It Pays to Re-Read the OR

Long ago I learned from my late friend Albert Castel that it pays to re-read the Official Records when you’re writing about the war. Every now and then I chance upon something that drives home that lesson.

A recent reminder came in connection with my current work for the Atlanta History Center, helping to build our digital exhibit on the Atlanta Campaign. One of our starting documents is Grant’s letter to Sherman, April 4, 1864 (OR, vol. 32, pt. 3, 245-46).

This is the source usually cited by writers summarizing Grant’s plan for the spring 1864 campaign, which T. Harry Williams called “Operation Crusher.” Citing Grant’s letter to Sherman, Williams writes, “Grant said that he was sending a small force under General Franz Sigel on a raid into western Virginia” as part of his five-front advance against the Rebels.1

Problem is—read the letter—Grant doesn’t even mention Franz Sigel in his letter to Sherman.

‘Tis true that Grant ordered a simultaneous advance by Federal forces in the spring of ’64. Out west, Sherman would move against Joe Johnston, while Nathaniel Banks was supposed to advance on Mobile. Grant would direct Meade and the Army of the Potomac against Lee, just as Ben Butler marched up the James toward Petersburg.

Here’s where it gets tricky, even for such accomplished scholars as Richard McMurry. “Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel would lead Grant’s third column” in Virginia, Dr. McMurry writes. “Sigel’s force would move south, up the valley of the Shenandoah River,” he adds, which campaign could possibly lead to “occupation of the Shenandoah Valley by a Northern force.”2

But Grant in early April ’64 never mentioned this as part of his strategic plan. What seems to be occurring in the literature is that students look at what eventually happened in May 1864 and overlook what Grant originally planned.

So what did Grant actually state in his letter to Sherman?

Sigel collects all his available force in two columns—one, under Ord and Averell, to start from Beverly, Va., and the other, under Crook, to start from Charleston, on the Kanawha, to move against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.3

I don’t see anything about Sigel moving up the Valley, do you? Charleston, of course, is now the capital of West Virginia. Beverly is a hundred miles to its east, about sixty miles northwest of Staunton, Virginia.

Major General Sigel commanded the Department of West Virginia (a Lincoln-ordered political appointment), but Grant wanted a professional, Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord, to lead the campaign he envisioned in the region. Grant wrote Ord on March 29, stating that “the main object” of his expedition would be to destroy the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, which ran from Lynchburg to Knoxville.  Ord was to lead a column of 10,000-12,000 men from Beverly, strike the railroad, then make his way to Lynchburg. Brig. Gen. George Crook would lead a smaller mounted column to Saltville, tear up the railroad, and head northeast toward Staunton at the southern end of the Valley. A third force under Brig. Gen. William W. Averell would also head out from Charleston to strike the railroad.4 

Here’s where Sigel finally comes in, as explained by William C. Davis: “Since Ord, Crook and…Averell…might be able to return north by way of the Valley, Sigel should be ready with a sufficient force to march south to Staunton to meet them.”5

On the same day, April 4, that Grant wrote Sherman about Ord, Averell and Crook operating against the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, he also wrote Sigel, then at Cumberland, Md.

“Generals Ord and Averell may have to return to you by way of the Shenandoah Valley,” he explained. To prepare for this possibility, Grant advised Sigel to organize a wagon train, ready to drive south through the Valley. Its purpose was to bring food and provisions for the men in the several raiding columns, sure to be worn out as they neared Lynchburg or Staunton.

Note that Grant does not mention anything about Sigel conquering the Valley. In fact, several days later he informed Sigel that his wagon train would not need much more than the usual escort. (He offered nevertheless to send four regiments from Washington.) 6

Well, what happened out of all this?

A good source is Jack Davis, supplemented by Mark Grimsley’s history of the fighting in Virginia in the spring of ‘64.

After Sigel failed to provide him with enough troops, Ord withdrew from the campaign even before it started. Sigel then stepped in with his idea of leading a strong column up the Valley. Lt. Col. Orville Babcock of Grant’s staff approved this variant in a meeting with Sigel on April 17. Grant gave his OK later.

George Crook headed out from Gauley Bridge, W. Va., May 2 with 6,000 troops. A week later he defeated an outnumbered Confederate force at Cloyd’s Mountain. Then Crook struck the V. & T. R.R. at Dublin, burned a 400-foot railroad bridge across New River, and withdrew.

Averell with 2,000 cavalry left Charleston on May 2, heading for Saltville. Rumors of a large Rebel force there turned him instead to Wytheville, twenty-five miles to the east on the Virginia-Tennessee rail line. Driven off by “Grumble” Jones and John Morgan on May 11, Averell tore up a few miles of track  at Dublin, then retired northward to link up with Crook.

Meanwhile, Sigel took charge of some 6,500 troops and, on May 2 from Winchester, launched his drive up the Shenandaoah.7

As we know, Sigel met defeat at New Market, May 15.

If you’ve gotten this far with me, it’s time for the concluding punch. Yes, Franz Sigel led a march up the Shenandoah and met defeat.

But Sigel’s campaign was not part of Grant’s plan as set forth to Sherman on April 4 for the multi-front Union offensive. “In Virginia,” Russell Weigley writes, paying compliment to Grant’s strategy, “the Confederates would have to defend against Butler’s Army of the James and Sigel’s force in the Valley in addition to Meade’s Army of the Potomac.”8

BAH! Read the OR, y’all!


1 T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 306-309.

2 Richard M. McMurry, Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 14-15.

3 Grant to Sherman, March 4, 1864, OR, vol. 32, pt. 3, 246.

Grant to Ord, March 29, OR, vol. 33, 758.

William C. Davis, The Battle of New Market (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1975), 20-21.

Grant to Sigel, April 4 and 13, OR, vol. 33, 799, 858.

7 Davis, New Market, 22; Mark Grimsley, And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 96-103..

8 Russell F. Weigley, A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 329.

25 Responses to It Pays to Re-Read the OR

  1. Stephen:
    Fascinating post.

    Unfortunately for the Union, Grant was burdened with too many “political” generals like Sigel, Banks and Butler. Grant was able to get rid of the last of these incompetents only after Lincoln was re-elected in November 1864.

    1. Political generals? Don’t get me going about Schimmelfennig–I’ve heard Lincoln wanted him promoted just because the Teutonic sound of his name would resonate well with German-American voters….

      1. Schimmelfennig may have been valuable for his Teutonic connections, but he was a better officer than commonly believed. Hiding out at Gettysburg really cost his reputation dearly.

  2. Stephen:
    Lincoln had to walk a tight rope for much of his first term. He believed the appointment of “political” generals solidified support for the war among the Union’s various ethnic groups and Northern Democrats.

    As things turned out, embarrassing battlefield loses – more than a few due to blunders by “political” generals – proved costly to his administration and the Union. With the advantage of hindsight, we now know Lincoln erred big-time in promoting these dolts. He should have realized that battlefield victories, not the appointment of political generals, were what actually solidified Northern support for the war.

    1. This is a common theme — that Lincoln appointed “political” generals out of a perceived need for support but this led to battlefield loses such that hindsight shows the error of the choices. But I would like to see the analysis that makes the connection between the appointments and the cost. When I think of “embarrassing battlefield loses” that “proved costly to his administration”, what comes to mind are Bull Run, the failure of the Peninsula campaign, 2nd Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville. This list suggests that in hindsight were Lincoln erred was in promoting West Point grads like McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker.

      1. Ned:
        No question that co-called “professional soldiers” were responsible for most of the bungling on both sides of the war. And some generals with little or no pre-Civil War military experience emerged as some of the war’s best. Nathan Bedford Forrest is just one example of this.

      2. No question – but that may be in part because Lincoln/Stanton avoided putting the pure pols in positions where they could wreak havoc. Butler’s few opportunities (other than being towed into New Orleans by Farragut) were Bermuda Hundred/the June 9 attack and Fort Fisher. We know how those worked out. Banks was placed in those positions and we have a firm track record in the Valley, Cedar Mountain, and Red River. None of that excuses the failings of “professionals”. But how do we think Spoons and Commissary Banks would have fared in those commands?

      3. John,
        I have often considered the reverse question: such as how would a Meade or Sherman have fare in Banks position? They would have suffered the same general result as Banks at Winchester, Cedar Mountain and on the Red River.
        As to your question, I don’t think they would have fared any worse than McDowell, Burnside or Hooker at Bull Run, Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. I would add New Market Heights to the list of Butler’s opportunities, none of which wrecked the havoc of the underperforming professionals.

      4. Ned and John:
        There was more than enough blame to go around for Civil War bungling, and plenty of what-ifs and maybes.

        Butler’s inept performance at Bermuda Hundred is an example. A victory there – the occupation of Richmond and/or Petersburg – could have been decisive and probably shortened the war by many months. Yet Butler’s snafus had plenty of help from two of his subordinates – Gillmore and Smith, both of whom were so-called “professional soldiers.”

        And, of course, Smith again bungled an attempt to occupy Petersburg toward the end of the Overland campaign. But was this second thrust at Petersburg all Smith’s fault?

        Many believe Grant should share at least some of the the blame. Grant’s orders to subordinates usually were concise and crystal clear. But he was unusually vague, possibly for security reasons, about his ultimate objectives, once he had brilliantly outflanked Lee and reached the James River.

        Of course, a more aggressive commander like Sheridan probably would have taken Petersburg instead of occupying former Confederate trenches just outside that vital rail-hub city as Smith did.

        Ah, the what-ifs and maybes. They’re some of the reasons the Civil War is so interesting.

    2. “Lincoln erred big-time in promoting these dolts.”
      Your thoughtful comment, Bob, reminds me of what Ludwell Johnson wrote in an article for Civil War History in June 1971: such things as Lincoln’s political general appointments helps to explain “the great mystery of the war, which is not why the South lost, but why the North took so long to win.”

  3. Steve: You make a great point which pertains not only to the OR but to all “primary sources”. Over the course of a century or more, certain “understandings” become fixed until somebody actually goes back and reads the documents. Of course, especially with those parts of the OR which are “after action reports” and other recollections/accounts, the reader also has to keep in mind possible inaccurate perceptions and outright fabrications. Relevant to your topic, this is a much less prevalent problem when it comes to orders and similar documents.

    1. John: perfectly concur, and than you for reading my entry. You’re right , students are more observant of some part so the OR than others.

    1. Thomas: I always told my Civil War class students that the Confederate Constitution hewed closed to the Articles of Confederation/Constitution debate when it prescribed that that the Confederate president would have a six year term. And do I recall that the Confederate Constitution insisted that the C.S. Postal Service would be monetarily self-sustaining?

  4. It would be interesting to review the Confederate experience with putting politicians into uniform. Outside of Bishop Polk (tell me that a bishop is not also a politician!) and Sterlng Price, I cannot think of any politicians actually serving as commanding officers of large ‘independent’ formations in 1861-62. Perhaps poor Davis was more burdened with ‘professionals’ willing to closely associate with hostile political factions.

    1. David: Regarding Price and Polk, I think it’s worthwhile to separate purely “political” generals from those who at least had professional training and/or actual military experience. Polk, for example, graduated West Point before abandoning a military career. Price had extended military experience in the Mexican War. (Of course, that hardly means that they were suited to command). Patrick Cleburne was probably a “political” general although he had 2-3 years service in a British regiment. Same rules apply to the Union side. Lew Wallace was “political” but had service in Mexico. Same with John Logan. Sigel, as we know, had foreign militaryvexperience similar to Cleburne’s. Then there are the pure “pols”, such as McClernand and Ben Butler.

      1. Sigel’s experience was actually much deeper than Cleburne’s ever was. Cleburne spent a couple of years as an enlisted man in a British infantry regiment. Sigel attended a 5 year military academy, with a curriculum better than West Point’s, served as a German line officer, and actually commanded brigade-sized forces in combat during the 48 revolution.

        Now, I am not arguing that Sigel was a good general, but frankly, he was far better prepared for war, by training and experience, than the vast majority of American ‘professional’ officers.

      2. Sigel’s Civil War career was interesting.

        Although he had extensive experience as a professional solider in Germany, from what I’ve read many of his contemporaries considered him a political general. The reason: His ability to recruit German immigrants, many of whom didn’t speak English, into Union armies.

        His popularity among German troops – not his spotty record as a general – seems to be the main reason he kept his job for so long. Until, that is, his 1864 debacle against Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. Unfortunately for the Union, his replacement, David Hunter, had no better luck against Early than Sigel.

      3. Dave: Fair points on Sigel’s foreign experience vs. Cleburne’s – although IIRC his ’48 experience was on the revolutionary “side” rather than the “professional” and he didn’t fare too well (against heavy odds). My main point was to distinguish the political appointments with no military training or experience from those who had one or both. I should have added Banks to the former group.

    2. Unfortunately at Fort Donelson, Confederates were burdened with the political generals John B.Floyd and Gideon Pillow. Yikes!

      Thanks for this, John!

  5. And let’s not forget that even highly successful professional soldiers benefited from political connections, especially early in the war. U.S. Grant’s patron, U.S. Rep. Elihu Washburne of Illinois, and W.T. Sherman’s brother, U.S. Sen. John Sherman of Ohio, come to mind.

    On the other hand, a number of professional soldiers injured their careers by getting too close to the wrong politicians, i.e P.G.T Beauregard, Joe Johnston and George McClellan.

    Bottom Line: If you’re going to cozy up to pols, make sure your patrons are allies – not foes – of the president.

  6. Grant’s intentions in the Shenandoah were pretty vague. The plan changed several times between the end of March and the middle of April, morphing from two to three and then back to two columns. Grant laid out the Crook-Ord plan of campaign in a meeting with those two men at the end of March. Ord did not pull out of the campaign until April 12, a request which was granted on the 17th. Sigel and Col. Babcock then met in Cumberland MD on that same day to come up with a new plan, which wasn’t approved by Grant until the next day.

  7. It is good of Dave P. to account for Sigel’s professional training in Europe. Lincoln and Cameron really had little to go on when assessing which commander’s could be entrusted with large formations so early in the war.
    Such politicos as Fremont, Butler, Banks carried enormous credit with the Congress and the Governors, and contributed greatly to the raising of the first wave of volunteer regiments. The problem was shedding them when their operational incompetence was demonstrated in the field. Political sponsors, some within the cabinet, could sustain political allies in uniform. The old regulars initially entrusted with high command presented no such problem; Anderson, Sumner, McDowell, Keyes, Heintzelman, Buell and even Pope went into backwater assignments quickly enough.

  8. Great research and a reminder to us all to as Winston Churchill replied when asked what’s the most important aspect to his writing “ALWAYS DOUBLE CHECK YOUR SOURCES” Great piece!!!

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