As May began in 1864 in Central Virginia, there were entirely new dynamics at work. The 2 armies, and by extension the nations they represented, were a totally different force than they were just 6 months before.
The most obvious difference of course was on the Union side. For starters, U.S. Grant was now a lieutenant general and in command of all field armies of the nation. He stayed only 3 days in Washington before moving with his headquarters staff to set up operations collocated with George Meade and the army of the Potomac. There was a certain air of optimism and competence expressed by the Westerners which irritated the men of the Army of the Potomac.
Just the day before Grant had received the following letter from the President:
In this correspondence you can see the respect to the 2 men shared…a critical difference than what had existed in previous command relationships between executive and his commanders. But in the realm of trust but verify postulated by another president 120 years later Lincoln sent ASST SEC of the ARMY Charles Dana to ride with Grant. Dana had first been sent out to Vicksburg to keep an eye on Grant and check on reports of alcohol abuse; he quickly replied to Washington the reports were unfounded. The 2 built up a mutual trust during the Vicksburg Campaign. Dana’s presence relieved Grant of having to maintain a continuous correspondence with the War Department…he gladly had Dana fill that role.Executive MANSION, WASHINGTON, April 30, 1864.
Not expecting to see you before the Spring campaign opens, I wish to express in this war, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know, nor seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any restraints or constraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided, I know that these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there be anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now, with a brave army and a just cause, may God sustain you.
Yours, very truly.
HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES, CULPEPPER COURT-HOUSE, May 1, 1864.
THE PRESIDENT: Your very kind letter of yesterday is just received. The confidence you express for the future and satisfaction for the past in my military administration, is acknowledged with pride. It shall be my earnest endeavor that you and the country shall not be disappointed. From my first entrance into the volunteer service of the country to the present day, I have never had cause of complaint, have never expressed or implied a complaint against the Administration or the Secretary of War, for throwing any embarrassment in the way of my vigorously prosecuting what appeared to be my duty.
Indeed, since the promotion which placed me in command of all the armies, and in view of the great responsibility and importance of success, I have been astonished at the readiness which everything asked for has been yielded, without even an explanation being asked. Should my success be less than I desire and expect, the least I can say is, the fault is not with you.
Very truly, your obedient servant,
U.S. GRANT, Lieut.-Gen.
Grant’s plan was simple…in 1864 all Union forces would cooperate and execute offensives in a coordinated manner. Each was given a simple objective…attack the corresponding Confederate force and keep them engaged in battle so each could not reinforce the other.
- Sherman’s forces of the Military Division of the Mississippi were to attack Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee and threaten Atlanta.
- Nathaniel Banks was to attack Mobile to keep forces in the lower Gulf states tied down (he went up the Red River instead….that is another story and sometimes I think Grant should have fired Halleck over that one!)
- Benjamin Butler would attack up the James River to cut the Richmond Petersburg Railroad, establish a base at City Point, VA, and provide forces to Grant as needed.
- Franz Sigel’s small army from the Department of West Virginia was to move up the Shenandoah Valley to pin down Confederate forces there.
- The main fight was to occur in central Virginia which would have Meade square off against Lee. Grant’s orders to Lee were simple….”wherever Lee goes you go.” And the instrument to affect this mission had changed the most of all the Federal armies since the end of the Mine Run Campaign in the previous November.
In March of 1864 Meade sent to the War Department the following proposal
With this move Meade handled MANY vexing issues rather deftly.Washington, D.C., March 4, 1864.
Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck,
Sir: I beg leave to submit for your consideration and that of the honorable Secretary of War the following plan for the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac:
I propose to reduce the number of corps, now five, to three. In doing this I propose to retain the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Corps, reducing the three divisions now in each to two divisions. I then propose to consolidate the two divisions of the Third Corps (constituting the old corps) into one division and transfer it temporarily to the Fifth Corps; this division to retain its corps badges and other distinctive marks, and having understood that when the accession of recruits shall justify the organization of another corps, this division shall resume its position as the Third Corps with such additions as can be made.
In the same manner I propose to consolidate the First Corps into a division, and, with its distinctive marks, &c., assign it to the Second Corps. This would leave the Third Division of the Third Corps, which did not belong to the original corps, but joined after Gettysburg, under Major-General French, which I propose to transfer to the Sixth Corps.
The Second and Sixth Corps, being now commanded by officers assigned by the President of the United States, will continue to be so commanded. The Fifth Corps I propose to have commanded by Major-General Warren, by the assignment of the President.
Of the two corps temporarily broken up, I propose to assign the officers of the general staff to vacancies that may exist in the other corps.
After the above general organization is decided on, general officers will be assigned to divisions and brigades on consultation with corps commanders. The present temporary commanders of the First, Third, and Fifth Corps, it is understood, the Department has decided to relieve. A list of general officers whom in my judgment it is expedient to relieve is herewith furnished, viz: Brig. Gen. J. R. Kenly, Brig. Gen. F. B. Spinola, Brig. Gen. Sol. Meredith.
I should be glad, if this organization is decided upon, that those general officers belonging to the Army of the Potomac and now absent on detached duty be ordered to rejoin, as well as such forces as may have been detached for special purposes.
Geo. G. Meade, Major-General, Commanding, Army of the Potomac.
1. At Gettysburg he recognized that the small size of Union corps put them at a disadvantage against like Confederate units. He standardized a minimum of 3 brigades to a division, 3 divisions to a corps. Some units had more; none had less.
2. At Gettysburg and the following campaigns Meade had to pass orders to up to 8 different corps commanders ) G’burg 7 infantry/ 1 cavalry; Bristoe Station & Mine Run 5 infantry & 1 cavalry). A reduction in the number of 4 corps total (3 infantry/ 1 cavalry) would streamline orders processes.
3. Keep in mind that even in the Army, the politics of the day were huge. Almost all general officers were ardent Democrats…War Democrats to be sure but they did not support the Republican Party platforms. Hey were, by nature, conservative men. So that meant abolitionists like Abner Doubleday were gone…too bad, he was a damn fine combat commander.
4. It allowed him to remove 3 subpar corps commanders, John Newton, William French and George Sykes. He was able to secure the return of Winfield Scott Hancock, Hancock the Superb, to the command of his old 2nd Corps. By asking Lincoln:
The Fifth Corps I propose to have commanded by Major-General Warren, by the assignment of the President.
Meade continued to provide favor on an officer he thought very promising who had performed adequately in the wake of Gettysburg, Gouvernour Warren. By having the President appoint him the commander of the last of the open corps, the 5th Corps, Meade guaranteed he would not have to take back into the Army a political hack who was clamoring for a return to duty….George Sickles. Sickles wanted back in the Army. He was heartily despised by the Regulars in the Army in general and Meade in Particular. Meade could never forgive Sickles for his disobedience at Gettysburg which almost cost Meade the battle. Additionally, Meade believed Sickles was behind the entire Historicus affair (Who Was Historicus) which had caused Meade much grief. This deft political move checkmated Sickles.
John Sedgwick retained command of the 6th Corps. As at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, the 6th Corps was the largest infantry corps in the Army of the Potomac. Up to this point in the war, the 6th had been noted for success three times; when the corps took Marye’s Heights at Second Fredericksburg, when they had overrun the Confederate defenses at Rappahannock Station and when the Vermont Brigade broke the line at Mine Run. Other than that the corps had played mainly supporting roles. Stanton had wanted Sedgwick fired since he was a confirmed McClellan man, but he was beloved by the troops of the army. Meade knew that “Uncle John” was his most experienced subordinate and had faith in him. It would seem that the 6th corps would have a rendezvous with destiny with 1864.
In the mounted force the overmatched Alfred Pleasonton was gone, sent to the Trans-Mississippi. He was replaced by a Grant favorite, the irascible Philip Sheridan. In November of 1863 the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was excellent. Despite halting starts and fits in 1864 Sheridan would make it superb. While he and 2 of his division commanders lacked experience they were all fighters….and the troopers were damn good soldiers. Gone were the days of Jeb Stuart and the Beaux Cavaliers. Instead the dark horsemen of the apocalypse were riding Federal blue.
Of key staff, Meade kept his choice as chief-of-staff Andrew Humphries and Henry Hunt as chief of artillery. If one were to look up the word hardass in a dictionary you would see a picture of A. A. Humphries staring back at you. But he was a brilliant tactician and staff chief. He was the first modern combat chief of staff as we think of them today. Henry Hunt would continue to serve as the finest gunner the Federal army would produce but he would see his guns play a lesser role in the campaigns ahead.
The following is an interesting editorial from late March 1864 regarding the reorganization.
So that is the head…what of the body? As a whole the men of the Army of the Potomac were an experienced, hardened, determined force. Men from the 1st & 3rd Corps were allowed to keep their old corps badges upon amalgamation. Units were reinforced over the winter through reenlistments and new recruits. Some of the first draftees began to arrive to fill units as well as bounty men. Most of the new arrivals, however, were substitutes. Among the new men 2 new groups began to be seen….Asians and Native Americans. Recruiters had gone West to fill quotas and they were not too picky. The Indian reservations of New York, Maine, Michigan and Ohio had proven fertile ground. Also Lincoln’s shrewd reinstatement of Sigel may have disastrous battlefield results but it did result in a surge of enlistments by Germans in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois and Missouri. Finally, Grant had scoured the commands guarding Washington as well as line of communications to provide new units….the Heavy Artillery.
But there was a ticking time bomb…many of the best units were 3 year regiments. They had fought loyally and hard from the Peninsula to Mine Run. But they had been raised in the dark days following Bull Run. Many of these units’ enlistments would expire starting as early as late June. In many ways, this was a use it or lose it army, much like McDowell’s forces at Bull Run, Montgomery’s forces at Quebec and Washington’s forces at Trenton. Meade and Grant had to get the best use out of this force before it started to disintegrate.
Later more on Meade’s objective…the Army of Northern Virginia.