Table of Contents

Lincoln and Grant

The great army of R. E. Lee operated, through the whole period of the four years of the war, almost within sight of Washington City. It is not in the least strange that eastern men, many of whom had hardly crossed the Alleghanies, should think that the operations in Virginia were about all the war there was, and that the fighting in the West was of subordinate importance. Lincoln could not fall into this error. Not only had he a singularly broad vision, but he was himself a western man. He fully appreciated the magnitude of the operations in that vast territory lying between the Alleghanies on the east and the western boundary of Missouri on the west. He also clearly understood the importance of keeping open the Mississippi River throughout its entire length.

At the very time the Army of the Potomac was apparently doing nothing, –winning no victories, destroying no armies, making no permanent advances,–there was a man in the West who was building up for himself a remarkable reputation. He was all the while winning victories, destroying armies, making advances. He was always active, he was always successful. The instant one thing was accomplished he turned his energies to a new task. This was Grant.

He was a graduate of West Point, had seen service in the Mexican War, and ultimately rose to the grade of captain. At the outbreak of the war he was in business with his father in Galena, Illinois. When the President called for the 75,000 men, Grant proceeded at once to make himself useful by drilling volunteer troops. He was by the governor of Illinois commissioned as colonel, and was soon promoted. His first service was in Missouri. When stationed at Cairo he seized Paducah on his own responsibility. This stroke possibly saved Kentucky for the Union, for the legislature, which had up to that time been wavering, declared at once in favor of the Union.

He was then ordered to break up a Confederate force at Belmont, a few miles below Cairo. He started at once on his expedition, and though the enemy was largely reinforced before his arrival, he was entirely successful and returned with victory, not excuses.

Then came Forts Henry and Donaldson. The latter attracted unusual attention because it was the most important Union victory up to that time, and because of his epigrammatic reply to the offer of surrender. When asked what terms he would allow, his reply was, “Unconditional surrender.” As these initials happened to fit the initials of his name, he was for a long time called “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” So he passed promptly from one task to another, from one victory to another. And Lincoln kept watch of him. He began to think that Grant was the man for the army.

It has been said that Lincoln, while he gave general directions to his soldiers, and freely offered suggestions, left them to work out the military details in their own way. This is so well illustrated in his letter to Grant that, for this reason, as well as for the intrinsic interest of the letter, it is here given in full:

“MY DEAR GENERAL:–I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do what you finally did–march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition and the like could succeed. When you got below and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join General Banks; and when you turned northward, east of the Big Black, I thought it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right and I was wrong.”

There was surely no call for this confession, no reason for the letter, except the bigness of the heart of the writer. Like the letter to Hooker, it was just such a letter as a father might write a son. It was the production of a high grade of manliness.

Prominence always brings envy, fault-finding, hostility. From this Grant did not escape. The more brilliant and uniform his successes, the more clamorous a certain class of people became. The more strictly he attended to his soldierly duties, the more busily certain people tried to interfere,–to tell him how to do, or how not to do. In their self- appointed censorship they even besieged the President and made life a burden to him. With wit and unfailing good nature, he turned their criticisms. When they argued that Grant could not possibly be a good soldier, he replied, “I like him; he fights.”

When they charged him with drunkenness, Lincoln jocularly proposed that they ascertain the brand of the whisky he drank and buy up a large amount of the same sort to send to his other generals, so that they might win victories like him!

Grant’s important victories in the West came in rapid and brilliant succession. Forts Henry and Donaldson were captured in February, 1862. The battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, was fought in April of the same year. Vicksburg surrendered July 4th, 1863. And the battle of Chattanooga took place in November of that year.

Grant was always sparing of words and his reports were puzzling to the administration. He always reported, and that promptly. But his reports were of the briefest description and in such marked contrast to those of all other officers known to the government, that they were a mystery to those familiar with certain others. Lincoln said that Grant could do anything except write a report. He concluded to send a trusty messenger to see what manner of man this victorious general was. Charles A. Dana, Assistant-Secretary of War, was chosen for this purpose. His investigation was satisfactory, fully so. Lincoln’s confidence in, and hopes for, this rising warrior were fully justified.

It was after the capitulation of Vicksburg that Grant grasped the fact that he was the man destined to end the war. After the battle of Chattanooga public opinion generally pointed to him as the general who was to lead our armies to ultimate victory. In February, 1864, congress passed an act creating the office of Lieutenant General. The President approved that act on Washington’s birthday, and nominated Grant for that office. The senate confirmed this nomination on March 2d, and Grant was ordered to report at Washington.

With his usual promptness he started at once for Washington, arriving there the 8th of March. The laconic conversation which took place between the President and the general has been reported about as follows:–

“What do you want me to do?”

“To take Richmond. Can you do it?”

“Yes, if you furnish me troops enough.”

That evening there was a levee at the White House which he attended. The crowd were very eager to see him, and he was persuaded to mount a sofa, which he did blushing, so that they might have a glimpse of him, but he could not be prevailed on to make a speech. On parting that evening with the President, he said, “This is the warmest campaign I have witnessed during the war.”

That evening Lincoln informed him that he would on the next day formally present his commission with a brief speech–four sentences in all. He suggested that Grant reply in a speech suitable to be given out to the country in the hope of reviving confidence and courage. The formality of the presentation occurred the next day, but the general disappointed the President as to the speech. He accepted the commission with remarks of soldier-like brevity.

It is fitting here to say of General Meade that as he had accepted his promotion to the command of the Army of the Potomac with dignified humility, so he accepted his being superseded with loyal obedience. In both cases he was a model of a patriot and a soldier.

As soon as he received his commission Grant visited his future army– the Army of the Potomac. Upon his return Mrs. Lincoln planned to give a dinner in his honor. But this was not to his taste. He said, “Mrs. Lincoln must excuse me. I must be in Tennessee at a given time.”

“But,” replied the President, “we can’t excuse you. Mrs. Lincoln’s dinner without you would be Hamlet with Hamlet left out.”

“I appreciate the honor Mrs. Lincoln would do me,” he said, “but time is very important now–and really–Mr. Lincoln–I have had enough of this show business.”

Mr. Lincoln was disappointed in losing the guest for dinner, but he was delighted with the spirit of his new general.

Grant made his trip to the West. How he appreciated the value of time is shown by the fact that he had his final conference with his successor, General Sherman, who was also his warm friend, on the railway train en route to Cincinnati. He had asked Sherman to accompany him so far for the purpose of saving time.

On March 17th General Grant assumed command of the armies of the United States with headquarters in the field. He was evidently in earnest. As Lincoln had cordially offered help and encouragement to all the other generals, so he did to Grant. The difference between one general and another was not in Lincoln’s offer of help, or refusal to give it, but there was a difference in the way in which his offers were received. The following correspondence tells the story of the way he held himself alert to render assistance:


WASHINGTON, April 30, 1864.


Not expecting to see you again before the spring campaign opens, I wish to express in this way my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plan I neither know nor seek to know. You are vigilant and self- reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster or capture of our men in great numbers shall be avoided, I know these points will be less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there is 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, A. LINCOLN.”

“Headquarters Armies of the United States, Culpepper Court-House, May 1, 1864.”


“Your very kind letter of yesterday is just received. The confidence you express for the future and satisfaction with the past in my military administration is acknowledged with pride. It will 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 me 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 with 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-General.”

There is just here a subject on which there is a curious difference of opinion between Grant and John Hay. Grant says that, on his last visit to Washington before taking the field, the President had become acquainted with the fact that a general movement had been ordered all along the line, and seemed (italics ours) to think it a new feature in war. He explained this plan to the President who was greatly interested and said, “Oh, yes! I see that. As we say out West, if a man can’t skin, he must hold a leg while somebody else does.”

There is, at the same time, documentary evidence that Lincoln had been continually urging this precise plan on all his generals. Mr. Hay therefore distrusts the accuracy of General Grant’s memory. To the present writer, there is no mystery in the matter. The full truth is large enough to include the statement of Grant as well as that of Nicolay and Hay. Mr. Hay is certainly right in claiming that Lincoln from the first desired such a concerted movement all along the line; for, even though not all could fight at the same time, those not fighting could help otherwise. This was the force of the western proverb, “Those not skinning can hold a leg,” which he quoted to all his generals from Buell to Grant.

When therefore Grant explained precisely this plan to Lincoln, the latter refrained from the natural utterance,–"That is exactly what I have been trying to get our generals to do all these years.” In courtesy to Grant he did not claim to have originated the plan, hut simply preserved a polite silence. He followed eagerly as the general reiterated his own ideas, and the exclamation, “Oh, yes! I see that," would mean more to Lincoln than Grant could possibly have guessed. He did see it, he had seen it a long time.

It will be remembered that Lincoln had, for the sake of comprehending the significance of one word, mastered Euclid after he became a lawyer. There is here another evidence of the same thoroughness and force of will. During the months when the Union armies were accomplishing nothing, he procured the necessary books and set himself, in the midst of all his administrative cares, to the task of learning the science of war. That he achieved more than ordinary success will now surprise no one who is familiar with his character. His military sagacity is attested by so high an authority as General Sherman. Other generals have expressed their surprise and gratification at his knowledge and penetration in military affairs. But never at any time did he lord it over his generals. He did make suggestions. He did ask McClellan why one plan was better than another. He did ask some awkward questions of Meade. But it was his uniform policy to give his generals all possible help, looking only for results, and leaving details unreservedly in their hands. This is the testimony of McClellan and Grant, and the testimony of the two generals, so widely different in character and method, should be and is conclusive. Grant says that Lincoln expressly assured him that he preferred not to know his purposes,–he desired only to learn what means he needed to carry them out, and promised to furnish these to the full extent of his power.

Side by side these two men labored, each in his own department, until the war was ended and their work was done. Though so different, they were actuated by the same spirit. Not even the southern generals themselves had deeper sympathy with, or greater tenderness for, the mass of the Confederate soldiers. It was the same magnanimity in Lincoln and Grant that sent the conquered army, after their final defeat, back to the industries of peace that they might be able to provide against their sore needs.

When that madman assassinated the President, the conspiracy included also the murder of the general. This failed only by reason of Grant’s unexpected absence from Washington City on the night of the crime.