Grant’s Proposed Campaign of 1864 in the East

On January 19, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant explained to Henry W. Halleck what he would suggest Union armies do in the Eastern theater in 1864. He did so in response to an inquiry from Halleck: staff officer Cyrus B. Comstock and William F. Smith drew up the plan that Grant forwarded.


Head Quarters, Mil. Div. of the Miss.

Nashville Ten. Jan.y 19th 1864,

Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck,

Gen. in Chief of the Army,

Washington D. C.


I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in line of these one be taken further South. I would suggest Raleigh North Carolina as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured I would make New Bern the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured. A moving force of sixty thousand men would probably be required to start on such an expedition. This force would not have to be increased unless Lee  should withdraw from his present position. In that case the necessity for so large a force on the Potomac would not exist.

A force moving from Suffolk would destroy first all the roads about Weldon, or even as far north as Hicksford. From Weldon to Raleigh they would scarsely meet with serious opposition. Once there the most interior line of rail way still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then have, would be so threatened as to force enemy him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee. It would throw our Armies into new fields where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy. It would cause thousands of the North Carolina troops to desert and retum to their homes. It would give us possession of many Negroes who are now indirectly aiding the rebellion. It would draw the enemy from Campaigns of their own choosing, and for which they are prepared, to new lines of operations never expected to become necessary. It would effectually blockade Wilmington, the port now of more value to the enemy than all the balance of their sea coast. It would enable operations to commence at once by removing the war to a more southern climate instead of months of inactivity in winter quarters. Other advantages might be cited which would be likely to grow out of this plan, but these are enough. From your better opportunities of studying the country, and the Armies, that would be involved in this plan, you will be better able to judge of the practicability of it than I possibly can.

I have written this in accordance with what I understood to be an invitation from you to express my views about Military operations and not to insist that any plan of mine should be carried out. Whatever course is agreed upon I shall always believe is at least intended for the best and until fully tested will hope to have it prove so.

I am General, very respectfully

your obt. svt.

U. S. Grant

Maj. Gen.

This certainly does not look like what happened in 1864 in Virginia.

Halleck rejected Grant’s proposal in a letter that looks more unpersuasive as one reads and rereads it. He cited manpower concerns, but in fact Grant would have had the manpower to pull off this operation. Moreover, it’s clear that Halleck was focused on fighting the Army of Northern Virginia in Virginia and that threatening Richmond would help bring about that battle.

What do you make of Grant’s proposal? What does it tell you about Grant’s strategic and operational thinking?


33 thoughts on “Grant’s Proposed Campaign of 1864 in the East

  1. Bert January 19, 2014 / 5:26 am

    Glad you brought this up. I think I came across that proposal in your TOA years ago and found its possibilities fascinating. It seems like it would have had a similar effect as the march to the sea/siege of Petersburg (desertions, forcing more of a defensive strategy on the CSA), only significantly earlier.

    But to get back to your question, I think it tells us (again) that Grant was far more creative than the “butcher” stereotype suggests. Maybe it says that he always had in mind that if hitting Richmond directly would be too costly, he’d go south of it. And maybe it tells us that his creativity was somewhat constrained by the Lincoln administration considering what he did historically instead.

  2. James F. Epperson January 19, 2014 / 5:36 am

    I’ve developed a CWRT talk on this. I’ve always liked the concept, but I have gone back-and-forth on whether it was a practical plan. The key, IMO, is the command: Since the operation would be mounted out of Norfolk, the command would seem to go to Butler, which is going to dampen a lot of enthusiasm. If Grant goes with this column (leaving Meade to deal with Lee) then I have more confidence, but I am still concerned about the polyglot nature of the force—X Corps, XVIII Corps, and (probably) IX Corps—and the command team (Gilmore, Smith, Burnside).

  3. This is fascinating and almost heartbreaking to imagine because it seems that if Grant’s plan had been tried, the terrible bloodshed of the next 15 months of the war might have been significantly reduced. The two armies would have faced each other on open ground. I wonder if Lincoln ever saw this?
    The premiere of my play GRANT & TWAIN is now in rehearsal at Salt Lake Acting Company, and I have been rereading Cold Harbor, Petersburg, etc. — it is painful to revisit and absorb terrible suffering there.

    • John Randolph January 21, 2014 / 11:45 am

      As we know, Grant was unfairly defamed by pro-Southern historians as a “butcher” largely as result of the terrible carnage and bloodshed arising from his 1864 campaign against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Yet, in reality, the man initially was clearly thinking about taking quite a different approach to defeat Lee. The strategic concept embodied in his correspondence to Halleck is a classic example of what British military theorist B.H. Liddle-Hart would call the “indirect approach”. Grant wanted to defeat Lee not by crushing him with direct assaults by superior numbers, but rather through a gradual strangulation of his forces defending Richmond by destroying their logistical assets and infrastructure. I think it was a brilliant plan and agree that it is heartbreaking to consider the possibility that many tens of thousands of dead and wounded (on both sides) would have been spared. I often wonder if Lincoln and Halleck refused to consider such an “indirect approach” because they felt it would take far too long for the Union to strangle Lee in this manner, and instead told Grant that he was expected to use his superior numbers as a battering ram in order to quickly destroy Lee and occupy Richmond, thus ending the war prior to the November 1864 election. If this was the case, it obviously didn’t produce the result that was intended and, in fact, instead put the Union cause and Lincoln’s re-election at risk. I would ask Dr. Simpson if there exists any evidence to support the idea that Lincoln directed Grant to crush Lee by the end of Summer 1864 using the superior numbers and resources placed at the disposal of the Union commander.

      • Exactly what I would like to know as well — whether Grant received orders to use his troops as “a battering ram.” It seems unlike him. Are there other examples of Grant using a direct assault as his tactic? I am not aware of them. We do know that after Cold Harbor, he went into his tent, threw himself on his bed and wept. This is not the reaction of a butcher. I recall one comment someone made who was with him during the war, that he was “always the same except that he he was sadder” as the war dragged on.

  4. Shek January 19, 2014 / 6:25 am

    What Grant sketched here presaged the approach that would be in play by the end of 1864. This particular plan is an indirect approach – attack the enemy’s LOCs and force them then to respond to you or else face major logistical issues and desertions. In abandoning the Overland Campaign and pursuing the railroads south of Petersburg, Grant would take a similar indirect approach (albeit in close contact with the ANV), to include action against the Weldon Railroad. It also provides motivation why Grant would eventually agree with Sherman’s plan to let Hood go (sans 3 days rations) and march on Savannah instead.

    We also see his careful considerations to logistics, determining a course of action that would allow the army to live off the land and simultaneously leveraging Federal sea power to minimize the need for large trains that could make the army vulnerable.

    Lastly, we see his desire to take advantage of time through continuous fighting, preventing the Confederacy the ability to rest and refit.

    All of these speak to Grant’s strategic and operational artistry. He had the ability to envision how to match Federal strengths against Confederate weaknesses and then how to operationalize that vision. However, the plan does speak to his inexperience at the strategic level and understanding the policy restraints (don’t leave DC uncovered), i.e., the policy-strategy nexus. It would be no surprise in Halleck’s reply that this was not a favored plan. Working at the General-in-Chief would improve his cognizance of the policy-strategy nexus, although his slow response to Early would indicate that he still didn’t fully appreciate this all the time.

    The other thing that caught me in this letter is his intuitive understanding that any plan is simply a hypothesis: if I do A, then I expect B to happen. In my readings of Grant, while his stories of never turning back are legendary, he was equally willing to abandon a plan if it wasn’t having the expected results and then implement the next plan, or hypothesis, that he had been considering. This was a great strength of his.

    Finally, on the narrative side, I think this letter forms a powerful counter narrative to “the Butcher” narrative.

    It had been a bit since I had read the full letter – thanks for posting this!

  5. Lyle Smith January 19, 2014 / 8:23 am

    The plan looks like a grander replication of the final Vicksburg campaign. Take advantage of the water to to get in rear of the Confederate lines and make them fight along a new line of our own choosing. And hope your troops can live off the land for as long as they must.

  6. Al Mackey January 19, 2014 / 9:44 am

    I think it shows Grant’s preference for maneuver and his thinking about the entire board rather than a portion of it. I don’t share Jim’s reservations about the command team. I think that his purpose was to draw Lee into a fight on ground of his choosing. As this would be against Lee, Grant would have had Meade and Hancock with him, at least, and would have had Butler still going up the James behind Lee, leaving a covering force, perhaps under Smith, in front of Washington.

    • Ned January 19, 2014 / 8:21 pm

      What makes you think he would have taken Meade or Hancock on a campaign into North Carolina?

    • jfepperson January 20, 2014 / 8:53 am

      I don’t see the basis for saying Meade or Hancock would have been with the NC column. I think the most likely composition would have been the historical Army of the James reinforced by one corps from the AotP. I think this would have been IX Corps, since they had served in NC in 1862 and were better positioned (near Annapolis, I think) to be shifted by water to Norfolk. To move more troops from the AotP would have left it even weaker. The scheme is predicated on NOT facing Lee at the outset, but forcing him to detach south.

      • Al Mackey January 21, 2014 / 6:14 am

        Forcing him to detach south in order to fight him in North Carolina. If you’re setting out to fight Lee and not another commander, who do you want to face him and who do you leave to cover Washington away from where you believe the action will take place?

  7. champaignchris January 19, 2014 / 12:10 pm

    Now THIS is the kind of post I originally tuned in to Crossroads for. Really enjoy the deeper dive into Civil War issues. The recent posts battling the southern heritage crowd has been interesting and even educational for me, but the unending vitriol on both sides is a bit nauseating. Perhaps I should just get a stronger stomach. But, this is just one man’s opinion. Thank you for posting the Halleck-Grant correspondence.

  8. Nancy Winkler January 19, 2014 / 12:55 pm

    It seems that “Smash ’em up!” Comstock, Baldy Smith (is this Baldy? I get the Smiths mixed up), and the Old Man spent too much time in the West to appreciate the necessity of covering Washington, as Shek noted. If the other two devised this plan, why did Grant take credit for it? ‘Cause if it weren’t approved or didn’t work, he alone would take the blame?

    Grant sounds humble but assertive at the same time. An interesting combination.

    At Vicksburg when Plan A didn’t work, he came up with Plans B, C, D, E, F, and finally G (though not all were of his own choice, like digging the canal). In the East, he could have come up with alternate plans, too. The fact that he fought a different type of campaign shows that he was the obedient solider as required in a democracy, as John Keegan noted in _The Mask of Command_.

    Do you guys (and gals) think his plan would have worked? What chance to you think Lee would have made a bee-line for DC?

    • Tony Gunter January 20, 2014 / 7:37 am

      Brooks had to correct me on this years ago, but Grant really only had a Plan A in mind in front of Vicksburg: move south of the city, cooperate with Banks, render the city untenable by attacking the railroad overland. Everything he initiated was in support of this plan.

      Yazoo Pass was originally intended as a raid on the railroad bridge at Grenada and any boats / supplies that could be nabbed along the way. Yazoo Pass proved so viable that Grant was willing to consider approaching Vicksburg via this route if the Confederates didn’t react quickly enough. Grant also considered Sherman and Porter’s idea of a frontal assault at Snyder’s Bluff, but told them no after a personal reconnaissance revealed a towering fortress ringed with rifle pits and heavy artillery, fronted by an unfordable bayou that was enfiladed by a second fortified bluff. I would love to have been a fly on the wall to hear *that* discussion. 🙂

      • Ned B January 20, 2014 / 9:01 am

        Tony, As you just showed [Yazoo pass, Synder’s Bluff] Grant did come up with alternatives. Even attacking the railroad overland was an alternative to the plan of taking Grand Gulf than moving down the river to Banks.

      • Nancy Winkler January 20, 2014 / 10:34 am

        Thanks, Tony. If I learn from all my mistakes, I’ll soon be a genius!

  9. Mark January 19, 2014 / 2:39 pm

    Sometimes I wonder if in the strategic analysis we don’t forget the character of the people fighting the war. Didn’t Sherman also favor ignoring the ANV and the Eastern theater and “hollowing out” the Confederacy? Maybe the decisive factor in deciding against these strategies is the unstated one. Even if there were a better way that avoided the clash of the two eastern armies, in the context of the time it was an open question in the minds of many whether or not southern men were superior. I think there was a corresponding inferiority complex in play in the minds of many northerners as the idea and the resiliency of the ANV and Bobby Lee.

    If these one of these indirect strategies had been tried, there is a huge downside. Whether it succeeds or fails, it would have established the idea that the best of the Union men knew they couldn’t win a standup fight with Bobbly Lee and avoided it. If it succeeded, image the Lost Cause narrative that would have resulted. Even as it was, the “overwhelmed by men and material” trope was on the minds of school kids for a couple of generations, weak though the charge actually is. Think of the charge that the Union army “went guerrilla” against the families of the south rather than face Bobby Lee. Even Grand heard “but he’s never faced Bobby Lee”. How would you refute it? You can’t. I think Sherman’s march to the sea as part of a full court press with Lee pinned after being pushed around like never before had anything of the same dangers. It was a demonstration of strength, as it wouldn’t have been as a main strategy.

    I think in the end we’d have a weaker national identity if a direct strategy had not been tried, and succeeded. People at the time just didn’t think it honorable to fight an indirect war that way.

  10. Mark January 19, 2014 / 2:43 pm

    I probably shouldn’t comment while watching a football game. Please excuse the poor spelling and grammar. I meant to say:

    I don’t think Sherman’s march to the sea as part of a full court press (as it was) with Lee pinned down after being pushed around like never before had anything of the same psychological dangers (as I described above).

  11. Ad Godinez January 19, 2014 / 3:22 pm

    Shek is on to something here about operational and strategic thinking: The other thing that caught me in this letter is his intuitive understanding that any plan is simply a hypothesis: if I do A, then I expect B to happen. In my readings of Grant, while his stories of never turning back are legendary, he was equally willing to abandon a plan if it wasn’t having the expected results and then implement the next plan, or hypothesis, that he had been considering. This was a great strength of his.

    You’ll see that the most successful strategists consider their approaches as simply a test, a chain of tests about the environment, the nature of the enemy, and the nature of the friendly. At the lower levels, mission is important, at the higher levels, the concern is more about the nature of the forces and fitting a plan of action within that context. Really great insight, Shek. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Ned B January 19, 2014 / 5:14 pm

    Its a good proposal that shows good thinking. As Shek wrote, it uses the idea of indirect strategy. Grant is also thinking that this campaign would begin earlier than May. So its not clear if he intended any effort at coordinating timing with what was planned in the west.

    To me, Halleck’s response is the more interesting. Halleck had a significant influence on US strategy in 1864

  13. John Foskett January 20, 2014 / 8:48 am

    Lots of unanswered questions here, but I don’t see the analogy to Vicksburg beyond some conceptual similarities. The objective of Grant’s Vicksburg scheme was to take a point which controlled the Mississippi River. He tried a number of approaches and opted for crossing the river and moving to Vicksburg when the others had failed. But the objective always was to take a city. This, on the other hand, has much broader operational and strategic objectives. I assume that Sherman’s “Georgia thing” would have been part of this but it’s not clear. In simplest terms it seems that Grant was thinking about how to draw Lee into a different battle than Lee may have been considering/wanted and, even if that failed, to take NC out of the war. At a minimum it shows a general who was thinking “outside the box”.

  14. Buck Buchanan January 20, 2014 / 9:19 am

    As for the caliber of the force whcih the Union could use to execute this plan, Grant rightly points out that there was not much in the way of forces the Confederates could move into the area to offset a Union movement. While agree a more dynamic leadership team would be needed for an Army of the Cape Fear it should be able to ahndle what was thrown against it. With Meade pressing on Lee the ANV could not afford to send reinforcements. It would probably end up to be Breckenridge’s force. And there would not have been Sigel in command of the Union forces.

    Let’s not forget a chunk of the ANV under Longstreet was unsuccesful a year earlier at Suffolk against “inferior” Union forces.

    Another point which I am sure Grant was thinking was the Union had to strike boldly and quickly in 1864 before all of the 3 years enlistments started running out and the AOP would start hemorragiung forces in the summer. The Army would have to be used effectively and quickly before it walked away.

  15. tcgreen January 20, 2014 / 11:39 am

    In addition to the above comments, much of which I agree with, I think it is interesting how Grant appears to have also taken into account the issues with desertions by North Carolina troops during the war. I also think it’s interesting that the letter appears to contemplate securing Wilmington in short order, but in practice, that actually was delayed for several months–probably because it was Butler’s responsibility and, as might be expected, he ultimately screwed it up. As noted in How the North Won, Butler vacillated between “too great rashness & too great timidity in constant alteration.”

    • John Foskett January 21, 2014 / 8:03 am

      Good point. He may also have taken into account NC’s mercurial Governor, Zebulon Vance. Vance’s poor relationship with Davis and his State-centric philosophy could well have led him to yank NC regiments out of the ANV and summon them home.

      • tcgreen January 21, 2014 / 9:42 am

        Yes, which is evidenced by a statement Vance made that is one of my favorite quotes from the Civil War: ” ‘If God Almighty had yet in store another plague worse than all others which he intended to have let loose on the Egyptians in case the Pharoah still hardened his heart, I am sure it must have been a regiment or so of half-armed, half-disciplined Confederate cavalry.’ ”

  16. Jerry Sudduth January 20, 2014 / 11:41 am

    I remember seeing Grant’s proposed plan to operate south of Richmond somewhere not too long ago. This belies the myth of ‘Grant the Butcher’ and displays a knack for maneuver warfare that gets overlooked when his conduct in the war is discussed.

    I’ve thought that if a Federal force of the size proposed moved south of Richmond from North Carolina that Lee would have had to confront them in some degree. The ANV couldn’t have let its supply and communication lines to the south and west be cut off. With that threat Lee and Davis could not really launch another foray at Washington without leaving what was supplying his army highly vulnerable.

    Not only would Washinton still be very reasonably defended, but Lee would be facing an army from his rear that would cut off and isolate his army. Without any supplies coming from other portions of the Confederacy and the vise being tightened he would have to fight in a situation that would be against him.

    Also, I’m sure this plan would be conducted in concert with the other field armies of the Union and therefore Lee could not expect help from elsewhere nor could he send assistance to those forces.

    I think there would’ve been a very good possibility to defeat Lee’s army through maneuver and by isolating it and the Union forces didn’t have to defeat and the rebels by slaughter but by cutting them off from any assistance or supply and therefore making future resistance untenable.

    This is all mere speculation from an amateur historian and military veteran who saw the Army through the eyes of a Sergeant, but I like the prospect of this as opposed to what occurred beginning in May 1864.

    I like this plan a lot, it could’ve put the Federals in a position to defeat Lee in Virginia without the horrific slaughter of the Overland Campaign. I don’t think that campaign was indicitive of the quality of Grant’s generalship. Grant was flexible and took smart, calculated risks, he was put in a position politically to fight a grinding war that while devastating the ANV also greatly hampered the combat-effectiveness of the Army of the Potomac. The battles of 1864 are what he was unfairly remembered for far too long, he was seen as using brute force to strike down his opponent than through battlefield skill. With scholarship and research by Dr. Simpson and others we are seeing a much clearer and accurate view of him.

  17. Nancy Winkler January 21, 2014 / 2:58 pm

    Wow! Jerry, you said it right. I see now that Lee wouldn’t have tried to divert attention by invading the North.

    As I’ve been telling people for years, the closer you look at Grant, the better he looks.

    • Jerry Sudduth January 21, 2014 / 5:34 pm

      Thanks for the compliment Nancy! I’m glad I was able to contribute on my first post to this blog. I’ve been reading this site
      for the last month and seeing all of the great scholarship going on here.

      I told someone about my post and about this proposal by Grant and how it has further impressed me to his brilliance. It took almost 150 years but Grant’s stock is rising in the eyes of history.

    • John Foskett January 22, 2014 / 11:27 am

      I do think that there are two items that get left out of the mix here. (1) Grant’s intentions in the Overland Campaign also involved maneuver and as it evolved he actually made numerous attempts to flank Lee. The grinding bloodbath which ensued was in large part due to the fact that he was commanding a slow-moving, obstacle-infested entity called the Army of the Potomac which repeatedly got beaten to the objective by its opponent despite Grant’s orders and prodding. Even the move which caught Lee with his pants down – crossing the James – was neutered by ineffective execution. That gets us to (2) – if the force to implement this NC plan was to be composed of large parts of the AoftheP, what sounded good on paper likely would have turned out to be much less effective in practice. By spring, 1864 the primary army given to Grant was missing many of the hard, committed fighters which had earned its laurels, from the ranks on up. As the Overland Campaign amply demonstrated, this was hardly a fast-moving outfit which could be quickly and flexibly adapted to circumstances as they arose – the latter feature probably being an inevitable characteristic of the type of operation Grant envisioned. His only effective substitute would be the troops presumably committed to Sherman and Georgia. As one of the earlier commenters suggested,the other options – from the ranks on up – were hardly “elite”. This could have been Peyton Manning trying to operate the Cleveland offense.

  18. HankC January 21, 2014 / 4:15 pm

    I’d question the ability to live off the land.

    April and May are planting season, not harvest time. Sherman marched to the sea right after the harvest in a relatively untouched part of the south.

    Raleigh, a town of 6,000 is quite a ways from the coast and an army of 60,000 needs quite a bit of logistical infrastructure…

  19. Hampton Newsome January 22, 2014 / 3:49 pm

    I was looking for info on the NC plan recently. Grant’s published papers (Vol. 10, p. 41) indicate the Jan 19th dispatch was probably based on a 3 page draft memo prepared by “Baldy” Smith and Cyrus Comstock. The draft memo was sold as part of an estate sale in 1950 (Oliver R. Barrett Sale, 1190, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 1950, no. 485) and no copy has been located as far as I can tell. Comstock mentioned the plan and memo in his diary ( )

    • James F. Epperson January 23, 2014 / 6:13 am

      I wanted to find the text of the actual plan, but whoever bought the original, it seems to have disappeared from view.

  20. TFSmith July 24, 2016 / 4:50 pm

    Many good points have been raised; at the macro level, essentially this plan would have opened a “second front” against the rebels in their “northeast”, forcing Lee to split the ANV to deal with it. Meade, after Gettysburg, had proven the ability of the AotP to fight and win a defensive campaign; a second army (Army of the Nansemond?) driving southwest from Lee between two fires, which he never really faced. Couple that with Sherman driving into Georgia and keeping the only “other” rebel army in the field occupied, and the strategic situation is even more challenging for the rebels.

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