150 Years Ago This Week: Gen. Grant dictates war strategy

April 1864

Beginning on the night of Sunday, April 3, Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., underwent four consecutive nights of brisk mortar shelling from Union batteries. Still, the crumbling fortress refused to surrender.

In Virginia, on April 4, the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac received a new commander from the west, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan. Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant urged the War Department in Washington to bring him east; Gen. Grant had served with him in the fighting around Chattanooga, and liked Gen. Sheridan’s tactics and bulldog tenacity. In time, the name of Gen. Sheridan would strike terror in the hearts and minds of the residents of the Shenandoah Valley.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a joint resolution saying that the nation could not permit the establishment of a monarchy in Mexico. The measure was intended to thwart the plans of Napoleon III of France to place Maximilian of Hapsburg on the throne in Mexico City. President Abraham Lincoln summed up his thoughts on paper about slavery: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgement and feeling.”

On the Red River in Louisiana, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ military campaign was slowing down on April 5 under the pressure from the low river levels and the Confederates under Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor. There was a minor skirmish between opposing forces at Natchitoches, La.

Farther to the south, in New Orleans, the Constitutional Convention of Louisiana met on April 6 and adopted a new state constitution abolishing slavery. The following day, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the Confederate troops under his command, who had spent the autumn, winter and early spring of 1863-64 in east Tennessee, were ordered to return to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and resume the position of the First Corps.

On Friday, April 8, the Confederates under Gen. Taylor formed a defensive line at Sabine Crossroads, near Mansfield, La. Gen. Taylor moved his troops into position to prevent Gen. Banks and his Union troops from taking Shreveport. The Federals, however, were too far from the Red River and strung out in a long line, while low water of the river rendered the Union gunboats useless.

The general engagement began in late afternoon, and the Union lines gave way in panic and confusion. At nightfall, Gen. Banks pulled his men back to Pleasant Hill and formed a defensive line. Union casualties numbered more than 2,200 killed, wounded and missing — high for a Federal force of about 12,000. Confederate casualties numbered about 1,000 of a force of roughly 8,000.

The following afternoon, April 9, Gen. Taylor renewed his attack at Pleasant Hill. At first the Union troops were driven back, but a counterattack ordered by Gen. Banks drove the Confederates off the field. Another 1,400 Union casualties were sustained; Confederate losses were estimated at about 1.200, with 425 missing. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi, arrived late that night.

This same Saturday, Lt. Gen. Grant issued orders for the overall strategy of the war on all fronts from his headquarters in Virginia: Maj. Gen. George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in Virginia would make Gen. Lee’s army the objective. “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.”

In the west, Gen. Banks would give up the Red River campaign and concentrate on the Confederate port at Mobile, Ala. Maj. Gen. William Sherman was to leave Chattanooga and head into Georgia against the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph Johnston. Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel would take his army into the Shenandoah Valley; Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler would take his Army of the James and move north against Richmond.

The armies of the United States would be on the march in one grand, overall operation designed to put simultaneous pressure on all major armies of the Confederacy. For the first time ever, there would be total war.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.