By day, Lincoln goaded his general to attack. “Fight him when opportunity offers,” he urged Hooker. By night, the President passed short hours of troubled sleep. “Think you better put ‘Tad’s’ pistol away,” Lincoln cabled his wife on June 9 at the Philadelphia hotel where she was traveling with their youngest son. “I had an ugly dream about him.”
In the Western Theater, a Fighter Rises
How different things were in the West, where the taciturn cigar-chewer Ulysses S. Grant, a onetime quartermaster who never lost the common touch, had spent April and May solving the problem of Vicksburg without troubling Lincoln a bit. The President had seen to the core of Grant’s character when he said simply, “He fights.” Sure enough, in April Grant ran gunboats down the Mississippi through storms of artillery fire from the Vicksburg bluffs. With the boats as cover, he ferried an army across the river, then launched the most dazzling campaign of the war. “Grant is a copious worker, and fighter, but a very meagre writer, or telegrapher,” Lincoln once explained. The first news he received of Grant’s exploits came from captured Confederate newspapers, but on May 23, an aide to Grant filled in the details.
Grant’s Army of the Tennessee “landed at Bruinsburg on 30th April,” the aide telegraphed. “On 1st May, fought battle of Port Gibson; defeated rebels … On 12th May, at the battle of Raymond, rebels were defeated … On the 14th, defeated Joseph E. Johnston, captured Jackson … On the 16th, fought the bloody and decisive battle of Baker’s Creek … On the 17th, defeated same force at Big Black Bridge … on the 18th, invested Vicksburg closely.” Simple as that. The last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi was now surrounded, besieged, starving.
(MORE: Gettysburg: The Sergeant)
The path to victory, Lincoln had come to understand, lay in breaking up the rebellion and snuffing out its armies. Grant was on the verge of cutting the rebel lifeline to the fertile lands of the West and forcing the surrender of an entire Confederate army for the second time in his short career. Why couldn’t the President find such a man for the Eastern Theater? Lee continued down the Shenandoah Valley, capturing the Union garrison at Winchester, as Hooker’s cavalry tried and failed to break through the Confederate screen. As the head of the rebel column neared Union soil, Lincoln issued a call for 100,000 fresh volunteers, but that was no use in the present emergency. If Lee was to be stopped, the Army of the Potomac would have to stop him.
And Lee was moving rapidly now, sending his vanguard straight through Maryland to the outskirts of Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. For Lincoln, these were dark hours indeed. There was no word from Grant at Vicksburg. The Democrats of Ohio and New York had issued formal protests against the arrest of leading antiwar activists and draft resisters. Friends in Philadelphia and the governor of New Jersey pleaded with him to call McClellan back to command, for only the ousted general could “rescue” the nation “from the hopelessness now prevailing,” they declared.
Hooker Gets the Hook
But Lincoln, still convinced that the rebels were overplaying their hand, had already moved quietly in another direction. On June 28, as Lee began to collect his forces in the rolling countryside west of Harrisburg, the President took the extraordinary step of changing generals in the midst of a crisis. He accepted Hooker’s petulant offer to resign and promoted in his place a turtle-eyed Pennsylvanian named George G. Meade. Short-tempered, conservative, an Army man top to toe, Meade was no one’s favorite officer—but he proved to be the right man for the moment. Assuming command so abruptly that he didn’t even know precisely where his army was, he nevertheless managed to collect his troops and his wits in time to meet Lee three days later.
What followed has been called the turning point of the Civil War, the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, and the making of Lincoln’s presidency. There is some truth and a bit of exaggeration in those assessments, but what can be said for sure is that no handful of days in American history was richer in portents or more saturated in blood. Through three days of fighting along the meadows and ridgelines of Gettysburg, Meade’s Union defenses often bent but never broke, and Lee’s failure in Pennsylvania was quickly followed by news that Grant had captured Vicksburg.
In the immediate aftermath, Lincoln ached to see Meade attack Lee’s decimated force, for he imagined that the end of the war was but one more battle away. As the smoke cleared, however, he came to hold a more charitable opinion of the general. When Oliver O. Howard, an experienced division commander in the Army of the Potomac, protested to Lincoln that Meade had managed to bring harmony to a badly demoralized force, the President agreed. “A few days having passed” since Lee’s successful retreat across the Potomac, “I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done” at Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote. “Gen. Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man.”
Now the pieces were rumbling into place for the ghastly final act of the nation’s great drama. Grant was soon on his way to Chattanooga, Tenn., to break the South’s main railway and start William T. Sherman down his long road of destruction. From there, Grant would be called to the East to devise the final, crushing campaigns along the path to Appomattox. Lincoln had found his generals at last, in the only way circumstances would allow: by gory trial and error. He made his mistakes, yes, but he learned from them.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, TIME has published a richly illustrated 192-page book, Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War. To buy a copy, go to time.com/gettysburgbook