Grant and Thomas: December, 1864 by Stephen Z. Starr. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Civil War Round Table.
I have often wondered why the fine papers that have been presented to this group over the years have been devoted almost without exception to exposition. There has never been a war in all history which led to so much controversy as the Civil War. The ink was hardly dry on the documents of surrender when the ex-combatants let fly at each other with charges, accusations, rebuttals and denials. There were few officers of any prominence - or of no prominence whatever - on either side who did not engage in acrimonious debate with their erstwhile superiors, subordinates or equals. For a generation after 1865, periodicals and newspapers were filled with articles and letters in which every incident of the war was given a minute and ex parte examination in order to prove or disprove a thesis, to accuse or to justify. In those far-off days before the automobile, movies, radio and television, former Colonels, C.S.A, and Brigadier-Generals, U.S.V., spent their leisure in writing endless letters to each other and to the newspapers, and the controversies grew and flourished. Little of this has been reflected in the papers presented to us. A historian, in my opinion, must be accurate, but need not necessarily be impartial, and the paper I am about to read to you should be sufficiently controversial to please the most acrimonious survivors of Antietam and Chickamauga.
General Grant emerged from the Civil War with an equivocal reputation. The war had undeniably been won under his leadership. However, and in spite of the Vicksburg campaign, he was not credited with the possession of military skill of a high order. In contrast with the brilliant Lee, Jackson and Sherman, he was thought to be merely a head-on slugger. The tragically costly, futile attack at Cold Harbor was the measure of his tactical skill. His own comment, "I never manoeuvre", was quoted against him. Then, in the years after World War I, there came a reaction, and it became fashionable to attribute to Grant, often on very scanty evidence, qualities of generalship that would have surprised Grant himself. General J.F.C. Fuller led the parade, and was followed by a host of others: Fletcher Pratt, Lloyd Lewis, K.F. Williams, T. Harry Williams, Myers and Catton, and there are indications that the final steps in Grant's canonization will be attended to by Allan Nevins himself. I intend to show in this paper that as a strategist, as a commander of armies, and above all, as a human being, Grant had shortcomings so fundamental as to negate his right to occupy the very high place his modern-day admirers have sought to award to him.
Our story begins with the fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864. Four months after leading his armies of nearly 100,000 (fn 1) against Johnston's 45,000-man Army of Tennessee (fn 2) Sherman gained possession of Atlanta, but the confederate army, still 40,000 strong and as ready to fight as ever, lay at Lovejoy's Station, 25 miles away. In spite of his great superiority in numbers, Sherman's position was precarious. He was now 475 miles from his base at Louisville, and at the end of a 105-mile supply line leading back to this advanced base at Chattanooga. This was the Western & Atlantic Railroad, subject to attack and interruption for its entire length. The position on his strategic flank of Hood's army, and the extreme vulnerability of his only line to Chattanooga were the principal factors Sherman had to consider as he thought out his next move. By mid-September, he knew what he wanted to do. The march to the Atlantic had taken exact shape in his mind. It could safely be assumed that Hood would not sit idly by, but just how he would react, whether he would endeavor to block Sherman's march eastward, or, with Sherman's army out of the war, would head northward, remained an enigma for some time (fn 3). Equally problematical was Grant's reaction to so daring a plan; since Grant's conversations during the next two months lead us to the heart of our subject, we must examine them in some detail.
The idea of a march to salt-water as the final goal of the Atlantic campaign was in Sherman's mind from the start (fn 4) and in Grant's mind as well, (fn 5) but there was a significant difference between their respective points of view. Grant never wholly lost sight of the fact that destruction of the Confederate army had been the strategic objective of the campaign just completed, and considered that the accomplishment of this task should precede a march to the sea. Sherman, on the other hand, concentrating on the larger picture, was quite willing to leave Hood to his own devices, although, by September 26, he had ample warning that Hood planned an invasion of Tennessee (fn 6). On October 1, Sherman proposed to Grant for the first time that he be permitted to march eastward from Atlanta without regard to Hood. He repeated his proposal on October 9, and in a telegram which ended with the famous sentence, "I can make the march, and make Georgia howl." Grant's first reaction was favorable, but the doubts and objections of Halleck and Lincoln, the strenuous protests of his chief of staff, John Rawlins (fn 7) and his own caution, made him reconsider. He made it plain to Sherman that it was his wish that Hood should be disposed of first of all, but never actually ordered him to do so. One cannot read the messages exchanged between the two men from the beginning of October until November 12, when the telegraph line to Atlanta was finally broke, without concluding that Grant yielded to Sherman's often vehement insistence, and did so against his own better judgment. He did not finally accept Sherman's views until he had been assured repeatedly by the latter that ample forces were being left behind to deal with Hood and to hold the line of the Tennessee River. This is a most important point in the light of what was to follow. It is equally important to note that Grant accepted these assurances without any attempt at verification. Most important of all is the fact that by allowing Sherman to proceed in spite of Halleck's, Stanton's and the President's misgivings, Grant assumed a grave personal responsibility (fn 8). If any part of the program was to go awry, the effect on Grant's personal position, already damaged by the butcher's bill of the Wilderness Campaign and the stalemate before Richmond, might well be disastrous.
General George Thomas, a Virginian by birth, a roommate of Sherman's in their plebe year at West Point, owned incomparably the finest record of any general officer in the Union army. What is perhaps equally important, he possessed to an unusual degree the respect and even the love of his troops (fn 9). In the campaign to Atlanta, his Army of the Cumberland, 60,000 strong, was the firm pivot on which Sherman's outflanking operations were usually hinged. In late September, when Bedford Forrest reappeared in Central Tennessee, Sherman relieved Thomas of his command, and ordered him to Chattanooga with the assignment of driving Forrest out of the state (fn 10). Hood, in the meantime, with his compact, veteran army, now increased to 45,000 (fn 11), had left Lovejoy's Station with the initial objective of drawing Sherman back into the mountains by repeated attacks against his railroad line, and then forcing him to give battle at a disadvantage (fn 12). At first, the plan worked to perfection. Sherman found it necessary to take off after Hood with 65,000 men, leaving only one corps to hold Atlanta. However, the second step of the plan failed to eventuate. Sherman was drawn northward to Dalton and then westward almost to Gadsden, but there, on October 21, the campaign came to a halt, with Hood unable to attack Sherman and Sherman unwilling to attack Hood (fn 13). The reason Sherman gave for not attacking Hood, in spite of his numerical advantage of 1.5 to 1, namely that "It was clear to me that he (Hood) had no intention to meet us in open battle . . ." (fn 14) is somewhat disingenuous; it is obvious that Sherman made up his mind not to allow Hood to divert him any longer from starting his march to Savannah. If we accept the strategic soundness of the March to the Sea (fn 15) it then follows that Sherman's single-minded determination not to be turned aside from it, and his decision to treat Hood and his army as a factor of secondary importance, were proper and admirable. At any rate, by October 28, Sherman's mind was made up (fn 16), and on that date, he put his forces in motion back to Atlanta.
While these events were transpiring, Thomas was at Chattanooga and Nashville, organizing the forces with which he was to defend Tennessee, if Hood chose not to follow Sherman, but instead - and this was now considered to be his most probable move - took advantage of Sherman's absence by making an offensive movement of his own northward into that state, and it now becomes necessary to examine closely the makeup, quality and numbers of these forces.
Sherman had determined to pursue his own chosen course, but he realized perfectly well that (as he later wrote) ". . . it was all-important to me and to our cause that General Thomas should have an ample force, equal to any and every emergency." (fn 17) and he was able to persuade Grant and perhaps even himself, that his requirement had been met. On November 2, Grant wrote Sherman: "With the force . . . you have left with General Thomas, he must be able to take care of Hood and destroy him. . ." (fn 18) In his memoirs, Sherman blithely calls the roll of the 82,000 troops he left for Thomas, while he himself took off with 62,000 hand-picked veterans with nothing but Wheeler's 4,000 cavalry and some makeshift units of Georgia militia to oppose him. Who, then, were these 82,000? The nucleus of this force was D.S. Stanley's IV Corps of 15,000, to which, on October 30, Sherman added John Schofield's XXIII Corps of 12,000. Ostensibly, this made a force of 27,000 veteran infantrymen, but when the two Corps reached Chattanooga, it was found that nearly 15,000 officers and men either had furloughs to go home to vote in the presidential election, or were due to be mustered out because of the expiration of their terms of enlistment; these 15,000 were replaced by 12,000 "perfectly raw troops" (fn 20) in newly-raised regiments, with an effect on the fighting capabilities of the two Corps that requires no elaboration. Moreover, both Corps had been partially stripped of transport before Sherman released them (fn 21) and this lack had to be made good by Thomas.
Next came two division of about 10,000 men of A.J. Smith's XVI Corps, but these troops were in western Missouri chasing Rebel General Price, and in spite of the most strenuous efforts, (fn 22) it was not until November 24 that the 59 river transports carrying them left St. Louis (fn 23). After picking up additional Missouri troops on the way, they finally arrived in Nashville on the night of November 30, less than 24 hours before Hood's arrival at Nashville. Nor was Smith's tardy arrival the worst, for more than two weeks before November 30, Thomas was unable to get any exact report of his whereabouts, nor any clear indication of when he might be expected to read Nashville (fn 24). Next, there were 10,000 troops at Chattanooga under Steedman. This force consisted of several Negro regiments untried in combat, and of 5,000 officers and men from nearly every regiment of Sherman's army, who returned from furloughs too late to rejoin their units at Atlanta, and who were of course entirely without organization, equipment or transport. As to the rest, Sherman's instructions to Steedman are sufficiently descriptive: "You must organize the hospitals and men sent back to Chattanooga. You could use some of them for your forts." (fn 25) The men "sent back to Chattanooga" were the sick, the weak and the convalescents who were weeded out of Sherman's army before he left Atlanta. Next, Sherman's computation credited Thomas with 16,000 to 20,000 troops in Nashville, but of these fully half were civilian employees of the Quartermaster's Department whom Thomas, at need, was to arm and turn into soldiers; the rest were newly-raised, green troops. At Murfreesboro and elsewhere, Thomas also had the divisions of Rousseau and Granger which, with some small detachments, totaled 9,000 men; they were of doubtful value, being what we would now call static divisions, useful mainly to guard the railroad line and bridges. The total of all these "troops" was nearly 65,000.
By Sherman's brand of military arithmetic, Thomas also had 16,700 cavalry, under Major-General James Wilson. These were for the most part first-class troops, but fully 10,000 of them were dismounted, and of the rest, about 3,000 were mounted on the broken-down horses taken from Kilpatrick's division in exchange for the best horses of the cavalry units left with Thomas.
The point need not be labored further. The records prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that on the day Sherman left Atlanta, Thomas had no more than 24,000 infantry and artillery of the IV and XXVII Corps, and, at a generous estimate, 7,000 cavalry, fully organized and ready for immediate service in the field. The records also show that his intake of new troops did not equal his losses due to furloughs and discharges, over which he had no control.
With the troops we have described, Thomas was to protect East Tennessee, to drive Forrest out of Middle Tennessee (fn 26), to hold the line of the Tennessee River, and, above all, to guard his railroads from Chattanooga to Nashville and from Nashville to Louisville. And incidentally, he was to "take care of Hood and destroy him", a task which had proven beyond Sherman's power to accomplish, even with the advantage of numbers heavily on his side. Let it be noted, also, that were Thomas defeated, there were no reserves at his back to retrieve the situation, (fn 27) the entire Northwest having been stripped of troops for Sherman, Canby and Banks. (fn 28) In response to his wires of November 21 to Halleck and November 25 to Grant, in which he described his manpower problems in detail, he received from Halleck the authority, neither helpful nor practical, to call upon the governors of Indiana and other Western States for militia, and even this authority was qualified by the admonition that, "As this force is so very expensive as compared with its value against an enemy, it should be used as sparingly as circumstances will admit." (fn 29)
When Sherman took his departure from Atlanta, Hood, with Beauregard's blessing, decide to cross the Tennessee River at or near Guntersville, then to move against Schofield, Stanley and Thomas, and, having routed or captured their armies south of Nashville, to capture that city, replenish his supplies from the vast stocks stored there, proceed northward to Richmond, Kentucky, and after threatening Indianapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati from that point, to cross the mountains to the east and descend upon Grant from the rear (fn 30). It is customary to treat this plan as moonshine, and it must be admitted that the idea of marching an army across Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia in the depth of winter was nothing if not unrealistic. What is not commonly realized, however, is how narrow was the margin of safety whereby a Union disaster of incalculable magnitude was averted. If a shortage of supplies had not delayed Hood at Tuscumbia for nearly three weeks, if the projected flank attack on Schofield at Spring Hill had gone in as Hood intended, if ". . . on just one r two occasions, Fortune's balance had tilted in (Hood's ) favor instead of against him . . ." (fn 31) and if , above all, it had not been for Thomas, the daring plan might well have succeeded, at least to the extent of carrying Hood to the Ohio River.
It is not necessary for the purposes of this paper to relate in detail the campaign that brought Hood to Nashville on the afternoon of December 1. A few salient points must, however, be noted. First, that on November 18, Bedford Forrest and his command joined Hood, giving the latter and his 41,000 infantry, (fn 32) a cavalry force of some 9,000, and Forrest was a host in himself. Second, that until November 29, it was not certain that Hood was aiming at Nashville (fn 33) and until Hood's objectives became clearly defined, it was impossible for Thomas to concentrate; at the very least, he had to cover Chattanooga and Murfreesboro in addition to Nashville. (fn 34) Third, that after driving Schofield and Stanley before him from Pulaski northward, Hood blunted the fighting edge of his command and incurred 6,200 casualties in an utterly futile and needless attack on Schofield at Franklin.
While Hood was making his way northward, and Schofield was doing his best with limited means to delay him, Thomas exerted himself to the utmost to organize and equip his forces. The condition of his cavalry was of primary concern. After three years of war, no commander in the Western Theatre was apt to make the mistake of taking Forrest lightly, and the reports to Thomas credited Forrest with a mounted force of from 10,000 to 12,000; (fn 35) we now know that the smaller of these figures was reasonably accurate. To oppose Forrest, Wilson, who was now exercising command in the field, had, by the end of November, only about 3,000 mounted men. The attrition in men, and especially in horses, by the fighting retreat to Nashville had been exceptionally severe; for example, Colonel Horace Capron's brigade, 1,200 strong at the start of the campaign, was reduced to 411 men and 267 serviceable horses by November 30. (fn 36) Wilson, in the little time he could spare while in the field, was driving his subordinates hard to speed up the process of re-equipment, and at least two of them, Major W.P. Chambliss at Louisville and Major E.B. Beaumont at Nashville, required very little driving. But fresh horses were exceedingly scarce, tack and camping gear, particularly blankets were unobtainable (fn 37) and even carbines were lacking. General Ed. McCook reported from Louisville on November 27: "LaGrange's brigade . . . go without carbines. There are no carbines here . . . I would like to put the division into a fight once with arms in which the men have confidence." (fn 38) The usual military snafus existed then as now' for example, the transfer to Thomas of Winslow's and Grierson's fully equipped cavalry brigades was prevented by a confusion of conflicting orders. However, being more sophisticated now than we were a hundred years ago about the difficulty of solving logistical problems in a sudden emergency, we may give Thomas, Wilson, and their subordinates full credit for the degree to which they were able to overcome their supply problems, while excusing them for their failure to find sufficient mounts for the cavalry. For, indeed, the shortage of cavalry horses was an ever-recurring and insoluble problem for both sides from almost the beginning of the war to the very end.
It was now the 1st of December. Hood, with a total force of 44,000 of all arms (fn 39) and not the mere 23,000 that, in order to minimize the magnitude of his defeat, he later claimed to have (fn 40) was busily laying out a fortified line southeast of Nashville, in the broken country called the Brentwood Hills. Thomas, with a force of less than 50,000 (fn 41) plus 10,000 armed civilians, was facing Hood in the double line of entrenchments and fortifications which made Nashville the most strongly fortified city in Union territory. Smith's XVI Corps and some additional Missouri regiments, making a force of about 15,000, had arrived at last and was in the lines. So were Schofield's XXIII Corps and the IV Corps under Major General Thomas J. Wood, who had replaced Stanley, wounded at Franklin; however, both Corps were badly worn and in need of rest. Steedman's provisional division of 5,000 arrived that night from Chattanooga, after being detained at Murfreesboro ". . . on account of the train dispatcher at Nashville being absent from the office, said to be eating dinner." (fn 42) The cavalry units that had made the campaign with the XXIII and IV Corps were concentrated north of the Cumberland at Edgefield, for what rest and refit they could have in the intervals of patrolling the river and guarding the fords on both sides of Nashville. Additionally, the river was patrolled for miles up and down stream by the gunboats - including the Cincinnati -- of the Mississippi Squadron of Admiral S.P. Lee, whose attractive personality and splendid sense of inter-service cooperation shine through every line of his official dispatches.
Within twenty-four hours after Hood's arrival at Nashville, Generals Grant and Halleck began to take a hand in the situation. Let us remember that they were over 500 miles away from the scene of action, and that normally it took from two to twelve hours to transmit a telegram between City Point or Washington and Nashville. Remember also that messages to or from Grant were relayed through the War Department telegraph office in Washington, and either were or could be seen by Halleck, and all messages from Thomas to Halleck were relayed on to City Point, for Grant's information. In spite of his many anxieties, Thomas was careful to send a daily situation report to the chief of staff. Finally, as we have already noted, both Grant and Halleck had had ample warning of Thomas' administrative and manpower problems.
The harassment of Thomas began with two wires from Grant, both sent on December 2. The first, sent to a man of Thomas' experience, was wholly unnecessary, and therefore foolish. Grant said, "If Hood is permitted to remain quietly about Nashville, you will lose all the road back to Chattanooga . . . Should he attack you, it is all well, but if he does not you should attack him before he fortifies. . ." (fn 43) The second wire even improved upon the first; it not only told Thomas what he should do in the future, but what he should have done in the past: "After the repulse of Hood at Franklin, it looks to me that instead of falling back to Nashville, we should have taken the offensive against the enemy where he was. . . You will now suffer incalculable injury upon your railroads, if Hood is not speedily disposed of. Put forth, therefore, every possible exertion to attain this end. . ." (fn 44) Let us note, in fairness to Grant, that on December 2 he received a message from Stanton stating that "The President feels solicitous about he disposition of General Thomas to lay in fortifications for an indefinite period 'until Wilson gets equipments.' This looks like the Rosecrans strategy of do nothing and let the Rebels raid the country. The President wishes you to consider the matter." (fn 45) Grant's apologists make much of this telegram, and to a greater or lesser extent, ascribe his subsequent behavior to pressures from the Administration; (fn 46) actually, this is one of only two such messages sent by Stanton. There is no evidence whatever of any Administration pressures upon Grant, apart from these two wires. Moreover, even Badeau, prejudiced as he was in Grant's favor, admits that the first of Grant's December 2 wires to Thomas was sent an hour before he received the "president feels solicitous" telegram from Stanton. (fn 47)
On December 2, Grant was still capable of acting constructively to aid Thomas, for, on that date, he took the genuinely helpful step of suggesting to Stanton that authority be given to Wilson to impress horses to mount his troopers, (fn 48) whereupon Stanton, never the man for half measures, wired Thomas: "You are authorized to seize and impress horses and every other species of property needed for the military service in your command." (fn 49)
To Grant's goading telegrams of the 2nd, Thomas returned a temperate and factual reply. He made it clear that he had collected an adequate force of infantry to go over to the attack, but that he needed more cavalry; in a second wire, sent December 3, he expressed the hope that he would have 10,000 cavalry mounted and equipped within a week, and would then be ready to take the offensive. (fn 50)
For the next three days, Thomas had only Hood and Forrest to contend with, but on December 5 the barrage resumed. Grant's wire of that date expressed concern over the possibility of Forrest getting behind Thomas (fn 51) by crossing the Cumberland below Nashville, and ended with the positively mild admonition: "it seems to me. . . Hood should be attacked where he is. Time strengthens him, in all probability, as much as it does you." (fn 52) although Grant failed to add just how, by whom or by what, Hood was to be strengthened. Upon receiving this telegram on the 6th, Thomas replied in a message that should have ended the persecution: "As soon as I can get up a respectable force of cavalry I will march against Hood. . . Wilson has parties out now pressing horses, and I hope to have some 6,000 to 8,000 cavalry mounted in three days from this time . . . I do not think it prudent to attack Hood with less than 6,000 cavalry to cover my flanks, because he has, under Forrest, at least 12,000 . . ." (fn 53) But by now, Grant's blood was up and his common sense was gone; without even waiting for Thomas' reply to his wire of the 5th, he telegraphed him on the 6th peremptory orders to "Attack Hood at once and wait no longer for a remount of your cavalry. There is great danger of delay resulting in a campaign back to the Ohio River." (fn 54) Thomas at once replied: "I will make the necessary dispositions and attack Hood at once, agreeably to your order, though I believe it will be hazardous with the small force of cavalry at my service." (fn 55) This day also brought forth a wire from the ineffable Halleck that, in its way, is a classic of idiocy; he chose this occasion to remind Thomas that ". . . Records show that 22,000 cavalry horses have been issued at Louisville, Lexington, and Nashville since the 20th of September." (fn 56) He failed, however, to indicate in what way this interesting information was to be helpful to Thomas in beating Hood.
The following day, Stanton sent Grant the second of his two intemperate messages: ". . . Thomas seems unwilling to attack because it is hazardous, as if all war was anything but hazardous. If he waits for Wilson to get ready, Gabriel will be blowing his last horn. . ." (fn 57) Let it be said at once to Stanton's credit that his behavior toward Thomas from this date to the end of the campaign might well have been followed as a model by Grant; however, this wire gave Grant an opening which he was prompt to utilize. His reply read: "You probably saw my order to Thomas to attack. If he does not do it promptly, I would recommend superseding him by Schofield, leaving Thomas subordinate." (fn 58) and on the 8th, Grant followed up with a message to Halleck, stating that "If Thomas has not struck yet, he ought to be ordered to hand over his command to Schofield. There is no better man to repel an attack then Thomas, but I fear he is too cautious to ever take the initiative." (fn 59) But now Halleck had a belated accession of good sense, or perhaps of caution, and wired Grant, "if you wish General Thomas relieved . . . give the order. No one here will, I think, interfere. The responsibility, however, will by yours, as no one here, so far as I am informed, wishes General Thomas' removal." (fn 60) This wire must have given Grant pause, for he now withdrew his request for Thomas' removal. At the same time, he sent Thomas a wire that was unexceptionable in tone, although it assumed wholly unrealistic contingencies, and one may question the need for sending it in the first place. He said: Why not attack at once? By all means avoid the contingency of a foot race to the Ohio. . . Now is one of the fairest opportunities ever presented of destroying one of the three armies of the enemy. . . Use the means at your command, and you can do this . . ." (fn 61) It will not be amiss to remind you once again that for a period of six months, Sherman had had at least equally fair opportunities to destroy the same army, and with far greater means than were available to Thomas.
On the day these messages were sent, namely on December 8th, Thomas received a report from Wilson. After conferring with his division commanders, Wilson stated that the cavalry could not be assembled and made ready for active until three days thereafter - that is, until December 11. (fn 62) Thomas at once forwarded this information to Halleck and assured him at the same time that there were no signs of any Confederate attempts to cross the thoroughly-patrolled Cumberland. When this wire reached Grant, presumably on the morning of December 9, it brought on a full-scale explosion. Peremptory instructions were sent to Halleck to ". . . telegraph orders relieving (Thomas) at once and placing Schofield in command . . ." (fn 63) Orders to this effect, with the added proviso that Thomas was to report to Schofield for duty, were prepared. Halleck, however, held up the order temporarily, and wired Thomas: "General Grant expresses much dissatisfaction at your delay in attacking the enemy. If you wait until. . . Wilson mounts all his cavalry, you will wait till doomsday. . . " (fn 64) Thomas had this wire within two hours, and in reply, went similar messages to Halleck and directly to Grant; we shall quote the letter because it is typical in tone of all of Thomas' messages throughout this period, and also because it illustrates clearly the character of one of the finest men who ever wore the uniform of the United States Army: ". . . I had nearly completed my preparations to attack the enemy tomorrow (fn 65) morning, but a terrible storm of freezing rain has come on today, which will make it impossible for our men to fight to any advantage. I am, therefore, compelled to wait for the storm to break and make the attack immediately after. Admiral Lee is patrolling the river above and below the city, and I believe will be able to prevent the enemy from crossing . . . Halleck informs me that you are very much dissatisfied with my delay in attacking. I can only say I have done all in my power to prepare, and if you should deem it necessary to relieve me I shall submit without a murmur." (fn 66) Upon receiving this telegram, Grant sent two wires; the first, a sanctimonious and obviously self-serving message to Halleck: "Thomas has been urged in every way possible to attack the enemy, even to the giving the positive order. He did say he thought he would be able to attack on the 7th, but didn't do so, nor has he given a reason for not doing it. I am very unwilling to do injustice to an officer who has done as much good service as General Thomas has, however, and will, therefore, suspend the order relieving him until it is seen whether he will do anything." (fn 67) The second went directly to Thomas and gave the first indication Thomas had of Grant's intention to relieve him: ". . . I have as much confidence in your conducting a battle rightly as I have in any other officer; but it has seemed to me that you have been slow, and I have had no explanation of affairs to convince me otherwise. Receiving your dispatch . . . I telegraphed to suspend the order relieving you . . . I hope most sincerely that there will be no necessity of repeating the orders, and that the facts will show that you have been right all the time." (fn 68)
You will have noticed the reference in Thomas' last wire to the ". . . terrible storm of freezing rain . . ." that began on December 9. As this storm was to enforce a halt on all activity at Nashville until the morning of the 15th, it will be well to describe its effect in the words of General J.D. Cox, one of the men who experienced it:
. . . the slopes in front of the lines were a continuous glare of ice, so that movement away from the roads and broken paths could be made only with the greatest difficulty and at a snail's pace. Men and horses were seen falling whenever they attempted to move across country. A Man slipping on the hillside had no choice but to sit down and slide to the bottom, and groups of men in the forts and lines found constant entertainment in watching these mishaps . . . on the hills and rolling country about Nashville, manoeuvres were out of the question for nearly a week.
The testimony of General Wilson, of W.F. Hinman, who was there with the Sherman Brigade, of Colonel Stone of Thomas' staff, of General Wood (fn 70) is to precisely the same effect. Captain J.C. Van Duzer of the Telegraph Corps, who was in the habit of sending his own reports (which duly fund their way to Halleck and Grant) to Major T.T. Eckert at the War Department, wired on the 9th that all movement was impossible, and on the 13th, ". . . Thaw has begun, and tomorrow we can move without skates." (fn 71) Thomas himself, in wires on the 11th to Halleck and to Grant (fn 72) and on the 12th to Halleck, certainly left no room for misapprehension. We shall see in a moment that these reports had no effect whatever on Grant; (fn 73) and it is one of the minor rewards of the study of this subject to discover what Badeau does with it. Immediately after quoting the telegram of the 11th from Thomas to Halleck in which Thomas refers to the persistence of the ice storm, Badeau writes:
A rebel attack had also been made on Murfreesboro but repelled. Thus Hood had become bold enough to throw large detachments of infantry and cavalry both to the north and south, and in spite of storms and ice that held Thomas fast, the rebel troops were in constant motion.
Now, in the very telegram Badeau quotes, Thomas informs Halleck of the receipt of ". . . a dispatch from Major General Rousseau at Murfreesboro . . . He reports that on the afternoon of the 7th Milroy succeeded in getting on (Confederate General Bate's) flank and completely routed him. . ." (fn 75) You will note that this fight took place 36 hours before the start of the ice storm; what is more, Badeau himself quotes, just four pages earlier, the telegram from Thomas which fixes the start of the storm on the morning of December 9.
A telegraphic truce of one day succeeded the suspension of the order relieving Thomas; mercifully, he was spared any messages from Grant on the 10th. We may hope that Grant used the time to give thought to General Lee and to affairs in his trenches before Richmond. but, as if to make up for this omission, Grant wired Thomas on the 11th: "If you delay attack longer the mortifying spectacle will be witnessed of a rebel army moving for the Ohio River, and you will be forced to act, accepting such weather as you find. Let there be no further delay . . . for weather or re-enforcements." (fn 76) Thomas replied with what was perhaps an excess of calm patience: "I will obey the order as promptly as possible, however much I may regret it, as the attack will have to be made under every disadvantage." (fn 77) the following day, Thomas sent Halleck an amplified version of this message: "I have the troops ready to make the attack . . . as soon as the sleet . . . has melted sufficiently to enable the men to march. As the whole country is now covered with a sheet of ice so hard and slippery it is utterly impossible for troops to ascend the slopes or even move over level ground in anything like order . . . I believe an attack at this time would only result in a useless sacrifice of life." (fn 78)
By any standard of command relationship or, for that matter, of common decency, Grant's actions and wires are hard enough to extenuate or to excuse. But surely the last quoted message from Thomas should have brought the harassment to a full stop. When a commanding general of Thomas' intelligence and experience says unequivocally that an attack "would only result in a useless sacrifice of life," no superior with an ounce of sense would insist, from a distance of 500 miles, that the attack be made, unless the sacrifice of life were not merely useful, by imperatively necessary at that very moment. Indeed, Grant did not reply to these telegrams. What he did instead was infinitely worse. General John A. Logan, commander of the XV Corps in Sherman's armies, had gone on furlough to do some politicking in Illinois, and did not rejoin his command in time to make the March to the Sea. Being unemployed, he visited Grant's headquarters and happened to be at City Point on the 13th, when Thomas' two telegrams of that date were received. He was thereupon ordered by Grant to proceed at once to Nashville (fn 79) with instructions to relieve Thomas, if, upon his arrival, the attack on Hood had not been made. (fn 80) Thomas was spared this humiliation, for Logan was met at Louisville with news of Thomas' great victory, and proceeded no further. There was, however, more to come. Thomas' wire of the 13th to Halleck stated that there were signs of a break in the weather, and his wire of the 14th said flatly that "The ice is having melted away today, the enemy will be attacked tomorrow morning." (fn 81) This was not enough to satisfy Grant, and on the same night, he took boat for Washington with the intention of going on to Nashville to take charge in person. There are several versions of what happened in Washington upon his arrival there on the 15th. Grant himself says that he was met by a despatch from Thomas (presumably the latter's wire of the 14th to Halleck) ". . . announcing his readiness at last to move and designating the time of his movement. I concluded to wait until that time." (fn 82) Badeau, on the other hand, states that the "news of the first day's battle reached Grant as he stepped from the steamer at Washington." Whereupon Grant decided not to go on to Nashville. (fn 83) Bates of the Telegraph Office tells still another, and most circumstantial, story of a conference at the War Department on the evening of the 15th, attended by Grant, Halleck, Stanton and Lincoln, of Grant's insistence that, pending his arrival, Schofield be placed in command, (fn 84) of the preparation of an order to that effect in spite of Stanton's and Lincoln's strong opposition, of the handing of the order to Eckert for transmission to Nashville, of the pocketing of the order by Eckert for an hour while other messages were being exchanged with Nashville, of the arrival at the War Department at 11:00 p.m. of the first report of Thomas' victory, and of the subsequent suppression of the order with Stanton's and Lincoln's approval. (fn 85) What in undisputed is that Grant did not proceed beyond Washington; instead, he sent Thomas the following despatch, which one cannot read even after a hundred years without revulsion:
I was just on my way to Nashville, but receiving a dispatch . . . detailing your splendid success of to-day, I shall go no farther. Push the enemy now, and give him no rest . . . Your army will cheerfully suffer many privations to break up Hood's army . . . Do not stop for trains or supplies, but take them from the country as the enemy has done. Much is now expected.
Let us contrast with this surly message the telegram sent by Stanton to Thomas a half-hour later:
I rejoice in tendering to you and the gallant officers and soldiers of your command the thanks of this Department for the brilliant achievements of this day, and hope that it is the harbinger of a decisive victory that will crown you and your army with honor and do much toward closing the war. We shall give you a hundred guns in the morning. (fn 87)
Indeed, Stanton's praise was not unmerited, for when the second days' fighting ended, Thomas had won the most complete, the most smashing victory of the war: (fn 88) when the pursuit halted two weeks later, Hood had lost 13,000 by capture alone, thousands more by desertion and an unknown number of killed and wounded; the once-proud Army of Tennessee was virtually annihilated.
We resist the temptation to go on with this tale of persecution. Unbelievable as it may seem, the stream of exhortatory telegrams from Grant to Halleck, urging the pursuit of Hood, flowed right on, until even Thomas lost his patience and gave Halleck a dressing-down that we trust Halleck remembered to his dying day. The hounding did not finally stop until Stanton ended it with a telegram to Thomas that is as fine a tribute to the man who sent it as to the man to whom it was addressed. But before concluding this paper with an attempt to account for Grant's conduct, we must quote one more of Grant's wires. On December 20, Stanton wired Grant that he thought Thomas should be nominated to fill the vacancy, created by Fremont's resignation from the army, in the grade of major general in the Regular Army. Grant's response was of a piece with his earlier behavior; it read: "I think Thomas has won the major-generalcy, but I would wait a few days before giving it, to see the extent of damages done . . ." (fn 90) Three days later, enough damage had been done -- to Hood or to Thomas, who can tell? -- to satisfy Grant's desires, and he was pleased to signify his consent. Contrast this with the treatment of Sheridan. Before midnight on October 23, 1864, four days after the battle of Cedar Creek, Assistant Secretary of War Dana was at Sheridan's headquarters to hand him his commission as Major-General in the Regular Army. Is it any wonder that when Thomas received on the 24th Stanton's splendid telegram (fn 91) announcing his appointment, he remarked to Surgeon George Cooper: "I suppose it is better late than never, but it is too late to be appreciated. I earned this at Chickamauga." (fn 92) And who shall contradict him?
One of the most fundamental rules in the conduct of military operations is that when a strategic objective has been laid down or agreed upon, the officer in immediate command of the operation should be allowed the greatest possible latitude as to details. Grant was thoroughly familiar with this rule and observed it faithfully in dealing with Sherman, Sheridan and others. Yet, with one, or at the most two, exceptions, the messages he sent to Thomas clearly and persistently violated this sensible and necessary rule. It is not enough to quote these telegrams, as we have done. Nor is it enough to recite the four separate occasions on which Grant took steps not merely to supersede Thomas, but to do so with every circumstance of humiliation. We must go behind the words and facts, and try to find the reasons why Thomas was singled out for such treatment.
Two of Grant's admirers have no difficulty whatever with the problem. The otherwise sensible Horace Porter's explanation has, at least, the virtue of being interesting. It amounts to this: "It was because (Grant) felt entire confidence in Thomas' ability to whip Hood that he urged Thomas to strike, and not because he doubted him." and also that ". . . while sending his urgent despatches for an advance . . . he was doing Thomas a positive service. . ." This is not at all. Grant, according to Porter, was apprehensive that Hood would circle Thomas and fight his way to the Ohio River; moreover, "Grant's anxiety was increased by the fact . . . that the inclement season was at hand, and (he) feared that the winter storms might appear at any time and prove unfavorable for attack." (fn 93) If Porter's words have any meaning at all, what he is saying is that Hood might fight his way several hundred miles northward, leaving a hostile army larger than his own between himself and his base, and would do this in spite of the same "winter storms" that would prevent Thomas from crossing the three or four hundred yards that separated him from Hood. (fn 94) So much for Porter. Badeau, as we might expect, is equally enlightening. He too starts with the nonsense that ". . . personal respect and regard (Grant) entertained for Thomas." (fn 95) and later, he too remarks that Grant ". . . believed . . . in Thomas more than Thomas did in himself. The subordinate always shrank from responsibility. . . But Grant's confidence in his ability was one reason why he wanted Thomas to fight. He was sure he would win, if once he became engaged." (fn 96) He then makes a far-fetched, and obviously forced, statement of the possibility that Thomas' delay might defeat Sherman's, Meade's, Butler's, Canby's or Sheridan's operations. (fn 97) But he too adverts to Grant's vivid military imagination, which brought about Grant's great anxiety about Louisville and the country beyond the Ohio, and his fear that Hood might undo ". . . all that had been achieved at so much cost at the West." (fn 98)
It seems to me that both Porter and Badeau, perhaps unintentionally, give us a clue to our answer. That clue is Grant's anxiety lest Hood get to the Ohio River. But why should Grant have had this anxiety if, as he, Sherman and all their many admirers insist, Thomas had been left in Tennessee with vast forces, more than ample to destroy the none-too competent Hood? I submit that Grant's anxiety is a real and actual fact; I further submit that there was real ground for it, and that was his belated realization that Thomas had not been left with adequate forces. Grant's eyes were belatedly opened to a number of other factors as well; that he had allowed himself to be overborne by Sherman in spite of his own misgivings about the concept of the March to the Sea and the opposition of the administration to it, that he had accepted at face value Sherman's assurances about Thomas' strength, and the himself had made no move until the beginning of December, by which time it was much too late, to remedy Thomas' manpower and equipment weaknesses. (fn 99) This was hardly a record to take to the Committee on the Conduct of the War.
These reasons, and the stories of Grant's grudge (if it in fact did exist) against Thomas, resulting from the rather inhospitable reception Grant received when he arrived at Chattanooga a year before, are still only on the surface. Taken together, they do not account for the almost pathological intensity of Grant's reactions. We must therefore go still deeper for our answer. But let us first look at Grant's position in December, 1864. He had become general-in-chief in March. The Army of the Potomac, under his direction, began its campaign against Lee's forces on May 4, 122,000 against 65,000, and after having suffered casualties of nearly 60,000 killed, wounded, captured and missing, succeeded only in forcing Lee back to Richmond. The Army of the Potomac had now lain in the trenches before Richmond for five months, still outnumbering Lee two to one, still suffering hundreds of casualties daily, and seemingly unable not merely to force a decision, but even to prevent Lee from detaching forces that necessitated a costly campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. The degree of Grant's sense of failure -- and the word is none too strong -- at this point in his fortunes may be gauged by his statement to Stanton on November 13 -- a statement not usually quoted by his biographers, for obvious reasons -- that he was anxious not to capture Richmond and Petersburg since forcing Lee out of his trenches would liberate a large force that could then be used to oppose Sherman in Georgia. (fn 100) This, surely, is an excuse worth of Alice in Wonderland; in effect, Grant was anxious not to defeat Lee, so that Lee would not thereby be enabled to defeat Sherman. We may be sure that the parents, wives and children of the men who lost their lives before Richmond and Petersburg between November 13 and April 3 would have been cheered by this justification of their sacrifice.
Grant's first attempt at grand strategy had amounted to no more than the coordination in time of the spring campaigns of Meade's, Sherman's, Butler's, and Sigel's armies, each along pre-existing lines. His direction, if it can be called that, of Sherman's movements after the capture of Atlanta was his second attempt, and it was faced with apparent failure. Sherman had for all practical purposes, disappeared from the face of the earth; the only news of his movements came from occasional disturbing reports in Confederate newspapers. Grant could have no certainty, and had none until after December 16, (fn 101) that Sherman's march might not be met with disaster. If then, Thomas were to fail at Nashville in arresting Hood's northward movement, his failure, when all the facts became known, would add the final blow to Grant's hard-won prestige. That would be the dismal, final end to the road that led from his resignation from the army in 1854, through the failure at St. Louis, the misery at Galena, the ever-uncertain victory over alcohol, through Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, to the highest position in the land next to that of the President. Much is made by present-day writers of Grant's inner sureness, but one does not require a high degree of psychological insight to be certain that Grant's history between the Mexican and Civil wars must have left deep scars on his soul. A man situated as he was, posed with a threat to his almost unbelievably great good fortune, gnawed by an inner fear of being found out through his own mistakes, facing the prospect of utter ruin and disgrace, another St. Louis, another Galena, will lose much of his judgment, and will move heaven and earth to preserve his position. In short, if he has the power, he will behave just as Grant did. In the process, Grant cruelly wronged Thomas and in the end, Thomas was killed by the Nashville affair just as surely as if Grant had shot him. We have not attempted to hide our admiration for Thomas, but if we have judged Grant's motives correctly, and we submit that we have, then he is worthy of at least our understanding and sympathy.
Exception will probably be taken to the point of view expressed in this paper about Grant, on the ground that the Battle of Nashville is a complete vindication of his conduct. The objection may, perhaps, take the following form: "The Battle of Nashville was an overwhelming Union victory; does not that prove that the Sherman-Grant strategy of leaving Hood behind, to be dealt with by Thomas, was correct? Does it not also prove that the forces left with Thomas were adequate for the job to be done? And finally, does not the outcome of the battle demonstrate that Grant was right to urge Thomas to fight?"
For a contemporary, the only valid test of military ability is success, and it right that it should be, since modern wars, at least, are fought for vital stakes. However, in a historical study, it is not only proper but necessary, to go behind the final success. One must analyze, evaluate and judge the sequence of events through which, or in spite of which, the final outcome was achieved. However proper it may have been for President Lincoln to judge Grant only by his victories, a historian must apply a less pragmatic standard. It would be a surrender of his proper task for a historian to take the position that Thomas' victory at Nashville must foreclose any condemnation of Grant's sins of omission or commission prior to the battle, if these sins did in fact exist. It is obvious also that in a historian, this would be exceedingly poor logic, and post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning of the worst sort.
Let us consider this point further. In the final analysis Nashville was Thomas' battle to win or lose, and not Grant's. In spite of the finest strategy, the most thorough preparation, the best and most complete equipment, and a heavy preponderance of force, Thomas could have lost, as a result of poor tactics, errors of judgment, loss of nerve, or inability to inspire his troops with an aggressive spirit. Contrariwise, he could have won despite many handicaps, because of inspiring leadership, the use of sound tactics, aggressiveness, willingness to press the issue, or just good luck and the mistakes of his opponent. Those who are inclined to doubt these statements need only look to the careers of McClellan and Jackson, for proof. If the validity of these statements in conceded, and I submit that it must be, does that not in itself dispose of the argument made against the thesis of this paper?
I contend that the fundamentally sound strategy underlying Sherman's March to the Sea was to a great extent vitiated by Sherman's failure to dispose of Hood before the march began, or, in the alternative, his and Grant's failure to make certain beyond any hazard that Thomas should have the capability to eliminate the menace of Hood, for the moral damage to the Union cause of a successful invasion of Kentucky by Hood would have outweighed by far the moral effect on the Confederacy of Sherman's march through Georgia. Sherman himself admitted as much when he wrote to Thomas on December 25: "I have heard of all your operations . . . and I do not believe your own wife was more happy at the result than I was. Had any misfortune befallen you, I should have reproached myself for taking away so large a proportion of the army and leaving you too weak to cope with Hood. But as events have turned out, my judgment has been sustained. (fn 102) In his Memoirs, Sherman adds that "(Thomas') brilliant victory at Nashville was necessary to mine at Savannah to make a complete whole." (fn 103) I contend that Sherman could and should have left a larger portion of his army with Thomas, and that the superiority finally achieved by Thomas was due - apart from Schofield's success in delaying Hood and Hood's heavy losses at Franklin - exclusively to the energy and the organizing skill of Thomas and his subordinates.
The third of our hypothetical questions remains unanswered; does not the outcome of the battle demonstrate that Grant was right to urge Thomas to fight? Let us remember that Thomas was not unwilling to fight. His tactical plans for the battle were made within two or three days after Hood's arrival at Nashville. But he did need a few days thereafter to complete his preparations, and for five days starting with the morning of December 9 an attack was a physical impossibility. Undoubtedly, the commanding general of the armies had the right to urge upon Thomas the importance of attacking Hood at the earliest possible moment; Thomas would have been the last to question this right, nor do we do so. But we do question, and we strongly condemn, the manner in which Grant exercised this right. We condemn it not only because it was grossly unfair to Thomas, but because on a matter of timing and tactics, Grant attempted to substitute his own necessarily imperfect judgment - imperfect because Grant was 500 miles away - for that of a subordinate who was on the scene and whose past record should have inspired implicit confidence in his ability to handle the situation. If anyone is inclined to doubt the impropriety of Grant's conduct in this particular, let him study the operations of Napoleon's armies in Spain, or, if he desires a more recent parallel, the operations of Hitler's armies during the last two years of World War II.
Sherman, II, pg 243
Badeau: Military History of Ulysses S. Grant; New York, 1881. Cited as "Badeau"