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Grant, Sigel, and Ord: The Valley and West Virginia, 1864

Partly out of idle curiosity, I was going through the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, the main primary source for the Civil War in terms of official reports and correspondence.. Particularly, I was going through correspondence in early 1864, curious to see some of the process of Ulysses S. Grant planning and evolving his 1864 strategy. Generally when talking about Grant and Virginia in 1864, historians discuss  Grant’s three pronged-attack in Virginia, featuring George Meade, Benjamin Butler, and Franz Sigel as the principal commanders, with Sigel leading men in the Valley. Consequently, I was baffled when I came across correspondence talking about Major General E. O. C. Ord leading a column, not in the Valley, but from Beverly, modern-day West Virginia, towards Covington and the railroad (the Virginia and Tennessee) there. What was this all about?

Franz Sigel commanded the Department of West Virginia; he was quite a senior general at this point, holding his Major General’s rank since March 21, 1862. Sigel had military training (a five-year course at a German military academy, clearly superior to West Point training), and experience leading brigade-sized forces before the war. Despite that, in the American Civil War, the immigrant Prussian was considered a political general, as he was primarily viewed by many to be a recruiting tool for the German immigrant community. His war record was less than stellar in many respects; his advice and performance on the battlefield had Nathaniel Lyon’s little army to a major defeat at Wilson’s Creek. During the Pea Ridge Campaign, despite a creditable performance on the field itself during the second day of battle, Sigel proved to be an extremely troublesome subordinate for Union commander Samuel Curtis, and engaged in outright slanderous attempts to steal the credit for the victorious campaign from Curtis. Sigel was transferred to the east, where his men actually fought quite well at Second Manassas. Sigel was relieved at his own request in early 1863, as he was disgruntled that despite his seniority, he was leading the Army of the Potomac’s smallest corps and he was denied permission to enlarge it. Henry Halleck, who hated Sigel, kept Sigel sidelined for some time until Lincoln, in March 1864, assigned him to command the Department of West Virginia.

Grant was not involved in Sigel’s assignment, as it pre-dated Grant’s own assumption of the overall command, and evidently wanted no part of him. Grant had never served with Sigel, but his opinion of the man was more likely than not influenced by his former superior, Henry Halleck. Grant was also almost immediately annoyed by Sigel’s casual attitude towards communicating through proper channels, though Sigel was equally annoyed by Grant’s habit of communicating with Sigel’s subordinates without going through him first.. Grant initially considered a relatively simple two-pronged maneuver scheme for the western Virginia operations;  George Crook would lead a column to strike the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, then shift towards the Valley and move down (north) through the Valley to meet up with a force under Sigel marching up the Valley on Staunton, and the combined forces would capture Lynchburg.

Grant had two political generals projected to lead two of the three main armies he was making use of in Virginia. Despite certain reservations about Benjamin Butler, Grant was initially pleased after meeting the man, and contented himself with assigning Butler William F. “Baldy” Smith to serve as his chief subordinate. Grant went a bit further with Sigel, however, and tried to sideline him entirely. He couldn’t be removed from the department command, but he could be sidelined from the field operations. Grant consequently decided to meddle a bit more deeply in planning for operations in western Virginia. He dispatched Edward Ord to take command of a column that Sigel would prepare and shift to Beverly; Ord’s column, intended to be between 10-12,000 strong, would strike the Virginia and Tennessee near Covington, then move towards Lynchburg. Another column under George Crook would strike at Saltville, then move to join Ord. Sigel would be reduced to mainly administrative duties, and would lead a handful of infantry and some supply wagons down the Valley to Staunton at some point to sustain Ord and Crook’s operations.

Why did this not actually happen? In a word, Ord. (Sorry) Edward Ord had little liking for being assigned to Sigel, and did not at all like what he saw on reaching West Virginia. By Sigel’s own report, the forces available to him were not terribly well equipped, and they were poorly trained and disciplined, most having not seen any kind of serious action in a long time if at all. The terrain and weather presented major obstacles, and Sigel was not able to quickly put together the entire force that Ord was supposed to have; Sigel cited numerous difficulties that prevented him from doing so, and he was backed up by contemporary accounts from soldiers who were there. Nevertheless, Ord, not liking the condition of the troops, the fact that he didn’t yet have as many as he was supposed to have, and fearing that there would be a failure and he would be responsible, almost immediately fled the department, acquiring a leave of absence within only a few days of arriving, prompting a baffled Sigel to send a message to the War Department asking that Ord be returned. Ord however, soon convinced Grant to relieve him from the responsibility of the Beverly expedition, and Ord was removed from the scene.

This put an end to the idea of the Beverly expedition, and the time wasted (first two-thirds of April) necessitated a lot of pointless marching back and forth instead of the necessary drilling of the soldiers. Sigel promptly came up with a new plan, ditching the idea of advancing from Beverly, and instead suggesting a column under Crook would break the rail-road and destroy the salt-works at Saltville, to be the main effort, while another column (ultimately led by Sigel himself) would operate in the Valley against the enemy’s forces there. Grant approved this plan, and the rest, as they say, is history. It should be noted that Averell’s cavalry, assigned to Crook by Sigel’s plan, in effect ended up operating separately; I don’t read Sigel’s message as suggesting this, but he does mention the railroad bridge at New River and the saltworks being two targets for Crook, so it seems Crook opted to strike both simultaneously with two different columns, detaching his mounted cavalry under Averell; Averell however, turned away from Saltville and then was repulsed by a larger Confederate force under Grumble Jones at Cove Gap, though he did do severe damage to the railroad in the area.

What to take away from all of this? For me, the first revelation, following the realization that Grant had once intended something much different than what actually happened, was that Ulysses S. Grant’s hand was far more visible in the planning of the initial 1864 campaign by Sigel’s department than I thought. And I have to say, outright, that it was not for the better. Grant repeatedly meddled with Sigel’s plans to no better end, and was partly defeated by terrain and weather issues within Sigel’s region, issues Sigel, as the man on the scene, was much better positioned to understand. Grant’s exact intentions and expectations for the armies in the region also come off as vague, prompting even the solid George Crook to message that he didn’t know if his troops could accomplish all Grant expected.

Had Ord done the job he was assigned, competently, this could all be forgiven. But he did not; Ord, in a most cowardly fashion, shirked his duty, and just as badly, Grant let him. Grant would later give Ord the important command of the Army of the James. This raises two issues; first of all, I have a question I can’t satisfactorily answer, which is, why exactly did Grant seem to think so highly of Ord? Ord first served with Grant during the Iuka-Corinth engagements in the west, but Ord and Grant, famously, were unaware of the Battle of Iuka due to an acoustic shadow, and Ord did not fight at Corinth except for a minor battle in pursuit of the retreating Confederates at Hatchie’s Bridge, where he got himself wounded. Ord was later chosen by Grant to replace Grant’s rival and most problematic subordinate, John McClernand, during the Vicksburg siege, but this was after active operations had concluded. He saw brief assignments to Louisiana and then of course West Virginia, where he saw no action. His record was incredibly thin on the whole, and his behavior during this entire affair with Sigel was highly discreditable, in my view.

Grant’s repeated assignments of Ord, despite Ord demonstrating no apparent capacity for those assignments, is questionable in and of itself, but it also points to something of a pattern that I can’t approve of. Perhaps Grant simply misjudged Ord and that’s that. But if so, he’s not alone. Grant also entertained what was proven to be a severely exaggerated view of Baldy Smith’s abilities (though this was a common delusion among those who were impressed by Smith’s work at Chattanooga), and I would argue the same problem very much existed in the curious case of Philip Sheridan. Grant’s judgement of his subordinates is often pointed to as a strong suit; I think the record is highly mixed on that point.

Something else which came as something of a lightbulb moment for me is that Grant’s strategic priority in this region, rather than the Valley itself, seemed to be killing off the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, and in that regard, the initial 1864 campaign actually succeeded, failing primarily less because of Sigel and more because after accomplishing his mission, hearing rumors of Union defeat further east, George Crook chose to march back the way he came instead of proceeding towards the Valley, enabling the Confederates to shift troops to face Sigel. In that light, Sigel’s failure at New Market, in the grand scheme of things, was only important in that a small division’s worth of troops gets transferred to Lee. In light of much of what I mentioned above about the difficulties confronted by Franz Sigel, I feel a bit more sympathy for that oft-maligned general, at least in this particular instance, than I ever have before as well.

History is a continual learning process.

Main source: The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 – Volume 33 (search “Ord” in particular to find the good stuff on this)…0%3A2;view=toc

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