By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
As the Civil War progressed, the winter of 1863–1864 witnessed considerable optimism on both sides: the United States and the Confederacy. While the North had very high expectations of success from Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, the Confederates were not ready to give up either. They had unshakable belief in Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Following the battle of Chattanooga, Lincoln brought U.S. Grant to the East, to take command of all the United States’ armies. Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General. No one had held that rank since George Washington. Winfield Scott had held a sort of honorary lieutenant generalcy, but no one had held that three-star rank, and that had been deliberate.
Congress had never wanted anyone to have the same rank that the sainted Washington had had. It’s a testament to the belief in—and enthusiasm for—Grant that Congress authorized the rank of lieutenant general for him.
Grant to Move East
Grant put together a plan to apply pressure simultaneously across the entire Confederacy. He wanted pressure in Louisiana, Alabama, north Georgia and Virginia. He thought that pressure all across the military landscape would force the Confederacy into a situation it simply couldn’t manage. It would stretch Confederate resources too thin, and it would bring Union victory.
Grant and Lincoln and the most of the other Union planners thought that the war would probably be won out in the West, but they also understood that more people looked to the East to decide who was winning, and they decided that Grant had to come east. Grant would have preferred to stay in the West, where his friend William Tecumseh Sherman was, but he understood that the northern people demanded that he come to Virginia to confront Robert E. Lee, the great rebel leader, whom no one had been able to manage.
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Robert Lee: Grant’s Target
It would be Grant against Lee; the best rebel general facing the best United States general. Grant’s final planning vision included several minor offensives, and two major ones.
The major ones were these: He would take the 120,000 men of the Army of the Potomac, and would confront Lee’s 650,000-man Army of Northern Virginia head on, along the Rappahannock River line, in north central Virginia. Secondly, William Tecumseh Sherman, meanwhile, would take 100,000 men, and move southward out of Chattanooga toward Atlanta.
Why Atlanta Was Crucial
Atlanta was a great center of transportation, supply, and manufacturing for the Confederacy. It was probably the second most important Confederate city by this stage of the war, with many others, like Nashville and New Orleans, having passed into United States’ hands.
Sherman’s target, then, was to be Atlanta, Grant’s target was to be Lee’s army. If things went well against Lee’s army, Grant would capture the Confederate capital in Richmond. Once Sherman had taken Atlanta, Sherman and Grant envisioned that Sherman would strike off into the interior of Georgia, and, laying waste to the economic base in that part of the Confederacy, would strike at food production, at rail lines, and manufacturing, in such a way that it would undercut the Confederate war effort.
Sherman was a most interesting figure. He was tall and slim and redheaded, just a bundle of nervous energy, a real contrast to Grant, who appeared to be phlegmatic, although he had a very active mind and a lot of energy, in some ways. Sherman loved the South; he was very comfortable in the South, and had lived in the South before the war. After secession, he wanted to punish treason.
Like Grant, Sherman supported waging war in a way that would bring increasing hardship to the Confederate home front. They were not going to kill Confederate civilians, but they were going to lay waste to anything they could get close to that might be used to support the Confederate war effort: They would burn crops, slaughter livestock, tear up railroads, burn mills, and so forth, so that the economic performance of the Confederacy would suffer.
Expectations of the People
The northern people had very high expectations in April of 1864. Grant was in place, a general who’d won and won and won in the West. They expected success against Lee in the East, finally, and they also expected success from Sherman. They believed that this was going to be the definitive campaign of the war. This would bring United States’ victory.
On the other side, the Confederate people also had quite a bit of optimism going into the spring of 1864. One would think that after Gettysburg and Vicksburg and Chattanooga, and a hard winter in terms of absence of food and difficulty finding all the things one would need for life, the Confederate people would be ready to give up, but they were not.
The principal reason they weren’t is that they maintained an almost unshakable belief that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would keep their struggle for independence going long enough for the United States to give up. Thus, both home fronts were looking forward to the spring campaigning in 1864 with a good deal of optimism.
Common Questions about Ulysses Grant, William Sherman, and the Civil War
Grant wanted pressure in Louisiana, Alabama, north Georgia and Virginia together as he thought that pressure all across the military landscape would force the Confederacy into a situation it simply couldn’t manage. It would stretch Confederate resources too thin, and it would bring Union victory.
Sherman did not plan to kill Confederate civilians but lay waste to anything he could get close to that might be used to support the Confederate war effort. He planned to burn crops, slaughter livestock, tear up railroads, burn mills, and so forth, so that the economic performance of the Confederacy would suffer.
The principal reason the Confederate people were not ready to give up was that they maintained an almost unshakable belief that Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would keep their struggle for independence going long enough for the United States to give up.