Was the Destruction Perpetrated by Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman Necessary to End the Civil War

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in camp, 1864.

January 1, 1863 marked a pivotal moment in the American Civil War. On this date the Emancipation Proclamation, the preliminary of which was issued by President Lincoln on September 22, 1862, took full and permanent effect, thus changing the Union’s ultimate war goal. The Civil War was no longer being fought to preserve the antebellum Union but rather, in the words of Lincoln, was to be a war of “subjugation…the [old] South” was to be destroyed in favor of “new propositions and ideas.”[1]Once the aim of the war changed for the Union, so too did its leaders. The harsh and unpopular actions that were necessary to prevent the prolonged bloody carnage of continual war were tasked to three men. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William T. Sherman innately understood what needed to be done in order to end the war and they courageously performed these duties.

Relieving McClellan

Lincoln with McClellan in Sharpsburg, October 1862.

April 12, 1861, marked the beginning of the Civil War when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. President Lincoln, who had been inaugurated scarcely more than a month prior, engaged in the war with the goal of preserving the Union. Initially, ending slavery was not an issue for which he fought. Throughout the first year of the war, however, his thinking began to change. The humanity of ending slavery altered him to a degree but more practical implications caused him to act. By eliminating slaves from the South's war machine, Rebel forces would weaken while those of the Union would strengthen.

On September 22, 1862, five days after the horrific battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Maryland, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation with the goal of frightening the South into submission. This tactic did not garner the intended result and after the Battle of Antietam ended with no decisive victor, Confederate General Robert E. Lee retreated with his army back into Virginia. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was able to escape unhindered due to the ineffectual command of Union leader, George B. McClellan.

McClellan was revered by his troops yet proved to be a great frustration to Lincoln, who, after Antietam, stated that McClellan had a “case of the slows.” The general had the good fortune of receiving the orders of General Lee prior to the battle at Antietam Creek. The orders had been dropped by a Confederate courier and fell into the hands of the Union commander. He had possession of these orders two days prior to the ensuing battle yet failed to act to prevent Lee from carrying out his strategies.

Additionally, on September 17, when the Union army had Confederate troops trapped in what was called the "sunken road", a request was sent to McClellan for reinforcements. McClellan not only failed to send more troops, which may have crushed Lee’s army and thus ended the war, but he also called off the attack. Ironically, when Robert E. Lee replaced Joseph Johnston as the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia just three months prior, General McClellan was pleased because he deemed Lee to be “cautious and weak under grave responsibility.”[2]

After Lee and his army made a successful retreat back onto Confederate soil, President Lincoln met with McClellan to personally relieve him of command. With the Emancipation Proclamation waiting on his desk and understanding its war implications, Lincoln knew he needed a strong and decisive leader to command an aggressive war. Although he did not want to harm his fellow countrymen, he knew harsher tactics were necessary, as the Union could "no longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing.”[3] Lincoln was forced, in part by the South and in part by his own commanders, to change his focus and shift the course of the war.

Finding a Leader

General Ambrose Burnside.

Lincoln understood the magnitude of the Emancipation Proclamation and the ensuing consequences. With the threat of their very social, financial, and cultural fabric coming to an end, the Confederacy would fight more vigorously. The Proclamation inflamed Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his fellow Southerners. Lincoln showed no sympathy toward the Confederate government when he stated, “Having made war on the Government, they were subject to the incidents and calamities of war.”[4] The “calamities” of which he spoke, included the emancipation of slaves, who were to be taken into Northern ranks as "contrabands", and for the Union Army to “strike more vigorous blows.”[5] Lincoln realized that McClellan was not the man for the job and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside on November 7, 1862. After the debacle at Fredericksburg in December of that year, Lincoln replaced Burnside with “Fighting Joe” Hooker, an arrogant Irishman from Boston, who advocated governing the country through a military dictatorship. When Hooker failed at Chancellorsville, he was summarily replaced by George Meade on June 28 1863, two days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg.[6]

Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the war, produced greater than 51,000 dead and wounded soldiers over the course of the first three days of July, 1863. Lee opted to again retreat from Yankee soil, never to return. The following day, General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of John C. Pemberton and his 30,000 troops at Vicksburg, Mississippi. This accomplishment by Grant secured the entire Mississippi Valley for the Union.[7]

Grant’s success at Vicksburg made a lasting impression on the president while Meade’s success at Gettysburg was diminished by his refusal to pursue Lee while in retreat. Conversely, Grant was willing to take risks in order to win battles and destroy the enemy. This did not go unnoticed by Lincoln, who wanted "generals who will fight battles and win victories.”[8] Grant, unlike McClellan, was not afraid to fail, which resulted in his ability to make bold decisions upon which he courageously acted. This was the type of man Lincoln needed to lead his army but dared not replace Meade after his victory at Gettysburg. In a bold move, Abraham Lincoln reopened the position of Lieutenant General and bestowed the position upon Grant, who was then effectively in charge of all Union forces.

When the spring of 1864 arrived, Grant was General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck stepped down to the position of Chief-of-Staff, William T. Sherman commanded the Army of Chattanooga, and George Meade maintained command of the Army of the Potomac. Grant made plans for all of his armies to act in concert at the beginning of May. Once Grant took charge of all Federal troops, the president allowed him to work autonomously, without the breath of Washington upon his neck. After bestowing this elite command upon Grant, Lincoln said to him, “The particulars of your plan I neither know nor seek to know…I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you.”[9] Lincoln was putting his complete faith in Grant’s abilities; something to which neither man was accustomed.

The Similar Backgrounds of Lincoln and Grant

Abraham Lincoln was raised in poverty. Having lost his mother as a young boy, he was reared by an abusive father. He educated himself and at the age of twenty-two moved to a small village in Illinois with no job or any prospects. He forged his way alone, relying on his own intelligence and instinct. Because he was raised on what was then considered the "frontier," he was perceived by career politicians and Washington insiders to be a rube. In the spring of 1864 he took a bold chance in turning the fate of the nation, and that of himself, over to another man.

Like Lincoln, Grant was from what was considered to be the West; Galena, Illinois. He graduated from West Point in 1843 only to be drummed out of the army eleven years later due to his propensity for alcohol. He made his way to St. Louis, Missouri and worked pedaling lumber and logs throughout the city. He was often faced with the humbling experience of encountering military officers and former colleagues while pushing carts of logs throughout the streets of St. Louis.[10] Grant met this challenge admirably and was unashamed of taking any necessary measure to support his family. By all accounts, he was considered a "regular guy" who did not blend into the social network shared by the West Point elite. Daniel Frost, a classmate of Grant’s from the Point, stated that Grant possessed a “total absence of elegance.”[11]Elegance did not win wars. Courage, foresight, and determination won wars, and that is what Lincoln found in Grant.

A Vicious War

"War is cruelty and you cannot refine it."William Tecumseh Sherman.

After March 1864, the Army of the Potomac became relentless in the pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant tracked Lee through the Wilderness, into Petersburg, and finally to Richmond. Known as the Overland Campaign, this unyielding chase during March and April 1865 resulted in over 60,000 Union casualties.[12]The general, who became known as a butcher, did not like the high casualty rate but predicted an even greater number if the fighting lingered. In a letter to his wife, he noted that the way in which battles were depicted in the newspapers may have been exciting to those who “lose no friends” and that he was in favor of as little carnage as possible. He continued to express his belief that “The way to avoid it [excessive carnage] is to push forward as vigorously as possible.”[13]While Grant hounded Lee at every turn, he relied solely on General William T. Sherman to control Georgia and march north through the Carolinas to link up with the Army of the Potomac.

Sherman did not disappoint Grant as he proceeded from Atlanta to Savannah. He was confident in his troops' ability to “make the march, and make Georgia howl!”[14]Vilified in the South, both then and now, for what seemed like senseless destruction, Sherman acted appropriately. He was in enemy territory with his army in a time of war. His troops had no supply line and needed food. Also necessary was preventing the Rebels from regrouping after Sherman left Georgia. Southerners, soldier and civilian alike, had an uncanny knack for restoring hope and renewing possibilities from seemingly hopeless situations. Sherman had personal knowledge of the tenacity of the people against whom he was fighting and was aware of the necessity to destroy any possibility of a Confederate resurgence. General Grant advocated Sherman’s tactics, averring that his actions were not unwarranted given he was “in the enemy’s territory and without any supplies.”[15]

Sherman continued to instill terror in South Carolina as he plundered and blazed his way through the state. He was acutely aware that the fear his men elicited was a “power” to “whip the rebels, to humble their pride, to follow them to their inmost recesses. And make them fear and dread us.”[16] The actions taken by Sherman were not only to win the war at hand but also to instill fear into the people of the South to such an extent that a future rebellion was never again to be considered. General Sherman did what was necessary to win the war swiftly with the Union emerging victorious.

Although he was seen by some southerners as the devil incarnate, Sherman enjoyed the South and its people. He lived in the region while teaching at the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. He too was a West Point graduate and, like Grant, he resigned from the army; though Sherman did this of his own volition. Additionally, he was from the "West", Lancaster, Ohio, and endured many failures in civilian life and therefore had no concerns about shielding his reputation, thus, when he was berated for his actions in the war, which were not limited to Georgia and the Carolinas, he was unapologetic.[17]

Major-General Greenville Dodge recalled Sherman’s response to a woman who was criticizing him regarding the pillaging done by his troops on their march into Knoxville: “There are two armies here; one is in rebellion against the Union, the other is fighting for the Union – if either must starve to death, I propose it shall not be the army that is loyal.”[18] General Sherman was acting due to war-time necessity and the preservation of his own army and the Union.

Philip Sheridan.

Sherman’s actions were much like those of General Phil Sheridan’s in the Shenandoah Valley. On September 15, 1864, General Grant visited Sheridan and ordered him to drive Confederate General Jubal Early out of the Shenandoah Valley and “destroy that source of supplies for Lee’s army.”[19] The Valley was an excellent source of food for soldiers and animals of both armies and was also a route through which Lee’s army had continually been reinforced. By destroying the resources and landscape of the Shenandoah Valley, Lee’s troops were no longer able to feed themselves or transport supplies via that route. Seen as pointless destruction by some, this was a strategic tact of war ordered by Grant and carried out by "Little Phil" Sheridan.

General Lee, in an attempt to display the elevated morality of the Southern soldier, forbade pillaging while in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. The Johnny Reb quickly showed that he was no different than Billy Yank when the Southern Army seized cattle, clothing, and food from civilians.[20] Like northern soldiers, these hungry, angry, and exhausted men were in enemy territory and needed to be supplied. Both Sherman’s men in Georgia and Longstreet’s men in Pennsylvania were acting out of necessity due to war. Men on each side of the war were far from home, literally dropping from hunger, went days without sleep, and were frightened. They did what was necessary to survive and to quell any further rebellions.


As Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated in his Gettysburg Address, November 1863, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” [21]Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman acted as the war mandated. They had all known failure in their lives, which was perhaps one reason they were empathetic to their defeated Southern counterparts. Generous, if not compassionate terms of surrender were offered to Lee and his army by Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. General Sherman was also gentle in peace when he accepted General Joseph Johnston’s surrender in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 26, 1865; 11 days after the death of Abraham Lincoln. Lee and Johnston both defied orders from Jefferson Davis to continue a guerilla war. Unlike Davis, these Southern generals were honorable soldiers who knew the cause was lost and had no intention of inflicting more casualties on an already devastated nation. They knew the horrors of war and were eager to proceed in peace. All of these men were prepared to carry out President Lincoln’s wish to “achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.”[22]


  1. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,(New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 558
  2. McPherson, 462.
  3. McPherson, 506.
  4. Gideon Welles, "The History of Emancipation," The Galaxy,14 (December, 1872), 842-843.
  5. Welles, 842-843.
  6. Thomas Cutrer, Lecture,(Glendale, AZ, April 2011).
  7. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 512.
  8. Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, vol.2, (New York: Random House, 1963), 217
  9. Alfred H. Burne, Lee, Grant and Sherman: A Study in Leadership in the 1864-65 Campaign (1938;repr., Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 6.
  10. Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won The Civil War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 7-9.
  11. Flood, 10.
  12. Cutrer, Lecture.
  13. Greenville M. Dodge, Personal recollections of President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, and General William T. Sherman (Council Bluffs: Monarch Printing, 1914), 36.
  14. McPherson, 808.
  15. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs (Westminster: Random House, 1999), 510.
  16. McPherson, 827.
  17. Flood, 21-35.
  18. Dodge,141
  19. Grant, 491.
  20. McPherson, 649.
  21. Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”, November 1863, The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division (Washington, D. C.: American Memory Project, [2000-02]), http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/alhome.html.
  22. Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865, National Archives, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=38.

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