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Going Joint with General Grant!

Next week, I will be briefly leaving the nice little Army schoolhouse William T. Sherman established here on the banks of the Missouri River and traveling to Newport, Rhode Island, to get immersed in what Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson once referred to as “a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true Church.” There I will be teaching a two-hour seminar that is part of a course a former West Point colleague, Jon Scott Logel, who is now now on the staff of the Naval War College, is in charge of. The subject of the seminar is “Grant in Command”, which is described thusly:

After Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Grant took command of the entire Union Army. Lincoln depended on Grant to develop and execute a strategy that could defeat the Confederacy in 1864. This lesson examines how Grant fought his strategy in Virginia and leveraged Sherman’s forces to end the rebellion in the spring of 1865. Students will assess the merits of Grant as strategist and as a leader of the U.S. Army in war.

The assigned reading consists of about 160 pages from Grant’s memoirs that cover the last two years of the war. Since this will naturally involve covering Grant’s strategy for 1864, I have asked that the students also read the following January 1864 letter Grant wrote to Halleck.

Hdqrs. Military Division of the Mississippi
Nashville, Tenn., January 19, 1864.

Major General H. W. HALLECK,
General-in-Chief of the Army, Washington, D. C.:

GENERAL: I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in lieu of these one be taken farther south. I would suggest Raleigh, N. C., as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured, I would make New Berne the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured.

A moving force of 60,000 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 scarcely meet with serious opposition. Once there, the most interior line of railway still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then 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 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 return 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 understand 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 obedient servant,

U. S. GRANT,
Major-General

U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 70 volumes in 128 parts. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol.33: 394-95.

This document—as is the letter from Halleck laying out the Lincoln administration’s objections to the ideas contained in it—must figure prominently in any effort to understand or explain Grant’s thinking as he ascended to the office of general-in-chief and assumed responsibility for formulating Union strategy. Indeed, to revisit an argument I made over five years ago in an essay on Grant scholarship, it is astounding to me that so many works published since 1983 on Grant and his generalship neglect the subject. “Undoubtedly,” I argued, “the main explanation for the neglect of this document is the fact that Grant did not mention it in his memoirs. . . . Still, this is no excuse for ignoring a document that is readily accessible in both the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant and Official Records.”

Why 1983? Aside from the dismissive treatment of it in works by Bruce Catton and T. Harry Williams, it was not really until the appearance of Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones’s How the North Won that Grant’s letter seems to have received the attention and degree of sophisticated analysis it deserved. Since then, Brooks Simpson has followed in Hattaway and Jones’s footsteps to make serious consideration of this document a critical part of his analysis of Grant’s generalship. Yet, it seems that even though nearly thirty years have passed since the publication of How the North Won, Simpson remains rare in this respect among students of Grant’s generalship—though I like to think I have also given the letter appropriate attention in my own work on Grant and his relationship with Meade.

Of course, this is just further evidence of How the North Won’s status as one of the great books in the field people say they recognize, but have not taken the time to read with the care it requires and deserves.

Comments (1) to “Going Joint with General Grant!”

  1. Sounds awesome, congrats on the gig and good luck. As an admirer of Grant, I am a bit jealous. Have a great time.