It’s April 6th, 1862 near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, one year into the American Civil War.
Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston rides across the battlefield atop his horse, Fire-eater. His Union foes are trying to take the major rail center of Corinth, Mississippi, which lies twenty miles to the southwest. If they succeed, they will gain control of much of the South’s railways and supply lines. General Johnston was determined to prevent that outcome. So he launched a surprise attack.
Now, as Johnston spurs Fire-eater on, he raises his arm in the air as a sign for his men to fall in behind him. Shots whizz past him from both sides but Johnston charges forward. But in the midst of the torrent… a bullet rips through the back of Johnston’s right knee.
Fire-eater rears back as Johnston falls forward in his saddle.
Johnston tries to regain control of his horse and resume the attack. But the bullet has severed an artery, and Johnston can feel the blood pouring down his leg. His vision blurs and the sounds of the battle fade as Johnston slumps over his horse.
Johnston’s men see him fall and try to carry him to safety. But it’s no use. Minutes later, General Johnston bleeds out on the battlefield. His surprise attack will fail, and the skirmish will end in a stalemate.
On the first day of this two-day conflict, which will come to be known as the Battle of Shiloh, both sides suffer heavy losses with nearly 24000 men killed, wounded, or captured, making this the deadliest battle in the American Civil War so far.
In April of 1862, skirmishes and battles between North and South are raging all across the country. To many Americans, including President Abraham Lincoln, it seems as if the so-called Great War Between the States will never end. Lincoln is desperate to find the right general to put down the rebellion and bring an end to the long, bloody affair.
In the midst of this turmoil, one Union officer distinguishes himself; the same officer who thwarted Confederate General Johnston’s surprise attack at the Battle of Shiloh. Ulysses S. Grant's leadership on the battlefield will convince Lincoln to put him in charge of the entire United States Army. And Grant will prove that decision is the right one when he launches the Appomattox Campaign on March 29th, 1865.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 29th: General Grant Launches the Appomattox Campaign.
Act One: Battle of Shiloh
It’s April 7th, 1862 outside of Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, the second day of the Battle of Shiloh.
Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Commander of the Union Army of Tennessee, confers with his officers. But as he lays out his plan of attack, Grant is frustrated with himself.
Yesterday, Grant’s army was ambushed by Confederate forces. Even though the skirmish ended in a stalemate, Grant was forced to retreat from his position. As a result, his attempt to push into Mississippi and capture the rail center of Corinth has stalled.
But Grant still has hope. For one thing, Grant received reinforcements from the Army of the Ohio, which means he now has superior numbers. For another, the Confederate commander, General Johnston, is dead. Grant is confident that today, he can turn things around on the battlefield.
Grant tells his officers it’s time to go on the attack. And soon, they and Grant muster their troops and lead a charge on Confederate lines. The fighting is fierce from the start, and slowly but surely, Grant makes up the ground he lost the day before. The bloody battle rages for hours as Grant pushes his enemy many miles south to the Shiloh Church.
There, the Confederate forces try to make a stand, but they’re outmanned and outmatched. Soon, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who took charge after the death of General Johnston, orders his men to retreat to Corinth, and the fighting comes to an end… for the time being.
The Battle of Shiloh is a major victory for the Union. But Grant’s triumph comes at a tremendous cost: thousands of Americans on both sides are killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. As a result of the death toll, early praise for the victorious Grant quickly turns to condemnation. The South calls Grant a butcher, and many Union officers and politicians are skeptical of his leadership. But this isn’t the first time Grant’s abilities have been called into question.
In 1854, after garnering praise for his service in the Mexican-American War, Grant was forced to resign from the Army. He will later argue in his memoirs that he chose to leave the military in order to spend more time with his family. But accounts from other officers indicate that Grant’s alcohol abuse led his superiors to remove him from his post. But he returned to service to fight for the union in the first months of the Civil War. Now, following the Battle of Shiloh, Grant does his best to ignore his past and his critics. He focuses instead on the importance of another much-needed victory.
In the spring of 1862, the Union is losing the war in the East. General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac faces constant threats from the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee. Grant knows that troop morale is low and that support for President Lincoln is waning. He regrets the loss of life at the Battle of Shiloh, but he also knows that victory is paramount.
So he turns his attention to Corinth, Mississipi. He’s eager to lead a charge on Confederate forces there. But before he has a chance to press the attack, Grant and his army come under the command of Major General Henry Halleck.
Halleck is cautious and slow, and much to Grant’s chagrin, the Union advance on Corinth turns into a crawl. Confederate General Beauregard uses Halleck’s caution against him. Beauregard withdraws his army from Corinth. And by the time Union forces arrive, they find a town deserted of soldiers and supplies.
Grant and his army easily take control of Corinth, and thus its critical railways and supply lines. Halleck is lauded by Union leadership for his success, but Grant can’t help but feel Halleck’s timid approach cost them a chance to defeat Beauregard’s army once and for all.
Grant isn’t the only one growing frustrated with Union generals who prefer to stay on their heels rather than press the attack. In the fall of 1862, President Lincoln watches with frustration as General George McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, continues to choose caution over action.
On September 17th, McClellan commands Union troops at the Battle of Antietam, the single deadliest day in the history of American warfare. McClellan’s army suffers extensive losses, but the conflict also leaves Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia reeling and vulnerable. McClellan outnumbers Lee’s men almost three to one. But after the battle, McClellan lets Lee retreat.
When Abraham Lincoln receives news of the outcome of the battle, he’s furious at McClellan for not continuing the offensive. Lincoln believes the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia will effectively end the Civil War. Letting the south retreat does not get the Union any closer to victory.
Soon, Lincoln sets out to confront McClellan and urge the general to change his tactics. But his attempts will be in vain. Lincoln will lose all faith in McClellan, and the president will be forced to look elsewhere for a general with a right amount of aggression to bring the war to an end.
Act Two: Lincoln Removes McClellan
It’s early October 1862, outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland.
President Abraham Lincoln approaches the headquarters of General George McClellan, commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac. Inside the General’s tent, Lincoln takes a seat, then expresses his confusion at McClellan’s decision not to pursue Lee’s army.
McClellan argues his case. He says his men were wounded and exhausted, and because of the casualties he suffered at Antietam, he feared Lee’s remaining forces might outnumber his own.
Frustrated, Lincoln urges McClellan to pursue Lee into Virginia. But McClellan won’t hear it. He won’t be forced into what he sees as a premature advance. Lincoln departs, having failed to convince his top general to do what he wants. And Lincoln’s already waning trust in McClellan will reach a breaking point.
In late October of 1862, just weeks after McClellan’s meeting with President Lincoln, the reluctant General finally begins his pursuit of Lee’s army. But it takes McClellan nine days to make it across the Potomac River. Lincoln is disgusted at McClellan’s lack of urgency and decides enough is enough.
On November 5th, Lincoln notifies McClellan that he is relieving him of command. Lincoln replaces McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside, but Burnside’s command doesn’t last long. In December of 1862, he suffers a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Weeks later, Lincoln removes Burnside from command as well.
In 1863, while Lincoln searches for a new commander, General Ulysses S. Grant is on the rise. From April to June, Grant’s army cuts a swath through Mississippi. Under his leadership, the Union seizes Confederate-held cities like Grand Gulf, Raymond, and Jackson. These victories are all part of Grant’s goal of taking the city of Vicksburg in order to gain control of the strategically important Mississippi River, a critical route for shipping, trade, and transportation of troops and supplies.
So in May of 1863, when Grant marches on Vicksburg, he orders Major General William T. Sherman to attack the city. During the ensuing battle, Sherman’s men and the Confederate forces take major losses and the fight ends in a stalemate. Soon after, Grant receives a full report of Confederate defenses at Vicksburg. After reading it, he realizes this will not be a fast or easy fight. Still, he is determined to walk away victorious.
For 47 days, Grant lays siege to Vicksburg, depleting Confederate supplies and causing significant casualties. Eventually, Confederate General John Pemberton realizes his army, and the civilians in the city, cannot withstand Grant’s continued attacks. On July 4th, 1863, Pemberton surrenders, and the Union takes control of Vicksburg and the Mississippi River. Grant’s victory comes just one day after the Union victory at Gettysburg, a major turning point in the Civil War.
And then throughout the fall of 1863, Grant continues to succeed on the battlefield, winning crucial victories in Tennessee at the Battle of Lookout Mountain and the Battle of Missionary Ridge. By the end of the year, Grant's success wins the admiration of many, including President Lincoln.
In December of 1863, Lincoln writes to Grant, thanking him for the skill, courage, and perseverance he and his troops have shown throughout the war.
Since relieving McClellan of his command, Lincoln has been desperately searching for the right man to lead his army and end the war. Lincoln is now convinced Grant is that man.
In February 1864, Lincoln nominates Grant for the post of Lieutenant General of the United States Army. That rank has not been officially used since 1798, when President John Adams, fearing a possible French invasion, bestowed the title on former president George Washington.
On March 8th of that year, Grant arrives in Washington with little fanfare. He receives a message from the president inviting him to attend a weekly reception. Grant is not a social creature, and he has no desire to go to a party. But a soldier follows orders, especially from the president. So Grant, dressed in his finest military attire, joins Lincoln and his guests at the White House.
Eventually, Grant is ushered into the Blue Room where Lincoln and several cabinet members are waiting. There, Lincoln gives Grant the news: he will be named Lieutenant General and take command of the entire United States Army. Grant accepts. He will spend the next year in his new role attempting to rout Robert E. Lee’s army and finally force Confederacy to surrender.
Act Three: The Appomattox Campaign
It’s the morning of March 29th, 1865 at a railway station in City Point, Virginia. Ulysses S. Grant and his officers escort President Abraham Lincoln to a train destined for Washington, DC.
Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and other Union leaders have spent the last few days discussing possible strategies that might bring the war to an end.
At the train station, Lincoln approaches each Union officer individually and shakes their hand before boarding the train car. Grant and his officers look on as the train slowly begins to pull out of the station. They remove their hats in a show of honor. President Lincoln raises his hand and salutes the men. And while the officers are still in earshot, President Lincoln calls out: “Goodbye, Gentlemen. God Bless you all! Remember, your success is my success.”
On March 29th, 1865, Grant orders Major General Sheridian and his cavalry to strike at Lee’s army stationed southwest of Petersburg, Virginia. Sheridan’s goal is to cut off two of Lee’s major supply lines. In private, Grant says he intends to “close the war right here.” Sheridan’s attack launches Grant’s Appomattox Campaign and marks the beginning of the end for Robert E. Lee’s forces.
Over the next several days, Union and Confederate soldiers clash in Virginia. The Union advances closer to the Confederate capital of Richmond and sends Lee’s troops on the run.
Finally, on April 3rd, 1865, Grant and the Union take Richmond, as Lee’s army continues to flee. It’s clear the Confederacy is about to fall, but Grant wants to ensure that the fighting comes to an end. So he rides out from his headquarters and meets Sheridan.
With his officers, Grant conceives a plan to pursue and corner General Lee’s army. On April 7th, with Lee on the run, Grant makes a historical decision. He writes to Lee and asks him to avoid further bloodshed by surrendering. After an exchange of correspondence, Lee agrees and the Confederates lay down their arms.
On April 9th, Grant accepts Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively bringing the Civil War to an end.
Later in life, Grant will write that he never expected to be a soldier, let alone lead an entire army. Grant never reveled in war. And during his successful run for president in 1868, Grant’s campaign slogan speaks to his true hopes for the nation: “Let Us Have Peace.”
But for Ulysses S. Grant, the road to peace was bloody and violent. Still, he brought to an end what seemed like an endless war when he launched the Appomattox Campaign on March 29th, 1865.
Next on History Daily. March 30th, 1856. Russia signs the Treaty of Paris, bringing an end to the Crimean War.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.