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.
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.
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.