The Year of Grant

In my last post on ECW, I noted some generals who rose to prominence and took senior roles in 1863. At the top of the list was Major General Ulysses S. Grant, which may have seemed a surprising choice. Yet upon further examination, the year 1863 emerges as the most important in Grant’s military career. He wins two critical strategic victories over the South, and catapults himself into position to become General-in-Chief in 1864.

Grant’s year 1863 starts on the Mississippi River, aiming another operation against Vicksburg after two false starts in December 1862. He tries every way to get at the city from the north and east, all of which end in failure. In the meantime, rumors persist about his fitness for command and drinking habits; few leaders in Washington know Grant or what to believe. Two visitors from the War Department (Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana and Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas) visit Grant’s army that spring to inspect it and especially its commander. Their favorable reports help President Lincoln sustain Grant.

All other efforts at Vicksburg having failed, Grant daringly lands south of the city on April 30 and invests Vicksburg in a lightning campaign over the first 18 days of May. Failing to take the city by storm, Grant starves out the Confederate garrison, forcing their surrender on July 4. This is the second enemy army he has captured, and the largest one he would take in the war.

Grant next receives command of all forces in the West, a slot previously held only by Henry W. Halleck. The Union situation is dire, with the Army of the Cumberland besieged in Chattanooga. Grant (on crutches at the time) travels there and initiates plans to break the siege and drive off the Confederates.

Another indicator of Grant’s further rise is the additional War Department emissaries sent to Chattanooga to evaluate him and his fitness for high command. Charles Dana, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, and Major General David Hunter all visit during the siege, reporting back to Washington about Grant and his conduct. Meigs stays by Grant’s side during the ensuing battles, and makes a strong endorsement of Grant as a strategic commander. Grant himself understood what was going on, and cultivated these influential contacts.

William T. Sherman
William T. Sherman

Lastly, at Chattanooga Grant goes on to do something no U.S. officer has done to this point: command three independent armies on a field of battle. Chattanooga (November 23-25) may be Grant’s greatest victory because of how he had to alter plans and meld a diverse team together for victory. His initial plan envisioned the Army of the Tennessee under Sherman making the main effort on the left, supported by George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland in the center and Joseph Hooker’s detachment of the Army of the Potomac on the right. The Tennessee River’s rise on the eve of battle scrambled these dispositions, leaving elements of the three armies intermingled. Instead of halting to reorganize, Grant pushed forward with the reshuffled deck. As Sherman’s attacks faltered on the 24th and 25th, Grant looked elsewhere to land the key blow, first turning to Hooker and ultimately Thomas to win a decisive victory.

Grant’s year 1863 ends with him in Chattanooga planning future offensives. His victory at Chattanooga has restored the Federal situation and placed him in the front rank of Union generals. Discussion in Congress has started about a bill recreating the rank of Lieutenant General for Grant, which will pass in early 1864.

General Joseph Hooker, who despite his spot in history books as the loser at Chancellorsville, did much to reform and better the Union cavalry
General Joseph Hooker, who despite his spot in history books as the loser at Chancellorsville, did much to reform and better the Union cavalry

In hindsight, the ascension of Ulysses S. Grant appears inevitable. In reality, it was anything but. Grant is the architect of Union victory in 1864 and 1865, but without the successes of 1863 he would not have had the chance to command and win the war.

4 Responses to The Year of Grant

  1. I think Dana’s attempts to ignore the fact that Grant sometimes had a drink is interesting. If Grant hadn’t been tarnished early on, this would have been no big deal. People certainly remained suspicious of Grant, but others–Hooker comes to mind–were given greater leeway.

    1. Grant drank a glass of Wine at dinner every night, just like most of his Officers did. In those days without refrigeration, and safe food handling, made food poisoning a serious problen. Even though a single glass of wine would have him slurring his words, his adjutant general, John Rawlings, allowed him for safety sake. Grant’s “Drunkenness” was investigated by numerous people, from Washington including in person Lorenzo Thomas Adjutant General of the Army, and assistant Secretary of war Charles Dana. Dana would be back and forth numerous times. Both gave Grant a clean bill of health. He did get drunk once that I’ve read in Grant’s Papers, and Rawlings let him know if it happened again, he’d be relieved of his command.

  2. Chris,
    What you wrote here about Chattanooga is about what Grant said in his memoirs but that is not what really went on. General Grant’s only plan throughout the battle was to spotlight General Sherman with a quick flanking attack on the rebel right at Tunnel Hill on the 24th. On the 25th, with the flank turned, General Thomas would perform mop up duty pushing the rest of the rebels off Missionary Ridge. This plan would not only get Grant his promotion to top command, but would get his ‘yes man’ Sherman promoted to command in the West. Unfortunately Sherman, totally befuddled, slowly and surely won the wrong hill on the 24th, forever after known as Billy Goat Hill. It was divided by a large ravine from the key objective of Tunnel Hill which anchored the rebel line.

    In the mean time, General Thomas not having a lot of faith in Sherman asked if he could send General Hooker for a try at Lookout Mountain on the rebel left side. Thomas did not want to go up Missionary Ridge without at least one flank taken. Grant never wishing to give any prominence to Hooker, agreed as he wanted Hooker as far away from the main action as possible. The night of the 24th ended with Hooker on top of Lookout Mountain as Hooker pushed hard to regain some of his lost luster as Thomas knew he would.

    So on the morning of the 25th, Grant looked up to see the rebel General Cleborne strongly reinforced on Tunnel Hill instead of Sherman there ready to make his crowning attack. Grant was at a loss. He had no backup plan. He hemmed and hawed all morning in a state of confusion. He certainly did not want Thomas to get any credit for this battle, but Sherman was looking a bust so far.

    Thomas signaled Hooker to press the rebels hard on his end of Missionary Ridge. Hooker needed little encouragement. Despite the rebels partially blowing up the bridge over Chattanooga Creek, by the afternoon he had pushed his troops along both faces of the Ridge and threatened to cut off the rebel line of retreat. Grant in his memoirs basically lied and said Hooker got hung up at the bridge and got nowhere.

    Earlier in the afternoon, Grant asked Thomas if a demonstration in front of Missionary Ridge might not help Sherman. By the lack of firing, Thomas knew that Sherman had already quit the fight. He played deaf and continued to silently look through his binoculars for signs of Hooker on Missionary Ridge. Grant hemmed and hawed. But by 3:00 PM Grant was pushed to gave a firm order and Thomas, knowing the rebel left flank was now well threatened by Hooker, knew it would be OK to send in his boys.

    Grant’s order was to take and stop at the first line of rife pits and await further orders. Grant was still thinking ‘demonstration’ to help Sherman. He had wired Sherman something like, “Now is the time, buddy”. But by then, Sherman had his men going back to camp. Thomas said nothing about the orders. But he knew from the line of artillery fire, the attack could not stop at the the first line. It would have to proceed immediately or go back with great loss. But he also trusted his brigadiers in the Army of the Cumberland to make the correct assessment on the spot. With the men wanting revenge for Chickamauga, they went up and took the ridge without further orders from anyone in higher command.

    The rebels for there part, with one eye on the fierce frontal attack, and the other on the potential loss of their line of retreat by Hooker’s rapid movement, decided it was a good time to take Tennessee leave. It was a glorious victory for the Union. While Grant’s people called it a miracle, Thomas knew better.

    After the battle General Sherman of all people was given a Thanks of Congress due to the effort of his Senator brother. General Grant got his promotion and soon requested that Sherman be given command of the West over the more senior Thomas. So much for the army tradition of promoting the responsible generals. Grant had maneuvered to eliminate Thomas as a rival much more expertly than he ever maneuvered an army in battle.

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