Ulysses Grant—rated by his contemporaries the great man of the nineteenth century, perhaps the greatest in American history besides George Washington. Even Abraham Lincoln was an also-ran to Grant.
His giant reputation became sicklied o’er with the pale cast of revisionism in the twentieth century. “Grant? Oh, yes. He was that pathetic, cigar-puffing drunk who couldn’t do anything right except win battles and who went on to lead the most corrupt presidential administration in history.”
Grant’s stock is now on the rise again thanks to a generation of careful historians who have worked for decades to set the record straight. That is the background against which the History Channel now offers its three-part miniseries—Grant: Unlikely Hero; Grant: Lincoln’s General; and Grant: Freedom’s Champion.
I am writing this before the series airs. Here, I will not rehash the humilitations of Grant’s early life or the transformation of a hapless man into a world-beater. You can get those tales elsewhere—perhaps even in this week’s telecasts.
I will, however, assert that a proper kenning of Grant’s role in the Civil War is the best way to illuminate the war’s grand strategy as a military matter.
Civil War Mystery?
It’s often asked: “Why did Lincoln wait so long to promote Grant? Why did the president hire and fire so many other top dogs before finally, almost as a last resort, settling on Grant in 1864?” The question is presented, usually, as an unparalleled mystery.
But it is the wrong question.
Merely to ask it implies at least three silly ideas:
- That Lincoln was a bumbler and no judge of military talent.
- That Lincoln was an absolute monarch, with no Congress to satisfy and no Army bureaucracy to work through.
- That had Lincoln been smart enough to put Grant in charge much earlier, he would have greatly shortened the war.
This perennial “Why so late on Grant?” question looks at the Civil War through the wrong end of the telescope.
Grant became a hero when he captured Fort Donelson, Kentucky, in February 1862. Not long after, Lincoln said of Grant, “I can’t spare this man—he fights.” Of all his generals, only Grant got results without badgering the War Office to double his resources. Lincoln had to know from early 1862 that Grant stood out among his commanders.
So, a more fruitful heuristic might be: “For what job was it that Lincoln thought he could not spare Grant, if not for supreme command?”
(SPOILER ALERT: THE ANSWER STARTS WITH A “V”.)
Lincoln was a mature politician who relied on incisive, lawyerly reasoning skills. Before many months of war had passed, he stopped deferring to his military establishment and began to urge his own views. The subsequent record of the Civil War shows Lincoln to have been, in fact, its master strategist.
In this he was not wholly original. His strategy differed little from the “Anaconda Plan” proposed in 1861 by General Winfield Scott, the grand old man of the Army. But if Scott originated the strategy, Lincoln understood it deeply and applied it from the start.
Lincoln’s lifelong habit was to zero in on what he called “the nub of the case,” going straight for the main issue that lay at the heart of any matter. Scott’s Anaconda Plan called for squeezing the Confederacy from all directions, by sea and land. But the nub of the plan was to regain control of the Mississippi River. It was America’s prime artery of commerce and the natural path of cleavage between the Confederate states. The fate of the Mississippi would dictate the outcome of the war.
Vicksburg the Key
At the start of 1862, Lincoln endorsed a naval plan to seize New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi, and along with it Vicksburg, which commanded the lower river from tall bluffs well suited to the placement of artillery. Flag Officer David Dixon Porter recorded Lincoln’s speech to his planners:
“See,” said Mr. Lincoln, pointing to the map, “what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. Here is Red River, which will supply the Confederates with cattle and corn to feed their armies. There are the Arkansas and White Rivers, which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousand. From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy. Then there is that great depot of supplies on the Yazoo. Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
To Lincoln, the Western man who had twice run the Mississippi by flatboat and who knew it as the commercial dynamo of the nation, Vicksburg was not just an objective. It was the grand strategic prize.
“Old Brains” Halleck
After Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson, his superior, General Henry Wager Halleck, deprived him of command and placed him under virtual arrest for various imagined deficiencies. Halleck, known as “Old Brains,” was a martinet but also a bureaucrat to the core. He wired Washington asking what to do with the deficient Grant. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton replied, probably at Lincoln’s behest, requesting further details. Halleck, perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing, chose to drop the matter.
Grant resumed command of his army at Shiloh on the Tennessee River, only to be welcomed with a surprise attack by 40,000 screaming rebels. After a hard day of fighting, his army decimated and backed up against the river landing, the unflappable Grant stood fast and launched a counter-attack the next day that swept the rebels from the field.
Again, Halleck sidelined him. This time, he hamstrung Grant by the subtle device of promoting him to be “second in command”—a position commensurate with Grant’s seniority in the department but removed from direct command of troops.
Meanwhile, New Orleans had been taken by a naval squadron under Flag Officer David Farragut. But it was clear that Vicksburg would not succumb to naval operations alone.
Consider Lincoln’s point of view: Vicksburg, the key objective of the war, required a combination of vigorous naval and land movements. Grant, the best general, was stymied as deputy commander to the dithering, overcautious Halleck, who nonetheless was by all accounts a genius at military administration.
And Lincoln was beginning to learn how the Army worked. He named Halleck to command all Union armies on July 11, 1862. Halleck was pleased to be appointed general-in-chief and left immediately for Washington. Meanwhhile, Halleck’s departure cleared the way for Grant to command the Department of the Mississippi. It now became Grant’s job to take Vicksburg.
Gentle Reader, perhaps you wonder, “Just what primrose path are you leading me down, O New Favorite Writer?”
Well, here it is:
Those great Eastern battles you always hear about—Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, even Gettysburg—were battles that Lincoln understood had to be fought. Although they did not always end well, they were essential attempts to generate the big squeeze that gave the Anaconda Plan its name.
But Lincoln protected Grant from Halleck’s machinations in order to put Grant on the most important project: Vicksburg.
With its artillery trained on a hairpin river bend from three hundred feet above it, and protected on its landward side by strong earthworks, Vicksburg was a tough nut that took Grant eight months to crack. Throughout that time, Lincoln with patience and cunning resisted enormous pressures to dislodge Grant from command. When Vicksburg finally capitulated, the president exulted: “The Father of Waters goes again unvexed to the sea.”
Eastern and Western Theories
Grant moved on to Item Two: Lifting the rebel siege of Chattanooga—a key point commanding the lower Tennessee Valley and protecting an important pocket of Union sentiment in East Tennessee. Grant completed this job much faster, in late 1863.
Finally, Lincoln appointed Grant supreme commander of all Union forces, leapfrogging him over Halleck and promoting him to Lieutenant General—a rank previously held only by George Washington and Winfield Scott.
The timing of this appointment and promotion shows that overall command of all Union forces and a showdown with Lee’s Army in Virginia was actually Lincoln’s third wish, to be pursued only after the Mississippi was liberated and East Tennessee secured.
“But, what about Gettysburg? Wasn’t that the most imporant battle?”
No, Dear Reader.
Gettysburg was the largest battle of the war and held its own rightful importance. It ended July 3, 1863, with the failure of Pickett’s Charge at the Angle, termed “the high-water mark of the Confederacy.” This defeat for Robert E. Lee may be called “the end of the beginning” of the Civil War.
The very next day—July 4, 1863—when Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Grant, can just as reasonably be called “the beginning of the end.” The loss of Vicksburg sealed the South’s fate, although it took almost two more years to complete the end game.
We hear more about the great Eastern battles than about Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga because at the start of the war, many saw it as a game of “Capture the Flag”; sieze Richmond and you win the war. That was never actually true, but it’s a view that has shaped perception of the conflict from that day to this.
What you have just read, on the contrary, is the Western theory of the war.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)