Ulysses S. Grant could thank Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana for his new command at Chattanooga.
When Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Chattanooga to take command of the beleaguered Union forces there, he had one person more than any other to thank for his new assignment, an old friend whose tireless work on his behalf Grant may not have even known about. That friend was Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, and it was not the first time that Dana had secretly come to Grant’s aid. Indeed, one wrongly placed word from Dana at the time of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign could have ruined the general’s promising military career.
As it was, Dana saved his poor-mouthing for another Union general, William Rosecrans, who just happened to be one of Grant’s least favorite people and, not coincidentally, was commander of Federal forces at Chattanooga at the time. A good argument can be made that it was Dana’s incessant and misleading criticism of Rosecrans, more than Rosecrans’ own poor performance at the Battle of Chickamauga, that led to his removal.
Ironically, Dana had played the same role six months earlier at Vicksburg–only then it was Grant’s head on the block. But the canny Grant proved to be as much Rosecrans’ superior at political intriguing as he was his superior on the battlefield. In the end, Rosecrans had only himself to blame–with a little assistance from Dana.
Dana, a former editor of the New York Tribune, first attracted national attention with his bristling “On to Richmond” editorials during the initial weeks of the war. After being fired by newspaper publisher Horace Greeley for being too aggressively jingoistic, Dana was given a job at the War Department by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, whose nomination Dana had fortuitously championed.
Dana’s first assignment was to investigate complaints about alleged misconduct by Grant at Vicksburg. Officially, Dana was directed “to investigate and report upon the condition of the pay service in the western armies.” But the wily Grant understood immediately the true nature of Dana’s visit, and decided to cultivate his visitor’s goodwill. Welcoming Dana as a military equal, and inviting him to share his own table, Grant soon disarmed the journalist. Dana returned the favor by overlooking Grant’s binge drinking and reassuring Stanton that Grant was in full control of his faculties. The fall of Vicksburg a short time later cemented Grant’s good standing in Washington and justified Dana’s favorable reports.
Six months later, Dana was given a similar task by Stanton. This time, however, his target was William Rosecrans, the infuriatingly highhanded commander of Union forces at Chattanooga. Rosecrans had maintained a running war of words with the War Department over his handling of the campaign to capture Chattanooga, and he was in no mood to give a warm welcome to a departmental underling like Dana. He greeted the assistant secretary of war with a verbal broadside against meddling bureaucrats. Dana smiled and bided his time.
Officers on Rosecrans’ staff warned him about Dana–one even calling him “a loathsome pimp”–but Rosecrans ignored their advice. Dana was present on the field at Chickamauga when the Confederates made their great breakthrough, and he hurried back to Chattanooga to send a despairing telegram to Washington: “Chickamauga is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run.”
After the Union army had retreated to Chattanooga, Dana stepped up his alarming messages. While Rosecrans devised a plan to lift the Rebel siege of the city, Dana worked equally hard to undermine the general’s position with Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln. He gave them the misleading impression that Rosecrans was planning to abandon Chattanooga altogether and was working on a report that would blame the military disaster on the administration.”The practical incapacity in the general commanding is astonishing,” Dana charged, “and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind.”
By this time, Lincoln and Stanton had grown increasingly tired of Rosecrans, and readily agreed with Dana’s suggestion “that if it be decided to change the chief commander…I would take the liberty of suggesting that some western general of high rank and great prestige, Grant, for instance, would be preferable as his successor.” A few days later, the guileless Rosecrans departed Chattanooga, his career in ruins, while Grant arrived to take charge of Rosecrans’ old army and–more important–his plans for lifting the enemy siege. When those plans worked perfectly and the Union army made its famous charge up Missionary Ridge, Grant took another giant step along the road to military immortality. Standing behind him, unnoticed, was Charles A. Dana–and he was smiling.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War