Fight With Desperation to the Last – Sherman’s Words for his Men

April 25, 1864 (Monday)

General Nathaniel Banks’ troops were even now marching back into the streets of Alexandria, Louisiana. The attempt to capture Shreveport was a failure. On this same day, General Grant, his headquarters now at Culpeper, Virginia, alongside the Army of the Potomac, received the news of Banks’ retreat following the victory at Pleasant Hill.

Look at this hat! I can't be THAT bad!

Look at this hat! I can’t be THAT bad!

Grant heard first from Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, who had himself received a message from Admiral David Dixon Porter. Porter’s words were of warning. “Whatever may be said,” relayed Halleck, “the army there has met with a great defeat and is much demoralized.” This wasn’t precisely true. Banks’ Army of the Gulf was victorious on the field of battle, but the following day, Banks decided not to take advantage of the momentum. Porter, continued Halleck, “speaks in strong terms of Banks’ mismanagement and of the good conduct of A.J. Smith and his corps.” Smith’s men were not part of Banks’ Army, but from the Army of the Tennessee, loaned to Banks by General Sherman, who had expected them to be returned long before now. Their return, Porter projected, was now not advised. “He fear that if Smith is withdrawn Banks will retreat still farther.”

Grant, who had also given Banks until the middle of April to return A.J. Smith’s corps, now agreed with Porter. “A.J. Smith will have to stay with General Banks until the gunboats are out of difficulty,” replied Grant. He also thought that “Banks out to be ordered to New Orleans and have all further execution on the Red River in other hands.”

Like Halleck, Grant had received word of Banks’ incompetence. One came from New Orleans, and the other from an anonymous source from within the Thirteenth Corps. Both gave “deplorable accounts of General Banks’ mismanagement.” These, coupled with Banks’ own report (written on the 13th), which had been forwarded to Grant, “clearly show all his disasters to be attributable to his incompetency.”

But Grant could not dwell upon this for too long. Banks’ roll in the upcoming campaign was almost nonexistent. Whether or not Shreveport was held was of little consequence. His main business was the orchestration of two massive columns – one in the east, another in the west. Thus far, he had not settled upon a date for either to move, but he wanted both to step off at the same time.

To General Sherman, he asked: “”Will your veterans be back to enable you to start on the 2nd of May? I do not want to delay later.” By “veterans,” Grant was referring to those who had been given furloughs for agreeing to continue their service through the remainder of the war. They were not yet with him.

“The veteran divisions cannot be up by May 2,” came Sherman’s reply, “but I am will to move with what I have.” He had sent a messenger to Grant, giving him all the “facts and figures,” and was now only waiting for Grant to see them and give his final orders. “I am now getting all in hand ready,” Sherman concluded, “but every day add to my animals an men. If you can, give me till May 5.”

The two veteran divisions belongs to James McPherson, and as Sherman informed General George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, Tennessee, they had not yet reached Cairo, Illinois. There were complications with payroll, and other red tape that might delay them even more. “I want McPherson to have 30,000 men,” wrote Sherman, “but if we can’t get these two divisions in time, his force will fall far short.”

Zip it, Banks.

Zip it, Banks.

McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee was covering the right of Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, while the Army of the Ohio, under John Schofield, would hold the left. Since Thomas was holding the middle, Sherman wanted to strengthen him as much as possible. If they had more time, more troops could be added. But after Sherman received Grant’s strong suggestion to move on the second day of May, he wired Thomas: “General Grant telegraphs me to be ready May 2. Make dispositions accordingly. McPherson is least ready.”

General McPherson was, of course, also notified. “We cannot wait for the veterans,” wrote Sherman, reasoning that the two wayward divisions could meet him in Chattanooga as soon as they were ready. “Make every possible preparation.”

General Sherman also wrote out his final orders to his soon to be assembled grand army, explaining that they would all act as one force commanded personally by Sherman, though they would remain three separate armies.

He explained their positions, and that each army commander was to look to his own supplies. Sherman’s headquarters would be with the Army of the Cumberland, in the center, though would change when necessary. The philosophy was now simple: “In all movements each army will be kept well in hand with no detachments except scout and skirmish, and risking as little as possible in side issues or small affairs.” The Armies of the Tennessee and the Ohio would always “confine their movements to those of the center habitually.”

The troops themselves, urged Sherman, “should be instructed to fight with desperation to the last.”1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 3, p488, 491, 493; Vol. 34, Part 3, p278-279. []
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  1. Fashion was probably the last thing concerning folks at that time, but I wonder if some of those hats looked ridiculous even back then. Banks & Sheridan certainly have unique lids, it seems. But, whatever Ambrose Burnside’s wearing has to take the cake.

    • Oh fashion was a huge thing at the time among the wealthy (politians and officers). And I think that ugly hats definitely had a big place in that.

      • Fashion had been a surprising part of the Crimean War, just a decade before. Raglan and Cardigan, whose names are recognizable in clothing to this day, were involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade. It seems reasonable to think that the influence was felt across the Atlantic. (Note the popularity of the “Zouave” uniform at the start of the Civil War.) But fashion, then as now, has a habit of declaring things as trendy which in a few years will be seen as cringe-worthy.