A Letter from General Grant: August 23, 1863

One of the keys to understanding the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant is to understand Grant’s ability to work with Lincoln, as the following letter suggests.

Cairo Illinois

August 23d 1863.


Your letter of the 9th inst. reached me at Vicksburg just as I was about starting for this place. Your letter of the 13th of July was also duly received.

After the fall of Vicksburg I did incline very much to an immediate move on Mobile. I believed then the place could be taken with but little effort, and with the rivers debouching there, in our possession, we would have such a base to opperate from on the very center of the Confederacy as would make them abandon entirely the states bound West by the Miss. I see however the importance of a movement into Texas just at this time.

I have reinforced Gen. Banks with the 13th Army corps comprising ten Brigades of Infantry with a full proportion of Artillery.

I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given the Confederacy. The South care a great deal about it and profess to be very angry. But they were united in their action before and with the negro under subjection could spare their entire white population for the field. Now they complain that nothing can be got out of their negroes.

There has been great difficulty in getting able bodied negroes to fill up the colored regiments in consequence of the rebel cavalry runing off all that class to Georgia and Texas. This is especially the case for a distance of fifteen or twenty miles on each side of the river. I am now however sending two expeditions into Louisiana, one from Natchez to Harrisonburg and one from Goodrich’s Landing to Monroe, that I expect will bring back a large number. I have ordered recruiting officers to accompany these expeditions. I am also moving a Brigade of Cavalry from Tennessee to Vicksburg which will enable me to move troops to a greater distance into the interior and will facilitate materially the recruiting service.

Gen. Thomas is now with me and you may rely on it I will give him all the aid in my power. I would do this whether the arming the negro seemed to me a wise policy or not, because it is an order that I am bound to obey and do not feel that in my position I have a right to question any policy of the Government. In this particular instance there is no objection however to my expressing an honest conviction. That is, by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weaken him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.

Thanking you very kindly for the great favors you have ever shown me I remain, very truly and respectfully

your obt. svt.

U. S. Grant

Maj. Gen.

Note: the “Gen. Thomas” mentioned here is Lorenzo Thomas, not the Rock of Chickamauga.

Lincoln would find this letter very useful. For the moment, however, we see a general deferring to the president on a matter of what to do next because of political priorities, and someone who artfully supports administration policy on enlisting black soldiers, an issue on which some people had once expressed doubts about Grant’s position.


7 thoughts on “A Letter from General Grant: August 23, 1863

  1. Donald R. Shaffer August 23, 2013 / 4:26 pm

    Reblogged this on Civil War Emancipation and commented:
    A relevant and interesting post from Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads, in which U.S. Grant discusses emancipation and black recruitment into the Union Army in a letter to President Lincoln.

  2. Bob Pollock August 24, 2013 / 8:19 am

    How long would it have taken for this letter to reach Lincoln? Could Lincoln have received it before he wrote the letter to James Conkling dated August 26?

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 24, 2013 / 8:32 am

      I’ve pondered that question as well. We don’t know for sure. I’ve tried to see whether Lincoln might have been referring to some other general’s comments. However, you’ll recall that Francis P. Blair, Jr., wrote Grant from Newport, Rhode Island, on August 19, and Grant replied (he was at Cairo the day he wrote the letter in question) on August 23. So I think Cairo to Washington in three days is quite possible.

      • Ned August 25, 2013 / 5:41 pm

        In his letter to Conkling, I believe Lincoln was in part referring to Banks comments from a letter dated August 17.
        – Banks to Lincoln: ” I think it may be said with truth that our victory at Port Hudson could not have been accomplished at the time it was but for their assistance.”
        – Lincoln to Conkling: “at least one of those important successes could not have been achieved when it was, but for the aid of black soldiers”

        However, Lincoln also uses the phrase “heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion” which mirrors Grant’s phrase “heavyest blow yet given the Confederacy”, which suggests to me that he also had Grant’s letter when he wrote to Conkling.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 25, 2013 / 5:43 pm

          I’m aware of the Banks letter, and agree that Lincoln had it in mind as well. Surely both letters were timely to the point he was planning to make.

  3. John Foskett August 24, 2013 / 10:59 am

    Correct me if I’m wrong here, but this letter seems to strike a different tone between General and C-in-C than those communications originating from Virginia c. summer, 1862. I know – Abe really wanted all of that input on strategy, race relations, and Government policy.

  4. TF Smith August 25, 2013 / 9:49 am

    Great letter. Combine this from Grant with Lincoln’s to Conkling and seems impossible for anyone to have continued to oppose the enlistment of what became the USCT.

    John – Fair shot on GBM. He and MacArthur (Douglas, not Arthur) were two sides of the same coin.

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