March 6, 1865 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued preparing to launch the spring offensive, which looked promising considering the growing number of Confederate desertions.
The Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James had held General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under partial siege at Richmond and Petersburg since last summer. Grant hurried to mobilize these armies and destroy Lee before he could escape to the southwest and join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina.
Grant also planned to launch offensives in other theaters of operations to prevent Lee from being reinforced. In North Carolina, separate Federal armies were joining forces to keep Johnston away from Virginia. Major General E.R.S. Canby and Brigadier General James H. Wilson were moving into Alabama to seize the important factory town of Selma and the port city of Mobile. And Major General George Stoneman was leading a cavalry force into eastern Tennessee.
Grant also needed help from the navy to protect his supply base at City Point, on the James River. Grant sent a message to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on the 4th: “The James River is very high, and will continue so as long as the weather of the past week lasts. It would be well to have at once all the ironclads that is intended should come here.”
Welles quickly responded by directing Captain Oliver S. Glisson at Hampton Roads to bring ironclads up from Wilmington. Glisson responded early on the 5th: “Your telegram was received at 15 minutes after midnight; blowing a gale of wind at the time, U.S.S. Aries sailed at daylight this morning. The monitors are expected every moment from Cape Fear, and I shall send them up the river immediately.” Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was notified to send two ironclads from his command north to City Point as well.
Another part of Grant’s preparation was to bring Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, fresh off their resounding victory at Waynesboro, back to the Federal armies outside Richmond and Petersburg. With the Shenandoah Valley now firmly in Federal hands, Sheridan marched unopposed and arrived at Charlottesville on the 3rd.
Grant had urged Sheridan to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad, which was one of Lee’s main supply lines. The Federals spent two days finally getting this done before heading south toward the James River. Sheridan planned to wreck the James River Canal and then move east to join the spring offensive.
Sheridan’s Federals moved through Goochland Court House, Beaver Dam Station, and Hanover Court House on their way back east. Sheridan reached White House, on the Pamunkey River, on the 19th. Grant arranged for him to pick up fresh horses and supplies, and he wrote to Sheridan that once his force was ready, “Start for this place as soon as you conveniently can.”
Grant explained that he planned to move on Lee’s southwestern flank with 50,000 troops, and Sheridan’s men were needed to destroy the South Side and Danville railroads. Once that was done, Sheridan was to “then either return to this army or go on to Sherman (in North Carolina), as you may deem most practicable.” Whichever option Sheridan chose, “I care but little about, the principal thing being the destruction of the only two roads left to the enemy at Richmond.”
The next day, Grant sent Sheridan a more urgent message:
“I do not wish to hurry you. There is now such a possibility, if not probability, of Lee and Johnston attempting to unite that I feel extremely desirous not only of cutting the lines of communication between them, but of having a large and properly commanded cavalry force ready to act with in case such an attempt is made… I think that by Saturday next you had better start, even if you have to stop here to finish shoeing up.”
Grant also reported on the progress of the other offensives starting this month:
“Stoneman started yesterday from Knoxville with a cavalry force of probably 5,000 men to penetrate southwest Virginia as far toward Lynchburg as possible.… Wilson started at the same time from Eastport toward Selma with a splendidly equipped cavalry force of 12,000 men. Canby is in motion, and I have reason to believe that Sherman and Schofield have formed a junction at Goldsboro.”
Sheridan later wrote:
“The hardships of this march far exceeded those of any previous campaigns by the cavalry. Almost incessant rains had drenched us for sixteen days and nights, and the swollen streams and well nigh bottomless roads east of Staunton presented grave difficulties on every hand, but surmounting them all, we destroyed the enemy’s means of subsistence, in quantities beyond computation, and permanently crippled the Virginia Central railroad, as well as the James River canal, and as each day brought us nearer the Army of the Potomac, all were filled with the comforting reflection that our work in the Shenandoah Valley had been thoroughly done, and every one was buoyed up by the cheering thought that we should soon take part in the final struggle of the war.”
Meanwhile, to further hamper the Confederate war effort, the Federal high command encouraged enemy desertions by offering to pay deserters for bringing their rifles into Federal lines. Grant had asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for permission to enact this program, and Stanton replied, “There is no objection to your paying rebel deserters for their arms, horses, or anything they bring in, a full and fair price. That kind of trade will not injure the service.”
Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding the Army of the James around Bermuda Hundred, wrote how his troops promoted the program: “On the Bermuda front the order promising pay for arms and horses has been circulated with kites, bows and arrows, and newspapers.” One of Ord’s corps commanders, Major General John Gibbon, asked Ord to “send me more of General Grant’s orders and a man who understands your mode of fixing them to a kite.”
Grant wrote to Stanton on the 19th, “Will you please direct the Ordnance Department to send money here at once to pay for arms brought in by deserters. A great many are coming in now, bringing their arms with them.” Three days later, Chief Ordnance Officer F.H. Parker issued a directive: “It is arranged that you are to pay for arms brought in by deserters. They will be forwarded with their arms or with receipts from the provost-marshal here. Pay them at the rate of $8 per arm…”
Desertions in the Army of Northern Virginia totaled 2,934 between February 15 and March 18, or nearly 10 percent of Lee’s whole army. Some deserted for the money, but most left to ease the suffering of loved ones at home. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote to Grant, “Twenty-two deserters yesterday; twenty are reported this morning. The whole Confederate army appear to have had two days’ cooked rations and told to be on the alert; I think due more to an expected attack from us than any projected movement on their part.”
Meanwhile, Grant continued planning his offensive, which would start as soon as the Virginia roads were dried enough for his men, horses, and guns.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 517; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 427, 429; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 542, 546-48; 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 17835-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 561, 563-67; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8134; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-47, 654-55