Thursday, December 22, 2005

“Grant: Master of Combined Operations”


One of the first officers of either side to recognize the efficacy of joint Army/Navy operations in the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant wasted no time in demonstrating that the use of Naval assets to provide both transport, and water-borne artillery in support of army operations allowed extra advantages that paid dividends for the Union war effort.

At the Battle of Belmont, Missouri, Grant planned to attack Confederate works on the west side of the Mississippi River at Belmont, and those works were protected by Confederate artillery on the east bank bluffs at Columbus, Kentucky. Transporting his force by boats, Grant landed his regiments about three miles north of Belmont. After leaving a few regiments behind as a reserve, and to guard the transports, Grant’s force set off for the short march to attack the Rebel works. Meanwhile, a few Navy gunboats steamed south to shell Columbus from the river, and divert the attention of the Confederate artillerists from Grant’s land attack.

Unfortunately for the lightly experienced Grant, his men began to celebrate after driving the Confederates from their works, rather than maintaining their ranks, and a Confederate counterstrike mounted from Columbus struck them, along with cannon shot from there as well. The Navy gunboats were unable to stop the Confederate transports. Grant’s force fought its way back to their landing spot with heavy losses.

Grant never made the same mistake twice. He used the weeks after Belmont to re-equip, shelter, and drill his men. Then he engaged Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote as his Naval partner in an expedition up the Tennessee River to capture Forts Henry and Donelson. Though Fort Henry fell to Naval forces after a brief exchange of artillery, Fort Donelson was a different matter. Foote traveled downstream to the confluence of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and sailed up the Cumberland to Fort Donelson, where much of the Confederate garrison from Fort Henry went after its fall. Grant’s men traveled the twelve miles from Fort Henry over some muddy roads. While Donelson was not nearly as easy as Fort Henry, it fell to Grant and Foote after a three day fight.

At one point, Grant’s right wing was forced back by a massive Confederate assault. Grant reasoned that the Confederates would have moved troops from their right to support that assault, and based on this, ordered his left wing forward. While they were in action, Grant rallied his right and ordered them to counter attack, thus regaining what they had lost. Foote, after some initial difficulty in using his Naval artillery against the elevated Fort, began to lay on an effective fire against the fort. The Confederates managed to get many of their troops out toward Nashville, but Fort Donelson surrendered the next day. What was becoming clear was Grant’s ability to perceive the battle as a single event of combined Army and Navy forces, cooperating together effectively.

Grant proceeded up the Tennessee River to Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, where he was joined by some fresh divisions, including one commanded by William T. Sherman. Here he demonstrated his abilities as an infantry commander in battle. Even though pushed back to Pittsburg Landing by a Confederate attack at the end of the first day, Grant took the offensive on the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, and forced the Confederates from the field.

Back in action some weeks later, Grant took on the prospect of dislodging the Confederates from their near impregnable position on the bluffs above the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi. It would take him almost a year, and would require the major involvement of Foote’s Naval force, but by July 4, 1863, Grant would claim victory at Vicksburg. Before that victory, however, there were many defeats, false starts, and outright mistakes made that would have discouraged lesser men than Grant, Foote, and Sherman.

One of the major cooperative successes occurred in the late winter of 1862-63, when Grant, preparing for his final push to surround the town, wanted Foote to move his gunboats down the Mississippi River past Vicksburg. This meant running the gauntlet of Confederate artillery along the bluffs. Cooperatively, Grant ordered a series of small expeditions by his infantry up several creeks and bayous north and south of Vicksburg, causing the Confederate commander there, John Pemberton, to move 41 of his guns to seven different locations protecting those creeks and bayous, leaving Pemberton with only 27 guns still covering the river. This gave Foote’s gunboats enough relief that they safely passed south of the town.

After the fall of Vicksburg, Grant was ordered to relieve the besieged Army of the Tennessee at Chattanooga. He moved his forces by train, and by the Tennessee River to that town, where he would, in shortly more than a month, direct his forces to lift the siege, and win impressive victories at Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge.

Lincoln rewarded him with a promotion to Lieutenant General, and command over the entire Union Army. Grant went east and took his headquarters to the field with the Army of the Potomac. One of the first things he did was to establish the use of Naval assets for transport, and supply. Although these assets had been used in the east prior to Grant’s assumption of command, they had not been used on such a scale, nor made such an integral part of the war effort in support of the Army as Grant made of them. Grant established his advanced base of operations along the south side of the James River at a small town called City Point. It would become an enormous base of logistical operations for the Army of the Potomac, and was located only about ten miles from the siege works at Petersburg. It offered safe passage to the interior of Virginia, and had a rail spur leading toward the siege lines and the Confederate capital of Richmond. This was Grant seeing the whole picture again, as he had learned to do at Forts Henry and Donelson. Lessons learned early in the war along the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were influential in Grant’s planning as Commander of the Union Army.

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