February 16, 1864 (Tuesday)
“The rebels will give us much trouble in the spring,” wrote General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to William Tecumseh Sherman, “and I fear we will not be fully prepared for them.”
Across the autumn and winter, things had been going fairly well for the Federal cause. Still, there was an air of uncertainty and even panic that much would be lost come spring. As things stood in the middle of February, Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee had just marched across Mississippi and captured Meridian. From there, they threatened Mobile, Alabama. To the south, General Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf was preparing for a late winter campaign along the Red River in Louisiana. It was hoped the Frederick Steele’s Army of Arkansas would storm across their namesake to join with Banks. Following the Meridian Campaign, it was almost assumed that Sherman would cross the Mississippi River to join them.
This would mean that all of the Rebels between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi would be handled by George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and John Schofield’s tiny Army of the Ohio, at Knoxville, Tennessee.
But the correspondence flying between Generals Grant, Halleck, Sherman, Thomas, and Schofield on this date seemed to point to cracks and flaws, and how the victorious seasons could be all for naught.
General-in-Chief Halleck was nervous by nature. In a message sent to Grant at 1pm, he explained his version of the overall plan. Admiral David Farragut “was to threaten Mobile in order to draw the enemy from Sherman and Thomas.” This was actually happening – Farragut began to bombard Fort Powell on this date. Halleck gave General Sherman two more weeks to return to Vicksburg so that he could join Banks on his trip up the Red River, where General Steele could meet them. Halleck was worried because he had not yet heard back from Steele, and Banks was certain that he could not advance without Sherman, and could not return Sherman’s troops unless Steele co-operated.
For Grant’s part, he simply assumed that Banks would back out and Sherman would have to go without the Army of the Gulf. He was probably drawing upon personal experience when he formed this opinion.
While Halleck mulled over Grant’s reply, the latter sent a rather lengthy message to General Schofield in Knoxville. It had already been decided that since the Confederates under James Longstreet were no longer a threat to Knoxville, Schofield would rest his army and allow the veteran troops a thirty-day furlough. But Schofield might have been overly optimistic.
From General Thomas in Chattanooga, Grant received word that Schofield was in a panic that Longstreet was possibly moving on Knoxville after all. Thomas relayed to Grant that Schofield was considering a cavalry raid to cut Longstreet’s supply line, but mostly he needed reinforcements from Thomas. “What shall I do?” asked Thomas of Grant. If he sent reinforcements, they wouldn’t be returned any time soon. Besides, there wasn’t even a real possibility of attacking in a timely manner due to two bridges being out. Also, if Thomas sent reinforcements to Knoxville, it would become necessary to call off any demonstration against the Confederates at Dalton, Georgia under Joe Johnston.
Grant had been pushing Thomas to make a demonstration, but it was things like this that kept Thomas from fully committing to the idea. If only Schofield could hold Knoxville on his own, then Thomas was certain that he could demonstrate against Dalton.
As far as General Schofield was concerned, Longstreet’s army, which was now occupying his army’s old campgrounds at Strawberry Plains, was up to one of two things. To Thomas, Schofield reasoned that Longstreet was going to destroy the railroad. This was bad, of course, but nothing really new. Knoxville would still remain secure, and Thomas could probably get away with not reinforcing him. But to one of his corps commanders, General Gordon Granger, Schofield mused that Longstreet was “moving from Dandridge along the foot of Smoky Mountains, intending to cross the Little Tennessee as far up as possible and then make his way into Georgia.”
Schofield wasn’t completely certain of this, as the information came from a scout, but directed his cavalry to look into it. If true, both Schofield and Thomas would have to work together to keep Longstreet from joining with Johnston.
While Grant, Thomas, and Schofield tried to figure this out, General-in-Chief Halleck wrote a cordial letter to General Sherman, resting his troops in Meridian. The two had been friendly since the Siege of Corinth in 1862. Sherman would spend hours in Halleck’s field headquarters, and the two struck up an unlikely friendship.
Halleck’s letter merely alluded to the springtime trouble the Rebels might give. The bulk of it, however, was about Grant. Very likely rumors had been floating around Washington that Congress was going to reinstate the rank of lieutenant-general, specifically to award it to Grant. This would place Grant at the head of all the armies – a position General-in-Chief Henry Halleck basically occupied.
Alluding to some gobblings in the press designed to “create difficulties and jealousies between me and General Grant,” Halleck brushed them aside, claiming “This is all for political effect. There is not the slightest ground for any such assertions.” Halleck was sure that Grant would be given the post, and vowed to Sherman that “I shall most cordially welcome him to the command, glad to be relieved from so thankless and disagreeable a position.”
Halleck then denigrated his own occupation, saying that he “took it against my will, and shall be most happy to leave it as soon as another is designed to fill it.” Grant would be taking over Halleck’s job, and likely ousting Halleck to an early retirement or possible reassignment – who could be sure at this point?
In January, Halleck wrote to Grant simply asking him his opinion about what might be done in the east. Grant replied, and on this date, Halleck began to compose his unasked for rebuttal, which he would send the following day.
In it, he dismissed most of Grant’s plans, such as taking Richmond and a move through North Carolina, both of which were either pointless or had already been discussed. Grant was, in Halleck’s approximation, out of touch with the east and unoriginal. Halleck was convinced that General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was so strong that General Meade’s Army of the Potomac could not risk attacking, let alone sending troops to North Carolina, as Grant had suggested. If they acted as Grant wished it would, in Halleck’s view, uncover Washington. Lee would then launch a third invasion of the North, which would require the troops sent to North Carolina to defend Washington, Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.
It was plain – Grant’s ideas would lead to devastation in the North. It was Lee’s Army, not Richmond or North Carolina, that was the objective. “We cannot take Richmond… and we cannot operate advantageously on any point from the Atlantic coast,” wrote Halleck, “till we destroy or disperse that army [Lee’s], and the nearer to Washington we can fight it the better for us.”
Halleck was concerned about supply lines. Grant, on the other hand, had given up that idea the previous year. Halleck, like Grant, had some incredibly good points. Neither’s plan, as it stood on its own, would prove as successful as both plans plotted together. And still, the accepted idea was that Grant’s promotion would make Halleck redundant. If only there were a way to keep them both.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 2, p401, 402, 403, 404, 407-408, 411-413; Pretense of Glory by James G. hollandworth, Jr.; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders. [↩]