against the Indians. In between these two defeats, there was the one McClellan suffered just outside of Richmond, in the Seven Days. That made three epic Union defeats in Virginia in less than two years, and three generals disgraced.

Then Ambrose Burnside sent his army charging uphill into Lee’s guns at Fredericksburg. And a few months later, Joseph Hooker was turned and nearly annihilated at Chancellorsville. Most recently, Meade had almost come to grief on the same ground. 

Six attempts to break Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had produced six complete failures. Now came Grant, who lacked the bluster, the vanity, and the political skills and ambitions of his predecessors. After Vicksburg, there had been talk that the Democratic party might nominate Grant as its candidate for president in 1864. He was approached, and in his refusal there was a note of something not normally associated with him, something close to fear, which he expressed in a letter:

I .  .  . above all things wished to be spared the pain of seeing my name mixed with politics. .  .  . Wherever, and by whatever party, you hear my name mentioned in connection with the candidacy for any office, say that you know from me direct that I am “not in the field” and cannot allow my name to be used before any convention.

There was no artifice in this declaration, and not much, the world was soon to learn, in the man. He was, in this regard, the antithesis of the Washington generals, above all McClellan. In today’s argot, with Grant, what you saw was what you got, and this expression of his feelings about running for president can be taken as sincere. Among his virtues was loyalty, to subordinates and superiors. Lincoln had stood by Grant, and that was enough reason for him to reject out of hand the notion of opposing the president. 

And then, the man knew himself and his talents. He had a flair for the written order. According to one of his staff officers, “His thoughts flowed as freely from his mind as the ink from his pen; he was never at a loss for an expression, and seldom interlined a word or made a material correction.”

But he had a kind of bashful aversion to public speaking and even to being the center of public attention. In St. Louis a couple of months earlier, during festivities in his honor, he had been asked to say a few words. “I cannot make a speech,” he said. “It is something I have never done, and never intend to do.” When he was pressed, he dug in, saying, “Making speeches is not my business. I never did it in my life, and never will.”

When Grant and Lincoln met for the first time, at the White House, on the evening after the scene in the lobby at Willard’s, the president took note of this element in Grant’s makeup. Lincoln had that discernment, as well as a sensitivity to the feelings of others. A ceremony was scheduled for the next day, he explained to Grant. It would make official Grant’s commissioning as a lieutenant general, and he would be obliged to make some remarks but not a full-blown speech. 

The president explained that he would make the introduction and keep it short—four lines. Grant should keep his remarks similarly brief. The president gave Grant a copy of what he planned to say and also some lines that the general might consider delivering. Grant, it seems, was touched by the president’s solicitude and did, indeed, keep it short the next day. After Lincoln had introduced him, he read from a half-sheet of paper—softly, almost to the point of mumbling—words that he had written in pencil:

I accept the 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 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 me.

Grant’s remarks came in at seven words under Lincoln’s and included none that had been suggested by the president. John Nicolay, who today would be called the president’s chief of staff, considered this rudeness bordering on insubordination. If it was a slight, then it didn’t disturb Lincoln, who had no time for vanities, and who was too well pleased by what he had seen in Grant, perhaps, even to have noticed.

“Grant,” he said, “is the first general I’ve had.” 

The formalities now behind him, the general wanted above all to get out of Washington and down to work. The next day, he rode the train to Brandy Station, Virginia, to get a look at the Army of the Potomac and meet with—and most likely, relieve—its commander, George Meade.

Grant did not know Meade well and had not seen him since the Mexican War 16 years before. Meade was older, by 6 years, and had graduated from West Point 8 years earlier than the man who now was his commander and in control of his professional fate. Meade was not a lovable man or an inspired or inspiring leader, but he was an able soldier and a patriot. After Grant’s arrival, when the two men found themselves alone, Meade said, in effect, that he expected it was time for him to be relieved and for the Army of the Potomac to be led by yet another new commander—someone from Grant’s personal orbit, Sherman perhaps.

As Grant reconstructed the conversation in his memoirs, Meade then said 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.”

Grant was impressed and, characteristically, made an important decision on the spot: Meade would remain in command of the Army of the Potomac. 

Meade had seen generals come and go and frequently had been the target of their machinations. Hooker and his political partisans had pressed for Meade’s removal so the man who had led the Army into the debacle of Chancellorsville could resume its command. Now, with Grant, Meade had seen a more convincing kind of leader, and he rewarded it with his loyalty. He remained in command of the Army of the Potomac right up until the end, at Appomattox.

Generals were one thing, soldiers another. The men of the Army of the Potomac, too, had seen generals come and go and had learned not to put their faith in them. If the rank and file were loyal to any general, in fact, it was McClellan, for whom they still had a soft spot. As for this new “little ’un,” they would wait and see. It might be true, as one of them said, that “he looks as if he meant it.” But it was also true that he had never “met Bobby Lee and his boys.” Until he did, they would withhold judgment.

Grant may not have come face to face with Lee, but he had learned, much earlier in the war, not to worry too much about the man on the other side of the hill, whoever he was. That man was sure to have his own problems. He learned this lesson after his first action in the war and recalled that the enemy commander 

had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him .  .  . a view of the question I had never taken before but it was one I never forgot afterwards. .  .  . Even to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.

Stonewall Jackson had once said much the same thing, in fewer words, to an excited subordinate: “Do not take counsel of your fears.” 

For now, Grant could do nothing to earn the confidence of the men he would be sending against Lee. That would have to wait until the weather changed and the roads dried. But there was much to do, and that included traveling out west to visit with his generals there and make certain they understood and would execute his overall design. When the time came, he would not be there himself to make sure of it, though Sherman had urged that he make his headquarters there. “For God’s sake,” Sherman had written, “and for your country’s sake, come out of Washington! .  .  . Come out West. 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.”

Grant, however, remained firm in his decision to run the war from the East, near Washington. He seemed to consider Washington, no matter how opulent the accommodations at Willard’s, a nice place to visit but not to stay—even to the point of turning down an invitation to dine at the White House on the evening after his visit to Meade and the Army of the Potomac.

When Grant declined the invitation, Lincoln protested. “We can’t excuse you. Mrs. Lincoln’s dinner without you would be Hamlet with Hamlet left out.”

Grant did not give. He seldom did. “I appreciate the honor Mrs. Lincoln would do me,” he said, “but time is very important now.”

Then he added, “And really, Mr. Lincoln, I have had enough of this show business.”

So he traveled west, to Cincinnati, where he and Sherman got down to the business of planning the two-pronged offensive that would finish the Confederacy. They studied maps and inventoried resources and drafted a plan that Sherman later summed up saying, “He was to go for Lee and I was to go for Joe Johnston. That was his plan.”

With this decision made, Grant returned to the East and established his headquarters in Virginia, close by Meade, who would have preferred that his new commander remain in the capital. Grant, however, made every effort not to interfere with Meade’s running of the Army of the Potomac and attended, instead, to the running of the war.

The soldiers, in their winter headquarters, picked up that the new commander had arrived, and a new urgency came over the Army. Drill and discipline were tightened, and by mid-April, the sutlers—civilian merchants who followed the armies—were gone from the camps and preparations were being made to move against Lee.

On May 4, the columns stepped off, down roads that were now dry and across the Rapidan River, passable now, into densely wooded country known as “the Wilderness,” where Hooker had come to grief almost exactly a year earlier. 

The battle that followed was terrible in slaughter and chaos. The woods caught fire, and wounded men who could not move fast enough were burned alive. Generals were wounded, formations crushed and panicked. Confusion reigned, but Lee seemed, again, to have the initiative and his victory to be inevitable. At one point in the fighting, an excited Union general came to warn Grant of what Lee might do next.

“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do,” Grant said. “Some of you think he is about to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Still, the battle was so dreadful that even Grant went through a moment of uncertainty, one that, as Shelby Foote put it, revealed the character of the man:

He had what they call “four o’clock in the morning courage.” You could wake him up at four o’clock in the morning and tell him they had just turned his right flank and he would be as cool as a cucumber. .  .  . Grant, after that first night in the Wilderness, went to his tent, broke down, and cried very hard. Some of the staff members said they’d never seen a man so unstrung. Well, he didn’t cry until the battle was over, and he wasn’t crying when it began again the next day. It just shows you the tension that he lived with without letting it affect him. 

The second day of the battle was equally terrible, and Grant reported to Washington, “Our losses will probably not exceed 12,000, of whom an unusually large proportion are but slightly wounded.” Also,  “At present we can claim no victory over the enemy; neither have they gained a single advantage.”

At this point, in what to many veterans of the Army of the Potomac was a familiar script, it was time for them to withdraw—to put it plainly, to retreat. To move back across the river and onto the secure ground the Army had occupied through the winter. 

This was what the veterans of Chancellorsville and the other defeats expected the day after the battle when they formed up their units and moved to the road and began to march. Shortly, the lead column came to a crossroads. If the column turned right, it would be headed back toward Washington, leaving the field, once again, to Lee, who could claim yet another victory. Turn left, however, and the Union divisions would be heading deeper into Virginia, where they could expect more days like the two just endured.

The column turned left, and as a soldier from Pennsylvania later wrote, “Our spirits rose. We marched free and men began to sing.”

When their new commander came riding up on his big bay horse, Cincinnati, men cheered him. They threw their hats into the air and pressed in to get closer to their general and leader whose plan was to “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” He stuck to that plan, and it cost him, and them, some 60,000 casualties. But there would be no retreat. 

Neither he, nor they, were going to be falling back on Washington.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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