Implicit in my post calling for assessments of the wisdom and necessity of Sherman’s marches through Georgia and the Carolinas was a suggestion that the Union high command might have chosen to close out the war differently. That discussion, I believe, needs to be divided into three segments: from Election Day, 1864 to the end of 1864; from January 1865 to the meeting on the River Queen between Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman in late March; and from that meeting forward through April 1865.
Between Election Day, 1864, and the end of the year, I’d argue that the only real question was what to do with Sherman’s army. Yes, the Fort Fisher operation was supposed to get under way, and that would tighten the noose, but that seems a wise decision with interesting consequences. Sherman had already made the case that he could not chase down John Bell Hood and bring him to battle, although he might have been more generous with the forces he left for George H. Thomas in middle Tennessee. But where would Sherman go next? Other than withdrawing from Atlanta and returning to Chattanooga for redeployment to Virginia, there does not seem to have been much of a choice outside of moving on a Gulf port or a point on the Atlantic coast, which would entail living off the land.
Between January 1865 and March 1865, there were more choices. Moving Sherman’s entire army by water would have been challenging, but moving a portion of it by sea was possible, although difficult, given the deployment of present resources. Grant’s decision to take Schofield from Thomas and redeploy him in North Carolina is to me a more interesting option (and one often forgotten), because one could have shifted Schofield instead to Virginia, where he might have completed the encirclement of Lee’s army. Indeed, it would not be until March that Grant would discuss the notion of closing out Lee without help from elsewhere as a matter of pride for the Eastern troops; earlier he appears to have favored bringing Sherman to Virginia via water, only to learn of the logical challenges that would entail. One could have just as easily used the water transport earmarked for Schofield to move part of Sherman’s command northward while keeping the rest in place to pin the Confederates in place, while using Schofield in Virginia. The time between January and March also saw the raising of several peace initiatives, all of which failed for one reason or another, leaving it to the generals to bring things to an end on the battlefield.
Finally, with the end of March we see that the campaign Grant anticipated he would have to conduct with the advent of spring became in fact the campaign he conducted, and he did so with great skill. Mounting a pursuit that leads to the capture of an enemy army is no easy task. However, one might wonder what would have happened had Schofield been placed west of Richmond in the first place.