March 1864: Grant Takes Command of Union Army

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.

As the Civil War raged, in the Eastern War Theater, Union Gen. Kilpatrick and Col. Dahlgren attempted an unsuccessful raid on the Confederate capital at Richmond on March 1, 1864.

A few days earlier, Gen. Sherman in the Western Theater concluded his successful raid on Meridian, Miss. Sherman’s strategy was to march an army speedily through Confederate territory with impunity, feed it at the expense of its inhabitants and do it with negligible losses to his army.

This was the proving ground for Sherman’s future “March to the Sea.”

A correspondent at Nashville reported, “Sherman found the country through which he passed abounds with all life’s necessaries for man and beast and he leaves the country perfectly impoverished wherever he has been.” By contrast, much to Sherman’s disgust, “A Confederate cavalry unit captured crewmembers from the Union tin-clad USS Rattler attending church services at Rodney, Miss.”

On March 8, the steamer Anglo-Saxon, with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant aboard, docked at Wheeling and immediately he boarded a train for Washington. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer on March 12, 1864 carried this report: “The President of the United States this afternoon formally presented to Maj. Gen. Grant his commission and superlative three-star rank of lieutenant general and general-in-chief of the Army of the United States.”

According to the newspaper account, “The president rose and addressed him thus: ‘General Grant, the nation’s appreciation of what you have done, and its reliance on you for what needs to be done in the existing great struggle, are now presented with this commission.'”

The Daily Intelligencer also reported on March 12: “The Provost Guard Quells the Disturbance. As has been the case almost every day for two weeks a big fight took place yesterday on Market Square (Market and 10th streets) among some cavalry soldiers. A half a dozen fights appeared to be going on at the same time in different places, and several pistol shots were fired. The greatest alarm was created among the residents in the vicinity, and many people shut up their places of business. A half a dozen men were cut up, bruised and bled profusely.

“A squad of the Provost Guard came up from the Athenaeum, the disorderly soldiers dispersed in various directions, and many concealed themselves, although several were arrested and committed to prison. One man who was recognized as a leading rioter attempted to run away from the guard. He was several times halted while being pursued and would certainly have been killed but that the armed soldier nearest to him was fearful some innocent person on the sidewalk between himself and the fleeing man might be injured. The guard finally got a clear sight at the man and drew up his gun to shoot, but before doing so, the other halted and gave up. The proceedings were both disgraceful and alarming.”

On March 13, the steamer Anglo-Saxon left Wheeling with Grant aboard heading to Nashville. Grant had summoned Sherman to meet him at Nashville, where they would discuss Sherman’s plan of attack on Gen. Johnston’s Confederate Army defensively dug in at Dalton, Ga.

The Daily Intelligencer published a report from the War Department on March 16, 1864: “The President of the United States has made a call for 200,000 men, in addition to the call of Feb. 1, 1864, for 500,000, subject to addition for deficiencies and deductions for excess on that quota. The quotas of the several counties of the First Congressional District will be as follows: Hancock 31, Wirt 92, Brooke 35, Ritchie 40, Ohio 205, Doddridge 41, Marshall 87, Harrison 137, Wetzel 46, Lewis 47, Tyler 43, Gilmer 8, Pleasants 36, Calhoun 15 and Wood 110, a total of 93l. No definite statement can be made until the returns of re-enlisted men are received.”

In Nashville on March 17, Grant announced that Sherman was to take command of the Military Division of Mississippi, embracing the Departments of the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee and Arkansas, and upon Grant’s return to the Eastern Theater, his headquarters would be in the field with Gen. Meade’s Army of the Potomac.

On March 18 in Nashville, Grant and Sherman boarded the Anglo-Saxon headed for Wheeling. During the voyage, they discussed each of their subordinate generals’ strengths and weaknesses and decided that if anything were to happen to either, Brig. Gen. James McPherson would be the likely successor. As to the furtherance of the war effort, it was reported that Grant’s broad strategy was “starting in May, he was to go for Lee and Sherman was to go for Johnston.”

Sherman left the boat at Cincinnati, boarded the steamer Julia and headed back to Nashville. Grant headed on to Wheeling, quietly boarded a train on the B&O Railroad and arrived in Washington March 21. Grant met with Lincoln and left for the front March 24.

Beginning in March, Sherman was gathering needed supplies and confiscating stores, wagons and cattle from the citizens of Tennessee. President Lincoln wired Sherman that he had been informed, “Some of the poor Union people of Tennessee were left with nothing and you ‘Sherman’ should modify the orders of confiscation.”

Sherman answered Lincoln: “To provide for the necessities of the army, one or the other must quit and we cannot until the army of Joseph Johnston is conquered.” Lincoln acquiesced.

During their voyage, Sherman explained to Grant, his war strategy would be “Total War” on the Confederate Army and civilians alike. “Every day, every Rebel soldier’s thought will be, that where I have been, their wives and families will be left with neither food nor shelter.”