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On Saturday, April 30,1864, President Lincoln spent part of his day with his correspondence. He drafted several orders and directives and wrote three letters that we know of. Two of the letters are insignificant from the historian's point of view; the third, though brief, is remarkable. Lincoln addressed it to Ulysses S. Grant, whom he had recently appointed lieutenant general and general in chief of all the Union forces. The letter was both an expression of confidence in the man and a carte blanche for his proposed campaign, to be set in motion within the week, for Lincoln knew the plan of campaign only in broad outline: "The particulars of your plan I neither know nor seek to know. You are vigilant and self reliant; and pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you." The president did have one concern. If there were to be reverses, he preferred them to be small ones that would not shake the people's resolve or ruin his party's chances in an election year: "I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided." Having deftly inserted this word of caution, Lincoln wished his general in chief Godspeed: "And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you."
This expression of confidence was remarkable considering the doubts and disappointments the president had known with commanders he had previously sent into the field. But in Lincoln's eyes Grant had the qualities now needed for command: He could be counted on to push the campaign alongrelentlessly and grind away at the enemy as long as the South continued to resist. It was a costly and uninspired way of winning a war, but it seemed to be working albeit slowly where nothing had worked before. A certain momentum had been built up that Grant would sustain. The Rebel invasion of Pennsylvania had been handsomely beaten back at Gettysburg; Grant's own victory at Vicksburg had sundered the Confederacy along the line of the Mississippi; then too, Tennessee, Kentucky, the western part of Virginia now called West Virginia and portions of other rebellious states had fallen to the Union army. But if the scale had clearly tipped in the North's favor, after three years of war the core of the South had not been pierced, and large Rebel armies were still intact; there was much work to be done.
A hundred miles to the south in Richmond another president sat in another executive mansion on that same Saturday, and his mind too was on the coming campaign, for Jefferson Davis had to prepare a message for the opening of the Second Confederate Congress, set for the following Monday, and there he would have to lay out the prospects for the coming campaign. His work was interrupted that afternoon by tragedy; his five-year-old son, Joseph, fell to his death while playing on the balcony of the Confederate White House. For a time Davis was as if stunned, unable to write and barely able to speak. But drawing on an inner strength, the stricken president finished the drafting of his message and delivered it as scheduled.
It was a somber document. On the diplomatic front the president could find no encouraging news, no hint that either Britain or France had moved closer to recognition of the Confederacy, much less intervention on its behalf, and he confessed that he saw "no prospect of an early change." In the recent fighting there had been some minor successes in North Carolina and Florida; the Federal forces seemed completely balked in their effort against Charleston. Confederate forces in the trans-Mississippi Davis scarcely mentioned. Speaking of the two great armies the Confederacy still maintained east of the river he said: "The armies in northern Georgia and in northern Virginia still oppose with unshaken valor a formidable barrier to the progress of the invader." Davis thus cast the two armies in the role of shields, essentially defensive. Some of the lawmakers may have shaken their heads as they recalled the situation just a year ago, when the Army of Northern Virginia was winning a dazzling victory at Chancellorsville and opening the door to invasion of the North. If Lincoln's watchword was perseverance on the exhausting road to victory, Davis seemed to be saying that as long as they endured they had a basis for hope. Perhaps the "Second American Revolution," as some called the Southern cause, could be won the same way the first one had been: Their opponents, for all their superior resources, would finally decide the game wasn't worth the candle.
It would not have been possible for Davis to draft the kind of letter Lincoln sent to Grant; it accorded neither with his conception of the office he held nor with his appreciation of his own abilities. And in a sense Davis was far more qualified for the supreme direction of war than Lincoln was: The Confederate president had commanded a regiment in the Mexican War and had served with distinction as secretary of war in the Pierce administration, while Lincoln's previous contact with the military was as a militia captain in the Blackhawk War. So though there was talk of creating a Southern general in chief, the president was cold to the idea; he himself had largely assumed that role with indifferent results, due in large part to his own flaws in character and judgment. Recently Davis had had a particularly frustrating exchange with General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Army of Tennessee. Davis believed that Johnston had the resources and the opportunity to launch an offensive against the Federal forces in Tennessee and tried to prod the general forward; Johnston resisted, saying he did not have the means. The exchange was not a frank and open one on either side. Davis relied on other, confidential sources of information about the state of Johnston's army...