Saturday, May 24, 2014

Flashback, May 1864: Grant, Lee Begin Deadly Duel

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee first began to take the full measure of each other in May 1864, when the Union victor of the siege of Vicksburg began the Overland Campaign—a thrust through the interior of Virginia aimed at the Confederate capital, Richmond. North America had never seen so many concentrated days of bloodshed, leaving the North shaky and unsure of victory but the South progressively drained of men, materials and morale for sustaining the war effort.

In recent years, because of the twin Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, historians have tended to view the eventual northern victory as inevitable. That view was surely enhanced by William T. Sherman’s September 1864 seizure of Atlanta, followed by his electrifying “March to the Sea.” But, as pointed out by historian Gary Gallagher, nothing remotely approaching this consensus of triumphalism dominated the commentary of the time, in letters, diaries, sermons, and news reports.

To be sure, many in the South realized that Vicksburg and Gettysburg represented heavy blows. But belief remained high in the spring of 1864 that Lee and able, courageous Southern soldiers could drag the war out long enough for the North to tire of the conflict, Great Britain or France to provide diplomatic recognition, or both.

As the month began, Grant was still almost universally lionized by Northern press and politicians as the commander from the Western theater of operations who could provide the victory that had thus far eluded other generals. Congress had even voted to create a lieutenant-general position for him, the first time that position had been held by an American since George Washington. It was a far cry from where he had stood five years before, in Galena, Ill., when—sometimes drunk and always bored with the peacetime army—he had been making a hash of civilian life, too, as evoked in memorable verses from Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body:

“It is five years
Since he sat, with a glass, by the stove in a country store,
A stumpy, mute man in a faded Army overcoat,
The eldest-born of the Grants but the family-failure.”

In March, Grant had met Abraham Lincoln for the first time. At low points for the general in the prior two years, when criticism mounted over his stiff losses at Shiloh and his initial inability to make headway at Vicksburg, the President had refused to sack him, noting that unlike many of his other generals, “he fights.” 

Their first face-to-face encounter went even better, with Grant finding Lincoln a kindred plain-spoken Midwesterner and Lincoln discovering a general who, unlike others he’d previously encountered (George C. McClellan, John C. Fremont), was sincere about his lack of political ambition. In short, the two men hit it off.

The two men’s mutual respect and trust would go through a crucible as Grant’s spring offensive turned into a summer and fall siege. The campaign would produce, he recalled in his Personal Memoirs, “as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed; not to be consummated in a day, a week, a month, single season. The losses inflicted, and endured, were destined to be severe; but the armies now confronting each other had already been in deadly conflict for a period of three years, with immense losses in killed, by death from sickness, captured and wounded; and neither had made any real progress accomplishing the final end….So here was a stand-off. The campaign now begun was destined to result in heavier losses, to both armies, in a given time, than any previously suffered; but the carnage was to be limited to a single year, and to accomplish all that had been anticipated or desired at the beginning in that time. We had to have hard fighting to achieve this. The two armies had been confronting each other so long, without any decisive result, that they hardly knew which could whip.’

For the first time in the war, several Union armies attacked the Confederacy simultaneously. The main force, the Army of the Potomac—under the nominal command of Gettysburg victor George Meade but with Grant headquartered and attached to it—advanced across the Rapidan, around Lee’s right flank, toward Richmond. At the same time, Benjamin Butler moved up the James River Peninsula toward Richmond; Franz Sigel, down the Shenandoah Valley, the “breadbasket” of the Confederacy; and Sherman, toward Atlanta.

The Butler and Sigel campaigns foundered, losing precious time and failing to accomplish their objectives. (Both generals would be relieved of their commands in due course.) But the simultaneous advances meant that the Confederates were pinned down in their respective regions, unable, as before, to dispatch troops from quiet fronts to threatened ones. Moreover, by forcing the Army of Northern Virginia to be constantly on the move, Grant gave the rebels no time for necessary rest and reprovisioning.

Grant’s opening days of the spring offensive, at the Battle of the Wilderness, on May 5-7, played out like a replay of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville the year before: A new, lionized northern commander (in 1863, it was Joseph Hooker), with an army well-supplied, in good spirits, found himself in dimly-lit surroundings, taking stiff losses. Even the action on the Confederate side had a sense of déjà vu: a corps commander seriously wounded at twilight by friendly fire. (Unlike Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet returned, albeit not until the end of the year.)

I used the phrase “stiff losses” in the last paragraph. That doesn’t begin to convey the horror of the battle. Maybe this detail might come closer: By the third day of the fighting, all the firing from rifles and cannons had set the forest aflame, filling the woods with smoke and the moans of the many wounded caught in the underbrush as they were burned alive.

Now came a moment as powerfully symbolic and fateful in the history of great commanders as anything seen since Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon. Late on May 7, Grant, at the head of the Army of the Potomac, reached a junction in the Wilderness. The rank and file, well and soundly thrashed, with casualties doubling Lee’s, expected a repeat of what they had experienced under prior commanders: a dispirited turn left, indicating withdrawal toward the fords of the Rapidan and Rappahannock, back behind the safety of Washington, with Lee no more dislodged than he had been before.

Instead, Grant pointed right—south, to the highway to Richmond via Spotsylvania Court House. As the soldiers realized that this time, they would not be retreating, the cheering became so “lusty” that the Confederates still in the vicinity, believing a night attack was being ordered, let loose “a furious fusillade of artillery and musketry,” Grant remembered.

Grant moved fast, but Lee was even faster. The Battle of Spotsylvania turned out to be as bloody as The Wilderness, only more protracted (12 days rather than three). A particularly awful day was May 12, in a patch of land that earned one of the most colorful names in a war filled with them: the “Bloody Angle,” a battle that was “one of the bloodiest that ever dyed God's  footstool with human gore," according to a North Carolinian. For 20 straight hours, the most sustained, ferocious close-quarters combat ever seen in North America took place. 

By May 21, Grant tried another march, to the North Anna River deeper into the interior. But Lee’s position atop high river banks afforded him an excellent defensive position, and Grant wisely chose only to attempt two probes of these defenses rather than full-fledged assaults.

What did the Union have to show for all of this marching, fighting, further maneuvering, additional thrusting and parrying? For the Army of the Potomac, “War had become a very grim affair,” wrote historian Joseph B. Mitchell in Military Leaders in the Civil War. “Fighting had become a business to be conducted with maximum efficiency and aggressiveness, never giving themselves or the enemy a rest.”

Grant lost more than 33,000 men in the first three weeks of May alone. Later in the campaign, his total casualties would outnumber Lee’s entire army.

The fearful carnage increased already-high antiwar sentiment in the North. The New York World and the New York Journal of Commerce carried the news on May 18 that Grant’s overland campaign was failing and that a despairing Lincoln would call for additional troops as well as “a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer” across the nation. 

This was all a hoax. But what was true was that the President, fearing that he would lose re-election because of his decision to continue prosecuting the war, would, during the summer, secretly draft a plan on how he would cooperate with the election’s then-possible victor, George McClellan, in an attempt to save the Union before Lincoln left office.

The battles took a tremendous toll on each side’s leadership. For the Union, the highly respected corps commander John Sedgwick--struck down by a rebel sharpshooter while saying there was no way he could be killed at such a distance—became what he remains to this day: the highest-ranking Army general killed in combat. But proportionately, the Confederates suffered worse.

According to Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, in May alone, the Confederate commander in chief lost 22 generals out of the 58 originally present—more than 36 percent  (including “Jeb” Stuart, the dashing cavalry commander who had, in effect, served as Lee’s eyes and ears on the enemy). Expert military leadership had been a distinct advantage for the South since the war began, with much of the West Point-educated office corps throwing their lot in with the rebels. Now, that gap in upper-level skill was progressively narrowing, as more Northern generals were gaining experience by the day.

For all the mounting casualties and the growing homefront outcry that Grant was a “butcher,” though, Lee had never faced an opponent before like the man from the West. Grant, after all, had pursued his campaign against Vicksburg for nearly a year before the Mississippi River citadel had surrendered the prior July 4.

When one means of achieving his objective was denied him, he merely tried another. The man who had tried unsuccessfully to build a canal to facilitate troop movements in the Vicksburg campaign would shortly agree to Ambrose Burnside’s disastrous plan to blow a gap in Confederate defenses at Petersburg by blowing up a mine (the infamous Battle of the Crater). No matter. He would find a way, somehow or other.

Another major difference between grant and prior commanders of the Army of the Potomac, I would argue, was his stable temperament, a personality not subject to the extremes of ego. He was not arrogant or egotistical, like George McClellan, John Pope, or Joseph Hooker, nor so timorous about his lack of ability that he would beg not to be given command, as the hapless Ambrose Burnside did.

Crucially, this meant that, unlike his predecessors, he would not be rattled by Lee. At one point, in a particularly horrifying point in the battle, an aide warned Grant about what Lee would do next: “he will throw his own army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications."

"Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do," Grant retorted. "Some of you seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do."

Increasingly, “what Lee is going to do,” Grant was confident, was less and less. Lee could afford heavy losses far less than Grant. Immigrants from Ireland and Germany tended to settle more in the North than the South and, thus, represented a greater source of potential manpower. Another group, African-Americans, were weakening the Confederacy in two ways: as soldiers in the Union Army and as fugitives from slavery, leaving plantations unable to operate at anything like their old efficiency. Furthermore, an order given by Grant just before the Overland Campaign began—the end of prisoner exchanges—would hurt the South far more than the North.

The advantages the Confederates had long held in prior Virginia campaigns—a friendly populace, familiarity with the ground where battles were fought, and press restrictions that minimized the extent of their losses—remained in place. But Grant’s nonstop campaign had robbed Lee of what he had possessed since he first took charge of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862: the initiative. The fighting would now be done where and when Grant chose.

With the Union commander settling in for a long siege at Petersburg as the summer wore on, his great Confederate rival cast his eyes south to Georgia. The news there, all about Sherman, was increasingly ominous not merely for the troops defending Atlanta, but also for the ones outside Richmond who were becoming increasingly beleaguered....

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