Grant Prepares to Meet Lee

Late in March 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Lincoln showed Grant a map on which he had drawn all the positions held by both opposing armies throughout the war. The president then explained how he would conduct the upcoming spring campaign. The general listened respectfully, but made no comment on the flaws he saw in Lincoln’s plan. Grant had other ideas, but “I did not communicate my plans to the President, nor did I to the Secretary of War or to General Halleck.” Grant had already learned that there were just too many leaks in Washington.

Gen. Grant wrote in his Personal Memoirs: “My general plan now was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field. There were but two such…east of the Mississippi River and facing north. The army of northern Virginia, Gen. Robert E. Lee commanding, was on the south bank of the Rapidan, confronting the Army of the Potomac; the second, under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, was at Dalton, Georgia, opposed to Sherman who was still at Chattanooga.”

The first priority was to get as many troops in the field as possible. Grant’s basic premise was that if Lee was defeated, the rest of the Confederacy would shortly fall. He stripped 10,000 men from the coastal defenses of South Carolina and sent them to reinforce Butler’s Army of the James. When the garrison of Plymouth, NC fell into Rebel hands, he ordered Washington, NC abandoned as well, and kept troops only where they were most needed to blockade the seaports. Grant also ordered Gen. Burnside forward from Annapolis with his 20,000 man Ninth Corps, to be ready to go wherever they were most needed.

150 YEARS AGO TODAY, April 4th, 1864, another important change was made. Again from Grant’s Memoirs: “In one of my early interviews with the President I expressed my dissatisfaction with the little that had been accomplished by the cavalry so far in the war, and the belief that it was capable of accomplishing much more than it had done if under a thorough leader.” And Grant had just such a thorough leader in mind. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan was called back to the east and given command of all cavalry attached to the Army of the Potomac, replacing Maj. Gen. David M. Gregg.

Even into April, Gen. Grant was unsure whether to try to turn Lee’s eastern or western flank. Each approach had its advantages and disadvantages, but the deciding factor was one of logistics. If he chose the eastern route, the army could be constantly supplied from bases on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay and their many tributaries. If he went farther west, the army would have to rely heavily upon foraging in already war-ravaged country and upon railroad service that could be so easily disrupted.

His mind fixed on the objective (Lee’s army), and his general course established, Gen. Grant began to set his grand strategy in motion.

Next Week: How Lee prepared to meet Grant.

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