March 10, 1864 – When Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant received official authority to assume command of all Federal armies, he was already in the field with the Army of the Potomac.
After two uncomfortable days in Washington, Grant headed back to the field. He arrived at Brandy Station, headquarters for the Army of the Potomac, late on the 9th in pouring rain. He was greeted by a Zouave regiment and a band playing “The General’s March.” Nobody knew that Grant was tone-deaf. Grant planned to meet with the army commander, Major General George G. Meade, with whom he had been slightly acquainted during the Mexican War, the next day.
Meade speculated that Grant would remove him as commander. On the 2nd, he wrote his wife that Grant “may want some one else whom he knows better in command of his army.” A week later, Meade wrote that Grant “may desire to have his own man in command, particularly as I understand he is indoctrinated with the notion of the superiority of the Western armies, and that the failure of the Army of the Potomac to accomplish anything is due to their commanders.”
While at Washington, Grant had considered replacing Meade with Major General William T. Sherman, or perhaps Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith. He discussed the possibility of removing Meade with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Both Lincoln and Stanton opposed removing him, but they would support Grant as general-in-chief if he chose to do it.
The meeting between Grant and Meade went extremely well. Meade said that he understood if Grant wanted to replace him, and he begged Grant “not to hesitate about making the change.” According to Grant, Meade “urged that the work before us was of such vast importance to the whole nation that the feeling or wishes of no one person should stand in the way of selecting the right men for all positions.”
Grant assured Meade “that I had no thought of substituting any one for him,” and Meade’s willingness to sacrifice gave Grant “even a more favorable opinion of Meade than did his great victory at Gettysburg the July before. It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.”
Before coming east, Grant had planned to maintain his headquarters at Nashville. But now, after talking with Meade and assessing the Army of the Potomac, “It was plain that here was the point for the commanding general to be.” Grant proposed guiding the army while Meade retained direct command of the officers and men. Meade said that he would be happy with such a move. Meade later wrote his wife that he was–
“… very much pleased with General Grant. In the views he expressed to me he showed much more capacity and character than I had expected. I spoke to him very plainly about my position, offered to vacate the command of the Army of the Potomac, in case he had a preference for any other. This he declined in a complimentary speech, but indicated to me his intention, when in this part of the country, of being with the army.”
Meade added, perhaps sarcastically, “So that you may look now for the Army of the Potomac putting laurels on the brows of another rather than your husband.”
With Grant now in charge, a massive reorganization took place throughout the Federal military. At “his own request,” former General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck became the army chief of staff. He would be Grant’s political liaison and handle the administrative affairs of the armies, which included channeling communications from the 19 military departments to Grant. This would allow Grant to focus mainly on military strategy. In Lincoln’s general order announcing the change, he thanked Halleck for his “able and zealous” service since becoming general-in-chief in July 1862.
Major General William T. Sherman replaced Grant as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Sherman would lead the three armies between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River: Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, and Sherman’s former Army of the Tennessee, now under Major General James B. McPherson. He would also head Major General Franklin Steele’s Department of Arkansas across the Mississippi.
In a move that Grant could not control, Major General Franz Sigel was given command of the Department of West Virginia, replacing Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley. Sigel had spent much of the past year complaining about being overlooked, and, being a German immigrant, he held great political influence over fellow German-Americans (most of whom were Republicans) who would be voting in the upcoming presidential election. Thus, Lincoln made the move.
Sigel was expected to clear the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley. But his military reputation was dubious at best, even among his own staff. One aide cynically wrote of Sigel’s promotion, “The Dutch vote must be secured at all hazards. And the sacrifice of West Virginia is a small matter.”
After meeting with Meade, Grant returned to Washington, having accepted an invitation from First Lady Mary Lincoln to attend a dinner and a presentation of Richard III at Grover’s Theater, starring Edwin Booth. However, Grant changed his mind, opting to leave for Nashville that evening to confer with Sherman instead.
Disappointed, President Lincoln told him, “We can’t excuse you. Mrs. Lincoln’s dinner without you would be Hamlet with Hamlet left out.” Grant replied, “I appreciate the honor Mrs. Lincoln would do me, but time is very important now. And really, Mr. Lincoln, I have had enough of this show business.”
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