Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was accused by Mary Lincoln and some Northern newspapers of being a “butcher” for the casualties incurred by the Overland Campaign of 1864. It’s a charge that was taken up by former Confederates and later members of the “Lost Cause”, who sought to portray a South that outfought the foul Yankees at every turn and was only overwhelmed by superior numbers. One inherent problem with this narrative’s accuracy is that Grant did not take exceptional casualties by Civil War standards, and his casualty rate across his Civil War career was in fact superior to Robert E. Lee’s; not that the two should be directly compared, as they faced different situations and challenges as generals.
More interestingly to me though is that of the two campaigns where Grant took his highest casualties, there was a common denominator. That denominator is that the overall strategy of the campaigns in question, to a varied extent, was set by someone else. In both cases, that person was Henry Halleck.
In the West, before coming to Virginia, Grant suffered remarkable casualties on only one occasion, at the Battle of Shiloh. And they only seemed remarkable at the time, as the bloodshed of later battles in the year would dwarf Shiloh. Now, as Grant was the defender at Shiloh, it hardly seems fair to accuse him of being a butcher for it. But even so, let’s consider the campaign as a whole. Strategically, Grant was not responsible for the positioning of his army at Pittsburgh Landing. That was the overall Union commander in the area, Halleck. Halleck placed him there before Don Carlos Buell’s men could get there, and did nothing to hurry Buell’s pathetic pace towards his rendezvous with Grant. Grant erred by placing perimeter security in the hands of William T. Sherman, who was trying to escape his reputation of being an alarmist. Tactically, Grant is responsible for being surprised at Shiloh. But strategically, his army was in a vulnerable position only because Halleck placed it there.
Now in the Overland Campaign, as I’m sure readers are dying to point out by now, Grant was general-in-chief. However, the Overland Campaign was not the first strategy Grant suggested or preferred for the Virginia theatre. Instead, Grant originally proposed the following plan.
Nashville Ten. Jan.y 19th 1864,
Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck,
Gen. in Chief of the Army,
Washington D. C.
I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in line of these one be taken further South. 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. From Weldon to Raleigh they would scarsely meet with serious opposition. Once there the most interior line of rail way still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then have, would be so threatened as to force enemy him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of 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 the North Carolina troops to desert and retum to their homes. It would give us possession of many Negroes who are now 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 than 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. Other advantages might be cited which would be likely to grow out of this plan, but these are enough. From your better opportunities of studying the country, and the Armies, that would be involved in this plan, you will be better able to judge of the practicability of it than I possibly can.
I have written this in accordance with what I understood to be an invitation from you to express my views about Military operations and not to insist that any plan of mine should be carried out. Whatever course is agreed upon I shall always believe is at least intended for the best and until fully tested will hope to have it prove so.
I am General, very respectfully
your obt. svt.
U. S. Grant
This is hardly the plan of an unimaginative butcher or “pounder” as the Duke of Wellington might have put it. Indeed what we see here is some highly creative strategic thinking focused not on direct assaults against Lee’s army, but directed instead at his logistics, including the key port of Wilmington, and lines of communication. Lee would not have been able to ignore this assault and at the very least would have had to detach significant force south, if not shift his entire army south. This is a classic example of what Liddel Hart would have called the indirect approach. He would strangle Lee and Richmond through assaults on their LOC and infrastructure, and if Lee wanted battle, he would be forced to accept it on open ground. Meanwhile Grant’s forces in North Carolina would be able to forego large supply trains and be supplied and transported via the Union navy and it’s dominance of the sea.
Halleck rejected this plan because he feared it left Washington too weakly defended, and he also plainly did not like that Grant would not be confronting Lee in a direct manner. Halleck more or less insisted that Grant himself or at least the Army of the Potomac would have to stand between Lee and D.C. Thus, it was Halleck who laid out the strategic pattern that Grant would have to accept; direct confrontation with Lee in Virginia. Grant did the best he could within these constrains, aiming a multi-pronged offensive at Lee’s logistics in Virginia and attempting to flank Lee’s army. As soon as he could, Grant attempted a return to a more indirect, logistics-oriented approach, flanking Lee and striking at his logistical nexus of Petersburg, and then focusing his efforts on cutting off the railroads to Petersburg and wiping out the Confederacy’s breadbasket in the Shenandoah.
Now I don’t intend to suggest Henry Halleck was literally a butcher, anymore so than Grant. He was afterall, more of a staff officer than a field commander. Still, I find it interesting that the two incidents in Grant’s career where people tend to draw “butcher” from arose not from Grant’s own strategy or preferences but from the strategy of Henry Halleck instead.