Monthly Archives: May 2014

Grant at His Best

General Sheridan (Source: AmericanCivilWar.com)

General Sheridan (Source: AmericanCivilWar.com)

In my most recent article, I described the battle of Cold Harbor as Grant at his worst and at his best. I said enough about Grant at his worst. Now about Grant at his best. He could have sat at Cold Harbor, numbed by a horrible loss, just hoping to keep Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia at bay while Sherman drove through Georgia. But he obviously did not. He remained resilient.

In later years, he acknowledged his failure at Cold Harbor. But he aimed to destroy Lee’s army. To do so, he had to stretch Lee’s troops to the breaking point. If Grant could lay siege to Richmond and Petersburg, Lee knew surrender was only a matter of time. Grant did so in a way that in retrospect may be perceived as reckless, but was bold in design and brilliant in execution.

On Tuesday, June 7, General Phil Sheridan led two Union cavalry divisions northwest toward Charlottesville. Lee had no choice but to order General Wade Hampton to respond in kind, taking his cavalry to intercept Sheridan. The cavalry served as the commander’s eyes, scouting the enemy’s movements. Without Hampton in the vicinity of Cold Harbor, Lee could no longer keep an eye on Grant. Of course, that was part of Grant’s plan, along with an assault by General Benjamin Butler on Beauregard’s forces at Petersburg.

Ten miles downriver from Cold Harbor, Grant’s engineers laid a half-mile pontoon bridge across the James River. Had Lee learned about the crossing in time, he could have destroyed Grant’s army. Sheridan’s diversion and the

Wade Hampton (Source: National Park Service)

Wade Hampton (Source: National Park Service)

Union army’s deliberate withdrawal from Cold Harbor allowed Grant to “steal a march” on Lee. By Monday, June 13, the Yankees were across the James and Grant had set up headquarters at City Point (modern day Hopewell). Lee could only hope to prevent Grant from overrunning Richmond. Lee did that much, in part because of Union generals’ blunders, but he could not prevent the Union siege that would drive the Confederate army and local civilians to starvation.

The South’s hopes now lay in holding out until Tuesday, November 8, the date of the national election. If the South could avoid a major loss before that date, Southern leaders were certain Lincoln could not be reelected and that they could negotiate a peace with Lincoln’s successor. That was a big “if.” Sherman drove through Georgia and the Carolinas and Sheridan laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley. By Election Day the only question was Lincoln’s margin of victory.

Historical Sources:

 

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Cold Harbor: Grant at His Worst and His Best

This article follows up on “Bloody May,” an earlier article about Union General U.S. Grant’s campaign to destroy Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

With losses considerably reduced in the second half of May when compared to the first half of the month, Grant succumbed to battlefield hubris. Lee by necessity had refused to fight Grant out in the open where he would be crushed by superior numbers and artillery. Lee’s men had become experts with the shovel, entrenching as they retreated. Lee now hoped an overly eager Grant would attempt an assault on his lines.

Battle at Cold Harbor (History.com)

Battle at Cold Harbor (History.com)

On Wednesday, June 1, General Sheridan’s cavalry, with infantry support from General Wright’s Sixth Corps and General Baldy Smith’s Eighteenth, held Cold Harbor, a place so named for an inn that offered travelers a place to rest but no hot food. Hancock’s men arrived at 6:30 the next morning, exhausted from an overnight launch.

Grant wanted to launch an attack against Lee upon the arrival of Hancock’s troops, but decided the soldiers required rest. The lull allowed Lee additional time to entrench. Along a seven-mile line, Lee’s men dug trenches and laid log and earth barriers. They stacked logs with openings at eye level every few feet, such that a soldier could stand and fire his rifle with little danger of being struck by return fire. The Federals would have to cross open fields or boggy terrain and then up a hill to reach the rebels. If Grant dared order an attack, he could expect the same fate as Pickett’s men at Gettysburg.

Grant ordered an attack, to begin the next morning at 4:30. Sixty thousand Union soldiers would charge the entrenched Confederates. While Meade had issued a circular requiring commanders to examine “the ground on their front and perfect the arrangements for the assault,” the commanding officers made no effort to reconnoiter the enemy’s position to gain information about the strength of their defenses.

The slaughter took only eight minutes. Hancock’s men caught enemy fire directly ahead and on their left. Confederates poured cannon and musket fire on Smith’s right and straight ahead. Wright’s men suffered most of all, suffering a blistering enfilade on both flanks and directly in front of them. The dead lay in windrows before the enemy. The survivors used cups, spoons, and bayonets in an effort to put earth between them and the rebels. Seventeen hundred men lay dead. Another 9,000 lay wounded on the field, expecting their commander to request a truce so they could be retrieved from the field.

Ulysses S. Grant (civilwar.org)

Ulysses S. Grant (civilwar.org)

For the next four days, the Union Army witnessed Grant at his worst. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant had never suffered an acknowledged defeat on the battlefield. He was not about to acknowledge one now. Lee had suffered few losses and all of them lay behind his defenses. Only blue uniforms lay on the open field, vulnerable to sharpshooters from the gray ranks.

Grant asked Lee for a truce, implying the battle had been a draw, so that both sides could recover their dead and wounded. Lee would have none of it. Grant persisted, asking that Lee demonstrate humanity toward the “suffering from both sides.” Finally, on Tuesday, June 7, Grant acknowledged the Union defeat and Union soldiers recovered their brethren under a flag of truce. Only two Union soldiers remained alive on the field. Any other survivors had crawled back into Union lines under cover of darkness. For many, the delay had sealed their doom or cost them an arm or a leg from prolonged exposure. For all of them, Grant’s pride had inflicted unnecessary misery.

This was Grant at his worst. He and his army would recover, however, and demonstrate Grant at his best. That is for another article.

Most of this brief account is taken from my Civil War era novel, New Garden (pages 275-276), available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel is also available in Greensboro, NC, at the Greensboro Historical Museum and Scuppernong Books.

For historical sources about Cold Harbor, I recommend the following:

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Bloody May: Grant’s 1864 Campaign Against Lee

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Union General U.S. Grant’s campaign to destroy Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Portrait of General Meade (Source: SmithsonianAssociates.org)

Portrait of General Meade (Source: SmithsonianAssociates.org)

As Virginia’s many rivers go, the Rapidan receives scant notice. Its headwaters begin 4,000 feet above sea level near the Big Meadows in the Blue Ridge. From there, the river descends east, gradually widening until it flows into the Rappahannock River northwest of Charlottesville and Fredericksburg. During the winter of 1863-1864, every American identified the river as the boundary line between General Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

On Wednesday, May 4, 1864, Grant sent Meade’s 120,000 soldiers across the Rapidan on pontoon bridges constructed by the army’s engineers at two points: Ely’s Ford and Germanna Ford. Grant was determined to destroy Lee’s 60,000-man army and capture Richmond in the process.

Throughout the month of May, Grant and Lee danced their deadly Tarantella, suffering losses in proportion to their numbers. In the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, the Union army suffered casualties – killed, wounded, or captured – of 36,000 men while the Confederate casualties totaled 24,000. To put the losses in perspective, one has to remember that the United States population today is ten times that of 1864 (taking into account populations both north and south).

Battle of the Wilderness, Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, 1865; Painting by Alonzo Chappel (Source: 1stArtGallery.com)

Battle of the Wilderness, Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, 1865; Painting by Alonzo Chappel (Source: 1stArtGallery.com)

Despite the heavy losses, Grant continued forward, unlike the Union commanders who preceded him. He made “turn the left flank” the order of the day, and by Thursday, June 2, Union troops had fought their way within ten air miles of Richmond. Both commanders replenished their losses. Grant received 40,000 fresh troops in the second half of May, most from the “heavy artillery” units in and around Washington, who previously had seen action only on Washington’s parade grounds. Lee had to move Confederate troops south of Richmond and in North Carolina to bring his troop strength back to his original 60,000. By doing so, Lee risked a rout from the rear.

June would open with a shocking loss for the Union troops. I will address that in another article.

Most of this brief account is taken from my Civil War era novel, New Garden (pages 275-276), available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel is also available in Greensboro, NC, at the Greensboro Historical Museum and Scuppernong Books.

For historical sources about Grant’s campaign, I recommend the following:

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Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1869 Inauguration

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States (Source: Whitehouse.gov)

(Source: Whitehouse.gov)

The theme song from the 1930 movie “Chasing Rainbows” was the campaign song for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful 1932 Presidential campaign and would become the unofficial campaign song of the Democratic Party for years to come. But the song’s spirit aptly describes the atmosphere of Ulysses S. Grant’s first inauguration.

Grant’s opponent, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, had waged an ugly, racist campaign. During the months between his nomination in May and his election in November, Grant had spent most of his time in his hometown of Galena, Illinois, and the rest of his time exploring America’s Great Plains. As was customary in most Presidential campaigns of the nineteenth century, Grant had left the public speaking to others.

The town’s citizens were in a celebratory mood. They had endured four years of war and almost four years with President Andrew Johnson and Congress at each other’s throat, culminating in Johnson’s narrow escape from conviction at his impeachment trial the past spring.

 Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies' Library)

Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies’ Library)

Although the air was cool and misty on Thursday morning, March 4, 1869, eager onlookers crowded the streets of the nation’s capital. All of them wanted a glimpse of the President-elect, the man who had brought an end to the Civil War. Some in the crowd wanted to see the First Lady, Julia Dent Grant, bringing their spyglasses to determine if there was any truth to the rumor that her brown eyes peered in two different directions.

Grant had won the election in an electoral landslide. Within the next few months, work crews two thousand miles to the west would complete the wonder of the age, the transcontinental railroad. Land-hungry men, North and South, were filling America’s vast territories. Scandals about Congressional bribes and generous payments to railroad companies would come, but on inauguration day citizens took a deep breath and celebrated the war hero who promised to bring peace to a recently reunited nation.

Sources:

 

 

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May 9, 2014 · 7:04 pm

Adlai Stevenson II: Intellectual, Graceful Loser to Eisenhower

TIME Magazine from October 1952 cover featuring Adlai Stevenson II (Source: TakeMeBackTo.com)

TIME magazine cover from October 1952 featuring Adlai Stevenson II (Source: TakeMeBackTo.com)

Continuing last week’s theme, this article addresses the 1952 and 1956 Presidential elections, when Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson II suffered resounding defeats at the hands of General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the western allied forces in Europe in World War II.

In an earlier article on the 1960 Presidential election, I discussed the states of the largely “solid South” which, with several exceptions, cast their votes for the candidate from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Stevenson largely enjoyed the same support in 1952, when he carried West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In 1956, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana threw their support to Eisenhower, while Stevenson won a majority of Missouri’s voters. Eisenhower won over 80 percent of the electoral vote in both elections, 442-89 in 1952 and 457-73 in 1956. (One Alabama elector cast his 1956 vote for an Alabama politician, Walter B. Jones.)

In the absence of a scandal, Eisenhower, like U.S. Grant 88 years earlier, was a shoo-in whether he ran as a Republican or a Democrat. With great justification Stevenson reluctantly accepted his party’s nomination in 1952. Having been bitten by the bug, however, he successfully pursued the nomination again in 1956 and was swamped by John Kennedy in 1960. His ambition irritated the Kennedy team and cost him the position of Secretary of State in 1960. Instead, he was relegated to serve as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, where he served with great distinction until his death in 1965.

Stevenson campaign button (Source: AntiquesNavigator.com)

Stevenson campaign button (Source: AntiquesNavigator.com)

The Bushes and Clintons are not the first American political dynasties. They were preceded by the Kennedys and the Roosevelts (and, of course much earlier, the Adamses). Adlai Stevenson II also was part of a political dynasty. His namesake grandfather served as Vice President under Grover Cleveland. His maternal great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Republican Party, counting Abraham Lincoln among his friends. Adlai II’s father served as secretary of state in Illinois and his son, Adlai Stevenson III, served as a United States Senator.

Adlai Stevenson II is remembered best for his grace in defeat and his intellectual wit. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from him:

“It is said that a wise man who stands firm is a statesman, and a foolish man who stands firm is a catastrophe.” [Fools and Foolishness Quotes]

“An independent is a guy who wants to take the politics out of politics.” [Politics Quotes]

“Some people approach every problem with an open mouth.” [Quips and Comments Quotes]

For more about Adlai Stevenson II, please see the following sources:

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