August 3, 1864 (Wednesday)
While General Philip Sheridan was en route to his new command in the Shenandoah Valley, President Lincoln in Washington was growing more and more frustrated. Sheridan had been selected by General Grant to command the 30,000 Federal troops who were to destroy Jubal Early’s Confederates now near Winchester, retaking the Valley lost by David Hunter.
Grant’s main strategy for this campaign was to get south of Early’s forces. This would block their ability to hold the Valley, as well as bar their way back to General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. At the very worst, it would keep them isolated.
Lincoln’s frustration stemmed not from Grant, but from the general mood in Washington:
“I have seen your despatch in which you say ‘I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself South of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.’ This, I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move. But please look over the despatches you may have receved from here, even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here, of ‘putting our army South of the enemy’ or of following him to the death in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it. A. LINCOLN”
Though Lincoln never specified which dispatches chaffed his sensibilities, it more than likely had to do with anything General Hunter had to say. Hunter was the department commander of the troops facing off against Early’s Rebels. Based out of Frederick, Maryland, he gave little or no hope of doing anything at all about the enemy.
“It appears impossible for the officers of the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps to keep their men up,” he wrote in an August 1st dispatch. “So many are suffering from sunstroke,a dn all from the intense heat and constant marching, that I fear, unless they have some rest, they will be rendered very inefficient for any service.”
But Hunter, it was suspected by Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, might soon be not much of a problem. “If Sheridan in placed general command,” he wrote to Grant on the 2nd, “I presume Hunter will again ask to be relieved. Whatever you decide upon I shall endeavor to have done.”
Of some major concern was the Confederate cavalry that burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Halleck was doing everything in his power to convince Hunter to push forward his cavalry to cut off the Rebel retreat.
But Phil Sheridan’s arrival in the early afternoon should have eased his mind some. Sheridan first dropped in on Halleck, and the two talked strategy, focusing especially on the possibility that the Rebel cavalry would head north across the Potomac once more.
“Sheridan had just arrived,” wrote Halleck to Grant at 2:30pm on this date. “He agrees with me about his command, and prefers the cavalry alone to that and the Sixth Corps. […] He thinks that for operations in the open country of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Northern Virginia cavalry is much better than infantry, and that cavalry arm can be much more effective there than about Richmond or south. He, therefore, suggests that another cavalry division be sent here, so that he can press the enemy clear down to the James River.”
Grant’s reply came an hour later: “Make such disposition of Sheridan as you think best.”
But then came Lincoln’s message and Grant knew just what to do. He received the note at noon the following day, replying: “I will start in two hours for Washington & will spend a day with the Army under Genl Hunter.”
In his memoirs, Grant related that he “soon got off, going directly to the Monocacy without stopping at Washington on my way. I found General Hunter’s army encamped there, scattered over the fields along the banks of the Monocacy, with many hundreds of cars and locomotives, belonging to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which he had taken the precaution to bring back and collect at that point. I asked the general where the enemy was. He replied that he did not know. He said the fact was, that he was so embarrassed with orders from Washington moving him first to the right and then to the left that he had lost all trace of the enemy.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 2, p564, 573, 576, 582-583; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan. [↩]