Did Grant Ever Retreat?

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
The question is did he ever retreat?

In December 1862, Grant was poised to begin his overland Vicksburg offensive heading south via the Mississippi Central Railroad axis. That plan was thwarted by Earl Van Dorn's raid at the supply depot in Holly Springs, so Grant was forced to scrub the offensive and technically speaking "retreat" back to the Memphis area.
 

Biscoitos

Corporal
Joined
May 14, 2020
Because Grant had a good reason to retreat. When Grant had the numbers he did not retreat.
Leftyhunter
The question was did Grant ever retreat
not did he ever retreat without a good reason.

Without specifically referring to Grant, but including every military leader ever in history, if you excuse retreating with a good reason,
what does retreating mean?
Does every former "retreat" simply become a "tactical repositioning?"

You failed to address the question as asked.
 

Biscoitos

Corporal
Joined
May 14, 2020
Other than the first attempt, the unsuccessful attempts at Vicksburg might be considered failures, but not really retreats.

Grant was not "removed from command" for those 6 months. Iuka and Corinth were both before Perryville. Grant was a department or district commander by then, and Perryville was not in his jurisdiction, so no credit or blame went to Grant for that.
Such as the Yazoo Pass Expedition, which Grant ordered. The Confederates were at every moment outnumbered, But Grant ordered his forces to retreat back to the Mississippi River. He later "spun" the retreat and stated that his forces were "recalled."
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
He later "spun" the retreat and stated that his forces were "recalled."

Grant was known to loath retracing his steps. This was a personal quirk that was lifelong and had nothing to do with his military career per se but it was a factor that animated much of his thinking.
 

leftyhunter

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
May 27, 2011
Location
los angeles ca
The question was did Grant ever retreat
not did he ever retreat without a good reason.

Without specifically referring to Grant, but including every military leader ever in history, if you excuse retreating with a good reason,
what does retreating mean?
Does every former "retreat" simply become a "tactical repositioning?"

You failed to address the question as asked.
Retreating isn't good or bad what counts is getting the other side to surrender. On that score Grant scores high.
Leftyhunter
 

leftyhunter

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
May 27, 2011
Location
los angeles ca
What were Grant’s numbers when he retreated during the Mississippi Central RR campaign?
If Grant is short of supplies due to Van Doren's raid then oh well he has to retreat. Sometimes armies have to retreat. What counts in the end is who surrender's to whom. Grant never surrendered his army vs Lee not so much.
Leftyhunter
 
Last edited:

alan polk

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 11, 2012
If Grant is short of supplies due to Can Doren's raid then oh well he has to retreat. Sometimes armies have to retreat. What counts in the end is who surrender's to whom. Grant never surrendered his army vs Lee not so much.
Leftyhunter
I was asking about his numbers during his Central Mississippi RR campaign. You said:“When Grant had the numbers he did not retreat.” Not sure how you answered my question, but thanks for your reply.
 

DanSBHawk

Captain
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
I was asking about his numbers during his Central Mississippi RR campaign. You said:“When Grant had the numbers he did not retreat.” Not sure how you answered my question, but thanks for your reply.
I think the point is that it was not about numbers as much as it was about having a means to supply the army. It was not only Van Dorns raid at Holly Springs, but also railroad destruction by Forrest, that wrecked his supply line.

That said, if Halleck had allowed Grant to break up the railroad and abandon Corinth, then Grant could have concentrated more forces to protect his supply line and possibly worked his way south by land.
 

Dave DuBrucq

Corporal
Joined
Oct 28, 2020
Location
Tennessee
This quest hit me while watching the new Grant biography on the History Channel. During one scene in episode 2, Lee tells one of his adjutants, “Grant is not a retreating man.” I immediately started thinking about all the major engagements Grant was in.... Forts Henry & Donnelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga etc... no retreats. My question- is this an already well known fact that has simply escaped my notice? Do our history teachers not make note of this remarkable fact? Or, am I missing an example of where he did retreat?
The Battle (probably more accurately the Skirmish) at Belmont, Missouri. Initially a Federal success, Grant's Confederate opponents quickly regrouped and counterattacked. Grant retreated to his riverboats and took his men to Paducah, Kentucky. While of little significance, it got more attention than it deserved as there was very little other activity in November of 1861. Celebrated in the South as a great victory and lamented in the North as a humiliating defeat, it was neither.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
What were Grant’s numbers when he retreated during the Mississippi Central RR campaign?

The return is here for December (very incomplete) and here for January. In round terms Grant had 103,000 PFD, but some were fixed garrisons. The active portion of his command was 13 infantry and 2 cavalry divisions that had been divided down the middle thus:

Sherman's/McClernand's river expedition
5th, 9th, 11th, 12th and 13th divisions, 1st bde/10th division and Washburn's cavalry division
= 34,397 by the combined Dec/Jan returns, after casualties, ca. 36,000 at Chickasaw Bayou

Grant's overland expedition
1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 8th divisions, 2nd bde/10th division and Grierson's cavalry division
= 40,123 by combined Dec/Jan returns (all from Dec return except Lee's cavalry bde and 8th division)

Defending Corinth
2nd division
= 6,278

Defending Memphis
= 5,723

Defending occupied territory to the north (Columbus, Fort Donelson, Island no. 10 etc.)
= 4,873

Grant had sequentially numbered his divisions. The 2nd division had been redesignated to the District of Corinth, and was sometimes called that (although the compilers of the OR get confused at times with the numbers). A division from Missouri would join on the 26th March and be designated the 14th division, which is as high as the numberings got.

In December/ January he had an active force of ca. 83,000 PFD, including the division at Corinth.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
"Retreat" is a hard thing to define; the dictionary definition actually means that if someone moves away from an inferior enemy without a battle first it doesn't count as a retreat. (The dictionary definition specifies moving away after a defeat in battle or from a superior enemy).

However, there are also times when "retreat" in a slightly more reasonable definition (i.e. giving up ground to the enemy; moving away from the enemy army; moving from a position closer to the enemy centre of gravity to one closer to your own) is actually the best or only sensible course of action.
The Duke of Wellington's abilities as a commander are unimpeachable and he retreated from Quatre-Bras to Mont-saint-Jean because it was the sensible thing to do to avoid getting into a bad situation; this retreat directly set up his subsequent victory. The Duke also retreated hundreds of miles through Spain and Portugal rather than fight a battle at a disadvantage, and when he was on the offensive it was his opponents who had to give up hundreds of miles of terrain because of his adroit manoeuvres.
The retreats of the Soviet army through the summer and autumn of 1941 saved their army and state from destruction and were essential to the victories of the subsequent years; to stand and fight where your opponent wants you to stand and fight is to court obliteration.


So "this commander didn't retreat" is not automatically a credit on his record - it can mean he was too stubborn, OR it can mean he was never put in a situation in which retreat was prudent, for example. If Grant never did something that qualified as a retreat then it would be because he never ended up in a situation in which retreat was the better option.



However, by most reasonable definitions of a retreat, Grant does retreat (on the tactical scale in several battles, but also on the operational or strategic scale). This is not a debit on his record, any more than "did not retreat" would be a credit; we would criticize him if he retreated (or did not retreat) when that was different to what the situation actually called for, or in the case of one that took place as the result of a defeat if that defeat was unnecessary.

For example, Grant conducts an offensive; the enemy strikes his supply lines; he abandons the offensive. This is a retreat (he is moving away from the enemy centre of gravity and closer to his own) but indicates positive things about his skill as a commander, because he doesn't "keep pushing" and potentially destroy his own army for want of supplies.



I don't think you can come up with a definition of "retreat" by which (1) Grant never retreats and (2) it makes sense when applied to other battles, but all this means is that retreat was one of the options in Grant's toolkit and that he occasionally had reason to exercise it (and we can then critique his individual uses of that tool). Unlike the simplified version in the documentary mentioned at the beginning of the thread, being "a general who didn't retreat" is not a positive thing in and of itself, because "retreat" is not a bad thing in and of itself; this is a simplified view, and it sounds from the details given like the documentary went with campaign analysis roughly on the level of "retreat BAD, Grant GOOD"
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
As a comparison, the forces facing Grant were (January returns, with Bowen and Van Dorn filled in):

Opposing the overland column
Van Dorn's cavalry
= 6,155 (with officers estimated at 8.5% of enlisted strength, from inspection report)*

At Columbus, MS
State Militia (5th Miss state regt, 3rd Bn, Miss state militia) and 5th Bn, Alabama Partisan Rangers
= 1,407

Opposing the river column
Stevenson's, Smith's and Maury's divisions
= 20,818

In reserve at Jackson
Bowen's and Loring's divisions
= 10,755 (taking officers in Bowen's division at 8.5% of enlisted strength based on Price's statement of effectives)

* there are 4 regiments slated to join Van Dorn as he crosses to the west bank of the Mississippi, not counted.
 
Last edited:

NFB22

Sergeant Major
Joined
Jun 21, 2012
Location
Louisville, KY
Reading through everyone's opinions. I don't think there is any right or wrong answer here as long as we don't have an exact definition of "retreat"

I've seen the the example of the Duke of Wellington. This is a fantastic example of a tactical withdrawal/redeployment rather than a full retreat. Bonaparte's entire campaign hinged on his concept of the Central Position where his smaller army would take on multiple opposing forces in turn. He was able to accomplish the first part of his plan at the Battle of Ligny on his right but with Wellington pulling back to a more tenable position on Napoleon's left, he was unable to complete what potentially could have been one of the most magnificent tactical masterpieces in military history at Waterloo. Of course it's more complicated than that but still, a great example.

A retreat to me would be a force rapidly retreating after a rout like Union troops at the small Battle of Corydon in July of 1863 or Lee's retreat back to the south after Gettysburg that same month. Did we ever see Grant do something like either of these examples? Maybe on a small scale early in the war. Most of his movements I would classify as redeployments like those during the operations around Petersburg and Richmond where if one thing didn't work, he would try something else.

The only hit I have on Grant is at times he maybe pressed on when he shouldn't have or allowed questionable operations such as at the Battle of the Crater. However, this same type of aggressiveness worked in his favor such as when he pressed on to Fort Donelson after the capture of Fort Henry even though his superiors were apprehensive about this.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
I've seen the the example of the Duke of Wellington. This is a fantastic example of a tactical withdrawal/redeployment rather than a full retreat. Bonaparte's entire campaign hinged on his concept of the Central Position where his smaller army would take on multiple opposing forces in turn. He was able to accomplish the first part of his plan at the Battle of Ligny on his right but with Wellington pulling back to a more tenable position on Napoleon's left, he was unable to complete what potentially could have been one of the most magnificent tactical masterpieces in military history at Waterloo. Of course it's more complicated than that but still, a great example.
What about his pull-backs in Spain? Some of those involved withdrawing hundreds of miles.
In any case, I think there's no point distinguishing between "tactical withdrawal", "redeployment" and "retreat" as if they were different things - they overlap too much for that.


A retreat to me would be a force rapidly retreating after a rout like Union troops at the small Battle of Corydon in July of 1863 or Lee's retreat back to the south after Gettysburg that same month. Did we ever see Grant do something like either of these examples? Maybe on a small scale early in the war. Most of his movements I would classify as redeployments like those during the operations around Petersburg and Richmond where if one thing didn't work, he would try something else.
That means a definition of a retreat where it only "counts" if it's after a lost battle and involves abandoning the campaign. Would you say that that's a correct summary of your definition?

I ask because I think it starts to get overly narrow, and by that I mean it starts defining categories to try and avoid the label of "retreat" as if it were a negative thing.
 

NFB22

Sergeant Major
Joined
Jun 21, 2012
Location
Louisville, KY
What about his pull-backs in Spain? Some of those involved withdrawing hundreds of miles.
In any case, I think there's no point distinguishing between "tactical withdrawal", "redeployment" and "retreat" as if they were different things - they overlap too much for that.



That means a definition of a retreat where it only "counts" if it's after a lost battle and involves abandoning the campaign. Would you say that that's a correct summary of your definition?

I ask because I think it starts to get overly narrow, and by that I mean it starts defining categories to try and avoid the label of "retreat" as if it were a negative thing.
In my opinion, retreating is automatically associated with defeat. By my definition, I personally think of a retreat like that of Washington during the British campaign against New York early in the Revolution, the Japanese fleet (or what was left of it) after the Battle of Midway or Darius after Gaugamela. I mention these because of the clear military disadvantages they were at following pitched battles in which they were defeated, much like Lee after Gettysburg.

Like I said in my previous post, I don't think we have a clear answer until we have a clear definition of retreat.

To your first point about the Peninsular War and Wellington, yes, at times he did withdraw but other times I'd say Wellington did retreat some during that conflict, most notably in 1811 during a number of actions in which he was defeated and needed to save the remainder of his force. Hell, even Napoleon retreated after Waterloo.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
In my opinion, retreating is automatically associated with defeat.
I think then that that's the problem; it defines it so narrowly that there are many things I would label as retreats which don't count. In particular there are several occasions on which soldiers - including great generals - describe movements as retreats which are not associated with defeat, such as in Wellington's dispatches where his report of casualties describes his movement from Quatre Bras to Waterloo as "retreat".

If a general describes his own movement as "retreat" but your definition doesn't include it, then you should at least consider that your definition has been too narrow.

I'd say Wellington did retreat some during that conflict, most notably in 1811 during a number of actions in which he was defeated and needed to save the remainder of his force.
I'd love for you to give an example of when Wellington was defeated (and thus had to retreat to "save the remainder of his force") in 1811! I can't think of a single battle he was in for the whole year which qualifies, though he was certainly put in situations in which he had to retreat to avoid a defeat, and in 2nd Badajoz he didn't capture the fort but what compelled him to retreat was the approach of a relieving force; that would have been the same if he hadn't attacked in the first place.

This is what I mean when I say you're giving the word negative connotations which it does not actually possess, by defining it so narrowly.
For example Wellington had not been defeated at Quatre Bras, and retreated (his word) not because he had been defeated but because by a retrograde movement (i.e. moving away from the enemy and towards his own rear) he could fight on better terms.


To shift back to Grant, after the attack on his supply base at Holly Springs Grant moved back north. This would qualify as a retreat as far as I'm concerned, because before the attack Grant was clearly "advancing" and he then reversed course and went back to the start; it even comes after a battle (or rather a large raid) though Grant's main body didn't fight in it.
Does it then qualify as a retreat?
If Grant had fought a skirmish with a single regiment just before the news had come in, would it suddenly count as a retreat because it came after a battle?

I think this definition causes too many problems.



One possible definition is this - there are three kinds of movement in the military sense when manoeuvering on the same scale at which you possess an enemy, those being "advance", "oblique" and "retreat".
An "advance" is moving away from your base and/or towards the enemy or your objective.
A "retreat" is the opposite, moving towards your base and/or away from the enemy or your objective.
And an "oblique" is when you are moving roughly perpendicular to your base and/or the enemy.


On the small scale, of battle lines etc., it's fairly clear which of these something falls into, and it's relative to their unit. If there is an enemy to the south behind the north-facing friendly battle-line and a unit re-orients to oppose them, they are not retreating if they march south closer to the enemy, and they're not advancing if they're pushed north again.
But expanding that out should produce much the same conclusion. It's relative to the unit, their base or bases of supply, and their enemy or enemies.
 
Top