Grant Takes Western Command

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, did not have the resolve to break out. The army had been reinforced, but more troops could not help now that the Confederates had cut most of 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 started considering a command change.

Major-General Ulysses S. 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 Mississippi and western Tennessee, and he had dispatched three divisions under Major-General William T. Sherman to reinforce the Federals at Chattanooga.

In response to the critical situation, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck sent orders to Colonel James H. Wilson of Grant’s staff at Cairo, Illinois, on October 3: “It is the wish of the Secretary of War that as soon as General Grant is able he will come to Cairo and report by telegraph.” It took Wilson a week to travel down the Mississippi River and deliver this order to Grant at his headquarters. Grant’s army had been relatively inactive since capturing Vicksburg, so by the time that Grant received this order, he was eager for action. He quickly collected his family, packed his bags, and headed north.

Meanwhile, Sherman’s Federals were moving east toward Chattanooga along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. Because they needed the railroad for their supplies, the Federals had to repair the track that was being destroyed by Confederate guerrillas along the way. Sherman traveled from Memphis to join his force at Corinth and was nearly captured by a Confederate cavalry detachment. This would be a rough 330-mile trek through enemy territory. Halleck wrote Sherman stressing the importance of supplies for Rosecrans’s army in Chattanooga:

“When Eastport (Mississippi) can be reached by boats, the use of the railroad can be dispensed with; but until that time it must be guarded as far as need. The Kentucky Railroad can barely supply General Rosecrans. All these matters must be left to your judgment as circumstances may arise. Should the enemy be so strong as to prevent your going to Athens (Alabama), or connecting with General Rosecrans, you will nevertheless have assisted him greatly by drawing away a part of the enemy’s forces.”

Inside Chattanooga, Assistant Secretary of War Dana continued to send discouraging messages about Rosecrans to Washington. Dana wrote on the 12th, “His mind scatters, there is no system in the use of his busy days and restless nights… he is a feeble commander.” A few days later, Dana warned that Rosecrans’s army was on the verge of starvation “because our dazed and hazy commander cannot perceive the catastrophe that is close upon us, nor fix his mind upon the means of preventing it. I never saw anything which seemed so lamentable and hopeless.”

Maj-Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

Grant arrived at Columbus, Kentucky, on the 16th, where he wired Washington, “Your dispatch from Cairo of the 3d directing me to report from Cairo was received at 11:30 on the 10th. Left the same day with staff and headquarters and am here en route for Cairo.” Grant reached Cairo that same day, and on the morning of the 17th, another order arrived: “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.”

Up to this time, Lincoln had been reluctant to replace Rosecrans because he was an Ohioan, and the Ohio elections were crucial to the war effort. But pro-administration candidates had scored major victories in the recent state elections (less than 300 of the 10,000 Cumberland army soldiers who voted in the Ohio election sided with the anti-Lincoln candidate for governor), so Lincoln decided to make the change. 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, and that command would be Grant’s.

Grant hurriedly left Cairo with his wife and son on the 17th. Grant was unaware that the “officer of the War Department” coming to meet him would be Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton himself. This marked the first time that Stanton ever left Washington to meet a general. A messenger stopped Grant’s train just as it started heading out of Indianapolis so that Stanton could board. Having never met Grant before, Stanton approached Grant and his staff, shook hands with the 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.” (Major-General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Department of the Gulf from Louisiana, still outranked Grant, so any of Banks’s troops east of the Mississippi River were not included in Grant’s new command.)

The two orders differed on the second clause. One version left all department commanders in place under Grant, and the other replaced Rosecrans with Major-General George H. Thomas. Grant, who had been unimpressed with Rosecrans when he served under Grant during the Battles of Iuka and Corinth, quickly chose the latter order. Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside would stay as head of the Department of the Ohio, while Sherman would replace Grant over the Department of the Tennessee.

The men reached the Galt House in Louisville late on the 17th. Stanton went to his room to tend to the horrible cold he had caught during his journey. Grant and some of his staffers went to the theater. Grant and Stanton spent most of the next day discussing strategy at the Galt House.

A reporter for the New York Herald wrote that Grant went on a private ride later on the 18th, and noted that although Grant still needed a crutch to walk, “even in his feeble condition it would require a strong effort on the part of a horse to unseat him.” According to the reporter, an onlooker commented on Grant’s small stature: “I thought he was a large man. He would be considered a small chance of a fighter if he lived in Kentucky.”

Grant returned to the Galt House that night, where Stanton was panicking over a new message from Dana stating that “conditions and prospects grow worse and worse” in Chattanooga as the army faced starvation. “Amid all this,” Dana wrote, “the practical incapacity of Rosecrans is astonishing, and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind. His imbecility appears to be contagious, and it is difficult for anyone to get anything done.”

According to Grant, Dana warned that “unless prevented Rosecrans would retreat,” and he advised “peremptory orders against his doing so.” Stanton shared this with Grant 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. I will be there as soon as possible. Please inform me how long your present supplies will last, and the prospect for keeping them up.”

Thomas quickly replied, “Two hundred and four thousand four hundred and sixty-two rations in store-houses; ninety thousand to arrive tomorrow, and all the trains were loaded which had arrived at Bridgeport up to the 16th–probably 300 wagons. I will hold the town till we starve.” Northerners praised Thomas’s resolve but may have misunderstood his intent. Food was growing dangerously scarce in Chattanooga, and Thomas was implicitly warning Grant that once starvation set in, he may have no choice but to surrender.

Dana exaggerated the situation and Rosecrans’s ineffectiveness. Rosecrans may not have been moving quickly enough to get out of his predicament at Chattanooga, but he was not planning to evacuate as Dana alleged. 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, and now he had to go.

Rosecrans received Grant’s General Order Number 337 removing him from command on the afternoon of the 19th. Rumors had been circulating that Thomas was going to replace him, so he was not shocked by the order. Thomas was loyal to Rosecrans and did not want to replace him, but Rosecrans assured his friend, “Fear no cloud of doubt ever coming into my mind as to your fidelity to friendship and honor.”

The two men spent most of the evening discussing the military situation before Thomas took command the next day. Rosecrans 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 (Thomas) 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.”

On the day that Rosecrans relinquished command, Grant left Louisville and headed for Chattanooga to take personal command of the situation. It would prove to be a much harder journey than expected.


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