Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson


On March 8, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant and his eldest son, Fred, arrived at Washington, DC. It was the general’s first visit to Washington since 1852, when he had been a young officer. What happened next is fairly well known. The front desk clerk at Willard’s Hotel did not recognize his distinguished guest and assigned him a small room before realizing that the hero of Vicksburg and Chattanooga was standing before him. After struggling to eat a meal at the hotel restaurant as excited onlookers buzzed around him, Grant made his way over to the weekly White House reception. Onlookers made way for the general: Abraham Lincoln greeted him warmly, and William H. Seward led him to the East Room, where he stood on a sofa to avoid being crushed by a mob of well-wishers.

This went on for an hour, whereupon Seward led Grant to the Blue Room. There Lincoln briefed him on what would happen the next day when the president would present him with his commission as lieutenant general. Perhaps, Lincoln hinted, Grant could say something that would alleviate any jealousy among his fellow generals and compliment the long-struggling Army of the Potomac. At the ceremony the next afternoon, a somewhat nervous Grant accepted the commission without complying with Lincoln’s request; the following day he hurried down to visit the Army of the Potomac and its commander, George G. Meade, in Virginia.[1]

The previous August, Grant had expressed relief that he had avoided replacing Meade in the wake of dissatisfaction that Meade had not crushed Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia after Gettysburg. He confided that "it would cause me more sadness than satisfaction" to assume that command. "Here I know the officers and men and what each Gen. is capable of as a separate commander," he told Charles A. Dana. "There I would have all to learn. Here I know the geography of the country, and its resources. There it would be a new study." Besides, he knew that the officers and men of the Army of the Potomac would resent having an outsider take charge. But becoming general-in-chief of the armies of the United States was different. Grant thought he could direct operations while staying in the West, leaving someone else to run matters in the East. Indeed, his predecessor as commanding general, Henry W. Halleck, had rather bluntly dismissed Grant’s thoughts on how to wage operations in the eastern theater after having sought his input.[2]

Grant preferred to stay away from Washington as much as possible. He knew that Lincoln had a reputation for meddling in military affairs; he was aware that he had not always been the president’s favorite general, and had taken pains to let Lincoln know through third parties that he harbored no presidential ambitions. As 1864 was an election year, this was no minor matter. Nor did he care for the poisonous atmosphere of Washington politics. Neither did his good friend and subordinate, William T. Sherman. "For God’s sake and for your country’s sake, come out of Washington!" he beseeched. Nothing good happened there. It would be in the western theater where victory would be won.

Sherman had no doubt that Grant would win in the end. He marveled at his friend’s "simple faith in success . . . which I can liken to nothing else than the faith a Christian has in his Saviour." Grant, he said, went into battle "without hesitation, . . . no doubts, no reserve; and I tell you that it was this that made us act with confidence. . . . My only points of doubt were as to your knowledge of grand strategy, and of books of science and history; but I confess your common-sense seems to have supplied all this."[3]

It would be Grant’s common sense, however, that soon led him to decide that his place would be in the eastern theater. Impressed by Meade’s willingness to step aside and allow Grant to pick his own man to head the Army of the Potomac, Grant decided to retain Meade where he was, in part because he (and not Grant) knew that army well. Learning that Meade even then was fending off a congressional investigation into his performance during the Gettysburg campaign, Grant also realized that the only way to shield the armies in the East from political meddling was for him to stay there . . . just not in the capital itself. When, on returning to Washington, Lincoln sought to have his new commanding general make the social rounds, Grant put an end to such notions, declaring: "Really, Mr. President, I have had enough of this show business."[4]

This statement may have come as a surprise to the president, whose previous experience suggested that certain generals could never get enough of "this show business." Before long, however, Lincoln realized that something else rendered Grant distinctive. "Wherever he is, things move," he told William O. Stoddard, one of his private secretaries. Moreover, unlike several of his predecessors, Grant "doesn’t ask me to do impossibilities for him, and he’s the first general I’ve had who didn’t."[5]

Before long Grant set forth what would happen. He would come east, with Sherman replacing him in the West. When spring came and the roads dried, all of the armies would be set in motion, placing continuous pressure on the Confederates. It all boiled down to a simple concept, as Sherman later recalled: "He was to go for Lee and I was to go for Joe Johnston."[6]

In the year to come there would be much blood shed and some dark moments. There would also be stirring triumphs and hundred-gun salutes. And, finally, there was this: thirteen months to the day that Grant shook Lincoln’s hand upon accepting his commission, he shook Robert E. Lee’s hand as he accepted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

[1] Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969), 124–28.

[2] Ulysses S. Grant to Charles A. Dana, August 5, 1863, in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, John Y. Simon, ed., vol. 9 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 146; Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822–1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 250–52; Catton, Grant Takes Command, 7.                                   

[3] William T. Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, March 10, 1864, in Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 735–36.

[4] Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant, 263.

[5] Catton, Grant Takes Command, 176–77.

[6] Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant, 265.

Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.