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.
As Confederates tightened their siege on the Federal Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, Federal officials at Washington grew increasingly concerned that the army commander, Major General William S. Rosecrans, could not break his men out. The army had been reinforced, but more troops could not help now that the Confederates had cut the supply lines into the city. Reports from Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana in Chattanooga had been increasingly critical of Rosecrans’s leadership, and President Abraham Lincoln began considering a command change.
Grant, commanding the Federal Army of the Tennessee at Vicksburg, Mississippi, was recovering from a dislocated hip and possible skull fracture after falling from his horse in September. Since his capture of Vicksburg, his army had been scattered among the garrisons in the region, and he had dispatched three divisions under Major General William T. Sherman to reinforce the Federals at Chattanooga.
In response to the critical situation, Grant 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 contact Washington upon arriving at Cairo. When he got there, Grant 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.”
Lincoln had been reluctant to replace Rosecrans because he was an Ohioan, and the Ohio elections were crucial to the war effort. But now that pro-administration candidates had scored major victories, Lincoln decided to make the change. On the 16th, he approved creating a new Military Division of the Mississippi, which placed all the major military departments between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River under one command.
Grant left Cairo the next day. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton traveled west to meet Grant personally, marking the first time that Stanton 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 began the same:
“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 directive did not include any troops east of the Mississippi belonging to the Department of the Gulf because Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, that department’s commander, still outranked Grant.
The two orders differed on the second clause. One version left all department commanders in place under him, and the other replaced Rosecrans with Major General George H. Thomas. Grant, who had been unimpressed with Rosecrans during the Battles of Iuka and Corinth, quickly chose the latter version. Major General Ambrose E. 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 spent the next day discussing strategy at the Galt House 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 that he had been relieved, and one ordered Thomas to “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards.” The next day, Rosecrans received General Order No. 337 removing him from command. Hiding his shock and bitterness, Rosecrans summoned Thomas and passed the army command to him. Thomas replied to Grant’s message, “We will hold the town till we starve.”
Dana was wrong–Rosecrans was not planning to evacuate; rather, he was working with engineers to open a new supply line to feed his men so they could renew the offensive, just as the administration hoped he would do. But he had not done so fast enough.
Before leaving, Rosecrans discussed the military situation with Thomas. He decided not to issue a farewell order to avoid demoralizing the troops. Instead, he issued a brief statement urging the troops to follow their new commander. It was to be read after Rosecrans left: “He has led you often in battle. To his known prudence, dauntless courage, and true patriotism, you may look with confidence that under God he will lead you to victory.”
Grant left Louisville on October 20 and headed for Chattanooga to take personal command of the situation. It would be a harder journey than expected.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 428-29; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 334; 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; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 675; Rowell, John W., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 178; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500-01, 542-43; Wilson, David L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 642