General Ulysses S. Grant / Library of Congress
The Civil War has been alternatively described as the last of the Napoleonic Wars or the first of the modern wars. Clearly it was a transitional war and one man, more than any other, can be credited with making the transition. That man was U.S. Grant, the Union General-in-Chief. He was innovative on both a strategic and operational level. Changes he introduced altered future warfare and accelerated the defeat the South. While Grant’s strategic vision was vitally important to victory, this paper concentrates on his operational, as opposed to tactical or strategic, innovation. Much as been written about the North’s successful strategy. Many other books describe the tactical changes that occurred during the war, but few authors highlight the operational change introduced by Grant.
There are three levels of decision-making and actions within war. These are strategy, operations and tactics. “Tactics” is defined in one dictionary as “the science and art of using a fighting force to the best advantage having regard to the immediate situation of combat.” Alternatively, the Marine Corps equates the tactical level with winning battles and combat engagements, using firepower and maneuver, in a particular time and place. The Marines identify tactics as the lowest level of war, beneath the strategic and the operational levels. Activities at the strategic level reflect national policy objectives, and military strategy reflects the application of military power to meet national policy objectives. Operations link the strategic level with the tactical level; operations are the use of tactics to achieve strategic objectives. The operational level includes decisions regarding when, where and under what conditions to engage the enemy in battle – or when to refuse to engage the enemy.
1861 Springfield Rifle. The rifled grooves in the barrel of this weapon essentially quadrupled its range and increased its killing potential exponentially. / Wikimedia Commons
During the Civil War, tactics changed as new equipment, especially the grooved rifle and the entrenching tool, gained prominence. The strength of the defensive was widely recognized as early as the third year of the war. The use of combined arms (infantry, artillery, cavalry) tactics by generals like Union Major General Philip Sheridan and Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne proved effective. New formations like those employed by Union Colonel Emory Upton at Spotsylvania and Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet at Chickamauga and The Wilderness demonstrated the power of attacks by formations with depth instead of breadth. But none of the tactical innovations had nearly the effect on future wars as two of Grant’s innovations – innovations as surely credited to Grant as greatness is to Robert E. Lee.
First, Grant understood that war could not be a seasonal activity. Until 1864, wars were conducted when the seasons best permitted, or when men could be away from their farms. Grant waged war year-round, recognizing that “total” war would cause, among other things, civilian discomfort and reduce the political will of the enemy. Under Grant, Union armies did not retire to winter quarters to refit and reorganize, and they would require their enemies to remain in the field against them. But total warfare was more a strategic than operational change. Second, Grant recognized that a high tempo of operations reduced or eliminated the enemy’s ability to use advantages such as interior lines of communications. Speed over time is tempo. Until Grant took command, the South could count on reprieves during periods of Union inactivity to refit and restore their logistic and supply bases. Or needing men in one location, the South could use interior lines to move men to meet the current threat. Grant’s operational tempo bankrupt Lee and other Southern generals of their supplies and their morale, and their ability to concentrate against one army while delaying or holding against another. Grant used maneuver in order to increase tempo as well as to place his forces. Indeed, Grant’s use of maneuver was every bit as important to his generalship as it was to those given more credit for using maneuver – Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Union Major General William T. Sherman and especially Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson.
Confederacy, Porter’s Battery – “It is the dying wail of the starving, Hard crackers, hard crackers, come again once more; You were old and very wormy, but we pass your failing oer. O Hard crackers, come again once more!” / Wikimedia Commons
As a result of Grant’s innovations, by the end of the war, Confederate troops were typically hungry, shoeless, poorly mounted, and generally forlorn. Their Union counterparts were unhappy with the war continuing, but they were generally sure of ultimate victory, well fed, well supplied and increasingly well led. Grant cannot be given credit for the Union supply lines or food preparation, but his activity, his understanding of war and, most of all, his understanding of operations in the field forever changed the nature of war.
Clearly Grant was a military genius, or at least particularly gifted, with respect to strategy. Grant’s strategic view was put into action and led to the end of the war in just over one year from the time he assumed overall command of Union armies. Operationally, he was just as effective. During the four years of the war, troops under Grant’s immediate command received the surrender of three Confederate armies and two were put to flight in total disarray. But tactically speaking, after Ft. Donelson, in February 1862, Grant seldom had a direct effect on tactics. As a field army commander and then as General-in-Chief of all Union armies, Grant’s domain lie in strategy and operations. While many view Grant as a butcher, especially after the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, Grant used maneuver to place his forces in optimum positions to attack his Confederate opponents. The aforementioned attacks by the Army of the Potomac were usually the result of that Army’s well known characteristic of being late, as opposed to lack of maneuver by Grant.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee in March 1864, photo by Julian Vannerson / Library of Congress
The South’s foremost general and perhaps the best known military figure of the war, Robert E. Lee, described his responsibility in operational terms, “I plan and work…to bring the troops to the right place at the right time.” Lee thought that interfering with his brigade and division commanders would do more harm than good.
Operationally, Grant sought Lee’s goal – to place his men where they could be successful tactically. The record shows that Grant did precisely that, though his subordinates often failed to capitalize on his work. Grant used maneuver extensively, and, until late in the war, always sought to win the battle outright by capturing the enemy force intact. This appears to have been innately learned, since Grant denies having read the standard books on tactics or the military pronouncements of the French general, Henri Jomini, or the American Thomas Mahan, whose tactical doctrine dominated Civil War thinking.
There is no evidence that Grant ever wanted to win the war by attrition as his mostly-Southern critics claim, nor is there any indication that Grant believed frontal attacks alone were the answer. But there were many experiences that undoubtedly affected his decision-making as Grant grew into his assignment as General-in-Chief.
Robert E. Lee around age 43 when he was a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel of Engineers, c. 1850, during the Mexican War / Library of Congress
At the beginning of the conflict, veterans of the Mexican War, whose number included Grant, assumed conspicuous roles on both sides. Lessons learned in Mexico more than a decade before had a significant influence on Civil War operations and tactics. In Mexico, the smaller American units routinely maneuvered aggressively, attacked and routed defending units who were in strong, fortified positions. At Buena Vista and other places, Americans held off larger numbers of Mexicans, without resorting to entrenchment, by using artillery very aggressively, often placing the guns in advance of infantry positions. Thus, Civil War generals such as Grant, Lee, Longstreet, Bragg, McClellan and a host of others observed that well-led, numerically inferior troops could attack and defeat larger numbers. Indeed, the primary lesson seemed to be that élan, vigor and attack won against any defense.
One of his early Civil War assignments took then Colonel Grant’s regiment against Confederates in Missouri. While Grant failed to find his enemy (who fled,) he learned the first of many battlefield lessons as a commander – he learned to control his fear. Furthermore, he realized that the opposing commander probably feared him as much as he feared the enemy. Controlling fear and confidence go hand in hand, and after this non-battle Grant always exhibited confidence in battle. Confidence is a pre-requisite to a commander’s use of maneuver and increased tempo, and Grant acquired that essential early in the war.
Charleston defenses, Belmont battlefield by Julius Bien & Co., Lith., N.Y. / Wikimedia Commons
The Battle of Belmont, November 1861, his first as a general officer, came next in Grant’s career. Belmont was a riverine operation; the Union forces disembarked and attacked directly without a reconnaissance. But Grant had no reserve force; as a result, when the Confederates counter-attacked, Grant’s men had to fight their way back to their boats. During the battle, the new general also displayed the personal bravery that marked his Mexican experiences, having one horse shot from under him and being the last to re-embark aboard the river transports that had carried his troops to the area. But the want of a reserve denied Grant tactical options; Belmont marked the last time he would enter a battle without one.
Bombardment and capture of Fort Henry, Tenn, 1860s lithograph by Currier and Ives / Library of Congress
The capture of Ft. Henry, February 1862, first brought fame to Grant, although it was the Navy who won the battle before Grant’s army troops could get into action. Thus, many Confederates escaped since Union forces could not close the cordon around the fort quickly enough. Grant would ensure in the future that escape would be more difficult. However, the rapidity that marked Grant’s advance to Ft. Henry remained a constant when, only eight days later, he attacked Ft. Donelson.
Grant moved very quickly against the larger, better defended and more substantial fort – faster than his commander, Major General Henry Halleck, would have liked. At the time the Union army took positions surrounding the fort, the Confederate commander had as many men as Grant – and the Confederates were probably better armed! However, assisted by the efforts of Brigadier General William T. Sherman, who aggressively pushed forward men and equipment forward, the Union forces were quickly bolstered and provided Grant with a numerically superior army.
Grant’s personal presence on the battlefield was undoubtedly critical to the Union success. He personally conducted reconnaissance against the fort, he directed placement of his divisions, he selected artillery positions, and he coordinated the attacks by the Navy. When the Confederates attacked his right flank, Grant alone sensed the nature of the assault (they were attempting to break out of the siege,) ordered the immediate Federal counter-attacks, pushed ammunition to his troops, and inspired them by his personal example. But even at Donelson, Grant did not set attack formations, lead attacks, or decide how to make the attacks – which would have indicated further tactical involvement on his part. Rather, Grant ordered subordinates into action after learning the intentions of the Confederate forces. General W.F. Smith, for example, attacked on Grant’s left using tactics Smith determined based on the terrain. But Grant had placed his army in a position to capture the entire opposing force, and capture (most of) it he did.
Battle of Fort Donelson, by Kurz and Allison (1887) / Library of Congress
At Ft. Donelson, Grant was on the edge of the line between operations and tactics, and he made mistakes indicative of an officer whose responsibilities were in transition. For example, he left Union lines to visit Commodore Foote, several miles away, without leaving a designated second-in-command; and he did not ensure that his right flank was set firmly against the Cumberland River, thereby permitting the Confederate cavalry under Forrest (and whomever chose to accompany them) to escape the Union encirclement. Nor is there evidence he supervised or ensured of aggressive, or even passive, Union patrolling, for patrols would have detected the escape by Forrest and his cavalry. But Grant provided clear, positive and, most importantly, confident leadership. His aggressiveness in attacking Donelson without waiting to resupply, refit and reorganize surprised not only his own commander, but Southern leadership as well. He positioned his army in front of his enemy when aggressiveness by the Southern commander could have endangered Grant’s numerically equal force. He seized the initiative and set the tempo for the campaign, which resulted in the Confederate loss of Nashville, and with it the important industry and commerce that city provided the Southern cause. The tempo of operations from Ft. Henry through Ft. Donelson set a tone for Grant’s later actions. But Grant’s failure to closely supervise subordinates would cost him again in his next battle as an army commander – Shiloh.
If Ft. Donelson showed Grant to be an excellent counter-puncher, Shiloh proved that he could counter-punch with the greatest generals in history. He had to, because he had made a mistake and permitted subordinates, particularly Sherman, too much latitude. At Shiloh, 1862, Grant clearly wanted to stay at the operational level as seen in this order to Sherman on April 4, two days before the Confederate attack:
“…Information just received would indicate that the enemy are sending in a force to Purdy, and it may be with a view to attack General Wallace at Crump’s Landing. I have directed General W. H. L. Wallace, commanding Second Division temporarily, to re-enforce General L. Wallace in case of an attack with his entire division, although I look for nothing of the kind, but it is best to be prepared. I would direct, therefore, that you advise your advance guards to keep a sharp lookout for any movement in that direction, and should such a thing be attempted, give all the support of your division and General Hurlbut’s, if necessary. I will return to Pittsburg at an early hour to-morrow, and will ride out to your camp…”
That order reflected a general in operational command, but his principal subordinates caused him to make a few tactical decisions after the battle was initiated.
Steamboats pulled up at Pittsburg Landing on the west bank of the Tennessee River / Public Domain
Though Sherman was tasked to organize the Union defensive position around Pittsburgh Landing, he failed to recognize the many signals that a Confederate attack was imminent. More importantly, Sherman failed to prepare a proper defensive position; five Union divisions were not even in tactical formations, nor had field fortifications been constructed. When the Southerners attacked, Sherman was completely surprised, though he and most others fought back with savage fury. Grant was not even on the ground when the enemy attacked, but he arrived soon. On his way, he ordered reinforcements to Sherman’s aid. But it was Grant who recovered the day and won the battle, notwithstanding the bravery and courage of thousands of his officers and men. He won not because of his tactical or operational genius, because there is no evidence he did anything brilliant. Rather, he steadfastly organized his surprised and almost routed Union force into one that was able to fight off the Confederate onslaught by the close of the first day.
Despite a serious injury (from before the battle,) Grant personally ensured the last line of defensive positions near the river was well formed and fully manned by artillery, and he directed that essential logistics functions, especially movement of ammunition to the front, were performed. But at the end of the first day, his thoughts were only of victory. He knew fresh troops, including the Army of the Ohio, had arrived. Therefore, at dawn, Grant attacked (increasing the tempo) before the Confederates could renew their assaults. His tactical plan was neither complex nor imaginative. It simply was to align the available Union forces and move straight ahead.
Grant willed victory through his own persistence, based on confidence learned in Missouri, and the bravery of his men; but as importantly, Donelson had shown him the importance of acting faster than his opponent. At the close of day one, Sherman and other subordinates were ready to leave the field to the enemy, but Grant never considered that option. He alone did not falter in the face of a dramatic setback on the first day. Grant learned from Shiloh, however. His future orders were more complete and presumed less, though he was still not immune from the failures of subordinates.
[LEFT]: Battle of Iuka, Miss., September 19, 1862 / Illustration in History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (1903), via Wikimedia Commons
[RIGHT]: Second Battle of Corinth, Miss., October 4, 1862. Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1862 / Library of Congress
By November 1862, Grant proved that he was more than a counter-puncher; he was the master of maneuver warfare. Assuming field command in the West when Halleck went to Washington as General-in-Chief, Grant maneuvered his subordinates in a way that should have resulted in the destruction of Earl Van Dorn’s Confederate army. At the Battles of Iuka and Corinth, Mississippi, in September and October respectively, Grant consolidated the Union position in West Tennessee and Northern Mississippi, though he was not present on the field. He directed his generals into positions to earn victories, and relied on them to decide the “tactics.” These battles reflected Grant acting like Lee, taking advantage of emerging operational opportunities.
Prior to Iuka, the Confederates were intent on attacking while Union forces were spread throughout northern Mississippi and Tennessee, in defensive dispositions (protecting the railroads) made by Halleck. Grant saw an opportunity to completely destroy the Confederate army. Maneuvering his forces (using the telegraph as the primary communications means) quickly, Grant had his opponent in a vise, only to have then Brigadier General William Rosecrans’ lack of aggressiveness (and failure to advance in accordance with his own schedule) combine with unusual weather conditions to save his opponent. Grant proved that Union forces under his command would aggressively fight when presented openings. Still, at this stage of the war (late 1862), Grant was not able to implement a faster operational tempo since his superior, Halleck, seemed genetically incapable of thinking in terms of speed and movement.
Iuka and Corinth proved to Grant that conducting operations from afar was very difficult, especially with a strong-willed subordinate such as Rosecrans. At times he had to seek the help of Halleck just to get Rosecrans to obey orders. Nevertheless, the Iuka and Cornith campaign was another learning experience for Grant. Thereafter, he would try to be nearer the units over which he was maintaining operational control. But for these experiences, it is problematic if Grant would have seen the necessity for being in the field with the army during the Vicksburg campaign, or more importantly, during the Army of the Potomac’s epic struggle against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, the period from Shiloh to Cornith (April to November 1862) probably convinced Grant that, unlike Halleck, he could not effectively command from the rear; the same period also taught him the value of tempo, since the battles at Donelson, Shiloh and Iuka were won by moving quickly and decisively.
The campaign for Vicksburg was the war’s foremost example of maneuver warfare, and the tempo of operations maintained by Grant’s forces from May until July, 1863, was never again matched during the Civil War. After spending nearly six months trying various schemes to place his men in a position to surround Vicksburg, Grant decided on a fast tempo campaign of maneuver. The ensuing operations were even more commendable when it is considered that Grant’s plan did not have the support of his primary lieutenant and confidant, William T. Sherman.
Siege of Vicksburg. Corps and division commanders are shown for the period June 23 – July 4 / Wikimedia Commons
At Vicksburg, Grant’s operational genius and use of maneuver led to the surrender of a Confederate army and the opening of the Mississippi River, thereby cutting the Confederacy in half. Only occasionally during the Vicksburg campaign did Grant become involved with tactics; he told his three subordinate commanders where to go and what to do, and generally stayed out of their way, though he did place himself close to near his weakest general whenever possible for non-operational reasons. His use of maneuver surprised everyone, including Sherman and President Lincoln, and the tempo of operations completely dazzled his Confederate opponents. After crossing the continent’s largest river, defeating two separate forces within two weeks, and then besieging the town, his concurrent defense against the danger of attack from General Joe Johnston provided no opening for the Confederates. Only in authorizing frontal attacks against the city did he show impatience and, perhaps, too much optimism. But remembering that Lieutenant General John Pemberton’s forces had been badly beaten twice in prior days, and knowing that Union forces were brimming with confidence, Grant probably succumbed to the attacks just like other generals would have. While events at Vicksburg remain little known outside the community of Civil War scholars, they bear comparison with another campaign that is much better known to Americans generally.
A major difference between Grant during the Vicksburg campaign and then Major General Thomas J. Jackson’s famous “Valley Campaign” was the level at which the two commanders operated. Jackson generally had fewer than 20,000 troops and faced a single, poorly-led opponent of about equal strength. Jackson himself usually dictated both the operations and the tactics used. From conducting personal reconnaissance to placing artillery, Jackson did everything. Grant, on the other hand, commanded more than 30,000 troops, had to work with a friendly force not under his command (the U.S. Navy,) and had a major obstacle (the Mississippi River) to cross before he could reach his enemy. Grant fully utilized his senior subordinates to implement tactics while preserving for himself an operational role. Unlike Jackson, he also faced the additional challenge of having two rebel armies, separated by less than 50 miles, with which to contend. Strategically, operationally and tactically Vicksburg was as stunning a victory as any of the entire war, and it was gained by the dramatic use of increased tempo and maneuver.
Battle of Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863 / Wikimedia Commons
Later in 1863, Grant changed his area of operations and assumed personal control of the Union effort at East Tennessee. The Confederate Army of Tennessee had defeated Major General William Rosecrans’ army at Chickamauga in September, and by October conditions for Union forces in Chattanooga were desperate. Rosecrans proved incapable of reorganizing following his major reversal, and Grant replaced him with Major General George Thomas. However, President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Halleck both wanted Grant, in person, to take control of the situation in the city. Arriving though still severely injured from a fall, Grant again proved that keeping out of the way of his army, division and brigade commanders was the best course. He quickly approved Brigadier General William Smith’s plan to left the siege on the city, and he adopted a battle plan largely drawn by Smith and Thomas for the attack against the Confederates on Missionary Ridge, the dominate feature of the local terrain.
Grant’s conduct at Missionary Ridge was very similar to Lee’s at the site of his greatest victory, Chancellorsville. Both benefited from the initiative and daring of subordinates. Both Grant and Lee placed their men in a way that permitted victory; then, neither stuck to a preconceived operational plan. When opportunities became apparent, and subordinate leaders took aggressive action, both Grant and Lee changed their plans to reflect the tactical situation. Both accepted the public accolades of their Presidents, but each benefited usually from poor leadership by their opponents and outstanding initiative by their subordinates. Generals acting the operational level of war, however, must rely on such occurrences. Bragg and Hooker, the vanquished commanders at Missionary Ridge and Chancellorsville respectively, were both poorly served even though operationally each, particularly Hooker, had a good plan. A nation must expect its generals to be lucky, however; and both Grant and Lee were!
Missionary Ridge was Grant’s last battle before becoming General-in-Chief, replacing the indecisive Halleck. Grant realized that his place was in the field with the principal Union army in the East, the Army of the Potomac. While politics played an important role in Grant’s decision to remain in the East, his previous experience in getting subordinates to follow his instructions surely was a factor. Grant and the entire North realized the Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was the primary enemy and defeat of that army was a major goal. How to defeat Lee was the pressing operational issue. In deciding, Grant made two of the key judgments of the war – he retained Major General George G. Meade as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac and he kept Halleck as Chief of Staff in Washington, leaving to Halleck the burden of daily supervision of the Army headquarters.
These decisions freed Grant of two momentous problems – naming a new commander for one of his important filed armies and assuming daily responsibility for the entire army himself. Both were fraught with potential issues. Maintaining Meade meant that Grant did not have to think tactically, or directly control corps commanders; his position in the field did mean, however, that he could not impose his tremendous will on those subordinates but through Meade. The clear orders that Grant gave to Meade showed that his mistakes of Donelson, Shiloh, and Iuka/Cornith were not going to be repeated. While there could be little doubt of Grant’s intentions and objectives, Meade had the responsibility for tactical details.
But the recent success at Missionary Ridge combined with intense political pressure to gain a victory over Lee affected Grant’s operational decisions. Having been promoted to Lieutenant General in March 1864, Grant became the champion of the North. The press and the populace did not only desire a decisive victory over Lee, but they was expected it.
At the miracle of Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863, the Union army pierced the middle of Bragg’s defenses, a position considered impregnable by the Confederates. But the frontal attack occurred only after Grant had stretched Bragg’s defenses on both flanks, thereby weakening the Confederate middle. Grant had watched in “intense interest” as the Confederate center was broken. As a probable result of that victory and the tactics used, not until after Cold Harbor in the July, three months into the campaign, did Grant give up the idea of attacking frontly after the Confederate defense had been stretched. In each instance where frontal attacks failed, they occurred following maneuvers that should have provided a tactical advantage.
Union marches and operations in “The Wilderness”, Central Virginia (1864–65) / United States War Department
On three occasions during the campaign from The Wilderness to Petersburg, Grant had out-maneuvered Lee, and in one of those cases he had completely fooled the Southern leader. Grant had stolen the march from The Wilderness to Spotsylvania Courthouse, only to have the Army of the Potomac renew its claim to always arriving an hour late, though in this case Phil Sheridan cavalry did not prove its mettle. Then too, the Union 9th Corps commander, operating directly under Grant’s orders, showed himself incapable of aggressive action. Thus, Lee was able to stalemate Grant’s move. Moving then from Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor, Grant again gained a headstart, only to have the Confederates seize the better position through the initiative and skill of Lee’s subordinates as compared to Grant’s. But the final move that Grant made, crossing the James River from Cold Harbor to Petersburg, was operationally brilliant and should have resulted in the capture of both Petersburg, with its important railroad communications center, and Richmond. Again, however, daring and initiative by a Southerner completely deadlocked Grant. His own subordinates, William “Baldy” Smith and Winfield Scott Hancock, utterly lost their nerve in the face of a strong defensive position, even though very few Southern infantry occupied it! Although responsibility for the Union failures was Grant’s, the primary reason for the failures was weak subordinate leadership. Grant’s plans featured outstanding use of maneuver and a high tempo of operations.
From the Wilderness through Cold Harbor, the high tempo of operations, use of maneuver and Grant’s perception that just a little more pressure might lead to Lee’s collapse combined to cause the loss of many men on both sides. But having seen that the Army of Northern Virginia was not likely to break, and having arrived outside the fortifications that surrounded Petersburg and Richmond, Grant returned to his tried and true operational plan. He maintained the tempo of operations and sought to stretch the defense, and draw out into the open his opponent, by using maneuver.
Actions at Petersburg before and during the Battle of Five Forks / Wikimedia Commons
During the whole siege of the Petersburg/Richmond area from June 1864 until March 1865, Lee’s front was continuously weakened as the Southerner witnessed Grant’s repeated attacks on both flanks. The only Union frontal attack (unsuccessful) of the siege took place only after a great mine had exploded under a portion of the defenders’ lines; otherwise, Grant avoided direct attacks until March 1865, when success was assured. By the time Sheridan gained a significant victory on Lee’s right flank in March 1865 at Five Forks, Lee’s army was so badly thinned that it collapsed under the weight of a general Union offensive all along the line.
The final victory was achieved using maneuver, not traditional siege tactics. Moreover, Grant used his superiority in numbers to maintain a constantly high tempo of operations. Lee and his men had no time to rest, and Lee had no troops free to support other Confederate armies.
After Ft. Donelson, February 1862, Grant seldom got involved with tactical decisions. He did not have the responsibility for conducting a reconnaissance against the enemy, selecting defensive positions, detecting weaknesses in the enemy defensives, maneuvering his forces to exploit the immediate situation, or personally directing the formation the attacking force would use. Those were tactical decisions and many high-ranking officers made them during the Civil War. Grant’s old friend, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, for example, made such decisions repeatedly during battles such as Chickamauga and the Wilderness. But Grant’s realm was primarily at the operational level and above.
Grant’s strategic decision in the spring of 1864 to simultaneously engage all Confederate forces in the field prevented the Confederates from using their interior lines to move men from one threatened location to another. But as important as that directive, Grant dramatically increased the tempo of operations in the East, and in doing so changed the face of war. After the opening of the Wilderness campaign in May 1864, Lee and his army had no rest. They faced incessant Union operations that had Lee scrambling, unable to seize the initiative. So effective was Grant’s use of increased tempo that after the Wilderness, Lee could not again mount an offensive until March 1865, when his desperate attempt to break out of the lines at Petersburg ended in failure and the surrender of Lee’s army one month later. Grant evolved as a leader as the war progressed, and he achieved a degree of strategic and operational competence unmatched by any other Civil War general.
1 Among numerous references, see, for example, the discussion presented in Archer Jones, Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 219-45.
2 Perhaps the best book about Northern strategy is Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).
3 See, for example, Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1982) and Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New: Yale University Press, 1987).
4 New Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus, (1992), s.v. “tactics.”
5 United States Marine Corps, Warfighting (New York: Doubleday,1994), 27-30.
6 Ibid., 40.
7 Grant “captured” the Confederate armies at Ft. Donelson, Vicksburg, and Appomattox, and put to flight Van Dorn’s Army of Mississippi at Cornith and Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Missionary Ridge.
8 Even Major General George Meade is quoted with disparaging remarks about Grant’s appetite for bloody, frontal attacks. See for example, Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants, Volume 3 (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1945), 439.
9 The best book about Grant and the Army of the Potomac remains Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1968), 292.
10 Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995), 246.
11 U.S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: The Library of America, 1990), 166-7.
12 If Grant did not believe in reading about military doctrine, his most trusted subordinate, Major General W.T. Sherman surely did when in 1862 he published as part of a General Order, “…All officers of this command must now study their books; ignorance of duty must no longer be pleaded. The commanding general has the power at any time to order a board to examine the acquirements and capacity of any officer, and he will not fail to exercise it. Should any officer, high or low, after the opportunity and experience we have had, be ignorant of his tactics, regulations, or even of the principles of the Art of War (Mahan and Jomini), it would be a lasting disgrace.” OR, 17, pt. 2: 119.
13 Grant, 165.
14 Ibid., 184.
15 Ibid., 202-13.
16 OR, 10, pt 2: 91.
17 Grant, 234.
18 Noise of Rosecrans attack on the Union left was supposed to signal an assault by Ord, but though the battle raged only two or three miles away, Ord’s men never heard the sound of cannon, and thus the Confederate force was permitted to retreat relatively unmolested. Grant, 276.
19 Many authors have applauded Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. For a complete account of that period in Grant’s generalship, see Earl S. Miers, The Web of Victory: Grant at Vicksburg (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984).
20 For an excellent account of the generalship of Jackson, see G.F.R. Henderson, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1943).
21 At Chancellorsville, Union failures were many but the most grievous errors belonged to Generals Howard and Sedgwick, while Confederate successes were mainly due to Jackson and the little known Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox. At Missionary Ridge, the Union benefited from the initiative of Generals Sheridan, Wood and Hooker, while Bragg suffered the lack of support from Longstreet (before the battle) and Breckinridge during it. For an excellent account of Chancellorsville see Ernest B. Furgurson, Chancellorsville 1863: The Souls of the Brave (New York,: Random House, 1993). One of several accounts of the Battle at Missionary Ridge is provided by Freeman Cleaves, Rock of Chickamauga: The Life of George H. Thomas (Norman, OK; University of Oklahoma Press, 1948), 187-200. Compare Cleaves account with Grant, 433-51.
22 The command relationship with respect to the Army of the Potomac was complex after Grant arrived in the East. Catton, 234-5, describes it best, citing a quote attributed to Meade in a letter to his wife, “…says, ‘The Army of the Potomac, directed by Grant, commanded by Meade, and led by Hancock, Sedgwick and Warren…’ which is quite a good distinction and about hits the nail on the head.” Grant’s orders to Meade were very precise and clear, though their execution remained often slow and without vigor.
23 For an excellent account of public sentiment, North and South, following Grant’s assumption of command and leading into his campaign against Lee, see Gary W. Gallagher, Editor, The Wilderness Campaign (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 1-65.
24 Grant, 446.
25 Catton, 234.
26 For an in-depth view of the tactical responsibilities of Longstreet at Chickamauga and The Wilderness, see, for example, Jeffry D. Wert, General James Longstreet, The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 306-22; 378-92.
27 Catton, 138. Hattaway, 532.
Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1968.
Cleaves, Freeman. Rock of Chickamauga: The Life of George H. Thomas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948.
Grant, U.S. Memoirs and Selected Letters. New York: The Library of America, 1990.
Griffith, Paddy. Battle Tactics of the Civil War. New: Yale University Press, 1987.
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