1864: “Do Not Stay In Washington”

(Private and confidential)

Near Memphis, March 10, 1864

General Grant

Dear General:

I have your more than kind and characteristic letter of the 4th, and will send a copy of it to General McPherson at once.

You do yourself injustice and us too much honor in assigning to us so large a share of the merits which have led to your high advancement. I know you approve the friendship I have ever professed to you, and will permit me to continue as heretofore to manifest it on all proper occasions.

You are now Washington’s legitimate successor, and occupy a position of almost dangerous elevation; but if you can continue as heretofore to be yourself, simple, honest, and unpretending, you will enjoy through life the respect and love of friends, and the homage of millions of human beings who will award to you a large share for securing to them and descendants a government of law and stability.

I repeat, you do General McPherson and myself too much honor. At Belmont you manifested your traits, neither of us being near; at Donelson also you illustrated your whole character. I was not near, and General McPherson in too subordinate a capacity to influence you.

Until you had won Donelson, I confess I was almost cowed by the terrible array of anarchical elements that present themselves at every point; but that victory admitted the ray of light which I have followed ever since.

I believe you are as brave, patriotic, and just, as the great prototype Washington; as unselfish, kind-hearted, and honest, as a man should be; but the chief characteristic in your nature is the simple faith in success you have always manifested, which I can liken to nothing else than the faith a Christian has in his Saviour.

This faith gave you victory at Shiloh and Vicksburg. Also, when you completed your best preparations, you go into battle without hesitation, as at Chattanooga – no doubts, no reserve; and I tell you that it was this that made us act with confidence. I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come – if alive.

My only points of doubt were as to your knowledge of grand strategy, and of books of science and history; but I confess your common-sense supplied all this.

Now as to the future. Do not stay in Washington. Halleck is better qualified than you are to stand the buffets of intrigue and policy. Come out West; take to yourself the whole Mississippi Valley; let us make it dead-sure, and I tell you the Atlantic slope and pacific shores will follow its destiny as sure as the limbs of a tree live or die with the main trunk! We have done much; still much remains to be done. Time and time’s influences are with us; we could almost afford to sit still and let these influences work. Even in the seceded States your word now would go further than a President’s proclamation, or an act of Congress.

For God’s sake and for your country’s sake, come out of Washington! I foretold to General Halleck, before he left Corinth, the inevitable result to him, and I now exhort you to come out West. Here lies the seat of the coming empire; and from the West, when our task is done, we will make short work of Charleston and Richmond, and the impoverished coast of the Atlantic.

Your sincere friend,

W.T. Sherman

General William T. Sherman to General Ulysses S. Grant, March 10, 1864.

(Source: The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 735-736)
General Ulysses S. Grant (1864)

To The New General

March 2, 1864 – President Lincoln promoted General Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and gave him command of all Union armies. The commission was formalized on March 9, giving Grant high authority and answerable directly to the commander in chief (president). With the promotion and trust came the pressure to develop a winning strategy to end the Civil War and reestablish a united country.

Hearing of his friend’s promotion, General William T. Sherman wrote to Grant, responding to a previous letter. He reflected on their friendship and the emergence of Grant’s leadership in the western theater of the conflict. Then, he offered advice, believing the war would be won in the west.

Interestingly, Sherman’s perspective on the importance of the west and capture of the Southern states did not completely add up with the president and cabinet’s ideas…or with the way history would be interpreted. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate capital of Richmond loomed as the ultimate prizes – destructive goals that had sent thousands of soldiers to their graves and created a revolving door of Union generals trying to achieve an eastern victory. Virginia and Richmond – though key pieces in the war – did not represent the entire conflict (in contrast to what’s often presented in juvenile history books which yours truly believed for too many years!) Sherman recognized that, without its claimed states and territory, the Confederacy in Richmond and Virginia would likely not survive and believed war could be won in the western theater and through the southern states.

Overland Campaign Map, Spring 1864 in Virginia (no known restrictions)

Grant’s Decision

Grant took Sherman’s advice and got out of Washington, but he stayed in Virginia. The lieutenant general’s spring campaign plans called for three advances in Virginia and one along the Red River in Louisiana. Meanwhile, Sherman would command the Union forces in the western theater, aiming to destroy Confederate Joe Johnston’s army and press toward Atlanta, Georgia. Ideally, the plan would put pressure on multiple points, forcing the Confederates to stretch their resources thinner and giving the still powerful Union armies a chance to score victories.

Grant placed importance on the battles with Lee by staying in Virginia, though George G. Meade remained in commander of the Army of the Potomac. Still, he underscored the decisive victories needed in the west and south, leaving Sherman in command and giving him specific objectives. While they forced Lee to battle in Virginia, Johnston would not get reinforcements and could not go to Lee’s aid.

Historical Musings

Friends. We need friends like Sherman. We need to be friends like Sherman. A friend who cares, trusts, and tells the honest truth. Fascinatingly, Sherman spells out why he was friends with Grant: he trusted him and knew he wouldn’t abandon him on the battlefield.

General Sherman, 1866

Unlike other Civil War generals who squabbled and fought for glory and recognition, Grant and Sherman had an understanding of greater cause. The war had to fought to restore the Union, not write their own chapters of history. Grant credited Sherman and McPherson with his rising successes; Sherman turned the credit back to his friend. Imagine what could have happened if these guys had been jealous monsters? Would the Union cause have advanced the way it did?

One thing in this letter that really stands out to me is Sherman’s encouragement. He tells his friend what he admires in his character – ultimately, a steadfast belief in winning, combined with other solid character qualities. Sherman was writing to offer advice, but he also takes time to build up his comrade. Not to boost his ego, but rather to remind him why he has won the promotion. Grant faced politics and the pressures to take his philosophy into a strategy to finish the war; Sherman, in a private letter, affirmed that his friend was the right man for the job.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

2 comments

  1. […] written about General Ulysses S. Grant taking command in previous weeks. This time we get a glimpse of a soldier’s view of the new commander. […]

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