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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
Whether Grant and Lincoln were right or wrong in the belief that the war would be lost if a Democratic administration took control of it, they obviously did believe it, and they were quite right in arguing that the war had to be won politically as well as on the battlefield. That was what made it necessary to put up with Butler’s incompetence in command at Bermuda Hundred at the same time that it was necessary to get rid of incompetence in command on the upper Potomac—and that, in the end, was why there could not be a general in high command who was genuinely nonpartisan. McClellan like Grant was a soldier who had lost his political innocence, and this fall he was accepting the fact that there was a Republican strategy and a Democratic strategy bearing profoundly different connotations. To his friend Barlow, a little after this, McClellan wrote that “Grant has gone clean over to the enemy.” McClellan had his sources of information about army politics, and he saw that a good many leading soldiers were going to keep quiet until things came to a head: “Hancock is on the fence, waiting to see which is the winning side. So will many genls, including Meade. Gibbon, Hunt, Bartlett and Patrick are perfectly sound.”
As he faced all of this, Grant was matter-of-fact, and he probably neither knew nor cared how the other generals felt about the election or about the terms on which peace could be made. Lincoln was in Washington, getting a different view of things, and at times what he saw was darkened by the haunted shadow which his own realism cast across his belief in democracy. On August 23 he wrote that strange, secret message predicting his own defeat and quietly put it away for future reference: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.”
More clearly than anyone in Washington, Grant could see that from the military point of view the war was actually going well. Since the Virginia and Georgia campaigns opened on May 4, the Confederacy had been put under the kind of continuing strain it had never before had to endure. Something was bound to give—and now, in Georgia, the collapse was beginning to take place and the soundness of Federal strategy was being emphasized by its results.
Over and over, during two months and more, Grant had told correspondents that the Confederate armies could no longer afford to make a stand-up fight in the open field. Yet near Atlanta, as July came to an end, General Hood had done just that: three times he attacked Sherman’s army, trying to break its strangle hold on the city, and three times he failed; in the process he lost something like 20,000 men, many more than he could afford to lose. Steadily Sherman tightened his grip on the city and finally, on September 2, it fell. “Atlanta is ours,” he wired, “and fairly won.”
Grant got the news on the evening of September 4, while he was sitting in a camp chair in front of his headquarters tent, smoking a cigar and chatting with members of his staff. To the officers who were within listening distance he read aloud the telegram announcing Sherman’s victory, and then he ordered Meade’s and Butler’s headquarters to have a 100-gun salute fired, with shotted guns, from every battery that bore on the Rebel works.
But Jubal Early was still at large in the Shenandoah Valley. After his conference with Grant on the Monacacy early in August, Sheridan had gotten off to a slow start. By mid-September Grant was growing impatient; he set off to see Sheridan face to face, “to have him attack Early or drive him out of the Valley and destroy that source of supplies for Lee’s army.” As it turned out, by the time Grant arrived in the valley Sheridan had a workable plan for doing just that, and Grant simply urged him to get on with it. On September 20, the day after Grant returned to his headquarters, an exultant telegram arrived from Sheridan: “I have the honor to report that I attacked the forces of General Early on the Berryville Pike at the crossing of Opequon Creek, and after a most stubborn and sanguinary engagement, which lasted from early in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening, completely defeated him …”
This most violent of civil wars was about to come to its climax in the orderly formalities of a quadrennial election, because after all it was that kind of war: testing whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure. The strangest part about it was that the soldiers themselves were going to vote—those who were old enough, anyway—even though it was clear that a soldier who wanted to fight no more, disliked his generals, or had lost track of what he was fighting for would assuredly vote for the opposition, which if it won would be under strong compulsion to call the war off altogether. To give soldiers that much control over their own destiny was unprecedented, and it might well be very risky, but it was unavoidable; and now Grant had to determine how much electioneering could take place in the ranks of an army which every day in every month was engaging the enemy.