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The Union at Risk: How Lincoln and Grant Nearly Lost the War in 1864

By Michael D. Pearlman
4/11/2016 • Civil War Times Magazine

February 12, 2009, marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, hailed by both historians and the general public as America’s greatest wartime president. Yet despite the adulation that enwraps Lincoln in martyrdom, his military leadership was far from flawless. Eminent Civil War historian James McPherson, while praising the president as commander in chief, finds two major faults: Lincoln persisted in appointing “political” generals; and he tended to delegate his chief executive responsibilities for strategy to field commanders. However, even this criticism does not fully acknowledge how nearly fatal to the North Lincoln’s shortcomings were when combined with the reluctance of General Ulysses S. Grant, the military commander of all Union armies in 1864, to confront the president’s leadership decisions.

Historians often single out 1863 as the Civil War’s crucial year. Indeed, the North’s victories that year – principally at Vicksburg and Gettysburg – made it virtually impossible for the Confederacy to win its independence outright on the battlefield. However, in 1864 heavy casualties and battlefield stalemate produced by political generals nearly doomed the Union cause by ensuring Lincoln’s defeat in the presidential election. The North muddled through in 1864, but, much as the Duke of Wellington famously said about the Battle of Waterloo, it was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.

BLOODY ATTRITION

Grant, whom on March 12, 1864, Lincoln appointed commanding general of all Union forces, was not an attrition warrior by choice. His 1863 Vicksburg Campaign had been a brilliant demonstration of maneuver warfare. He had marched his army 200 miles in 18 days, fought five engagements, and concluded the campaign with a successful six-week siege at a total cost of only 7,373 casualties. His 1864 campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, however, produced an appalling 55,000 Union casualties in just the 50 days between May 5 and June 24. Grant wrote his wife, “The world has never seen so bloody or so protracted a battle as the one being fought.” Yet Grant’s ensuing reputation as an “unimaginative butcher” highlighted Lincoln’s own flaws: The president allowed Grant to shoulder the chief blame and public criticism for an attrition campaign foisted on the general by the administration, while Grant’s grand strategic plan that might have avoided or mitigated the horrific attrition battles in Virginia collapsed largely due to the incompetence of Lincoln’s “political” generals.

The Lincoln administration compelled Grant to take head-on Robert E. Lee’s army, which stood between Washington and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. The administration was uncomfortable with Grant’s original proposal to place the bulk of Union forces south of Richmond – a scheme that was dreaded by officials in the Confederate War Department who felt that if this were to happen, their capital “[could not] subsist a week” with its logistic lines to the hinterland cut. Union Army Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, however, reinforced Lincoln’s fear that if the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were not confronted directly, Lee would grab the opportunity to capture Washington. Saying that he had “very little faith” in winning by “destroying lines of supply” – that is, through Grant’s plan to capture Richmond through maneuver – Halleck, supported by Lincoln, consigned Grant’s army to a campaign of bloody attrition warfare. “We have given too much attention to cutting the toenails of our enemy instead of grasping his throat,” Halleck wrote Grant in early 1864. “Every man we can collect should be hurled against Lee.”

In fact, Grant had conceived something far more subtle than Halleck’s simplistic attrition based proposal to hurl “every man … against Lee.” Grant’s overall strategy for 1864 was designed as maneuver warfare on a grand scale. He would overwhelm the Confederacy’s outnumbered forces by putting five Union armies in motion from the Gulf of Mexico to Virginia’s Rapidan River. In the Western Theater, Nathaniel Banks, with 40,000 Soldiers and Sailors at New Orleans, La., was to invade Mobile, Ala., and head northeast toward Atlanta, Ga. Simultaneously, William Tecumseh Sherman, with 100,000 Soldiers at Chattanooga, Tenn., would head southeast to Atlanta and then devastate the heart of Georgia. Banks’ and Sherman’s armies, acting in concert, would collapse Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s defending Army of Tennessee. Concurrently, in the Eastern Theater, Benjamin Butler, with his 35,000-man Army of the James holding a bridgehead at Norfolk, Va., was to proceed northwest up the James River, a high-speed avenue of approach to Richmond. Meanwhile, Franz Sigel, with 26,000 men in West Virginia, was to move through the Shenandoah Valley, gutting the South’s “breadbasket” and cutting off Richmond’s connections with the rest of the Confederacy. Finally, George Gordon Meade’s 125,000-man Army of the Potomac – with which Grant would locate his own headquarters – would pin down Lee’s army in Virginia.

There was nothing particularly unique in Grant’s strategy that sought to attack an outnumbered enemy everywhere with the logical assumption that he will be weak somewhere. In fact, Lincoln had championed it as early as 1862, urging that Union armies menace the Confederacy “with superior forces at different points at the same time,” adding, “if he weakens one to strengthen the other, seize and hold the weakened one.” Yet devising such a strategy was the easy part; successfully implementing it ultimately relied upon placing competent subordinate commanders in key positions. Grant clearly understood the problem, stating, “It rarely happens that a number of expeditions, starting from various points to act upon a common center, materially aid each other. They never do, except when each acts with vigor and either makes rapid marches or keeps confronting an enemy.” The latter was exactly what three of Grant’s five key subordinates – Lincoln’s “political” generals, Banks, Butler and Sigel – failed to do.

POLITICAL GENERALS

Lincoln may have been an amateur military strategist but he was a shrewd politician, always keeping foremost in his mind that the Civil War was, at its heart, a political struggle. To the president, the war meant preserving republican democracy against the seditious losers of the 1860 election. Therefore, Lincoln realized, elections – political “business as usual” – must continue during the war because, as he said, “if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” Consequently, in 1864 Lincoln believed that he had to win simultaneously by battle and by ballot. Hence, he had saddled Grant with Banks, Butler and Sigel – influential prewar politicians representing three diverse but important constituencies – largely to help his political prospects. However, these men would actually do so much military damage that year that they nearly cost Lincoln his re-election and the North its victory in the war.

In May 1861 Lincoln had appointed Franz Sigel a brigadier general (with the same date of rank as Grant). Sigel, an immigrant who had left Germany after liberal reform failed there in 1852, settled in St. Louis, Mo., a city with a large German-American population. He quickly became a leader of his ethnic group throughout the United States. One newspaper editor wrote to Lincoln, “The enthusiasm in [Sigel’s] favor among the German population is unanimous.” This certainly proved true in New York, where Sigel’s speeches, in which he declared, “You as Germans have the duty to sustain the government,” brought out voters for the Republican Party in 1863. In 1864 Sigel’s support looked even more crucial to getting out the “German vote” since Lincoln’s dismissal of the Germans’ beloved John C. Fremont from military command risked Lincoln losing the heavily German-populated states of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri in the November presidential election. Fremont threatened to run for president as a third-party candidate, which was no small threat. He had been the first Republican Party presidential candidate in 1856, and since 1844, third party candidates had decided three of the last five presidential elections by taking support from an established party. In fact, radical Republicans had nominated Fremont to run in 1864, but he withdrew from the race after Lincoln brokered a political deal with him.

Therefore, Sigel’s selection to succeed Fremont in the Department of West Virginia was “a very judicious measure,” so said Carl Schurz, Lincoln’s political adviser on the German-American community. Two hundred thousand German-American Soldiers made up 10 percent of the Union Army and were the force’s largest ethnic group. Three hundred thousand German-American voters nationwide would cast almost 10 percent of the votes in the November 1864 presidential election. Thus to Lincoln, Sigel was a political necessity.

Butler and Banks, also appointed generals in May 1861, were equally important politicians representing two more powerful political groups and were themselves frequently mentioned as potential presidential candidates. Banks could sway swing voters such as former members of the American Party (also called the “Know Nothings”), which had garnered 875,000 votes in the 1856 election while he was the party’s Speaker of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile Butler, a self-described “Andrew Jackson Democrat,” could influence voters tempted to return to the Democratic Party if it nominated a pro-war candidate. Ever since Jackson’s election in 1828, Democrats were the political majority in the nationwide electorate, a political fact of life not lost on Lincoln and an influence on his military appointments during the war. Lincoln even went so far as to offer Butler the position as his running mate in 1864, but Butler declined, opting to remain in military command of the Army of the James (likely with an eye on running for president himself in 1868 as a “war hero”).

Lincoln professed that he made his non-Republican Party cabinet and military appointments to make the Civil War a nonpartisan cause, claiming, “In considering military merit … I discard politics.” However, by appointing politicians like Banks, Butler and Sigel to high military command, Lincoln actually was playing politics to the hilt.

GRANT’S RETICENCE

Halleck deemed it “little better than murder to give important commands to such men as Banks, Butler … [and] Sigel,” yet he resigned himself to Lincoln’s politically motivated appointments, lamenting, “It seems impossible to prevent it.” Certainly, a deskbound administrator like Halleck, whom Lincoln described as “little more than a first-rate clerk,” could never have dissuaded the president from appointing political generals. Grant, however, was no clerk – at least not since he had last performed that function while working at his father’s dry goods store in Galena, Ill., before the war. As a nationally celebrated war hero for whom the success of his 1864 grand strategy – and ultimately that of his own military reputation – chiefly depended upon the competence of his five principal subordinates, he was likely the only officer who might have influenced these key appointments. Indeed, before the Virginia bloodletting earned Grant his “butcher” reputation, Northern newspapers opined in early 1864 that the popular general was in a position “to compel the administration to obey him rather than he them.” But as Grant told Halleck, he was reticent to “become the critic of the president,” stating, “As a ‘good soldier,’ I do not believe I have the right to criticize the policy or orders of those above me.” In fact, Grant had earlier developed a more indirect procedure for disposing of well-connected men lacking in military talent. Yet what worked for him in 1862-63 proved disastrous in 1864.

In late 1862, when the Union’s upper Midwestern states were rife with talk about an armistice, Lincoln had saddled Grant with another political general, former Illinois Democratic congressman John A. McClernand. This politically important leader of the so-called “War Democrats” outlined to Lincoln a plan to win back the region in favor of the war. McClernand would use his political network to raise new regiments that he expected to command in operations against Vicksburg, the Confederate Gibraltar on the Mississippi River. He proposed that Grant would stay in Memphis, where he would support McClernand’s field campaign. Grant hardly wanted McClernand around in any capacity, yet he certainly coveted the new troop regiments the politician had raised. Instead of protesting McClernand’s appointment, Grant bided his time, first co-opting McClernand by taking overall field command himself, and then waiting for McClernand to make a mistake serious enough for Grant to petition Washington for the politician’s removal. Grant got his chance when McClernand made unauthorized statements to the press following the first (failed) assault during the siege of Vicksburg in May 1863. Defending his procedure for dealing with political generals, Grant stated, “The earnest desire on my part to do the most I could with the means at my command without interference with the assignments to command, which the president alone was authorized to make, made me tolerate General McClernand long after I thought the good of the service demanded his removal.” But by remaining reticent and pursuing a “wait and see” replacement policy, he merely compounded Lincoln’s disastrous political general command appointments in 1864. Grant planned to do with Banks, Butler and Sigel what he had done with McClernand – wait for a mistake then replace them. However, military circumstances in 1864 were dramatically different and the stakes were significantly higher.

Lincoln never asked Grant what his military plans were. “The President stated to me,” Grant wrote, “that he never professed to be a military man or to know how campaigns should be conducted and never wanted to interfere in them. … All he wanted and had ever wanted was someone who would take the responsibility and act.” What was likely lost on Grant, however, was the key phrase “take responsibility.” Lincoln, in fact, had no desire to interfere lest he assume, as he once told an aide, “all the responsibility in the case of [military] failure.”

When Lincoln, to Grant’s relief at the time, did not ask the general to reveal his plan, Grant missed a golden opportunity to explain to the president the importance of having a proven commander in charge of each field army. Neither Grant nor Halleck challenged Lincoln when he placed his political generals in key commands – the former out of principle, and the latter undoubtedly because of moral cowardice. Not confronted, the president could maintain that the politicians Sigel, Banks, and Butler were no worse than the professional Soldiers like George B. McClellan, whose “sinking courage [Lincoln had] to sustain in critical times.” Lincoln claimed that, politically at least, the generals would “give great relief while, at worst … they could not injure the military service much.” He was wrong – patronage would not hold a political candle to what was about to happen on the battlefield.

DISASTERS

Lincoln’s political generals began unraveling Grant’s 1864 grand strategy virtually as it was launched in March. Instead of attacking Mobile, as called for in Grant’s plan, Banks secured permission from Lincoln and Halleck to advance along the Red River into Louisiana. The move was a disaster, and the Union Soldiers were defeated by Confederate forces that they outnumbered by as much as 5-to-1. Sigel’s Shenandoah Valley offensive fared little better, and after Sigel’s army was defeated at the Battle of New Market on May 15, Grant was able to use this setback as an excuse to replace him – after the damage had been done. Yet of all the generals, Butler would be the biggest disappointment because he had the best chance to end the war.

When Butler, after moving his army on navy transports up the James River, disembarked on May 5 at Bermuda Hundred, 18 miles south of Richmond, the Confederacy had fewer than 10,000 Soldiers between Butler’s 35,000-man army and the South’s capital. Although only 750 of these Confederates directly blocked Butler’s path, they successfully ambushed his advance guard, driving it back behind Union lines. The skirmish sapped the spirit out of Butler’s army, which then entrenched and abandoned its primary mission of advancing to cut Confederate supply lines south of Richmond – a maneuver Grant was certain would have caused Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia opposing the Army of the Potomac north of Richmond to retreat. Soon after Butler dug in, the Confederates opposing him sent 7,000 reinforcements north to Lee. Butler, in an egregious miscalculation of the strategic situation, wired the War Department on May 9, “We can hold out [here] against the whole of Lee’s army.” Disgusted, Grant concluded that the Army of the James was “as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked.”

Since the Army of the James would not fight up to Richmond, the Army of the Potomac had to fight down to the James. The Virginia Campaign became a frightful slaughter of attrition that shocked a nation that had expected from Grant “quick work and great results,” to quote the New York Herald. The June 3, 1864, attack at Cold Harbor alone produced the bloodiest 20 minutes in American military history, with 7,000 casualties during that time. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs said, “If that scene could have been presented to me before the war, anxious as I was for the preservation of the Union, I should have said, ‘The cost is too great; erring sisters, go in peace.’” One of Grant’s subordinate commanders was more succinct, stating, “We felt it was murder, not war.”

The War Department withheld Grant’s casualty reports “for fear the country could not stand the disclosure. “When the figures subsequently leaked out, the public disappointment was acute. Anti-war Democrats savaged the Lincoln administration, asking, “Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed on the opening of Grant’s campaign?”

UNION AT RISK

By June the Confederate defense had solidified at Petersburg and Grant’s exhausted army was reduced to conducting a siege south of Richmond – seemingly intolerable in an election year. Confederates gleefully predicted, “We will get our independence by Christmas, won’t we be a happy and free people.” Northern Republicans despaired about “our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country,” a situation largely brought about by the incompetence of Lincoln’s political generals. By mid-1864 Northern and Southern newspapers were echoing the conclusion of the Confederate high command: “The grand struggle of the war upon which we are about to enter … will shape and determine the [North’s] presidential contest.” As late as September, a caucus of dispirited Republicans concluded, “Lincoln cannot be re-elected, unless great victories can be attained soon, which is next to impossible on account of the worn-out state of the armies of the Potomac,” while Lincoln himself wrote, “It seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected.”

Yet Grant, whose reluctance to confront Lincoln over his political general appointments had helped put the Union at risk by mid-1864, adjusted his grand strategy into a simplified one that won Lincoln’s reelection, and thereby won the war. At the crucial moment, when “everything hinge[d] on the [1864 presidential] election,” said Grant’s military aide, Grant pinned down Lee in Virginia while Sherman conquered Atlanta – in “the very nick of time to save the party of Lincoln,” lamented the Richmond Examiner. Lee already had predicted that once Richmond was besieged, the war “[would] be a mere question of time,” confirming that Grant’s initial proposal to maneuver against Richmond’s supply lines had been the correct approach all along.

During the first week of September the mood throughout the North changed dramatically, moving virtually overnight from deep despair to jubilant elation. One traveler reported clanging bells, bonfires and “the shouts of rejoicing multitudes” across the North when the news that Sherman had captured Atlanta arrived to electrify the country – and convince voters to re-elect the president. The jubilation was captured by one newspaper that declared, “The dark days are over. … We can see our way out.” With the mood in the electorate swinging in his favor, Lincoln solidified his position by getting out the military vote. He brought the ballot box to Soldiers (among whom he had remained popular) for the first time in U.S. history, and he instituted a liberal leave policy on the eve of the election to allow them to return home to vote in local precincts. Lincoln received 70 percent of all Soldiers’ votes. On November 8, barely two months after he thought it “probable” he would not be re-elected, Lincoln defeated his Democrat challenger, McClellan, by 400,000 popular votes, winning 22 of 26 states and gaining 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 24.

In the South, however, Lincoln’s November election victory meant, as one Confederate observer wrote, “The end has come. … We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth.”

Michael D. Pearlman, PhD, is a former professor of history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. This article was adapted from his book “Warmaking and American Democracy: The Struggle Over Military Strategy, 1700 to the Present.” His latest book is “Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics and the Hunger for Honor and Renown.”

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