Symposium Spotlight: Grant Takes Command

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Grant and Meade in the Wildernessby ECW Correspondent Sean Lynch

While there are various moments that serve as turning points for both the Union and Confederate Armies, no moment had as much magnitude on President Abraham Lincoln’s future in office as Ulysses S. Grant taking control of the Union Army in 1864.

As a part of the 2018 Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, Chris Kolakowski will speak on the topic of “Turning Points of the Civil War,” with his subject of “Grant Takes Command.”

“Author H.P. Wilmott said ‘A turning point is a signpost that points in the parting of the ways. It’s a noticeable course change,’” Kolakowski said. “So, the promotion of Grant to three stars and his appointment as General in Chief certainly qualifies.” 

Kolakowski’s expertise stretches past the Civil War. As a military expert from events 1775 to present. He’s worked as the director of the General George Patton Museum and Center for Leadership and currently is the director of The General Douglas MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia.

Kolakowski spent time around Fredericksburg, Virginia, which led to his interest in Grant.

“I’ve been interested in Grant for a very long time. Ever since I’ve studied the Civil War I think he’s one of the major figures in American military history, not just in the Civil War,” Kolakowski said.

Kolakowski received his B.A. in History and Mass Communication from Emory & Henry College in 1999 and his M.A. in Public History from SUNY Albany in 2004.

“I also spent eight years as a ranger at the Fredericksburg-area battlefields, including the Wilderness and Spotsylvania where the first two battles of Grant’s campaign against Lee were in 1864, so I’ve spent a lot of time pondering General Grant, the year 1864, what it means, and how it goes,” Kolakowski said.

During the Civil War, the rank of lieutenant general was an important position within the military, with two people holding the position before the Civil War, one by brevet.

“By creating the rank of lieutenant general, looking back, we forget that was a big deal at the time. There had only been one other lieutenant general overall, which was George Washington,” he said.

Putting Grant into the position of power served as one of the major turning point of the war because of his command over the army.

“Giving Grant that power, you look at the effects of that turning point. Maneuvering the federal armies all in a coordinated fashion. Grant’s command decisions, key command decisions at the Wilderness in Spotsylvania really are the beginning to the end of the Confederacy.”

Before his insertion into the position of lieutenant general, Grant’s work and success on campaigns beforehand helped put him into position for the rank.

“If you look at his campaigns, they build on each other,” he said. “Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg, they all build on each other.”

A few months before his appointment on March 2, 1864, questions began to arise as to what the Union were going to do within the Western Theater encompassing Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“He’s now in command of the entire Western Theater at that point and he gets to this discussion of ‘What do we do in the West, what’s the strategy for the West, and how does the West fit into the bigger picture?’” By the time of the battles for Chattanooga in November 1863, he’s the first U.S. officer to maneuver multiple independent armies on a field of battle.”

President Abraham Lincoln also had a lot to prove when he decided to promote Grant to lieutenant general. 1864 was an election year, so Lincoln needed results from Grant on the battlefield in order for Lincoln to have a chance to defeat Democratic nominee George B. McClellan at the ballot box.

“At this point, Lincoln is feeling Grant out,” he’s said. “’I know this guy can win battles. I know this guy can win complex campaigns like Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Donelson. Does he have the strategic brain that I need as a general in chief?’”

Kolakowski hopes that people understand the magnitude of Grant’s appointment and the events that it affected over the course of the Civil War.

“We forget what it was like to have Grant be just the third lieutenant general in the history of the U.S. Army. It is just trying to get people to understand that perspective,” he said. “We know that Grant is going to win the war within 13-14 months of his appointment, but they did not know that at the time.”

While history played out and Lincoln ended up getting re-elected, hindsight has reduced the magnitude of making this move.

“We know that Lincoln is going to get re-elected partly because of the successful strategy Grant pursues; they didn’t know that in 1864. This is a big, big deal.”

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The Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge will be held Aug. 3-5, 2018. Tickets are still available for $155/each: order here.