What A Relief It Was: Grant Sacks McClernand

On June 18, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant relieved John A. McClernand of command of the Thirteenth Corps outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, for violating army procedures. The incident in question involved McClernand decision to bypass headquarters to circulate in the press a congratulatory letter to his men for their actions during the Vicksburg campaign that appeared to cast aspersions at the other corps under Grant’s command.

You can read Grant’s letter here.

The relief of McClernand ended months of tension in the Army of the Tennessee. McClernand had emerged as a rival to Grant in 1862. He sought to use his direct access to President Abraham Lincoln to gain the president’s support for an independent offensive against Vicksburg. Working together, although not always deliberately or explicitly, General in Chief Henry W. Halleck, Grant, William T. Sherman, and David D. Porter labored to beat McClernand to the punch, but an effort to take Vicksburg in December 1862 failed. Over McClernand’s protests, Grant took direct charge of operations against Vicksburg in January 1863, in compliance with orders from Washington. Over the next several months, as Grant wrestled with what to do while waiting for spring, McClernand attempted to use his connections with Lincoln to gain Grant’s removal (and his own elevation as Grant’s replacement), to no avail.

In April and May 1863, McClernand’s corps played a major role in the Vicksburg campaign, although Grant was more satisfied with the performance of McClernand’s subordinates and soldiers than he was with McClernand himself. It was not until the Confederates were cooped up in Vicksburg itself, however, that Grant could do anything about his antagonist. An administrative mistake opened the door to dispose of the troublesome McClernand once and for all, and Grant seized the opportunity. McClernand complained to the president, who offered a shoulder to cry on and little else. After all, with Vicksburg in Grant’s grasp, Lincoln was not going to aggravate (let alone replace) his most successful general.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for McClernand, even if I agree that he brought on most of his troubles himself. Although his performance on the battlefield was uneven (and the general has his advocates), he was not a complete incompetent, and some people have been a little too rough in handling him. Moreover, it’s clear that the wording in the orders directing McClernand to raise regiments and undertake operations against Vicksburg contained sufficient loopholes as to be next to useless. For that one must not blame Grant but the folks back in Washington, including Lincoln, who knew how to construct a loophole with the best of them.

Here’s how James H. Wilson, a member of Grant’s staff at the time, recalled delivering the order to McClernand after a conversation with Grant’s chief of staff, John A. Rawlins:

I was absent from camp that day till midnight, but the order relieving him had been prepared, and on my return, Rawlins, who remained up to tell me about it, handed it to me, recounting its purport and directing me to deliver it in person the first thing in the morning. Recognizing its importance and fearing that some contingency might occur that night or in the early dawn, which would involve a sortie or a battle in which McClernand would doubtless display his usual gallantry, which in turn might cause Grant to delay, if not cancel the order, I said to Rawlins: “Why shouldn’t I deliver it to-night?” This brought the reply: “Because you are tired and to-morrow will do.” We then discussed the subject from every point of view, with the result that he yielded and I turned out the provost marshal with a sergeant and four men, and, after putting on full field uniform, mounted a fresh horse and set out on my mission. I reached McClernand’s headquarters between 1 and 2 a.m., and, after waiting till the orderly on duty could arouse the general, and when he had clad himself properly, I was shown in. With all his violence he was a punctilious man, and I found him in full uniform, his sword lying across the table with two lighted candles in front of him.

The provost marshal and his squad were within call, and, after saluting him, I said: “General, I have an important order for you which I am directed to deliver into your hands and to see that you read it in my presence, that you understand it, and that you signify your immediate obedience to it.” I handed him the sealed envelope, watched him adjust his glasses, and then open and read it. When he caught its purport, almost instantly he said : “Well, sir ! I am relieved !” And then, as if taking it all in, he added almost in the same breath: ”By God, sir, we are both relieved!” — meaning Grant as well as himself.

Yet it is also only fair to add what Wilson said about McClernand:

With all his violence of temper and his lack of military training and discipline, he was a patriot and a man of strong, virile character, who, with an ordinary degree of self-control, would have come out of the war as one of its real heroes. His support of the Administration at the outbreak of the rebellion and during the war rendered it a great and valuable political service, second only to that rendered by Douglas, and there can be but little doubt that both the President and Secretary of War were partial to him, and had encouraged him with the hope, if not the formal promise, of the command of the expedition to open the Mississippi River.

Lincoln would restore McClernand to command of the Thirteenth Corps early in 1864, prior to Grant’s assumption of overall command, but McClernand left the army after Lincoln’s reelection.

Grant’s handling of McClernand was one of the most important challenges of his military career, and in handling his rival as he did, Grant showed that he knew something of army politics and of the broader issue of civil-military relations.

17 thoughts on “What A Relief It Was: Grant Sacks McClernand

  1. Jeffry Burden June 18, 2013 / 4:24 pm

    His most thorough biographer, Richard Kiper, did a nice even-handed job and found some aspects to admire in his performance, as you suggest there were.

  2. Tony June 18, 2013 / 5:29 pm

    I have often wondered what Sherman saw in McClernand that made him proclaim that McClernand “showed the white feather” at Shiloh. That doesn’t seem to jive with what I have read of McClernand, who seemed to be a brave and ardent, if not militarily savvy, advocate of Union.

    My biggest beef with McClernand, aside from the fact that he very nearly successfully sabotaged one of the greatest American commanders of all time, was that he just didn’t have any real tactical prowess. Sure, he could stand and slug it out, but he deferred in tactical judgement to men like Osterhaus. As a result, he allowed Osterhaus to stand and skirmish all day in two separate battles where Osterhaus enjoyed overwhelming odds. Because of this, Grant’s army lost two key opportunities to absolutely cripple Pemberton’s army and avoid the siege.

    • Ned June 19, 2013 / 6:07 am

      In his book on Shiloh, Larry Daniel claims that McClernand was sick due to ‘exposure’ during Fort Donelson.

      • Tony June 19, 2013 / 9:41 am

        I wonder if Sherman was just balking at McClernand’s command style. It seems McClernand deferred to commanders whom he felt were more skilled than he. At times, this worked in his favor (Shiloh, Arkansas Post, early morning attack at Port Gibson) and others it nearly undid him (later at Port Gibson, Champion Hill).

  3. Ned June 18, 2013 / 5:32 pm

    Wilson’s reference to McClernand’s “violence of temper” and need for “ordinary degree of self-control” suggest that much of the problem was in his personality.

  4. TF Smith June 18, 2013 / 7:16 pm

    McClernand always struck me as someone who would have performed better as a military governor than a commander in the field – but as far as the political generals go who did get field commands, he was far from the worst.

    Interesting that although he was a decade older than Grant, he outlived both USG and Ord.

    • Tony June 19, 2013 / 8:57 am

      Worst from what perspective? He very nearly deposed the best general the Union had to offer. As a fighter he could stand and slug it out, but on the offensive his toolkit consisted of “march that direction and fight.” Given an independent command, I see his career ending in tragedy a la Pope.

      From an overall perspective (including scheming against his superiors), which political generals were worse?

      • Ned June 19, 2013 / 9:54 am

        “… As a fighter he could stand and slug it out … ”
        Though Richard Oglesby wrote on a copy of McClernand’s report of Fort Donelson: “We did the fighting. He did the writing.”

        • Tony June 19, 2013 / 1:49 pm

          That’s almost as good as his comment to Sherman after Arkansas Post (forgive me if I bungle the paraphrase): “Brilliant! Brilliant! I saw the whole thing, I was up in a tree.”

      • TF Smith June 19, 2013 / 12:21 pm

        Fair points, although I was thinking more of his field command skills, not his skills as a subordinate.

        So in that overall sense, I’ll grant you that McClernand is probably first on the list – although depending on one’s definition of “political” generals, I’d offer up McClellan as the worst offender overall when it comes to being a poor subordinate.

        Banks, Schurz, Sigel, Butler, all fell pretty short when it came to field command.

        • Ned June 19, 2013 / 1:04 pm

          What are “his field command skills”, in a relative sense?

          • TF Smith June 19, 2013 / 5:40 pm

            He seems to have done as well or better than many of his peers (i.e. those without active duty experience or professional training) at the brigade and divisional level; did his command(s) ever miss a battle, or march out of line while in battle?

            Maybe it was simply dumb luck, but I don’t think McClernand ever got tagged with the “reluctant to fight” sort of reputation that some of his peers did…

          • Ned June 19, 2013 / 6:38 pm

            I’m going to disagree. His time as brigade or division commander doesn’t seem that impressive to me; . it seems to me worse than many of his peers. Belmont wasnt exactly a strong performance — he had trouble keeping control of his brigade. At Ft. Henry he didnt get in place in time to stop the Confederate escape. At Donelson his division was driven back, basically rescued by Lew Wallace and Morgan Smith. At Shiloh he was either sick (according the Larry Daniel) or showed the white feather (according to Sherman).

          • Tony June 25, 2013 / 12:00 pm

            I scanned all the reports that mention McClernand in the Shiloh sections of the O.R., and can’t find any evidence that he showed the white feather. Tellingly, Sherman’s report states that he was instructed to point out anyone he witnessed performing well / not performing well, and he fails to mention McClernand.

            McClernand never got injured or even had a horse shot out from under him, but the reports filed suggest he was with his troops for the duration of the battle, organizing reinforcements and plugging gaps in the lines.

            I would say that he never showed an ounce of finesse, and maybe he wasn’t one to lead from the front (should a division commander really do that?), but he knew how to hold a line and motivate his men to fight. It seems a bit petty to hold Donelson against him, given the command vaccum on the field and the overwhelming numbers he faced. Of course, where he opens himself up to criticism is in his effusively self-congratulatory reports and intrigue for independent command. The man was a legend in his own mind.

          • TF Smith July 2, 2013 / 12:27 pm

            Thanks for the OR check; appreciate it.

  5. Noma June 18, 2013 / 8:24 pm

    That night {April 29?} Porter made Stanton’s nosy commissioners comfortable on Benton. Since nobody had tents, he offered Halleck’s elderly adjutant general, Lorenzo Thomas, his stateroom. He helped unpack the general’s carpetbag, located his nightshirt, and then mixed him a good, stiff toddy. The whiskey gave Thomas a glow, and he confessed that he and his fellow commissioners had been sent to Lincoln because “great complaints” had come to the president “from someone in the army before Vicksburg in regards to Grant’s manner of conducting operations.” Porter suspected McClernand of backstabbing and loosened Thomas’s tongue with another toddy.

    After bolting it down, Thomas swore Porter to secrecy and said, “I carry in my bag full authority to remove General Grant and place whomever I please in command of the army.” Leaning forward, he added, “What do you think of that?”

    Porter reflected a moment and then asked Thomas who he had in mind to replace Grant.

    “Well,” the general grunted. “That depends; McClernand is prominent.”

    “Let an old salt give you a piece of advice,” Porter replied. “Don’t let your plans get out, for if the army and the navy should find out what you three gentlemen came for, they would tar and feather you, and neither General Grant nor myself could prevent it.” Porter failed to mention whether Thomas slept well that night.

    [Chester G. Hearn, Admiral David Dixon Porter p. 226]

  6. Noma June 18, 2013 / 8:32 pm

    That Link is amazing. That’s definitely Grant’s handwriting. You can always tell by the curly-q loops on top of the final “d’s.” What a fabulous way to spend $10,000!

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