Tag Archives: Army of the Potomac

Confederates Prepare in Northern Virginia

April 5, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee issued orders preparing his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to meet the Federal army as soon as it crossed the Rapidan River to attack.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lee’s forces had been camped near Orange Court House on the south side of the Rapidan since late last year. This month, they began preparing for active operations against the new Federal general-in-chief, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee was also watching a Federal buildup in Maryland under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. Confederate scouts confirmed that the Federals were closing their sutler shops and sending their wives to the rear, which indicated that mobilization was imminent. Lee informed President Jefferson Davis:

“The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that Genl Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.”

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the First Corps in Lee’s army, had been detached since last September and was currently operating around Bristol in eastern Tennessee. Longstreet received orders on the 7th to move his Confederates to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he could reinforce Lee if needed.

The next day, Lee informed Davis that two reliable sources stated “the general impression was that the great battle would take place on the Rapidan, and that the Federal army would advance as soon as the weather is settled.” As the Confederates prepared to take the Federals on, Lee continued his struggle to get them much-needed supplies. He wrote Davis:

“There is nothing to be had in this section for man or animals. My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina.”

Lee wrote Davis again on the 15th:

“If Richmond could be held secure against the attack from the east, I would propose that I draw Longstreet to me and move right against the enemy on the Rappahannock. Should God give us a crowning victory there, all their plans would be dissipated, and their troops now collecting on the waters of the Chesapeake would be recalled to the defense of Washington. But to make this move I must have provisions and forage. I am not yet able to call to me the cavalry or artillery. If I am obliged to retire from this line, either by a flank movement of the enemy or the want of supplies, great injury will befall us.”

The lack of adequate supplies compelled Lee to adopt a defensive posture. He now could only hope to hold the Federals in check long enough for the northern public to grow tired of the war and replace Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election with a candidate who would negotiate a peace.

By mid-April, Lee had determined that three Federal forces would be moving toward Richmond:

  • Major General Franz Sigel’s army from the Shenandoah Valley
  • The Army of the Potomac from north of the Rapidan
  • Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s army from the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers

The Confederates began mobilizing on the 18th and sending excess baggage to the rear. However, the Federal activity seemed to slow down. After a week of observation, Lee wrote Davis, “The advance of the Army of the Potomac seems to be delayed for some reason. It appears to be prepared for movement, but is probably waiting for its cooperative columns.” Lee invited Davis to review the army, “if the enemy remains quiet and the weather favorable.” Davis declined, citing too much work to do.

Despite the supply shortages, Lee as always began exploring ways to seize the initiative. His force was just half the size of Grant’s, but it equaled the number Lee had at Chancellorsville last year. Lee discussed his options with Longstreet, who later wrote, “I took the earliest opportunity to suggest that the preliminaries of the campaign should be carefully confined to strategic maneuver until we could show better generalship.” This would compel the Federals to “lose confidence in the superiority of their leader’s skill and prowess.”

Longstreet reasoned that if Lee attacked first, such “immediate aggression from us against his greater numbers must make our labors heavy and more or less doubtful.” To Longstreet, the “power of battle is in generalship more than in the number of soldiers, which, properly illustrated, would make the weaker numbers of the contention the stronger force.” Thus, Lee would remain on the defensive, waiting for Grant to make the first move.

On the last day of April, Lee forwarded intelligence to Davis: “I send you the Philadelphia Inquirer of the 26th, from which you will learn that all Burnside’s available forces are being advanced to the front.” A spy named Thomas Conrad confirmed Lee’s suspicion that Burnside would be moving up from Centreville to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. Lee wrote:

“Our scouts report that the engineer troops, pontoon trains, and all the cavalry of Meade’s army have been advanced south of the Rappahannock… Everything indicates a concentrated attack on this front, which renders me the more anxious to get back the troops belonging to this army, & causes me to suggest if possible, that others be moved from points at the south, where they can be spared, to Richmond.”

But the Confederate high command had few troops to spare. Lee’s army could expect no help as it was about to face the 122,000-man Army of the Potomac.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 390; 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 2512-22, 2551-620; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 415; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6720, 6731-43; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 43-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 481-82, 484-85; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53, 58

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The Army of Northern Virginia Awaits Action

March 26, 1864 – Confederate scouts informed General Robert E. Lee that the officers’ wives in the Federal Army of the Potomac were leaving camp, indicating that the Federals were about to mobilize for a new offensive.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia remained camped south of the Rapidan River, waiting for the battle season to begin again. Upon learning that Ulysses S. Grant had become general-in-chief of all Federal armies, Lee believed that Grant would stay in the Western Theater, where he was most familiar. He told Lieutenant General James Longstreet in eastern Tennessee that he suspected “the enemy’s great effort will be in the west, and we must concentrate our strength there to meet them.”

Lee told President Jefferson Davis that he was “not disposed to believe from what I now know, that the first important effort will be directed against Richmond.” With the Army of the Potomac having gained hardly any ground in three years, Lee reasoned that Grant would most likely just use it as a diversion while he focused on destroying the western Confederate armies.

When Lee received a copy of Grant’s General Order No. 1 declaring that his headquarters would be with the Army of the Potomac, Lee still maintained that Grant’s main focus would be on the west. Lee wrote Davis, “There was no apparent occasion for the publication at such a time and place of his intention to take up his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, and the announcement appears to me to be made with some hidden purpose.” Lee continued:

“There is to my mind an appearance of design about the order intended to mislead us as to the enemy’s intention, and if possible, induce corresponding preparation on our part. I cannot learn that the army of Gen. (George G.) Meade has been reinforced by any organized troops, nor can I learn of any coming east over the B&O Railroad which I have ordered to be watched closely.”

In fact, Brigadier General John D. Imboden, commanding Confederate cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley, had informed Lee that the “enemy was moving troops westwards over that road all last week.” Although this did not prove that the Federals were shifting troops from the Army of the Potomac to the west, it indicated some kind of buildup away from northern Virginia.

Lee further reasoned that the west would be where the action began because “the roads will probably be more favorable for active operations at an early day in the south (i.e., northern Georgia) than in Va. where it will be uncertain for more than a month.”

Lee explained, “I am inclined to believe that the first efforts of the enemy will be directed against Gen (Joseph E.) Johnston (commanding the Confederate Army of Tennessee) or Gen Longstreet, most probably the former. If it succeeds, Richmond will no doubt be attacked.” But Lee “cannot do more than weigh probabilities, they are useful in stimulating and directing a vigilant observation of the enemy, and suggesting such a policy on our part as may determine his.” The best course of action would be to–

“… make the best preparations in our power to meet an advance in any quarter, but be careful not to suffer ourselves to be misled by feigned movements into strengthening one point at the expense of others. We should hold ourselves in constant readiness to concentrate as rapidly as possible wherever it may be necessary, but do nothing without reasonably certain information except prepare.”

Lee hoped that Johnston in northern Georgia and Longstreet in eastern Tennessee might fend off any Federal offensive in the west, writing:

“Energy and activity on our part, with a constant readiness to seize any opportunity to strike a blow, will embarrass, if not entirely thwart the enemy in concentrating his different armies, and compel him to conform his movements to ours. In the meantime, to guard against any contingency, everything not immediately required should be sent away from Richmond, and store of food and other supplies collected in suitable and safe places for the use of the troops that it may become necessary to assemble for its defense.”

All this changed when Lee received word that the officers’ wives in the Army of the Potomac had begun leaving the camps. As more news about Federal mobilization trickled in, Lee finally realized that the main thrust of the upcoming Federal offensive would be against his Army of Northern Virginia. Lee reported to Davis on the 28th:

“General Grant has returned from the West. He is at present with the Army of the Potomac, which is being reorganized and recruited. From the reports of our scouts the impression prevails in that army that he will operate it in the coming campaign. Every train brings it recruits, and it is stated that every available regiment at the North is added to it.”

Lee also correctly reported that Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had resumed command of his old IX Corps, which was assembling in Maryland, and that Major General Franz Sigel was preparing his Federal army for a thrust into the Shenandoah Valley. Lee wrote that Burnside was “organizing a large army at Annapolis, and it seems probable that additional troops are being sent to the valley.”

Lee expressed concern that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which had been wrecked numerous times by Confederate cavalry, was now operational from Harpers Ferry to Winchester, and it was “closely guarded along its whole extent.” This indicated “secrecy and preparation.”

Lee stated that Grant’s “plans are not sufficiently developed to discover them, but I think we can assume that if General Grant is to direct operations on this frontier he will concentrate a large force on one or more lines, and prudence dictates that we should make such preparations as are in our power.”

To do this, Lee suggested that either Johnston or Longstreet launch an offensive: “If an aggressive movement can be made in the West, it will disconcert their plans and oblige them to conform to ours.” If that could not be done, “Longstreet should be held in readiness to be thrown rapidly in the valley, if necessary, to counteract any movement in that quarter, in accomplishing which I could unite with him, or he unite with me, should circumstances require it, on the Rapidan.”

Never before had the Army of Northern Virginia been in such danger. As the Federals massed on all fronts, Lee had just 40,000 effectives south of the Rapidan River. A.R. Lawton, the army quartermaster general, reported that the battered railroads were delivering more supplies than ever, even though they were on a “forced march.” Lawton worked to ensure that supplies continued arriving for the troops by rail because combat would soon resume.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6720; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45

Reorganizing the Army of the Potomac

March 23, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant took up headquarters with the Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia, which was undergoing a massive reorganization.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, had initially thought that Grant would remove him from command. But now he was fairly confident that Grant would keep him on. Meade wrote his wife, “I don’t think I have at any time been in any danger. It would be almost a farce to relieve the man who fought the battle of Gettysburg…”

However, Meade’s superiors at Washington had urged him to reorganize his army because of attrition and, according to Meade, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton told him that “there were several officers in my army that did not have the confidence of the country, and that I was injuring myself by retaining them.” These were mainly anti-administration Democrats.

Meade responded by ordering a massive restructuring of the army. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock returned to active duty after being wounded at Gettysburg and resumed command of II Corps. The former commander, Major General Gouverneur Warren, was placed in charge of V Corps, ousting Major General George Sykes.

Major General Alfred Pleasonton was removed as head of the Cavalry Corps, replaced by Brigadier General David M. Gregg. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton urged Meade to remove Major General John Sedgwick as the head of VI Corps due to his past loyalty to George B. McClellan, but Meade held firm on retaining him.

The hardest blow came with the disbanding of I and III corps under Major Generals John Newton and William French respectively. The troops in these ruined commands could keep their corps insignias, but they would be absorbed into II and V corps. Men of III Corps, still loyal to their former commander, Major General Daniel Sickles, held “indignation” meetings to protest the move.

During this reorganization, Meade came under heavy criticism for his handling of the Battle of Gettysburg; this stemmed mainly from a New York Herald article written by an unknown author named “Historicus.” The article claimed that Meade had planned to retreat after the first day. It also greatly praised Sickles for ignoring orders and marching his III Corps forward from Cemetery Ridge, which somehow saved the Federal army (though it actually decimated the corps and lost Sickles a leg).

Historicus wrote that Sickles’s advance was “made in the very face of the enemy, who were advancing in columns of attack, and Sickles dreaded lest the conflict should open before his dispositions were completed. At this juncture he was summoned to report in person at headquarters, to attend a council of corps commanders.” The article plainly suggested that Sickles sacrificed his men to save Meade from blundering into defeat.

Meade sent the article to President Abraham Lincoln with a letter stating that “the character of the communication enclosed bears such manifest proofs that it was written either by some one present at the battle, or dictated by some one present and having access not only to official documents, but to confidential papers that were never issued to the Army, much less made public.”

Meade charged, “I cannot resist the belief that this letter was either written or dictated by Major General D.E. Sickles,” and he asked for “the interposition of the (War) Department, as I desire to consider the questions raised purely official.” Meade demanded that the department “take steps to ascertain whether Major General Sickles has authorized or endorses this communication, and in the event of his reply in the affirmative I have to request the President of the U.S. a court of inquiry that the whole subject may be thoroughly investigated and the truth made known.”

Meade’s supporters quickly wrote rebuttals to Historicus’s article. Meade wrote his wife, “I think Historicus after awhile will be sick of his only true and authentic account of the battle.” After waiting nearly two weeks, Meade finally received a reply from Lincoln on the matter:

“It is quite natural that you should feel some sensibility on the subject; yet I am not impressed, nor do I think the country is impressed, with the belief that your honor demands, or the public interest demands, such an Inquiry. The country knows that, at all events, you have done good service; and I believe for you to be engaged in trying to do more, than to be diverted, as you necessarily would be, by a Court of Inquiry.”

Meade then asked Stanton to force Sickles to either admit his involvement or repudiate the Historicus article. After receiving Stanton’s response, Meade wrote his wife “that it was concluded submitting the letter to Sickles was only playing into his hands; that a court of inquiry, if called at my request, although it might exonerate me, yet it would not necessarily criminate him; and that, on the whole, it was deemed best not to take any action.” Historicus eventually wrote more articles, leaving no doubt that Sickles was the true author, but Meade ignored them.

The army observed Easter Sunday on the 27th with sermons from renowned Episcopalian Bishop Henry B. Whipple. Meade, who had been married by Whipple, invited him “to celebrate the Holy Communion at his headquarters on the Rapidan.” Meade wrote his wife that the Bishop delivered “two most appropriate and impressive discourses, well adapted to all classes of his hearers.”

In late March, Grant returned to the Army of the Potomac following his Cincinnati conference with Major General William T. Sherman. Grant established headquarters at Culpeper Court House, where he would oversee Meade’s army from this point forward. Meade’s wife criticized the move, but Meade defended it:

“You do not do Grant justice, and I am sorry to see it. You do not make a distinction between his own acts and those forced on him by the Government, Congress and public opinion. If left to himself, I have no doubt Grant would have let me alone; but placed in the position he holds, and with the expectations formed of him, if operations on a great scale are to be carried on here, he could not have kept aloof.

“As yet he had indicated no purpose to interfere with me, on the contrary, acts promptly on all my suggestions, and seems desirous of making his stay here only the means of strengthening and increasing my forces. God knows I shall hail his advent with delight if it results in carrying on operations in the manner I have always desired they should be carried on. Cheerfully will I give him all credit if he can bring the war to a close.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 387-88; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 411-13; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 477-79; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 746-47; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172, 174; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 747

The Grand Federal Military Strategy

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.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

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.”

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References

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

The Grand Federal Military Reorganization

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.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 165-66; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 384; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10594; 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 125-83, 233-62, 496-516; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 407-08; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24-25; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 473-74; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 817; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid: Confederates Ponder Retaliation

March 5, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis held a cabinet meeting at Richmond to discuss what measures should be taken in response to the controversial Federal raid on Richmond.

Two days after Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was killed in the failed raid on Richmond, his father, Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, came to Washington to ask his personal friend President Abraham Lincoln for information about his son.

Lincoln was aware that Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal command had fled to Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal army at Fort Monroe after the raid, but nobody at Washington knew of Dahlgren’s death yet. Lincoln wrote Butler, “Admiral Dahlgren is here, and of course is very anxious about this son. Please send me at once all you know or can learn of his fate.”

Meanwhile, the South seethed with rage upon learning that papers on Dahlgren’s body called for liberated Federal prisoners of war to burn Richmond and kill top Confederate government officials. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, sent the photographic copies of these documents to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, and asked if he or his superiors had any prior knowledge of this plot.

Meade assured Lee that neither he nor the Lincoln administration “had authorized, sanctioned, or approved the burning of the city of Richmond and the killing of Mr. Davis and Cabinet.” Meade also forwarded Kilpatrick’s statement on the matter, which asserted that nobody higher in rank than Dahlgren knew of the plot.

There was no evidence to disprove Meade’s claim. However, Lincoln’s approval of the raid (without necessarily approving the raid’s specific objectives) indicated his urgency to end the war by any means necessary. As news of the raid spread across the North, the northern press took a much different view than the South. The New York Times called the raid a “complete success, resulting in the destruction of millions of dollars of public property.” But the paper either did not know or willfully omitted Dahlgren’s controversial intentions.

Southerners branded Colonel Dahlgren a war criminal, and his body, which had been buried in a shallow grave in Richmond, was unearthed and put on display. A correspondent from the Richmond Examiner reported that the body was–

“Stripped, robbed of every valuable, the fingers cut off for the sake of the diamond rings that encircled them. When the body was found by those sent to take charge of it, it was lying in a field stark naked, with the exception of the stocking. Some humane persons had lifted the corpse from the pike and thrown it over into the field, to save it from the hogs. The artificial leg worn by Dahlgren (who lost his leg at Gettysburg) was removed, and is now at General Elzey’s headquarters. It is of most beautiful design and finish.

“Yesterday afternoon, the body was removed from the car that brought it to the York River railroad depot, and given to the spot of earth selected to receive it. Where that spot is no one but those concerned in its burial know or care to tell. It was a dog’s burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service. Friend and relative at the North need inquire no further; this is all they will know–he is buried a burial that befitted the mission upon which he came. He ‘swept through the city of Richmond’ on a pine bier, and ‘written his name’ on the scroll of infamy, instead of ‘on the hearts of his countrymen,’ never to be erased. He ‘asked the blessing of Almighty God’ and his mission of rapine, murder and blood, and the Almighty cursed him instead.”

Lieutenant Colonel John Atkinson led the burial party, with instructions from Davis not to reveal the burial site. Kilpatrick’s Federal troopers destroyed property, including a grain mill, in King and Queen County near Carlton’s Store, in retaliation for Dahlgren’s death.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The Confederate press called for retribution, and Davis met with his cabinet on the 5th to discuss what the administration should do about it. Most members present favored executing the prisoners taken from Dahlgren’s command, but Davis was firmly opposed. According to Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin:

“A discussion ensued which became so heated as almost to create unfriendly feeling, by reason of the unshaken firmness of Mr. Davis, in maintaining that although these men merited a refusal to grant them quarter in the heat of battle, they had been received to mercy by their captors as prisoners of war, and such were sacred; and that we should be dishonored if harm should overtake them after their surrender, the acceptance of which constituted, in his judgment, a pledge that they should receive the treatment of prisoners of war.”

Secretary of War James A. Seddon asked Lee for advice since he had greater experience in dealing with prisoners. Seddon wrote in part, “My own inclinations are toward the execution of at least a portion of those captured at the time Colonel Dahlgren was killed. The question of what is best to be done is a grave and important one, and I desire to have the benefit of your views and any suggestions you may make.” Lee responded:

“I cannot recommend the execution of the prisoners that have fallen into our hands. Assuming that the address and special orders of Colonel Dahlgren correctly state his designs and intentions, they were not executed, and I believe, even in a legal point of view, acts in addition to intentions are necessary to constitute a crime. These papers can only be considered as evidence of his intentions. It does not appear how far his men were cognizant of them, or that his course was sanctioned by his Government. It is only known that his plans were frustrated by a merciful Providence, his forces scattered, and he killed. I do not think it, therefore, to visit upon the captives the guilt of his intentions. I think it better to do right, even if we suffer in so doing, than to incur the reproach of our consciences and posterity.”

Davis ultimately agreed, and Dahlgren’s men were not executed.

On Sunday the 6th, a copy of the previous day’s Richmond Sentinel was delivered to Meade’s Army of the Potomac headquarters. From this, Meade received the first definitive news that Dahlgren was dead. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“The Richmond Sentinel of March 5 has been received, which announces the capturing at King and queen (county) of a part of Dahlgren’s party, reported 90 men, and that Colonel Dahlgren was killed in the skirmish. I fear the account is true.”

Meade wrote his wife, “You have doubtless seen that Kilpatrick’s raid was an utter failure. I did not expect much from it. Poor Dahlgren I am sorry for.” When Admiral Dahlgren learned of his son’s death, he lamented in his diary, “How busy is death–oh, how busy indeed!”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-81; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10424; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 203; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 407; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6593; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 202; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid Takes a Sinister Turn

March 2, 1864 – Confederates continued pursuing the Federal raiders led by Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, uncovering controversial documentation in the process.

Two Federal forces had unsuccessfully tried to raid Richmond. The main force under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick rode through Kent Court House on the way to joining Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals at Fort Monroe, on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Dahlgren’s 500-man detachment split in two, with Dahlgren leading about 100 men southeast to rejoin Kilpatrick.

Col Ulric Dahlgren | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Fitzhugh Lee, commanding Confederate cavalry in the area, soon learned of Dahlgren’s presence. His Confederates fired on Dahlgren’s men as they crossed the Mattaponi River, but the Federals held them off long enough to get across. The Confederate pursuers used an alternate road to get in front of Dahlgren’s column as it approached Mantapike Hill, between King and Queen County and King William County.

The Confederates waited in ambush as the Federals approached on the night of the 2nd. Dahlgren saw them in the woods and yelled, “Surrender you damned rebels, or we will charge you!” The Confederates instead demanded Dahlgren’s surrender. Dahlgren drew his revolver but it misfired. The Confederates opened fire, and a Federal trooper recalled, “This stampeded us for about 100 yards, every horse in our column turning to the rear.” Another wrote:

“The next instant a heavy volley was poured in upon us. The flash of the pieces afforded us a momentary glimpse of their position stretching parallel with the road about 15 paces from us. Every tree was occupied, and the bushes poured forth a sheet of fire. A bullet grazing my leg and probably struck my horse somewhere in the neck, caused him to make a violent swing sideways.”

Dahlgren was shot five times and killed. The Federals left him behind as they rode off, and the Confederates eventually rounded up about 100 of his men. Most of the survivors from Dahlgren’s force met up with Kilpatrick that night, while some found refuge on the U.S.S. Morse, near Brick House Farm on the York River.

William Littlepage, a 13-year-old boy accompanying the Confederates, searched Dahlgren’s body and found a bundle of papers in his coat pocket. He turned them over to the troopers, who read them the next morning. The three documents included the speech that Dahlgren had planned to give to his men upon entering Richmond, a list of instructions, and a memorandum book.

The instructions included the Federals’ plan to break some 15,000 Federal prisoners of war out of Belle Island and Libby Prison. They also directed the men to disguise themselves in Confederate uniforms, gather “combustible material,” and burn Richmond. And if President Jefferson Davis was found, he must be “killed on the spot.” Dahlgren wrote, “The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff Davis and cabinet killed.”

Some historians alleged that the papers had been forged by Confederates, but a handwriting expert verified Dahlgren’s writing a century later. Several prisoners were captured in Confederate uniform carrying turpentine and other material needed to set fires. This made them saboteurs under Articles of War, subject to execution.

The discovery of these incriminating papers and the capture of Federals verifying their authenticity put a sinister twist on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid. Fitz Lee delivered the papers to Davis at Richmond, who shared them with Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. Davis tried downplaying the issue, showing the secretary the order to kill him and his cabinet and saying, “That means you, Mr. Benjamin.” Davis asked Fitz to file the papers away. But General Braxton Bragg, Davis’s military advisor, recommended to Secretary of War James A. Seddon:

“It has occurred to me that the papers just captured from the enemy are of such an extraordinary and diabolical character that some more formal method should be adopted of giving them to the public than simply sending them to the press. My own conviction is for an execution of the prisoners and a publication as justification; but in any event the publication should go forth with official sanction from the highest authority, calling the attention of our people and the civilized world to the fiendish and atrocious conduct of our enemies.”

Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas agreed with Bragg. But Seddon, along with Davis and General Robert E. Lee, were reluctant to take punitive action against the prisoners. Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper had the documents photographed and sent to the Richmond newspapers; their publication sent waves of shock, panic, and outrage throughout the South. Editors alleged that the plot went all the way up the chain of command to President Abraham Lincoln himself. An article in the Richmond Inquirer declared:

“Should our army again go into the enemy’s country, will not these papers relieve them from their restraints of a chivalry that would be proper with a civilized army, but which only brings upon them the contempt of our savage foe? Decidedly, we think that these Dahlgren papers will destroy, during the rest of the war, all rosewater chivalry, and that the Confederate armies will make war afar and upon the rules selected by the enemy.”

The Richmond Whig asked:

“Are these (Dahlgren’s) men warriors? Are they soldiers, taken in the performance of duties recognized as legitimate by the loosest construction in the code of civilized warfare? Or are they assassins, barbarians, thugs who have forfeited (and expect to lose) their lives? Are they not barbarians redolent with more hellish purposes than were the Goth, the Hun or the Saracen?”

The Richmond Daily Examiner recommended:

“Our soldiers should in every instance where they capture officers engaged in raids characterized by such acts of incendiarism and wanton devastation and plunder, as this last raid has been, hang them immediately. If they are handed over as prisoners of war, they at once come under the laws of regular warfare and are subject to exchange… therefore we hope that our soldiers will take the law in their own hands… by hanging those they capture.”

Dahlgren’s body was brought to Richmond and buried in a shallow grave after being examined by Davis. An editor wrote:

“And they came and the Almighty blessed them not, and Dahlgren is dead and gone to answer for his crimes and several hundred of his partners in the plot concocted so deliberately are now our prisoners. They every one richly merit death…”

The controversy would continue.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20051; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-82; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10424; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 203; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 913, 915; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 405; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6593; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 471; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 202; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 417; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164