Gen. Ulysses S. Grant Informs His Most Trusted Corps Commander That He Is Heading to Receive Orders From the War Department, Orders That Would Place Him in Command of All the Union Armies in the Western Theater That Very Day

In an unknown and unpublished letter, Grant makes clear that the War Department was keeping him in the dark about his promotion, saving the announcement for when Grant would meet with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that afternoon

This is one of the last, if not the last, letter of Grant as commander of just the Army of the Tennessee, as in a few hours he would be in command of all Union forces in the west

“I immediately reported by telegraph to Gen. Halleck. Answer is just received directing...

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant Informs His Most Trusted Corps Commander That He Is Heading to Receive Orders From the War Department, Orders That Would Place Him in Command of All the Union Armies in the Western Theater That Very Day

In an unknown and unpublished letter, Grant makes clear that the War Department was keeping him in the dark about his promotion, saving the announcement for when Grant would meet with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that afternoon

This is one of the last, if not the last, letter of Grant as commander of just the Army of the Tennessee, as in a few hours he would be in command of all Union forces in the west

“I immediately reported by telegraph to Gen. Halleck. Answer is just received directing me to go to Louisville and await orders…I learn nothing from Washington…The [Confederate] cavalry that was to your front, most of it, attacked the railroad at Collinsville. S.D. Lee with about 4000 men was at Tuscumbia on the 14th….I shall await with great anxiety an account of your expedition to Canton.”

James B. McPherson was transferred to General Ulysses S. Grant’s command on February 1, 1862, just as Grant was launching an expedition against forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. McPherson’s work in analyzing the defenses of Fort Donelson earned him the respect of Grant, and McPherson’s star rose rapidly after the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862. McPherson fought with distinction, and was promoted to colonel. Two weeks laterhe became a brigadier general. After his actions at the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi, in October 1862, McPherson was again promoted, this time to major general. In December, he capped a successful year by taking command of the 17th Corps in Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Grant intended to keep McPherson with him.

From mid-Oct. 1862, Grant and his army made several attempts to take Vicksburg, which was the main impediment to Union control of the entire Mississippi River, and thus to the splitting off of the western Confederacy. First, in preparation, he reorganized his forces into four corps, one under McPherson, and the others under generals John A. McClernand, William T. Sherman, and Stephen A. Hurlbut. Following failures in the first attempts, in the spring of 1863 he prepared to cross his troops from the west bank of the Mississippi River to a point south of Vicksburg and drive against the city from the south and east. On March 29, 1863, McClernand’s and McPherson’s men began working their way south at Milliken’s Bend and Lake Providence, northwest of Vicksburg. They crossed the river on April 30 and won a series of victories; then rather than head right for Vicksburg Grant surprised everyone and instead swung east to take Jackson, Mississippi. This cut off Confederate forces in Vicksburg from reinforcements and supplies. Grant now approached Vicksburg from the east and northeast, with McClernand’s and McPherson’s corps nearing the Vicksburg defenses by May 18. The next day Grant made the failed first assault on Vicksburg. The second assault, on May 22, was a disaster for Union forces, showed the strength of the miles of Confederate works arching east around the city, and convinced Grant that Confederate commander John Pemberton could only be defeated in a protracted siege. He settled in for the six-week siege. Cut off and with no hope of relief, Pemberton surrendered his stores and garrison of 31,500 to Grant on July 4, 1863. It was a stinging defeat for the Southern cause, splitting the Confederacy in two, and, with the Union victory at Gettysburg the previous day, marked the turning point of the war. Grant instantly became a hero in the North, and for this victory, President Lincoln promoted him to the rank of major general in the regular army, effective July 4. This was the second time a full Confederate army had surrendered, and both had been to Grant.

Grant spent the rest of July and early August organizing various expeditions in the department under his command, and from August 23 to September 2 was on a tour of Inspection from Cairo, Illinois to Natchez, Mississippi. Meanwhile, events were going poorly for the Union forces near Chattanooga. On September 13, General Halleck in Washington wired Grant to send all available troops to the aid of General William Rosecrans, whose Army of the Cumberland was locked in contention with Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee. But a week later, on September 19-20, Rosecrans and his army suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, where only the actions of General George H. Thomas, thereafter called the Rock of Chicamauga, keep the defeat from being greater. Rosecrans’ forces fell back into Chattanooga, where he was virtually besieged by Bragg’s army. It was clear to the President and War Department that a shake-up was required in that theater of operations, or the Army of the Cumberland would be rendered ineffectual, or even lost. All eyes turned to Grant.

On October 16, the War Department created the Military Division of the Mississippi by combining the Departments of the Ohio, the Cumberland and the Tennessee, and all the Union armies in the west, with Grant in command of the entire department. Grant, who was then at the military camp at Cairo, Illinois, was not told, but was ordered to proceed to Louisville to receive instructions. Halleck wrote, “Private & confidential…You will immediately proceed to the ‘Gait House’ Louisville, Ky, where you will meet an officer of the War Dept. with your orders & instructions. You will take with you your staff…for immediate operations in the field. Wait at Louisville for officer of War Dept.”

McPherson was not with Grant, but away on an operation cutting east through Mississippi headed for the town of Canton. So Grant immediately notified McPherson he was leaving, and why. Autograph letter signed, Cairo, Ill., October 17, 1863, to “Maj. Gen. J.B. McPherson, commanding 17th Corps”, telling his plan, confessing that he had no specifics from the War Department, discussing Confederate cavalry raids and his concern about McPherson’s mission, and ending with a touching show of confidence in McPherson.

We arrived here early yesterday, and I immediately reported by telegraph to Gen. Halleck. Answer is just received directing me to go to Louisville and await orders. For the present you may address all communications to me there. If I do not leave an officer at Louisville, anything addressed to me will follow me to wherever I may be. I learn nothing from Washington which suggests an order to — or other special instructions.

The cavalry that was to your front, most of it, attacked the railroad at Collinsville. S.D. Lee with about 4000 men was at Tuscumbia on the 14th. If I had known this before I left Vicksburg, I would have directed you to send the cavalry clear to the Mobile [Alabama] road. I shall await with great anxiety an account of your expedition to Canton. The newspapers you will receive with this will give you all I know  of movements of the army. Hoping, if the war is to continue, that I will be able to have the 17th Corps with me, I remain, U.S. Grant.

At Indianapoli en route to Louisville, Grant arrived by accident at the same time as Secretary of War Stanton, also heading for Louisville to meet with him. Proceeding together, Stanton handed Grant his orders that created the Military Division of the Mississippi under his command. The orders had two versions from which Grant could choose. One left department commanders much as they were. The other relieved Rosecrans from command of the army at Chattanooga. Grant accepted the order relieving Rosecrans and placed George H. Thomas in command. Sherman was picked to lead the Department of the Tennessee, which post he assumed October 24, and General Ambrose Burnside was to continue heading the Department of the Ohio.

The results were immediate. On October 23 Grant entered Chattanooga. By October 28, Union forces had opened a precarious supply route, called the cracker line, to prevent starvation. Sherman arrived with his four divisions in mid-November, and the combined Union forces began offensive operations. On November 23-24, they struck out and captured Lookout Mountain, and the next day assaulted and carried the seemingly impregnable Confederate position on Missionary Ridge. One of the Confederacy’s two major armies was routed. Grant and his men held Chattanooga, the “Gateway to the Lower South,” which became the supply and logistics base for Sherman’s 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

The S.D. Lee mentioned was Confederate General Stephen Dill Lee. He was captured at Vicksburg but paroled. Beginning on August 16 Lee was assigned to command the cavalry of Department of Mississippi & Eastern Louisiana, and he was officially exchanged on October 13. Lee obviously got to work quickly, as four days later his operations were of note to Grant. As for the operation at Canton, Grant was right to be worried, as it proved unsuccessful.

Grant remained in command of the Military Division of the Mississippi until March 2, 1864, when he came east as Lincoln’s choice to be overall Union military commander. McPherson was killed in the Battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864.

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