Chapter XXVII. Check and Countercheck

The six-weeks' campaign in Virginia had been quite sufficient to check all enthusiasm for Grant, but the fact that he was no longer a popular hero did not trouble him at all. Indeed, he displayed the same indifference to the storm of angry criticism that he had shown for the salvos of applause. He had made no claims or boasts before he took the field and he returned no answers to the accusations and complaints after his apparent failures. Had he posed before the public as a hero or been tempted to prophesy a speedy triumph for his army, the humiliation and disappointment might have driven him to resign from the command. But he had recognized the difficulty of his task from the outset, modestly accepting it with no promise save that he would do his best, and he silently resolved to pursue the campaign he had originally mapped out in spite of all reverses.

Certainly, he required all his calmness and steadfastness to overcome his discouragement and disgust at the manner in which the cooperating armies had been handled. In the Shenandoah Valley Sigel had proved utterly incompetent and the Confederates, instead of having been driven from that important storehouse, had tightened their hold upon it. Moreover, Butler, who was supposed to threaten Richmond while Grant fought Lee, had made a sorry mess of that part of the program. In fact he had maneuvered in such a ridiculous fashion that he and about 35,000 troops were soon cooped up by a far smaller force of Confederates who held them as a cork holds the contents of a bottle; and last, but not least, the Army of Potomac lay badly mutilated before the impassable intrenchments of Lee.

In one particular, however, Grant's expectations bade fair to be realized, for Sherman was steadily pushing his way through Georgia, driving Johnston before him, and inflicting terrible damage upon the country through which he passed. As Grant watched this triumphant advance he silently resolved upon another move. The north or front door of Richmond was closed and firmly barred. There was nothing to be gained by further battering at that portal. But the southern or rear door had not yet been thoroughly tried and upon that he concluded to make a determined assault. To do this it would be necessary to renew his movement around his opponent's right flank by crossing the formidable James River - a difficult feat at any time, but double difficult at that moment, owing to the fact that Butler's "bottled" force might be crushed by a Confederate attack while the hazardous passage of the river was being effected. Nevertheless, he decided to risk this bold stroke, and during the night of June 12, 1864, about ten days after the repulse at Cold Harbor, the great movement was begun.

Meanwhile Lee, confident that he had completely checked his opponent, but disappointed that he had not forced him to retreat, determined to drive him away by carrying the war into the North and threatening the Federal capital. That he should have been able to attempt this in the midst of a campaign deliberately planned to destroy him, affords some of the indication of the brilliant generalship he had displayed. But it does not fully reflect his masterful daring. At the outset of the campaign the Union forces had outnumbered him two to one and its losses had been offset by reenforcements, while every man that had fallen in the Confederate ranks had left an empty space. It is highly probable, therefore, that at the moment he resolved to turn the tables on his adversary and transform the campaign against Richmond into a campaign against Washington, he had not much more than one man to his opponent's three. Nevertheless, in the face of these overwhelming numbers, he maintained a bold front towards Grant and detached General Jubal Early with 20,000 men to the Shenandoah Valley, with orders to clear that region of Union troops, cross the Potomac River and then march straight on Washington.

It was at this moment that Grant began creeping cautiously away toward the rear door of Richmond. To keep a vigilant enemy in entire ignorance of such a tremendous move was, of course, impossible, but the system and discipline which he had instilled into his army almost accomplished the feat. Indeed, so rapidly and silently did the troops move, so perfect were the arrangements for transporting their baggage and supplies, so completely were the details of the whole undertaking ordered and systematized, that over a hundred thousand men, infantry, cavalry, and artillery, with their horses, hospital and wagon trains, and all the paraphernalia of a vast army virtually faded away, and when Lee gazed from his intrenchments on June 13, 1864, there was no sign of his opponent and he did not discover where he had gone for fully four days.