Bloody Spring

Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy's Fate


By Joseph Wheelan

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For forty crucial days they fought a bloody struggle. When it was over, the Civil War’s tide had turned.

In the spring of 1864, Virginia remained unbroken, its armies having repelled Northern armies for more than two years. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had defeated the campaigns of four Union generals, and Lee’s veterans were confident they could crush the Union offensive this spring, too. But their adversary in 1864 was a different kind of Union commander — Ulysses S. Grant. The new Union general-in-chief had never lost a major battle while leading armies in the West. A quiet, rumpled man of simple tastes and a bulldog’s determination, Grant would lead the Army of the Potomac in its quest to destroy Lee’s army.

During six weeks in May and June 1864, Grant’s army campaigned as no Union army ever had. During nearly continual combat operations, the Army of the Potomac battered its way through Virginia, skirting Richmond and crossing the James River on one of the longest pontoon bridges ever built. No campaign in North American history was as bloody as the Overland Campaign. When it ended outside Petersburg, more than 100,000 men had been killed, wounded, or captured on battlefields in the Wilderness, near Spotsylvania Court House, and at Cold Harbor. Although Grant’s casualties were nearly twice Lee’s, the Union could replace its losses. The Confederacy could not.

Lee’s army continued to fight brilliant defensive battles, but it never mounted another major offensive. Grant’s spring 1864 campaign had tipped the scales permanently in the Union’s favor. The war’s denouement came less than a year later with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.



Anyone embarking on a Civil War project encounters a dazzling body of work by scholars and military historians who have dedicated their careers to various aspects of the most divisive period in the nation’s history.

In the first rank stand Douglas Southall Freeman, Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, James McPherson, Alan Nevins, James Robertson Jr., and William McFeely. Besides these giants, there is a legion of other historians and writers, too, who provide the important service of describing the war’s military operations, large and small.

I am indebted to them all, and to the libraries and librarians that led me to the primary sources that I needed.

Foremost among these is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The shelves at Davis Library hold a vast collection of Civil War memoirs, diaries, journals, and unit histories, as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of battle histories and biographies. The North Carolina Collection and Southern Historical Collection at UNC’s Wilson Library contain first-person accounts that could not be found anywhere else.

The State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh and the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Historical Society Library in Richmond also provided important information and insights.

Finally, this book is a testament to the support of my wife, Pat, scientist and student of history, and to our ongoing conversations about the past.


Spring 1864

               An ordinary, scrubby-looking man, with a slightly seedy look, as if he was out of office on half pay.


               You may rest assured he is not an ordinary man.





Tuesday, March 8, 1864 Washington, DC

THE WASHINGTON PRESS corps had never seen General Ulysses S. Grant, which complicated their job of reporting on his arrival at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot. War correspondents Simon Hanscom and Lorenzo Crounse, who were among the bustling crowd at the train station, knew only that Grant had a beard, that he was of medium height, and that he usually forswore dress uniforms for the nondescript blue worn by privates, save for the general’s stars sewn on the shoulders. In other words, Grant might have been any of the scores of officers who thronged the busy station.

Fearing that Grant might slip by them without their recognizing him, Hanscom and Crounse rushed to Matthew Brady’s studio in the hope of finding a photograph of the general. But Brady’s only picture of Grant was useless—a hat obscured his features. Brady, however, agreed to return to the station with the reporters.

When a hatless, uniformed man and a boy emerged from a car in a group of people, Brady grew excited; he remembered the lines around the man’s mouth. It was Grant, he told the reporters.3

And then there was no mistaking that it was Grant. People suddenly pressed in upon him from all sides, and a company of the Invalid Corps formed ranks and presented arms. Grant, the boy, and a knot of staff officers passed through the depot to the street, and stepped into hacks that took them to Willard’s Hotel, where he registered as simply, “U.S. Grant and son, Galena, Ill.”4

A short time later, the general and thirteen-year-old Frederick Dent Grant entered Willard’s dining room. A man recognized Grant and shook his hand, and the news that the new general-in-chief had arrived instantly spread through the dining room. The diners spontaneously got to their feet and cheered. They crowded around the table of the blushing general, known for reserve and not conviviality.5

One unimpressed observer described Grant as “an ordinary, scrubby-looking man, with a slightly seedy look, as if he was out of office on half pay.” A journalist wrote that Grant might easily be mistaken for “a country merchant or a village lawyer. He had no distinctive feature; there are thousands like him in personal appearance in the ranks.” Indeed, there was little about Grant’s appearance to suggest the unyielding warrior who consistently won battles.6

THIS BEING TUESDAY, it was levee night at the White House and, as usual, hundreds of people had come to see the president and first lady, some of them even hoping to get a private audience with Abraham Lincoln.

It was about 9:30 when Grant alighted from a hack outside the White House. In the Blue Room, where the Lincolns always greeted their guests, the president and Grant met for the first time. Until this moment, Lincoln had known Grant only by reputation and from telegrams, battle summaries, and the reports of men who had observed him in the field.

The crowd, which could become rowdy at these functions, uncharacteristically kept a respectful distance, evidently sensing the meeting’s historical import. “There was no rude jostling, or pushing or pulling,” wrote John Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary.

Lincoln entrusted Grant to the care of Secretary of State William Seward, who introduced the bashful general to the other guests in the Blue Room and then led him into the East Room. When the people there caught sight of Grant, they launched into cheer after cheer and charged in to shake his hand.

“Laces were torn, crinoline mashed, and things were generally much mixed. People mounted sofas and tables to get out of harm’s way or to take observations,” wrote Noah Brooks, a correspondent for the Sacramento (California) Daily Union. Grant, too, climbed onto a sofa to avoid being mobbed by the “torrent” of people that now filled the East Room. After an hour of standing on the couch, vigorously shaking hands with all comers, Grant was “flushed, heated, and perspiring.”7

Later that night, Grant met with Lincoln and his blunt, hard-driving secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, to discuss the next morning’s ceremony, when Grant would be formally presented with his commission as lieutenant general.

It was of enormous importance to Lincoln that he and Grant strike just the right tone, wrote Nicolay, who was present. During three years of war, no general, Union or Confederate, had wielded the power that Grant would have. In fact, just one other American, George Washington, had ever permanently held lieutenant-general rank (though Winfield Scott had been a brevet, or temporary, three-star general).

On February 26, Lincoln had signed a law reviving the rank. Grant’s friend and patron, Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois, who introduced the measure in December, had asserted what was the absolute truth: that Grant was the only candidate for the position. “He has fought more battles and won more victories than any man living; he has captured more prisoners and taken more guns than any general of modern times,” Washburne said. No one disputed that, and when Lincoln sent Grant’s name to the Senate, it had swiftly confirmed him.

Lincoln told Grant that at the next day’s ceremony, he would give a short speech, to which Grant was to reply with a few words of his own. Lincoln handed Grant a copy of what he planned to say and suggested that Grant’s remarks should attempt to dispel the lingering resentments of some generals. He urged him to say something positive about the Army of the Potomac.

In his speech the next day, Grant did neither. He pledged to try not “to disappoint your expectations. I feel the full weight of the responsibilities now devolving on me and know that if they are met it will be due to those armies, and above all to the favor of that Providence which leads both Nations and men.”

Grant’s brief address, good enough on paper, suffered in its delivery, according to Nicolay. Grant, he wrote, appeared “quite embarrassed” by the occasion and made “rather sorry and disjointed work of enunciating his reply,” which was “almost illegibly written . . . on the half sheet of note paper, in lead pencil.”8

IN A WAR that had wrung rivers of gore from battlefields large and small, North and South, it was ironic that Grant, who had now become the chosen instrument of even greater bloodletting, recoiled from it. “I cannot bear the sight of suffering,” he confessed to an aide, Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter. Grant later wrote that during a battle, “one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand or the ten thousand, with great composure; but after the battle these scenes are distressing, and one is naturally disposed to do as much to alleviate the suffering of an enemy as a friend.”

The apotheosis of Grant’s blood aversion might have occurred in April 1862 at Shiloh. He had taken shelter from the driving rain in a log house where, to his horror, he witnessed surgeons busily amputating the arms and legs of wounded men and “blood flowing in streams.” He had hastily withdrawn, electing to spend the soggy night under a tree.9

Grant’s abhorrence of blood and suffering extended to hunting—“as a sportsman I was a failure”—and to the food that he ate. As beef was about the only meat that he liked (he abhorred fowl and game), it had to be cooked to a blackened crisp; the merest trace of red would kill his appetite.10

Squeamish though Grant was, no Union general had been as successful as he. In February 1862, he had briefly fanned hopes for a short war with his capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee—the latter a joint army-navy operation that had bagged 15,000 prisoners. At Shiloh, Grant’s army had taken a beating the first day, but the next day it defeated the Rebels. Then came the siege and the momentous capture of Vicksburg on the Fourth of July of 1863. That victory had secured the Mississippi River for the Union, severing the Southwest from the Confederacy.

In the fall of 1863, after the Rebels smashed General William Rosecrans’s army at Chickamauga, drove it into Chattanooga, and invested the city, Lincoln replaced Rosecrans with Grant. In November, his army broke the Confederate encirclement by capturing Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.

For three years, Lincoln had watched with disappointment as his Eastern generals dithered, delayed, and twice failed to destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before it could retreat from Maryland into Virginia. It was time, the president believed, to try a general from the Western theater, one who could make things jump. By all accounts, Grant was just the man for the job.

Moreover, not only would Grant command the hard-luck Army of the Potomac, which Lee had bloodied every time that it had advanced toward Richmond, he would direct Union armies everywhere. No general during the war had ever been given such sweeping powers: Grant would command 533,000 men, organized into twenty-one army corps—one of the largest armies in history.11

Yet, Grant had never commanded troops in the East. He had never faced Lee, who had yet to lose a major battle in Virginia, and whom many of the Army of the Potomac’s generals regarded with awe and fear.

Lincoln’s patience with the Army of the Potomac had run out in December 1863, when its commander, General George Meade, had neither attacked Lee at Mine Run nor intercepted the Confederate First Army Corps when it marched from eastern Tennessee to rejoin Lee’s army.

Meade’s inaction had provoked an uncharacteristic outburst from Lincoln: “If this Army of the Potomac was good for anything—if the officers had anything in them—if the army had any legs, they could move thirty thousand men down to Lynchburg and catch Longstreet. Can anybody doubt if Grant were here in command that he would catch him?”12

BEFORE LINCOLN MADE Grant his general-in-chief, he had to first satisfy himself on the sensitive issue of whether Grant had presidential ambitions; there had been discussion of a Grant candidacy among Democrats and even a few Republicans, as well as in some large-circulation Eastern newspapers. Fully intending to seek reelection in November, Lincoln knew that his winning a second term depended on Union army victories in 1864—which was why he wished to elevate Grant, with his record of Western triumphs.

Another embarrassing defeat in Virginia might also reinvigorate the Peace Democrats and their extremist wing, the “Copperheads.” Forced underground by fears of reprisals from prowar Republicans, the Copperheads had formed secret societies throughout the lower Midwest, which had been settled largely by Southerners. One such group, the Sons of Liberty, was reportedly arming itself for insurrection. On April 8, Representative Alexander Long, an Ohio Democrat, outraged the House by urging recognition of the South as a separate nation. The House censured Long, and nearly expelled him.13

Lincoln had been asking questions about Grant for nearly a year now, and he was now satisfied that Grant, if given the authority, had the moral fiber, tenacity, and leadership to end the war swiftly. But if Grant defeated Lee and marched into Richmond, would he then challenge Lincoln for the presidency? Lincoln had to be sure that by naming Grant he wasn’t sowing the seeds of his own defeat.

The president quietly sounded out Grant’s staunch ally from Illinois, Congressman Washburne, who directed Lincoln to J. Russell Jones, a friend of Grant and his investment counselor.14

Grant, too, had heard the presidential talk, and he didn’t like it a bit. To squelch it, he had gone so far as to write letters to several people disavowing any interest. To Barnabas Burns, who had sought Grant’s permission to enter his name into nomination at the War Democrats’ convention in January, Grant wrote, “The question astonishes me. I do not know of anything I have ever done or said which would indicate that I would be a candidate for any office.” In another such letter, he said, “This is the last thing I desire. I would regard such a consummation unfortunate for myself if not for the country.”15

When Jones met with Lincoln to discuss Grant, he brought one of Grant’s letters. After reading it, Lincoln breathed a sigh of relief. “You will never know how gratifying that is to me. No man knows, when that presidential grub gets to gnawing at him, just how deep it will get until he has tried it; and I didn’t know that there was one gnawing at Grant.”16

GRANTS RISE HAD been so swift as to nearly defy belief. From the time he left the army in 1854 until his return at the beginning of the Civil War, his life had been a train wreck of miscalculations, bad luck, and failures, leavened by periods of disappointment.

Hiram Ulysses Grant was born on April 27, 1822. Hiram—“exalted one” in the Hebrew tradition, although the Grants were not Jewish—was a family name; Grant’s mother, Hannah Simpson Grant, called him Ulysses.

The document of his appointment to the US Military Academy gave his name as “Ulysses Simpson Grant.” Grant pointed out the error, but West Point refused to correct it; his name appeared on the cadet rolls as “U. S. Grant.” His classmates playfully called him “United States” and “Uncle Sam” and, finally, just “Sam.” He was an indifferent student, graduating twenty-first among the thirty-nine members of his Class of ’43. However, everyone agreed that Grant was his class’s best horseman.17

During the Mexican War, Lieutenant Grant served in General Zachary “Rough and Ready” Taylor’s army at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterrey—where Grant was remembered for his daredevil ride through the gunfire-swept streets with ammunition for the troops. When General Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott expropriated Taylor’s best soldiers for his amphibious assault on Vera Cruz and brilliant march to Mexico City, Grant went with Scott. At the San Cosme Gate into Mexico City, Lieutenant Grant and his men trundled a small cannon into a church belfry that commanded the approaches to the gate and scattered the Mexican defenders so that US troops could enter the city. From Taylor, Grant learned simplicity in dress and deportment, and calmness in crises; from Scott, strategy.18

Back in St. Louis in 1848, he married Julia Dent—her brother Frederick was Grant’s best friend at West Point—but Julia and their children did not accompany him to his Pacific Coast assignments. There, naivety and poor business instincts cost Grant his savings, and at Fort Humboldt, a bleak coastal outpost, he hit rock bottom. Depressed and alienated, Grant drank heavily; gossipy fellow officers whispered that Grant was a drunkard.

Grant resigned his captain’s commission in 1854 and returned to Missouri, where he farmed and worked as a rent collector. Alone, Grant built a house—solid and well-made—and gave it the fitting name “Hardscrabble.” Despite his strenuous efforts, Grant struggled just to feed and clothe Julia and their four children. Desperation drove him to sell firewood on St. Louis street corners in his faded army overcoat. One day while he was hawking firewood, Grant encountered another struggling former West Pointer, William Tecumseh Sherman; they spoke briefly and parted.

In 1858 Captain E. B. Holloway was passing through St. Louis with two other army officers and looking for a fourth person to play “brag” when he happened to spot Grant on the street. Holloway, who had known Grant in the army, invited him to play. Another of the card players was Major James Longstreet, a close friend of Grant’s at West Point who had been a guest at his wedding. They reminisced about their Mexican War days.

Grant, wrote Longstreet, impressed him as a man “looking for something to do.” They met again the next day on the street, and Grant handed Longstreet a $5 gold piece to repay an old loan. Longstreet initially refused to take the money, certain that Grant needed it more than he, but “seeing the determination in the man’s face,” he accepted the coin and shook Grant’s hand.19

Forced to admit his failure as a farmer, in 1860 Grant swallowed his pride and asked his father, Jesse Grant, for a job in the family leather business in Galena, Illinois. In 1861, then, he was a clerk at Grant and Perkins, working for his younger brothers, Simpson and Orvil, when Congressman Washburne and the family business’s lawyer, John Rawlins, addressed a town meeting days after war broke out. Grant, the only professionally trained soldier in Galena, was chosen to lead a recruiting drive. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship among the three men.

In June 1861, with Washburne’s help, Grant was appointed colonel of an Illinois regiment sent to fight in Missouri. By August, he was commanding a brigade and had been promoted to brigadier general.20

Adversity had made Grant self-reliant, self-contained, and determined to push on through failure and hardship. A woman who saw Grant several times around Washington after he became general-in-chief wrote that he carried himself with “a peculiar aloofness. . . . He walked through a crowd as though solitary.”21

WHEN GRANT WAS besieging Vicksburg in 1863, War Secretary Stanton dispatched Charles Dana to Mississippi to observe the Western general who won battles. Stanton and Lincoln had doubts about Grant, fed by countless rumors and complaints about his performance at Shiloh—which Lincoln brushed off with the words, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

It would have been impossible to find a better man for the job than Dana. He had worked alongside Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune for fifteen years until the day in April 1862 that Greeley fired him, evidently because Dana was too prowar for Greeley. Within a week, Stanton offered Dana a job in the War Department; months later, he was promoted to assistant war secretary.

Dana’s cover story was that he was investigating the army’s payments system. But instead of auditing the books, Dana sent Stanton reports on Grant and his generals encoded in a War Department cipher. Initially, Dana was mightily impressed by Sherman’s agile mind, but he had difficulty penetrating Grant’s reserve. When he finally did, he gushed that Grant was “the most modest, the most disinterested, and the most honest man I ever knew, with a temper that nothing could disturb, and judgment that was judicial in its comprehensiveness and wisdom. Not a great man, except morally; not an original or brilliant man, but sincere, thoughtful, deep, and gifted with courage that never faltered.”22

Because of his strict Methodist upbringing, Grant didn’t swear or dance, but he sometimes drank whiskey. In his reports to Stanton, Dana never mentioned Grant’s taking a drink, but rumors persisted in Washington. Largely apocryphal, they did, however, contain a kernel of truth.

Grant’s friend and aide-de-camp, John Rawlins of Galena, had accompanied him to Missouri in 1861 and had since remained on Grant’s staff. Rawlins strove to keep Grant sober. In March 1863, he had made Grant pledge to “drink no more during the war,” but sometimes Grant slipped. During the Vicksburg siege, a Rawlins letter to Grant dated June 6, 1863, began, “Dear General: The great solicitude I feel for the safety of the army leads me to mention, what I had hoped never again to do, the subject of your drinking.” Rawlins’s letter went on to recount how Grant had that night drained a bottle of wine “in company with those who drink and urge you to do likewise.” He reminded the general of the pledge he had made in March.23

Just before Vicksburg’s capitulation, a self-appointed committee visited Lincoln at the White House and demanded Grant’s removal. Puzzled, the president asked why. The men said that Grant drank too much whiskey.

“Ah!” replied Lincoln. “By the way, gentlemen, can either of you tell me where General Grant procures his whiskey? Because, if I can find out, I will send every general in the field a barrel of it!”24


Thursday, March 10, 1864 Brandy Station, Virginia

THE DAY AFTER being commissioned lieutenant general, Grant traveled by train to the Army of the Potomac headquarters at Brandy Station, Virginia, fifty miles south of Washington to meet with the army’s commander, George Meade.

The train pulled into the station in a downpour. Meade and his large staff were waiting. Meade and Grant had last met in 1848 in Mexico as lieutenants, and they now were the two most powerful generals in the Union army.

At forty-nine, Meade was Grant’s elder by seven years and had been his senior in rank until Grant’s promotion to three-star general. Meade was intelligent and accomplished and possessed magisterial bearing: he was tall, lean, and dignified-looking with a long beard, spectacles perched on a large, curved nose, bulging eyes, and a high forehead. Meade was a Philadelphia aristocrat, son of a wealthy merchant, Richard Worsam Meade, who was ruined financially when he supported Spain while serving as a naval agent there during the Napoleonic wars. The family’s financial straits were a major factor in George’s decision to attend the US Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1835. He left the army the following year to practice engineering, but returned in 1842. With Zachary Taylor’s army during the Mexican War, he, like Grant, saw action at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterrey.

Because of his savage temper, Meade was nicknamed “The Old Snapping Turtle.” His disposition was at times so foul that Morris Schaff, Meade’s chief ordnance officer, wrote, “I have seen him so cross and ugly that no one dared to speak to him—in fact, at such times his staff and everybody kept as clear of him as possible.” General Carl Schurz, a division commander in XI Corps at Gettysburg, wrote that while Meade did not inspire warmth, “this simple, cold, serious soldier with his business-like air did inspire confidence.”

Grant later found that no one was more sensitive to Meade’s explosive temper than Meade himself, and he judged him to be “an officer of great merit . . . brave and conscientious . . . [commanding] the respect of all who knew him.”

When the Civil War began, Meade was appointed brigadier general in charge of a brigade of Pennsylvania volunteers that he led during McClellan’s unsuccessful Peninsula campaign to capture Richmond; he was wounded at Glendale and during Second Manassas. At Antietam, he led the only division to lodge in the Rebel lines, and at Chancellorsville, he commanded V Corps.

On June 28, 1863, Meade replaced Joe Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Three days later, the Battle of Gettysburg began. Afterward, Lee’s defeated army began withdrawing to Virginia. Initially ecstatic that the Rebels’ invasion had been turned back, Lincoln and Stanton were appalled when Meade let Lee escape to Virginia without trapping him at the Potomac.


On Sale
Apr 29, 2014
Page Count
448 pages
Da Capo Press

Joseph Wheelan

About the Author

Joseph Wheelan is the author of nine previous books, including the highly-acclaimed books Terrible Swift Sword and Midnight in the Pacific. Before turning to writing books full time, Wheelan was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press for twenty-four years. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.

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