Grant Takes Western Command

October 16, 1863 – The Lincoln administration ordered Major General Ulysses S. Grant to travel to Louisville, where he would take command of the new Military Division of the Mississippi.

Federal Major General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Federal Major General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

As Confederates tightened their siege on the Federal Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, Federal officials in Washington grew increasingly concerned that the army commander, Major General William S. Rosecrans, could not break his men out. President Abraham Lincoln noted that since the Federal defeat at Chickamauga, Rosecrans seemed “stunned and confused, like a duck hit on the head.” Meanwhile, the Confederates cut most supply lines into Chattanooga in an attempt to starve the Federals into submission.

In response to the critical situation, Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee at Vicksburg, Mississippi, received orders on October 10 (but dated the 3rd) from General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to proceed at once to Cairo, Illinois. Halleck gave no explanation for this order, instead directing Grant to simply report to Washington from Cairo.

As Grant traveled north, Federal officials received more alarming news from Chattanooga. Charles A. Dana, a special correspondent on the scene for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, wrote to the secretary on the 12th:

“I have never seen a public man possessing talent with less administrative power, less clearness and steadiness in difficulty, and greater practical incapacity than General Rosecrans. He has inventive fertility and knowledge, but he has no strength of will and no concentration of purpose. His mind scatters; there is no system in the use of his busy days and restless nights… Under the present circumstances I consider this army to be very unsafe in his hands.”

Lincoln remained uncertain what to do with either Rosecrans or Major General Ambrose Burnside, whose Federal Army of the Ohio remained stationary at Knoxville, Tennessee. Lincoln tried motivating Rosecrans via telegraph: “You and Burnside now have (the enemy) by the throat, and he must break your hold or perish.” But Rosecrans despondently replied that Confederate corn was ripe while “our side is barren… we must put our trust in God, who never fails those who truly trust.”

Grant reported from Cairo on October 16, where he received another directive: “You will immediately proceed to the Galt House, Louisville, Kentucky, where you will meet an officer of the War Department with your orders and instructions. You will take with you your staff, etc., for immediate operations in the field.” That day, Lincoln approved creation of a new Military Division of the Mississippi, which combined the Departments of the Cumberland, Ohio, and Tennessee under one commander.

Grant left Cairo by train on the 17th. Stanton traveled to meet Grant personally, marking the first time the secretary had ever left Washington to meet a general. Stanton boarded Grant’s train during a stopover in Indianapolis and approached Grant and his staff. Having never met Grant before, Stanton shook hands with Dr. Edward Kittoe, Grant’s staff surgeon, and said, “How are you, General Grant? I knew you at sight from your pictures.”

Stanton quickly met the real Grant and presented him with two sets of War Department orders. They both had the same first clause:

“By direction of the President of the United States, the Departments of the Ohio, of the Cumberland, and of the Tennessee, will constitute the Military Division of the Mississippi. Major General U.S. Grant, United States Army, is placed in command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, with his headquarters in the field.”

This gave Grant command of all Federal troops from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River (except for those in eastern Louisiana under Major General Nathaniel Banks, who still outranked him).

The orders differed on the second clause. The first left all department commanders in place under Grant, and the second replaced Rosecrans with Major General George H. Thomas over the Department of the Cumberland. Grant quickly chose the second. Burnside would stay as head of the Department of the Ohio, while Major General William T. Sherman would replace Grant over the Department of the Tennessee.

Grant and Stanton discussed strategy the next day in Louisville. That evening, Stanton received word from Charles Dana that Rosecrans planned to abandon Chattanooga, which would result in Federal disaster. Stanton informed Grant of this news and told him that the Federals could not withdraw under any circumstances. Grant quickly sent two messages: one informed Rosecrans he had been relieved, and one ordered Thomas to hold Chattanooga “at all hazards.” Thomas replied, “We will hold the town till we starve.”

But Dana had been wrong–Rosecrans had no plan to evacuate; rather, he was working with engineers to create a new supply line to feed his men so they could renew the offensive, just as the administration had hoped he would do. Nevertheless, Rosecrans promptly obeyed Grant’s order and quietly left Chattanooga to avoid demoralizing the troops.

Grant left Louisville on October 20 and headed for Chattanooga to take personal command of the situation. It would be a harder journey than initially anticipated.



  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 428-29
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 767, 784-85, 802-03
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 559
  • Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 420, 423-24

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