- Historic Sites
Grant And The Politicians
It was almost election time, the unpopular war was stalemated, the casualty lists were growing, and the President’s opponents cried “Peace!” Then the new commanding general moved with consummate political as well as military skill
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
In war the important thing, noted Winston Churchill, is resolution; and it is equally true that the lack of it can be disastrous. We have seen both sides of this homely truth displayed in modern times, one way in World War II, another at the Bay of Pigs. As this goes to the printer, America has not yet made up its mind about another case, in Vietnam. Once upon a time, over a century ago, it faced the same issue, in the late, agonising stages of the Civil War. What happened then is described most penetratingly in this abridgement of portions from Grant Takes Command , by Bruce Cation, which will be. published early next year by Little, Brown and Company.—The Editors
In a notable dispatch sent to Abraham Lincoln on May 11, 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant, who was then waist-deep in the fearful battle of Spotsylvania Court House, promised that he would “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” All summer it did take, and all fall and all winter as well, and although victory finally came, it looked for a while as if Grant’s road to military success would lead straight to a disastrous political failure; one of those who thought so being President Abraham Lincoln. A few years later, when Grant himself had spent some time in the White House, it seemed that U. S. Grant could be written off as a tenacious but unimaginative soldier who had no political comprehension whatever and who as a result may have cost more than democracy could afford.
This verdict has been more or less current ever since; which is too bad, because it is entirely wrong.
To see that it is wrong one need do no more than take a fresh look at 1864, when General Grant showed a political awareness and sensitivity such as few American soldiers have ever shown. If he had not done so, the Union cause would almost certainly have failed, once and for all, before the end of the year. For the essence of Grant’s problem that summer was that he had to make it politically possible for the military victory to be won. He knew that in the end Federal might would wear down and crush the southern Confederacy, provided that the people of the North were willing to go on applying it. To maintain their will at the necessary intensity was of course Lincoln’s responsibility, but Lincoln would not be around to discharge that responsibility unless Cirant played the political caroms intelligently.
To put it more simply: Grant had to make certain that the intense Federal war effort did not defeat Lincoln before it defeated Robert E. Lee.
As the month of July ended, the military situation was static, unsatisfactory, and infernally beset by political complications.
Lee and his great Army of Northern Virginia were pinned down at Petersburg, Virginia, an extensively fortified town on the Appomattox River which in effect constituted the defense of Richmond. Facing Lee, Grant had George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James; their armies were so strong that Lee could not get away but not strong enough so that they themselves could get into the Confederate capital. For the moment, the war here was a standoff.
It looked like a standoff in Georgia as well, where William Tecumseh Sherman sought to get into Atlanta while Gonfederate General John B. Hood tried to drive him away. The situation here was much like that at Richmond, except that Hood was about to make the enormous mistake of trying to take the offensive—a game which he could not hope to win, although he did not yet realize it. Farther west the rival forces were not really at grips. What happened in Virginia and Georgia would finally settle what happened beyond the Mississippi and along the Gulf coast.
The most sensitive point at the moment was the upper end of the Shenandoah Valley and the Potomac country around Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg. Here Lee had a small but active army led by the energetic Jubal Early, who was not strong enough to invade the north but was altogether too strong to be ignored. The Federal government had massed a large number of soldiers at Washington—including thousands who were badly needed at Petersburg—but had been unable to make Early retreat.
As far as the average northerner could see, things were going badly. Neither of the chief Confederate strongholds, Richmond and Atlanta, had fallen or seemed likely to fall; Federal casualty lists in Virginia had been appalling and apparently had been wasted; Early was threatening Washington, it seemed, just about as much as Grant was threatening Richmond, and the war was beginning to look like an outright failure. Furthermore—and this was the crucial point—the country was about to elect a President. Nobody before had ever tried to do this in the middle of a civil war, but it was going to be tried now because the nation’s ability to do it was somehow, under everything else, what the war was all about. There was a strong peace party, and an even stronger party that wanted reunion but would accept slavery in order to get it, and if between them these groups named the next President, the war would almost certainly be lost.