December 20, 1863 (Sunday)
With autumn quickly folding itself into winter, most armies were busying themselves with preparing their winter quarters. General George Meade, for instance, was about to move to the north side of the Rappahannock River, putting a wide distance between his force and that of General Lee’s.
Even General Grant had relaxed some. With Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee more or less stagnant at Dalton, Georgia, he left the Army of the Cumberland under the command of George Thomas while he once more took up the roll of department commander, headquartered in Nashville.
Johnston’s force was disjointed and required fewer troops than Thomas had at Chattanooga. Grant hoped to use this surplus wisely. Prior to the battle of Chattanooga, much of William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, had raced from Mississippi to bolster the Federal numbers. Now, however, Sherman was itching to get back.
The Confederates that had been under Johnston’s command were now under General Leonidas Polk’s lead. The Rebel army had no official name, though the area was aptly named the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana. It was in Meridian, Mississippi where Johnston and now Polk established their headquarters. And it was here where Sherman wanted to strike.
Grant and Sherman’s ideas were nearly identical. In a quick message to Washington, after reiterating that his troops needed supplies and that Rebel guerrillas were active upon the Tennessee River, he simply wrote: “I will send Sherman down the Mississippi.” It was all he said (for now) upon the matter.
General Sherman was invited by Grant to come to Nashville. There they would talk it all out, planning the next campaign. Though the Federals controlled much of it, Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stephen D. Lee played upon supply lines and made life generally difficult for the Northern troops. Now, under the departmental command of Leonidas Polk, something larger might be organized. Grant wished for Sherman to do what Sherman did best and destroy all Rebel strongholds in Mississippi.
Before spring, even with such inaction, many changes were likely to occur. Of course, there was still a bit of warring in the west, but on this date, General Meade in the east sat down to respond to a letter from his wife. After writing of the coming Christmas, and a Sardinian visitor, he attempted to answer his wife’s question about General Grant. Following the capture of Vicksburg and the victory at Chattanooga, people were beginning to notice him.
“You ask me about Grant,” began Meade, “It is difficult for me to reply. I knew him as a young man in the Mexican war, at which time he was considered a clever young officer, but nothing extraordinary. He was compelled to resign some years before the present war, owing to his irregular habits. I think his great characteristic is indomitable energy and great tenacity of purpose. He certainly has been very successful, and that is nowadays the measure of reputation.”
Meade was hardly one prone to jealousy, but perhaps he envied Grant in some ways. After all, Grant had only Pemberton and Bragg to deal with in the west, while in the east, Meade had the legendary General Lee. “The enemy,” Meade continued, “have never had in any of their Western armies either the generals or the troops they have had in Virginia, nor has the country been so favorable for them there as here. Grant has undoubtedly shown very superior abilities, and is I think justly entitled to all the honors they propose to bestow upon him.”
Before too long, of course, General Meade would get to know Grant all too well.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p453-454; Life and Letters by George Meade; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Memoirs William Tecumseh Sherman. [↩]