In the Wake of Vicksburg, U. S. Grant as Commander of the Army of the Potomac?
By early August, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant had settled into administrative routine following the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi—but Grant wasn’t one to sit idle long. He had set his eye on Mobile, Alabama, which he was “very anxious to take” and which he thought he could do “with comparative ease.”
But even as Grant eyed Mobile, forces in Washington, D.C. were eyeing him. Word had begun to circulate in the upper reaches of the War Department, among influential politicians in the capitol, and even at the White House itself that perhaps Grant might best be used not in Alabama but in Virginia.
In the Eastern Theater, George Gordon Meade’s victory at Gettysburg had earned the Army of the Potomac commander great praise—which was almost immediately stripped by his inability to deliver a killing blow to the Army of Northern Virginia in the days following the battle. Robert E. Lee slipped across a swollen Potomac River on July 14, and for Meade, things went downhill for the rest of the month.
Lincoln wrote but did not send a scolding letter. “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape,” he lamented. “[T]o have closed upon him would, in connection with the our other late successes, have ended the war—As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.” Although Lincoln tucked the letter away, his frustration over the missed opportunity was no secret.
One of those “other late successes” he mentioned was, of course, Grant’s major victory at Vicksburg. Already, events had positioned Meade and Grant in such a way that Lincoln began looking at them in parallel—and the comparison already favored Grant.
Meanwhile, Dan Sickles, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Third Corps, wounded at Gettysburg after disobeying orders and sent to Washington to convalesce, had immediately set to work telling his own version of events—a tall tale that set him at the center of the victory and minimalized Meade. Politically well connected, Sickles only flamed the doubts people had about Meade’s leadership.
It was in this context that military and political leadership began considering Grant as a possible candidate for command in the east.
Word of such talk had circulated back to Grant, who heard of it at least in a July 22 letter from Dana. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana. In his August 5 reply, Grant addressed the rumors head on. “[I]t would cause me more sadness than satisfaction to be ordered to the command of the Army of the Potomac,” he admitted. He went on to outline the reasons for his reluctance:
Here I know the officers and men and what each Gen. is capable of as a separate commander. There I would have all to learn. Here I know the geography of the country, and its resources. There it would be a new study. Besides more or less dissatisfaction would necessarily be produced by importing a General to command an Army already well supplied with those who have grown up, and been promoted, with it.
Although the Army of the Potomac had gone through a parade of commanders—McClellan, Burnside, Hooker—Meade had found his improbable place in that parade through the very process Grant had described. Meade had “grown up, and been promoted” from brigade command to division to corps to army through stalwart service on the battlefield and with absolutely zero political grandstanding. As the victor at Gettysburg, he was the first of that string of army commanders to score a clear-cut victory over Lee—and that did, it turned out, merit him some consideration.
“There is no probability of any change in the Army of the Potomac. . .” Dana admitted to Grant in an Aug. 18 letter. But then he added a cautionary note: “There is however, much dissatisfaction with the present state of things, but it takes a long time to make any movement at Hd. Qtrs.”
Dana’s words would prove prophetic. As he predicted, it would take “a long time to make any movement,” but Grant would finally be called east in March of 1864—some eight months after the fall of Vicksburg—to take command of all Union armies, not just the eastern Army of the Potomac. In the intervening time, Grant would lift the siege of Chattanooga; his time in command of the Western district would give him valuable large-scale operational experience he would need as general in chief, so perhaps it’s just as well that he did not get pulled eastward sooner than he did.
Meanwhile, almost simultaneous with Grant’s success at Chattanooga, Meade found himself stymied before imposing Confederate works along Mine Run. “I expect your wishes will now soon be gratified, and that I shall be relieved from the Army of the Potomac,” Meade wrote to his wife shortly thereafter. He would, however, keep his command—solely at Grant’s discretion, as it would eventually turn out. Upon first meeting Meade, Grant recognized his mettle and professionalism.
One reason for the delay in Grant’s promotion after Vicksburg could be attributed to his longtime jealous nemesis and former commander, general in chief of the army Henry Halleck—although Halleck took great pains to keep Grant from knowing about his machinations against him. For instance, as early as February of 1862, Grant referred to Halleck as “one of the great men of the age” even as Halleck was trying to convince then-General in Chief George McClellan to sack or at least censure Grant. “[T]here are not two men in the United States who I would prefer serving under than Halleck and McClellan,” the oblivious Grant naively proclaimed.
Halleck would finally overplay his hand in August of 1863, however. Afraid of giving Grant the chance to earn yet one more possible accolade, Halleck would deny Grant’s petition to move on Mobile. Instead, Halleck began to strip Grant’s men from him and farm them out as reinforcements elsewhere. “The General-in-chief having decided against me,” Grant later wrote, “the depletion of an army, which had won a succession of great victories, commenced. . . .” Grant effectively became a commander without a command.
But his victory at Vicksburg had put the wheels in motion, and although he did not yet get the call eastward, Grant would soon see himself lifted out from under Halleck’s thumb by Lincoln himself.
But on August 5, when Grant wrote to Dana, he still credited Halleck’s patronage, as well as Dana’s, for keeping him in the west. “I feel very grateful to you for your timely intercession in saving me from going to the Army of the Potomac,” Grant wrote. “Whilst I would disobey no order I should beg very hard to be excused before accepting that command.”
For more on this exchange, see The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, vol. 9, John Y. Simon, ed., pp. 145-8.
For more on Meade’s thoughts about Grant’s victory at Chattanooga, in the wake of Meade’s disappointment at Mine Run, click here.
5 Responses to In the Wake of Vicksburg, U. S. Grant as Commander of the Army of the Potomac?
Chris: Thanks for this. One thing that folks tend to ignore is that the Army of the Potomac in the post-Gettysburg period was something of a B/C-list outfit at the top. Warren and Newton were neophytes at the corps level, and French was pretty much a cipher. In September it lost the 11th and 12th corps (presumably they still would have been sent Rosecrans and his successor Thomas ( ?). Whatever the leadership issues were after the 1864 reorg, they almost certainly were worse in August-November, 1863. Grant probably benefited from the delay.
Chris makes good points by pointing out to the readers that Grant saw that he would be at a disadvantage in Virginia and that it was Lincoln not Grant who was and will be the “butcher” on the battlefield by constantly pushing the Union soldiers into constant blood baths. Another point is that Grant used the extra time to further his advanced understanding and success of sea and land strategy to overwhelm the South. Grant would become the best chance for the Union to destroy the Confederacy.
You both offer great points. Grant needed additional time to mature as a commander, and the Army of the Potomac needed additional time to mature under Meade. Grant benefitted from time as commander of the Western District, giving him the chance to think–and enact–large-scale strategy for the first time. The AoP benefitted from its winter reorganization. I think one reason Meade had such trouble in the fall of 1863 is that he largely had that B/C-team at corps command, as John mentioned. Even reorganized, the sheer size and cumbersomeness of the army posed challenges for Grant, who had to overcome a steep learning curve once he joined on with the army. Meade’s crucial role in assisting that remains underrated.