“Sam” Grant starts “Uncle Billy” South – May 5th, 1864
by Phil Spaugy
With Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant putting the Army of the Potomac in motion southward across the Rapidan River and into the “Wilderness” of central Virginia, it was also time for Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman to start his armies moving into the mountainous terrain of north Georgia. Sherman’s objective was to take the important rail and supply hub of Atlanta, but to do so he would have to first contend with confederate Army of the Tennessee, under the command of General Joseph “Joe” Johnston.
To get a better understanding of how these two good friends and commanders were acting in concert, let’s go back a couple of weeks to the exchange of correspondence between Grant and Sherman that ultimately will start their great armies moving:
HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES CULPEPPER COURT HOUSE, VIRGINIA, April 19, 1864.
Major-General W. T. SHERMAN, commanding Military Division of the Mississippi.
GENERAL: Since my letter to you of April 4th I have seen no reason to change any portion of the general plan of campaign, if the enemy remain still and allow us to take the initiative. Rain has continued so uninterruptedly until the last day or two that it will be impossible to move, however, before the 27th, even if no more should fall in the meantime. I think Saturday, the 30th, will probably be the day for our general move.
Colonel Comstock, who will take this, can spend a day with you, and fill up many little gaps of information not given in any of my letters.
What I now want more particularly to say is, that if the two main attacks, yours and the one from here, should promise great success, the enemy may, in a fit of desperation, abandon one part of their line of defense, and throw their whole strength upon the other, believing a single defeat without any victory to sustain them better than a defeat all along their line, and hoping too, at the same time, that the army, meeting with no resistance, will rest perfectly satisfied with their laurels, having penetrated to a given point south, thereby enabling them to throw their force first upon one and then on the other.
With the majority of military commanders they might do this.
But you have had too much experience in traveling light, and subsisting upon the country, to be caught by any such ruse. I hope my experience has not been thrown away. My directions, then, would be, if the enemy in your front show signs of joining Lee, follow him up to the full extent of your ability. I will prevent the concentration of Lee upon your front, if it is in the power of this army to do it.
The Army of the Potomac looks well, and, so far as I can judge, officers and men feel well. Yours truly,
U. S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.
HEADQUARTERS MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, April 24, 1864
Lieutenant-General U. S. GRANT, Commander-in-Chief, Culpepper, Virginia
GENERAL: I now have, at the hands of Colonel Comstock, of your staff, the letter of April 19th, and am as far prepared to assume the offensive as possible. I only ask as much time as you think proper, to enable me to get up McPherson’s two divisions from Cairo. Their furloughs will expire about this time, and some of them should now be in motion for Clifton, whence they will march to Decatur, to join General Dodge.
McPherson is ordered to assemble the Fifteenth Corps near Larkin’s, and to get the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Corps (Dodge and Blair) at Decatur at the earliest possible moment. From these two points he will direct his forces on Lebanon, Summerville, and Lafayette, where he will act against Johnston, if he accept battle at Dalton; or move in the direction of Rome, if the enemy give up Dalton, and fall behind the Oostenaula or Etowah. I see that there is some risk in dividing our forces, but Thomas and Schofield will have strength enough to cover all the valleys as far as Dalton; and, should Johnston turn his whole force against McPherson, the latter will have his bridge at Larkin’s, and the route to Chattanooga via Willa’s Valley and the Chattanooga Creek, open for retreat; and if Johnston attempt to leave Dalton, Thomas will have force enough to push on through Dalton to Kingston, which will checkmate him. My own opinion is that Johnston will be compelled to hang to his railroad, the only possible avenue of supply to his army, estimated at from forty-five to sixty thousand men.
At Lafayette all our armies will be together, and if Johnston stands at Dalton we must attack him in position. Thomas feels certain that he has no material increase of force, and that he has not sent away Hardee, or any part of his army. Supplies are the great question. I have materially increased the number of cars daily. When I got here, the average was from sixty-five to eighty per day. Yesterday the report was one hundred and ninety-three; to-day, one hundred and thirty-four; and my estimate is that one hundred and forty-five cars per day will give us a day’s supply and a day’s accumulation.
McPherson is ordered to carry in wagons twenty day’s rations, and to rely on the depot at Ringgold for the renewal of his bread. Beeves are now being driven on the hoof to the front; and the commissary, Colonel Beckwith, seems fully alive to the importance of the whole matter.
Our weakest point will be from the direction of Decatur, and I will be forced to risk something from that quarter, depending on the fact that the enemy has no force available with which to threaten our communications from that direction.
Colonel Comstock will explain to you personally much that I cannot commit to paper. I am, with great respect,
W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General.
The special friendship and command relationship that Grant and Sherman shared has been well documented, but I still find Grant’s April 28th order to Sherman to be one of my favorite examples of brevity in communication while speaking volumes as to how much these two men understood and respected one another.
The following is from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion:
CULPEPER, VA., April 28, 1864-11 p.m. (Received 1.40 a.m., 29th.)
Get your forces up so as to move by the 5th of May.
U. S. GRANT,
Just 13 simple words to let “the thing be pressed.”
And finally, from the “Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman,” Uncle Billy relates in his own words the start of his march south into Georgia, and eventually to the sea:
On the 28th of April I removed my headquarters to Chattanooga, and prepared for taking the field in person. General Grant had first indicated the 30th of April as the day for the simultaneous advance, but subsequently changed the day to May 5th. McPhersons troops were brought forward rapidly to Chattanooga, partly by rail and partly by marching. Thomas’s troops were already in position (his advance being out as far as Ringgold-eighteen miles), and Schofield was marching down by Cleveland to Red Clay and Catoosa Springs. On the 4th of May, Thomas was in person at Ringgold, his left at Catoosa, and his right at Leet’s Tan-yard. Schofield was at Red Clay, closing upon Thomas’s left; and McPherson was moving rapidly into Chattanooga, and out toward Gordon’s Mill.
On the 5th I rode out to Ringgold, and on the very day appointed by General Grant from his headquarters in Virginia the great campaign was begun. To give all the minute details will involve more than is contemplated, and I will endeavor only to trace the principal events, or rather to record such as weighed heaviest on my own mind at the time, and which now remain best fixed in my memory.
My general headquarters and official records remained back at Nashville, and I had near me only my personal staff and inspectors-general, with about half a dozen wagons, and a single company of Ohio sharp-shooters (commanded by Lieutenant McCrory) as headquarters or camp guard. I also had a small company of irregular Alabama cavalry (commanded by Lieutenant Snelling), used mostly as orderlies and couriers. No wall-tents were allowed, only the flies. Our mess establishment was less in bulk than that of any of the brigade commanders; nor was this from an indifference to the ordinary comforts of life, but because I wanted to set the example, and gradually to convert all parts of that army into a mobile machine, willing and able to start at a minute’s notice, and to subsist on the scantiest food. To reap absolute success might involve the necessity even of dropping all wagons, and to subsist on the chance food which the country was known to contain. I had obtained not only the United States census-tables of 1860, but a compilation made by the Controller of the State of Georgia for the purpose of taxation, containing in considerable detail the “population and statistics” of every county in Georgia. One of my aides (Captain Dayton) acted as assistant adjutant general, with an order-book, letter-book, and writing-paper, that filled a small chest not much larger than an ordinary candle-boa. The only reports and returns called for were the ordinary tri-monthly returns of “effective strength.” As these accumulated they were sent back to Nashville, and afterward were embraced in the archives of the Military Division of the Mississippi, changed in 1865 to the Military Division of the Missouri, and I suppose they were burned in the Chicago fire of 1870. Still, duplicates remain of all essential papers in the archives of the War Department.
So, 150 years ago today, the great armies of the Federal Union were in motion….southward to little known places with quaint or strange sounding names like Spotsylvania and Kennesaw, or perhaps Cold Harbor or New Hope Church. And there would be names of heretofore unknown places. Names that left no doubt as to their origin or meaning. Names such as the “Muleshoe,” “Hell Hole” or the “Dead Angle.” Places whose memory would forever bring nothing but feelings of tremendous sacrifice and sorrow and heartbreak to families both North and South, and whose memory would resonate forever in the collective history of our country.