The Decision to Attach William F. Smith to the Army of the James

General William F. “Baldy” Smith

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Sean Chick

Major General William Farrar Smith is one of the Civil War’s most controversial commanders. He was twice removed from command. He was once considered for an army command. He was one of the few men to befriend Ulysses Grant and lose Grant’s full confidence. That loss started the moment Grant posted Smith to command of XVIII Corps.

Smith was known throughout the army as “Baldy” to distinguish him from the eleven other generals with his surname. Smith ran a relaxed headquarters, serving champagne and fine food. He was popular with his subordinates but hypercritical of his superiors. He was a schemer who undermined his superiors. He was also given to bouts of poor health due to his previous exposure to malaria.

In 1862, Smith was a rising star, noted for his bravery at the Seven Days and Antietam. At Fredericksburg, he led the VI Corps. However, in early 1863, he made several mistakes. First, he condemned his superior, Major General Ambrose Burnside, in messages sent to Abraham Lincoln. Second, he was a friend and supporter of Major General George McClellan even after McClellan’s removal. Smith also wanted to attack Richmond by using the peninsula approaches, although Lincoln vehemently opposed such a strategy. All three factors led to his dismissal from the Army of the Potomac. The Senate also failed to confirm his nomination to major general.

After leading militia forces during General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, Smith was sent to the Army of the Cumberland. It was his finest hour. Working as chief engineer, he managed the “Cracker Line” which saved the army under siege in Chattanooga. He also bickered with Major General William S. Rosecrans. When Major General Ulysses S. Grant took over at Chattanooga, Grant was impressed with Smith’s abilities. He also knew that Smith was no friend of Rosecrans, a man Grant detested.

In early 1864, Grant got Smith a promotion to major general. Yet, what Grant was going to do with Smith was unclear. Smith was rumored to be the replacement for Major General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade however was humble, dutiful, and pliant in his meeting with Grant. Despite pressure to relieve Meade, he stayed in command. Smith might have been made a corps commander, but he had many enemies in the army, in particular Burnside. Grant needed to find a new home for Smith.

On April 1, 1864 Grant, accompanied by Smith, Brigadier General John Rawlins, and Colonel Cyrus B. Comstock, went to Norfolk to meet with Major General Benjamin Butler. In a war noted for contentious personalities, few could compete with Butler. He was an accomplished politician, lawyer, and businessman. In the American Civil War, he became famous for being among the first generals who refused to return escaped slaves and for his stormy administration of New Orleans. Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward wanted Butler to command the drive on Vicksburg. Butler turned them down. Instead, he made speeches in the North, tacitly setting himself up as an alternative to Lincoln. In November 1863, Butler was given the Department of Virginia and North Carolina to mollify him.

Grant discussed strategy with Butler, and they decided to attack Richmond, or at least threaten the Confederate capital. Smith was not present at every meeting, and soon found out he would command XVIII Corps under Butler’s newly minted Army of the James. Why Grant chose Smith for the XVIII Corps is at first not hard to fathom. Smith was a good engineer. He was widely considered one of the Union’s best tacticians, and he could be innovative. Butler had never led troops into a major battle, and Smith could offer good advice and a steady hand. Smith had also long favored an offensive similar to what Butler was attempting. Yet, there was probably a less kindly reason for Smith’s placement. In Butler’s department, Grant had no one who could monitor the situation. In addition, if Butler needed to be removed, Smith was the obvious choice.

Smith’s presence though was insidious. He wanted an independent command and sent reports to Grant with Grant’s permission. This was a poor decision, since Grant was giving Smith a chance to bad-mouth Butler. It also showed that Grant did not wholly trust Butler. In addition, Smith was being assigned to an officer with a tongue so acidic that Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor once wrote “in the war of epithets he [Butler] has proved his ability to hold his ground against all comers as successfully as did Count Robert of Paris with sword and lance.” (Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, 112) It was practically pre-ordained that Smith and Butler would bicker.

Grant and some of his generals

Smith proved to be a liability. He did not wholly agree with Butler’s plan to take Bermuda Hundred and threaten Richmond. He favored making City Point the main base with Petersburg as the target, but he did not make his point to Butler. Throughout the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, he quarreled with Butler on tactical decisions. On the eve of the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, Smith told his friends Major General Phillip Sheridan and Brigadier General James Wilson that Butler should be removed. It was understood that Sheridan and Wilson would say as much to Grant when they next saw him.

Grant hardly seemed surprised by Smith’s machinations, and admitted to Major General Henry Halleck that the discord in the Army of the James could be Smith’s fault. Grant’s solution was to have XVIII Corps transferred to Meade’s command and then sent to attack Petersburg, but not under Butler’s supervision. The solution failed, and Smith and Meade started to bicker. Smith also failed to take Petersburg on June 15. Grant at first praised Smith for his leadership in the battle, but with hindsight, he became more critical. By July 1864, Smith was removed.

Grant was a capable manager of men during the Civil War. Although known to hold grudges, he promoted men who were friendly with each other, creating a relatively positive command atmosphere. Grant’s lieutenants were not perfect, but with few exceptions they were not incompetent. Unlike Major General John Pope, Grant successfully managed many difficult personalities in the eastern theater despite being an outsider. However, the question of what to do with Smith was vexing, given his character and reputation. Sending him to Butler kept Smith away from men such as Burnside, but the alternative proved to be no better. Smith’s feud with Butler was a major source of woe in the Union high command. As Grant wrote in his memoirs, “I was not long in finding out that the objections to Smith’s promotion were well founded.” (Grant, Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Vol. 2, 367)

Preservation News: June 1, 1864 at Cold Harbor

Recently the Civil War Trust announced an effort to preserve land related to the June 1, 1864 fighting at Cold Harbor. This combat has often been overshadowed by the Union assault which took place there on June 3. Cold Harbor had yet to become, in the words of Union staff officer Thomas Hyde, “the Golgotha of American history.” When I read through the announcement and examined the map which included the targeted tracts my eyes were immediately drawn to a particular segment of the property. It lays just north of the Cold Harbor Road and above and slightly to the right of the Miles Garthwright House.

On May 30, with Union cavalry operations heating up around Cold Harbor, Gen. Robert E. Lee began shuffling men there to secure the area. This effort continued the following day, as the Federal cavalry attacked and eventually captured the road junction. Late in the evening of the thirty-first, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade also began to funnel infantry toward Cold Harbor. The crossroads was vitally important to the commanders. One road led directly to the Union supply base on the Pamunkey River while another ran directly to the Confederate capital at Richmond, less than a dozen miles to the southwest. Grant planned to attack there the next morning. The General-in-Chief, however, was asking too much of his soldiers.

Walking over the battlefield at Cold Harbor, one of the things that comes to mind is the condition of the men in both armies who fought there. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had been locked in a desperate, non-stop campaign for nearly a month. They were completely exhausted. Grant’s expectation to immediately launch an assault following a harrowing night march was unrealistic. The first blue infantry to reach Cold Harbor was Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps, which tramped in at about 10 a.m. It was not until 2:30 that afternoon that Wright’s last division arrive and deploy for battle. Wright was to coordinate the offensive with Maj. Gen. William “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps, recently arrived from the Army of the James.  Smith’s orders had been botched, adding miles and hours to his march. His men finally arrived around mid-afternoon. The delay gave Wright’s men time to wait and contemplate the inevitable assault. Across the open space before them stood Brig. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division and Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s First Corps. The Confederates had spent much of the morning preparing and improving their defenses. Among those who waited anxiously to make the assault was a brigade commanded by a colonel from New York, Emory Upton.

A post war photo of Emory Upton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I’ve always been fascinated by Upton. Socially awkward but incredibly brilliant, he was the Sheldon Cooper of his day.  Upton had been one of the few men to recognize that the technology of the 1860s, especially the rifled musket and the advent of field fortifications, had rendered the tactics of the day obsolete. Just weeks earlier, Upton led an attack on the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania. He massed his twelve regiments in a column, three across and four deep. His men were directed not to open fire as they stormed the enemy works. The bayonet assault was initially successful, however, supporting troops did not arrive in time to exploit the breach. Impressed with the effort, Grant utilized Upton’s methods and sent the II Corps crashing into the salient on May 12. Once again, the attack was not properly coordinated which allowed the Confederates to recapture and hold part of the line.

As time ticked away that afternoon, Upton prepared for the assault. He formed his regiments into two lines. The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery formed the first, with battalions stacked upon one another. Behind them was the 5th Maine, 95th Pennsylvania, 96th Pennsylvania and part of the 121st New York.

The 2nd Connecticut, led by Col. Elisha Kellogg, was a new regiment which had spent much of the war in the Washington defenses. Due to losses sustained in the campaign, they were converted to infantry and sent south, arriving with the army on May 21. I wonder what it was like for those men, who had never seen combat, to prepare for the attack. What thoughts went through their minds? What feelings did they have? One thing, I think, was certain. Derisively viewed for their lack of experience by their sister regiments, whose own ranks had been depleted by casualties, the Nutmeggers wanted to prove they were up to the task which awaited them.

Upton likely planned for his lines to move forward in concert. The “Heavies” were to carry the brunt of the assault while the remaining regiments awaited the outcome. If they were successful, Upton would send his second line forward to exploit the breach. Should Kellogg meet stiff resistance, Upon would send individual regiments from the second line forward with the expectation that the additional weight would break the Confederate position.

Kellogg took his place at the head of his regiment. He ordered his men to unsling their knapsacks and any other accouterments that might impede their movement. Around 6 p.m. the blue soldiers moved forward. “The Second Connecticut…moved to the assault in beautiful order,” Upton wrote. “Crossing an open field, it entered a pine-wood, passed down a gentle declivity and up a slight ascent. Here the charge was checked. For seventy feet in front of the works the trees had been felled, interlocking with each other, and barring all further advance. Two paths, several yards apart, and wide enough for four men to march abreast, led through the obstructions. Up these, to the foot of the works, the brave men rushed, but were swept away by a converging fire…I directed the men to lie down, and not to return fire. Opposite the right of the regiment, the works were carried…in this position, without support on either flank, the Second Connecticut fought, when the enemy fell back to a second line of works.”

Watching from the rear, a member of the 121st New York wrote “as soon as the heavies began to charge, the Rebel works were bordered with a fringe of smoke from the muskets and the men began to fall very fast, and many wounded began going to the rear.” The 2nd Connecticut approached Brig. Gen. Thomas Clingman’s brigade and a section of the line held by the 51st North Carolina. Aghast, the Empire Stater observed the Connecticut soldiers “fall in all shapes. Some would fall forward as if they had caught their feet and tripped and fell. Others would fall backward. Others would stagger about a few paces before they dropped.” Among the dead was Kellogg. Wounded early in the attack, he remained at the front before being shot down, struck multiple times. Kellogg’s personal example helped ensure that his regiment would no longer be called “band box soldiers.”

Although Upton’s attack had ground to a halt, on his right, Union infantry overran part of Clingman’s line. Upton quickly pushed elements from the 2nd Connecticut to his right and over the works. He then shifted to the left and managed to capture that portion of the entrenchments from which the Confederates had so badly mauled his men only minutes before. Later on, he pressed his second line up to hold against enemy counterattacks. Elsewhere, other units from the VI and XVIII Corps achieved similar results. This temporary success prompted Grant to launch his famous army wide assault on June 3.

2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery Monument at Cold Harbor.

Today, a monument stands within the National Park Service boundary to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. Some of the ground over which the regiment traversed during their attack has been identified by the Trust for this purchase. It represents an opportunity to further pay tribute to the valor of  Upton, Kellogg, the men who followed them and the other soldiers who fought at Cold Harbor that share in our American experience.




Turning Point: Assault on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts


Around a small hamlet in southern Pennsylvania, Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia was stymied and driven back after three days, July 1st through the 3rd, of bloodletting at the Battle of Gettysburg.

A turning point in the Civil War in retrospect.

On July 4, 1863, the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the “Gibraltar of the Mississippi River” capitulated to Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant.

A turning point in the Civil War in hindsight.

The evacuation of Tullahoma on the first day of July and the surrender of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River at Port Hudson, Louisiana on July 9, 1863, are two other significant actions in July.

Both can be considered turning points when studied through the lens of history.

Yet, there was a much more significant engagement, this time a Union defeat, that also turned the tide of the American Civil War. This assault took place on July 18, 1863 on Battery Wagner, part of the defenses of Charleston, South Carolina. In the waning moments of daylight, the 54th Massachusetts charged determinedly toward the sandy approaches and abates that was Battery Wagner. Their assault failed with the loss of their commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. In this example though, the heroism of the charge, the courage that these soldiers portrayed, and what their actions meant advanced the Union war effort.  


Battery Wagner, photo taken in 1865 (courtesy of

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was an African-American or in 19th century parlance, “colored regiment.” The brainchild of Massachusetts Governor John Andrews, the African-American soldiers that comprised this unit was fighting for their race, to thwart the misconceptions that blacks could only serve in labor and non-fighting positions, and to overthrow the Southern slave oligarchy and institute universal freedom.

Battery Wagner would be the pivot in which African-American soldiers showed their fighting prowess and their ability, like their fellow white soldiers, to uphold the standards of the American military. After the failed assault on July 18, 1963, the repercussions reverberated around the country. Including in the Confederacy.

“The negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a Colonel as ever lived,” wrote Lieutenant Iredell Jones of the 1st South Carolina about the 54th Massachusetts attack. Even the Charleston Courier’s editor grudgingly admitted that the African-American soldiers showed “bravery” although he wished it was “worthy of a better cause.”

In the North, descriptions such as “heroic conduct” from the Boston Transcript or “fought with the desperation of tigers” as the Cincinnati Daily Gazette wrote to their readership depicted the accounting of the 54th Massachusetts’ assault.

“The experiment has begun” wrote a newspaper reporter for the Washington Reporter a Pennsylvania-based publication. With the news of Battery Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts were “magnificent for their steadiness, impetuosity, and dauntless courage.” As a fitting epitaph, the reporter wrote that if all Union troops, irrespective of color of skin showed “as single hearted as these soldiers, our difficulties would disappear.


Currier & Ives Lithograph of the 54th Massachusetts charge on Battery Wagner (Courtesy of the Library of Congress

There were skeptics from the beginning of the “experiment” to arm and equip colored regiments and the fighting on July 18, 1863 did not completely dispel them. “Not myself a believer in the arming of negroes, free or contraband, as soldiers, I must do this regiment the credit of fighting bravely and well.” Other newspapers of the more Democratic Party persuasion, while still hesitant to embrace African-American soldier policy, admitted that the 54th Massachusetts and their bravery and courage under fire, made them “entitled to assert their rights to manhood,” and showed their “undaunted courage” and that they were “evidently made of good stuff.”To conclude the importance of the assault in July, an editor of the Chicago Tribune summed up the cause of African-American soldiers serving the Union war cause by writing;

                    “[The] government and the people have woke up to the importance of negro                              soldiers in the conduct of the war…[the] thing is now settled–the negroes will                          fight.”

The impact and fallout of the assault was noticed in the highest circles of the Federal government. The judge advocate general, Joseph Holt, in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in August 1863, attested to;

                     “The tenacious and brilliant valor displayed by troops of this race has
sufficiently demonstrated to the President and to the country the character of
the service for which they are capable.”

Horace Greeley echoed the sentiment of how important that first test of combat was for the role and advancement of African-American soldiers in the war effort. Writing in 1865, he looked back on that summer two years prior, “It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-fourth had faltered when its trial came, two hundred thousand colored troops for whom it was a pioneer would have been put into the field.”

The eyes of the nation, from the president to the common citizen were on the black soldiers that courageously advanced in the surf and turf along the South Carolina barrier islands. If these men would have faltered, balked on the advance, let fear of death and destruction deter them, the cause of African-Americans would have been severely hampered.  Not only did they go in with gusto, but one of their number was awarded the Medal of Honor, for bringing the national flag back out of the conflict, never letting it touch the ground.


Medal of Honor winner William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts. He won the medal for his actions at Battery Wagner on July 18, 186

Before the end of the war over 179,000 African-American soldiers would don Union blue uniforms and help defeat the Confederacy and permanently end the “peculiar institution” of slavery and bondage. This number would constitute approximately 10% of the entire United States Army. Furthermore, another 19,000 African-Americans would serve in the United States Navy during the conflict. Over 40,000 would succumb to wounds or disease in defense of the Union and for the cause of freedom and liberty. In addition to aiding the Union war effort, the removal of African-American manpower affected the Confederate war effort, depriving them of manual labor; both in the military arena and on the home-front.

When one discusses the momentous month of July 1863 and the turning points of the American Civil War, the legacy of the 54th Massachusetts’s assault on Battery Wagner and what that created, must be part of the discussion. This batch of occurrences in the summer of 1863 turned the tide of the conflict and put the North on the footing to win the American Civil War.


*For an excellent study which was consulted as part of the research for this post, please consult, “Thunder at the Gates, The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America” by Douglas R. Egerton*




Chattanooga: More Than Just Another Victory for Grant

TurningPoints-logoIn the late summer and early days of fall of 1863, it seemed that all eyes were on the small railroad town of Chattanooga, TN. The disastrous defeat at Chickamauga and the huge casualties it reaped turned what had nearly been for Union commander Major General William S. Rosecrans a victory almost as significant as the fall of Vicksburg into an embarrassing defeat of epic proportions. Yet in the defeat, Rosecrans still held onto Chattanooga, the objective of his campaign, although his army, the Army of the Cumberland, soon found itself under siege in the town.

Rosecrans managed to hold on thanks to a 60-mile supply line to their forward supply base of Bridgeport, Alabama, only 25 miles away, but due to the placement of the Confederate army’s best cannon on Lookout Mountain and sharpshooters along the banks of the Tennessee River, direct access was impossible. Rosecrans continued to work on the defense of the town and planned a move to open up another, shorter route of supply, although word of this was not making it to the ears of the War Department. The assistant secretary of war, feeding a growing panic about Rosecrans, sent false reports of an eminent withdrawal. Already reinforcements were on the way to aid Rosecrans, though: Joe Hooker was dispatched with the XI and XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac from Virginia, and William T. Sherman was coming with a portion of the Army of the Tennessee from Mississippi. But suddenly another move was made that would have tremendous impact on the rest of the war and one that proved fatal to Rosecrans’s career. 

Major General Ulysses S. Grant had steadily grown into the hero of the Union cause. From the first so-needed victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, the snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat at Shiloh, and the hard road to capture Vicksburg, Grant seemed to provide the victories that the Union cause desperately needed. Grant proved himself to be a tough-as-nails commander, and his maxim of “when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, not to turn back or stop until the thing intended was accomplished” served him well.

However, Grant also displayed some very human flaws. He was sometimes jealous of the attention the press gave other officers and displayed some misplaced paranoia. This resulted in a bitter rift with Rosecrans, destroying a decades-long friendship in the wake of the battles of Iuka and Corinth the previous fall.

Grant’s accomplishments, though, shined brightly now that the Mississippi once more, through his efforts, ran “unvexed to the sea,” severing the Confederacy. With this latest accomplishment, Grant received notification of his promotion to command the newly created Military Division of the West, which covered a massive expanse of ground: the three military departments between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, including his old command, the Army of the Tennessee, now commanded by his good friend and loyal subordinate, William T. Sherman, and also that of the now seemingly collapsing Rosecrans, the Army of the Cumberland.

Grant was tasked with insuring that Chattanooga remained in Union hands. The War Department gave him two sets of orders related to the fate of his old friend, Rosecrans. He literally held Rosecrans’s fate in his hand. One set of orders retained him, and the other removed him from command and replaced him with Major General George H. Thomas.

There never was any doubt: Rosecrans was done.

Grant arrived at the Union supply depot at Stevenson, Alabama, approximately 45 miles west of Chattanooga, on October 22 to be met by the departing Rosecrans. In what could only have been a very tense meeting, Rosecrans briefed Grant on the situation at the front and also about his plans for opening a supply line. Grant, for his part, falsely told Rosecrans that he didn’t have anything to do with his removal before sending him on his way.

The following day, Grant made his way through a pouring rain to Chattanooga, where he met with General Thomas and heard more about Rosecrans’s plan—though the army’s chief engineer, General William F. Smith, claimed it was his own. Grant now turned his energies to getting the much-needed supplies into Chattanooga. Taking Rosecrans’s plan and making it happen, Grant launched one of the war’s few night-time assault—and an amphibious one, at that—the battle of Brown’s Ferry, which broke the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. What became known as “the Cracker Line” was now open, and a steady stream of supplies moved unvexed into Chattanooga.

Along with the supplies, a path was open for the reinforcements that had begun arriving. Hooker’s men had arrived only eleven days after they were dispatched, played a big part in opening the “Cracker Line” and then defending it in a series of fights that are collectively called the battle of Wauhatchie. Grant now waited for Sherman to arrive.

In the interlude, the Confederate commander, Braxton Bragg, dispatched part of his army to deal with the third army under Grant’s command, Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, which captured Knoxville, TN, after the city’s garrison had rushed to reinforce Bragg just before the battle of Chickamauga. Now wanting to eliminate Burnside as a threat and retake Knoxville, Bragg sent Lt. Gen. James Longstreet with his corps for this mission. When Sherman finally arrived at Chattanooga in mid November, Bragg initially discounted him as a local threat, thinking Sherman’s men were on the way to Knoxville—which, in turn, prompted him to order more of his army to that front. Ironically that move compelled Grant, now growing worried about Burnside, to act against Bragg.

Receiving a report that the Confederates were leaving his front, Grant ordered a reconnaissance in force on November 23 against the Confederate picket lines near Orchard Knob, a prominent hill between Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge, along whose base a long portion of the Confederate defenses ran. That reconnaissance soon turned into the first of what would be three days of fighting. The Confederates were still in their lines, and a short fight ensued, with the Union forces capturing Orchard Knob.

Grant now saw that it was time to act. He sent orders for the main assault to occur the following day. Sherman would attack the Confederate right and roll up the line, sweeping the Confederates away from Chattanooga and into North Georgia, while Hooker would attack Lookout Mountain in diversionary action.

However, November 24 proved to be a day of frustrating success and failure. Hooker’s attack was a success, forcing the Confederates to abandon the seemingly impregnable Lookout Mountain, while Sherman, due to a poor reconnaissance and even poorer maps, attacked what proved to be an undefended set of hills slightly in front of Missionary Ridge. Grant now had to draw up a new set of plans for November 25 even as Bragg pulled all of his men back to defend Missionary Ridge. The following day, Sherman was to attack what he now knew was the Confederate right on the portion of the ridge known as Tunnel Hill, while Hooker would move off Lookout Mountain, cross Chattanooga Valley, and attack the Confederate left, crushing the Confederates between the two forces as the Army of the Cumberland loomed as a diversion in their front.

Once again luck seemed not to be with the Union forces, though. Flooded creeks and a burned bridge delayed Hooker as he moved eastward, while Sherman was handed several humiliating repulses in his attacks on the north end of the line.

Finally, late in the day, having received erroneous reports that Bragg had reinforced his right. Grant decided that it was time to commit Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland. Late in the afternoon of November 25, the Cumberlanders moved forward with orders to attack the Confederate defenses at the foot of the ridge, a move they made easily enough—but finding themselves under heavy fire from the Confederate main line on top of the ridge, the men surged forward without orders. Clambering up the side of the ridge, they shouted over and over again, “Chickamauga!” Using the name of their defeat as their battle cry, they soon had the summit and, in short order, broke the Confederate line and sent the Rebels into full retreat. Grant had his victory.

In the aftermath of the battle, Grant was once again hailed as the great victor, this time having opened the gateway into the heart of the Deep South. In the space of four months, Grant had delivered two of the most important victories of the war—and he was destined for even greater things. Grant, in short order, was promoted again, this time to take command of all of the Union Armies. He, in turn, promoted Sherman—despite Sherman’s failures—to take command of the Military Division of the West. The team was now being assembled to win the war.

The following spring, Grant traveled to Virginia to try his luck against Robert E. Lee, and Sherman moved through the gateway into Georgia, beginning a campaign that would lead to both his fame and infamy—but all of it leading to the death of the Confederacy.

Chattanooga wasn’t just another victory for Grant, it was the event that enabled him to assemble his winning team—a team that won the war.


[For more on the relationship between Grant, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, read Dan Davis’s essay “Vicksburg: The Victory That Unleashed Ulysses S. Grant” in Turning Points of the American Civil Warpart of the “Engaging the Civil War” Series.]

Grant Ascending . . .

The events of July 4, 1863, cemented Ulysses S. Grant’s position as a household name firmly into the public mind. The capitulation of the Confederate bastion of Vicksburg to “Unconditional Surrender” Grant of Donelson fame – on Independence Day no less – electrified the North and dismayed the South.

And yet, after Vicksburg Grant and his army entered a hiatus. Grant remained one western departmental commander among several. He commanded the Department of the Mississippi, alongside Nathaniel P. Banks, heading up the Department of the Gulf; William S. Rosecrans of the Department of the Cumberland; and Ambrose E. Burnside at the helm of the Department of the Ohio. Each of those men continued in independent command, answerable directly to the War Department in Washington, and conducting their own independent operations. President Abraham Lincoln did sound Grant out about the possibility of coming east to replace General George G. Meade as head of the Army of the Potomac, but Grant was unenthusiastic, and nothing came of the idea. Over the next few weeks Grant’s troops dispersed to garrison much of the newly captured territory, or were lent out for intended expeditions in Arkansas and East Texas. From July until the end of September, Grant was called upon to do very little. Vicksburg might have been a turning point in Grant’s career trajectory, but if so, that turn was not immediately obvious. 

In fact, it took another crisis to propel Grant into his subsequent high rank, political career, and enshrinement as one of America’s principal military heroes. That crisis was Chattanooga, in the fall of 1863.

On September 20, 1863, after three days of combat at the battle of Chickamauga, Union General William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland was badly defeated and driven into the defensive works of Chattanooga – the disastrous culmination of a month-long campaign in which Rosecrans leveraged Confederate General Braxton Bragg out of that city, only to see Bragg’s heavily reinforced army strike back. Bragg nearly encircled Rosecrans’s surviving force, leaving the Federal commander with a stark choice: Starve, surrender, or conduct a disastrous further retreat across the Tennessee Barrens.

Faced with this crisis, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reacted quickly. They rushed reinforcements to Rosecrans from Virginia, and called upon both Grant and Burnside to furnish additional men. Grant received notice of this need on September 22, and within three days had nearly 20,000 men in motion.

But Stanton wanted something more: unified command. He was greatly dissatisfied with Union General Henry W. Halleck’s ability – or lack thereof – to orchestrate a cohesive military policy across the vast Western Theater from Halleck’s office in Washington D.C. Stanton also despised Rosecrans and was convinced that the Army of the Cumberland’s commander was not fit to meet the challenges now at hand. Accordingly, Stanton turned to Grant.

In mid-October Stanton dispatched a cryptic message requesting that Grant meet him in Louisville. Stanton traveled west on a special train, while Grant did the same from Cairo Illinois. They met on October 17. There Stanton handed Grant an order naming him commander of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, a comprehensive new command embracing the entire Western Theater. Grant’s orders came in two versions: the first retained Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland, while the second replaced Rosecrans with George Thomas. In theory, Grant could choose which officer he preferred; but Grant almost certainly understood what Stanton wished to happen. On October 18, spurred into additional haste by an alarming dispatch from Chattanooga, Grant assumed command of the Division, and wired the order relieving Rosecrans to the Army of the Cumberland’s headquarters. Thomas took up command as soon as it arrived.

This bit of theater was aimed at making the government seem impartial, distanced from Rosecrans’ removal. Rosecrans, an Ohioan and War Democrat, was widely popular in his home state, and Ohio was in the middle of a crucial gubernatorial election that fall. But it was theater: Stanton never intended to retain Rosecrans. The Secretary informed Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton of as much the evening before he even met with Grant. Nor was Grant inclined to want to keep Rosecrans in command. Those two men also had a difficult relationship, dating back to the fall of 1862 and the battle of Iuka. Grant, who always valued teamwork over raw military capacity, had no intention of working with the brilliant-but-difficult Rosecrans unless forced to.

Grant proceeded to Chattanooga immediately. He arrived in the city on October 23, after an arduous ride, traversing flooded streams and forbidding mountains on roads churned to muddy soup. He arrived at Thomas’s headquarters that evening, to what at least one witness described as a chilly reception from the taciturn Rock of Chickamauga, George Thomas. No one else described such a scene, and Grant never mentioned feeling rebuffed, so how much of snub was actually delivered remains a very open question. If Thomas did mean to slight Grant, Grant seemed to take no notice.

Grant reached Chattanooga, but his troops certainly hadn’t. Major General William T. Sherman, at the head of four divisions of the Army of the Tennessee, was toiling his way across Northern Alabama. It was slow going. Initially charged with repairing the badly damaged Memphis & Charleston rail line as he went, Sherman was badly delayed by the effort. Once in Chattanooga, Grant ordered Sherman to abandon that labor and make for Chattanooga as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, there was a supply line to re-open. The Union army’s main supply depots were at Bridgeport and Stevenson Alabama, forty miles to the west. Confederate troops sealed off the direct route, forcing Federal supply wagons to follow the same meandering mountain roads that Grant used to enter the city – a journey of more than 60 miles – and which would become unusable with the onset of winter. The obvious solution was to restore Union navigation on the Tennessee, whereby steamboats could carry all the supplies Thomas needed as far as Kelley’s Ferry, and from whence they could be hauled by wagon the last few miles into the city. Grant arrived just as the planning for an operation to accomplish this task was being finalized. Rosecrans had explained the plan to Grant as the two met in Grant’s rail car at Bridgeport, in passing. Details were finalized, and the plan was capably executed by Union Major General Charles F. “Baldy” Smith, the Army’s chief engineer, a week after Grant’s arrival. The danger of starvation or surrender had passed by the beginning of November.

Mere survival was not in Grant’s make-up, however. Grant intended to attack, and soon. He ordered a first effort in early November, when he discovered that Bragg was sending a large portion of his own army under James Longstreet into East Tennessee to recapture Knoxville. That effort was foiled by the Army of the Cumberland’s still-parlous condition, especially in horseflesh. Thomas’s livestock suffered severely in October, and there simply weren’t enough fit animals to draw the artillery, let alone anything else. Frustrated, Grant urged Thomas to strip the officers of their mounts for the purpose; but those horses weren’t in any better shape. Nor was Sherman present with his troops, leaving Grant with no good options. There would be no early November offensive.

A little more than two weeks later, Union prospects were much improved. Sherman was present, Thomas’s army was ready, and the Rebels were greatly outnumbered. Grant could at last give his offensive nature free rein.

The results were spectacular. On November 24, Union Major General Joseph Hooker attacked Bragg’s left, capturing the lower slopes of Lookout Mountain. This success forced the Confederates to abandon the crest of Lookout that same night, lest they be cut off from the rest of Bragg’s army on Missionary Ridge. Also on the 24th, Sherman’s column slipped across the Tennessee River upstream from Chattanooga and established a lodgment on the south bank near Bragg’s right flank at Tunnel Hill – which dominated the north end of Missionary Ridge.

The following day, November 25, Union arms were crowned with even greater success, though there were some early stumbles. Grant opened with Sherman’s force striking at Tunnel Hill to complete the turning of Bragg’s right, something Grant intended Sherman to have accomplished the day before. Sherman’s effort, however, fell short. In the meantime, almost as an afterthought, Grant directed Hooker to advance against the Rebel left at Rossville. Hooker’s advance was slow, greatly delayed by a destroyed bridge. In the afternoon, when it had begun to look like the Union plans were completely undone, Grant ordered Thomas to attack the Confederate defenses at the foot of Missionary Ridge, striking Bragg’s center, in the sector everyone supposed was the strongest part of the Rebel line.

The troops took the first line of works handily, but then, without orders, they kept on going: up and over the crest of Missionary Ridge, throwing much of Bragg’s army into headlong retreat. Success was capped by Hooker’s seizure of Rossville near dusk, followed by a lateral sweep northward astride the ridge by three more Union divisions, which completed the rout. It proved to be one of the more complete Union victories of the war.

To both the northern public and the Union leadership in Washington, this triumph appeared to be a stunning reversal of fortune; just a month previous, Lincoln, Stanton, and millions of other Northern citizens were bracing for disaster. Grant’s reputation, already riding high, ascended to the stratosphere.

Arguably, Chattanooga was Grant’s acid-test for theater command. Vicksburg was a great victory, but it did not produce an immediate elevation; after all, the Lincoln administration had a long record of importing winning general from the West, with disappointing results. But if Grant could achieve such a stunning result at Chattanooga, might not he be the man – at last – Lincoln could turn to in order to finally win the war? Chattanooga, more so than Vicksburg, propelled Grant the following March into an unprecedented promotion to lieutenant general, tasked with command of all Union armies in the field.

Of course, there is some irony here: Far from being Grant’s most brilliantly-engineered strategic triumph, Chattanooga was arguably Grant’s worst-planned and worst-fought battle. In Grant’s original plan, Sherman was supposed to do all the heavy lifting; with Thomas’ and Hooker’s men largely relegated to spectator status. Sherman’s command, after all, contained Grant’s trusted veterans, the men of the Army of the Tennessee. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland and Hooker’s Army of the Potomac transplants – at least in Grant’s eyes – could not be trusted to fight offensively. Too many defeats loomed in their past records, the most recent of which was Chickamauga. Grant told Sherman as much when that officer reached Chattanooga in mid-November.

Grant intended to send Sherman across the Tennessee to seize the northern end of Missionary Ridge on November 24. Hooker’s assault on Lookout Mountain was meant to be nothing more than a demonstration, diverting Bragg’s attention from Sherman’s decisive blow. But Sherman faltered, never even reaching Missionary Ridge. Hooker’s men wrested control of Lookout after a sharp – and spectacular, to all onlookers – fight (an affair Grant always afterward dismissed as nothing more than a skirmish.) Worse yet, when Sherman was tasked with the main effort the next day, he again stumbled badly, delivering a series of uncoordinated piecemeal attacks which were easily blunted by the Confederate defenders. Thomas’s assault on the Confederate center was only supposed to be a demonstration, a ploy meant to divert enemy forces away from Sherman. No troops were diverted (again, something Grant consistently failed to accept even years after the war) but Thomas’s men shattered the very center of the Confederate line.

As such, Chattanooga might well go down in the books as Grant’s luckiest battle, with the men he trusted the least succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations. But Chattanooga is also more than mere luck. As a battle, it also demonstrated Grant’s strongest traits as a soldier – adaptability and perseverance. Those were the traits which had sustained him at Shiloh, at Vicksburg, at Chattanooga; and would eventually carry him to total victory in Virginia.

More than any other single battle or campaign, Grant’s resounding success at Chattanooga convinced Lincoln and Stanton that they had at last found their man.

New Team of Researchers Helps Grant with His Memoirs

Grant Memoirs annotated-coverWhen Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs, a small team of researchers helped him check facts and track down details. Now, 132 years after the release of those memoirs, a new team of fact-checkers and researchers has gone to work for Grant to help prepare a new edition.

First published in 1885, Grant’s memoirs have never been out of print. What makes this edition of particular note is that, for the first time ever, the memoirs are fully annotated—and the annotations were compiled by none other than the historians of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University (and published by Harvard University Press).

“There just hasn’t been anything like this done before,” says editor John F. Marszalek, executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. “Every couple of years, someone comes out with a ‘new’ edition, but basically what we’ve found is that publishers are using what we used—the very first published memoirs that Grant himself wrote—[and then] maybe adding a new introduction, but they’re really not doing very much to make the memoirs available to the modern reader.

“I think that’s going to be the big contribution we’re going to make,” he adds. “What we attempted to do, I hope, is to make clear what Grant has already made clear in his writing when he’s talking to the audience he’s writing for. We’re trying to take it and make it clear to a modern audience.” 

The project dates back to the editorship of John Y. Simon, the original editor of the Ulysses S. Grant papers. Marszalek paraphrases Simon’s intent: “Once I finish the papers, then the next thing the Grant Association needs to do is come up with an annotated version of the Grant memoirs.” And so, Marszalek says, “Once we finished up the Grant papers, we decided it was time to take that on—and so we did.”

That effort wrapped up 2011. Marszalek, who succeeded Simon as managing editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Papers, then launched the annotation project, eventually recruiting assistant editors David S. Nolen and Louie P. Gallo.

Nolen, a reference librarian working at the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State, joined the team at about the same time he and his wife had a baby. “David has been working on these memoirs for as long as his four-year-daughter has been alive,” Marszalek jokes warmly.

Gallo, meanwhile, joined the team in 2014 as a one-year replacement from the McKinley National Memorial, Library, and Birthplace—and ended up staying. “It’s pretty much been part of my everyday life for the past three years,” he laughs.

Working in tandem, Nolen and Gallo tracked down items and verified facts—what Nolen calls “some of the nuts and bolts kind of digging”—and had to decide where to intervene with some kind of annotation. The result was some two thousand notes that added context, clarity, and depth to Grant’s original manuscript.

“Looking at the memoirs and how far removed we are from their original audience, there’s a sense that there are passages that are fairly inaccessible to a modern reader just because they don’t have the cultural context and the knowledge that readers of the first edition would have had,” Nolen explains, “especially with the Civil War and the major and minor players that Grant mentions kind of in passing. One of the things we wanted to do in the annotation was really comprehensively annotate all of those sections where the modern reader stops and said, ‘Wait, who is that?’ or ‘What is he describing?’”

Nolen says they “didn’t want to interrupt [Grant’s] narrative flow” if they didn’t have to, so they tried to limit themselves to instances “where Grant would be vague—either from the modern reader being distant from the context or where he’s kind of glossing over things to sum up and move on with the story.”

That required a lot of detective work, Marszalek admits: “I don’t know how many times in his memoirs Grant talks about a ‘Mr. Jones’ or a ‘Mr. Smith’ or a ‘Capt. Smith’ or a ‘Dr. Smith.’ And then, of course, how do you find out who this character is? But in most cases, we’ve been able to discover this.”

Gallo says the team tried to identify every single person Grant mentions and give the reader a “brief biographical bit.” As an example, he cites an instance during the Vicksburg Campaign where Grant talks about being stationed at Milliken’s Bend. “And he talks about how there’s this little skiff that came up the river, and there was a man in the boat who had a white flag signifying that he was coming in peace, and he just wanted to talk to Grant,” Gallo says. “We had to figure out, ‘Who was this person?’

“We did some research and figured out this guy was actually an unindicted co-conspirator in the assassination plot to kill Lincoln. And later on, after the war, Grant actually had to testify in front of the commission on the assassination about meeting with this guy. So it’s interesting enough to identify the person, but it’s even cooler to find this deeper connection that he has, not only with Grant but with a significant event in American history.”

Such discoveries are exciting, Marszalek says, because the modern reader “will be able to look at this and learn things that are not available at this particular point, even though the Civil War has been around for a long time.”

At times, the team also intervened with annotations that corrected factual errors, although Marszalek says those instances were few. “One of the stories about Grant is that the memoirs aren’t accurate, that there are a lot of mistakes, that he was building himself up and his friends and others like that,” Marszalek says. “We didn’t find that. One of the things we did find was that he was remarkably accurate.” Grant might round off numbers to 22,000 from something like 21,232, but the editor says, “That’s not important.”

“There are some things where we don’t agree with his interpretation of things,” Marszalek admits, “but that’s his interpretation, and so we don’t try to change that or try to make some kind of point.”

Gallo agrees. “Our goal with this edition was really to just give the readers the facts,” he reiterates. “We tried to stay away from interpretation; we didn’t want to come across as biased.”

The point, says Nolen, was to let Grant speak for himself. “We really wanted to emphasize letting Grant tell his own story because the memoirs are such a good read,” he says. “As you read through it, you really get a good sense of ‘Grant the Storyteller.’”

That storytelling ability was one of Grant’s underappreciated talents, Marszalek says. “People who knew him would say he’s a really quiet guy, but he was such an engaging storyteller,” he says. “He’s interesting. When you got him in a situation where he felt free and able to speak—he was a fascinating, fascinating figure—he was able to do that.”

That sense of engagement came through in Grant’s writing, too. “The thing that really strikes me more than anything else is Grant writes in a very forceful way,” says Marszalek, who has probably spent more time with Grant’s writing than anyone alive. “You read the thing, and he draws you in. He said one time, ‘I am a verb’—in other words, I am an action. And he writes that way. So you read what he’s saying, and you know exactly what he’s saying. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He hits the nail right on the head.”

All the more remarkable is the fact that Grant was in the final throes of terminal throat cancer as he wrote. “The guy is dying,” Marszalek says. “They’re giving him cocaine, basically, to keep the pain down, yet he’s able to come through and write in such a marvelous, marvelous way.”

As Grant worked during those final, painful weeks, his small team of assistants helped assemble what he needed to finish. Of particular help on the manuscript were his sons, Fred, Buck, and Jesse, and his stenographer, Noble Dawson. They pulled maps, verified facts, and looked up information—an effort Marszalek, Gallo, and Nolen replicated for the annotations. “Other than that,” says Nolen, “we really wanted to let [Grant] speak for himself and tell his own story.”

“We tried to annotate it in a way that allows Grant to stand out,” Marszalek says, with Grant’s ideas front and center. “We don’t try to argue with him or convince the audience of any particular point. We present you with the facts as we really did our best to present them, and you go from there.”

For more information, you can read Mississippi State University’s press release.