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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
It was that kind of summer. Everything interlocked; the Army of the Potomac, having been built to a political pattern, reflected the doubt and suspicion that politics had created, so that failure was fated. On July 26, four days before the Battle of the Crater—an attempt, organized under General Ambrose Burnside, to tunnel beneath the Confederate defense works at Petersburg and explode a great quantity of powder, thereby blasting open a path to Richmond—General Patrick had a long talk with Meade and foresaw disaster because of “the jealousy on the part of Corps Commanders against each other & against Meade—especially the bad blood that exists between Meade & Burnside—preventing unanimity of counsels, or concert of action, even among the troops belonging to the Army of the Potomac.” Patrick went on to say: “The same spirit alluded to … so hostile to Burnside will prevent Meade, probably, from taking hold with any vim to carry out Burnside’s idea of an assault following the explosion of his mine; which if a successful ‘Blow up’ as it seems to me can be followed up by an assault which will carry everything before it.” Patrick believed after this chat that both Grant and his advisers recognized “the feeling in the North & East that Grant has failed in this campaign” and said that the administration was looking for a scapegoat.
Patrick, to be sure, was a gossip-monger, but the feeling he detected was caught by others. An army surgeon, Dr. John H. Brinton, who had known Grant from the old days at Cairo and now was on duty around Washington, wrote at this time that Grant “had not many friends amongst the Army of the Potomac men. They were all McClellan men, and insisted that Grant was only treading the same path followed by McClellan and that his bloody victories were fruitless. They did not like him and had no confidence in him. The Northern people as a mass believed in him; the Eastern, especially the troops of the Army of the Potomac, did not.” Congressman James Ashley of Ohio warned a Grant aide in mid-July that having visited the army he found “a good deal of discontent and mutinous spirit among staff officers of the Army of the Potomac,” and said that “a good deal of McClellanism … was manifested.”
The feeling of a certain part of the officer corps was summed up by Lieutenant Colonel Carswell McClellan, who had served on General Humphrey’s staff up to the opening of this campaign. Grant, said Colonel McClellan, just did not understand the Army of the Potomac: “The army was composed of citizens of our entire Union—men of the North and South, and East and West, stood side by side in its ranks and led its columns. The conquering of ‘sectional feeling’ was the very duty that had called out and created, from an untrained mass of patriots, an army of loyal veterans—‘the grandest army gathered on this continent, at all times true to its commander-in-chief, whoever it might be.’ There was no vain boasting in the grim story written all along the way from the James river up to Gettysburg”—that is, in the army’s story in the days before Grant—and although the soldiers did have prejudices, they were loyal to the Union, “however blind they may have been to the personal identity of ‘that Western man’ with the cause for which they fought.”
Grant and Lincoln shared something, here. They were westerners, lacking in polish, unable to impress the cultivated easterners. Early in the war Lincoln’s minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, had shuddered visibly when he went to the White House and actually saw the ungainly man who had appointed him and who had so little in common with the Adamses who had lived in the White House. This spring Richard Henry Dana, Jr., also of Massachusetts, had had a similar seizure when he first looked upon General Grant. The East had trouble adjusting itself to the fact that the rude West was dominant. Lincoln and Grant fitted each other perfectly, but to easterners they looked like a gawky, ill-chosen team.
Grant’s people returned this antagonism, with interest added. Early in August, one of Grant’s assistant adjutants general, Captain George K. Leet, wrote to the absent Colonel William R. Rowley: “My faith in the Army of the Potomac is gone, gone. …” A little later this summer General Grenville Dodge (the man who later built much of the railway to the Pacific) spent some time at headquarters recovering from a wound received in the fighting in front of Atlanta, and when he visited various corps and division commanders’ tents “discovered a feeling that was a stranger to us in the West—a feeling, the existence of which seemed to me to bode no good.” Everybody was criticizing either the Commanding General or some fellow officer, and Dodge said that although he had never heard this sort of talk in the western army, “I must say I heard it in the Army of the Potomac, and anything but kindly comments by one commander upon another, and as this was in the dark days of the war I had many misgivings about what I had heard.” He talked about it with Grant’s chief of staff, General John Rawlins, he said, and Rawlins laughed and replied: “General, this is not the old Army of the Tennessee.”
It was not; which was one reason why some of the things Grant could do in his earlier days of fighting in the West could not quite be done here in the East. This army was too close to Washington, physically and spiritually, victimized by politics and at the same time contributing to the force that victimized it. Never for an instant could anyone forget—as it could be forgotten, now and then, in the West—that the army had been forged for use in a civil war and hence was as much subject to political pressure as the Post Office or the Treasury Department. This fact governed everything a commanding general did.