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Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and the Election of 1864by David Alan Johnson
In the summer of 1864, the American Civil War had been dragging on for over three years with no end in sight. Things had not gone well for the Union, and the public blamed the president for the stalemate against the Confederacy and for the appalling numbers of killed and wounded. Lincoln was thoroughly convinced that without a favorable change in the trajectory of
In the summer of 1864, the American Civil War had been dragging on for over three years with no end in sight. Things had not gone well for the Union, and the public blamed the president for the stalemate against the Confederacy and for the appalling numbers of killed and wounded. Lincoln was thoroughly convinced that without a favorable change in the trajectory of the war he would have no chance of winning a second term against former Union general George B. McClellan, whom he had previously dismissed as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
This vivid, engrossing account of a critical year in American history examines the events of 1864, when the course of American history might have taken a radically different direction. It’s no exaggeration to say that if McClellan had won the election, everything would have been different—McClellan and the Democrats planned to end the war immediately, grant the South its independence, and let the Confederacy keep its slaves. What were the crucial factors that in the end swung public sentiment in favor of Lincoln? Johnson focuses on the battlefield campaigns of Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. While Grant was waging a war of attrition with superior manpower against the quick and elusive rebel forces under General Robert E. Lee, Sherman was fighting a protracted battle in Georgia against Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston. But then the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, made a tactical error that would change the whole course of the war.
This lively narrative, full of intriguing historical facts, brings to life an important series of episodes in our nation’s history. History and Civil War buffs will not want to put down this real-life page-turner.
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-Michael E. Haskew, author of De Gaulle: Lessons in Leadership from the Defiant General
"Few things are as dramatic as the distinct parts of this book: Grant, then Sherman, then Grant again, gnawing away at the enemy, while Lincoln’s high-wire policy somehow holds his party together. Readers of David Alan Johnson’s deft treatment won’t want to cut to the chase of the re-election—each chapter follows this daring team of survivors. And Johnson’s epilogue on twentieth-century repercussions of the war is an apt lesson for writers and readers alike."
-James M. Cornelius, PhD, curator, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
- Prometheus Books
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- 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
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Decided on the BATTLEFIELDGRANT, SHERMAN, LINCOLN, and the election of 1864
By DAVID ALAN JOHNSON
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2012 David Alan Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGENERALS AND POLITICIANS
TWO FRIENDS AND A GRAND STRATEGY
To the desk clerk at the Burnet House, Cincinnati's leading hotel, the two officers did not have anything in common except the blue uniforms they both wore. One of the men was striking in appearance—tall, with red hair and a short beard. He would have stood out anywhere. The other one also had a beard, but was short and stocky. There was nothing impressive about the shorter man at all; he could have disappeared into any crowd without ever being given a second look. The tall, redheadedman was talkative and highly strung, chattering away almost continuously in nervous, energetic bursts. The shorter man did not say very much—later on, people would say that he could be silent in several languages—and was much calmer and more reserved than his animated friend.
The short, stumpy officer was Ulysses S. Grant, the Hero of Vicksburg, Shiloh, and Chattanooga, who had been given his commission as lieutenant general by President Abraham Lincoln less than two weeks before. His talkative red-haired friend was Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had known General Grant since their days at West Point and had been with him at Shiloh and Vicksburg. The differences in their manner and appearance never had any effect on how well they got along with each other. But the relationship between the two was about to take a new turn. Their meeting in Cincinnati would change the lives of both men, and would also alter the course of the Civil War and forever change the future of the United States.
Grant and Sherman had come to the Burnet House to discuss strategy—how the war would be waged from then on. It was March 1864, a month or two before the roads would be dry enough to let the spring campaigns begin. The North had won major victories at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, but that had been eight months earlier and the Confederacy was far from finished. General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and General Joseph E. Johnston's Army of Tennessee were still in the field, and were the main topic of discussion between the two generals.
The war had been going on for nearly three years. People in the North were becoming tired of the endless fighting and everything about it. Because of the tactics and weaponry employed by both sides, the number of men being killed and wounded in every battle was enormous—at Fredericksburg, Virginia, three months before, more than 12,000 Union soldiers had been killed or wounded. War weariness was hardening into opposition against Lincoln's war to restore the Union.
There is no record of whether Grant and Sherman discussed the upcoming presidential election inNovember—probably not, because it was still a long way off and the Democrats would not even name a candidate until summer. Neither of them could have known it, but the outcome of their strategy meeting in that smoke-filled Cincinnati hotel room would alter public opinion concerning the war, as well as public opinion of Abraham Lincoln as a war president. The decisions reached by the two generals, the short and stumpy Grant and the tall and nervous Sherman, would also determine the outcome of the November election, in ways that no one could possibly have guessed.
In their hotel room, Parlor A, Grant and Sherman talked about how they should go about destroying the two Confederate armies. For two days, they spread out their big war maps, discussed Lee and Johnston, thrashed over possible troop movements, and smoked endless cigars—after two days and dozens of cigars, the air in that room must have been absolutely fetid. Lee was still preventing the Army of the Potomac from capturing Richmond, just as he had been doing since the beginning of the war, and Johnston was in Georgia reorganizing his forces. Both armies would have to be overcome and shattered before the war could be won and the rebellion could be brought to an end. Both Grant and Sherman were well aware that defeating two armies and ending the rebellion would require a great deal of hard planning, and even harder fighting.
Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman had both graduated from West Point; Grant in 1843 and Sherman in 1840. They had not been close friends—Grant was a new plebe when Sherman was in his final year at the academy—but they remembered each other. They met again in St. Louis before the war, after both men had left the army and had been civilians for several years. Both of them were having a very hard time earning a living—at one point, Grant was reduced to selling firewood in the street. One of their topics of conversation was how a West Point education left them unsuited for any sort of career outside the army. But when the war began in 1861, West Point graduates were very much in demand by the War Department. Grant and Sherman began their second military careers, and their hard times were over forever.
The two men understood each other, and they understood what had to be done. They also liked each other, and had stood by one another during troubled times. In February 1862, during Grant's attack on Fort Henry, Tennessee, Sherman had been given the job of sending boatloads of supplies and replacement troops to reinforce Grant's assault. When nearby Fort Donelson was taken later in the same month, along with its stash of weapons and ammunition, Sherman asked if there was anything else he could do for Grant. At the time, Sherman was senior to Grant; this total lack of ego on Sherman's part was much appreciated, and would be well remembered. More than 20 years afterward, Grant recalled that "every boat that came up with supplies or reinforcements brought a note of encouragement from Sherman ... saying that if he could be of service at the front I might send for him and he would waive rank."
Sherman came to Grant's rescue again a few months later, but in a completely different way. Early in April, Confederate troops surprised Grant's forces at Shiloh, on the Tennessee River. Sherman was one of Grant's subordinates in the Shiloh campaign, commanding one of his divisions, and was appalled by the losses during the first day's fighting. In a conversation that has become legendary, Sherman told Grant that it had been the devil's own day that day. He expected Grant to order a withdrawal. But Grant did not want anything to do with retreating or withdrawing, a trait he would often show in Virginia two years later. "Yes," he said quietly. "Lick 'em tomorrow, though."
Grant was right. Union reinforcements arrived during the night and, in a series of attacks the next day, they forced the Confederates into full retreat. Grant turned Shiloh into a victory for the Union, although a very costly one. Once again, Grant was a hero. But the euphoria did not last long. Soon after the battle, Grant began to receive criticism for having been taken completely off guard by the Confederate attack—which was true. He was also accused of not being on hand to lead his troops, which resulted in unacceptably high casualties. The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune both reported Union losses at between 500 to 1,000 killed and 3,000 to 4,000 wounded. Actual casualties were even worse than this: over 13,000, with more than 1,700 killed and 8,000 wounded. This would not be the last time that Grant would be accused of allowing an unacceptably high number of killed and wounded.
Grant was stung and humiliated by this criticism; he had gone from national hero to bungling murderer within a matter of days. When Sherman heard about all the disapproval and criticism, he was livid. Grant had given him a command when just about everybody else in the army, and everybody in Washington, had dismissed him as mentally unfit for command, if not absolutely insane. When a news reporter wrote an article accusing Grant of being stupid and inept, Sherman wrote a letter to the reporter in which he called him a liar. Sherman had a temper to match his red hair. The two indulged in a war of words that went on for weeks, with Sherman defending Grant and calling the reporter any number of unflattering names, while the news reporter retaliated by printing news articles attacking both Grant and Sherman.
While all this was going on, Grant was replaced as commander of the armies of the West by Major General Henry Halleck for reasons of seniority and was demoted to "assistant commander." For all intents and purposes, Grant had lost his job—"assistant commander" was a meaningless title, without any duties or responsibilities, and Grant was reduced to just sitting around camp all day. This was too much for him. After winning at Fort Fisher, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, during a time when Union victories were few and far between, he was rewarded first by having his competence called into question, and then by having his job taken away. Grant was thoroughly disgusted, and he decided that the best thing for him to do was leave the army. He had vague plans of going back to St. Louis. If nothing else, he could always go back to work in his father's harness shop in Galena, Illinois.
Sherman did not want to hear any of this. He gave Grant a good talking to, telling him that the collective memory of the press, the general public, and Washington was only as long as the next battle. He managed to persuade Grant that he belonged in the army, and convinced him to stay on. Grant was both moved and encouraged by Sherman's support. He wrote to his wife, Julia, that William Tecumseh Sherman was a gallant defender of the country, and was also a true friend.
During the course of the two-day strategy conference in Cincinnati, these incidents were very likely mentioned in conversation, if only in passing. Shiloh, and its casualties, would have been only one topic covered. Two subjects that would not have been brought up, which may have been whispered in private but never brought into the open, were Sherman's mental illness and Grant's problem with alcohol.
Grant's reputation as a drunk began before the war. He had to resign from the army in 1854 because he had been drinking while on duty—he had shown up obviously drunk at pay parade one day. Everyone in camp had seen him while he was under the influence, and nearly everybody in the army, including Sherman, had heard about it. When Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast, met Grant, he saw a seedy, rundown nobody who looked as though he drank a little too much. "He had no gait, no station, no manner," Dana recalled. "Rough light brown whiskers, a blue eye and a rather scrubby look.... The look of a man who did, or once did, take a little too much to drink." When Congress passed the act creating the rank of three-star general, one question lurked at the back of everybody's mind: could someone with Grant's reputation for drunkenness be trusted with that much rank?
Actually, this reputation was completely overblown. The main reason that Grant drank, when he drank to excess, was because he was bored. He was not a habitual drunkard; basically, he drank to escape the boredom of a remote army post's dull routine or, as had happened at Vicksburg, the boredom of a long siege. There was nothing for him to do, and his wife, Julia, and their children were not on hand to keep him company. At Vicksburg, Grant went on a two-day binge, but this happened only after weeks of sitting outside the city and waiting for the Confederates to give up.
Grant's drinking was never really held against him, probably because of the fact that he was not a chronic drunk and could control his drinking. Whether or not he brought a bottle with him to Cincinnati during his meeting with Sherman has never been mentioned, just all those cigars. But the officers of the US Army knew better than to fault Grant, or anyone else, for drinking—it was a matter of people living in glass houses throwing stones. If getting drunk disqualified anyone from being an officer, probably 80 percent of the Union's officer corps would have been disqualified, from General Grant down to the most junior lieutenant. The army had more than its share of officers who drank.
But the army was not nearly as forgiving in the case of William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman was not a drunk; he had mental problems. That was a completely different matter. Grant chose to overlook Sherman's troubles and tribulations, and concentrated on his friend's strengths instead of his weaknesses. This attitude toward any sort of mental illness was a revolutionary attitude, just about unheard of in the 1860s.
Sherman inherited his mental problems from his mother's side of the family. His maternal grandmother had actually been sent to an asylum. Gossip about Sherman and his mental troubles began to circulate in the autumn of 1861, a few months after he rejoined the army and while he was in command of the Department of the Cumberland. Sherman told Secretary of War Simon Cameron that if he had 60,000 men, he would be able to drive the enemy out of Kentucky. If he had 200,000 men, Sherman went on, he could finish the war in that part of the country. Sherman was not demanding this many troops; he was only suggesting that 200,000 men would give him a large enough army to destroy all opposition. But Cameron was absolutely astonished by these numbers, which he considered fantastic if not absolutely insane, and he told reporters that Sherman must be mentally unhinged to have come up with them. Newspapers released the story that General William Tecumseh Sherman was demanding 200,000 men, and that he was not in a sound state of mind.
At the time, Sherman was in a highly nervous state—he was nervous and highly strung by nature and disposition to begin with. The Union's losses up to that time—including at the first battle of Bull Run, about 30 miles southwest of Washington, DC, where he had taken part in the battle as a colonel in the 13th US Infantry—worsened his condition, making him depressed and irritable. When he was in that state of mind, Sherman tended to talk in a loud voice, and he sometimes paced about the room when he talked. In other words, his natural nervousness became much more noticeable, and also became disconcerting to anyone who happened to be in the same room with him.
Sherman had only been in command of the Department of the Cumberland a short time. Anxiety over his new appointment, as well as the resulting stress and lack of sleep, were pushing him into a debilitating state of depression—he was prone to these periods of black despondency that bordered on something more ominous. His wife, Ellen, once commented that she had seen Sherman when he was extremely depressed and agitated, on the verge of insanity, when they had been in California.
The reports concerning Sherman's mental state reached General George B. McClellan, commander of Union forces, and were taken seriously. McClellan sent one of the officers on his staff to observe Sherman and his activities. The officer made his observations and reported that Sherman was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Excerpted from Decided on the BATTLEFIELD by DAVID ALAN JOHNSON Copyright © 2012 by David Alan Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
David Alan Johnson is a freelance writer and the author of many popular histories, including Betrayal: The True Story of J. Edgar Hoover and the Nazi Saboteurs, Righteous Deception: German Officers against Hitler, Union (Images of America Series), and seven other books.
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