For some three years, the Army of the Tennessee took the lead in most of the Union’s western campaigns—in Tennessee and at Vicksburg, before going on to the Atlanta Campaign and then to the Carolinas, the final campaign of the Civil War. Except for the Army of the Potomac, no force was more important to the Union war effort. It was the first army Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, successively, commanded. Its victories were major Union breakthroughs and turning points in the war.
Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant commanded predecessor units to the Department and Army of the Tennessee—the District of Southeast Missouri, District of Cairo, and District of West Tennessee—from September 1, 1861, to October 16, 1862. With Grant commanding, the Department of the Tennessee was created on the latter date, encompassing Cairo, Illinois (at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers), Forts Henry and Donelson, northern Mississippi, and those parts of Tennessee and Kentucky west of the Tennessee River. At first all troops in the new military department were lumped into a single corps, the XIII. It quickly became apparent, however, that the XIII Corps was the size of an army and therefore required more commanders and more flexibility. It was therefore divided into four corps—XIII, XV, XVI, and XVII—and designated the Army of the Tennessee on December 18, 1862, with Grant commanding both the department and the army. By April 30, 1863, the new army was a huge force of about 150,000 men—although its constituents were frequently attached to other armies as needed and so it was rarely fielded at anything approaching its maximum strength.
Grant, the army’s first commanding officer, led the organization from its creation as an army, October 16, 1862, to October 24, 1863, when Major General William Tecumseh Sherman took over. During Grant’s command, the Battles of Belmont, Forts Henry and Donelson, and Shiloh were fought, as were the Siege and Battle of Corinth and the Vicksburg Campaign and Siege.
When Grant was born in 1822, at Point Pleasant, Ohio, it was as Hiram Ulysses Grant, a farmer’s son. Enrolled at West Point in 1839, he learned that he was listed on the rolls as “Ulysses Simpson Grant.” The first was a name he sometimes went by, and the second was his mother’s maiden name. If that’s who the army wanted him to be, he had no objections, and he was Ulysses Simpson Grant from that day forward.
A mediocre cadet, Grant graduated in 1843, twenty-first of out of a class of thirty-nine. In September 1845 Second Lieutenant Grant was attached to Zachary Taylor’s command on the Texas-Mexico border, awaiting the outbreak of war. He fought with distinction during the US-Mexican War (1846–48) at Palo Alto (May 8, 1846), Resaca de la Palma (May 9), and Monterrey (September 21–24). When Winfield Scott replaced Taylor in March 1847, Grant, transferred to his command, fought at the capture of Veracruz (March 9–29, 1847) and in the battles of Cerro Gordo (April 18), Churubusco (August 20), and Molino del Rey (September 8). In the latter battle he earned a brevet promotion to first lieutenant for gallantry. He distinguished himself further at Chapultepec (September 13), for which he was brevetted captain. On September 16 he was formally commissioned first lieutenant.
After the war Grant was posted variously in New York, Michigan, California, and Oregon during 1848–54. Promoted to captain (August 1853), he grew impatient with the army’s glacial system of advancement and resigned—only to discover that he had little talent for anything other than soldiering. In 1860 he moved to Galena, Illinois, where he joined his father and brothers in the family tannery, and he was working in the business as a clerk when the Civil War began in April 1861. Grant was chosen to train the Galena militia company and then worked in the state adjutant general’s office until June 1861, when he was appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry regiment. In August he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers and took command of the District of Southeast Missouri, headquartered at Cairo.
Acting on his own initiative, Grant seized Paducah, Kentucky, on September 6, 1861, but, despite winning the Battle of Belmont (November 7, 1861, Missouri), had insufficient numbers to hold it and was forced to withdraw. The aggressive Grant found himself repeatedly at odds with his overly cautious superior, Major General Henry Wager Halleck. At length he nevertheless managed to persuade Halleck to allow him to move against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, which he captured on February 6, 1862. This was followed by the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11–16, 1862, Tennessee; Union victory). With these wins, Union forces seized the initiative in the Western Theater. When the commander of the Confederate garrison at Donelson presented his surrender terms, Grant replied that nothing less than unconditional surrender was acceptable. This gave him yet another name, and “Ulysses Simpson” became “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Halleck, far from unconditionally satisfied with Grant’s victories, temporarily relieved him of command for insubordination—only to restore him late in March.
In a lapse of judgment, Grant allowed himself to be surprised at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862), but recovered and drove the Confederates back, albeit with heavy losses. This prompted Halleck to take direct command of western forces until he was elevated to general-in-chief of all Union armies, and Grant was returned to absolute command of the Army of the Tennessee. Under Halleck the army had fought the Siege of Corinth (April 29–May 30, 1862, Mississippi; Union victory), which positioned Grant to conduct the long siege against heavily fortified Vicksburg, key to the Mississippi River.
From December 1862 through March 1863, Grant tried various tactics to lay effective siege against the fortress town. After all of them failed, he marched his forces south of Vicksburg and, under covering fire furnished by Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s gunboats, led the Army of the Tennessee back to the east bank of the Mississippi during April 30–May 1. He took Grand Gulf, Mississippi, just below Vicksburg, on May 3, then captured Jackson on May 14. This split the armies of Confederate generals John C. Pemberton and Joseph E. Johnston. Defeating Pemberton at the Battle of Champion’s Hill (May 16, 1863), Grant at last laid siege to Vicksburg itself, which did not fall to him until July 4, 1863. With the Union victory at Gettysburg, which came on the day before, Vicksburg was a turning point of the Civil War and a triumph for the Army of the Tennessee.
Grant was promoted to major general in the regular army and was assigned command of the Military Division of the Mississippi on October 4, with command of the Army of the Tennessee transferred to Major General William T. Sherman on October 24. The first task Grant assigned to Division of the Mississippi forces was to break the Confederate siege of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga. This was accomplished in two battles, Lookout Mountain (November 24, 1863) and Missionary Ridge (November 25, 1863), the second of which involved the Army of the Tennessee (Sherman) as well as the Army of the Cumberland (now commanded by Major General George H. Thomas).
The performance of Grant and his two principal army commanders moved President Lincoln to promote Grant to lieutenant general on March 3, 1864, and give him command of all Union armies. Grant now focused on the Eastern Theater and, using the Army of the Potomac (commanded by Major General George Meade) as his primary weapon, conducted the Overland Campaign (May 4–June 24, 1864), which culminated in the campaigns and battles that led to the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. With the flagship army of the Confederacy lost, the war itself came to an end before the close of the following month.
Grant’s prosecution of the war’s endgame was extremely costly, but the victory it produced was decisive. After the war Grant returned to Washington, where he was put in charge of the massive military demobilization and the army’s role in postwar Reconstruction. In recognition of his services to the nation, he was promoted to the newly created rank of general of the army in July 1866. He served briefly as interim secretary of war under President Andrew Johnson during 1867–68, but his insistence on measures to protect the army of occupation in the South caused a permanent rift with Johnson, who, as a Tennessean, was sympathetic to the South. Grant then embraced the strong—often punitive—Reconstruction policies of the radical wing of the Republican Party and easily achieved the Republican nomination for president in 1868. He was elected to two terms, 1869–1877, both plagued by corruption and scandal, though none of it traceable to him. He unsuccessfully sought nomination to a third term in 1880, suffered ruinous financial reversals, and completed his masterful Personal Memoirs just days before his death, from throat cancer, on July 23, 1885. The proceeds of the tremendously successful book made Julia Dent Grant a wealthy widow.
Under the command of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, which spanned October 24, 1863, to March 26, 1864, the Army of the Tennessee fought in the Chattanooga Campaign, including at the Battle of Missionary Ridge and the Battle of Meridian.
He was born in 1820, in Lancaster, Ohio, the son of an Ohio Supreme Court judge. After graduating from West Point in 1840, Sherman was commissioned in the artillery and saw action in the Second Seminole War (1835–42), gaining promotion to first lieutenant (November 1841). At the outbreak of the US-Mexican War (1846–48), Sherman was assigned to the staff of Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, but was disappointed that he saw no combat, serving most of the war as an administrative officer in California until that territory joined the Union in 1848. Sherman became a commissary captain in September 1850 but, feeling profound dissatisfaction with what amounted to a desk career, resigned his commission and embarked on thoroughly unsuccessful careers in banking and in law during 1853–58. In 1859 he was appointed superintendent of the newly established Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy, a position he relished—but resigned in January 1861, when it became clear that the country was about to fight a civil war.
After a brief interval as president of the St. Louis Railroad streetcar company, Sherman was commissioned colonel of the 13th US Infantry on May 14, 1861—a regiment yet to be raised by the time he assumed command of a volunteer brigade at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861; Union defeat). In August Sherman was promoted to brigadier general of US Volunteers and subsequently commanded the Department of the Cumberland in Louisville, Kentucky. Overcome by deep pessimism, he suffered a nervous collapse and asked to be relieved of command. By the end of the year, he returned to service under Henry W. Halleck in the Department of the Missouri (in March 1862 enlarged into the Department of the Mississippi). After Sherman successfully supported operations against Fort Donelson (February 11–16, 1862), Grant assigned him to command the 5th Division in the Army of West Tennessee. The fighting retreat Sherman led at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862) was instrumental both in averting a Union rout and in making Grant’s counterattack on April 7 a success. Twice wounded, Sherman showed himself heroic and steadfast under fire. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on May 1, 1862.
Sherman fought under Grant at the Siege of Corinth and the Second Battle of Corinth (April 29–May 30, 1862, and October 3–4, 1862, respectively) and during the Vicksburg Campaign (March 29–July 4, 1863). He was transferred to command of XV Corps, Army of the Mississippi, and successfully took Arkansas Post (January 9–11, 1863), after which he transferred with XV Corps to the Army of the Tennessee and resumed his support of Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. Sherman and his corps were instrumental in Grant’s capture of Jackson, Mississippi (May 14, 1863).
Promoted to brigadier general in the regular army in July, Sherman rushed to the relief of William Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga (September 21–November 25, 1863), succeeding Grant as commander of the Army of the Tennessee on October 24, 1863. Leading that army, he played a strong supporting role in coordinating with the Army of the Cumberland (command of which George H. Thomas had assumed from Rosecrans) and commanded the Union left at Chattanooga in the Battle of Lookout Mountain (November 24, 1863) and the Battle of Missionary Ridge (November 25, 1863).
During February 14–20, 1864, Sherman led the Army of the Tennessee in the Meridian Campaign, which culminated in the capture—and heavy destruction—of that Mississippi town, a railroad hub and the site of a Confederate arsenal, POW camp, and hospital. The following month, after Grant was elevated to Union general-in-chief, Sherman took his place as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, with control of the Armies of the Tennessee, the Cumberland, and the Ohio. He consolidated these forces—more than 100,000 men at this point—in a spectacular drive toward Atlanta, which he coordinated with Grant’s advance (using the Army of the Potomac) on Richmond. Sherman marched 100 miles in seventy-four days, pushing the Confederate Army of Tennessee (then commanded by Joseph E. Johnston) before him, fighting battles across Georgia at Rocky Face Ridge (May 7–13; Union victory), Resaca (May 13–15; inconclusive), New Hope Church (May 25–26; Union defeat), and Dallas (May 26–June 1; Union victory), always closing inexorably on Atlanta. Although he suffered a sharp defeat at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27), he beat John Bell Hood (now in command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee) at the Battles of Peachtree Creek (July 20), Atlanta (July 22), Ezra Church (July 28), Dalton (August 14–15), and Jonesborough (August 31–September 1). On September 2 Sherman and his armies occupied Atlanta.
From Atlanta—which he left ablaze—Sherman set out on his March to the Sea (November 15–December 21, 1864) with the Army of the Tennessee and the newly constituted Army of Georgia (consisting of the XIV and XX Corps of the Army of the Cumberland). The march culminated in the occupation of Savannah, Georgia (December 21, 1864). From here Sherman led the Armies of the Tennessee, the Ohio, and Georgia on the Carolinas Campaign, which culminated in the capture and burning of Columbia, South Carolina (February 17), the Battle of Bentonville (March 19–21, 1865, North Carolina; Union victory), the capture of Raleigh, North Carolina (April 13), and Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to Sherman on April 26, near Durham Station, North Carolina. With this, the last substantial Confederate force (the so-called Army of the South) had been defeated.
Sherman was appointed commander of the Division of the Missouri in June 1865 and was promoted to lieutenant general of regulars in July 1866. From his headquarters in Chicago, he directed much of the strategy and policy during the Indian Wars—although he participated on the field in no battles. In November 1869 he became commanding general of the army and was promoted to general. He held this largely ceremonial post until his retirement in 1884. Sherman died on February 14, 1891.
Major General James B. McPherson assumed command of the Army of the Tennessee on March 26, 1864, and led it through half of the Atlanta Campaign (May 7–September 2, 1864), until he was killed in action on July 22 of that year. McPherson was born in 1828 and graduated from West Point in 1853, a class that included both the future Union general Philip Sheridan and the future Confederate commander of the army defending Atlanta, John Bell Hood. Commissioned into the Corps of Engineers, McPherson was involved in such civil engineering projects as improving New York Harbor, building Fort Delaware, and building the fortifications on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
At the start of the Civil War, McPherson briefly served on the staff of Major General Henry Halleck before being transferred to the District of Cairo as chief engineer during Brigadier General Grant’s assaults on Forts Henry (February 6, 1862, Tennessee and Kentucky; Union victory) and Donelson (February 11–16, Tennessee; Union victory). McPherson fought at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7) and, promoted to brigadier general on August 19, 1862, fought at the Second Battle of Corinth (October 3–4), emerging with a promotion to major general of volunteers, effective October 8, 1862. Given command of XVII Corps in the Army of the Tennessee under Ulysses S. Grant, he served in the Vicksburg Campaign (March 29–July 4, 1863) and was promoted to brigadier general in the regular army on August 1, 1863. He took command of the Army of the Tennessee on March 26, 1864, after Sherman was elevated to command all armies in the West.
Under McPherson, the Army of the Tennessee was the right wing of Sherman’s combined forces in the Atlanta Campaign. At the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge (May 7–13, 1864), McPherson’s move to flank Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee failed because he was blocked by a much smaller Confederate force. He met another defeat at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27, 1864).
On July 22, 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee, now under James Bell Hood, launched a sharp attack against Union forces and nearly captured McPherson, who was shot by skirmishers when he attempted to get away.