Volume XXXI, #1 • An Excerpt From:
by Herbert Schiller
In the early spring of 1864, the Federal and Confederate armies began preparing for their fourth campaign season. Much had changed in three years of war. The shrunken Confederacy was largely on the defensive. Facing the large Federal Army of the Potomac in the east was Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. In the west, William T. Sherman’s Union forces at Chattanooga, Tennessee, faced Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee in northwest Georgia.
After his successes at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Ulysses S. Grant had been promoted to lieutenant general and given command of all United States armies. Although cautioned by his staff against leaving the vast theater of operations in the West, Grant had decided to exercise command from the Eastern Theater. He had initially considered replacing George G. Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac with William F. “Baldy” Smith, a combat experienced engineer officer then serving on Grant’s Chattanooga staff, but after meeting with Meade on March 10, 1864, Grant decided to retain him. Smith at this time was on leave with his family in New York, where he would remain until being called to Washington, D. C., to meet with Grant on March 31, who was planning the spring campaigns.
Baldy Smith, destined to play a pivotal role in the coming campaign, had a somewhat checkered career. Following his graduation from the United States Military Academy he was appointed to the Corps of Engineers. In the Army of the Potomac, he led a brigade and division before becoming commander of the VI Corps at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Openly and vocally objecting to the inept Federal leadership at Fredericksburg, Smith was relieved of command and denied confirmation as major general. Subsequently sent west as Chief Engineer of the Army of the Cumberland, he continued serving in that capacity when Grant replaced Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans. It was Smith who opened the “cracker line” at beleaguered Chattanooga. He also had an excellent relationship with Grant, who as noted, for a time in the spring of 1864 considered Smith to replace Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Although Smith desired independent command when he returned from leave, he was assigned to command the XVIII Corps, which consisted of army forces then stationed primarily at the tip of the Virginia peninsula around Fort Monroe. Smith, however, had other ideas. He schemed during April for command of what he envisioned to be the “Army of the Cape Fear,” with which he would invade North Carolina from the northeast, sever the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad at Weldon, and then march north to take Petersburg, Virginia, and its railroad nexus. After being assigned to Virginia, ultimately under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Smith continued to plot for field command of the active forces to be deployed. Butler was aware but unconcerned of Smith’s scheming and offered Grant the opportunity of appointing Smith to independent command of the forces to be gathered on the Virginia peninsula; Grant declined to make the change.
Since November 1863, Ben Butler had served as commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina based at Fort Monroe. A Massachusetts Democrat who supported Lincoln’s war effort, he had been assigned the rank of major general of volunteers; indeed, he was the senior-most volunteer officer in that rank in the Union army. Although Butler had no significant field command experience, he had proved himself an able administrator. His troops had “saved” Baltimore in the opening days of secession and he commanded the forces that captured the Outer Banks of North Carolina. During his first assignment at Fort Monroe, he coined the term “contraband of war” for slaves who escaped into Federal lines. Butler had led the army forces in the joint army-navy expedition which successfully captured New Orleans in 1862, where he earned his first two sobriquets: “Spoons Butler” for allegedly accumulating other people’s silver, and “Beast Butler” for his decree concerning women residents who were openly discourteous to occupying troops. Now, forces under his command occupied the eastern portion of North Carolina, southeastern Virginia, and the extremities of the peninsulas extending into Chesapeake Bay. Butler, ever an enthusiast for using spies, had learned of the weakly manned defenses in Petersburg and Richmond.
On April 1, 1864, Grant sailed to Hampton Roads to consult with Butler about the coming spring offensive. It was the first time the two men had met. Butler’s initial suggestion was that Meade’s army join with his and the combined forces move on Richmond before Lee was aware of the transfer. Grant objected, stating that President Abraham Lincoln would never consent to Washington, D. C., being thus exposed. Butler then proposed that his army, increased to 30,000 men, land on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula and quickly march on Richmond from the south. Thus, Butler’s Army of the James would function as a detached left wing of the Army of the Potomac. With the Confederate capital invested from the south and its rail lines cut, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would rapidly deplete its supplies and be forced to withdraw south toward Richmond. Grant, in hot pursuit of Lee, would join in the investment of Richmond and, together with Butler, would “scoop” Richmond—perhaps along with Lee’s army—out of the Confederacy. In their discussions Butler came away with the understanding that he and Grant would combine forces around Richmond ten days after the beginning of the campaign. Grant enthusiastically endorsed this plan and conveyed to his staff his high opinion both of General Butler and his strategic concept. Even after the war Grant wrote that Butler’s landing at Bermuda Hundred, his occupation of City Point, and the inland movement against Richmond were all in keeping with their conception of the campaign. Unfortunately, neither Butler nor Grant seemed to have overly considered Robert E. Lee’s role in this matter.