‘By All Means, Send the Expedition’ – Grant Orders Thomas (Again)

February 18, 1864 (Thursday)

General Grant had been trying to convince George Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, Tennessee, to make some sort of demonstration against the Confederates under Joe Johnston. Encamped thirty-five miles south, the Rebels had been holed up since the Battle of Missionary Ridge. Grant’s idea was to prevent Johnston from reinforcing their comrades under Leonidas Polk, facing off against William Tecumseh Sherman’s column now at Meridian.

Doubting Thomas
Doubting Thomas

Having ordered such a move on the 12th, he reiterated it on the 17th: “Make your contemplated move as soon as possible.”

But at this point, Thomas was more contemplation than move.”I have had more obstacles to overcome than I had anticipated,” said the weary Thomas. “I find it absolutely necessary to take artillery, for which I must have horses. I cannot say positively what day I shall start, but certainly by Monday.” That was five days away, and Grant was growing impatient.

There was, of course, much more going on than a simple diversion by Thomas to block Johnston from sending troops to Polk. Johnston and Polk weren’t the only Rebels scattered about the lower west. There was also James Longstreet’s Corps still hovering about Knoxville, Tennessee, with Federals under the command of John Schofield holding the city itself.

Grant wished for Schofield to make a move against Longstreet, but Schofield had just as many excuses as Thomas for not really caring to oblige. Mostly, Schofield wanted Thomas to reinforce him, but Grant was having none of it. “It is highly desirable Thomas should make a move for which his is now prepared, and which will be prevented by re-enforcing you,” wrote Grant to Schofield. Ultimately, Grant wanted to combine both Thomas’ and Schofield’s commands so they may “act more as a unit.”

Though Thomas knew he was to follow Grant’s orders, he was also thinking of Longstreet. Grant doubted very much that Longstreet was going to make a move against Knoxville. Thomas probably agreed, but assured Schofield that if he did “it will then be time for my advance against him [Longstreet].”

On this date, the day after Grant again ordered Thomas to move as soon as possible, Thomas bowed out of the demonstration. “I regret to be obliged to report that I do not think I shall be able to take the field,” he wrote to Grant, “the cold and damp weather having brought on an attack of neuralgia, from which I suffer intensely.”

The doctors had diagnosed Thomas with what they referred to as “neuralgia,” but was possibly some sort of liver disease or perhaps migraines – Thomas rarely mentioned this discomfort, suffering in silence. With that said, there was very little reason to doubt he was being honest in this respect.

As for the expedition, it would be helmed by General John Palmer, who commanded the Fourteenth Corps. With this Grant was perturbed, but what could he do? “By all means send the expedition,” he replied. “I think it should move as soon as possible, for the effect it will have in favor of Sherman and also on the affairs in East Tennessee [Schofield]. I regret that you cannot go.”

Having some effect on the affairs in East Tennessee was becoming increasingly important. Though Grant doubted that Longstreet might move, Schofield was otherwise convinced. Rumors coming straight from citizens living within Longstreet’s lines asserted that “he is making some movement toward Georgia.” He admitted that he had “not yet been able to get the facts in a reliable shape,” but allowed that at least one division of infantry and one of cavalry was probably already on their way.

Gentleman Grant
Gentleman Grant

However, that evening, he received a note from a scout that seemed to prove differently. “All the information I can get from citizens corresponds with the theory that they are not moving on an expedition, but merely moving in our rear for forage,” came the report. Schofield, for awhile, anyway, would ignore it.

Meanwhile, General Sherman’s men were tearing up track twenty miles in any direction from Meridian, Mississippi, while the Rebels under Polk were still retreating east into Alabama. According to Sherman’s original plan, a column of cavalry under General Sooy Smith were to join him, coming from the Memphis area. Smith had gloriously failed to accomplish this, just as he was failing to keep in any sort of contact with Sherman.

Though they were to arrive in Meridian at the same time, Smith didn’t step off until Sherman had marched nearly the whole way across Mississippi, and was in sight of the town. In an order relayed by his aide-de-camp to his two corps commanders, Sherman stated “that in consequence of hearing nothing from General Sooy Smith he may change somewhat his former plans.” He ordered Stephen Hurlbut, commanding the Sixteenth Corps, and James McPherson, commanding the Seventeenth, to return to Meridian and be prepared to march back to Vicksburg on the 20th. This might change if anyone heard from Smith, but by this time it seemed unlikely. Just what happened to Smith remained for Sherman a mystery, though he may have feared it had something to do with Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose infamous cavalry was poised between him and the wayward Smith. Only time would tell.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2, p413-415, 419, 421-422, 423, 425-426; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woorworth; George Thomas: Virginian for the Union by Christopher J. Einolf. []
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