Halleck: “Uncover Washington … and all the forces which Lee can collect will be moved north”

Gen. Halleck has sent me a long letter of response to my plan for a campaign into North Carolina.  In short, he believes it is unwise to transfer troops from in front of Washington and weaken that city’s defenses.  He writes,



February 17, 1864.

Major-General GRANT, Nashville, Tenn.:

GENERAL: Your letter of the 12th instant is just received. I fully concur with you in regard to the present condition of affairs in East Tennessee. It certainly is very much to be regretted that the fatal mistake of General Burnside has permitted Longstreet’s army to winter in Tennessee. It is due to yourself that a full report of this matter should be placed on file, so that the responsibility may rest where it properly belongs.

The condition of affairs in East Tennessee and the uncertainty of General Banks’ operations in Texas and Louisiana have caused me to delay answering your former communication in regard to the operations of the campaign. In one of these you suggest whether it might not be well not to attempt anything more against Richmond and to send a column of 60,000 men into North Carolina. In the first place, I have never considered Richmond as the necessary objective point of the Army of the Potomac; that point is Lee’s army. I have never supposed Richmond could be taken till Lee’s army was defeated or driven away. It was one of Napoleon’s maxims that an army covering a capital must be destroyed before attempting to capture or occupy that capital. And now, how can we best defeat Lee’s army-by attacking it between here and Richmond, on our shortest line of supplies, and in such a position that we can combine our whole force, or by a longer line and with a force diminished by the troops required to cover Washington and Maryland?

Such movement through North Carolina alluded to by you, and also one from Port Royal on Savannah and into Georgia, have been several times suggested here, and pretty fully discussed by military men. It is conceded by those suggesting these expeditions that neither of them can be safely undertaken with a less force than that estimated by you, viz, 60,000 effective men. Some require a still larger force.

If we admit the advantage of either of these plans, the question immediately arises, where can we get the requisite number of troops?

There is evidently a general public misconception of the strength of our army in Virginia and about Washington. Perhaps it is good policy to encourage this public error. The entire effective force in the fortifications about Washington and employed in guarding the public buildings and stores, the aqueduct, and railroads does not exceed 18,000 men. We have a few thousand more in the convalescent and distribution camps, and in the cavalry and artillery depots, but these are mostly fragments of organizations, temporarily here for equipments and distribution, and could contribute very little to the defense of the place. This force is, therefore, less than one-half of what General McClellan and several boards of officers recommended as the permanent garrison. Considering the political importance of Washington, and the immense amount of military stores here, it would be exceedingly hazardous to reduce it still further.

The effective force of the Army of the Potomac is only about 70,000. General Meade retreated before Lee with a very much larger force, and he does not now deem himself strong enough to attack Lee’s present army.

Suppose we were to send 30,000 men from that army to North Carolina, would not Lee be able to make another invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania? But it may be said that by operating in North Carolina we would compel Lee to move his army there. I do not think so. Uncover Washington and the Potomac River, and all the forces which Lee can collect will be moved north, and the popular sentiment will compel the Government to bring back the army in North Carolina to defend Washington, Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. I think Lee would to-morrow exchange Richmond, Raleigh and Wilmington for the possession of either of the aforementioned cities.

But suppose it were practicable to send 30,000 men from Meade’s army to North Carolina, where shall we get the other 30,000? We have there now barely enough to hold the points which it is necessary to occupy in order to prevent contraband trade. Very few of these would be available for the field. Maryland is almost entirely stripped of troops, and the forces in Western Virginia are barely sufficient to protect that part of the country from rebel raids. The only other resource is South Carolina.

Generals Foster and Gillmore were both of opinion at the commencement of operations against Charleston that neither that place nor Savannah could be taken by a land force of less than 60,000 men. Large land and naval forces have been employed there for nearly a year without any important results. I had no faith in the plan at first, and for months past have ineffectually urged that 10,000 or 15,000 men from Gillmore’s command be sent against Texas or Mobile. And now these troops are sent upon another expedition which, in my opinion, can produce no military result.

I always have been, and still am, opposed to all these isolated expeditions on the sea and Gulf coast. It is true they greatly assist the Navy in maintaining the blockade and prevent contraband trade, but I think the troops so employed would do more good if concentrated on some important line of military operations. We have given too much attention to cutting the toe nails of our enemy instead of grasping his throat.

You will perceive from the facts stated above that there are serious, if not insurmountable, obstacles in the way of the proposed North Carolina expedition. Nevertheless, as it has much to recommend it, I shall submit it with your remarks to the consideration of the President and Secretary of War as soon as troops enough return from furlough to attempt any important movement in this part of the theater of war.

Lee’s army is by far the best in the rebel service, and I regard him as their ablest general. But little progress can be made here till that army is broken or defeated. There have been several good opportunities to do this, viz, at Antietam, at Chancellorsville, and at Williamsport, in the retreat from Gettysburg. I am also of opinion that General Meade could have succeeded recently at Mine Run had he persevered in his attack.

The overthrow of Lee’s army being the object of operations here, the question arises, how can we best attain it? If we fight that army with our communications open to Washington, so as to cover this place and Maryland, we can concentrate upon it nearly all your forces on this frontier, but if we operate by North Carolina or the Peninsula, we must act with a divided army and on exterior lines, while Lee, with a short interior line, can concentrate his entire force on either fragment.

And yet, if we had troops enough to secure our position here, and at the same time to operate with advantage on Raleigh or Richmond, I would not hesitate to do so, at least for a winter or spring campaign. But our numbers are not sufficient, in my opinion, to attempt this, at least for the present. Troops sent south of James River cannot be brought back in time to oppose Lee, should he attempt a movement north, which I am satisfied would be his best policy.

Our main efforts in the next campaign should unquestionably be made against the armies of Lee and Johnston, but what particular lines we shall operate cannot be positively determined until the affairs of East Tennessee are settled, and we can know more nearly time, it will be well to compare views and opinions. The final decision of this question will probably depend, under the President, upon yourself.

It may be said that if General McClellan failed to take Richmond by the Peninsula route, so also have Generals Burnside, Hooker, and Meade failed to accomplish that object by the shorter and more direct route. This is all very true, but no argument can be deduced from this bare fact in favor of either plan of operations. General McClellan had so large an army in the spring of 1862 that possibly he was justified in dividing his forces and adopting exterior lines of operations. If he had succeeded, his plan would have been universally praised. He failed, and so also have Burnside, Hooker, and Meade on an interior route; but their armies were for inferior in number to that which McClellan had tow years ago. These facts in themselves prove nothing in favor of either route, and to decide the question we must recur to fundamental principles in regard to interior and exterior lines, objective points covering armies, divided forces, &c. These fundamental principles require, in my opinion, that all our available forces in the east should be concentrated against Lee’s army. We cannot take Richmond [at least with any miliary advantage], and we cannot operate advantageously on any point from the Atlantic coast, till we destroy or disperse that army, and the nearer to Washington we can fight it the better for us. We can here, or between here and Richmond, concentrate against him more men than anywhere else. If we cannot defeat him here with our combined force, we cannot hope to do so elsewhere with a divided army.

I write to you plainly and frankly, for between us there should be no reserve or concealment of opinions. As before remarked, I presume, under the authority of the President, the final decision of these questions will be referred to you. Nevertheless, I think you are entitled to have, and that it is my duty to frankly give, my individual opinion on the subject. It will no doubt be received for what it may be intrinsically worth; I can ask or expect nothing more.

In regard to the operations of our Western armies I fully concur in your views, but I think the condition of affairs in East Tennessee and west of Mississippi River will require some modification in your plans, or at least will very much delay the operations of your proposed spring campaign.

These, however, are delays and changes which neither of us could anticipate.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,



O.R., I, xxxii, part 2, p 411-3