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More than any other Civil War general, says a distinguished British critic, he grasped the possibilities and requirements of warfare in the modern age
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
There was no immediate strategic exploitation of the Vicksburg victory, and the next move was delayed by prolonged arguments in Washington as to where and how Grant’s army should be employed. The arguments were settled fortuitously, and in the end fortunately, by the misfortune that General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland suffered in Tennessee. Its southward advance in September met a heavy defeat at Chickamauga, and it became bottled up at Chattanooga. In this emergency Grant was given over-all command in the West, and Sherman succeeded to the command of his army. Grant moved to the rescue of Rosecrans and after a tough fight drove back the investing army. This victory opened the gateway into Georgia, the granary of the Confederacy, and thence into the eastern states as a whole. But in the following year, 1864, the Union came near to forfeiting the ultimate victory that appeared to be strategically assured. For the people of the North were growing weary under the prolonged strain of the struggle, and the peace party was gaining strength. The presidential election was due in November, and Lincoln was in danger of being ousted in favor of a President pledged to seek a compromise peace. He urgently needed to provide the people with clear evidence that there was good hope of early victory, and to this end he sent for Grant to take over the supreme command. Sherman was then appointed chief commander in the West; the “lunatic” now had 219,907 men, of whom about 100,000 were available for offensive operations in northern Georgia. For the coming campaign in the East, the main theatre, Grant chose the old direct overland approach southward from the Rappahannock River toward Richmond, counting on his greatly superior weight of numbers to smash Lee’s army, or at least to wear it down by a “continuous hammering.”
His own “will to conquer,” however, did not bring success. He failed to smash Lee’s army, while the strength of his own had withered in the fierce battles of the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. The only strategic advantage gained—that of having worked close to the rear of Richmond—looked like a stalemate. The northern people were discouraged, and at the end of the summer Lincoln doubted that he could be re-elected. Yet when the outlook seemed darkest, it suddenly lightened, and in the November elections Lincoln was returned to power. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September was the saving factor.
There was deep mutual understanding between Grant and Sherman, but there was also a significant contrast in outlook. Grant’s success as a commander had been largely due to the way he applied “horse sense” unfettered by the harness of military doctrine and custom, but he had no marked originality of concept. Sherman was a man of vision, but started the war with the handicap of being too well versed in prevailing military theory and tactical manuals, and it was only when war experience helped to break this crust that his capacity for original thought had full play.
By 1864 the difference between the two men became apparent. While Grant’s primary objective was the enemy’s army, Sherman’s was the seizure of strategic points. Atlanta, the base of the Confederate army opposing him in Georgia, was not only the junction of four important railways but also the source of vital supplies. As Sherman pointed out, it was “full of foundries, arsenals, and machine shops,” as well as being of great importance psychologically as a symbol, and he held that “its capture would be the death knell of the Confederacy.”
In the advance to Atlanta, Sherman’s skill in maneuver was all the more notable because, by contrast to Grant in Virginia, he was tied to one railway line for his supplies. Moreover his starting point at Chattanooga was about 150 miles from his Nashville base and 330 miles from Louisville, the main source of supplies. That long line of supplies, lengthening as he advanced, was under threat everywhere from the raids of enemy cavalry and guerrillas. Yet, rather than commit his troops to a direct attack on an opponent well placed to block him, Sherman cut loose temporarily even from this supply line.
His ability to maneuver had been aided by the drastic way in which he cut down transport before starting. Each division and brigade was allotted only enough wagons to carry food and ammunition, and every man brought five days’ rations on his person or horse. Apart from these supply trains, only one wagon and one ambulance was allowed to each regiment, with a pack mule for the mess kit and baggage of the officers of each company. Tents were forbidden, except for the sick and wounded and one for each headquarters as an office. Clerical work in the field was reduced to a minimum by the use of permanent offices in the rear for the transaction and transmission of all routine correspondence. This made possible a severe restriction of the size of the various headquarters staffs.