February 12, 1864 (Friday)
If there was one thing that General Grant was worried about when it came to William Tecumseh Sherman’s stab toward Meridian, Mississippi, it was Joe Johnston. It’s not that he was really all that worried about it, but it was something that he absolutely kept in mind. Johnston’s Rebel Army was hunkered in and around Dalton, Georgia, not too far south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. If Johnston were left to his own devices, worried Grant, he might send reinforcements to Leonidas Polk, the Confederate commander about to face off against Sherman. To see that this didn’t happen, Grant sent a message to George Thomas, helming the Union Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga.
“On the 12th of February,” wrote Grant in his Memoirs, “I ordered Thomas to take Dalton and hold it, if possible; and I directed him to move without delay.” Grant oversimplified the transaction. Originally, Grant wanted Thomas to head northeast to Knoxville to bolster the Army of the Ohio, now under its new commander, John Schofield. James Longstreet’s Rebels had been stirring, and for weeks now, Grant had contemplated the reinforcements.
After meeting with John Foster, the Army of the Ohio’s former commander, who had requested a leave to recuperate from a wound, he reconsidered. Foster had traveled from Knoxville to Nashville and sat down with Grant the previous day, convincing him that Longstreet wasn’t really a threat. General Schofield seemed to concur, telling Thomas that it should probably wait until spring. This freed up Thomas’ army to make some sort of show against Joe Johnston in Dalton.
In writing to Thomas, Grant did not order him to “take Dalton and hold it, if possible.” Instead he suggested: “Should you not be required to go into East Tennessee [Knoxville], could you not make a formidable reconnaissance toward Dalton, and, if successful in driving the enemy out, occupy that place and complete the railroad up to it this winter?”
To Grant, Thomas replied that he thought “an advance on Dalton would be successful,” but only if Grant gave him an additional division. Grant seemed more or less okay with that, if Thomas truly needed them.
By the end of the day, Grant concluded that “no movement will be made against Longstreet at present,” as he ordered Schofield to rest his men until the thaw.
To General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Grant painted a grim picture when explaining why he was abandoning the idea of sending Thomas with 14,000 men into East Tennessee. Ultimately, he realized that “if we move against Longstreet with an overwhelming force he will simply fall back toward Virginia until he can be re-enforced or take up an impregnable position.” True, Grant had ordered General Foster to do just that, but was now clearly thinking in a different direction.
This different direction was also explained to Halleck. It seemed a right shame to have those 14,000 men fit for battle and itching for battle just go to waste. “Now that our men are ready for an advance,” wrote Grant, “I have directed it to be made on Dalton, and hope to get possession of that place and hold it as a step toward a spring campaign.” He made no mention of this move also aiding Sherman, who was still pushing east through Mississippi, toward Meridian.
By the next morning, Grant could assure Thomas that General John Logan’s Division was on the road with fifteen regiments. “This will enable you to move forward with all your effective force,” he would write. “Start at the earliest practicable moment.” It would be seen that Thomas and Grant had differing opinions on such vagaries.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2, p373, 374, 375, 383; Days of Glory by Larry J. Daniel; Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign by Buck T. Foster. [↩]