The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – Grant, The Pivot Point

It’s easy to forget that we take the American Civil War as a given. But before Grant took Vicksburg, our main historical reference point was the American Revolution.

A lot of the rhetoric – north and south – leading up to war’s outbreak in 1861 references that event. During the Civil War, people on both sides often compared their situation to their grandparents’ fight against tyranny and for freedom (whether their grandparents were famous or not).

That generation certainly would have understood this monument…

but not this…
...for they were building it all unwittingly.  (Image: Kim Davies)

…for they were building it all unwittingly. (Image: Kim Davies)

McClellan the Conservative

The effects of a successful revolution were woven deeply into the fabric of the two Americas,** and I believe this was a big influence on how the early campaigns of the Civil War were conducted.

There was always hope for the continuation of a land of liberty that had first established itself a mere 78-80 years earlier (Lincoln referenced the start of the Revolutionary War in his Gettysburg address), and so military leaders proceeded cautiously after war broke out.

Even on contested ground there could be shows of respect for the common heritage.


General McClellan in 1861. (Wikipedia).

During the Peninsula Campaign in May 1862, for example, US General George McClellan reportedly guaranteed safe passage to Richmond for Robert E. Lee’s wife Mary Custis Lee(she had rheumatoid arthritis and had been unable to evacuate during the Union army’s rapid advance through Virginia).

Until forced to retreat, McClellan also honored the note that Mary had pinned to the front door of her son’s house, where she was staying and where George Washington had once courted Martha Custis. According to Shelby Foote, the note said,

Northern soldiers who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the home of his first married life, – property of his wife, now owned by her descendants. – A Grand-daughter of Mrs. Washington.

Well, US soldiers burned the house in the aftermath of the Seven Days’ Battle, but a week later General McClellan wrote a letter to US President Lincoln that showed he was still concerned about the larger issues raised by the war.

“Little Mac” was the quintessential difficult person, but his men worshiped him and the nation loved him for a reason. He was conservative, which was comforting as the Industrial Revolution reshaped the society, and yet his principles were rooted in the American revolution, just like everybody else’s.

Unfortunately, McClellan’s recent massive defeat undercut his argument that military operations must be scrupulously careful not to infringe on civil liberties because “[o]ur cause … is the cause of free institutions and self government.”

Little Mac recognized that something was missing: “Unless the principles governing the further conduct of our struggle shall be made known and approved, the effort to obtain requisite forces will be almost hopeless.”

That is, northerners could see that the South had a point and southerners had no problem with the North’s basic claim that “all men are created equal.” The devil was in the details, and now there was the devil to pay. What was to be done?

Lincoln and McClellan in October 1862.  Not exactly a love-fest, is it.

Lincoln and McClellan in October 1862. Not exactly a love-fest, is it.

McClellan had some ideas, but as expressed in the Harrison’s Bar letter of July 1863, they were rather vague.

Lincoln had nothing remarkably better to offer but apparently lacked confidence in the general’s belief that a “system of policy thus constitutional and conservative, and pervaded by the influences of Christianity and freedom, would receive the support of almost all truly loyal men, would deeply impress the rebel masses and all foreign nations, and it might be humbly hoped that it would commend itself to the favor of the Almighty,” for he gave the job of general in chief, which McClellan was angling for, to Henry Halleck.

Together Lincoln and Halleck struggled for over a year as the war went on. There was progress sometimes, and setbacks happened, but nothing earth-shatteringly new occurred to signal a definite advantage for one side or the other. McClellan, in the meantime, went offstage and eventually got set to challenge Lincoln for the presidency.

Then Lee invaded the north in 1863, and Grant took Vicksburg.

Grant’s Anarchical Elements

Dogs and cats, sleeping together.  (Image: jinterwas)

Dogs and cats, sleeping together. (Image: jinterwas)

I’m certainly no expert but do suspect that Grant’s startling success at Vicksburg would have given the US an advantage even if the Gettysburg campaign had succeeded to the point of forcing Lincoln and the US Congress out of Washington (they never would have capitulated, of course, and probably would have reestablished the capital in New York).

Britain might have come in on the CS side had Lee succeeded, but the South would still have faced a two-front war, with the vital Mississippi in Federal hands. There would also be exactly the same sort of citizen resistance raging in Pennsylvania and points northward that Grant and Sherman did have to quell in Mississippi and points eastward.

Also, nobody had a clue what he looked like.  (Library of Congress)

Also, nobody had a clue what he looked like. (Library of Congress)

Well, Lee’s campaign failed and Vicksburg fell. Our current pantheon of Civil War “gods” and “devils” began taking shape, and in the latter part of 1863, Ulysses S. Grant found himself rather isolated among his peers.

No lofty principles for him! He had taken the war to the people, starving fellow Americans into submission. His armies were now conducting punitive raids and scorching the fertile Southern earth. Worse, he had succeeded decisively when other generals could not.

So the moral indignation (especially if you counted the drinking, and most people did) and envy bases were covered. Worst of all, he represented something new during a major crisis in a post-revolution society. That was truly scary, especially with so much at stake.

Had Grant not had a habit of achieving badly needed victories, he probably would have been arrested long before the siege of Vicksburg ever began.

General Sherman, perhaps, put it best in his memoirs:

Until you had won Donelson, I confess I was almost cowed by the terrible array of anarchical elements that presented themselves at every point; but that victory admitted the ray of light which I have followed ever since.

It took a while – when Grant first arrived to take command in Chattanooga on a cold rainy evening in 1863, he was greeted with reserved silence by his staff and had to ask for a chair, even though he had won at Vicksburg and these defenders of Chattanooga were literally starving from the siege.

Pivoting Away From the Past

Still, roughly 150 years ago this week, everybody else fell in step with William T. Sherman. This guy got things done. It wasn’t pretty sometimes, but finally victory had a name: “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

If he neglected the rules of war, as at Vicksburg, it was to make better rules for those who were strong enough to employ them.
Henry Ward Beecher

After years of war, principles were easy to lose once hope arrived. Everybody manned up and more or less agreed to play by the new rules.

And so Grant became the pivot point between the past (as embodied in George McClellan) and the future that today is our present, with all its glory and ugliness.

The conqueror of Vicksburg and Chattanooga, while reviled, nonetheless impressed the South (Sherman again, truthfully: “Even in the seceded States your word now would go further than a President’s proclamation, or an act of Congress”).

In the North, they turned to the American Revolution once more, reviving George Washington’s old rank (which had been effectively retired after Washington) and pinning all their hopes as well as three stars on Grant, and then sat back to see what would happen.

They wouldn’t have long to wait.
Three star USGrant

** Those effects are still a part of us today, but in a unified country. Think about it. (Back)

Categories: American Civil War

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