A speech delivered at the Washington Civil War
Round Table Gold Medal Award Dinner, April 13, 1967
Any man who tries to make a speech about the accomplishments of General Ulysses S. Grant runs at once into three problems. Let me list them, as follows:
First, most of his listeners would rather have him talk about Robert E. Lee. They have nothing at all against Grant–except, perhaps, here and there, for the fact that he finally won the war; they just think Lee is a more glamorous character, and because he is more glamorous he is somehow more interesting.
Second, if the speaker is not very careful he will have to spend most of his time explaining that this famous soldier was not really an habitual drunkard, and that on quite a number of occasions he showed up for duty cold sober.
Third, the speaker cannot go very far without running head-on into the common belief that Grant was simply an unimaginative slugger who never in the world would have got to Appomattox if he had not commanded so many men that his great rival was simply beaten by force of numbers. If that is the case, of course, there is no point in talking about Grant’s generalship, because no [pg. 24] generalship was needed. All the man had to do was sit at the steering wheel and let the car run itself. Sheer weight and momentum would finally carry it to its goal.
I am going to dodge the first two of these hurdles. I will freely admit that Robert E. Lee is one of the most appealing characters in American history and that he did as well as any man could possibly have done with a task that in the last analysis proved impossible of accomplishment. I am not going to get into the second issue at all, because it seems to me self-evident that the soldier who came to represent–in the judgment of Abraham Lincoln, the keenest appraiser of men who ever sat in the White House–complete dependability and integrity, was no part of an alcoholic. It is to the third prong of this problem that I would like to address myself this evening.
What did Grant do, in the final, climactic campaign of the Civil War–the campaign that began on May 4, 1864, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan, and ended eleven months later when the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomnattox Courthouse?
I suggest to you that there was a good deal more to this campaign than simple slugging and attrition. The war did not win itself. The heavy weight of numbers, of course, was on the Federal side–it had been so, ever since Fort Sumter–but that weight in itself was not enough to bring victory. Grant’s predecessors had had that weight on their side, and none of them could make real use of it. The chief difference in 1864 was that there was a different man in charge: U. S. Grant. He used the power that was available to him as McClellan, Burnside, Pope, Hooker and Meade had been unable to do. How did he do it?
That goes without saying. But he was responsible for something more than that. It was up to him to destroy the Southern Confederacy as an independent nation. The Confederacy of course would remain independent as long as it possessed its capital city and that city’s magnificent defender, the Army of Northern Virginia. To destroy the army and occupy the city were naturally objectives of the highest importance. But to say that is not at all the same thing as saying that Grant’s underlying idea, from the start, was simply to bring Lee to battle head-on and fight him until he could fight no more. If he could do that, to be sure, it would be fine, and unquestionably one of the things Grant hoped for, in every battle he fought between the Rapidan and the James, was the kind of all-out victory every general wants. But his strategic plan was a good deal more subtle and complicated than we generally realize.
When he opened the 1864 campaign Grant had to keep two points in mind.
The first was the fact that Lee was notoriously averse to remaining on the defensive. He was a master of maneuver, an extremely daring strategist who took long chances–and usually made them work–simply because he was in a position where to play it safe was to lose. Precisely because time and the weight of numbers were on the side of the North, Lee had to turn the tables before the handicap they imposed became too much for him, and thus far in the war he had done it with dazzling success. Lee would seize the initiative if he were given the smallest bit of leeway. If a McClellan got down to the Chickahominy and [pg. 26] then paused to get everything ready–if a Pope got to Bull Run and waited for reinforcements to come up–if Hooker moved around the flank at Chancellorsville and then halted in order to let his own nerves regain their coolness–in all such cases, Lee could be relied on to strike back and reduce a “Forward to Richmond” drive to failure.
Whatever happened, therefore, it was necessary for Grant to keep the pressure on so constantly that Lee had no chance to go over to the offensive. The instructions Grant gave General Meade just before the campaign began are eloquent. Lee’s army, Grant said, was Meade’s big objective point: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” The Army of the Potomac in other words not only had to go on the offensive; it had to retain the offensive every minute of the way, so that whatever the two opposing armies did they would march where the Federal commander chose rather than where Lee chose.
But if this required Meade to keep in close contact with the Army of Northern Virginia every foot of the way–which of course would mean a great deal of hard fighting–it was not supposed that this by itself would be enough to bring victory. And this is where the second point in Grant’s basic plan comes in.
From the moment the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan, Grant was actually looking toward the country south of the James River. The reason for this is clear, and Grant stated it repeatedly: what he wanted was to cut the supply lines by which the Confederacy sent food, munitions, replacements and equipment to Lee’s army. If this could be done, Lee would be forced to do one of two things: either to retreat into the deep south, which in itself would lead to final Confederate defeat, or to turn and attack the much larger army that faced him under conditions which [pg. 27] would doom such an attack to failure. Now it is of course true that Grant’s plan did not work perfectly. Far from it, as the terrible engagements in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania and around Cold Harbor testified. But everything Grant did that spring and summer was directed toward that end, and it is instructive to see how it was planned.
In his attempt to put his plan into operation Grant had three principal instruments. First, of course, there was the Army of the Potomac. Second, and of almost equal importance, there was Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James. Third, there was the army that operated in the Shenandoah Valley, commanded successively by Franz Sigel, by David Hunter and by Phil Sheridan. All three armies moved together. Meade crossed the Rapidan, Butler went up the James to Bermuda Hundred, and Sigel began to move up the Shenandoah Valley.
Meade’s operation naturally gets most of the attention. His first task was to keep Lee so busy that the great Confederate would never have the opportunity to start a significant counter-offensive of his own. Grant hoped that Meade could eventually slide past Lee’s flank and take a position between Lee and Richmond which would compel Lee to attack him. Since Meade’s army was about twice as large as Lee’s army, and since the combination of field entrenchments and the rifled musket gave the defense all of the advantages, such a fight could hardly end in anything but Lee’s defeat.
Meade did half of the job perfectly. That is, he kept crowding Lee so energetically that after the first sharp clash in the Wilderness Lee remained on the defensive until the two armies had crossed the James River. Meade was never able to do the other half–to interpose between Lee and Richmond–partly because the command system of the Army of the [pg. 28] Potomac was just a little muscle-bound but much more because Lee was too able a strategist to get caught in such a trap. But the half that Meade did accomplish would have been enough if the other two armies had been able to do their part.
Butler and Sigel were supposed to go after those lines of supply. Landing below the James, Butler was supposed to cut the railroad lines that connected Richmond with the deep South; moving up the Shenandoah, Sigel was supposed to cut off that rich source of supplies; and it seems fairly certain that if Grant had been able to put really competent generals in the places held by those two incredibly inept political appointees the whole scheme would have worked in fairly quick time. Unfortunately for Grant, neither man was able to do the job, and the Army of the Potomac finally had to carry the whole load. The load was extremely heavy, and the war went on until the spring of 1865. It might well have ended much sooner.
In any case, Meade and Grant together moved down from the Rapidan to Cold Harbor. The terrible battles and the costly flanking maneuvers that filled those six weeks constitute one of the most grimly fascinating stories of the entire war, but unfortunately we do not have time tonight to examine them–we would be here until midnight, and we would know no more when we got through, than we know now. The only point I would like to make here is that the battle of Cold Harbor was actually a final attempt to move around Lee’s right flank and take a position between Lee’s army and the Confederate capital. It failed, and Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to cross the James River.
I want to emphasize that this had been his primary objective from the start. Beat Lee’s army in the field if possible, slip past him and [pg. 29] occupy Richmond if possible, but at all events get south of the James, put Meade’s army in line beside Butler’s, and then go after those lines of supply in earnest–that was the basic point in the whole strategic plan.
General Andrew A. Humphreys, Meade’s chief of staff, a capable soldier who was thoroughly familiar with the plan, and a man by the way who was not at any time an apologist for General Grant, wrote about this move after the war. He said that it was designed “to carry out the plan with which the Army of the Potomac began the campaign, that is, to destroy the lines of supply to the Confederate depot, Richmond, on the south side of the James as close to that city as practicable, after those on the north side of the river had been rendered useless.” Two days after Cold Harbor, Grant himself wrote to Halleck, in Washington: “My idea from the start has been to beat Lee’s army, if possible, north of Richmond, then after destroying his lines of communication north of the James river to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat.”
Before we go any farther with this, it is necessary to take a brief look at the railroad lines that were Grant’s principal objective.
Four railroad lines came up from the south to Petersburg. Two of these were unimportant–a stub line east to City Point, and a longer one running down to Norfolk. The federals occupied both of these as soon as they came up in front of Petersburg and the Confederacy never felt the loss. The other two, however, were vital.
These were what is called the Weldon road, that ran south from Petersburg all the way to the great blockade-runners’ port of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the South Side railroad that ran off westward to Lynchburg, where it met the Virginia and Tennessee railroad. Fifty or [pg. 30] sixty miles west of Petersburg it intersected another line of vast importance, the Richmond and Danville road. The roads that came into Petersburg, of course, had a direct railroad connection with Richmond itself.
These were the supply lines that Lee and Richmond simply had to retain. If they could be broken even briefly, the Army of Northern Virginia and the capital it defended would be put under a severe strain; if they could be broken permanently, Lee would have to retreat and the capital would have to be given up. Butler might have broken them by seizing Petersburg during the first week of May. Being Butler, he did not even come close. Now the job had to be done.
In addition, both Humphreys and Grant had spoken about breaking the supply lines north of the river. Here they were thinking principally about the Shenandoah Valley and about Lynchburg. The Virginia Central railroad went north and west from Richmond to strike the Orange and Alexandria road at Gordonsville. It went on to Staunton, in the Valley; and there was also a branch running down from Gordonsville through Charlottesville to Lynchburg. Lynchburg, incidentally, was a supply depot of extreme importance to the Confederate cause. If, while the lines south of the James were broken, Lynchburg could be seized, and if the Virginia Central and its connections in the Gordonsville-Charlottesville area could be occupied, Lee’s isolation would be complete. At the time the Army of the Potomac crossed the James, Grant had reason to hope that this was about to take place.
General Hunter, having replaced Sigel, was moving up the valley with Lynchburg as his goal. Grant sent Sheridan and two divisions of cavalry off to Gordonsville, with orders to destroy that railroad connection, join hands with Hunter, go on and take Lynchburg, and then come back to [pg. 31] join the Army of the Potomac.
As you know, this plan failed to work. Sheridan got to Trevilian Station, a dozen miles east of Gordonsville, destroyed a segment of the Virginia Central, and then learned that Hunter was moving up the valley on the far side of the Blue Ridge, by way of Lexington. Sheridan fought the Confederate cavalry, and although he claimed a victory the fact remained that he felt unable to go on and join Hunter, who was moving away from him rather than toward him. He came back to the Army of the Potomac, the destruction he inflicted on the railroad was quickly repaired–one interesting fact about the Civil War is that cavalry raids, by themselves, almost invariably failed to inflict lasting damage–and Hunter, who was a little better than Sigel but not very much better, failed to take Lynchburg and was driven off in retreat into the mountains of West Virginia, leaving the Shenandoah Valley open for the operations of General Jubal Early.
In other words, what Grant hoped to gain immediately was not gained. He did not break the communications north of the river. His swift thrust to the south did not result in the fall of Petersburg, which would have broken the southern supply network permanently. He did get Meade’s and Butler’s armies together south of the James, as he had hoped to do, but although he got them there in the middle of June, 1864, it was not until April of 1865 that Lee was forced to go off in a doomed retreat. It is easy to assume, as a result, that the fearfully costly campaign from the Rapidan south had not won anything in particular, that Grant had been foiled and that he finally won out only because of the North’s immense superiority in manpower and supplies.
The first witness has to be Lee himself. When Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia below the river to counter Grant’s thrust at Petersburg he unquestionably went where he did not want to go. Earlier in the campaign he had said to Jubal Early: “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James river. If he gets there it will becomes siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” At about the same period he told A. P. Hill that unless Grant could be stopped, “we shall at last be obliged to take refuge behind the works of Richmond and stand a siege, which would be but a work of time.” By the end of June, 1864, Grant was on the James, and if Lee was not quite in the “works of Richmond” he was in the trenches of Petersburg, which were very nearly the same thing.
Grant had the same idea. The day after the last attack at Cold Harbor he told Adam Badeau, his military secretary, that he believed success now “was only a question of time.” He and Lee, in other words, saw it the same way. Grant’s strategy was beginning to work. Six weeks after crossing the Rapidan–not a long time, as military campaigns go–he had put his army in a position from which it could not be dislodged–in a position where it could constrict the life out of the Confederate army and capital in Virginia. It would take many more months, many lives, and unflinching determination: but the rival generals saw it alike–now it was only a question of time.
There was nothing magical about having a strong Federal army on the south side of the James–except that now, at last, this army was within reaching distance of those railroad lines that it had been going for from [pg. 33] the beginning. An advance of only a few miles would break the Weldon railroad once and for all, and to go only a little farther would break the South Side line. The goal was not Petersburg, and it was not really Richmond: it was the supply lines. Grant understood the meaning of railroads. This was the Vicksburg campaign all over again. He had been able to do nothing against Vicksburg until he finally crossed the river and cut the railroad that linked General John C. Pemberton with the rest of the Confederacy. Once he did that, Pemberton’s number was up. Once he crossed the James, he threatened Lee with Pemberton’s fate.
Lee understood this very clearly. He sent Jubal Early and an army corps off to the Shenandoah on June 12, the very day Grant disappeared from his front–a time when Lee needed every soldier he had–to protect the valley and the valley’s railroad network; to stave off the disaster that he saw taking shape. Just after he told Early to go as far north as he could, Lee wrote to President Davis:
“I am less uneasy about holding our position than about our ability to procure supplies for the army. I fear the latter difficulty may oblige me to attack General Grant in his entrenchments, which I should not hesitate to do but for the loss it will inevitably entail. A want of success would in my opinion be almost fatal, and this causes me to hesitate in the hope that some relief may be procured without running such great hazard.”
Grant of course had to send troops north to drive Early away from Washington. He shaved it pretty thin, but he succeeded; and once the Sixth Corps got to Washington Grant never had any doubt that Early would eventually be defeated and made harmless. And it is interesting to note that over and over again, from July of 1864 to the winter of 1865, in [pg. 34] his dispatches to Ha1leck, to Hunter and at last to Sheridan, Grant emphasized one point. Assuming that Early would be driven back, he called time and again for a new Federal advance up the Valley that would seal that source of supplies off from Lee once and forever. He wanted the Gordonsville-Charlottesville-Lynchburg railroad network broken, just as he wanted the railroads south of Petersburg broken.
He finally got what he wanted, in the spring of 1865. It is instructive to note that in the spring of 1865, after the Weldon road had finally been broken, when Sheridan at last occupied Staunton and came eastward, ripping up the Virginia Central, to join Grant, Lee felt compelled to do what he had told Mr. Davis he did not want to do: that is, he moved out to attack Grant’s fortified lines, striking at Fort Stedman and suffering an expensive defeat. Grant followed by cutting the South Side road, after the battle of Five Forks–which logically followed the battle at Fort Stedman–and then there was nothing left for Lee but the hard road to Appomattox, the sunset shadows and a tragic, haunting place in the American memory.
Grant’s strategy, in short, worked the way he hoped it would work when he took Meade across the Rapidan. It was not, to be sure, automatic, and it assuredly was not easy. And it required one element that is not always taken into account–unflagging persistence, not only by the army in the field but also by the government in Washington. What Grant did cannot be considered apart from what Abraham Lincoln did. The dominant fact in the final year of the war indeed was the unbreakable partnership between President Lincoln and General Grant. Grant was admitted to that partnership–as none of his predecessors had been–simply because he had earned it. Lincoln trusted him implicitly and gave him all-out support.
[pg. 35] This cannot have been easy for Lincoln. He had a Presidential election campaign to win in that summer of 1864; he doubted very much that he would be able to win it, and after the terrible casualty lists produced by the campaign from the Rapidan to the James a great wave of disillusionment and war-weariness swept the north. But Lincoln left no one in any doubt about where he stood. On June 16, just after Grant had crossed the James, Lincoln made a little speech at a Sanitary Commission Fair in Philadelphia, using words which any American President might feel called on to use at a moment when the electorate seems to have grown tired of supporting a war that seems to have no visible end. Here is what Lincoln said:
“We accepted this war for an object, a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is attained. Under God, I hope it never will until that time. Speaking of the present campaign, General Grant is reported to have said: ‘I am going through on this line if it takes all summer.’…I say we are going through on this line if it takes three years more.”
With that kind of support from Washington, Grant brought his 1864 campaign to a triumphant conclusion.
NEWS NOTES *** At a recent Grant Association board meeting two new directors, E. B. Long and William K. Alderfer, were elected to replace retiring directors James I. Robertson and Erwin C. Zepp. Long, director of research for Bruce Catton, has been vice chairman of the editorial board of the Grant Association since 1962. Alderfer, formerly director of the Historical Society of Michigan, is now Illinois State Historian. Clyde C. Walton, former Illinois State Historian and also a director of [pg. 36] the Grant Association, will maintain his connection with the Grant Association from his new post as Director of Libraries at Northern Illinois University, De Kalb. *** Joseph Olgin’s Ulysses S. Grant: General and President is a recent publication of Houghton Mifflin (Piper Books, $2.20) designed for readers between the ages of nine and eleven. The book has 191 pages containing numerous drawings, and there are two excellent maps and a guide to pronunciation at the end. The book focuses upon Grant’s early years; less than a third of the pages cover his life after the beginning of the Civil War. There is considerable dialogue created by the author, and the brisk narrative presents no special difficulties for young readers. *** Another recent publication of Grant interest is Victor Hicken’s Illinois in the Civil War, sponsored by the Illinois Civil War Centennial Commission and published by the University of Illinois Press ($7.50). Drawing on a vast body of letters and accounts by soldiers, Hicken has created what E. B. Long, in an introduction, calls “a composite eyewitness report of the Illinois volunteer as he was.” Intrigued by the star-crossed career of General John A. McClernand, Hicken gives considerable attention to his rivalry with Grant.