Monday, June 26, 2023

Grant’s 1864 plan for North Carolina

   We seem to have this idea about the Overland Campaign of 1864. Overall Federal commander U.S. Grant was going to steal a march on Robert E. Lee, getting between Lee and the Confederate capital and forcing Lee to attack. We know, of course, Lee was up to the challenge, catching the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness and negating the advantage of numbers that Lee had. Grant was stopped in the Wilderness and forced to shift his army once again to the east, where he once again ran into portions of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Spotsylvania Court House. This same scenario would play out for the rest of May and June. What seems to be missing from the conversation is that Grant did not want to march over the same old ground that his predecessors had fought over during the course of the past two years. Instead of moving from the north, like McDowell, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker, or from the east, Like McClellan, Grant wanted to come from the south.

Henry Halleck and U.S. Grant 

   On January 19, 1864, Grant presented his plan for the upcoming spring campaign to Federal General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. Grant wrote: “I would suggest Raleigh North Carolina as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured I would make New Bern the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured. A moving force of sixty thousand men would probably be required to start on such an expedition. This force would not have to be increased unless Lee should withdraw from his present position. In that case the necessity for so large a force on the Potomac would not exist.”

   “A force moving from Suffolk would destroy first all the roads about Weldon, or even as far north as Hicksford. Once there the most interior line of rail way still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would have, would be so threatened as to force . . . him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly East Tennessee. It would throw our Armies into new fields where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy. It would cause thousands of North Carolina troops to desert and return to their homes. It would give us possession of many Negroes who are not indirectly aiding the rebellion. It would draw the enemy from Campaigns of their own choosing, and for which they are prepared, to new lines of operations never expected to become necessary. It would effectually blockade Wilmington, the port now of more value to the enemy that all the balance of their sea coast. It would enable operations to commence at once by removing the war to a more southern climate instead of months of inactivity in winter quarters.”[i]

   The plan may not have been Grant’s. It might have come from Lt. Col. Cyrus B. Comstock. In Comstock’s diary is this entry dated January 18, 1864: “Gen. W. F. Smith & I submitted Mem. to Gen. as to landing 60000 men at Norfolk or Newbern & operating against Rail R. south of Richmond & alternately against Raleigh & Wilmington.” Regardless, Grant obviously thought the plan had merit and submitted it to Halleck.[ii]

   It took Halleck a month to reply, writing on February 17, 1864. Halleck did not seem to grasp the finer points of Grant’s proposal. Lee’s army, not Richmond, was to be Grant’s object, although Grant had not mentioned the Confederate capital. He had mentioned cutting off supplies from Wilmington sustaining Lee’s army. The plan had been debated before by military men in Washington, Halleck told Grant, and most plans required more than 60,000 men. Where were the men to come from, Halleck asked. “There is evidently a general public misconception of the strength of our army in Virginia and about Washington,” a misconception Halleck thought wise to perpetuate. Meade’s army numbered 70,000 men, with about 18,000 soldiers in various garrisons around Washington, D.C. “Suppose we were to send thirty thousand men from that army to North Carolina; would not Lee be able to make another invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania?” Would Grant’s proposal force Lee to come to the aid of North Carolina? Halleck did not think so. “Uncover Washington and the Potomac river, and all the forces which Lee can collect will be moved north, and the popular sentiment will compel the Government to bring back the army in North Carolina to defend Washington, Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.” Halleck did not believe that Lee would exchange Richmond for Raleigh and Wilmington. Halleck then reminded Grant that a large force had been sent against Charleston, and for a year, had achieved no “important results.” Halleck went on to mention other operations in Texas and Alabama. “We have given too much attention to cutting the toe nails of our enemy instead of grasping his throat.” Halleck then goes on to lay out the tried and true Federal strategy in the East. “The overthrow of Lee’s army being the object of operations here.” Grant’s plan was probably mentioned to Lincoln, but the plan of bypassing the Army of Northern Virginia and cutting the railroad in eastern North Carolina was null and void in the eyes of the Lincoln administration. [iii]

   Grant replaced Halleck as General in Chief of the Armies of the United States on March 9, 1864. Grant was named Commanding General and given the rank of Lieutenant General. As commanding general, he could have revisited the idea of a campaign into southeastern Virginia and North Carolina, cutting that all-so important rail line coming out of Wilmington. It is interesting to speculate just how much shorter the war in the east would have been had a foray from New Bern to Goldsboro or Tarboro been approved. To cut and hold the railroad at those places, combined with the actions of Hunter and Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, would have pretty much starved out the Army of North Virginia. Of course, Halleck was wrong about clipping the toe nails. It is not until the toe nail at Wilmington is clipped that the situation in Virginia becomes dire.

   For more information, check out Brooks D. Simpson’s essay, “Ulysses S. Grant and the Problem of Command in 1864,” in The Art of Command in the Civil War, Steven Woodsworth, ed.

[i] The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 10: 39-40.

[ii] The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 10:41n.

[iii] The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, 110-112.