The President Writes a Letter: “You were Right, and I was Wrong.”

Executive Mansion,
Washington, July 13, 1863.
Major General Grant
        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 Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.

        Yours very truly

                  A. Lincoln

(text from here; see the original here)

This may be one of the most interesting letters Abraham Lincoln ever wrote. His assertion that he did not have much faith in Grant’s initial attempts to take Vicksburg in 1863 is telling, because Grant undertook many of those efforts in an attempt to appease the president, who, he had been informed, was interested in canal-digging enterprises and the like. Indeed, it was the president and administration officials who dispatched “observers” Charles A. Dana and Lorenzo Thomas out west to see what was going on in Grant’s command and to see firsthand what the general might be up to. Surely if Lincoln fancied himself familiar with the area under discussion he knew that Grant would have to await the coming of spring and dry land to move as he did.

The letter also reveals the risk Grant was taking in deciding not to send forces to Nathaniel Banks in May 1863. Grant’s decision to invade the Mississippi interior was a choice with career consequences, and one that he undertook without awaiting orders.

Left unmentioned, of course, is Lincoln’s willingness to entertain the complaints of John A. McClernand as Grant’s corps commander intrigued to displace his superior … or Lincoln’s role in creating that friction in the first place. We might keep all of that in mind when we consider another product of the president’s pen tomorrow.

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6 thoughts on “The President Writes a Letter: “You were Right, and I was Wrong.”

  1. Yeah, I think he is missing a few apologies here. Sorry for aborting your overland campaign. Sorry for sending an independent command led by an incompetent politician into your department. Sorry for sending all those spies to check up on you.

  2. I thought Grant undertook the canal building, Yazoo Pass, etc because idleness was bad for morale and looked bad for Grant. Better to keep your troops busy trying to do something unlikely to work than sit around doing nothing. Did Grant have any awareness by this time that idleness in late 1861 and early 1862 by McClellan, Buell, and Halleck had frustrated Lincoln so much? Did Grant know he had Lincoln’s confidence for being the opposite of those men (“I cannot spare this man; he fights”)?

    I have always been a little confused about Lincoln’s wording in this letter. He seems to say this odd “I told you so” in regards to passing Vicksburg then apologies because he believed Grant should have linked up with Banks? “I long believed you should pass South of Vicksburg as you did, but I expected you to link up with Banks so you could operate with your combined forces rather than swinging around and besieging Vicksburg on your own.” Much more to the point; maybe I’m just insufficiently familiar with flowery 1860s writing style.

    I wonder how much Lincoln’s willingness to hear out McClernand had to do with his recent experiences with Burnside and Hooker? Burnside’s subordinates where in near open revolt against him after Fredericksburg and Hooker’s corps commanders lost confidence in him after Chancellorsville. Maybe Lincoln was worried the same kind of trouble was brewing in the Army of the Tennessee as had happened twice in the Army of the Potomac?

    • Grant’s “keep ‘em busy” rationale appeared later. At the time we know he was aware of Lincoln’s reported interest in canal schemes and he was fully prepared to take advantage of what might happen.

      Grant knew very little of why Lincoln was dissatisfied with certain people, and by this time he had good reason to think that Lincoln was weighing Grant’s merits. As “I can’t spare him …” is also a postwar creation/fabrication (in the 1890s), it would have seemed to Grant that with McClernand around, Lincoln would have had no problem with replacing Grant under the right circumstances, so he could well be spared. He had no reason to believe that Lincoln believed in him, and with good reason.

      Had Grant united with Banks, Banks would have ranked, and Port Hudson would have been the first objective.

      Lincoln’s willingness to hear out subordinates had led to Hooker after Antietam, many people in the wake of Fredericksburg, and disrupted Hooker and Meade (see Dan Sickles) by the time he wrote this letter. Surely Lincoln knew that trouble was brewing in the Army of the Tennessee, because he had fostered it in his dealings with McClernand.

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