Grant Takes the Helm, 1863-1865

Drew E. VandeCreek, Northern Illinois University

 

Grant's string of achievements in the western theater brought him to Washington to become commander of the Union armies. Lincoln had tired of a succession of ineffective and cautious generals and taken a more active role in the management of the war effort as the conflict continued. Grant was the sort of aggressive general Lincoln was looking for. "I like this man," the president mused. "He fights."

While Grant had pushed forward in the West despite heavy casualties, Union troops in the east had met with considerably more mixed results. Beginning with 1861's Battle of Bull Run, the blue coats found their Confederate opponents considerably more dangerous than they had supposed. Southern generals, and especially Robert E. Lee of Virginia, repeatedly outmaneuvered their northern opponents.

In 1862 George B. McClellan, who had whipped the Union Army of the Potomac into a well-supplied fighting force, bogged down in the swamps of southeastern Virginia. Transporting his troops by water via the Chesapeake Bay, McClellan had hoped to attack Richmond from the southeast. But once ashore he moved with an excess of caution, always fearing that massive rebel reinforcements were near at hand. Afforded the luxury of time to regroup, Lee and his generals mounted a bold offensive in the Shenandoah Valley, occupied McClellan's requested reinforcements, and stymied the Peninsular Campaign. McClellan withdrew.

On the heels of McClellan's ignominious retreat, southern armies surged forward with a victory at Second Bull Run, and reached western Maryland in early fall of 1862. There they threatened Washington, prompting Lincoln to order McClellan to find Lee's army and engage it at all costs. At the Battle of Antietam McClellan's men turned back the southern advance. But McClellan again infuriated Lincoln with his caution, failing to pursue the shattered Confederates to the Potomac River.

Many in the North came to feel that McClellan actually did not want to win a decisive battle. "What devil is it that prevents the Potomac Army from advancing?" queried the Chicago Tribune. "What malign influence palsies our army and wastes these glorious days for fighting? If it is McClellan, does not the President see that he is a traitor?" 1

In the summer of 1863 southern armies again pushed northward, this time reaching as far as south central Pennsylvania. There Lee met another large Union army, this time commanded by General George Meade. At Gettysburg the Union troops dug in on the heights surrounding the town and decimated Lee's army in three days of bloody fighting. Thus Ulysses S. Grant took up his duties just as the Confederacy's major threat to the Union had seemingly passed. Yet the South remained an independent nation. Grant would have to find his way to Richmond.

The new commander laid out a coordinated plan to seek out and destroy the confederate armies in the field. Five union commanders would apply simultaneous pressure to all corners of the Confederacy. Grant's approach impressed Lincoln, and he characterized it in typically homespun terms: "Those not skinning can hold a leg." 2

But several of the Union commanders failed in their tasks. Three were "political generals" awarded their commissions due to party ties and clout. Their failures to secure Mobile, Alabama and Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, or threaten Richmond on its unguarded southern flank left the bulk of the Union offensive to Grant.

In 1864 Grant began a slow, determined push toward the confederate capital. He met with staggering losses in battles such as Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. But Grant had told Lincoln that "whatever happens, there will be no turning back." Despite the huge toll in lives, he grimly pressed forward. By the fall he had fought his way to within ten miles of Richmond, yet public opinion sagged in the North.


1. James McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 568.

2. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 499.