October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
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
In war the important thing, noted Winston Churchill, is resolution; and it is equally true that the lack of it can be disastrous. We have seen both sides of this homely truth displayed in modern times, one way in World War II, another at the Bay of Pigs. As this goes to the printer, America has not yet made up its mind about another case, in Vietnam. Once upon a time, over a century ago, it faced the same issue, in the late, agonising stages of the Civil War. What happened then is described most penetratingly in this abridgement of portions from Grant Takes Command , by Bruce Cation, which will be. published early next year by Little, Brown and Company.—The Editors
In a notable dispatch sent to Abraham Lincoln on May 11, 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant, who was then waist-deep in the fearful battle of Spotsylvania Court House, promised that he would “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” All summer it did take, and all fall and all winter as well, and although victory finally came, it looked for a while as if Grant’s road to military success would lead straight to a disastrous political failure; one of those who thought so being President Abraham Lincoln. A few years later, when Grant himself had spent some time in the White House, it seemed that U. S. Grant could be written off as a tenacious but unimaginative soldier who had no political comprehension whatever and who as a result may have cost more than democracy could afford.
This verdict has been more or less current ever since; which is too bad, because it is entirely wrong.
To see that it is wrong one need do no more than take a fresh look at 1864, when General Grant showed a political awareness and sensitivity such as few American soldiers have ever shown. If he had not done so, the Union cause would almost certainly have failed, once and for all, before the end of the year. For the essence of Grant’s problem that summer was that he had to make it politically possible for the military victory to be won. He knew that in the end Federal might would wear down and crush the southern Confederacy, provided that the people of the North were willing to go on applying it. To maintain their will at the necessary intensity was of course Lincoln’s responsibility, but Lincoln would not be around to discharge that responsibility unless Cirant played the political caroms intelligently.
To put it more simply: Grant had to make certain that the intense Federal war effort did not defeat Lincoln before it defeated Robert E. Lee.
As the month of July ended, the military situation was static, unsatisfactory, and infernally beset by political complications.
Lee and his great Army of Northern Virginia were pinned down at Petersburg, Virginia, an extensively fortified town on the Appomattox River which in effect constituted the defense of Richmond. Facing Lee, Grant had George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James; their armies were so strong that Lee could not get away but not strong enough so that they themselves could get into the Confederate capital. For the moment, the war here was a standoff.
It looked like a standoff in Georgia as well, where William Tecumseh Sherman sought to get into Atlanta while Gonfederate General John B. Hood tried to drive him away. The situation here was much like that at Richmond, except that Hood was about to make the enormous mistake of trying to take the offensive—a game which he could not hope to win, although he did not yet realize it. Farther west the rival forces were not really at grips. What happened in Virginia and Georgia would finally settle what happened beyond the Mississippi and along the Gulf coast.
The most sensitive point at the moment was the upper end of the Shenandoah Valley and the Potomac country around Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg. Here Lee had a small but active army led by the energetic Jubal Early, who was not strong enough to invade the north but was altogether too strong to be ignored. The Federal government had massed a large number of soldiers at Washington—including thousands who were badly needed at Petersburg—but had been unable to make Early retreat.
As far as the average northerner could see, things were going badly. Neither of the chief Confederate strongholds, Richmond and Atlanta, had fallen or seemed likely to fall; Federal casualty lists in Virginia had been appalling and apparently had been wasted; Early was threatening Washington, it seemed, just about as much as Grant was threatening Richmond, and the war was beginning to look like an outright failure. Furthermore—and this was the crucial point—the country was about to elect a President. Nobody before had ever tried to do this in the middle of a civil war, but it was going to be tried now because the nation’s ability to do it was somehow, under everything else, what the war was all about. There was a strong peace party, and an even stronger party that wanted reunion but would accept slavery in order to get it, and if between them these groups named the next President, the war would almost certainly be lost.
Grant understood this, and he wanted to win the victories that would ensure Lincoln’s re-election. But he saw, too, that if the political price for these victories was too high Lincoln might lose. A case in point was Grant’s recent attempt to shelve General Butler, who was a military incompetent. He had been unable to do it because Butler had political power which the administration simply dared not alienate. Similarly, politics kept Grant from naming General William Franklin to the top command of the fragmented levies that were trying without success to defeat General Early. In the same way, it was not possible to touch the command structure of the Army of the Potomac without sending political tremors all across Washington.
The whole problem came to a head on July 31, when Grant and Lincoln had a face-to-face, unpublicized meeting at Fort Monroe. The meeting was called to discuss Grant’s desire to get a good commander for the campaign against Early, but it ranged on and gave Grant a full picture of the claims of politics in a presidential year.
Neither Lincoln nor Grant ever said much about the meeting, but what took place is fairly clear. On July 30 Grant had telegraphed to the President, promising to meet him at Fort Monroe the next day, and on the back of this telegram Lincoln scribbled a few words that could only be a listing of the points to be discussed: “Meade & Franklin / McClellan / Md & Penna.”
The “Meade & Franklin” bit came first. Lincoln apparently told Grant what Grant already knew: he could not have Franklin. Then he went on to Meade, asking Grant whether Meade would be willing to leave the Army of the Potomac and take command of the forces opposing General Early Grant had mentioned this to Meade a few days earlier and had received no reply except the remark that Meade was “ready to obey any order that might be given me.” Actually, Meade rather liked the idea; he had told his wife that “so far as having an independent command, which the Army of the Potomac is not, I would like this change very well,” although he confessed that the notion of taking charge of all the different generals who held forth in the Washington area and dealing directly with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the Chief of Staff, General Henry Halleck, was somewhat sobering. In any case, the President pointed out that in recent months there had been a good deal of agitation for Meade’s dismissal, and if the transfer were made now it would look as if the President had given way under pressure. However all of this may have been, Grant after this chat with Lincoln gave no more thought to the plan for sending Meade to the Potomac.
That Lincoln included a “Md & Penna” item is not surprising. He understood the need for a unified command and was ready to go along with it, the only question being the choice of the man to hold that command. It is here that his jotted “McClellan” becomes of interest. A note in General Marsena Patrick’s catchall diary of headquarters understandings provides a clue. Shortly after this meeting, Patrick wrote: “The same proposition of consolidation was urged in behalf of [General George B.] McClellan by very strong Republicans for two reasons. One, that by giving him military position it would dispose of him politically—the other, that his name would bring forward a host of volunteers.” Patrick added that “the plan was rejected at Washington,” but either the rejection had not yet been made final, or some of Lincoln’s official family had not got the word. More was going on here than Patrick realized.
The Democrats were to hold their convention at the end of August in Chicago, and it was generally assumed that McClellan was going to be the nominee. Various Republican leaders wanted to head this off; in May, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair had begun writing letters to the New York financier and Democratic party notable, S. L. M. Barlow, who was close to McClellan. In these letters Blair had suggested a clever deal: let the Democrats and moderate Republicans make common cause against the Republican Radicals and unite behind Lincoln, with McClellan removing himself from the political race and accepting for recompense a high command in the army. This would ensure Lincoln’s reelection and would also be good for McClellan: “He is young, and there is a great future opening to one of his genius and antecedents”—and, in fine, he could run for the Presidency after the war was over and Lincoln had finished his second term.
Barlow said that Thurlow Weed, Republican leader in New York, had made the same suggestion to him, and later in the summer he told McClellan that reliable sources said Lincoln was looking for Democratic support, offering to put McClellan back in high command in return. On July 20—less than two weeks before Lincoln and Grant had their meeting—one of Barlow’s informants reported that Blair’s father, Francis P. Blair, Sr., was in New York, trying to get an appointment with McClellan. This appointment Blair presently got, and he urged McClellan to apply for a military assignment, remarking that if Lincoln refused to give it to him “he would then be responsible for the consequences.” McClellan gave him a noncommittal answer, and if the plan interested him he never did anything about it. Presumably he thought it best to go ahead with the political race, especially since the war was going badly and a useful political issue was the fact that McClellan was not being used. (Barlow had wondered if anyone “will forgive Mr. Lincoln for the monstrous crime of permitting the great fight of the war to take place without the benefit of his personality.”)
This bears all the earmarks of a deal that is a little too clever. The Blairs often promised more than they could deliver, and Weed was not the only high Republican to fall into a panic this summer. That Lincoln himself took any stock in this gambit is doubtful. But he knew about it, and he would not have put McClellan’s name on the agenda if he had not intended to discuss the matter with Grant.
And there it was. Grant could not make a routine military appointment without reflecting on the presidential election; indeed, the political tide was so strong and so confusing that routine military acts all became extraordinary, as if something great had to be fought out in men’s minds before anyone could act on the battlefield.
A peace movement was going on, and General Meade remarked that “the camp is full of rumors and reports of many kinds” as a result. The movement was largely the creation of Horace Greeley, the hard-war abolitionist editor of the New York Tribune , who occasionally carried a pundit’s eccentricity to excess and who now had gone off on a tangent. Greeley somehow had got in touch with Confederate agents in Canada and had absorbed the idea that Lincoln could end the war if he would just sit down and talk reasonably with reasonable Confederates about a peace that would be honorable and satisfying to both sides. Greeley wrote despairingly to Lincoln about “our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country”; he failed to realize that the only peace Richmond wanted was one that saved both southern independence and southern slavery … and unfortunately he did not know that the Confederates in Canada had no authorization to talk to Lincoln about anything. Lincoln called his bluff, giving Greeley full power to bring the supposed Confederate emissaries to the White House; Greeley finally learned that he had been talking to the wrong people and went away sorrowing, aware that he had been had and feeling that the President had been too stiff-necked. It all came to nothing, but it was one of the things that had to be thought about when the military campaign was up for discussion.
Another was the state of mind of the Republican Radicals—the real Radicals, harder and less eccentric than Greeley: the people the Blairs wanted to beat. Lincoln had just applied a pocket veto to the WadeDavis Bill, in which Senator Ben Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland, Radicals who burned with an undying flame, had persuaded Congress to lay down stern terms for the eventual restoration of the Union. (It would never be restored on anybody’s terms until somebody got Jubal Early away from the Potomac, but the point was not raised.) Lincoln announced that the measure would never become law with his consent, but remarked that any repentant southern state that wanted to come back into the Union on the Wade-Davis terms could do so, and all of this put the bill’s authors into a great fury. On August 5 they issued a formal manifesto, attacking Lincoln with unmeasured venom. What they and their followers would have said if McClellan had been restored to a high military command just then goes beyond the reach of any normal imagination. Anyway, here was another point to consider.
Which brought to mind, inevitably, General Butler. Nobody really knew what Butler was up to—to this day, nobody really knows—but he was a hard-war man, a Democrat, and a politician with a solid following back home, and the situation offered possibilities. General Patrick noted that Butler visited Meade on July 20, and wrote: “He has been offered the Chicago nomination and is playing everyone to get some power over each individual.” Nobody had actually “offered” Butler anything, but anything could happen, and if he went off the reservation he could almost certainly keep Lincoln from being re-elected. His chief of staff, Colonel John W. Shaffer, went to New York to take soundings, and on August 17 he wrote to Butler assuring him that “the country has gone to hell unless Mr. Lincoln can be beat by a good loyal man.”
Shaffer’s analysis offers a picture of the frenzy that had come upon the political scene. If the Democrats nominated a peace man, said Shaffer, the Republican leaders felt that the Republicans ought to have a new convention and name a candidate other than Lincoln, who was both too warlike for the peaceminded and too lacking in grimness for the warlike. Shaffer said that Thurlow Weed “thinks Lincoln can be prevailed upon to draw off,” and he added that the same feeling had been expressed by Leonard Swett of Illinois, one of the group that had rammed Lincoln’s nomination through the 1860 convention. The leading Republicans, as Shaffer sized things up, agreed that Lincoln must withdraw as soon as the Democratic convention was over: “Nearly all speak of you as the man”—remember, this letter was addressed to Butler—“but I studiously avoid bringing your name in.” The most that could be expected of Lincoln, Shaffer concluded, was that he would help keep other men from running, thereby preserving a clear path for Butler. … If someone, somewhere, had quietly dangled a carrot in front of General Butler’s nose, it can only be said that this was that kind of summer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grant took a long look at the matter, and he put his thoughts on paper in a manner showing that the head of the democracy’s armies understood democracy to the full; understood that the democratic process need not be feared as long as the men who used it acted with boldness and good sense. Writing thus, Sam Grant at last came of age and turned a routine document into a triumphant affirmation of the faith America fought for. On September 27 he sent Mr. Stanton this letter: The exercise of the right of suffrage by the officers and soldiers of armies in the field is a novel thing. It has, I believe, generally been considered dangerous to constitutional liberty and subversive of military discipline. But our circumstances are novel and exceptional. A very large proportion of legal voters of the United States are now either under arms in the field, or in hospitals, or otherwise engaged in the military service of the United States.
Most of these men are not regular soldiers in the strict sense of that term; still less are they mercenaries, who give their services to the Government simply for its pay, having little understanding of the political questions or feeling little or no interest in them. On the contrary they are American citizens, having still their homes and social and political ties binding them to the States and districts from which they come and to which they expect to return.
They have left their homes temporarily to sustain the cause of their country in the hour of its trial. In performing this sacred duty they should not be deprived of a most precious privilege. They have as much right to demand that their votes shall be counted in the choice of their rulers as those citizens who remain at home. Nay, more, for they have sacrificed more for their country.
I state these reasons in full, for the unusual thing of allowing armies in the field to vote, that I may urge on the other hand that nothing more than the fullest exercise of this right should be allowed, for anything not absolutely necessary to this exercise cannot but be dangerous to the liberties of the country. The officers and soldiers have every means of understanding the questions before the country. The newspapers are freely circulated, and so, I believe, are the documents prepared by both parties to set forth the merits and claims of their candidates.
Beyond this nothing whatever should be allowed. No political meetings, no harangues from soldiers or citizens, and no canvassing of camps or regiments for votes. I see not why a single individual not belonging to the armies should be admitted into their lines to deliver tickets. In my opinion the tickets should be furnished by the chief provostmarshal of each army, by them to the provost-marshal (or some other appointed officer) of each brigade or regiment, who shall on the day of election deliver tickets irrespective of party to whoever may call for them. If, however, it shall be deemed expedient to admit citizens to deliver tickets, then it should be most positively prohibited that such citizens should electioneer, harangue or canvass the regiments in any way. Their business should be, and only be, to distribute on a certain fixed day tickets to whoever may call for them.
In the case of those States whose soldiers vote by proxy, proper State authority could be given to officers belonging to regiments so voting to receive and forward votes. As it is intended that all soldiers entitled to vote shall exercise that privilege according to their own convictions of right, unmolested and unrestricted, there will be no objection to each party sending to armies, easy of access, a number of respectable gentlemen to see that these views are fully carried out.
In the end: no problem. The soldiers talked things over among themselves, soldier fashion, but there was no general electioneering to disturb army morale or discipline, and the men showed they could take a national election in their stride. As Election Day drew nearer it became quite obvious that these soldiers were not in any significant numbers going to try to vote themselves out of the war. They had affectionate admiration for McClellan, but he lost many votes in the army he once commanded because the men felt that he had been made the victim of a stop-the-war faction that had dominated the Democratic convention; men who were using great batteries of siege guns to salute immense victories were not ready to embrace a party whose platform called the war a failure. Elated Republicans in the election districts back home were boasting that they needed no campaign speeches except the dispatches from Sherman and Sheridan (although just to be on the safe side they sent out every orator they had); and the soldier vote began to look so safe that in states which had no absentee-voter laws Republican party leaders pulled wires to get the men furloughed by regiments, confident that nearly all of them would vote for Lincoln. And now, near the end of the third week in October, Sheridan sent in another dispatch which told the North that it need never again worry about Jubal Early or Confederate operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan had won another victory, and this time it was conclusive. The federal triumph at Cedar Creek virtually ended the career of Early’s army.
If Grant had any doubts about how the election was going to go he kept them to himself. On election night he and his staff sat up late around the campfire in front of the Commanding General’s tent, waiting for election returns, and Grant was so little worried about the outcome that he indulged in a slightly heavy-handed practical joke. According to Brigadier General M. R. Morgan, commissary general at headquarters, Grant received reports from the headquarters telegraph operator and read them out for everyone to hear; and all evening long he read telegram after telegram that showed McClellan far ahead. Most of the officers who listened to him were good Lincoln men, and some of them went off to bed dejected, convinced that Lincoln had lost. Before he himself retired, after midnight, Grant confessed (to those who had stayed up long enough to hear him) that it had all been a hoax; every report that came in, throughout the evening, had showed Lincoln in the lead.
What pleased Grant most was not merely that Lincoln had won but that this election in the middle of a civil war had gone so quietly, so much like any peacetime election, as if the country knew it was going to go on and on electing Presidents and accepting the electoral verdicts for all time to come. He expressed himself in a telegram to Secretary Stanton: “Enough now seems to be known to say who is to hold the reins of government for the next four years. Congratulate the President for me for the double victory. The election having passed off quietly, no bloodshed or riot throughout the land, is a victory worth more to the country than a battle won. Rebeldom and Europe will so construe it.” He wrote to Mrs. Grant saying that he hoped the verdict of the people would be accepted everywhere: “If there was less clamor and dissention in the North the rebellion would be much sooner put down. The hopes of the South are constantly fed by the sayings of our Northern people.”
Then he got down to the practical business at hand, and sent a wire to Halleck: “I suppose, without my saying anything about it, all the troops now in the North will be hurried to the field, but I wish to urge this as of the utmost importance. Sherman’s movement may compel Lee to send troops from Richmond, and if he goes I want to be prepared to annoy him.”
What Grant was saying was that the war was entering its final phase. General Sherman and 60,000 soldiers had left Atlanta and were beginning to march to the sea.