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Excerpt: 'Tried By War'

Cover of James M. McPherson's 'Tried By War'

Chapter 7: Lee's army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point

For President Lincoln and Quartermaster General Meigs, the new year of 1863 started on the same depressing note as the old year twelve months earlier. Then it had been Lincoln who said disconsolately to Meigs that "the bottom is out of the tub." This time it was Meigs who lamented that "exhaustion steals over the country. Confidence and hope are dying. . . . I see greater peril to our nationality in the present condition of affairs than I have seen at any time during the struggle."

Matters would get worse before they got better. As usual for Lincoln, the Army of the Potomac presented his biggest problem. He was well aware that Burnside had lost the confidence of his principal subordinates. Gen. William B. Franklin headed a cabal of generals scheming to have McClellan restored to command. Joe Hooker made little secret of his contempt for Burnside and was intriguing to obtain the command for himself.

Morale in the ranks sank to a new low. A soldier from Maine wrote to his sister that "the great cause of liberty has been managed by Knaves and fools. The whole show has been corruption, the result disaster, shame and disgrace." To make matters worse Burnside was a slack administrator. With the resources of a rich country at his back and army warehouses bulging with supplies, troops in winter quarters at Falmouth suffered from poor food, poor medical care, weak discipline, and sickness. Many soldiers had not been paid for months. In January desertions increased to epidemic proportions.

Dissension climaxed with an aborted movement that became notorious as the Mud March. In an effort to recoup his fortunes by a successful campaign, Burnside ordered the army to move up the Rappahannock, cross at the fords, and strike the Confederate fl ank above Fredericksburg. The Franklin clique opposed this plan. An artillery colonel who was no partisan of Burnside nevertheless wrote that "Franklin has talked so much and so loudly to this effect that he has completely demoralized his whole command [two corps] and so rendered failure doubly sure. His conduct has been such that he surely deserves to be broken." Hooker also criticized "the absurdity of the movement" and for good measure included the Lincoln administration in his indictment, saying that what the country needed was a dictator.

Despite this poisonous atmosphere, Burnside 's movement got off to a good start January 20 on dry roads and in unusually benign weather. But that evening the heavens opened; heavy rain turned the roads into a bottomless ooze and bogged down the whole army in mud. Triple teams of horses could not budge the artillery and the wagons. After two days Burnside gave up and ordered the army back to camp. He then went to Washington bearing an order he wrote on January 23 cashiering Hooker and two other generals and transferring Franklin plus his chief coconspirator, William F. Smith, out of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside of course had no authority to make these dismissals, so he confronted Lincoln with this order and with his own resignation. Either the dissident generals had to go, he said, or he would. Lincoln agreed—and accepted Burnside 's resignation. The president also transferred Franklin and his fellow pro-McClellan schemers to other assignments.

The president's choice of Hooker to replace Burnside came as a surprise. Stanton and Halleck favored General Meade for the command. Halleck had disliked Hooker since they had known each other in California before the war. But Lincoln consulted neither Halleck nor Stanton about the appointment.5 Meade was only a division commander, while Hooker was one of the army's senior corps commanders. The president admitted to editor Henry Raymond of the New York Times, who had told Lincoln of Hooker's loose talk about the need for a dictator, that "Hooker does talk badly, but the trouble is, he is stronger in the country than any other man." Hooker was also popular with many soldiers, if not with his fellow generals. He had a good record as a brigade, division, and corps commander. Lincoln considered him an aggressive, hard-driving general (the press had dubbed him "Fighting Joe") and hoped that Hooker could infuse that spirit into the army.

The president summoned Hooker to Washington for a frank discussion. The exact nature of this interview is unknown. Hooker may have sought and obtained from Lincoln a commitment to protect him from Halleck's disfavor. Hooker did get the president's permission to communicate directly with him instead of going through Halleck.

Lincoln had lost confidence in Halleck and may have preferred this arrangement himself.

In their conversation Lincoln probably told Hooker the substance of what the president wrote that day in an extraordinary letter—a letter that Hooker later said was just what a wise father might write to his son. "There are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you," the president said. "I think that during Gen. Burnside 's command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him, as much as you could, in which you did great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer." As for the report of Hooker's words about the country needing a dictator, "of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship." Lincoln warned Hooker of the possibility that "the spirit which you have aided to infuse in the Army, of criticizing their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you, as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it." Lincoln concluded on a positive note: "Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories."

Hooker started off with a great deal of energy and vigilance. He shook up the commissary and quartermaster services, got rid of corrupt supply officers, upgraded the food, cleaned the unhealthy camps, improved field hospitals, and cut the sick rate in half. He tightened discipline but also granted furloughs liberally. He increased unit pride by devising insignia badges for each corps. Paymasters finally appeared and brought the men's pay up to date. Morale rose, desertions declined, and thousands of absentees rejoined their regiments after Lincoln on March 10 promised amnesty to deserters who returned by April 1. In his first two months Hooker produced a remarkable transformation in the army's spirit. Even one of the generals who disliked Hooker admitted that "I have never known men to change from a condition of lowest depression to that of a healthy fighting state in so short a time."

Lincoln did not recover his spirits as readily as the army did during this winter of discontent. The president was impressed by Hooker's achievements but disturbed by his gasconade. He had created "the finest army on the planet," Hooker boasted. The question was not whether he would take Richmond, but when. He hoped that God Almighty would have mercy on the Rebels, because Joe Hooker would have none. After visiting the army for several days in early April, Lincoln confided in a friend: "That is the most depressing thing about Hooker. It seems to me that he is overconfident."

* * *

Lincoln's depression was compounded by lack of success in other theaters. Adm. John Dahlgren, head of the Washington Navy Yard, who had become a close friend of Lincoln, reported in February that "the President never tells a joke now." The commissioner of public buildings met with Lincoln on February 18. "He looked worn & haggard," wrote the commissioner in his diary. "His hand trembled as I never saw it before."

The president was upset by repeated delays in the projected attack on Fort Sumter and Charleston by a fleet of eight ironclads. He was also concerned about Admiral Du Pont's pessimistic predictions that Confederate defenses were too strong for the attack to succeed. Secretary of the Navy Welles discussed this matter with Lincoln several times in March. "The President, who has a sort of intuitive sagacity, has spoken discouragingly of operations at Charleston," wrote Welles in his diary. "Du Pont's dispatches and movements . . . remind him of McClellan." In mid-March, Lincoln sent word to Du Pont that "I fear neither you nor your officers appreciate the supreme importance of time. The more you prepare, the more the enemy will be prepared." Two more weeks went by, and Lincoln again told Welles that "the long delay of Du Pont, his constant call for more ships, more ironclads, was like McClellan calling for more regiments." The president "thought the two men were alike and was prepared for a repulse at Charleston."13 It came on April 7 when Confederate guns drove back the Union ironclad fl eet in a one-sided battle that seemed to confirm Du Pont's pessimism. Lincoln, Welles, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox believed that Du Pont had not pushed the attack with sufficient determination. Whether their assessment was unfair or not, within three months Du Pont, like McClellan, was removed from command.

Another high-ranking offi cer whose apparent failures in the winter and spring of 1863 threatened his tenure was, surprisingly, Ulysses S. Grant. That general was well aware of Lincoln's desire for the capture of Vicksburg. Although John McClernand had been made subordinate to Grant, the Illinois political general kept open his direct pipeline to the president and played on Lincoln's anxiety about this theater. In a conversation with another general Lincoln had said that "if Vicksburg can be taken and the Mississippi successfully kept open it seems to me [they] will be about the most important fruits of the campaigns yet set in motion." Halleck told Grant that "the eyes and hopes of the whole country are now directed to your army. . . . The opening of the Mississippi River will be to us of more advantage than the capture of forty Richmonds."

After the repulse of Sherman's attack on Chickasaw Bluffs and the destruction of Grant's supply depot at Holly Springs in December 1862, Grant had decided to base his campaign against Vicksburg on the river itself at Milliken's Bend. He faced formidable problems of topography. A direct assault from the river against the two-hundredfoot bluff bristling with Confederate artillery would be suicidal. West of the river a maze of bayous and swamps blocked military operations except at low water—and the winter of 1862–63 was exceptionally wet. North of Vicksburg extended a 250-mile arc of hills that enclosed the Mississippi Delta, a network of swamps, rivers, and junglelike forests. Only southeast and east of Vicksburg was there dry land suitable for marching and fi ghting. Grant's problem was to get there with a large enough force to defeat the enemy and reestablish contact with the Union fleet, which controlled the river above Vicksburg.

Grant's Army of the Tennessee tried several methods to accomplish this purpose. Soldiers and contrabands attempted to enlarge the canal started the previous summer to rechannel the river around the fortress for a safe crossing to the east bank. The Mississippi refused to cooperate, however, and the canal was eventually abandoned. An effort to take gunboats and transports carrying troops through a series of waterways in the delta from a point opposite Helena, Arkansas, to the Yazoo River near Vicksburg was turned back by a hastily constructed fort on the Tallahatchie River a hundred miles north of Vicksburg. An attempt to cut a route through various bayous in Louisiana all the way to the Red River and then into the Mississippi looked likely to take until doomsday. Even if completed it would only have been deep enough for small boats, so it too was abandoned. Still another attempt to get Acting Rear Adm. David D. Porter's ironclad gunboats through Steele's Bayou just twenty-fi ve miles north of Vicksburg almost trapped the flotilla when Confederate soldiers felled trees ahead of and behind the boats. General Sherman disembarked enough troops to drive the enemy away, and the gunboats backed slowly down channels scarcely wider than the vessels themselves.

While all this was going on, Northern newspapers began to criticize Grant, some of them attacking him vigorously. Exaggerated reports appeared of the demoralization of Grant's troops and of typhoid fever, dysentery, and pneumonia killing off hundreds of them. The old rumors about the general's drinking started circulating again. Still hoping to replace Grant, McClernand did his part to spread these rumors. He wrote Lincoln that "on the 13th of March, 1863, Genl. Grant I am informed was gloriously drunk and in bed sick all next day."

The president did not deign to reply. But he could not ignore letters from the two most influential Republican newspaper editors in the Midwest. In February Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune wrote to Elihu Washburne, Grant's chief congressional supporter. "Your man Grant" was a miserable failure, declared Medill. "No man's career in the army is more open to destructive criticism than Grant's. We have kept off him on your account. We could have made him stink in the nostrils of the public like an old fish had we properly criticized his military blunders. Was there ever a more weak and imbecile campaign?" Several weeks later editor Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial wrote to Salmon P. Chase, who passed along the letter to Lincoln with an endorsement that such "reports concerning General Grant" were "too common to be safely disregarded." Grant was "a jackass in the original package," wrote Halstead. "He is a poor stick sober, and he is most of the time more than half drunk. . . . Grant will fail miserably, hopelessly, eternally." Even Elihu Washburne's brother Cadwalader, a major general, wrote to Elihu: "I fear Grant won't do. The truth is, Grant has no plan for taking Vicksburg, & is frittering away time & strength to no purpose. The truth must be told even when it hurts. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

Lincoln was deluged with politicians demanding Grant's removal. The president resisted the pressure. The anecdote about his desire to know what brand of whiskey Grant drank so he could send some to his other generals is probably apocryphal. But Lincoln did say, after Grant had confounded his critics, that "I have had stronger infl uence brought against Grant . . . than for any other object, coming too from good men. . . . If I had done as my Washington friends, who fight battles with their tongues instead of swords far from the enemy, demanded of me, Grant . . . would never have been heard from again."

But Lincoln did express some dissatisfaction with the apparent lack of progress in the Vicksburg campaign. On March 20 he told the Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune, off the record, that he thought "all these side expeditions through the country dangerous. . . . If the rebels can blockade us on the Mississippi, which is a mile wide, they can certainly stop us on the little streams not much wider than our gunboats and shut us up so we can't get back again." On April 2 Halleck warned Grant that Lincoln had become "impatient" with the various abortive efforts to get at Vicksburg. With the president's approval, Stanton sent the War Department troubleshooter Charles A. Dana to the western theater, ostensibly to investigate the paymaster service but in reality to determine whether Grant deserved the administration's continued support. Dana soon began sending favorable reports by special cipher to Stanton, who shared them with Lincoln. These reports probably were a major factor in Lincoln's decision to stick with Grant.

That general soon justified the president's faith in spectacular fashion. All the efforts to get at Vicksburg by tributary waterways having failed, Grant decided to have Porter's gunboats and transports run the batteries on the big river itself. The soldiers would build roads and causeways down the west bank to rendezvous with the fleet and cross to the east bank somewhere below Vicksburg. Despite Sherman's skepticism, it worked. The fleet ran the batteries on the night of April 17 with what Grant and Porter considered acceptable losses. While cavalry commander Benjamin Grierson led a diversionary raid through central Mississippi, and Sherman feinted another attack on the bluffs north of Vicksburg, Grant crossed two-thirds of his army (soon followed by Sherman's corps) forty miles downriver on April 30.

Halleck and Lincoln wanted Grant to unite his army with General Banks's Army of the Gulf for a joint attack on Port Hudson, followed by a combined attack on Vicksburg, or vice versa. In such a case Banks would outrank Grant and take command. But the two hundred river miles between the two armies and the logistical nightmare of trying to unite and supply them—plus, probably, Grant's disinclination to yield command of the enterprise to Banks—prevented any joint effort. After crossing the Mississippi, Grant cut loose from the river. His troops lived mainly off the land for the next three weeks until they could fight their way back to Vicksburg and make contact again with their riverborne supplies. During those three weeks, Grant's men marched 130 miles, fought and won five battles against separate forces that, if combined, would have been nearly as large as Grant's own, and penned the Confederates up in the Vicksburg defenses.

Lincoln had finally found a general who could march his army as fast and light as the enemy. The president was delighted by a tongue-in-cheek letter he received from Elihu Washburne, who traveled with Grant for part of the campaign. "I am afraid Grant will have to be reproved for want of style," wrote Washburne. "On this whole march for five days he has had neither a horse nor an orderly or servant, a blanket or overcoat or clean shirt, or even a sword. . . . His entire baggage consists of a tooth-brush." After driving the enemy into the Vicksburg fortifications, Grant ordered attacks on May 19 and 22. They were repulsed, but the Federals tightened their grip and Vicksburg's surrender seemed only a matter of time. "Whether Gen. Grant shall or shall not consummate the capture of Vicksburg," wrote Lincoln on May 26, "his campaign from the beginning of this month up to the twenty second day of it, is one of the most brilliant in the world."

Excerpted from Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson. Copyright © 2008 by James M. McPherson. Published in October 2008 by Penguin Press HC. All rights reserved.

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