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The two Generals, George B. McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant were very different as leaders of the Union Army.
What were the differences between their strategies when trying to capture the capital of the confederacy, Richmond, Virginia?
McClellan tried to capture Richmond using the "peninsula" route between the York and James rivers, supplying his army by sea. His strategy was arguably the better of the two, but he didn't execute well, because he was a "paper pusher."
Grant used mainly the "overland" route. It's true that he sent a small force up the peninsula to try to capture Petersburg, south of Richmond, but that was an opportunistic, almost "diversionary" effort. Grant's was a more conventional strategy but he made it work, because he was a true field commander and "fighting man." He was a much better leader when it came to actual fighting.
I think it was Patton who said (and I'm paraphrasing), that a good attack today was more valuable than a great attack next week.
Question: How did McClellan's and Grant's strategies vary when capturing Richmond?
The two Generals, George B. McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant were very different as leaders of the Union Army.
What were the differences between their strategies when trying to capture the capital of the confederacy, Richmond, Virginia?
McClellan's strategy(May 1862) was to capture Richmond and hopefully the Confederate Leadership as a stepping stone to winning the war. Grant's strategy(June 1864) was not to take Richmond and was less concerned with capturing the Confederate Leadership. Grant strategy was to force Lee to defend Richmond. To bottle Lee up there while Grant set about winning the war by subduing and occupying the rest of the South. When Lee ultimately escaped Grant's siege of Richmond after 9 months, the war was already over. The Confederate Leadership also escaped Richmond, on a train route which was left open to occupy Lee's army during the siege, and would be rounded up piece meal over the following few months after the fall of Richmond and Lee's surrender.
General George McClellan
George McClellan graduated second in his class at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York (1846), he served in the Mexican War (1846-48), taught at West Point (1848-51) and went to the Crimean war(1855-56) as a military observer to report on European military techniques.
McClellan was popular with his men who would refer to him as "Little Mac", or "Young Napoleon". He was a competent General who excelled at the minutia of war. He excelled at logistics, training, and preparation for battle. He was a great hero of the Union initially who rebuilt the Army of the Potomac after the disastrous defeat at the battle of first Manassas. McClellan also was obsessive in planning his maneuvers. If he didn't see a clear advantage he did not commit to battle. McClellan's biggest shortcoming was he often overestimated his enemies strength resulting in him exerting caution when he should have been on the offensive. McClellan was the perfect General to fight against the Confederate's cautious Major General Joseph E. Johnston. During the Peninsula Campaign McClellan's systematic attacks and advances were matched by Johnston's systematic retreat.
By the end of May 1862 Union forces were so close to Richmond they could hear the church bells from the center of the city. General Johnston is wounded (At the battle of Seven Pines) and is replaced as commanding General of Confederate forces. General Gustavus Woodson Smith takes command for a single day. General Smith has a nervous breakdown his first day of command and is followed by the Confederates great general, Robert E. Lee June 1, 1862.
(*) Honorable mention goes to Jackson's Valley Campaign. That's General Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson. He was able to engage and defeat multiple Union armies who's combined strength was significantly larger than his own forces and keep them from Joining McClellan on the outskirts of Richmond. Jackson did this by defeating his opposition "in detail". He avoided battle when the Union was massed, but when they were divided or stretched out and he had the numerical superiority he attacked with superior numbers. Jackson would fight six battles against a numerically superior Union Army, and have superior numbers in five of those battles, all of which he would win. Jackson thus was able to tie up 50,000 men which McClellan was counting on for his Richmond campaign. After defeating the Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Jackson joined with Lee in defeating McClellan in the seven day's battles.
Army of Northern Virginia: Temporary command under Major General G. W. Smith
Maj. Gen. Gustavus Woodson Smith commanded the ANV on May 31, 1862, following the wounding of Gen. J. E. Johnston during the Battle of Seven Pines. With Smith seemingly having a nervous breakdown, President Jefferson Davis drafted orders to place Gen. Robert E. Lee in command the following day, June 1, 1861.
. After Seven Pines, and Lee takes command McClellan wastes the initiative and gives Lee valuable time to plan his next moves.
General George McClellen
McClellan spent the next three weeks repositioning his troops and waiting for promised reinforcements, losing valuable time as Lee continued to strengthen Richmond's defenses.
Lee understood McClellan and turned his caution and obsession for planning against him. Lee overwhelmed McClellen, not with troops but with activity. Lee's first sent out units to harass McClellan and take away his confidence. June 12, 1862 JEB Stuart makes McClellan look like a fool. Stuart takes 1,200 calvary and circles McClellan's army of the Potomac consisting of 105,000 men. JEB Stuart's forces captured supplies and horses, and destroyed the primary depot and rail line supplying McClellan's army. In the absence of solid intelligence, McClellan was frozen when called upon to take spontaneous action. Stuart's forces were at all times no further than a few miles away from McClellan's troops, and yet McClellan was unable to think in the moment to defend his army from the fast moving opponent.
Next Lee would utilize this same technique on a larger scale, Seven Days Battles (June 25 to July 1, 1862). Six major battles in seven days. McClellan was denied time to plan, denied time to prepare. His forces were routed. By the end of the Seven Days Battles, McClellan's larger army had retreated from Richmond to the safety of the James River where they were safeguarded from Lee's smaller force under the guns of the Union's Navy. McClellan would never threaten Richmond again. Lee was on the offensive and moved into Northern Virginia and eventually invaded Maryland, all the while dictating Mcclellan's movements before him. Mcclellan would be replaced as commander of the Union Army in Nov 1862. At the time Lee would write to his wife, "I hate to see McClellan go". McClellan would stand unsuccessfully against Lincoln in the Presidential election of 1864. Mcclellan would run for President, as an active duty General in wartime, on the platform of immediate cessation of hostilities and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. (McClellan resigned from the army on election day).
General Ulysses S. Grant
General Ulysses S. Grant was a good tactician, but ultimately what won the war and separated Grant from those who came before him was his Strategy. He pursued Lee, and with his aggressive pursuit he forced Lee into untenable situations. Grant was promoted as commander of all Union Armies March 2, 1864. His first offensive May 4, 1864 would consist of 14 major battles over 2 months, the Overland Campaign. Grant didn't defeat Lee in all of those battles, Cold Harbor for example was a defeat for the Union ( 52,788 Union casualties, nearly twice what the Confederacy Suffered). Cold Harbor would earn Grant the nickname, the butcher, but Grant kept coming. Grant constantly pursued, engaged, and pressured Lee. Strategically the Overland Campaign systematically took away all of Lee's options. Grant forced Lee backwards and ultimately forced him to again commit his forces to the defense of Richmond (June of 1864). It became a 9 month siege, where Lee's forces contained in Richmond could not go on the offensive, take pressure off, or assist the rest of the Confederacy. Mobile Alabama fell(August 1864), The city of Atlanta falls(Sept 1864), and Sherman completed his march to the sea (Dec 21, 1864) creating a devastating swath across the Confederacy. During the siege Grant made Lee expand his defenses, stretching out his lines(32 miles) in an attempt to preserve the City's railroad and supply line. This left Lee's forces thin and committed to the defense, unable to mass or conduct offensive action.
After 9 months of wearing down Lee, Grant orders a general assault April 2, 1865. Lee breaks out of the siege, but ultimately has nowhere to go. Union cavalry under Sheridan cut Lee's retreating army off from his supply train, and the end was nearly at hand. April 8, 1865, six days after he breaks out of Richmond, Lee and Grant meet at Appomattox Court House to discuss surrender.
The Confederate Leadership escapes Richmond by rail April 2, 1865. Jefferson Davis the Confederate's President would be captured by Union forces May 10th, 1865 near Irwinville, Georgia; 600 miles south and 5 weeks removed from the fall of Richmond.
- Peninsula Campaign
- Army of Northern Virginia
- Stuart's Ride
- JEB Stuart Rides Around the Union Army
- JEB Stuart's Wild Ride
- General George McClellen
- General Ulysses S. Grant
- Overland Campaign
- General Joseph E. Johnston
- Gustavus Woodson Smith
- Robert E. Lee
- Appomattox Court House
- Britannica George B. McClellen
- NY Times
- The Capture of Jefferson Davis
- Jackson's Valley Campaign
McClellan's Peninsula strategy required the Army of the Potomac to execute better than the Confederate Army of Virginia in many ways; something that it was never able to do over the entire course of the war. Advancing on a narrow front with only two small attempts to truly leverage his overwhelming command of the waves, McClellan's advance was repeatedly blocked without difficulty by Lee, until his forces were exhausted. Perhaps a better army or commander might have made the strategy work, but the strategy itself required superiority in more than just numbers to work. To paraphrase a great commander of a half century earlier, McClellan "came on in the same old way, and was beaten back in the same old way."
By way of contrast Grant truly leveraged his numerical superiority and tactical shortcomings by utilizing a much wider front of advance. Repeatedly pinning Lee with the bulk of his army, Grant could battle to a tactical draw, or even a small tactical loss, and continue sidestepping towards Richmond and St. Petersburg to force Lee into continued strategic retreats.
Napoleon coined this strategy Manoeuvre sur les Derrières, and it was his favourite. B. H. Liddell Hart called it the Strategy of the Indirect Approach and on page 166 notes:
… And in justice to Grant, it should also be noted that if his approach was direct in the broad sense, it was in no sense a mere frontal push. Indeed, he continuously sought to turn his enemy's flanks by manoeuvre, if manoeuvre of a small radius. Further, he fulfilled all the military precepts about keeping his army well concentrated and maintaining his objective [destruction of Lee's army] undeterred by alarms elsewhere.
. Grant executed it masterfully, and achieved in only 6 weeks of early 1864 a situation that finally dispelled any illusion that the Army of Virginia had strategic options.
To the excellent answers here, I would add that Grant's core strategy (independent of specific troop movements) was to simply engage Lee, over and over, using the Union's overwhelming advantages in men and materiel to win by attrition.
McClellan attempted to win a war of strategic maneuver, and combined with his perfectionist personality this led him to continually refrain from directly engaging Lee, much to Lincoln's ongoing and documented frustration. Lincoln famously responded to criticism of Grant's casualty rate (after Shiloh) by insisting, "I cannot spare this man - he fights," in an implicit criticism of his other more cautious generals.
Grant understood that he could replace his losses, and Lee could not. By engaging the Army of Northern Virginia in a series of high-casualty engagements, at the Wilderness and elsewhere, he broke Lee's back without ever really outmaneuvering him. Grant's Richmond campaign eventually evolved into an early version of trench warfare - and as soon as it did, the South was doomed.
Several Crucial Strategies that Shaped the 1862 Seven Days Campaign
Confederate soldiers overrun a Union battery during the Battle of Glendale on June 30, 1862, among the last fights of the Seven Days.
Don Troiani (B.1949)/Bridgeman Images
A handful of critical decisions altered the course of the 1862 Seven Days Campaign
T he Seven Days Campaign, fought June 25–July 1, 1862, prevented the Army of the Potomac from capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., at a critical junction early in the Civil War established Robert E. Lee as an army commander, which would be an instrumental factor in extending the war for another three years and forced the Lincoln administration to grapple with the issue of emancipation. The fighting and maneuvering that raged that summer from north of Richmond to 16 miles southeast along the James River unfolded as it did because of 16 critical decisions made before, during, and after the battles by commanders in both armies and at all levels. Of these decisions, three were strategic, four operational, eight tactical, and one personnel. Four were national-level decisions, nine army-level, one wing-level, and two division-level. Seven were made by Union commanders, nine by Confederate commanders. All were implemented by the thousands of soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac.
1. McClellan Decides on a Turning Movement
Army-Level Strategic Decision
Maj. Gen. George McClellan got closer to Richmond than any Army of the Potomac commander did until 1864. “He has a good face, open and manly,” said a subordinate. (Library of Congress)
Under pressure to begin operations in the spring of 1862, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, developed a plan using Union naval power to move his army from the vicinity of Washington, D.C., 87 miles south to Urbana, Va. In March, General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army retreated south from Centreville, Va., to the Rappahannock River, about 36 miles, which blocked McClellan’s intended Urbana movement.
The Union general then modified his plan and moved the army to Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Shifting the center of fighting in the Eastern Theater to the Peninsula put the Confederate capital in jeopardy of capture if sufficient forces could not be redeployed in time for its defense. The series of events set in motion by this decision led to the Seven Days.
Massive Federal mortars in the Yorktown siege lines. They never fired a shot. (Library of Congress)
2. McClellan Decides to Besiege Yorktown
Army-Level Tactical Decision
Though he had the advantage of numbers, McClellan remained convinced he was outnumbered, partially because intelligence operative Allan Pinkerton (circled at left, at McClellan’s headquarters) fed him exaggerated Confederate troop numbers. (National Archives)
By April, McClellan had approximately 50,000 men, with more arriving every day—enough to move against the Confederate positions at Yorktown and the Southern army’s defensive line across the Peninsula. Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder, who commanded 13,000 troops, skillfully used his soldiers to bluff McClellan into thinking he had a significantly larger force. McClellan decided to lay siege to the Yorktown defenses, putting heavy artillery in place from mid-April to May 2, which allowed Johnston time to shift a significant portion of his army from the Rappahannock to the southern part of the Peninsula. The Confederate position at Yorktown was abandoned the night before McClellan’s siege artillery was set to open fire. Because of his decision, McClellan lost the operational advantage gained by moving to the Peninsula. Sufficient Confederate forces were now deployed between his army and Richmond and closed the once-open road to the capital.
Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley cheer Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson. (Don Troiani/Bridgeman Images)
3. McDowell Is Diverted
National-Level Operational Decision
McClellan had no love for Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, once calling him a “scoundrel a liar & a fool.” (Library of Congress)
As McClellan began moving his army to the Peninsula, President Abraham Lincoln directed Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s 33,510-man 1st Corps to remain near Washington for the defense of the capital. When Johnston transferred his army from the Rappahannock River to the Peninsula, McDowell’s corps moved to just across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. In mid-May, he was ordered to shift farther south toward Richmond and work in conjunction with McClellan’s army.
Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, however, began his Valley Campaign shortly thereafter. In response, McDowell was ordered to concentrate, along with two other commands, near Strasburg in an attempt to cut off Jackson while he was in the northern Shenandoah Valley. That attempt was unsuccessful, and a large portion of McDowell’s force spent wasted time marching to the Valley and then back to Fredericksburg. As a result, McDowell’s corps did not make contact with the Army of the Potomac’s right flank. Such a juncture would have extended the Union lines at Richmond to the northwest and west, which would have precluded the turning movement Lee planned against McClellan’s right rear area, supply line, and base. It would have also blocked Jackson from joining Lee, as he did in late June.
4. Davis Decides on Lee
National-Level Personnel Decision
Robert E. Lee bestowed the
name Army of Northern Virginia on his new command and
moved to the offensive. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection)
After abandoning the Yorktown defenses, Johnston withdrew gradually up the Peninsula while conducting a delay. On May 31, he attacked a portion of the Union army at Seven Pines (Fair Oaks). During the battle, Johnston was severely wounded and evacuated. Confederate President Jefferson Davis needed to appoint a new army commander. He had the option of leaving the army’s second senior officer, Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith in command, appointing General Robert E. Lee, or turning to another general for the position, such as P.G.T. Beauregard or Samuel Cooper. Davis decided on Lee, appointing him commander of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1.
In two weeks, Lee launched the Seven Days Campaign and determined how the war would be fought in the Eastern Theater for the remainder of the conflict.
5. Lee’s Plan Gets Approved
National-Level Strategic Decision
Upon completion of the Valley Campaign on June 9, Jackson proposed that his command be reinforced from 16,000 to 40,000 troops so he could move north and cross into Maryland and Pennsylvania. The most available for Jackson, however, were 16,500 men, meaning he would still be 7,500 short.
Union aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe’s observation balloon flies high above the James River. Both sides used balloons on the Peninsula, but the heavy vegetation limited their effectiveness. (New York Public Library)
If Jackson had succeeded in following through with his proposal, it would have had a major impact on the war in the East. McClellan would probably have to withdraw part of his army from in front of Richmond and send them back to northern Virginia, but it also meant Lee wouldn’t have sufficient troops to execute the turning movement he was planning. Faced with the two options, Davis sided with Lee and chose not to reinforce Jackson. Lee continued planning his turning movement against McClellan.
6. Lee Decides on a Turning Movement
Army-Level Operational Decision
Supply ships at White House Landing. Below, the strong Union position at Beaver Dam Creek. The sketch mistakenly claims Jackson’s men were there. (Library of Congress)
When Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, it was located on the eastern edge of Richmond and besieged by a larger Union army. Knowing that his defenses were vulnerable if McClellan conducted a large siege operation, Lee planned a turning movement around the Union r ight (north) flank. With the advance of Confederate forces deep into the Union right rear area, McClellan’s supply line would be threatened, particularly his army’s principal supply base at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River, a tributary of the York River. This would turn McClellan’s position and force him into a battle of maneuver.
Lee’s offensive concept would save Richmond and prolong the war.
7. A.P. Hill Attacks
Division-Level Tactical Decision
Lee planned to hold a portion of his army in front of Richmond while three divisions were moved farther to the north for the turning movement. These divisions would join with Jackson’s command after it moved from the Shenandoah Valley to Ashland, then south toward the Union right rear area. Major General A.P. Hill’s Division was the leftmost of these three divisions.
When contact was made with Jackson, Hill was to cross the Chickahominy River and attack south to Mechanicsville. That would support Jackson and also clear the way for Maj. Gens. D.H. Hill’s and James Longstreet’s Divisions to cross the Chickahominy. When Jackson failed to reach his planned position by June 26, A.P. Hill made the decision to still launch his attack across the river. That initiated the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, the first Confederate offensive of the Seven Days. Without Jackson in place, Lee’s plan did not develop as the Confederate commander intended. By taking the initiative, however, Lee disrupted future Federal plans, thereby establishing the tenor of the entire campaign.
A wartime sketch of the Union lines at Gaines’ Mill, the most costly fight of the Seven Days. At the time it was the second bloodiest fight in American history, only behind Shiloh for casualties. (Library of Congress)
8. McClellan Provides Minimal Reinforcements
Army-Level Tactical Decision
Despite the successful Union defense at Beaver Dam Creek, also known as the Battle of Mechanicsville, McClellan ordered Porter’s 5th Corps to withdraw to the east and establish a defensive position at Gaines’ Mill overlooking Boatswain’s Swamp. Lee soon came up against Porter’s new position.
Throughout the afternoon of June 27, Lee committed all six divisions of his maneuver force in attacks against the Union defenders in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. This provided McClellan the opportunity to send significant reinforcements north across the Chickahominy to fight a potentially decisive defensive battle and even counterattack the left (east) flank of Lee’s army. McClellan did not do that, however, and late in the afternoon provided only minimal reinforcements that covered the retreat of the 5th Corps after it was forced from its position. McClellan had lost the tactical edge to Lee and would never regain the initiative.
The Army of the Potomac begins its retreat from the Chickahominy River across the Peninsula. The troops at the rear of the column might be the 16th New York, which had been issued distinctive straw hats. (New York Public Library)
9. McClellan Decides to Retreat to the James River
Army-Level Operational Decision
After Gaines’ Mill, the Union army was concentrated on the south side of the Chickahominy River. McClellan had two options. He could hold Lee along the line of the river and attack with the remainder of his army, the force covering Richmond—an operation that probably would have been successful. Alternatively, he could retreat. McClellan decided to retreat across the Peninsula to the James, which he tried to disguise by calling it a “change of base.”
There he could reestablish a supply base, use the river as a line of supply and communication, and be supported by the Union Navy’s gunboats. The route of retreat began at Savage’s Station, then went southeast, then south across White Oak Swamp, through the crossroads at Glendale, over Malvern Hill, then along the James to Harrison’s Landing.
It was 14 road miles to the James, then seven more miles to Harrison’s Landing for a total of 21 miles. Most roads on the Peninsula ran east and west. There were fewer north-south roads that crossed to the James. Those that existed passed through choke points such as at Glendale. McClellan would be moving a large infantry force with artillery, the artillery reserve, an artillery siege train of 26 heavy guns, more than 3,800 wagons and ambulances, and a herd of 2,518 cattle.
For an army of this size, with the limited road network going across the Peninsula, the retreat would be slow progress. Not all of McClellan’s commanders believed retreat was the right decision. Brigadier Generals Philip Kearny and Joseph Hooker, division commanders in the 3rd Corps, informed McClellan that the Confederate lines in front of Richmond were thinly held and he should launch an immediate attack against them. McClellan refused, and in the ensuing argument Kearny became so aggressive in language toward McClellan that many of those present thought he would be arrested. McClellan had given up any thoughts or pretension of capturing Richmond. For the Army of the Potomac, the Seven Days would turn into a series of successful defensive battles followed by retreats.
10. Lee Decides on a Pursuit
Army-Level Operational Decision
McClellan’s men had to cross the slow-moving Chickahominy River and
pass by choke points to successfully retreat to the James. Confederate attacks at Golding’s Farm and Savage’s Station failed to break through the Union columns. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
On the night of June 27, Porter’s battered 5th Corps retreated to the south side of the Chickahominy and destroyed the bridges after doing so. Lee’s army remained divided into two segments: 1) Magruder’s three-division force and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger’s Division holding the defenses of Richmond and 2) six divisions north of the Chickahominy involved in the turning movement. All had lost contact with the Army of the Potomac, and Lee needed 24 hours to determine whether McClellan was retreating south across, and not down, the Peninsula.
Lee had not given up attempting to seriously damage or destroy McClellan’s army. To accomplish that, he decided upon a pursuit. Jackson’s and Magruder’s commands were to apply direct pressure to the Union rearguard to slow its retreat, and did so at the Battle of Savage’s Station. Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and Huger marched to obtain a position at Glendale. If successful, this would block all or a major portion of McClellan’s army from reaching the James River. Lee’s decision continued combat operations for three more days.
The swampy, sluggish Chickahominy River impeded both sides during the campaign. This sketch by Union veteran Robert Sneden shows the Federal Grapevine Bridge over the river. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
11. Jackson Decides Not to Cross White Oak Swamp
Wing / Corps-Level Tactical Decision
Jackson’s command was a direct pressure force that was to maintain close contact with the retreating Union army and to attack and attempt to slow down the retreat whenever the opportunity presented itself. Jackson’s planned route after crossing the Chickahominy was south across White Oak Swamp, then on to Glendale, and eventually to Malvern Hill. When Jackson reached White Oak Swamp, however, he found his way barred by a Union force on the other (south) side. Rather than choose to aggressively maneuver and attack, he allowed his command to sit mostly idle on the northern edge of the swamp.
Jackson’s decision kept three divisions (D.H. Hill’s, Whiting’s, and Winder’s) out of the Glendale battle, where they might have been enough for a Confederate victory. It also allowed some Union troops at White Oak Swamp to be sent as reinforcement to the Glendale fight. Jackson’s decision nullified a major portion of Lee’s plan and contributed to the Union army’s survival at Glendale, followed by a repositioning to Malvern Hill.
12. Huger Decides Not to Attack
Division-Level Tactical Decision
Major General Benjamin Huger’s Division was to march down the Charles City Road and, in conjunction with Longstreet’s and A.P. Hill’s Divisions, attack the Union forces at the Glendale crossroads on June 30. That morning, Huger’s Division was three miles from the crossroads. A mile after it commenced marching, it entered a wooded area with felled trees blocking the road, an obstacle to artillery and wagons but infantry, with difficulty, could continue toward Glendale. Huger, seen at left, however, decided to cut a parallel road through the woods. Union troops continued chopping down trees on the established road as fast as the parallel road was cut. Huger’s Division did not arrive at Glendale in time to have any effect on the battle. Jackson’s and Huger’s decisions kept four badly needed divisions out at Glendale, contributing to a successful Union defense and a continued retreat to Malvern Hill.
Another Sneden watercolor portrays Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman’s headquarters at Glendale. Veteran Sneden recalled that the “Rebel yells could be heard above the crashing musketry.” (Library of Congress)
13. Magruder Ordered to Support Holmes
Army-Level Tactical Decision
Disjointed attacks at Glendale cost Lee the chance to cut off McClellan’s retreat. By the next day, the Army of the Potomac held the high ground at Malvern Hill, and Lee would engage in more costly attacks. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
During the pursuit, Lee ordered Magruder to follow and be prepared to support Longstreet and A.P. Hill. On June 30, Lee received a report that Union wagons were crossing Malvern Hill and he ordered Maj. Gen Theophilus H. Holmes’ Division to move down the River Road and attack Union forces on Malvern Hill.
Holmes was unsuccessful in breaching the strong Union position, and Lee ordered Magruder’s Division, essentially the army’s only reserve, to stop following Longstreet and A.P. Hill and move south to support Holmes. Shortly thereafter, Longstreet and A.P. Hill commenced The Battle of Glendale. Several hours later, Magruder was ordered to reverse course and march to Glendale to support the attack.
By the time his troops got there, it was too late. Longstreet’s and A.P. Hill’s attacks almost penetrated the Union defense at several locations, but neither commander had sufficient force to take advantage of the situation. The commitment of Confederate reserves might have cut off a significant portion of the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s decision removed a division from his attack, and together with Jackson’s and Huger’s forces, prevented five divisions with 17 infantry brigades and 23 batteries from getting into action. Union troops continued their march to Malvern Hill.
A Harper’s Weekly engraving of the Battle of Malvern Hill shows Confederate infantry charging toward a wall of Union cannons positioned nearly hub to hub. A Georgian in Huger’s Division remembered that shells “burst over our heads, under our feet, and in our faces. (Harper’s Weekly)
14. Lee Orders an Attack
Army-Level Tactical Decision
On July 1, the Army of the Potomac had formed a formidable artillery and infantry defensive position on Malvern Hill. In the morning and early afternoon, Confederate divisions began to move within striking distance of the Union defenses. When Union artillery suppressed the crossfire of Confederate artillery, it appeared that no infantry attack would take place.
Lee, however, received incorrect information that Union artillery and infantry were withdrawing and ordered his infantry to attack, resulting in multiple unsuccessful brigade attacks with a high number of casualties, and a Union victory. Malvern Hill was Lee’s last chance to damage the Union army.
This battle, with 5,650 Confederate casualties, was the second bloodiest of the Seven Days. With the other battles during the campaign, Lee’s army had suffered 20,204 casualties, 22 percent of its strength. After Malvern Hill, Lee ceased combat operations and begin to consolidate, reorganize, and resupply his army.
15. McClellan Retreats, Again
Army-Level Tactical Decision
Union gunboats Galena (left) and Mahaska add their huge shells to the cannonade at Malvern Hill while Federal reserve batteries in the open field await the call to action. (New York Public Library)
McClellan won a resounding defensive victory on July 1 and had the opportunity to hold his strong position or to counterattack. He chose to do neither. On the night of July 1, Union troops abandoned the Malvern Hill position and continued their retreat. On July 2-3, McClellan’s army marched seven miles on the River Road to Berkley Plantation and Harrison’s Landing. With this critical decision, McClellan gave up any tactical advantages he had gained on July 1 and essentially brought the Seven Days Campaign to a close.
16. Halleck Decides to Evacuate the Peninsula
National-Level Strategic Decision
The Army of the Potomac occupied positions at Berkley Plantation and Harrison’s Landing from July 3 into August, staying secure behind defenses and resupplying. No offensive operations were conducted. Lincoln and then the new general-in-chief, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, both visited McClellan to discuss several proposed offensive options, among them renewed operation on the north side of the James against Richmond or on the southside against Petersburg. McClellan, however, demanded more troops and remained in place. Halleck then ordered the Army of the Potomac to march to Fort Monroe and then be sent back to Alexandria and Washington by ship. This decision ended combat operations on the Peninsula. Union troops would not be this close to Richmond again until the late summer of 1864.
The Development of Union Strategy
When the South seceeded, Lincoln was faced with the prospect of fighting an offensive war in order to force the Confederacy back into the Union. This meant that he had to recruit more troops than the South in order to have superior numbers for invasion. In other words, he had to recruit, organize, train, feed, clothe, and arm about 3 to 4 men for every soldier the South mustered, roughly 1.5 to 2.5 million men &ndash a daunting task for a country who only had a regular army of about 16,000 men at the time the war began! This situation was compounded by the fact that in order to win, the North had to mass enough men and resources to invade and conquer a territory that was almost the size of Western Europe.
Secondly, from a political standpoint, Lincoln also had the daunting task of holding the Union together, in spite of all of the divisive forces prevalent at the time. He had to walk a proverbial tightrope between the Republicans and the Democrats, the abolitionists and the slavery proponents, and the Unionists and the secessionists. He also had to effectively manage the border states to prevent them from seceding from the Union, a task that required an iron fist as well as kid gloves, depending upon the state involved.
Finally, Lincoln also had to worry about keeping other countries, such as England and France, out of the conflict, while he sought a strategy that achieved his aim of reuniting all states under one government. Lincoln felt that the Union would have to maintain the loyalty of the border states largely for political reasons. He believed that, because nearly half of the voters in the North were Democrats who supported a war to preserve the Union but not a war against slavery, he would have to tread lightly on the slave issue or lose their overall support.
Furthermore, since the border states had a large contingent of pro-confederate sympathizers, he felt that any quick action to support the anti-slave issue would result in at least three of the four border states seceding from the Union. Of the four border states, Delaware was probably the easiest to keep in the Union because of its location and isolation from other Southern states as well as its lack of pro-Confederacy leanings. In terms of maintaining the four border states within the Union, Kentucky represented the greatest challenge for Lincoln, due to its political makeup as well as its constituency. Lincoln handled Kentucky with &ldquokid gloves&rdquo because it had a secessionist governor and a Unionist legislature and was trying to walk a very thin line between secession and neutrality.
As a result, Lincoln, along with Jefferson Davis, for that matter, wanted to respect its neutrality, at least for the time-being. He didn&rsquot want to take any anti-slavery action, which might jeopardize the situation and cause Kentucky to revoke its neutrality and secede from the Union. In addition, Kentucky, like Missouri and Maryland, had many confederate sympathizers that Lincoln did not want to provoke. Lincoln was successful in securing the border states, preventing them from seceding from the Union, and demonstrating a knack for handling each situation in just the right way. In addition to securing these border states for the North, Lincoln was also able to secure the western counties of Virginia for the Union which he was only too happy to admit as the new state of West Virginia. This had the effect of insuring that the Ohio River would not become the Northern border of the Confederacy, which would have complicated an invasion of the South. It also kept that region's troops and supplies out of the hands of the Confederates, preventing their use against the Union.
Additionally, it weakened the Western portion of the Confederacy by removing Missouri from the mix and maintaining a delicate strategic advantage in the East. Maryland and Delaware were also kept out of the Confederacy so as not to isolate Washington from the rest of the Union, a situation that would have been strategically untenable. From a geographic standpoint, there were essentially four avenues for strategic penetration of the South by the North, not counting an invasion by sea. In the east, the mountain valleys at the eastern fringe of the Alleghanies allowed the penetration of Virginia from Pennsylvania. Also in the East, the Shenandoah Valley allowed for the penetration of Virginia and the ability to threaten Richmond from the Maryland/Washington area.
In the West, within the mountain district, the route through Chattanooga, Tennessee gave the North the opportunity of transferring troops into the heart of Georgia or to make flanking movements into Virginia. Also in the west, the entire length of the Mississippi River offered the North many opportunities for strategic penetration. Logistically, the North had many more miles of railroads and telegraph lines, which would allow Union troops to move with greater ease and communicate more effectively between armies and theaters of command. In addition, they had a larger Navy and greater number of commercial and private vessels that could be used to ferry troops along major internal waterways as well as to control the high seas or to effect an invasion anywhere along the eastern seaboard of the Confederacy. As a result of their manufacturing and agricultural capabilities, the North could readily feed, clothe, and arm its troops in ways the South could only dream about.
Based on this strategic environment, General Winfield Scott developed an initial plan which consisted of three steps: 1) the blockade of the Southern seaports 2) the control of the Mississippi River and 3) the capture of Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. The first step, the blockade of the Southern seaports, was intended to prevent the South from exporting its primary crop, cotton, to Europe in exchange for supplies and weapons to support their war effort. The second step, the control of the Mississippi River, was an attempt to split the Confederacy in half by isolating the western states of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas from the eastern section of the Confederacy, preventing them from providing troops to aid Richmond. Finally, the third element of the plan was to ultimately capture Richmond and, essentially cut the head off the serpent. Scott&rsquos plan drew mixed reviews. Lincoln initially thought the plan had merit but many in his cabinet disagreed. By adopting the plan, many thought that Lincoln would come under diplomatic and political scrutiny. By blockading the Southern ports, they felt that Lincoln was recognizing the sovereignty of the Confederacy, something that he had been trying to avoid by virtue of his declarations that the Union was merely trying to bring his national house in order by suppressing a rebellion.
In addition, Lincoln&rsquos Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, was concerned that Scott&rsquos plan would only offend other nations. He felt that those foreign nations who attempted to trade with the confederacy would become enraged at the possibility of having their ships and cargoes seized, fomenting war or, at the very least, infuriating them to the extent that they extended diplomatic relations with the Confederacy. Scott&rsquos plan was also lambasted by the Northern press. General McClellan&rsquos remark about it being a &ldquoboa-constrictor&rdquo plan, in reference to its goal of surrounding the Confederacy and isolating it from the outside world while squeezing it like a vise, had leaked to the press. They wasted no time in re-naming it the &ldquoAnaconda Plan,&rdquo where they ridiculed it as an attempt &ldquoto squeeze the South to military death.&rdquo
Although the "Anaconda" plan was not adopted in its entirety, at the time Scott proposed it, a very similar plan was eventually developed by Lincoln and implemented by Grant. The blockade of the entire Confederate coast was the first part of the plan implemented. Next, Grant was able to control the Mississippi River, with a combination of Union land and naval forces, capturing Vicksburg in 1863, along with other cities of strategic importance such as Memphis and New Orleans, and then begin a military thrust eastward. In a move that wasn&rsquot part of the original strategy, Sherman began his famous march to the sea from Chattanooga in August 1864 dispatching Johnston&rsquos and Hood&rsquos forces on his way through Georgia, ultimately capturing Atlanta, further cutting the South in half, on his way to the Carolinas.
Although the capture, and ultimate capitulation, of Richmond was actually never achieved, it was really incidental to the success of Union strategy as a whole because it really did nothing to defeat the Confederate armies in the field &ndash one of Lincoln&rsquos primary goals. Finally, Grant&rsquos forces used the eastern mountain passes and the Shenandoah Valley during the Petersburg campaign, defeating Lee&rsquos army and leading to Lee&rsquos evacuation of Richmond and his eventual surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
Beginning of the War
Following the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, McClellan reentered the military and advanced quickly. On April 23, he accepted command of Ohio’s militia. On May 3, he took charge of the U.S. Army’s Department of Ohio, and on May 14, he was commissioned a major general in the Regular Army, second in rank only to his former Mexican War commander, Winfield Scott. McClellan organized one of the war’s first offensives, securing the western, Unionist section of Virginia in a campaign marked by rugged terrain and inexperienced soldiers on both sides. In the Rich Mountain Campaign (June–July 1861), conceived to secure the vital Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Parkersburg Turnpike, Union forces defeated a smaller Confederate army under Robert S. Garnett (who was killed in the fighting).
Credit for the victory at Rich Mountain rightfully belongs to William S. Rosecrans. Still, battlefield success put McClellan’s name in the papers, especially after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21. Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington, D.C., to take command of the defeated Union troops there on July 26. His train from western Virginia attracted enthusiastic crowds of well-wishers who already considered him to be a national hero and potentially a military savior. McClellan’s meteoric rise, fueled by political connections and an early battlefield victory, may have been intoxicating for a man not yet forty years old, but it also marked a high point in his life that, arguably, would never be equaled.
U.S. Grant and Operations
The Civil War has been alternatively described as the last of the Napoleonic Wars or the first of the modern wars.1 Clearly it was a transitional war and one man, more than any other, can be credited with making the transition. That man was U.S. Grant, the Union General-in-Chief. He was innovative on both a strategic and operational level. Changes he introduced altered future warfare and accelerated the defeat the South. While Grant’s strategic vision was vitally important to victory, this paper concentrates on his operational, as opposed to tactical or strategic, innovation. Much as been written about the North’s successful strategy.2Many other books describe the tactical changes that occurred during the war,3 but few authors highlight the operational change introduced by Grant.
There are three levels of decision-making and actions within war. These are strategy, operations and tactics. "Tactics" is defined in one dictionary as "the science and art of using a fighting force to the best advantage having regard to the immediate situation of combat."4Alternatively, the Marine Corps equates the tactical level with winning battles and combat engagements, using firepower and maneuver, in a particular time and place. The Marines identify tactics as the lowest level of war, beneath the strategic and the operational levels. Activities at the strategic level reflect national policy objectives, and military strategy reflects the application of military power to meet national policy objectives. Operations link the strategic level with the tactical level operations are the use of tactics to achieve strategic objectives. The operational level includes decisions regarding when, where and under what conditions to engage the enemy in battle – or when to refuse to engage the enemy.5
During the Civil War, tactics changed as new equipment, especially the grooved rifle and the entrenching tool, gained prominence. The strength of the defensive was widely recognized as early as the third year of the war. The use of combined arms (infantry, artillery, cavalry) tactics by generals like Union Major General Philip Sheridan and Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne proved effective. New formations like those employed by Union Colonel Emory Upton at Spotsylvania and Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet at Chickamauga and The Wilderness demonstrated the power of attacks by formations with depth instead of breadth. But none of the tactical innovations had nearly the effect on future wars as two of Grant’s innovations – innovations as surely credited to Grant as greatness is to Robert E. Lee.
First, Grant understood that war could not be a seasonal activity. Until 1864, wars were conducted when the seasons best permitted, or when men could be away from their farms. Grant waged war year-round, recognizing that "total" war would cause, among other things, civilian discomfort and reduce the political will of the enemy. Under Grant, Union armies did not retire to winter quarters to refit and reorganize, and they would require their enemies to remain in the field against them. But total warfare was more a strategic than operational change. Second, Grant recognized that a high tempo of operations reduced or eliminated the enemy’s ability to use advantages such as interior lines of communications. Speed over time is tempo.6 Until Grant took command, the South could count on reprieves during periods of Union inactivity to refit and restore their logistic and supply bases. Or needing men in one location, the South could use interior lines to move men to meet the current threat. Grant’s operational tempo bankrupt Lee and other Southern generals of their supplies and their morale, and their ability to concentrate against one army while delaying or holding against another. Grant used maneuver in order to increase tempo as well as to place his forces. Indeed, Grant’s use of maneuver was every bit as important to his generalship as it was to those given more credit for using maneuver – Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Union Major General William T. Sherman and especially Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson.
As a result of Grant’s innovations, by the end of the war, Confederate troops were typically hungry, shoeless, poorly mounted, and generally forlorn. Their Union counterparts were unhappy with the war continuing, but they were generally sure of ultimate victory, well fed, well supplied and increasingly well led. Grant cannot be given credit for the Union supply lines or food preparation, but his activity, his understanding of war and, most of all, his understanding of operations in the field forever changed the nature of war.
Clearly Grant was a military genius, or at least particularly gifted, with respect to strategy. Grant’s strategic view was put into action and led to the end of the war in just over one year from the time he assumed overall command of Union armies. Operationally, he was just as effective. During the four years of the war, troops under Grant’s immediate command received the surrender of three Confederate armies and two were put to flight in total disarray.7 But tactically speaking, after Ft. Donelson, in February 1862, Grant seldom had a direct effect on tactics. As a field army commander and then as General-in-Chief of all Union armies, Grant’s domain lie in strategy and operations. While many view Grant as a butcher,8especially after the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, Grant used maneuver to place his forces in optimum positions to attack his Confederate opponents. The aforementioned attacks by the Army of the Potomac were usually the result of that Army’s well known characteristic of being late, as opposed to lack of maneuver by Grant.9
The South’s foremost general and perhaps the best known military figure of the war, Robert E. Lee, described his responsibility in operational terms, "I plan and work…to bring the troops to the right place at the right time." Lee thought that interfering with his brigade and division commanders would do more harm than good.10
Operationally, Grant sought Lee’s goal – to place his men where they could be successful tactically. The record shows that Grant did precisely that, though his subordinates often failed to capitalize on his work. Grant used maneuver extensively, and, until late in the war, always sought to win the battle outright by capturing the enemy force intact. This appears to have been innately learned, since Grant denies having read the standard books on tactics11 or the military pronouncements of the French general, Henri Jomini, or the American Thomas Mahan, whose tactical doctrine dominated Civil War thinking.12
There is no evidence that Grant ever wanted to win the war by attrition as his mostly-Southern critics claim, nor is there any indication that Grant believed frontal attacks alone were the answer. But there were many experiences that undoubtedly affected his decision-making as Grant grew into his assignment as General-in-Chief.
At the beginning of the conflict, veterans of the Mexican War, whose number included Grant, assumed conspicuous roles on both sides. Lessons learned in Mexico more than a decade before had a significant influence on Civil War operations and tactics. In Mexico, the smaller American units routinely maneuvered aggressively, attacked and routed defending units who were in strong, fortified positions. At Buena Vista and other places, Americans held off larger numbers of Mexicans, without resorting to entrenchment, by using artillery very aggressively, often placing the guns in advance of infantry positions. Thus, Civil War generals such as Grant, Lee, Longstreet, Bragg, McClellan and a host of others observed that well-led, numerically inferior troops could attack and defeat larger numbers. Indeed, the primary lesson seemed to be that élan, vigor and attack won against any defense.
One of his early Civil War assignments took then Colonel Grant’s regiment against Confederates in Missouri. While Grant failed to find his enemy (who fled,) he learned the first of many battlefield lessons as a commander - he learned to control his fear. Furthermore, he realized that the opposing commander probably feared him as much as he feared the enemy. Controlling fear and confidence go hand in hand, and after this non-battle Grant always exhibited confidence in battle. Confidence is a pre-requisite to a commander’s use of maneuver and increased tempo, and Grant acquired that essential early in the war. 13
The Battle of Belmont, November 1861, his first as a general officer, came next in Grant’s career. Belmont was a riverine operation the Union forces disembarked and attacked directly without a reconnaissance. But Grant had no reserve force as a result, when the Confederates counter-attacked, Grant’s men had to fight their way back to their boats. During the battle, the new general also displayed the personal bravery that marked his Mexican experiences, having one horse shot from under him and being the last to re-embark aboard the river transports that had carried his troops to the area.14 But the want of a reserve denied Grant tactical options Belmont marked the last time he would enter a battle without one.
The capture of Ft. Henry, February 1862, first brought fame to Grant, although it was the Navy who won the battle before Grant’s army troops could get into action. Thus, many Confederates escaped since Union forces could not close the cordon around the fort quickly enough. Grant would ensure in the future that escape would be more difficult. However, the rapidity that marked Grant’s advance to Ft. Henry remained a constant when, only eight days later, he attacked Ft. Donelson.
Grant moved very quickly against the larger, better defended and more substantial fort - faster than his commander, Major General Henry Halleck, would have liked. At the time the Union army took positions surrounding the fort, the Confederate commander had as many men as Grant – and the Confederates were probably better armed! However, assisted by the efforts of Brigadier General William T. Sherman, who aggressively pushed forward men and equipment forward, the Union forces were quickly bolstered and provided Grant with a numerically superior army.
Grant’s personal presence on the battlefield was undoubtedly critical to the Union success. He personally conducted reconnaissance against the fort, he directed placement of his divisions, he selected artillery positions, and he coordinated the attacks by the Navy. When the Confederates attacked his right flank, Grant alone sensed the nature of the assault (they were attempting to break out of the siege,) ordered the immediate Federal counter-attacks, pushed ammunition to his troops, and inspired them by his personal example.15 But even at Donelson, Grant did not set attack formations, lead attacks, or decide how to make the attacks – which would have indicated further tactical involvement on his part. Rather, Grant ordered subordinates into action after learning the intentions of the Confederate forces. General W.F. Smith, for example, attacked on Grant’s left using tactics Smith determined based on the terrain. But Grant had placed his army in a position to capture the entire opposing force, and capture (most of) it he did.
At Ft. Donelson, Grant was on the edge of the line between operations and tactics, and he made mistakes indicative of an officer whose responsibilities were in transition. For example, he left Union lines to visit Commodore Foote, several miles away, without leaving a designated second-in-command and he did not ensure that his right flank was set firmly against the Cumberland River, thereby permitting the Confederate cavalry under Forrest (and whomever chose to accompany them) to escape the Union encirclement. Nor is there evidence he supervised or ensured of aggressive, or even passive, Union patrolling, for patrols would have detected the escape by Forrest and his cavalry. But Grant provided clear, positive and, most importantly, confident leadership. His aggressiveness in attacking Donelson without waiting to resupply, refit and reorganize surprised not only his own commander, but Southern leadership as well. He positioned his army in front of his enemy when aggressiveness by the Southern commander could have endangered Grant’s numerically equal force. He seized the initiative and set the tempo for the campaign, which resulted in the Confederate loss of Nashville, and with it the important industry and commerce that city provided the Southern cause. The tempo of operations from Ft. Henry through Ft. Donelson set a tone for Grant’s later actions. But Grant’s failure to closely supervise subordinates would cost him again in his next battle as an army commander – Shiloh.
If Ft. Donelson showed Grant to be an excellent counter-puncher, Shiloh proved that he could counter-punch with the greatest generals in history. He had to, because he had made a mistake and permitted subordinates, particularly Sherman, too much latitude. At Shiloh, 1862, Grant clearly wanted to stay at the operational level as seen in this order to Sherman on April 4, two days before the Confederate attack:
"…Information just received would indicate that the enemy are sending in a force to Purdy, and it may be with a view to attack General Wallace at Crump's Landing. I have directed General W. H. L. Wallace, commanding Second Division temporarily, to re-enforce General L. Wallace in case of an attack with his entire division, although I look for nothing of the kind, but it is best to be prepared. I would direct, therefore, that you advise your advance guards to keep a sharp lookout for any movement in that direction, and should such a thing be attempted, give all the support of your division and General Hurlbut's, if necessary. I will return to Pittsburg at an early hour to-morrow, and will ride out to your camp…"16
That order reflected a general in operational command, but his principal subordinates caused him to make a few tactical decisions after the battle was initiated.
Though Sherman was tasked to organize the Union defensive position around Pittsburg Landing, he failed to recognize the many signals that a Confederate attack was imminent. More importantly, Sherman failed to prepare a proper defensive position five Union divisions were not even in tactical formations, nor had field fortifications been constructed. When the Southerners attacked, Sherman was completely surprised, though he and most others fought back with savage fury. Grant was not even on the ground when the enemy attacked, but he arrived soon. On his way, he ordered reinforcements to Sherman’s aid. But it was Grant who recovered the day and won the battle, notwithstanding the bravery and courage of thousands of his officers and men. He won not because of his tactical or operational genius, because there is no evidence he did anything brilliant. Rather, he steadfastly organized his surprised and almost routed Union force into one that was able to fight off the Confederate onslaught by the close of the first day.
Despite a serious injury (from before the battle,) Grant personally ensured the last line of defensive positions near the river was well formed and fully manned by artillery, and he directed that essential logistics functions, especially movement of ammunition to the front, were performed. But at the end of the first day, his thoughts were only of victory. He knew fresh troops, including the Army of the Ohio, had arrived. Therefore, at dawn, Grant attacked (increasing the tempo) before the Confederates could renew their assaults. His tactical plan was neither complex nor imaginative. It simply was to align the available Union forces and move straight ahead.
Grant willed victory through his own persistence, based on confidence learned in Missouri, and the bravery of his men but as importantly, Donelson had shown him the importance of acting faster than his opponent. At the close of day one, Sherman and other subordinates were ready to leave the field to the enemy, but Grant never considered that option.17 He alone did not falter in the face of a dramatic setback on the first day. Grant learned from Shiloh, however. His future orders were more complete and presumed less, though he was still not immune from the failures of subordinates.
By November 1862, Grant proved that he was more than a counter-puncher he was the master of maneuver warfare. Assuming field command in the West when Halleck went to Washington as General-in-Chief, Grant maneuvered his subordinates in a way that should have resulted in the destruction of Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate army. At the Battles of Iuka and Cornith, Mississippi, in September and October respectively, Grant consolidated the Union position in West Tennessee and Northern Mississippi, though he was not present on the field. He directed his generals into positions to earn victories, and relied on them to decide the "tactics." These battles reflected Grant acting like Lee, taking advantage of emerging operational opportunities.
Prior to Iuka, the Confederates were intent on attacking while Union forces were spread throughout northern Mississippi and Tennessee, in defensive dispositions (protecting the railroads) made by Halleck. Grant saw an opportunity to completely destroy the Confederate army. Maneuvering his forces (using the telegraph as the primary communications means) quickly, Grant had his opponent in a vise, only to have then Brigadier General William Rosecrans’ lack of aggressiveness (and failure to advance in accordance with his own schedule) combine with unusual weather conditions to save his opponent.18 Grant proved that Union forces under his command would aggressively fight when presented openings. Still, at this stage of the war (late 1862), Grant was not able to implement a faster operational tempo since his superior, Halleck, seemed genetically incapable of thinking in terms of speed and movement.
Iuka and Cornith proved to Grant that conducting operations from afar was very difficult, especially with a strong-willed subordinate such as Rosecrans. At times he had to seek the help of Halleck just to get Rosecrans to obey orders. Nevertheless, the Iuka and Cornith campaign was another learning experience for Grant. Thereafter, he would try to be nearer the units over which he was maintaining operational control. But for these experiences, it is problematic if Grant would have seen the necessity for being in the field with the army during the Vicksburg campaign, or more importantly, during the Army of the Potomac’s epic struggle against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, the period from Shiloh to Cornith (April to November 1862) probably convinced Grant that, unlike Halleck, he could not effectively command from the rear the same period also taught him the value of tempo, since the battles at Donelson, Shiloh and Iuka were won by moving quickly and decisively.
The campaign for Vicksburg was the war’s foremost example of maneuver warfare, and the tempo of operations maintained by Grant’s forces from May until July, 1863, was never again matched during the Civil War. After spending nearly six months trying various schemes to place his men in a position to surround Vicksburg, Grant decided on a fast tempo campaign of maneuver. The ensuing operations were even more commendable when it is considered that Grant’s plan did not have the support of his primary lieutenant and confidant, William T. Sherman.
At Vicksburg, Grant’s operational genius and use of maneuver led to the surrender of a Confederate army and the opening of the Mississippi River, thereby cutting the Confederacy in half. Only occasionally during the Vicksburg campaign did Grant become involved with tactics he told his three subordinate commanders where to go and what to do, and generally stayed out of their way, though he did place himself close to near his weakest general whenever possible for non-operational reasons. His use of maneuver surprised everyone, including Sherman and President Lincoln, and the tempo of operations completely dazzled his Confederate opponents. After crossing the continent’s largest river, defeating two separate forces within two weeks, and then besieging the town, his concurrent defense against the danger of attack from General Joe Johnston provided no opening for the Confederates. Only in authorizing frontal attacks against the city did he show impatience and, perhaps, too much optimism. But remembering that Lieutenant General John Pemberton’s forces had been badly beaten twice in prior days, and knowing that Union forces were brimming with confidence, Grant probably succumbed to the attacks just like other generals would have.19 While events at Vicksburg remain little known outside the community of Civil War scholars, they bear comparison with another campaign that is much better known to Americans generally.
A major difference between Grant during the Vicksburg campaign and then Major General Thomas J. Jackson’s famous "Valley Campaign" was the level at which the two commanders operated. Jackson generally had fewer than 20,000 troops and faced a single, poorly-led opponent of about equal strength. Jackson himself usually dictated both the operations and the tactics used. From conducting personal reconnaissance to placing artillery, Jackson did everything.20 Grant, on the other hand, commanded more than 30,000 troops, had to work with a friendly force not under his command (the U.S. Navy,) and had a major obstacle (the Mississippi River) to cross before he could reach his enemy. Grant fully utilized his senior subordinates to implement tactics while preserving for himself an operational role. Unlike Jackson, he also faced the additional challenge of having two rebel armies, separated by less than 50 miles, with which to contend. Strategically, operationally and tactically Vicksburg was as stunning a victory as any of the entire war, and it was gained by the dramatic use of increased tempo and maneuver.
Later in 1863, Grant changed his area of operations and assumed personal control of the Union effort at East Tennessee. Confederate Army of Tennessee had defeated Major General William Rosecrans’ army at Chickamauga in September, and by October conditions for Union forces in Chattanooga were desperate. Rosecrans proved incapable of reorganizing following his major reversal, and Grant replaced him with Major General George Thomas. However, President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Halleck both wanted Grant, in person, to take control of the situation in the city. Arriving though still severely injured from a fall, Grant again proved that keeping out of the way of his army, division and brigade commanders was the best course. He quickly approved Brigadier General William Smith’s plan to left the siege on the city, and he adopted a battle plan largely drawn by Smith and Thomas for the attack against the Confederates on Missionary Ridge, the dominate feature of the local terrain.
Grant’s conduct at Missionary Ridge was very similar to Lee’s at the site of his greatest victory, Chancellorsville. Both benefited from the initiative and daring of subordinates. 21Both Grant and Lee placed their men in a way that permitted victory then, neither stuck to a preconceived operational plan. When opportunities became apparent, and subordinate leaders took aggressive action, both Grant and Lee changed their plans to reflect the tactical situation. Both accepted the public accolades of their Presidents, but each benefited usually from poor leadership by their opponents and outstanding initiative by their subordinates. Generals acting the operational level of war, however, must rely on such occurrences. Bragg and Hooker, the vanquished commanders at Missionary Ridge and Chancellorsville respectively, were both poorly served even though operationally each, particularly Hooker, had a good plan. A nation must expect its generals to be lucky, however and both Grant and Lee were!
Missionary Ridge was Grant’s last battle before becoming General-in-Chief, replacing the indecisive Halleck. Grant realized that his place was in the field with the principal Union army in the East, the Army of the Potomac. While politics played an important role in Grant’s decision to remain in the East, his previous experience in getting subordinates to follow his instructions surely was a factor. Grant and the entire North realized the Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was the primary enemy and defeat of that army was a major goal. How to defeat Lee was the pressing operational issue. In deciding, Grant made two of the key judgments of the war - he retained Major General George G. Meade as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac and he kept Halleck as Chief of Staff in Washington, leaving to Halleck the burden of daily supervision of the Army headquarters.
These decisions freed Grant of two momentous problems – naming a new commander for one of his important filed armies and assuming daily responsibility for the entire army himself. Both were fraught with potential issues. Maintaining Meade meant that Grant did not have to think tactically, or directly control corps commanders his position in the field did mean, however, that he could not impose his tremendous will on those subordinates but through Meade. The clear orders that Grant gave to Meade showed that his mistakes of Donelson, Shiloh, and Iuka/Cornith were not going to be repeated. While there could be little doubt of Grant’s intentions and objectives, Meade had the responsibility for tactical details.22
But the recent success at Missionary Ridge combined with intense political pressure to gain a victory over Lee affected Grant’s operational decisions. Having been promoted to Lieutenant General in March 1864, Grant became the champion of the North. The press and the populace did not only desire a decisive victory over Lee, but they was expected it.23
At the miracle of Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863, the Union army pierced the middle of Bragg’s defenses, a position considered impregnable by the Confederates. But the frontal attack occurred only after Grant had stretched Bragg’s defenses on both flanks, thereby weakening the Confederate middle. Grant had watched in "intense interest" as the Confederate center was broken.24 As a probable result of that victory and the tactics used, not until after Cold Harbor in the July, three months into the campaign, did Grant give up the idea of attacking frontly after the Confederate defense had been stretched. In each instance where frontal attacks failed, they occurred following maneuvers that should have provided a tactical advantage.
On three occasions during the campaign from The Wilderness to Petersburg, Grant had out-maneuvered Lee, and in one of those cases he had completely fooled the Southern leader. Grant had stolen the march from The Wilderness to Spotsylvania Courthouse, only to have the Army of the Potomac renew its claim to always arriving an hour late, though in this case Phil Sheridan cavalry did not prove its mettle. Then too, the Union 9th Corps commander, operating directly under Grant’s orders, showed himself incapable of aggressive action. Thus, Lee was able to stalemate Grant’s move. Moving then from Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor, Grant again gained a headstart, only to have the Confederates seize the better position through the initiative and skill of Lee’s subordinates as compared to Grant’s. But the final move that Grant made, crossing the James River from Cold Harbor to Petersburg, was operationally brilliant and should have resulted in the capture of both Petersburg, with its important railroad communications center, and Richmond. Again, however, daring and initiative by a Southerner completely deadlocked Grant. His own subordinates, William "Baldy" Smith and Winfield Scott Hancock, utterly lost their nerve in the face of a strong defensive position, even though very few Southern infantry occupied it! Although responsibility for the Union failures was Grant’s, the primary reason for the failures was weak subordinate leadership. Grant’s plans featured outstanding use of maneuver and a high tempo of operations.25
From the Wilderness through Cold Harbor, the high tempo of operations, use of maneuver and Grant’s perception that just a little more pressure might lead to Lee’s collapse combined to cause the loss of many men on both sides. But having seen that the Army of Northern Virginia was not likely to break, and having arrived outside the fortifications that surrounded Petersburg and Richmond, Grant returned to his tried and true operational plan. He maintained the tempo of operations and sought to stretch the defense, and draw out into the open his opponent, by using maneuver.
During the whole siege of the Petersburg/Richmond area from June 1864 until March 1865, Lee’s front was continuously weakened as the Southerner witnessed Grant’s repeated attacks on both flanks. The only Union frontal attack (unsuccessful) of the siege took place only after a great mine had exploded under a portion of the defenders’ lines otherwise, Grant avoided direct attacks until March 1865, when success was assured. By the time Sheridan gained a significant victory on Lee’s right flank in March 1865 at Five Forks, Lee’s army was so badly thinned that it collapsed under the weight of a general Union offensive all along the line.
The final victory was achieved using maneuver, not traditional siege tactics. Moreover, Grant used his superiority in numbers to maintain a constantly high tempo of operations. Lee and his men had no time to rest, and Lee had no troops free to support other Confederate armies.
After Ft. Donelson, February 1862, Grant seldom got involved with tactical decisions. He did not have the responsibility for conducting a reconnaissance against the enemy, selecting defensive positions, detecting weaknesses in the enemy defensives, maneuvering his forces to exploit the immediate situation, or personally directing the formation the attacking force would use. Those were tactical decisions and many high-ranking officers made them during the Civil War. Grant’s old friend, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, for example, made such decisions repeatedly during battles such as Chickamauga and the Wilderness.26 But Grant’s realm was primarily at the operational level and above.
Grant’s strategic decision in the spring of 1864 to simultaneously engage all Confederate forces in the field prevented the Confederates from using their interior lines to move men from one threatened location to another.27 But as important as that directive, Grant dramatically increased the tempo of operations in the East, and in doing so changed the face of war. After the opening of the Wilderness campaign in May 1864, Lee and his army had no rest. They faced incessant Union operations that had Lee scrambling, unable to seize the initiative. So effective was Grant’s use of increased tempo that after the Wilderness, Lee could not again mount an offensive until March 1865, when his desperate attempt to break out of the lines at Petersburg ended in failure and the surrender of Lee’s army one month later. Grant evolved as a leader as the war progressed, and he achieved a degree of strategic and operational competence unmatched by any other Civil War general.
1 Among numerous references, see, for example, the discussion presented in Archer Jones, Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 219-45.
2 Perhaps the best book about Northern strategy is Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).
3 See, for example, Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1982) and Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New: Yale University Press, 1987).
4 New Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus, (1992), s.v. "tactics."
5 United States Marine Corps, Warfighting (New York: Doubleday,1994), 27-30.
7 Grant "captured" the Confederate armies at Ft. Donelson, Vicksburg, and Appomattox, and put to flight Van Dorn’s Army of Mississippi at Cornith and Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Missionary Ridge.
8 Even Major General George Meade is quoted with disparaging remarks about Grant’s appetite for bloody, frontal attacks. See for example, Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants, Volume 3 (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1945), 439.
9 The best book about Grant and the Army of the Potomac remains Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1968), 292.
10 Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995), 246.
11 U.S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: The Library of America, 1990), 166-7.
12 If Grant did not believe in reading about military doctrine, his most trusted subordinate, Major General W.T. Sherman surely did when in 1862 he published as part of a General Order, "…All officers of this command must now study their books ignorance of duty must no longer be pleaded. The commanding general has the power at any time to order a board to examine the acquirements and capacity of any officer, and he will not fail to exercise it. Should any officer, high or low, after the opportunity and experience we have had, be ignorant of his tactics, regulations, or even of the principles of the Art of War (Mahan and Jomini), it would be a lasting disgrace." OR, 17, pt. 2: 119.
18 Noise of Rosecrans attack on the Union left was supposed to signal an assault by Ord, but though the battle raged only two or three miles away, Ord’s men never heard the sound of cannon, and thus the Confederate force was permitted to retreat relatively unmolested. Grant, 276.
19 Many authors have applauded Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. For a complete account of that period in Grant’s generalship, see Earl S. Miers, The Web of Victory: Grant at Vicksburg (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984).
20 For an excellent account of the generalship of Jackson, see G.F.R. Henderson, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1943).
21 At Chancellorsville, Union failures were many but the most grievous errors belonged to Generals Howard and Sedgwick, while Confederate successes were mainly due to Jackson and the little known Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox. At Missionary Ridge, the Union benefited from the initiative of Generals Sheridan, Wood and Hooker, while Bragg suffered the lack of support from Longstreet (before the battle) and Breckinridge during it. For an excellent account of Chancellorsville see Ernest B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave (New York,: Random House, 1993). One of several accounts of the Battle at Missionary Ridge is provided by Freeman Cleaves, Rock of Chickamauga: The Life of George H. Thomas (Norman, OK University of Oklahoma Press, 1948), 187-200. Compare Cleaves account with Grant, 433-51.
22 The command relationship with respect to the Army of the Potomac was complex after Grant arrived in the East. Catton, 234-5, describes it best, citing a quote attributed to Meade in a letter to his wife, "…says, ‘The Army of the Potomac, directed by Grant, commanded by Meade, and led by Hancock, Sedgwick and Warren…’ which is quite a good distinction and about hits the nail on the head." Grant’s orders to Meade were very precise and clear, though their execution remained often slow and without vigor.
23 For an excellent account of public sentiment, North and South, following Grant’s assumption of command and leading into his campaign against Lee, see Gary W. Gallagher, Editor, The Wilderness Campaign (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 1-65.
26 For an in-depth view of the tactical responsibilities of Longstreet at Chickamauga and The Wilderness, see, for example, Jeffry D. Wert, General James Longstreet, The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 306-22 378-92.
27 Catton, 138. Hattaway, 532.
Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1968.
Cleaves, Freeman. Rock of Chickamauga: The Life of George H. Thomas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948.
Grant, U.S. Memoirs and Selected Letters. New York: The Library of America, 1990.
Griffith, Paddy. Battle Tactics of the Civil War. New: Yale University Press, 1987.
Hattaway, Herman, and Jones, Archer. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Jones, Archer. Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat. New York: The Free Press, 1992.
Henderson, G.F.R. Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1943.
Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The Wilderness Campaign. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
McWhiney, Grady and Jamieson, Perry D. Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1982.
Miers, Earl S. The Web of Victory: Grant at Vicksburg. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.
Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.
United States Marine Corps. Warfighting. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.
Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet, The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign- Crossing the Mississippi River
During the spring and early summer of 1863, Grant carried out what James M. McPherson has called “the most brilliant and innovative campaign of the Civil War” and T. Harry Williams has called “one of the classic campaigns of the Civil War and, indeed, of military history.” In fact, the U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5 (May 1986) describes the Vicksburg campaign as “the most brilliant campaign ever fought on American soil,” one which “exemplifies the qualities of a well-conceived, violently executed offensive plan.”
Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the West, was the key to Union control of the Mississippi. Along with Port Hudson to the south, it was the only remaining Confederate stronghold on the river. Early in the war, Lincoln himself had stressed Vicksburg’s importance when, pointing to a national map, he said, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
Having been stymied in his earlier efforts to capture Vicksburg, Grant decided to march his army southward down the west bank of the Mississippi to get well below it. He planned to lead his men on transports that would first have to be floated past the city’s guns, transport his army to the Mississippi shore south of Vicksburg, strike inland against any Confederate forces they might meet, and eventually capture Vicksburg. He had spent months poring over maps and charts as he single-handedly devised this approach. His strong subordinate commanders—including
Sherman, James B. McPherson, and John “Black Jack” Logan—opposed the plan as too risky. Vicksburg was heavily fortified, but Grant’s plan proved spectacularly effective. Surrounded by nine major forts or citadels, the city was protected by 172 guns commanding all approaches by water and land and a thirty-thousand-troop garrison. Grant had three options for attacking it: (1) return to Memphis for an overland approach from the north and east, (2) cross the river and directly assault the city, or (3) march his troops down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross it, and approach the city from the south and east. Grant rejected the first option because going back would be morale-deflating (Grant hated to retrace his steps). He rejected the second because it involved, he said, “immense sacrifice of life, if not defeat.” “The third alternative was full of dangers and risks,” the Vicksburg historian Edwin C. Bearss has said. “Failure in this venture would entail little less than total destruction. If it succeeded, however, the gains would be complete and decisive.”
Early April brought receding waters and the emergence of roads from Milliken’s Bend northwest of Vicksburg to other points down-river on the west bank. Grant planned to march his troops over those roads to a location where he could ferry them to the east bank of the river. He enlisted the support of Admiral David Porter, who moved steamships and transport vessels from north of Vicksburg down to where Grant’s troops would be awaiting transportation across the river.
The cooperative Porter agreed to Grant’s plan and eagerly set about organizing the vessels for a maritime parade past Vicksburg. He warned Grant that as the ironclad vessels did not have sufficient power to return upstream past Vicksburg’s guns, this transit would be the point of no return. In preparation for the transit, Porter directed that boilers on the steamships be hidden and protected by barriers of cotton and hay bales, as well as bags of grain. The hay and cotton would also be useful later. Beginning at ten o’clock on the evening of April 16, Porter led the fleet of seven ironclad gunboats, four steamers, the tug Ivy, and an assortment of towed coal barges downstream. Coal barges and excess vessels were lashed to the sides of critical vessels to provide additional protection. Confederate bonfires illuminated the Union vessels, which were under fire for two hours as they ran the gauntlet past the Vicksburg guns. Those guns fired 525 rounds and scored sixty-eight hits. Miraculously, only one vessel was lost, and no one on the vessels was killed their intended operations and the single line of march was inadequate to supply his troops, Grant ordered a second collection of vessels to bring some additional supplies south past
Vicksburg. Thus, on the night of April 22, six more protected steamers towing twelve barges loaded with rations steamed past Vicksburg under the command of Colonel Clark Lagow of Grant’s staff. Despite General Lee’s prediction, five of the steamers and half of the barges made it through the gauntlet of artillery batteries, which fired 391 rounds. Most of the vessels were commanded and manned by army volunteers from “Black Jack” Logan’s division because the civilian vessel crews were afraid to run the Vicksburg gauntlet.
Grant now had his transportation (seven transports and fifteen or sixteen barges), a modicum of supplies, and a gathering invasion force. Sherman and Porter had serious doubts about the feasibility of transporting the supplies for Grant’s army down a poor, swampy road on the west bank of the Mississippi River, across the water, and into Mississippi. Nevertheless, Grant pressed forward with his plan and started McPherson’s corps south from New Carthage on April 25.
Meanwhile, Grant had created four diversions to the north and east of Vicksburg to deflect Confederate attention away from his planned campaign. First, he had sent Major General Frederick Steele’s troops in transports one hundred miles northward up the Mississippi River toward Greenville, Mississippi. Concluding that Grant was retreating (to reinforce William Rosecrans in eastern Tennessee), Pemberton allowed about eight thousand rebel troops to be transferred from Mississippi back to Bragg in Tennessee.
Second, Grant had initiated a cavalry raid from Tennessee to Louisiana through the length of central and eastern Mississippi. Incurring only a handful of casualties, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, a fellow Illinoisan, conducted the most successful Union cavalry raid of the entire war. Grant had devised this diversionary mission back on February 13, when he sent the following simple, flexible, and brilliant suggestion in a dispatch to General Hurlbut in Tennessee:
It seems to me that Grierson with about 500 picked men might succeed in making his way South and cut the rail-road East of Jackson Miss. The undertaking would be a hazardous [sic] one but it would pay well if carried out. I do not direct that this shall be done but leave it for a volunteer enterprise.
On April 17, Grierson rode out of LaGrange, Tennessee, in command of 1,700 cavalrymen and a six-gun battery. In the early days of the raid, he deftly split off part of his force, primarily to confuse the Confederates as to his location and intentions. First, on April 20, he sent 175 men determined to be incapable of completing the mission (the “Quinine Brigade”) and a gun back to LaGrange with prisoners and captured property. The next day he sent a regiment and another gun east to break up the north-south Mobile & Ohio Railroad and to stir up even more confusion. To determine whether substantial enemy forces were present in the towns he intended to raid, Grierson assembled a group of nine hand-picked men, the “Butternut Guerillas,” who scouted ahead dressed in Confederate uniforms and clothes.
With still another thirty-five-man detached force drawing substantial Confederate infantry and cavalry away from his main force, Grierson continued to Newton on the east-west Southern Railroad (the eastern extension of the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad) in the heart of Mississippi. There, on the 24th, he destroyed two trains (both filled with ammunition and commissary stores). He also tore up the railroad and tore down the telegraph line—both linking Meridian with Jackson and Vicksburg to the west. With the disruption of the key railroad to Vicksburg and the destruction of millions of dollars’ worth of Confederate assets (including thirty-eight rail cars), Grierson’s mission was complete—except for his final escape.
Pemberton, who had sent troops to head off Grierson before he reached the railroad, now sent additional soldiers to try to cut off the escape of his raiders.The raid’s effect on Pemberton was precisely what Grant intended—on April 27 he sent seventeen messages to Mississippi commands about Grierson’s raiders and not a single one about Grant’s build-up on the west bank of the Mississippi. By the 29th, Pemberton had further played into Grant’s hands by sending all his cavalry in pursuit of Grierson and advising his superiors, “The telegraph wires are down. The enemy has, therefore, either landed on this side of the Mississippi River, or they have been cut by Grierson’s cavalry. . . . All the cavalry I can raise is close on their rear.”
Sixteen days and six hundred miles after starting their dangerous venture, Grierson’s men reached the Union lines at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on May 2—three days after Grant’s amphibious landing at Bruinsburg on the Mississippi. They had survived several close calls, left havoc in their wake, and accomplished their primary mission of diverting attention from Grant’s movements west and south of Vicksburg. They had inflicted one hundred casualties and captured over five hundred prisoners. Miraculously, all this had been accomplished with fewer than twenty-five casualties. There was a good reason for Sherman to call it the “most brilliant expedition of the Civil War.”
Grant’s third diversion involved another cavalry foray. While Grierson was traveling the length of Mississippi, other Union forces went on the offensive far to the east. Colonel Abel D. Streight led a “poorly mounted horse and mule brigade” from middle Tennessee into Alabama and drew the ever-dangerous cavalry of Nathan Bedford Forrest away from Grierson and his various detachments.
To completely confuse Pemberton, Grant employed the fourth diversion. While he was moving south with McClernand and McPherson on the west (Louisiana) bank, Grant had Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps threaten Vicksburg from the north. On April 27, Grant ordered Sherman to proceed up the Yazoo River and threaten Snyder’s Bluff northeast of Vicksburg. On the 29th, Sherman debarked ten regiments of troops and appeared to be preparing an assault while eight naval gunboats bombarded the Confederate forts at Haines’s Bluff. Having suffered no casualties, Sherman withdrew on May 1 and hastily followed McPherson down the west bank of the Mississippi. His troops were ferried across the river on May 6 and 7.
Grant, meanwhile, had joined McClernand at New Carthage on the west bank on April 23. When Colonel James H. Wilson of Grant’s staff and Admiral Porter determined that there were no suitable landing areas east of Perkins’s Plantation, Grant on April 24 ordered the troops to proceed south another twenty-two miles to Hard Times, a west bank area sixty-three miles south of Milliken’s Bend and directly across the river from Grand Gulf, Mississippi. According to Secretary of War Stanton’s special observer, the former New York Tribune reporter, and editor Charles A. Dana, McClernand moved his troops slowly and disobeyed Grant’s orders to preserve ammunition and to leave all impediments behind. Instead, he had guns fired in a salute at a review and tried to bring his wife and servants along. Ten thousand soldiers were moved farther south by vessel, and the rest of the men bridged three bayous and completed their trek to Hard Times by April 27. On April 28, Confederate Brigadier General John S. Bowen at Grand Gulf could see the Union armada gathering across the river and urgently requested reinforcements from Pemberton in Vicksburg. Focused on Grierson and Sherman, however, Pemberton refused to send reinforcements south toward Grand Gulf until late on April 29, when they were too late to halt the amphibious crossing.
Two days later, with ten thousand of McClernand’s troops embarked on vessels for a possible east bank landing, Porter’s eight gunboats attacked the Confederate batteries on the high bluffs at Grand Gulf. After five and a half hours and the loss of eighteen killed and about fifty-seven wounded, the Union fleet had eliminated the guns of Fort Wade but not those of Fort Coburn, which stood forty feet above the river and was protected by a forty-foot-thick parapet. A disappointed Grant watched from a small tugboat, and Porter eventually halted the attack.
Grant, however, did not give up he simply moved south. That night, ten thousand troops left the vessels and marched across a peninsula while Porter slipped all of his vessels past the Confederate guns. Grant was planning to load his troops again and land them at Rodney, about nine miles south of Grand Gulf. He changed his mind, though, when a local black man told a landing party that Bruinsburg, a few miles closer, offered a good landing site and a good road inland to Port Gibson. Convinced of what he was going to do the next day, Grant sent orders that night to Sherman to head south immediately with two of his three divisions. On the morning of April 30, Grant moved down and across the Mississippi with McClernand’s corps and one of McPherson’s divisions from Disharoon’s Plantation (near Hard Times), Louisiana. He then took them six miles south to Bruinsburg, Mississippi, and landed them without opposition. In his memoirs, Grant explained the great relief he felt after the successful landing:
When this was effected I felt a degree of relief scarcely ever equaled since. Vicksburg was not yet taken it is true, nor were its defenders demoralized by any of our previous moves. I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. But I was on dry ground on the same side of the river with the enemy. All the campaigns, labors, hardships and exposures from the month of December previous to this time that had been made and endured, were for the accomplishment of this one object.
Under the cover of several diversions, Grant had daringly marched his army through Louisiana bayous down the west bank of the Mississippi and launched a huge amphibious operation involving twenty-four thousand troops. The historian Terrence J. Winschel writes admiringly:
The movement from Milliken’s Bend to Hard Times was boldly conceived and executed by a daring commander willing to take risks. The sheer audacity of the movement demonstrated Grant’s firmness of purpose and revealed his many strengths as a commander. The bold and decisive manner in which he directed the movement set the tone for the campaign and inspired confidence in the army’s ranks.
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George B. McClellan
George Brinton McClellan is often remembered as the great organizer of the Union Army of the Potomac. Nicknamed "Young Napoleon," "Little Mac" was immensely popular with the men who served under his command. His military command style, however, put him at odds with President Abraham Lincoln, and would ultimately upset his military and political fortunes.
McClellan began his military career after entering the United States Military Academy in 1842. He graduated second in a class of 59 in 1846, along with 20 others who would become full rank generals during the Civil War. He was appointed as a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers and served under General Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War, helping to construct roads and bridges for the army. The recipient of brevet promotions to both first lieutenant and captain, he returned to West Point as an instructor after the war, and helped translate a French manual on bayonet tactics. Other duties included service as an engineer at Fort Delaware, expeditions to explore the Red River, and the exploration of possible routes for the transcontinental railroad. He was also a military observer during the Crimean War. In 1857, McClellan resigned from the military to take a position with the Illinois Central Railroad.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Ohio governor William Dennison appointed McClellan major general of Ohio Volunteers on April 23, 1861. This promotion, along with the support of Governor Dennison, encouraged Lincoln to commission McClellan a major general in the Regular Army, making him one of the highest ranked individuals in the service, under only Winfield Scott. McClellan began his work swiftly, ensuring that Kentucky would not secede from the Union. He then commanded forces during the Rich Mountain campaign in what is now West Virginia, to ensure that the portion of the state would not be fully taken by Confederates. This success, combined with the defeat of General Irvin McDowell at the Battle of First Bull Run, led McClellan to become Commander of the Army of the Potomac, and later General-in-Chief of all Federal armies upon the retirement of General Winfield Scott in November 1861.
It was during this time that McClellan cemented his bond with the men of the Union army. Although many politicians and generals harbored resentment toward McClellan, he was largely revered by his men. After the defeat at Manassas, much of the Army of the Potomac was unorganized, and its new commander set to work providing the men proper military training and instilling in them a remarkable esprit de corps. As he built his army, however, McClellan also became wary of Confederate forces, fearing that he faced numbers many times his own.
In the spring of 1862, McClellan was removed as General-in-Chief, though he retained command of the Army of the Potomac. Facing great pressure from Lincoln, he launched a campaign against the Confederate capital along the Virginia Peninsula, known as the Peninsula Campaign. Continually tricked by Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston that he was facing a large force, McClellan frequently delayed his attacks, allowing his opponent ample time to retreat slowly toward the Richmond defenses. A surprise attack by Confederates at the Battle of Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks) blunted the already sluggish Federal advance. Although the Union army repulsed the attacks, McClellan again delayed any further movement, hoping for more reinforcements to come from Washington. Seven Pines had another adverse impact on the campaign. During the battle, Confederate General Johnston was wounded, and Robert E. Lee was appointed to replace him. Taking advantage of McClellan's cautious streak, Lee hammered at the inert Army of the Potomac in a series of fierce and unrelenting assaults. Over the course of the bloody Seven Days' Battles, McClellan’s mighty army was forced to abandon its bid to seize Richmond and retreat to the safety of Washington. As a result of the failed campaign, Lincoln named Henry Halleck as General-in-Chief of the army, and the Army of the Potomac was given to General John Pope.
Following Pope's failure to capture Richmond, the subsequent Union defeat at the Battle of Second Manassas, McClellan was once again leading the army that had such strong affection for him. With Little Mac at its head, the Army of the Potomac moved to counter Lee's 1862 invasion of Maryland. The Union chief molded his campaign around a captured document outlining Lee’s invasion plan. After a series of skirmishes along the Blue Ridge mountains, the two armies met in an epic contest at Antietam on September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day of the war. Battle weary and bloodied, the Confederate Army retreated back into Virginia under the cover of darkness.
Though he had managed to thwart Lee's plan to invade the North, McClellan's trademark caution once again denied the northern cause a decisive victory, and the once-cordial relationship between the army commander and his Commander-in-Chief had been badly damaged by the former's lack of success and excessive trepidation. After the battle, a disappointed Lincoln visited McClellan in camp to express his frustration at the general's inability to capitalize on this most recent success. The general countered by saying the army needed time to rest and refit. In November of that year McClellan was relieved of command for the last time and ordered back to Trenton, New Jersey to await further orders, though none ever came.
In 1864, McClellan became involved in politics when he was nominated to be the Democratic candidate for president against his former boss, Abraham Lincoln. McClellan ran on an anti-war platform, promising that he would negotiate peace terms with the Confederacy to help end the war as soon as possible. But by November of 1864, a string of Union successes had convinced many that the war was in its final phase. McClellan resigned his army commission on Election Day, but ultimately Lincoln was elected to a second term.
After the war, McClellan served as an administrator for a number of engineering firms and, in 1878, was elected Governor of New Jersey. In his final years, the former general penned a defense of his tenure as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, but died before he could see it published. McClellan is buried in Trenton, New Jersey.
The day ended with a brief skirmish between the Union forces and Cleburne’s men. During the evening both Manson and Cleburne discussed the situation with their superior officers. Union Major General William Nelson ordered another brigade to attack. Confederate Major General Kirby Smith gave Cleburne the order to attack and promised reinforcements.
In the early morning hours, Cleburne marched north, won against Union skirmishers, and approached the Union line near Zion Church. Over the course of the day, reinforcements arrived for both sides. After exchanging artillery fire, the troops attacked. The Confederates were able to push through the Union right, causing them to retreat to Rogersville. They tried to make a stand there. At this point, Smith and Nelson had taken command of their own armies. Nelson attempted to rally the troops, but the Union soldiers were routed. Nelson and some of his men were able to escape. However, by the end of the day, 4,000 Union soldiers were captured. More significantly, the way north was open for the Confederates to advance.
15.2 Early Mobilization and War
In 1861, enthusiasm for war ran high on both sides. The North fought to restore the Union, which Lincoln declared could never be broken. The Confederacy, which by the summer of 1861 consisted of eleven states, fought for its independence from the United States. The continuation of slavery was a central issue in the war, of course, although abolitionism and western expansion also played roles, and Northerners and Southerners alike flocked eagerly to the conflict. Both sides thought it would be over quickly. Militarily, however, the North and South were more equally matched than Lincoln had realized, and it soon became clear that the war effort would be neither brief nor painless. In 1861, Americans in both the North and South romanticized war as noble and positive. Soon the carnage and slaughter would awaken them to the horrors of war.
THE FIRST BATTLE OF BULL RUN
After the fall of Fort Sumter on April 15, 1861, Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers from state militias to join federal forces. His goal was a ninety-day campaign to put down the Southern rebellion. The response from state militias was overwhelming, and the number of Northern troops exceeded the requisition. Also in April, Lincoln put in place a naval blockade of the South, a move that gave tacit recognition of the Confederacy while providing a legal excuse for the British and the French to trade with Southerners. The Confederacy responded to the blockade by declaring that a state of war existed with the United States. This official pronouncement confirmed the beginning of the Civil War. Men rushed to enlist, and the Confederacy turned away tens of thousands who hoped to defend the new nation.
Many believed that a single, heroic battle would decide the contest. Some questioned how committed Southerners really were to their cause. Northerners hoped that most Southerners would not actually fire on the American flag. Meanwhile, Lincoln and military leaders in the North hoped a quick blow to the South, especially if they could capture the Confederacy’s new capital of Richmond, Virginia, would end the rebellion before it went any further. On July 21, 1861, the two armies met near Manassas, Virginia, along Bull Run Creek , only thirty miles from Washington, DC. So great was the belief that this would be a climactic Union victory that many Washington socialites and politicians brought picnic lunches to a nearby area, hoping to witness history unfolding before them. At the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas, some sixty thousand troops assembled, most of whom had never seen combat, and each side sent eighteen thousand into the fray. The Union forces attacked first, only to be pushed back. The Confederate forces then carried the day, sending the Union soldiers and Washington, DC, onlookers scrambling back from Virginia and destroying Union hopes of a quick, decisive victory. Instead, the war would drag on for four long, deadly years (Figure 15.7).
BALANCE SHEET: THE UNION AND THE CONFEDERACY
As it became clearer that the Union would not be dealing with an easily quashed rebellion, the two sides assessed their strengths and weaknesses. At the onset on the war, in 1861 and 1862, they stood as relatively equal combatants.
The Confederates had the advantage of being able to wage a defensive war, rather than an offensive one. They had to protect and preserve their new boundaries, but they did not have to be the aggressors against the Union. The war would be fought primarily in the South, which gave the Confederates the advantages of the knowledge of the terrain and the support of the civilian population. Further, the vast coastline from Texas to Virginia offered ample opportunities to evade the Union blockade. And with the addition of the Upper South states, especially Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas, the Confederacy gained a much larger share of natural resources and industrial might than the Deep South states could muster.
Still, the Confederacy had disadvantages. The South’s economy depended heavily on the export of cotton, but with the naval blockade, the flow of cotton to England, the region’s primary importer, came to an end. The blockade also made it difficult to import manufactured goods. Although the secession of the Upper South added some industrial assets to the Confederacy, overall, the South lacked substantive industry or an extensive railroad infrastructure to move men and supplies. To deal with the lack of commerce and the resulting lack of funds, the Confederate government began printing paper money, leading to runaway inflation (Figure 15.8). The advantage that came from fighting on home territory quickly turned to a disadvantage when Confederate armies were defeated and Union forces destroyed Southern farms and towns, and forced Southern civilians to take to the road as refugees. Finally, the population of the South stood at fewer than nine million people, of whom nearly four million were enslaved Black people, compared to over twenty million residents in the North. These limited numbers became a major factor as the war dragged on and the death toll rose.
The Union side held many advantages as well. Its larger population, bolstered by continued immigration from Europe throughout the 1860s, gave it greater manpower reserves to draw upon. The North’s greater industrial capabilities and extensive railroad grid made it far better able to mobilize men and supplies for the war effort. The Industrial Revolution and the transportation revolution, beginning in the 1820s and continuing over the next several decades, had transformed the North. Throughout the war, the North was able to produce more war materials and move goods more quickly than the South. Furthermore, the farms of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Old Northwest, and the prairie states supplied Northern civilians and Union troops with abundant food throughout the war. Food shortages and hungry civilians were common in the South, where the best land was devoted to raising cotton, but not in the North.
Unlike the South, however, which could hunker down to defend itself and needed to maintain relatively short supply lines, the North had to go forth and conquer. Union armies had to establish long supply lines, and Union soldiers had to fight on unfamiliar ground and contend with a hostile civilian population off the battlefield. Furthermore, to restore the Union—Lincoln’s overriding goal, in 1861—the United States, after defeating the Southern forces, would then need to pacify a conquered Confederacy, an area of over half a million square miles with nearly nine million residents. In short, although it had better resources and a larger population, the Union faced a daunting task against the well-positioned Confederacy.
The military forces of the Confederacy and the Union battled in 1861 and early 1862 without either side gaining the upper hand. The majority of military leaders on both sides had received the same military education and often knew one another personally, either from their time as students at West Point or as commanding officers in the Mexican-American War. This familiarity allowed them to anticipate each other’s strategies. Both sides believed in the use of concentrated armies charged with taking the capital city of the enemy. For the Union, this meant the capture of the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, whereas Washington, DC, stood as the prize for Confederate forces. After hopes of a quick victory faded at Bull Run, the months dragged on without any major movement on either side (Figure 15.9).
General George B. McClellan, the general in chief of the army, responsible for overall control of Union land forces, proved especially reluctant to engage in battle with the Confederates. In direct command of the Army of the Potomac , the Union fighting force operating outside Washington, DC, McClellan believed, incorrectly, that Confederate forces were too strong to defeat and was reluctant to risk his troops in battle. His cautious nature made him popular with his men but not with the president or Congress. By 1862, however, both President Lincoln and the new Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had tired of waiting. The Union put forward a new effort to bolster troop strength, enlisting one million men to serve for three-year stints in the Army of the Potomac. In January 1862, Lincoln and Stanton ordered McClellan to invade the Confederacy with the goal of capturing Richmond.
To that end, General McClellan slowly moved 100,000 soldiers of the Army of the Potomac toward Richmond but stopped a few miles outside the city. As he did so, a Confederate force led by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson moved north to take Washington, DC. To fend off Jackson’s attack, somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of McClellan’s soldiers, led by Major General Irvin McDowell, returned to defend the nation’s capital, a move that Jackson hoped would leave the remaining troops near Richmond more vulnerable. Having succeeding in drawing off a sizable portion of the Union force, he joined General Lee to launch an attack on McClellan’s remaining soldiers near Richmond. From June 25 to July 1, 1862, the two sides engaged in the brutal Seven Days Battles that killed or wounded almost twenty thousand Confederate and ten thousand Union soldiers. McClellan’s army finally returned north, having failed to take Richmond.
General Lee, flush from his success at keeping McClellan out of Richmond, tried to capitalize on the Union’s failure by taking the fighting northward. He moved his forces into northern Virginia, where, at the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Confederates again defeated the Union forces. Lee then pressed into Maryland, where his troops met the much larger Union forces near Sharpsburg, at Antietam Creek. The ensuing one-day battle on September 17, 1862, led to a tremendous loss of life. Although there are varying opinions about the total number of deaths, eight thousand soldiers were killed or wounded, more than on any other single day of combat. Once again, McClellan, mistakenly believing that the Confederate troops outnumbered his own, held back a significant portion of his forces. Lee withdrew from the field first, but McClellan, fearing he was outnumbered, refused to pursue him.
The Union army’s inability to destroy Lee’s army at Antietam made it clear to Lincoln that McClellan would never win the war, and the president was forced to seek a replacement. Lincoln wanted someone who could deliver a decisive Union victory. He also personally disliked McClellan, who referred to the president as a “baboon” and a “gorilla,” and constantly criticized his decisions. Lincoln chose General Ambrose E. Burnside to replace McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, but Burnside’s efforts to push into Virginia failed in December 1862, as Confederates held their position at Fredericksburg and devastated Burnside’s forces with heavy artillery fire. The Union’s defeat at Fredericksburg harmed morale in the North but bolstered Confederate spirits. By the end of 1862, the Confederates were still holding their ground in Virginia. Burnside’s failure led Lincoln to make another change in leadership, and Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker took over command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863.
General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the West , operating in Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Mississippi River Valley, had been more successful. In the western campaign, the goal of both the Union and the Confederacy was to gain control of the major rivers in the west, especially the Mississippi. If the Union could control the Mississippi, the Confederacy would be split in two. The fighting in this campaign initially centered in Tennessee, where Union forces commanded by Grant pushed Confederate troops back and gained control of the state. The major battle in the western theater took place at Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, on April 6 and 7, 1862. Grant’s army was camped on the west side of the Tennessee River near a small log church called Shiloh, which gave the battle its name. On Sunday morning, April 6, Confederate forces under General Albert Sidney Johnston attacked Grant’s encampment with the goal of separating them from their supply line on the Tennessee River and driving them into the swamps on the river’s western side, where they could be destroyed. Union general William Tecumseh Sherman tried to rally the Union forces as Grant, who had been convalescing from an injured leg when the attack began and was unable to walk without crutches, called for reinforcements and tried to mount a defense. Many of Union troops fled in terror.
Unfortunately for the Confederates, Johnston was killed on the afternoon of the first day. Leadership of the Southern forces fell to General P. G. T. Beauregard, who ordered an assault at the end of that day. This assault was so desperate that one of the two attacking columns did not even have ammunition. Heavily reinforced Union forces counterattacked the next day, and the Confederate forces were routed. Grant had maintained the Union foothold in the western part of the Confederacy. The North could now concentrate on its efforts to gain control of the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy in two and depriving it of its most important water route.
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Read a first-hand account from a Confederate soldier at the Battle at Shiloh, followed by the perspective of a Union soldier at the same battle.
In the spring and summer of 1862, the Union was successful in gaining control of part of the Mississippi River. In April 1862, the Union navy under Admiral David Farragut fought its way past the forts that guarded New Orleans and fired naval guns upon the below-sea-level city. When it became obvious that New Orleans could no longer be defended, Confederate major general Marshall Lovell sent his artillery upriver to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Armed civilians in New Orleans fought the Union forces that entered the city. They also destroyed ships and military supplies that might be used by the Union. Upriver, Union naval forces also bombarded Fort Pillow, forty miles from Memphis, Tennessee, a Southern industrial center and one of the largest cities in the Confederacy. On June 4, 1862, the Confederate defenders abandoned the fort. On June 6, Memphis fell to the Union after the ships defending it were destroyed.
A Closer Look at General Lee’s Civil War Record
General Lee left a mark on American history as one of the greatest generals during the American Civil War. Learn more about his role in the war based on his battle records.
GENERAL LEE CIVIL WAR RECORD
Civil War record of General Lee was considerably less impressive than the Myth of the Lost Cause portrays it. After declining command of the Union army because he would not lift his sword against his beloved Commonwealth of Virginia (as distinguished from the Confederacy), Lee did an excellent job organizing the Virginia militia and defending that state in the early months of the war. As its militia became part of the Confederacy’s army, Lee became President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor.
Disappointed that he was not on the field for the Confederate victory at First Bull Run (Manassas), Lee continued to lobby for a field command. His wish was granted when he was sent to northwestern Virginia in late 1861, but there he demonstrated some of the weaknesses that would plague him throughout the war. At Cheat Mountain, he issued long, complicated orders and failed to exercise hands-on control. While in that small theater, he failed to deal with squabbling subordinates whose disputes were undermining Confederate efforts to regain control of northwestern Virginia, and he returned to Richmond a failure.
Davis then gave General Lee a chance for redemption by assigning him to command the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts. First, Davis had to write letters to affected governors ensuring them that Lee was indeed a highly competent general (contrary to what they may have heard about his western Virginia experience). Lee did an excellent job building defensive coastal fortifications and withdrawing most of the rebel defenses to waters beyond the reach of Union gunboats.
Apparently because Davis was becoming disenchanted with independent, uncooperative, and personally despised generals such as Joseph Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard, he recalled Lee to Richmond as his primary military advisor once again. There Lee helped Davis to pressure Johnston into more aggressive defensive actions, especially after George B. McClellan started slowly moving up the Virginia peninsula from the Norfolk area toward Richmond.
After two months of dalliance, McClellan finally reached the vicinity of Richmond and split his army on both sides of the Chickahominy River. On May 31, 1862, with prodding, Johnston attacked an isolated portion of Little Mac’s army on the south side of the river. In what became the two-day Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), Longstreet bungled his attack, and reinforcements from north of the river were able to avert a Union disaster.
The most important result of the battle was that Johnston was badly wounded and on June 1, 1862, General Lee succeeded to command of the major Confederate army in the east, which he promptly dubbed the Army of Northern Virginia. His record as its commander requires deep examination before judgment can be rendered about the quality of his Civil War performance.
General Lee enhanced his early-war reputation as the “King of Spades” by ordering his army to dig fortifications south of the Chickahominy between Richmond and McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Contrary to many people’s expectation that he would be a cautious general, he was preparing the first of many offensives against his foes. His strategic and tactical aggressiveness would soon be apparent to all.
The Seven Days’ Battle, ending McClellan’s disastrous Peninsula Campaign, began in late June and was Lee’s first as army commander. Correctly predicting that McClellan would not have the moral courage to attack Lee’s lines and Richmond while General Lee moved his army to the north side of the Chickahominy, Lee took two-thirds of his army above the river and attacked Little Mac’s largest corps, which was alone there.
In a sign of things to come, General Lee had his army attack the enemy for most of one week and pushed them away from Richmond and back to the James River. Although Lee knew that he had achieved his strategic objective of saving Richmond after two days of fighting, he continued his attacks for days more, taking substantial casualties. His army suffered twenty thousand casualties (dead, wounded, missing, or captured), while McClellan’s army suffered “only” sixteen thousand. Most of Lee’s casualties were “hard” ones—killed or wounded. Only ten thousand of Little Mac’s men were killed or wounded.
That week of fighting was marked by McClellan’s constant retreats (under his usual misapprehension that he was outnumbered two to one) and Lee’s over-aggressiveness and mismanagement of his army. He generally issued a battle order for the day and then simply let things unfold without close battlefield control by him or his deliberately small staff. Virtually every daily order called for Stonewall Jackson to come in on Lee’s left flank after the rest of Lee’s army diverted the Yankees’ attention with frontal assaults. While those assaults resulted in horrendous casualties, Jackson was either a no-show or late-show on almost every occasion. General Lee took no corrective action.
The final battle of the week was Malvern Hill, where a disorganized and disastrous rebel assault against a strong, elevated Union position resulted in such slaughter that D. H. Hill, one of Lee’s generals, described it as “not war, but murder.” By then, Lee had so decimated and disorganized his army that McClellan’s subordinates recommended an immediate counterattack to destroy Lee’s army or capture Richmond. McClellan, of course, declined and retreated farther downriver.
Lee’s strategic victory made him an instant hero in the South, which was losing battles on most other fronts. He had, however, demonstrated a proclivity for complicated and ambiguous orders, lack of battlefield control, and relentless offensive action that resulted in irreplaceable casualties for the manpower-starved Confederacy.
While McClellan, pouting at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, kept requesting more reinforcements, General Lee determined that the Army of the Potomac was no threat to Richmond and decided to go on the offensive. He moved into central and northern Virginia to challenge John Pope’s new Army of Virginia. With help from McClellan, who delayed sending reinforcements to Pope and kept twenty-five thousand Union troops away from the battlefield, Lee won perhaps his greatest victory at Second Manassas. With Jackson on the defensive and Longstreet then overwhelming Pope’s left flank, Lee suffered only 9,500 casualties to the Union army’s 14,400. With Lee present, Jackson inexplicably failed to leave his position and join Longstreet’s attack.
After a minor victory at Chantilly, Lee took unilateral action, approved neither by Davis nor the Confederate Congress or cabinet, that proved devastating to rebel prospects—he crossed the Potomac and invaded the North in hopes of reaching Pennsylvania. In that Maryland (Antietam) campaign, he hoped to feed his army, gather thousands of recruits, and win a great victory that would dismay the Northern people and convince England and France to recognize the Confederacy. For about three weeks, Lee’s army lived on non-Virginia soil, but he failed to gain recruits. He was in the western part of Maryland, where proslavery sentiment was weak, and those Marylanders interested in joining his army had already done so.
More importantly, he squandered what had been a grand opportunity for European recognition. England and France had been poised to recognize the Confederacy until Lee’s invasion, but they decided to wait for the outcome of his campaign. That campaign started well for General Lee as he took advantage of McClellan’s slow response to the discovery of Lee’s “lost order” and captured more than eleven thousand Union soldiers at Harpers Ferry. Instead of declaring the campaign a success after the capture of Harpers Ferry and its garrison, however, Lee put his pitifully small and exhausted army in a trap at Sharpsburg, Maryland. In the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) on September 17, he suffered severe losses and would have been destroyed by almost any general other than McClellan. Lee’s and Jackson’s counterattacks at Miller’s Cornfield in the early hours of the battle were acts of tactical suicide, not genius. Although McClellan allowed Lee’s army to escape, the Confederates had suffered a crushing strategic defeat that opened the door for Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22 and virtually ended all hopes of European intervention. Lee’s net casualties at Harpers Ferry had been a plus-11,500, but his army suffered 11,500 casualties in the rest of the Antietam campaign (to the attacking Union army’s 12,400).
After retreating to Virginia, General Lee was the beneficiary of foolhardy Union assaults ordered by Ambrose Burnside at Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Lee’s army, fighting from entrenched positions most of the day, inflicted almost thirteen thousand casualties on the Union attackers while incurring a few more than five thousand themselves. Although Lee was not satisfied with the defensive nature of the victory, it was sufficient to bolster Southern morale for many months.
The lesson of Fredericksburg was that a frontal assault on the enemy, if not absolutely necessary, was unwise, but Lee failed to learn it. After Stonewall Jackson’s famous flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville in early May 1863, Lee spent the next couple of days frontally assaulting Joseph Hooker’s Union lines. As a result, his army suffered almost thirteen thousand casualties while inflicting over seventeen thousand on the weakly led enemy. But Lee’s army paid too high a price, including the loss of Jackson, for the Chancellorsville victory. Its butcher bill would have been even higher had Lee been able to launch a planned final assault on another strong Union position. Lee was angry, but his subordinates were relieved, when Hooker retreated across the Rapidan River before Lee could attack.
Gettysburg proved even more disastrous to the Confederacy and the Army of Northern Virginia. By invading Pennsylvania, General Lee deprived rebel armies in other theaters of desperately needed reinforcements. Had Longstreet’s troops reinforced the badly outnumbered Bragg against George Thomas’s Tullahoma campaign, Thomas might have been prevented from crossing the Tennessee River and seizing Chattanooga and more rebel troops might have been sent to oppose Grant’s Vicksburg campaign.
On the first day of the three-day battle at Gettysburg, General Lee missed a grand opportunity to occupy the high ground, a failure that proved costly over the next forty-eight hours. Longstreet, his senior general, opposed Lee’s plan for frontal assaults on the second and third days against Union troops in strong defensive positions. That campaign cost Lee an intolerable twenty-eight thousand casualties, while the Union lost twenty-three thousand. As a result, Lee no longer had the strength to initiate strategic offensives (which had been a bad idea anyway) and, more importantly, he lacked the manpower to counterpunch effectively when attacked.
Some regard Gettysburg as a turning point of the war. Lost Cause adherents have attempted to make it the turning point and have expended considerable effort attempting to relieve Lee of responsibility for that major tactical and strategic defeat. Their position is that Longstreet lost Gettysburg and thus the war, while Lee was blameless. Although Douglas Southall Freeman recited a litany of guilty parties (Longstreet, Ewell, A. P. Hill, Jeb Stuart), most of Lee’s apologists found the only scapegoat they needed in James Longstreet. Because the Lee-Longstreet saga has become such a fundamental part of the Myth, I have devoted the next chapter to a thorough examination of the Gettysburg campaign and the allegations against Longstreet. Readers can determine for themselves whether Lee or Longstreet was primarily responsible for that disaster.
The cumulative casualties of 1862 and 1863 had taken a severe toll on Lee’s army—both in the number and the quality of the men lost. It was a toll the Confederacy, outnumbered almost four to one at the war’s outset, could not afford. With an army that was a mere shadow of the one he had inherited, Lee was finally forced to fight truly defensively in opposing Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864. Staying generally on the defensive at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, and Cold Harbor enabled Lee to post the kinds of numbers he had needed in prior years. Before Grant had reached the James River, Lee lost “only” thirty-three thousand men while inflicting fifty-five thousand casualties on the Army of the Potomac. But it was too little, too late, for Lee. He had so weakened his army with his offensive strategy and tactics in 1862 and 1863 that he could not prevent Grant from forcing him into a partial siege situation at Richmond and Petersburg in which Lee’s army was doomed. Thereafter, he continued to focus solely on his own army as the rest of the Confederacy was collapsing.
Ironically, the Overland Campaign of 1864, in which Grant, according to his critics, took too many casualties, shows what Lee could have accomplished had he stayed on the strategic and tactical defensive in 1862 and 1863. As Alan Nolan concludes, “The truth is that in 1864, General Lee himself demonstrated the alternative to his earlier offensive strategy and tactics.” Grady McWhiney reaches the same conclusion: “Though Lee was at his best on defense, he adopted a defensive strategy only after attrition had deprived him of the power to attack. His brilliant defensive campaign against Grant in 1864 made the Union pay in manpower as it had never paid before. But the Confederates adopted defensive tactics too late Lee started the campaign with too few men, nor could he replace his losses as could Grant.”
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