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If It Takes All Summer: The Strategy of Ulysses S. Grant in 1864

Posted September 21st, 2016 at 05:26 AM by Viperlord
Updated September 21st, 2016 at 06:58 AM by Viperlord

As 1864 dawned, the Civil War seemed to still very much hang in the balance. Despite Ulysses S. Grant's decisive victory at Chattanooga, a Confederate army still guarded Northern Georgia, Kirby Smith's virtually independent Confederate department of the Trans-Mississippi still stood, and most importantly of all, Virginia, the heart of the Confederacy, still held firm against the Union's Army of the Potomac. Virginia had proved to be a vexing problem for Union generals, planners, and politicians. The location of the Confederate capital there guaranteed that more attention by far was paid to events in Virginia than any other theatre of operation. In the election year of 1864, this could prove to mean that even as the Confederacy collapsed elsewhere, renewed exploits by Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia could endanger the re-election of Abraham Lincoln. The combination of the political centrality of the state to the Civil War, and the fact that it was defended by the Confederacy's most successful army and general, all added up to one conclusion; to carry the war to a successful conclusion, the problem of Virginia had to be solved once and for all.

The man Lincoln would turn to in his year of need would be Major General Ulysses S. Grant, victor of Fort Donelson, Shiloh (controversially so), Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Following Vicksburg, Grant, catching wind of an effort to have him reassigned to the east and placed in command of the Army of the Potomac, sought to dissuade any such effort, writing that he preferred to remain in the west with the army, generals, and terrain he knew best. The effort, supported by Secretary of War Stanton, quickly died. Exasperated with a perceived lack of progress by Army of the Potomac commander George Meade, Union general-in-chief Henry Halleck did take the step of querying Grant in January of 1864 as to his thoughts on strategy in the east.

Grant consulted with others before making his reply, sensibly querying his staff officer Cyrus Comstock and Army of the Cumberland engineer William F. "Baldy" Smith, both of whom had served in the eastern theatre. Grant also had native Viginian George Thomas look over his plan before submitting it to Henry Halleck. The plan, while drawn up by officers under his direction, should be understood as representing Grant's vision of how to deal with the problem of Virginia, a problem that had stymied Union commanders and armies for two years. The three primary lines of operation adopted by Federal forces in Virginia had failed to this point.

George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign took advantage of Virginia's rivers and Union seapower to move his Army of the Potomac to the Virginia Peninsula near Richmond, a position with secure supply lines and flanks that allowed a relatively easy approach to Richmond or potentially, to the supply lines that fed Richmond from the south. Laboring under false impressions of Confederate numerical strength, and confronted by a concentrated Confederate force that genuinely rivalled his own, due to superior operational conception and execution on the part of Robert E. Lee as opposed to Edwin Stanton and Abraham Lincoln, McClellan's Peninsula Campaign ended in failure. While McClellan maintained himself and his army in a secure position on the James River with great potential for future operations, McClellan's refusal to take the offensive unless reinforced effectively ended that effort, and Lincoln, as well as his Cabinet, were alienated by what they saw as McClellan's inattention to the defense of the capital. Especially with McClellan's status as Lincoln's rival candidate for President in 1864, any resumption of McClellan's strategy would be ill-received by the Lincoln administration. Future Union commanders would operate under a mandate to stay between Washington D.C. and Robert E. Lee's army at all times.

McClellan's tenure of command ended once and for all in the midst of an offensive effort on a new line of operations, using the Orange and Alexandria Railroad in northern Virginia as his supply line, a route that eventually wound its way to Charlottesville. The route was ill-regarded by McClellan himself in some respects and some of his adherents, such as John Sedgwick, who considered the Peninsula the true line of operations. This was for sound military reasoning; the railroad in question did not supply an entirely adequate volume of traffic, and it represented a long, extended, and indirect route of advance, rendering Union communications vulnerable. When Lee blocked McClellan's advance on the railroad at Culpeper, McClellan began considering alternate routes, and had Fredericksburg scouted. Upon McClellan's relief from command, his successor, Ambrose Burnside, quickly seized upon the idea. He would move east, cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, and use the RF&P railroad, with twice the supply capacity of the previous route, and a far more direct approach, to advance on Richmond. Burnside's concept, while sound, was foiled first by administrative failure and then by his own weaknesses as a commander at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Joseph Hooker, Burnside's successor, attempted a more clever strategy while utilizing the same line of operations along the Rappahannock, but ultimately succeeded only in enmeshing himself in the dense undergrowth of the Wilderness and receiving a humiliating check from Robert E. Lee's army at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Following Lee's failed offensive into the North, George Meade, Hooker's successor, would shift the campaign further west along the Rappahannock but stick largely to the same line of operations; after the failure of the Mine Run campaign in late 1863, Meade desired to winter his army in Fredericksburg, as he had gained the south bank of the Rapphannock. This would have avoided the necessity of campaigning through the Wilderness the following year. Meade was told he could not properly screen Washington from such a position, and denied permission to remain south of the Rappahannock for the winter.

These then, were the problems that Grant's strategy sought to solve. And that strategy certainly addressed them, albeit in a novel way; Grant suggested going around Virginia entirely, invading North Carolina with an army of 60,000 that would destroy the supply lines into Virginia, while simultaneously closing off the key port of Wilmington and striking an overall Confederate weak point in North Carolina, a state that barely voted to secede and with insufficient defenses against an effort like that one that Grant proposed. Here is Grant's plan in full.

Nashville, Tenn., January 19, 1864.
Major General H. W. HALLECK,
General-in-Chief of the Army, Washington, D. C.:
GENERAL: I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in lieu of these one be taken farther south. I would suggest Raleigh, N. C., as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured, I would make New Berne the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured.
A moving force of 60,000 men would probably be required to start on such an expedition. This force would not have to be increased unless Lee should withdraw from his present position. In that case the necessity for so large a force on the Potomac would not exist. A force moving from Suffolk would destroy first all the roads about Weldon, or even as far north as Hicksford. From Weldon to Raleigh they would scarcely meet with serious opposition. Once there, the most interior line of railway still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then have, would be so threatened as to force him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee. It would throw our armies into new fields, where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy. It would cause thousands of the North Carolina troops to desert and return to their homes. It would give us possession of many negroes who are now indirectly aiding the rebellion. It would draw the enemy from campaigns of their own choosing, and for which they are prepared, to new lines of operations never expected to become necessary. It would effectually blockade Wilmington, the port now of more value to the enemy than all the balance of their sea-coast. It would enable operations to commence at once by removing the war to a more southern climate, instead of months of inactivity in winter quarters. Other advantages might be cited which would be likely to grow out of this plan, but these are enough. From your better opportunities of studying he country and the armies that would be involved in this plan, you will be better able to judge of the practicability of it than I possibly can. I have written this in accordance with what I understand to be an invitation from you to express my views about military operations, and not to insist that any plan of mine should be carried out. Whatever course is agreed upon, I shall always believe is at least intended for the best, and until fully tested will hope to have it prove so.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Henry Halleck responded to this idea with distinct disapproval. He had two primary objections to this plan; one, he feared it would leave DC's defenses too weak and allow Lee to come north, and two, he insisted that the manpower for such an expedition could not be assembled. The second objection was patently false. For the Overland Campaign, Grant would ultimately muster the following forces in Virginia; 120,000 in the Army of the Potomac, 33,000 in the Army of the James, and another 10,000 under Franz Sigel in the Valley. The manpower for Grant's plan could easily have been spared from this. Halleck's first objection did not directly make much sense either; with an army on Lee's logistics to the south, he would be unlikely to be allowed to invade the North. A Chancellorsville esque situation where some of his forces under Longstreet were detached to southeast Virginia and North Carolina was a far more likely scenario, and even if Lee did invade the North, the Army of the Potomac would most likely still have a considerable numeric advantage, depending on how the manpower for the North Carolina expedition was assembled.

Halleck's objections to Grant's plan should be understood as really being based around one simple fact; the government was committed to the overland route, for the reason of maintaining an overwhelming army between Lee and DC, and to avoid any appearance of suggesting McClellan's strategy in 1862 may have been correct in an election year. Lincoln considered Lee's army the most important objective for the Army of the Potomac, hence his disappointment with George Meade's perceived failure to destroy it post-Gettysburg.

The important point to note here however, is how Grant was thinking, strategically and operationally, about how to deal with the eastern theatre. His strategy was not unimaginative or bloody attrition, or a simple application of overwhelming force; instead, it was an imaginative campaign of maneuver, targeting the logistics that kept the Confederacy's capital and strongest army viable, and making use of the Union's naval advantages to strike at the military and political weak spot of North Carolina. The result, rather than a long series of bloody battles, would be that Lee's army would have to be divided or forced to fall back, and placed in a disadvantaged situation that would eventually result in battle on open ground. Attacks on logistics and a bold maneuver were the characteristics of Grant's preferred strategy. The direct overland route was mandated by Lincoln and Halleck. Grant as a strategist is thinking creatively and in terms of maneuver.

This exchange took place while Grant was a subordinate commander. After receiving reassurance from Grant himself that he had no intention of challenging Lincoln politically however, Lincoln allowed the appointment of Grant as lieutenant general, making him the highest ranking officer in the Union army, the new general-in-chief, taking over for Henry Halleck. In his new role, Grant, knowing the preference of his superior, would not be able to avoid confronting the problem of Virginia head-on. So he devised a plan much more in tune with what the government wanted, while still retaining some of the characteristics of his own plan. While George Meade's Army of the Potomac would move directly against Lee, Benjamin Butler's Army of the James would cut the supply lines south of Richmond, and Franz Sigel, in a secondary effort, would move down the Shenandoah Valley and remove it from the war. Meanwhile, William T. Sherman's army in Georgia would advance on Atlanta and destroy Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee, while a simultaneous thrust by some of Sherman's other troops on Mobile would pin Leonidas Polk's Confederate corps in Alabama.

Grant did not quite get his wish with this plan either. The troops that Grant desired to take Mobile were instead earmarked for Nathaniel Banks' Red River Campaign, an adventure into Louisiana Grant had no use for with a commander he had even less use for. It should be kept in mind that just as much as the Overland Campaign specifically, all Union operations in 1864, excepting the Lincoln/Halleck adventure in Louisiana, are planned or approved by Grant, and all relate directly to his concept of how to defeat the Confederacy. What unfolds in the Overland Campaign is that Virginia is ultimately not the theatre of decision in 1864. Georgia is. Atlanta falls in September; imagine how much quicker it falls when Sherman with the same army (100,000) he has in reality goes up against Joe Johnston (later John Bell Hood) with an army smaller by one-third of its infantry (Johnston's army in reality mustered between 50-60,000 at various times). Many historians already rate Johnston's task in 1864 as near-impossible; without Polk's corps, that near-impossibility becomes certain impossibility. Nevertheless, this was not to be.

Grant's strategic vision and coordination of the various Union forces towards a common goal is often praised. But on the campaign and the tactical level, the Overland Campaign was and to an extent remains controversial for the casualties it incurred and the fact it did not deliver an immediate victory. But let's look at his adapted strategy for Virginia in 1864 in its original form for but a moment. Grant's original plan demonstrated keen knowledge of the Confederacy's weaknesses on the strategic level and sound operational conception of how to go about pressuring those weaknesses. It did not however, match up with the commander in chief's intent. Lincoln wanted to target the Confederacy's strongest point; Lee's army along the Rapphannock line. Grant modified his strategy to account for that without complaint. The Army of the Potomac would make Lee's army its primary objective point, while Grant would use Butler's Army of the James to perform a version of what he originally wanted. Butler would cut the same supply lines into Richmond that Grant had wanted to disrupt with his North Carolina expedition, just much closer to Richmond. Franz Sigel would deal with the utter nuisance of the Shenandoah Valley, which fed the Confederacy and offered the Confederates an invasion avenue south while leading nowhere strategically relevant for the Union in a geographic sense. Again I note attrition, especially the idea of simply slugging it out with Lee until he runs out of bodies, is simply not present in Grant's planning here. His secondary thrusts target logistics; the Army of the Potomac will move against Lee, but grinding frontal assaults is not the course Grant envisions.

Grant was hampered by both his position and his subordinates however. The mission of confronting Lee directly would have to be overseen by Grant personally, as the country expected it; however, that meant Grant would be personally supervising the man who was actually by far the most competent leader of Grant's main three armies in Virginia, George Meade. Franz Sigel's shortcomings were well known; it's unclear what Grant thought of him at this time, but Henry Halleck had maintained a justifiably low opinion of Sigel since early 1862, and likely shared it with Grant. Still, Sigel's seniority meant he could not be denied a command, or relieved until he demonstrated ineptitude in the moment. Grant seems to have expected little more of Sigel than to keep Confederates in the valley from reinforcing Lee.

Benjamin Butler would prove to be more problematic in the long run, but in the short term, Grant thought him the more manageable subordinate. When Grant met with Butler to discuss the coming campaign, Butler demonstrated clear understanding of what he was expected to do and his role in the greater campaign, sufficient to impress Grant. It should not be assumed Grant was duped here; Butler, whatever else he was, was a cunning man. Still, Grant was aware enough of Butler's shortcomings to try and compensate for it by giving him the experienced William F. Smith as a corps commander, in addition to the less experienced Quincy Gillmore. I'll return to the subject of how this plays out in practice at a later time.

Now, I've debated Grant's generalship and the Overland Campaign with many different individuals for years. On this forum, with good reason, I'm known as a defender of Grant. One criticism of the campaign I've encountered multiple times in other venues rests on the fundamental definition of what the campaign was, and what Grant was trying to do with it. The criticism, summed up as briefly as I can render it, essentially goes like this: Grant's Overland Campaign is essentially a failure, as he repeatedly seeks to defeat Lee and interpose his army between Lee and Richmond, and fails repeatedly in bloody repulses until Cold Harbor where he runs out of space and is forced to adopt a new plan of crossing the James and moving on Petersburg. To counter, it can easily be argued that Grant's objective all along was to work his way to Lee's supply lines south of Richmond and break them up, and in support of this, there are several messages Grant wrote, both before and during the Overland Campaign, that point to the James river and the supply lines south of Richmond as his objective. This is further confirmed by a direct statement from Meade's chief of staff, Andrew Humphreys, and the fact that one of Grant's first acts as general-in-chief was to arrange the necessary bridging equipment for the Army of the Potomac to cross the James.

On the other side of the coin, one could point to Grant's words from the title of this post, written during the Spotsylvania Court House phase of the campaign, in which Grant appears to have been content to continue to fight it out with Lee in the vicinity of Spotsylvania, with his army shifting about Lee's lines but moving relatively little from May 8-20.

The flaw with this as evidence that Grant did not plan to go to the James all along is that it overlooks that Grant is managing all Union operations in Virginia and elsewhere, not just the Army of the Potomac. After May 20, Benjamin Butler's Army of the James is neutralized, bottled up in the Bermuda Hundred by Confederate entrenchments, allowing Confederates to reinforce Lee. More importantly, Butler's overall role in the campaign has ended in failure. Grant expected the Army of the James to do more than just prevent reinforcements from reaching Lee; he expected it to create a serious threat to Richmond and sever Confederate supply lines from the south, and likely hoped that this event would compel Lee to fall back on Richmond, giving Grant an opportunity to force an open field battle with Lee's army and close the noose around both that army and Richmond. With Butler's containment and the May 15 defeat of Sigel in the Valley, the Army of the Potomac is forced to do the legwork instead.

While the above argument in favor of Grant's intended movement to the James is in general accurate, I feel there's some shadings I've missed in my interpretation of this in the past. The Army of the Potomac is bound for the James, though Grant (in his own words) has not marked out a definite route. It has to use the Overland approach against Lee. So far, so good. But if the main objective isn't to defeat Lee's army in a major battle, why pitch into Lee at the first opportunity in the Wilderness? Why stand nearly still at Spotsylvania for nearly two weeks while engaging with Lee there? Why try to lure Lee into battle to the south of Spotsylvania, and then race him for the North Anna to try and turn his right flank again? Why, at the North Anna, do Grant and his officers debate going west of Lee instead of east towards McClellan's old lines, if the James is the ultimate destination?

The answer I believe is two-fold. The first part is hinted at in two of Grant's communications quoted or referenced here. The first, his message to Halleck in January of 1864, referred to his desire for his proposed strategy to be put to the test before being judged. The second, where he mentions that he has not marked out a definite route to the James, though the bridging he arranged earlier does imply a route east of Richmond. The conclusion here is deceptively simple; Grant is flexible. Not inconsistent or indecisive, but adaptable in a specific way. Grant regards his plans as tests. He is legendary for not turning back, in more ways than one, but it's equally true that Grant will immediately abandon a plan if it fails to produce the expected result and move on to another option. This is part of why stalemate or repulse does not deter Grant in the way it did some of his predecessors; it's not that's he too stubborn to admit defeat or has a grander vision than anyone before him or anything of the kind, it's that Grant is not overly committed to any one particular plan of action or maneuver and will have already considered other options if something doesn't work out. Grant undoubtedly would have nodded approvingly in response to the Duke of Wellington's famous statement that he made his plans out of rope and tied off a knot if something went wrong. Grant wasn't just seeking to destroy Lee's supply lines around Richmond or interpose the Army of the Potomac between Lee and Richmond, or lure Lee into battle on open ground; through various means at different times, depending on the circumstances, Grant attempts all three, as the situation changes.

Grant actively seeks battle with Lee in the Wilderness, hoping to strike Lee while Lee was outside of his entrenchments, and continuing the battle the next day in the hope of defeating Lee before Longstreet's corps entered the fray. When stalemate results, Grant moves on to Spotsylvania Court House, jockeying for position with Lee there and seeking to find an opportunity to strike. Grant finds that opportunity at the Bloody Angle, but again, the outcome is ultimately indecisive. Throughout the rest of the campaign, Grant continues to maneuver around Lee while seeking to exploit any opportunity to get between Lee and Richmond or fight Lee outside of entrenchments, simultaneously moving his army continuously closer to the supply lines that are an ultimate objective of the campaign.

This leads into the other part of the answer, which is that Grant also definitely thinks in terms of the campaign and not the decisive battle or action. Vicksburg taught Grant that battles are fought to achieve particular ends. Grant successfully takes that thinking to the next level upon his promotion to general-in-chief; he thinks of even the campaigns of particular armies, in this case, the Army of the Potomac, in the larger context of serving particular goals; in this case, the dual goals of severing Confederate logistics to Richmond and dealing with Lee's army.

It is fair to say that Grant intended, circumstances permitting, by one route or another, to place his army in position to destroy Lee's supply lines south of the James, whether or not he managed to defeat Lee's army in open battle north of Richmond. That did not mean that Grant would not try his utmost to defeat Lee north of Richmond along the way, and it did not mean he wasn't willing to let Butler have his best shot at the south-side of Richmond first, and to that end, he kept Lee away from Richmond as long as that option existed. Perhaps the succinct way to say this is that while Meade's objective point may have been Lee (it's worth noting that rather than going where Lee went, Grant and Meade instead forced Lee to react to them), the strategic objective of the entire Virginia campaign was Lee's supply lines. It was certainly hoped that the destruction or interruption of Lee's supply lines would give Meade's army the opportunity to defeat Lee in the open; however, beating Lee's army in a decisive battle was never the focus of the campaign. Rather, the simultaneous pressure of the efforts against Lee's supply line and Meade's army against Lee's army would result in the development of options favorable to the Union, whether that be an opportunity to defeat Lee in the open, to surround Lee at Richmond, or to destroy his supply lines and compel his retreat.

While Grant keeps Lee at Spotsylvania in mid-May of 1864, Lee is unable to send troops to Richmond to stop Butler. Just as the Overland Campaign in a broader strategic sense prevents Confederates in Virginia from being sent to the west against Sherman (a real concern for Union planners after Chickamauga and the resulting crisis at Chattanooga), Grant prevents troops from being shifted around in Virginia against either of his supporting armies. Grant isn't committed to the Army of the Potomac being the primary instrument of victory; he is willing to let it stand still in order to let other Union armies advance.

When Butler and Sigel are foiled, Grant continues to attempt to force a battle with Lee on advantageous terms, first by luring him into attacking a seemingly exposed Union corps, then by racing him to the North Anna. When this fails to produce the desired results, Grant continues to maneuver to force his way past Lee's right flank and get between him and Richmond, thus ensuring a battle on Grant's terms. Cold Harbor represents his last attempt to do that. Grant, believing for somewhat valid reasons that Lee's army is on its last legs, tests that assumption at Cold Harbor. When it fails, Grant adjusts plans based on what he now knows of the situation, and executes a (mostly) superbly coordinated and planned crossing of the James River, with a maneuver that easily could have won the war in Virginia under different circumstances. Throughout the campaign, Grant sought to defeat Lee with maneuver warfare, and ultimately succeeds in confining him in Petersburg by that very measure.

When attempts to take Petersburg directly fail, Grant, with the exception of approving the Crater operation, abandons entirely the idea of forcing a decision at Petersburg, and instead concentrates on strangling off Lee and Richmond's supply lines from the south while also dealing with Jubal Early's Raid on Washington. If Grant has not achieved a decision in Virginia in 1864 however, he has still accomplished something crucial to the overall Union war effort. He has robbed Robert E. Lee of the initiative once and for all and placed him in a position where he is doomed to eventual defeat. Lee represented the Confederacy's best hope for achieving some kind of success that could influence the 1864 elections. Grant has removed him from the board, and Sherman's offensive in Georgia will ultimately be the theatre of decision in 1864. In short, Grant once again stood still so that other armies could advance.

There will be a future part II to this post, dealing more specifically with the details of how Grant's operations play out during the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns; my criticisms of the actual execution of the campaign in Virginia in 1864 will go there. No promises on when that comes out.
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