When 1864 began, Abraham Lincoln and the Union were at a crossroads. The Civil War was being won slowly and that was a problem. Despite huge wins at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863, the public and press were still clamoring for victory at the beginning of the new year. Some politicians were clamoring for peace. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were still on the loose; his army badly beaten after Gettysburg but they still could put up a fight at the beginning of 1864, albeit only on Virginia soil. The biggest problem for Lincoln was who could he put in charge of the Union armies to go after Lee in the eastern theater.
For two and a half years, the Army of the Potomac had protected the nation’s capital. The army had also flailed away at trying to take the Confederate capital of Richmond and they were defeated on Virginia soil by Robert E. Lee each time. The only times Lee lost was on Union soil at Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Gettysburg. Five Generals had their crack at destroying Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Irvin McDowell lost at Bull Run (although Lee was not there in 1861) and McDowell was promptly removed from command as his armies retreated over civilians and politicians on their way back to Washington after the loss.
George McClellan thought himself the second coming of Napoleon. Lincoln did not. McClellan always thought he needed more men to go after Lee. Lincoln did not. McClellan always surmised that Lee outnumbered him at every turn. Lincoln did not. Even after a McClellan win at Antietam, Lee escaped Maryland as McClellan hesitated fearing a final Confederate attack. McClellan was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac in November of 1862.
McClellan was replaced by Ambrose Burnside. Burnside’s tenure was short-lived. After a failed attack towards Richmond resulted in the disastrous failure that was the Battle of Fredericksburg, Burnside was removed in January of 1863. Joseph Hooker replaced Burnside and was quickly praised for raising morale and organization within the Army of the Potomac. However, failure to win at Chancellorsville and arguments over the protection of Washington and Baltimore, Hooker resigned in late June of 1863 and was reassigned to the West later that summer.
General George Meade was only on the job for four days when the Battle of Gettysburg began. When it was over, Meade failed to pursue a weakened Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln, again, was frustrated with whomever was in command. Lincoln felt the war might have been shortened drastically had Meade pursued Lee on the third day after the disaster that was Pickett’s charge. But Meade, like McClellan, felt a counter attack by Lee was forthcoming. It was not.
Union victories in the fall in Tennessee at Chattanooga and Knoxville secured a launching pad to invade the deep South. The stage was set in 1864 for the Union to make great strides in strangling the South by invading Georgia and going after Lee in Virginia. Who was going to lead that charge? With victory in the distance, Lincoln knew it could not be Meade. Meade was a good General with great organizational and tactician skills, and he could command troops in the heat of the battle, but he was not the great strategist and commander of other generals. Lincoln turned his eye to the West to find the right man to get the job done. It would be a controversial selection to some, but to Lincoln, it was the only choice at the end of 1863.
In February of 1864, Lincoln began the machinations needed to place Grant in charge of all Union forces. That choice was one that was developed and cultivated over two years despite the two men never having met until 1864. Historian John Simon said:
While Grant fought the war in the West, his only contact with Lincoln came through correspondence, and there was no great amount of it. Yet the man in the White House kept a careful eye on Grant, who held a series of posts so vital that mismanagement would have been fatal.
“I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did–march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you did get below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. [Nathaniel] Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I know wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong.”
For many historians, this was the beginning of the relationship where Lincoln would state his objections to what Grant was doing but then quickly defer to Grant’s expertise.
For Ulysses S. Grant, the rise to head the Union Army in 1864 and gain the confidence of Abraham Lincoln began in 1862. Victories at Fort Donnelson, Fort Henry and Shiloh brought Grant fame and some of it was not so kind. High casualty rates caught the attention of the press and earned him the nickname of “Grant the Butcher.” It did not bother Grant. And more importantly, it did not bother Lincoln who was to have allegedly said, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.”
In 1863, Grant’s Mississippi campaign aimed to divide the Confederacy in half. Historian E.B. Long called Grant a “great organizer of war, too often submerged because of the more spectacular events he engineered.” This quality was one that endeared Grant to Lincoln. When complaints of Grant’s drinking in times of boredom became an issue, Lincoln was said to have quipped “that if he could find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send a barrel of it to all the other commanders.”
In addition to his skills on the field of battle, Grant also had friends in high places. One was his neighbor from Galena, the ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, Elihu B. Washburne. Washburne had the tug of Lincoln’s ear and would often praise Grant and give assurances to Lincoln about Grant’s ability and drinking, and even Grant’s political aspirations, which were none.
Lincoln wanted a man who could get things done. One view of the hiring by Samuel H. Beckwith, a War Department telegraph operator, who believed that Grant:
“was selected as Lincoln’s last hope, and when the President knew his worth and saw his handiwork, he placed the army in his keeping and backed the intrepid solider in his every move. And Grant appreciated highly the cooperation and loyal support given him from Washington. Unlike McClellan and his successors, he did not bombard the Capitol with petitions and remonstrances and criticisms and appeals for reenforcements.”
In late February of 1864, Lincoln asked Congress to revive the rank of Lieutenant General in the US Army. On February 29, the Senate obliged and Lincoln put in Grant’s name for the command of all Union forces.
After meeting Grant for the first time in Washington, Lincoln and Grant discussed war aims, expectations, and their roles in the war. Lincoln said of meeting Grant:
“Well, I hardly know what to think of him, altogether, I never saw him, myself, till he came here to take the command. He’s the quietest little fellow you ever saw. . . . The only evidence you have that he’s in any place is that he makes things git! Wherever he is, things move!”
Their relationship was set up that Grant was to make the decisions on how to best achieve Lincoln’s political goals using the military. 1864, after all, was an election year. If the war was not almost finished by the fall, Lincoln knew he would not be re-elected, peace could come with a Democratic President, and the grand experiment known as the Union would be over.
For Grant, when word of promoting him first came about on a suggestion by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in the fall of 1863, Grant was reluctant and hesitant to take such a position. He initially wanted no part of it. Part of the reason was Grant did not like politics and the second was he did not like Washington meddling in the affairs of the Army.
Somehow, during the winter of 1863-64, Grant changed his mind in part to end what he did not like about the post, and more importantly, because of Lincoln. Through communications, Lincoln displayed a unique ability to state his own opinion on a matter while deferring to other’s expertise of Grant’s command, skills, and ability to be fit for the job (not be drunk).
Shortly after Grant was given the rank of Lieutenant General, he began developing a plan that strategically required the Union to attack on all fronts against the Confederates in 1864. The logistics of this plan Grant did not share with Lincoln. Lincoln wrote this telegram to Grant in early April of 1864:
Not expecting to see you again before the Spring campaign opens, I wish to express, in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided. I know that these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.
The fact that Lincoln was alright with not knowing the plan kept Grant happy and it kept Lincoln happy too that April of 1864. He later quipped to the press when asked about the spring strategy that April:
“He hasn’t told me what his plans are […] I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I’m glad to find a man who can go ahead without me.”
Grant was preparing to cross the Rappahannock River and go after Robert E. Lee. That was what Grant was hired to do – to lead. In May of 1864, Grant began earning his new pay grade.
Ulysses S. Grant: “Personal Memoirs”
Bruce Catton “Grant Takes Command”
Charles Bracelen Flood, “Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War”;
Jean Edward Smith, “Grant”; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Vol. 32, Pt. 3”
James MacPherson: Ordeal by Fire
Stephen Woodworth: Nothing but Victory
John Y. Simon and Michael E. Stevens, New Perspectives on the Civil War: Myths and Realities of the National Conflict
David L. Wilson and John Y. Simon, Ulysses S. Grant: Essays and Documents, p. 19. (E.B. Long, “Ulysses S. Grant for Today”).