Grant Ascending . . .

The events of July 4, 1863, cemented Ulysses S. Grant’s position as a household name firmly into the public mind. The capitulation of the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg to “Unconditional Surrender” Grant of Donelson fame – on Independence Day no less – electrified the North and dismayed the South.

And yet, after Vicksburg Grant and his army entered a hiatus. Grant remained one western departmental commander among several. He commanded the Department of the Mississippi, alongside Nathaniel P. Banks, heading up the Department of the Gulf; William S. Rosecrans of the Department of the Cumberland; and Ambrose E. Burnside at the helm of the Department of the Ohio. Each of those men continued in independent command, answerable directly to the War Department in Washington, and conducting their own independent operations. President Abraham Lincoln did sound Grant out about the possibility of coming east to replace General George G. Meade as head of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant was unenthusiastic, and nothing came of the idea. Over the next few weeks Grant’s troops dispersed to garrison much of the newly captured territory, or were lent out for intended expeditions in Arkansas and East Texas. From July until the end of September, Grant was called upon to do very little. Vicksburg might have been a turning point in Grant’s career trajectory, but if so, that turn was not immediately obvious. 

In fact, it took another crisis to propel Grant into his subsequent high rank, political career, and enshrinement as one of America’s principal military heroes. That crisis was Chattanooga, in the fall of 1863.

On September 20, 1863, after three days of combat at the battle of Chickamauga, Union General William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland was badly defeated and driven into the defensive works of Chattanooga – the disastrous culmination of a month-long campaign in which Rosecrans leveraged Confederate General Braxton Bragg out of that city, only to see Bragg’s heavily reinforced army strike back. Bragg nearly encircled Rosecrans’s surviving force, leaving the Federal commander with a stark choice: Starve, surrender, or conduct a disastrous further retreat across the Tennessee Barrens.

Faced with this crisis, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reacted quickly. They rushed reinforcements to Rosecrans from Virginia, and called upon both Grant and Burnside to furnish additional men. Grant received notice of this need on September 22, and within three days had nearly 20,000 men in motion.

But Stanton wanted something more: unified command. He was greatly dissatisfied with Union General Henry W. Halleck’s ability – or lack thereof – to orchestrate a cohesive military policy across the vast Western Theater from Halleck’s office in Washington D.C. Stanton also despised Rosecrans and was convinced that the Army of the Cumberland’s commander was not fit to meet the challenges now at hand. Accordingly, Stanton turned to Grant.

In mid-October Stanton dispatched a cryptic message requesting that Grant meet him in Louisville. Stanton traveled west on a special train, while Grant did the same from Cairo Illinois. They met on October 17. There Stanton handed Grant an order naming him commander of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, a comprehensive new command embracing the entire Western Theater. Grant’s orders came in two versions: the first retained Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland, while the second replaced Rosecrans with George Thomas. In theory, Grant could choose which officer he preferred; but Grant almost certainly understood what Stanton wished to happen. On October 18, spurred into additional haste by an alarming dispatch from Chattanooga, Grant assumed command of the Division, and wired the order relieving Rosecrans to the Army of the Cumberland’s headquarters. Thomas took up command as soon as it arrived.

This bit of theater was aimed at making the government seem impartial, distanced from Rosecrans’ removal. Rosecrans, an Ohioan and War Democrat, was widely popular in his home state, and Ohio was in the middle of a crucial gubernatorial election that fall. But it was theater: Stanton never intended to retain Rosecrans. The Secretary informed Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton of as much the evening before he even met with Grant. Nor was Grant inclined to want to keep Rosecrans in command. Those two men also had a difficult relationship, dating back to the fall of 1862 and the battle of Iuka. Grant, who always valued teamwork over raw military capacity, had no intention of working with the brilliant-but-difficult Rosecrans unless forced to.

Grant proceeded to Chattanooga immediately. He arrived in the city on October 23, after an arduous ride, traversing flooded streams and forbidding mountains on roads churned to muddy soup. He arrived at Thomas’s headquarters that evening, to what at least one witness described as a chilly reception from the taciturn Rock of Chickamauga, George Thomas. No one else described such a scene, and Grant never mentioned feeling rebuffed, so how much of snub was actually delivered remains a very open question. If Thomas did mean to slight Grant, Grant seemed to take no notice.

Grant reached Chattanooga, but his troops certainly hadn’t. Major General William T. Sherman, at the head of four divisions of the Army of the Tennessee, was toiling his way across Northern Alabama. It was slow going. Initially charged with repairing the badly damaged Memphis & Charleston rail line as he went, Sherman was badly delayed by the effort. Once in Chattanooga, Grant ordered Sherman to abandon that labor and make for Chattanooga as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, there was a supply line to re-open. The Union army’s main supply depots were at Bridgeport and Stevenson Alabama, forty miles to the west. Confederate troops sealed off the direct route, forcing Federal supply wagons to follow the same meandering mountain roads that Grant used to enter the city – a journey of more than 60 miles – and which would become unusable with the onset of winter. The obvious solution was to restore Union navigation on the Tennessee, whereby steamboats could carry all the supplies Thomas needed as far as Kelley’s Ferry, and from whence they could be hauled by wagon the last few miles into the city. Grant arrived just as the planning for an operation to accomplish this task was being finalized. Rosecrans had explained the plan to Grant as the two met in Grant’s rail car at Bridgeport, in passing. Details were finalized, and the plan was capably executed by Union Major General Charles F. “Baldy” Smith, the Army’s chief engineer, a week after Grant’s arrival. The danger of starvation or surrender had passed by the beginning of November.

Mere survival was not in Grant’s make-up, however. Grant intended to attack, and soon. He ordered a first effort in early November, when he discovered that Bragg was sending a large portion of his own army under James Longstreet into East Tennessee to recapture Knoxville. That effort was foiled by the Army of the Cumberland’s still-parlous condition, especially in horseflesh. Thomas’s livestock suffered severely in October, and there simply weren’t enough fit animals to draw the artillery, let alone anything else. Frustrated, Grant urged Thomas to strip the officers of their mounts for the purpose; but those horses weren’t in any better shape. Nor was Sherman present with his troops, leaving Grant with no good options. There would be no early November offensive.

A little more than two weeks later, Union prospects were much improved. Sherman was present, Thomas’s army was ready, and the Rebels were greatly outnumbered. Grant could at last give his offensive nature free rein.

The results were spectacular. On November 24, Union Major General Joseph Hooker attacked Bragg’s left, capturing the lower slopes of Lookout Mountain. This success forced the Confederates to abandon the crest of Lookout that same night, lest they be cut off from the rest of Bragg’s army on Missionary Ridge. Also on the 24th, Sherman’s column slipped across the Tennessee River upstream from Chattanooga and established a lodgment on the south bank near Bragg’s right flank at Tunnel Hill – which dominated the north end of Missionary Ridge.

The following day, November 25, Union arms were crowned with even greater success, though there were some early stumbles. Grant opened with Sherman’s force striking at Tunnel Hill to complete the turning of Bragg’s right, something Grant intended Sherman to have accomplished the day before. Sherman’s effort, however, fell short. In the meantime, almost as an afterthought, Grant directed Hooker to advance against the Rebel left at Rossville. Hooker’s advance was slow, greatly delayed by a destroyed bridge. In the afternoon, when it had begun to look like the Union plans were completely undone, Grant ordered Thomas to attack the Confederate defenses at the foot of Missionary Ridge, striking Bragg’s center, in the sector everyone supposed was the strongest part of the Rebel line.

The troops took the first line of works handily, but then, without orders, they kept on going: up and over the crest of Missionary Ridge, throwing much of Bragg’s army into headlong retreat. Success was capped by Hooker’s seizure of Rossville near dusk, followed by a lateral sweep northward astride the ridge by three more Union divisions, which completed the rout. It proved to be one of the more complete Union victories of the war.

To both the northern public and the Union leadership in Washington, this triumph appeared to be a stunning reversal of fortune; just a month previous, Lincoln, Stanton, and millions of other Northern citizens were bracing for disaster. Grant’s reputation, already riding high, ascended to the stratosphere.

Arguably, Chattanooga was Grant’s acid-test for theater command. Vicksburg was a great victory, but it did not produce an immediate elevation; after all, the Lincoln administration had a long record of importing winning general from the West, with disappointing results. But if Grant could achieve such a stunning result at Chattanooga, might not he be the man – at last – Lincoln could turn to in order to finally win the war? Chattanooga, more so than Vicksburg, propelled Grant the following March into an unprecedented promotion to lieutenant general, tasked with command of all Union armies in the field.

Of course, there is some irony here: Far from being Grant’s most brilliantly-engineered strategic triumph, Chattanooga was arguably Grant’s worst-planned and worst-fought battle. In Grant’s original plan, Sherman was supposed to do all the heavy lifting; with Thomas’ and Hooker’s men largely relegated to spectator status. Sherman’s command, after all, contained Grant’s trusted veterans, the men of the Army of the Tennessee. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland and Hooker’s Army of the Potomac transplants – at least in Grant’s eyes – could not be trusted to fight offensively. Too many defeats loomed in their past records, the most recent of which was Chickamauga. Grant told Sherman as much when that officer reached Chattanooga in mid-November.

Grant intended to send Sherman across the Tennessee to seize the northern end of Missionary Ridge on November 24. Hooker’s assault on Lookout Mountain was meant to be nothing more than a demonstration, diverting Bragg’s attention from Sherman’s decisive blow. But Sherman faltered, never even reaching Missionary Ridge. Hooker’s men wrested control of Lookout after a sharp – and spectacular, to all onlookers – fight (an affair Grant always afterward dismissed as nothing more than a skirmish.) Worse yet, when Sherman was tasked with the main effort the next day, he again stumbled badly, delivering a series of uncoordinated piecemeal attacks which were easily blunted by the Confederate defenders. Thomas’s assault on the Confederate center was only supposed to be a demonstration, a ploy meant to divert enemy forces away from Sherman. No troops were diverted (again, something Grant consistently failed to accept even years after the war) but Thomas’s men shattered the very center of the Confederate line.

As such, Chattanooga might well go down in the books as Grant’s luckiest battle, with the men he trusted the least succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations. But Chattanooga is also more than mere luck. As a battle, it also demonstrated Grant’s strongest traits as a soldier – adaptability and perseverance. Those were the traits which had sustained him at Shiloh, at Vicksburg, at Chattanooga; and would eventually carry him to total victory in Virginia.

More than any other single battle or campaign, Grant’s resounding success at Chattanooga convinced Lincoln and Stanton that they had at last found their man.


[EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave has written more about Grant at Chattanooga in Battle Above the Clouds: The Lifting of the Siege of Chattanooga and the Battle of Lookout Mountain, part of the Emerging Civil War Series.]

[For more on the relationship between Grant, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, read Dan Davis’s essay “Vicksburg: The Victory That Unleashed Ulysses S. Grant” in Turning Points of the American Civil War, part of the “Engaging the Civil War” Series.]

24 Responses to Grant Ascending . . .

  1. Great Point mr. Powell, I never really thought of it that way I had always just assumed with what Grant accomplished at Vicksburg he was on the list to go east but after reading your early morning article you’re definitely right nothing happened until Chattanooga. Quite often you here the question asked at Civil War round tables and seminars who’s the most overrated General but in this instance I’d like to turn it around and mention someone I think is perhaps the most underrated General at least for the South. I can’t help but think that many of Sherman’s problems we’re not do exclusively to his Maps and engineers who didn’t even really know what Mountaintop they were on but had a lot to do with a man from Ireland by the name of Pat Cleburne. I’ve emailed back and forth with you a couple times mr. Powell I’m sure you probably don’t remember with the amount of fans you’ve earned but I’m the one who praised you then and what was a private email but I’d like to do it here in public. I have read every book on the Chickamauga campaign that had been published since 1980 width of course Peter cozzens probably being the best. I think without a doubt of all the campaigns East or West the Chickamauga is by far the hardest to write about, and definitely the hardest understand. Your Trilogy on the battle despite the complexity of no true battle lines, and exceedingly large amount of mixed troops with the army of North Virginia sending James Longstreet West to help Bragg and many people not very familiar with the army of the Cumberland, and then of course there was the terrain of Northern Georgia with impenetrable Woods in many places and yet at the end of your third book I could finally say I understood the campaign. The fact you and savasbeattie teamed up help turn out an exceptional product with SB supplying a large quantity of incredible quality Maps to help go along with your obviously deeply researched and thoroughly investigated yet clearly and easily understandable writing of the conflict. A definite A+ on a brutal campaign for the soldiers and unfortunately for an author luckily you stepped up to the plate mr. Powell and delivered like Reggie Jackson in October to use a Cheesy metaphor. With Christmas it’s a tight budget month not only for me but I’m sure for many others but I want to let everyone know you’ve also put a book out now I believe on the Chattanooga campaign and I want you to know the first tech I get in January I’ll be pestering you for a signed copy without a doubt. Before I let you off the hook you started off by writing a little bit about Grant and Vicksburg, Vicksburg is kind of a pet peeve of mine only because I’m so interested in the campaign yet for all that goes on every book you buy whether it’s Ballard or Timmy Smith’s new one coming out they’re all roughly 250 pages. If you’re writing about the Vicksburg campaign and after you take away index and order a battle you have 250 pages of material as an author you’ve done one of two things, you either skimmed over the entire campaign leaving most of the details out or you went through and picked and chose what parts of the campaign you would write in detail and what you would skip. I know the great mr. Bearss wrote his great trilogy but it’s extremely hard to find and exceedingly expensive. And no disrespect meant anyway because he if anyone, was the master of Vicksburg but his Trilogy is dated. So basically I’m hoping you take a month-long vacation and then possibly take on the Vicksburg campaign, LOL, because I think you’re the only one in the western theater that can do it right mr. Powell. I can’t wait to get your new signed book and again for everyone out there mr. Powell has a book coming out on the Chattanooga battle and I believe you can buy signed copies although you’ll have to check. I just know I’m going to do whatever I have to to get my come from cover signed! Thank you for the great early morning article and I can’t wait to get your new book mr. Powell, God bless and Merry Christmas.

    1. I can assure you that there are others out there more qualified than me to write on Vicksburg. Tim Smith, for one…

      1. I really enjoy Timothy B. Smiths books on the Western Campaigns, I believe I have them all (Champion Hill, Forts Henry and Donelson, Corinth, Shiloh) all very readable and enjoyable. I couldn’t set his shiloh down, I probaly had read 7-8 other authors version of that battle but Mr. Smiths was by far the most enjoyable and simoultaneously the most educational for me. ( although if you’re strictly looking for the micro Tactical side of the battle Edward Cunningham’s Shiloh and the Western campaign of 1862 would be your choice. Ironically Dr Smith was the editor of that particular book) I understand just because a book has a lot of pages or possibly is a multi volume set on a campaign doesn’t mean it’s a quality educational well researched book. But at the same time with all that I’ve gathered reading the six or seven books on Vicksburg I could get my hands on I haven’t found any that could fit all the different tactics and trials Grant had to go through just to get to the point of a Siege in 250 pages. With that said dr. Smith is by far one of my favorite authors without question and I will be buying his Vicksburg addition as soon as it comes out because I haven’t gotten a bad book from him yet all quality.

      2. That’s a pretty damned good defense pairing in hockey terms. Nice job, Dave.

  2. Sherman had to be glad that he tripped across Grant in 1862, and that Grant valued loyalty above tactical skill. He is eerily like Stonewall in his ineptitude in managing a battlefield. And the article was excellent in pointing out the lassitude that seized Grant after the Vicksburg campaign. But it was similar to that which enfolded him in 1862 in the summer after Shiloh, where that pedant Halleck’s mistreatment of him put him in a severe depression.

      1. Halleck was the most passive- aggressive figure on the Union side. Terrified of anyone doing anything that might actually lead to a battle. They should have statues to him and Little Mac in Richmond. But Grant could be insecure as well. Look how he treated Thomas.

      2. You hit the nail on the head my man, I couldn’t think how to describe them but passive Altra aggressive is perfect, polite and nice to his face and then running to Lincoln and blaming him for everything and starting rumors he’s drinking he’s just an awful man no morals. But then on the other hand you mentioned how Grant treats Thomas, not only are you 100% correct on that conclusion you also had Sherman exchanging letters thrashing Thomas. When Sherman sent Thomas up north to deal with hood Sherman took all the best troops all the best officers all the best horses I mean it was just brutal how they treated George H Thomas who had the nerve to sever ties with his family forever because he serve the union even though he was from Virginia. The more power everyone accumulated on the union side it seems the more arrogant they became

  3. I start saving for it first check after xmas so I will be there for sure and i’m exited like a kid going to Disney Land! My neuroligist and ortho said I’ll be able to walk with a cane and leg braces so I’ve never been to a Civil War battlefield (just Iraqi and Afghanistan obviously) so i’m really hoping to go early, get advice from exp. people and hit Wilderness, spotsylvania, fredericksburg all I can. Chat w/ you next great topic brother!

      1. Thank you so much for your kind words my man, I really appreciate them. Thank your Dad for his service for me next time you see him, sssooo much history of excellence in the 82nd, if your not hardcore you don’t make it in the 82nd-

  4. I have long been interested in the Rosecrans – Grant relation, and it appears to me that Thomas and Gordon Granger also were caught up in that. But for some reason Sheridan didn’t get the same treatment. I guess it could be that Sheridan was the much better general, though I have my doubts about that.

    1. I always thought that Grant was magnificent at selling the Grant that he wanted the world to believe in. Here was a man who was an abject failure and yet rose to be Lord of the Universe- and President-in seven years. His Memoirs are a psychological masterpiece, and have sold the Grant “simple man of the people” story to generations of otherwise cynical historians. The simple man of the people story is a fabrication. He was a man usually under rigid self-control, ruthless, driven and complex. He could not tolerate Rosecrans the way a disciplined man can not tolerate a prima donna, however brilliant. I think his self-doubt, and awareness of his past failures, made him both need and tolerate Sherman, who gave him unrequitted loyalty. I think his insecurity colored his relationship with the laconic Thomas. It was one of the supreme ironies of the war that it was the spontaneity of the “slow” Army of the Cumberland under Thomas at Missionary Ridge that saved Grant from his overreliance on Sherman on Tunnel Hill. To Thomas’ credit, he never made a point of it. To Grant’s shame, he probably never forgot it, and endorsed Sherman’s peevish evaluation of Thomas, both in his actions before the Battle of Nashville and in his Memoirs. That being said, Grant was, with the possible exceptions of Washington, Eisenhower (and Lee) the greatest political general in American history. This “simple” man simply “played” Lincoln extraordinarily; he gave him respect, and received respect and support in return. And no other general could have brought the iron will to bear to beat down Lee, as that general usually performed brilliantly before and during the siege of Richmond.

      Granger was just a big kid, and slightly nuts.

      1. Grant would have been just fine with Rosecrans if he had followed orders better. Grant’s supposed bad relationship with Thomas has been exaggerated by writers after the war. Grant appreciated Thomas’ strengths and in fact, Thomas continued to be entrusted with an independent command after the war when Grant was calling the shots. Thomas and Sherman definitely counted each other as good friends.

      2. My point precisely about Grant and Rosecrans, Grant had no faith in his judgement or consistency. As far as Grant/Sherman and Thomas, I don’t buy it. Thomas was clearly the unwanted date at the dance, but more immune to removal than Hooker. Grant and Sherman were wise enough to use him, but he was clearly never a pet like McPherson. They sniped him unmercifully like a pair of 8th grade girls. Buell’s book on Civil War battle leadership, while a little fulsome in its praise of Thomas, is, in my opinion, spot on in highlighting Thomas’ battlefield superiority. And Grant’s giving him the independent command was a no brainer; he knew both that Thomas was incredibly competent and, most unusual in a general in that war, refused to play politics. He kept his own counsel and his mouth shut. Good post!

  5. I agree with you Scott S., all I can picture Sheridan doing is running around screaming and cussing at everyone Non-Stop as if he had the two gallons of coffee for breakfast and is 4 foot 6 frame

  6. Sheridan was a mean SOB, and grossly unfair to Warren, but his men loved him, and performed well for him. And with all of the warn out senior command leaders by the War’s end, Grant needed a Sheridan, who thrived on battle like a barbarian king. He was to Grant, like Stonewall and Gordon were to Lee.

  7. Napoleon preferred lucky generals over skillful ones. You make some excellent points, but I have to disagree it was his worst fought battle. Most battle plans do fail; it very rare that they go perfectly. It was Moltke that states, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” It how a general responds that defines a military genius. I think you rightfully point that out here.

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