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PREPARING FOR THE WILDERNESS.
THEN Lieutenant-General Grant took command of the
armies of the United States and glanced at the situation from his high central stand-point, he saw the enemy in strongest numbers, under its ablest generals, and on its best fightingground, in the State of Virginia, and between the two capitals, Washington and Richmond. Nature had made this area strong for defence. It was thickly wooded, and across it ran the Rappahannock and Rapidan, the Mattapony, the Pamunkey, the North and South Anna, and the Chickahominy, all more or less sluggish, deep steams, with wide margins of flats and swamps. Almost from the beginning of the war it had been the scene of defeat and victory for the respective armies, as the Bull Runs, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Cedar Mountain, and the stupendous Peninsular Campaign, proved. Lee's army now stretched across it south of the Rapidan, covering Richmond, menacing the national capital.
Should the Federal armies concentrate in the West, drive Johnston from Dalton, establish a new line from Atlanta to Mobile, do all that had been hoped under Sherman and Thomas, it would only result in harder Confederate consolidation in the path between Washington and Richmond. Lee's army therefore became an important and direct objective. As long as it represented an unbroken military power the war could not terminate. There could be no break except by offensive action and immediate contact. Continuous and concurrent operations were the means Grant decided upon to
force victory and bring peace. No opportunity should be given the Confederates to profit by their interior lines, to send reinforcements hither and thither at will, to hold strong defensive positions with inferior numbers. In deciding upon this he was only applying his Western strategy to an Eastern situation. But he was in a great measure reversing the tactics of his predecessors—the brilliant mancuvres for place, the
splendid games of battle at which Lee had played so successfully with McClellan and Hooker and Burnside.
There was also a moral argament which must have weighed powerfully with him, since it helped to change all his previous plans and forced him to ignore the solemn advice of Sherman,
Thomas, and indeed all his Western generals. His assumption of command had a chivalric significance. Lee stood head and shoulders above the Confederate generals. He had proved more than a match for the best Federal leadership. Therefore acceptance of the high rank of lieutenant-general was in the nature of a gauge of battle. He could no more decline a trial with the Confederate chieftain, without injuring his fame and weakening his power to command, than the country could afford to further waste its resources and its blood by continuing the policy of former officers of the Potomac armies. The intuitions of a heroic nature pointed unerringly to a duty inherent in his high office, that of crushing the foremost army of the Confederacy under its foremost leader.
He was encouraged in these convictions by the willingness of the authorities at Washington to stand by him, to load him with their confidence, to permit him to mature his plans and carry them out without interference. Of this he had the voluntary and kind assurance of both President and Secretary of War.
On the tenth of March he started to the front. Meade had command of the Army of the Potomac. His headquarters were at Brandy Station, fisty miles from the capital and ten miles north of the Rapidan. The two generals had not met since the Mexican War, but Grant was received with most respectful consideration and conducted to headquarters. Meade's position was one of great delicacy. He had been successful at Gettysburg, had handled his army on Virginia soil with rare tact, and had met with no severe reverses.
Under the circumstances, removal, rumor of which had reached his ears, or even the raising of one to a rank above him, was a matter about which he had a right to be sensitive. But on their first interview he relieved Grant of all embarrassment by asking to be removed if it suited his plans best. Grant not only did not
request his removal, but assured him of his desire not to interfere with his position as general of the Army of the Potomac.
All night they discussed the military situation and plans for the future. On the ìth of March he returned to Washington, declined the honors of a public dinner given by the President, and started the same night for Nashville to perfect his Western campaigns and install the generals who were to carry them out.
He arrived in Nashville on the 14th. On the 17th Sherman met him there, pursuant to orders. His first words to Grant were, “I cannot congratulate you on your promotion; the responsibility is too great." To this the quiet man responded with-silence. Yet he felt the full force of Sherman's utter
Too many of his predecessors had failed in what he must now attempt for him to feel exultation over honors and rewards, however freely bestowed by a grateful country.
Sherman again laid before Grant, in glowing colors and with all his natural persuasiveness, the propriety and duty of remaining in the West. “Here,” said he, “ you are at home; you are acquainted with your ground; you have tested your subordinates; you know us, and we know you. Here you are sure of success; here, too, you will be untrammeled. At the East you must begin new campaigns on an unfamiliar field, with troops and officers whom you have not tried, whom you have never led to victory. They cannot feel toward you as we do. Near Washington, besides, you will be beset, and it may be fettered, by scheming politicians. Stay here, where you have made your fame, and use the same means to consolidate it."
But Grant had already been moved by higher convictions of duty. That very mutual faith which Sherman spoke of would make his command of Western operations easy, while nothing but personal observation and superintendence would insure the success he desired in Virginia, on a strange field,