March 17, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant met with Major General William T. Sherman at Nashville, where Grant issued his first order since becoming general-in-chief of all Federal armies.
The two close friends began discussing military strategy when they met in the Tennessee capital. Grant explained that he would take up headquarters in the Eastern Theater, giving Sherman complete command of the West. Grant then issued General Order No. 1: “I assume command of the Armies of the United States, headquarters in the field, and until notice these will be those of the Army of the Potomac.”
One of the main reasons why Grant chose to accompany the Army of the Potomac was because three other generals in Virginia–Major General Benjamin F. Butler commanding the Army of the James, Major General Franz Sigel commanding the Army of West Virginia, and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside commanding IX Corps from the Army of the Ohio–all outranked the army commander, Major General George G. Meade, and Grant sought to prevent any jealousy over the fact that Meade led the largest Federal army.
As Grant and Sherman talked, they were in danger of the swarming newspaper reporters learning and possibly divulging their secret plans. So they boarded a train and traveled to Cincinnati. When they found that the train noise made it almost impossible to converse, they waited until they reached their destination and booked a room at the Burnet House, where they posted a guard at the door, laid out their maps, and got down to business.
By this time, Federal forces occupied the mouth of the Rio Grande, the entire Mississippi River including New Orleans, Tennessee from Memphis to Chattanooga, West Virginia, and part of Virginia north of the Rapidan River. They also occupied the ports of Norfolk and Fort Monroe in Virginia; Plymouth, Washington, and New Bern in North Carolina; Beaufort, Hilton Head, Folly and Morris islands in South Carolina; and Fernandina, St. Augustine, Pensacola, and Key West in Florida. From these occupation points, Grant envisioned a campaign in which every major Federal army would launch an offensive simultaneously.
Grant now commanded 662,000 officers and men in 22 army corps, the largest command any Federal general ever had up to that time. If he could put them all in motion at once, they could quickly destroy the dwindling Confederate armies. Grant’s strategy consisted of:
- The Army of the Potomac crossing the Rapidan River and confronting General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia
- The Army of the James moving up the Virginia Peninsula and threatening Richmond and Petersburg from the east
- The Army of West Virginia clearing Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley
- The Army of the Gulf moving east to threaten Mobile, Alabama
- Sherman leading the Armies of the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee in confronting General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee
Grant and Sherman would personally confront the two largest Confederate armies left in the field. Once Grant and Meade destroyed Lee’s army, they were expected to capture Richmond. Once Sherman destroyed Johnston’s army, he was expected to capture Atlanta.
A few days later, Grant headed back east and Sherman returned to Nashville, where he officially assumed Grant’s old command as head of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Near month’s end, Sherman issued orders closing the railroad line between Nashville and eastern Tennessee to all non-military traffic. When civilians protested that they needed the line to bring their goods to Nashville, Sherman instructed them to drive their goods and animals over the mountains by wagon like the old days because “his” railroad was too important to serve them.
In Virginia, Meade learned of Grant’s general order and wrote his wife, “I see General Grant’s assuming command and announcing that his headquarters will be with the Army of the Potomac, is in the public journals, and by to-morrow will be known in Richmond. Of course, this will notify the rebels where to look for active operations, and they will plan accordingly.”
Rumors began spreading among the Federal high command that Lieutenant General James Longstreet, whose Confederate corps had been stationed in eastern Tennessee after its failed siege of Knoxville, would soon be rejoining Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Henry W. Halleck, now the Federal army chief of staff, notified Grant that “it is thought that Longstreet is now with Lee, and that some movement will soon be made.”
Arriving at Washington, Grant met briefly with President Abraham Lincoln and then returned to the Army of the Potomac. Grant instructed Meade, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also. The only point upon which I am now in doubt is, whether it will be better to cross the Rapidan above or below him.”
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 385-86, 395; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 966; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 397-417; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 410; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 22-26, 37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 476; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500-01, 543