When Grant took the cipher Stanton ordered the operator to be dismissed. Grant thereupon shouldered the responsibility, saying that Stanton would have to punish him if any one was punished. Then Stanton gave in. Grant saw through him clearly. "Mr. Stanton never questioned his own authority to command, unless resisted. He felt no hesitation in assuming the functions of the Executive or in acting without advising with him . . . . He was very timid, and it was impossible for him to avoid interfering with the armies covering the capital when it was sought to defend it by an offensive movement against the army defending the Confederate capital. The enemy would not have been in danger if Mr. Stanton had been in the field."
Stanton was unteachable. He never learnt where control ended and disabling interference began. In the very critical month of August, '64, he interfered with Hunter to such an extent that this patriotic general had to tell Grant "he was so embarrassed with orders from Washington that he had lost all trace of the enemy." Nor was that the end of Stanton's interference with the operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln's own cipher letter to Grant on the third of August shows what both these great men had to suffer from the weak link in the chain between them.
"I have seen your despatch in which you say, 'I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.' This, I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move. But please look over the despatches you may have received from here, even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here of "putting our army SOUTH of the enemy," or of 'following him to the DEATH' in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done or attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.'
The experts of the loyal North were partly comforted by knowing that Davis and his ministers had interfered with Jackson, that during the present campaign they made a crucial mistake about Johnston, and that they failed to give Lee the supreme command until it was too late. But no Southern Secretary went quite so far as Stanton, who actually falsified Grant's order to Sheridan at the crisis of the Valley campaign in October. Here are Grant's own words: "This order had to go through Washington, where it was intercepted; and when Sheridan received what purported to be a statement of what I wanted him to do it was something entirely different."
Nor was Stanton the only responsible civilian to interfere with Grant. There was no government press censorship--perhaps, in this peculiar war, there could not be one. So the only safety was unceasing care, even in cases vouched for by civilians of high official standing. When Grant was beginning the great campaign of '64 the Honorable Elihu B. Washburne, afterwards United States Minister to France, introduced one Swinton as the prospective historian of the war. On this understanding Swinton accompanied the army. One night Grant gave verbal orders to the staff officer on duty. Three days later these orders appeared in a Richmond paper. Shortly afterwards, in the midst of the Wilderness battle, Swinton was found eavesdropping behind a stump during a midnight conference at headquarters. Sent off with a serious warning, he next appeared, in another place, as a prisoner condemned to death for spying. Grant, satisfied that he was not bent on getting news for the enemy in particular, but only for the press in general, released and expelled him with such a warning this time that he never once came back.
The Union forces at the front were about twice the corresponding forces of the South: Sherman, who commanded the river armies after Grant's transfer to Virginia, says: "I always estimated my force at about double, and could afford to lose two to one without disturbing our relative proportion." In Virginia the Army of the Potomac under Meade and the new Army of the James under Butler, both under Grant's immediate command, totaled over a hundred and fifty thousand men against the ninety thousand under Lee. These odds of five to three remained the same when a hundred and ten thousand Federals went into winter quarters against sixtysix thousand Confederates at Petersburg. But, when the naval odds of more than ten to one in favor of the North are added in, the general odds of two to one are reached on this as well as other scenes of action. In reserves the odds were very much greater; for while the South was getting down to its last available man the North began the following year with nearly one million in the forces and two millions on the registered reserve. Thus, even supposing that half the reserves were unfit for active service, the man-power odds against the South were these: two to one in arms at the beginning of the great campaign, five to one at the end of it, and ten to one if the fit reserves were all included. The odds in transportation by land, and very much more so by water, were even greater at corresponding times; while the odds in all the other resources which could be turned to warlike ends were greater still.
The Southern situation, therefore, was not encouraging from the naval and military point of view. The border States had long been lost, then the trans-Mississippi; and now the whole river lea was held as a base by the North. Only five States remained effective: Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. These formed an irregular oblong of about two hundred thousand square miles between the Appalachians and the sea. There were a good eight hundred Confederate miles from the Shenandoah Valley to Mobile. But the three hundred miles across the oblong, even in its widest part, were everywhere threatened and in some places held by the North. The whole coast was more closely blockaded than ever; and only three ports remained with their defenses still in Southern hands: Wilmington, Charleston, and Mobile. Alabama was threatened by land and sea from the lower Mississippi and the Gulf. Georgia, was threatened by Sherman's main body in southeastern Tennessee. The Carolinas were in less immediate danger. But they were menaced both from the mountains and the sea; and if the Union forces conquered Virginia and Georgia, then the Carolinas were certain to be ground into subjugation between Grant's victorious forces on the north and Sherman's on the south.
Grant fixed his own headquarters with the Army of the Potomac at Culpeper Court House, north of the Rapidan. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, was at Orange Court House, over twenty miles south. Grant, taking his own headquarters as the center, regarded Butler's Army of the James as the left wing, which could unite with the center round Richmond and Petersburg. The long right wing ran through the whole of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, clear away to Memphis, with its own headquarters at Chattanooga. There Sherman faced Johnston, who occupied a strong position at Dalton, over thirty miles southeast. The great objectives were, of course, the two main Southern armies under Lee and Johnston, with Richmond and Atlanta as the chief positions to be gained.