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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
The one thing he knew was that Jubal Early’s Confederates had not gone south. A little more than a week earlier they had driven Hunter’s advance out of the lower Shenandoah Valley, and now they were believed to be arrayed somewhere near the Potomac, tying up the main line of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, sending cavalry raiders off into Pennsylvania, retaining command of the river crossings; full of evil intentions. The Federals on the Monocacy were protecting Washington faithfully enough, but they were not doing much of anything else.
Grant remarked that he would quickly find out where the Confederates were, and he ordered a general advance of the entire force to the hamlet of Halltown, south of the Potomac, four miles west of Harpers Ferry. Whatever General Early was doing, he was certain to respond to a Federal advance; Grant suspected correctly that as soon as Early heard of this move he would concentrate his own force somewhere near Martinsburg. If he tried to invade the North again, the army at Halltown would be ideally posted to get south of him (as Grant had prescribed) and follow him to the death. Having put the troops in motion—some of them took to the road that evening—Grant sat down to write out instructions governing their use.
Basically, these instructions were simple: find out where the enemy is and then go and get him. The Shenandoah Valley was to be taken away from Confederate use permanently, so that it could never again be an avenue for raiders or a granary for Lee’s army, and the orders were grim: In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley, as it is expected you will have to do first or last, it is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage and stock wanted for the use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed, destroy. It is not desirable that the buildings should be destroyed—they should, rather, be protected; but the people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards. …
The idea of laying waste the rich farming region of the valley so that it could no longer support Confederate armies or the Confederate capital had been formulated earlier. On July 14 Grant had written Halleck that when Early left Maryland he should be pursued up the valley by all available troops, who should be instructed to “eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.” This drew added point now from the fact that for a fortnight Early’s troops had been actively helping to harvest crops in the lower valley, with details crossing the Potomac now and then to seize grain that the Maryland farmers had already harvested. All along, Early’s expedition had been partly controlled by the needs of the Confederate commissary.
Having written out the orders, Grant went on to a more delicate matter. Hunter commanded the Department of West Virginia, and so all troops in that part of the country would be under him. But Sheridan was going to be the field commander, answerable to no one but Grant, and Grant now suggested that Hunter make his own headquarters at Cumberland, or at Baltimore, or somewhere, and let the field commander operate without his direction. But Hunter had grown so discouraged by War Department interference that he told Grant he would like to be relieved altogether; that way he would be spared embarrassment, and the War Department would not have to use an officer it distrusted. Grant agreed with him, and in his memoirs noted that Hunter had shown “a patriotism that was none too common in the army” by surrendering an important command simply because someone else could fill it better.
Having attended to this, Grant wrote out a new order putting the four military departments in the Washington and Potomac area into the hands of a sort of holding company known as the Middle Military Division, and naming Sheridan as its temporary commander; then he telegraphed Sheridan, in Washington, to come to the Monocacy camp at once.
Sheridan got to the camp on August 6, and his interview with Grant was brief. Grant gave him the letter of instructions which he had written the day before for Hunter, telling him that this was to guide his conduct of operations. He explained the concentration at Halltown—by the time Sheridan arrived, hardly any troops remained on the Monocacy—and inside of two hours Sheridan was on his way to the front and Grant was heading back to City Point.
He had met and passed a crisis; that is, he had reasserted his own control of military affairs, which is exactly what Lincoln had wanted him to do.