On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill

Lieutenant-General Grant

Until he arrived in Washington Lincoln had never met the man to whom he had entrusted the supreme command of the army, and the new General was a very different individual from those who had been previously appointed to high rank. Some of his predecessors had possessed undoubted ability, but most of them had soon acquired an exaggerated idea of their own importance, surrounding themselves with showy staffs in gorgeous attire, delighting in military pomp and etiquette of every kind, and generally displaying a great weakness for popular admiration and applause. Moreover, all of them, with the exception of Meade, had talked too much for their own good and that of the army, so that many of their plans had become known in Richmond almost as soon as they had been formed. Indeed, they not only talked, but wrote too much, and in discussions with their superiors and wrangling with their fellow officers more than one proved far mightier with the pen than with the sword. All this, to a very large extent, was the fault of the public, for it had made an idol of each new General, deluging him with praise, flattering his vanity and fawning on him until he came to regard the war as a sort of background for his own greatness. Thus, for almost three years, the war was conducted more like a great game than a grim business, and not until it began visibly to sap the life blood and resources of the nation did the people, as a whole, realize the awful task confronting them.

Both sides had begun the conflict in much the same careless fashion, but the South had immediately become the battle ground, and the horrors of war actually seen and felt by its people quickly sobered even the most irresponsible. But from the very first Lee had taken a serious view of the whole situation. Every word he spoke or wrote concerning it was distinctly tinged with solemnity, if not sadness, and his sense of responsibility had a marked influence upon the whole Confederacy. It had taken the North almost three years to respond in a similar spirit, but by that time it was ready for a leader who knew what war really meant and for whom it had no glory, and such a leader had undoubtedly been found in Grant.

In the evening of March 8, 1864, the new commander arrived in Washington and made his way, without attracting any attention, to one of the hotels. There was nothing in his presence or manner to indicate that he was a person of any importance. Indeed, he presented a decidedly commonplace appearance, for he walked with an awkward lurch and bore himself in a slouchy fashion which made him even shorter than he was. Moreover, his uniform was faded and travel-stained, his close-cropped beard and hair were unkempt, and his attire was careless to the point of slovenliness. There was, however, something in the man's clear-cut features, firm mouth and chin and resolute blue eyes which suggested strength, and while his face, as a whole, would not have attracted any particular notice in a crowd, no one in glancing at it would have been inclined to take any liberties with its owner.

But though Grant had arrived unheralded and unrecognized at the national capital, he had barely given his name to the hotel clerk before the whole city was surging about him eager to catch a glimpse of the new hero and cheer him to the echo. But however much notoriety of this sort had pleased some of his predecessors, Grant soon showed that he wanted no applauding mob to greet him in the streets, for he quickly escaped to the seclusion of his own room. But the same public that had cheered itself hoarse for McClellan, Pope and Hooker, and then hissed them all in turn, had found another hero and was not to be cheated of its prey. Indeed, the newcomer was not even allowed to eat his dinner in peace, for a crowd of gaping and congratulating enthusiasts descended upon him the moment he reappeared and soon drove him from the dining room in sheer disgust.

Possibly the fate of the fallen idols had warned Grant against making a public exhibition of himself or encouraging the hysterical acclamations of the crowd, but he was naturally a man of sound, common sense, entirely free from conceit, and he had no idea of allowing the idle or curious mob to amuse itself at his expense. He, therefore, quickly made it plain that he had serious work to do and that he intended to do it without nonsense of any kind.

Ceremonies and forms with such a man would have been impossible, and on March 9, 1864, President Lincoln handed him his commission as a Lieutenant-General, with a few earnest words to which he made a modest reply, and then, with the same calmness he had displayed in assuming the colonelcy of the 21st Illinois, he turned to the duties involved in the command of half a million men.

From that time forward no more councils of war were held at the White House and no more military secrets were disclosed to the Confederate chiefs. "I do not know General Grant's plans, and I do not want to know them!" exclaimed Lincoln with relief. But other people did want to know them and the newspaper reporters and busybodies of all sorts incessantly buzzed about him, employing every device from subtle flattery to masked threats to discover his designs. But Grant knew "how to keep silent in seven different languages" and no one could beguile him into opening his lips. Neither had he time nor inclination to listen to other people talk. His troops were spread over a thousand miles of territory, and never before had they been under the absolute control of any one man. With the Army of the Potomac he had had but little practical experience; of the country in which its campaigns had been conducted he knew nothing at first hand; with a few exceptions he had no personal acquaintance with the officers under his immediate command, and there were countless other difficulties which had to be overcome. He, therefore, had no leisure for trifling and quickly sent all intruders about their business while he attended to his own.

The problem involved in a grand campaign was in many respects new to him, but doing his own thinking in silence, instead of puzzling himself with the contradictory opinions of other men, Grant reached a more accurate conclusion in regard to the war than any of his predecessors. In the first place, he saw that the various campaigns which had been conducted in different parts of the country would have been far more effective had they all formed part of one plan enabling the different armies to cooperate with each other. He, accordingly, determined to conduct the war on a gigantic scale, keeping the Confederates in the West so busy that they would not be able to reenforce Lee and giving Lee no chance to help them. In a word, he intended to substitute team play for individual effort all along the line.

Again, he saw the capture of Richmond, upon which the Army of the Potomac had expended all its efforts, would be futile if Lee's army remained undefeated in the field, and he resolved that Lee and not Richmond should thereafter be the main object of the campaign. "Where Lee's army goes, there you will go also," was the substance of his first order to Meade who virtually became his Chief of Staff, and those who were straining every nerve to discover his plan and expecting something very brilliant or subtle never guessed that those nine words contained the open secret of his whole campaign.

Such, however, was the fact. "I never maneuver," he remarked to his Chief of Staff; and Meade, who had spent the best part of a year in a great series of maneuvers with Lee, listened to this confession with astonishment and dismay, scarcely believing that his superior really meant what he said. But Grant did mean it. No elaborate moves or delicate strategy had been employed in any of his campaigns and he had yet to meet with a serious defeat. To make his first experiment in maneuvering against such an expert in the science of war as Lee, would have been to foredoom himself to defeat. With a far smaller force then either McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker or Meade had possessed, the Confederate leader had practically fought a drawn battle with them for three years. His science had not, it is true, been able to overcome their numbers, but their numbers had not overpowered him. This, as far as anyone could see, might go on forever.

But Grant knew that the North had long been tiring of the war and that unless it were speedily closed the Union might be sacrificed in order to obtain peace. Moreover, he saw that every day the war lasted cost an enormous sum of money, and that the loss of life on the battle field was nothing compared to that in the hospitals and prisons, where disease and starvation were claiming scores of victims every hour.

He, therefore, determined to fight and continue fighting until he pounded his opponent to pieces, well knowing that almost every able-bodied man in the South was already in the army and that there was practically no one left to take the place of those who fell.

This policy, in the minds of many people, proves that Grant was no general, but merely a brute and a butcher. But history has never yet revealed a military leader who, having the advantage of numbers, did not make the most of it. Had Grant been waging war for war's sake, or been so enamored with his profession as to care more for its fine points than for the success of his cause, he might have evolved some more subtle and less brutal plan. But he had no love for soldiering and no sentimental ideas whatever about the war. Common sense, with which he was liberally supplied, told him that the only excuse for fighting was to uphold principles which were vital to the national life and the only way to have those principles upheld was to defeat those who opposed them and to do this he determined to use all the resources at his command.

The two men whom Fate or Chance had been drawing together for over two hundred years were utterly different in appearance and manner, but in other respects they were singularly alike. Lee was, at the time of their meeting, already in his 58th year, his hair and beard were almost white, but his calm, handsome face, clear eyes and ruddy complexion, made him appear younger than he was. His bearing also was that of a young man, for his erect, soldierly carriage showed his height to full advantage; his well-knit figure was almost slight for a man standing over six feet, and, mounted on his favorite horse "Traveller," he was the ideal soldier. Grant was barely forty-two years of age, short of stature, careless in dress and generally indifferent to appearances. His face, though strong, was somewhat coarse, his manners were not polished and he had nothing of the cultivation or charm which Lee so unmistakably possessed.

But though Grant thus reflected his Roundhead ancestors and Lee his Cavalier descent, the contrast between them was mainly external. Both were modest and courageous; both were self-contained; each had his tongue and temper under complete control; each was essentially an American in his ideas and ideals; each fought for a principle in which he sincerely believed, and neither took the least delight in war. Had they met in times of peace, it is not probable that they would have become intimate friends, but it is certain that each would have respected, if not admired the other for his fine qualities, and this was undoubtedly their attitude toward each other from the beginning of the struggle.