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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
Except that once in a great while he could ignore it. In a way his chief responsibility was to recognize and use that once-in-a-while moment when it came.
When Grant had his talk with Lincoln at Fort Monroe, the command situation along the upper Potomac had become intolerable, and if a solution was not found at this meeting it had to be found immediately afterward. Grant no sooner got back to City Point on July 31 than he received a wire from Halleck saying that Jubal Early had gone north of the Potomac again and was on his way to Pennsylvania.
This was not entirely unexpected. Early had been edging forward into the lower part of the Shenandoah Valley for a week, occupying Martinsburg, sending cavalry squadrons across at Williamsport, Falling Waters, and Shepherdstown, and driving Yankee cavalry out of Hagerstown. Grant believed that although the Federal commanders had plenty of troops they were short of good cavalry, and on the day of the crater battle he ordered Meade to send a division of Sheridan’s cavalry north at once.
Far from taking his main force over the river, Early was just sending cavalry north on a raid, but because this raid touched sensitive political nerves, the result might be as harmful to the Union cause as a major battle lost. Early’s men believed they had a score to settle with the Yankees because Federal troops under Major General David Hunter had burned so many Virginia homes, and on July 30 a Rebel cavalry brigade led by General John McCausland cantered into Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, set fire to the place, and rode off to the west and south, leaving half of the town in ashes. This was in good Republican Pennsylvania with the presidential election only three months away, and if General Grant could not find someone to wage successful war along the Potomac, none of his other achievements was likely to mean very much.
On the night of the victory at Chattanooga there had been one general who wanted to press on until the last of the enemy’s forces had been broken down and stamped on, and now Grant thought of him. On August 1 Grant told Meade he was going to send Phil Sheridan north, and he got off this telegram to Halleck: I am sending General Sheridan for temporary duty whilst the enemy is being expelled from the border. Unless General Hunter is in the field in person, I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes let our troops go also. Once started up the Valley they ought to be followed until we get possession of the Virginia Central railroad. If General Hunter is in the field give Sheridan direct command of the Sixth Corps and cavalry division.
On the heels of this, Grant had Meade order the second of the army’s three cavalry divisions to go north.
Neither Stanton nor Halleck approved of this appointment. Stanton thought Sheridan was altogether too young for such an important assignment, and when Sheridan got to Washington, his reception at the War Department was frosty. Halleck warned Grant that if Sheridan were placed in general command Hunter would ask to be relieved, and he added that if this did not happen it would be bad practice to make the VI Corps and the cavalry a separate command … and altogether there was a good deal of clucking. Lincoln heard the clucking, and agreed that Sheridan was rather young; but under everything Lincoln also heard the hard ring of trumpets in Grant’s order regarding Sheridan, and on August 3 he sent Grant a telegram: I have seen your dispatch in which you say “I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes let our troops go also.” This, I think, is exactly right as to how our forces should move, but please look over the dispatches you may have received from here even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of anyone here of “putting our army south of the enemy” or of “following him to the death” in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day and hour and force it.
And now suddenly the great crisis of indecision and divided counsels was ended, and the fact that it had ended was as good as a victory. Grant that evening ordered a dispatch boat to get up steam for a quick voyage up the bay; he was on his way to the upper Potomac in less than two hours from the moment he got Lincoln’s telegram, not to leave until the situation there had been arranged the way he wanted it.
Grant reached the Federal camp on the Monocacy River, forty miles northwest of Washington, on the evening of August 5. Awaiting him there, expecting nothing from him or from anyone else, were between 25,000 and 30,000 Federal soldiers—frustrated men drawn from three armies, sullenly awaiting the touch that would make a new army of them. Right now their only unity was a common knowledge that for the past month they had marched far and hard to no especial purpose. In command of them, and sharing to the full their awareness of wasted effort, was General Hunter, and when Grant that evening asked him where the enemy might be, General Hunter confessed that he had no idea. He said that he had received so many orders from the War Department recently, telling him to go from this place to that place, that he had lost all track of the people he was supposed to fight.