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Civil War Trust

The Overland Campaign of 1864

Dodging Bullets
By Gordon Rhea; Hallowed Ground Magazine, Spring 2014 Issue

The Overland Campaign, some 40-odd days of maneuver and combat between the Rapidan and James Rivers, pitted the Civil War’s premier generals — Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant for the Union, and Gen. Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy — against one another in a grueling contest of endurance and guile.

Grant’s strength was unwavering adherence to the strategic objective of neutralizing Lee’s army. While he frequently stumbled, the overall pattern of his campaign was that of an innovative general employing thoughtful combinations of maneuver and force to bring a difficult adversary to bay. Lee’s strengths were his resilience and the fierce devotion that he inspired in his men. He, too, made mistakes, often misreading Grant and placing his smaller army in peril, only to devise a creative solution that turned the tables on his adversary. In many respects, the generals were similar. Each favored offensive operations and were willing to take risks; each labored under handicaps, although of different sorts; and each was bedeviled by subordinates who often seemed incapable of getting things right. Grant and Lee were about as evenly matched in military talent as any two opposing generals have ever been.

The stage for this dramatic campaign was set with the Union Army of the Potomac’s repulse of Lee’s foray into Pennsylvania in July 1863. Federal commanders frittered away their Gettysburg victory, and the next spring, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waited behind formidable earthworks along the Rapidan River, confident as ever of success on its native soil.

Eighteen sixty-four was an election year, and President Abraham Lincoln harbored well-founded misgivings about his prospects for a second term. Unless Union armies produced victories, the presidency risked going to a candidate willing to negotiate with the South, enabling the Rebels to achieve through political means the ends that had eluded them by force of arms.

Union armies in the West could boast tangible successes, but the Old Dominion remained Lee’s preserve. Lincoln’s answer was to summon Grant, the architect of his Western victories, hoping that he might work his magic in the East. Grant, newly minted commanding general of the United States Army, planned a campaign that capitalized on the North’s advantages in manpower and materiel. No longer would Federal armies squander their resources attempting to capture and hold enemy territory; the destruction of Rebel armies was now their goal. Henceforth, the armies of the United States would move in concert, preventing the Confederates from shuttling troops between fronts. Gone were the days of short battles followed by months of leisure; under Grant, Union armies would fight without quarter until they had destroyed the secessionists’ capacity to resist.

Totopotomoy
Totopotomoy Creek, Virginia. Richmond National Battlefield Park. (Shenandoah Sanchez)

Overland Campaign Timeline

  • May 11
  • Yellow Tavern
    800 casualties
  • May 24
  • Wilson's Wharf
    165 casualties
  • May 28
  • Haw's Shop
    744 casualties
  • May 30
  • Old Church
    900 casualties
  • June 24
  • Saint Mary's Church
    630 casualites

Overland Total
86,339 casualties

Grant delegated to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman prime responsibility for managing the Union war effort in the West and turned his own energies to defeating Lee. Employing the same principles that governed his national strategy, Grant focused irresistible force against his wily opponent. The Army of the Potomac, double the size of Lee’s host , was to press across the Rapidan River and attack the Army of Northern Virginia; the Army of the James, commanded by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, was to advance up the James River, capture the Confederate capital of Richmond and continue into Lee’s rear; and a third Union body, under Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, was to thread south through the Shenandoah Valley, threatening Lee’s left flank and disrupting the rebel army’s supply lines. Snared in a three-pronged vice, Lee’s army would face certain destruction.

Grant intended the Army of the Potomac to bear the brunt of the combat and decided to make his headquarters there. The army’s commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, had performed ably at Gettysburg, but his failure to bring Lee to battle since then had cost him the administration’s confidence. Grant decided to keep Meade on, delegating to the Pennsylvanian management of the army and its battles, while Grant supervised the overall conduct of the war. Aggressive and willing to take risks, Lincoln’s new commander-in-chief soon found himself hobbled by his cautious subordinate. The tension between these two men and their incompatible military styles became a dominant theme of the spring campaign.

Rather than attacking the Rebels head-on, Meade elected to cross the Rapidan downriver from Lee, negating the strong Confederate river defenses. Once over the Rapidan, the Union army found itself in a forbidding forest of tangled second-growth known as the Wilderness. Assuming that Lee could never react quickly enough to attack him in the dense thickets, Meade chose to halt there to give his supply wagons time to catch up.

Lee hoped to take the initiative, but scant supplies and uncertainties over when and where Grant’s three armies would attack stayed his hand. Lee rightly perceived the Army of the Potomac as the chief threat, and he also correctly predicted Meade’s flanking movement through the Wilderness. He did nothing, however, to ensure that he would fight Grant there, as shifting downriver risked opening his western flank to attack and enabling the Federals to block his routes of retreat. Equally disconcerting was Butler’s appearance near Richmond; if Butler attacked the Confederate capital, Lee would have to hurry troops to the city’s defense.

And so Lee spread cavalry along the Rapidan and awaited Grant’s advance. He was determined to defend the river at all costs; if Grant forced him back to Richmond, the war in the East would become a siege that the Confederates must necessarily lose.

Saunders Field, Wilderness
Saunders Field, Wilderness Battlefield, Virginia. Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (Buddy Secor)

The Battle of the Wilderness

May 4, 1864, saw the Army of the Potomac crossing the Rapidan into the Wilderness, 20 miles downriver from Lee. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s Union II Corps settled into camps around Chancellorsville, near the Wilderness’s eastern reaches. A few miles west, near Wilderness Tavern, stood Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps, and immediately north of Warren’s encampments rose smoke from fires kindled by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s independent IX Corps, bringing up the Union rear, camped north of the river. That night, the Union army rested, waiting for its supply wagons to arrive.

On learning of this movement, Lee decided to thrust his army toward Grant along three roads that ran parallel to the Rapidan. Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps was to advance along the Orange Turnpike, in tandem with Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill’s Third Corps on the Orange Plank Road, aiming to pin Grant in the Wilderness. Meanwhile, Lee’s First Corps, under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, was to slip below the Union army and turn north, driving the enemy back across the Rapidan. Lee’s plan was risky, since the Rebel commander, already outnumbered two-to-one, was dividing his army into three parts, each separated by several miles of intractable forest. If Grant divined Lee’s scheme, he could focus irresistible strength against individual segments and inflict terrible damage. Lee, however, saw no alternative to attacking, as retreating would inevitably result in the destruction or investiture of his army.

Mistakes by Union cavalry aided the Confederate strategy. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, newly appointed head of the Army of the Potomac’s mounted arm, gave the critical assignment of patrolling the roads toward Lee to Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, his least experienced general heading his smallest division. Misunderstanding what was expected of him, Wilson mounted tentative probes toward the Confederates, found nothing and camped for the evening. Undetected, Ewell and Hill marched within a few miles of the Union army’s encampments and bivouacked for the night.

Near daylight on May 5, Ewell and Hill launched their dual advance, catching the Federals unprepared. Determined to regain the initiative, Grant ordered Meade to attack. Warren’s corps was repulsed by Ewell on the turnpike, as was Sedgwick’s, and combat flared for hours between antagonists invisible to one another in the dense spring foliage. Still hoping to break Lee’s defenses, Meade ordered another assault, this time against Hill on the plank road, spearheaded by Hancock’s corps and some of Sedgwick’s men. But Hill’s line held and, by nightfall, the soldiers of both armies were entrenching within yards of each another.

Lee’s boldness and the inability of Union commanders to coordinate their attacks had stymied the Federal offensive. Grant, however, now understood that Lee had divided his army. Determined to exploit this opportunity, he directed Meade to concentrate a massive onslaught against Hill on Orange Plank Road. Lee, for his part, expected Grant to renew his hammering and instructed Longstreet to shift to the plank road to support Hill.

Shortly after sunrise on May 6, Hancock drove Hill back through the woodland, and, for a few breathless moments, it seemed as though Lee would be captured and his army defeated. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, Longstreet’s corps arrived and repulsed the Federals, saving the Army of Northern Virginia. Going on the offensive, the Confederates assailed Hancock’s flank, drove the Federals back to the Brock Road and squeezed in two spirited attacks before dark.

Lee’s aggressive response had stymied Grant in the Wilderness, but the Union commander refused to concede defeat. Determined to recover the initiative, he directed Meade to shift south to Spotsylvania Court House, 10 miles below the Wilderness. The maneuver, Grant predicted, would place the Federals between Lee and Richmond, forcing the Rebels to leave the Wilderness and fight him on ground of his own choosing. Shortly after dark on May 7, the Union juggernaut started south.

Spotsylvania
Spotsylvania Battlefield, Virginia. Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (Steve Hajjar)

The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House

Lee remained puzzled about Grant’s next move. Perhaps the Federals meant to renew their hammering in the Wilderness; perhaps they intended to sidestep to Fredericksburg and press south along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad; or maybe they were preparing to march toward Spotsylvania Court House. Hedging his bets, Lee held his army in the Wilderness and sent his First Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson following Longstreet’s wounding, south along a makeshift trail hacked through the forest. Unable to find a suitable resting place, Anderson marched until dawn, stopping a few miles northwest of Spotsylvania Court House.

Meanwhile, Confederate cavalry waged a determined action to delay the Union army’s advance. Fighting dismounted, the Rebel horsemen constructed successive lines of fence-rail barricades across the Brock Road. Shortly after sunrise on May 8, Lee’s cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, ordered the fought-out riders to make a desperate final stand along a ridge called Laurel Hill, overlooking the Spindle family farm. Anderson’s corps, Stuart learned, had bivouacked a short distance away, and soon Rebel infantry filled the gaps in Stuart’s thin line.

Warren, assuming that the gray-clad forms on Laurel Hill belonged solely to Rebel cavalry, ordered an attack. The Spindle Farm became a slaughter pen, as Confederates raked the advancing Union line with concentrated fire, bringing Warren’s offensive up short. Grant’s drive to take Spotsylvania Court House had failed.

Deploying Sedgwick’s Corps on Warren’s left flank, Meade ordered another attack near sundown. Ewell’s Confederates, however, arrived in the nick of time and extended the Rebel line eastward to repel Sedgwick’s offensive. The next day — May 9 — Burnside extended the Federal line southeast, gaining the important Fredericksburg Road, and Hancock’s troops hooked onto Warren’s right, reaching west to the Po River. To Lee’s relief, Hill soon arrived from the Wilderness and slid into position across from Burnside. By afternoon on May 9, the armies were digging in; Grant’s lines oriented south toward Spotsylvania Court House and Lee’s troops looking north, barring the Union advance.

While the two armies faced off behind formidable earthworks, a simmering feud between Meade and Sheridan erupted into open warfare, with serious consequences for the campaign. Meade, it seems, faulted Sheridan for failing to brush the Rebel horsemen aside during the advance toward Spotsylvania Court House, and Sheridan resented Meade meddling in his management of the cavalry. The two men quarreled bitterly, and Meade reported Sheridan’s insubordination to Grant, expecting the commander’s support. Exasperated by Meade’s inability to beat Lee in the Wilderness or to win the race to Spotsylvania Court House, Grant sided with Sheridan.

With Grant’s blessing, Sheridan headed south, taking the entire Union cavalry corps with him. He expected Stuart to pursue, giving him an opportunity to fight the Confederate cavalry. Events unfolded as Sheridan had hoped, and, on May 11, he defeated Stuart’s cavalry at Yellow Tavern and mortally wounded the Rebel cavalry chief. Lost in Sheridan’s euphoria over his victory was the consequence of his absence at Spotsylvania Court House. Sheridan had left Grant blind, while Stuart had left Lee enough troopers to reconnoiter Union positions and screen the Confederate infantry. The release of the Union cavalry arm was to cost the Federals dearly.

Grant, meanwhile, initiated a series of assaults intended to break Lee’s Spotsylvania line. Late on May 9, he ordered Hancock to slip around the western end of the Rebel army and attack the Confederate flank. Lee’s left, however, was firmly anchored on a loop of the Po River. To reach the Confederates, Hancock had to cross the river twice: first as he marched south, then again when he attacked eastward. Hancock achieved his first Po crossing before nightfall, but darkness prevented him from completing his maneuver. The Union II Corps settled in for an uneasy evening, separated by the Po from the rest of the Army of the Potomac.

Lee pounced on the chance to gobble up the isolated Union corps. The next morning — May 10 — Confederates under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early charged Hancock’s Federals and forced them to make a costly retreat across the Po. Hancock escaped, but the lesson was clear: the Army of Northern Virginia was full of fight, and its commander was as vigilant as ever.

Grant, however, was not deterred. Reasoning that in attacking Hancock, Lee must have weakened his line somewhere, Grant ordered a massive offensive across Lee’s entire front at 5:00 that evening. But once again, slipshod coordination thwarted his plan. First, Hancock had to extricate himself from the Po and resume his post on the western end of the Union formation. Then, Warren decided that he could successfully attack Laurel Hill, and headquarters assented. Warren’s assault, however, deteriorated into a bloody repetition of his failed charges against the same objective on May 8, forcing headquarters to delay the army-wide offensive until 6:00 p.m. to give Warren time to regroup.

The postponement threw another component of the intended offensive out of whack. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, who had taken command of the VI Corps following the death of Sedgwick at the hands of a Confederate sharpshooter, had adopted a proposal made by Col. Emory Upton, one of his most aggressive officers. The trick to attacking Lee’s daunting earthworks, Upton urged, was to secretly mass troops near the Rebel entrenchments and send them forward at a clip. By pressing ahead without stopping to fire, the soldiers could overrun the entrenchments and cleave a breach large enough for a fresh force to exploit.

Upton’s plan sounded promising, so Wright gave the colonel 12 hand-picked regiments and incorporated the attack into the evening’s battle plan. The supporting force consisted of a II Corps division under Brig. Gen. Gershom R. Mott. No one, however, alerted Mott that the assault was postponed, so, promptly at 5:00 p.m., his men started forward, only to be badly mauled and driven back by the Rebel defenders. Then at 6:00 p.m., Upton, ignorant of Mott’s repulse, launched his own attack. The charge succeeded, and Brig. Gen. George Doles’s sector of Confederate line fell to Upton’s troops. Mott’s division, however, was no longer available to assist, and fresh Confederate troops rushed to the endangered sector, driving Upton’s men back to the Union lines. Upton’s attack, like so many before it, had failed because of mistakes by the Union high command.

But Grant was not about to quit when Upton’s abortive assault held promise. What if he used a corps instead of a brigade-sized force, Grant mused. And what if the support consisted, not of a division, but of two army corps?

By now, Grant had discovered a weakness in Lee’s line. Near the center of the Rebel position, Lee’s engineers had run the earthworks northward, then bent them around and to the south to form a large salient. Nearly half a mile wide and half a mile deep, the protrusion — soldiers called it the Mule Shoe after its shape — would be difficult for the Rebels to defend. Grant determined to send an entire corps — Hancock’s force, some 25,000 men strong — crashing into the Mule Shoe while two more corps – the IX on the left, and the VI on the right — assailed the Mule Shoe’s sides, pinching off the huge bubble. Meanwhile Warren’s corps was to pound Anderson’s Rebels on Laurel Hill to keep them from reinforcing the beleaguered Mule Shoe. After overrunning the salient and ripping Lee’s line in half, the victorious Federals hoped to dispose of the Rebel army’s remnants piecemeal.

During the night of May 11, concealed by a blinding rain storm, Hancock slogged from the right wing of the Union army to the Brown family farm, half a mile from the Mule Shoe. That evening, Lee studied reports from the field and concluded that Grant was retreating toward Fredericksburg. Aggressive as ever, Lee decided to remove artillery from the Mule Shoe and bring the guns back to good roads in his rear for an anticipated pursuit of Grant. And so, while the Union army deployed to attack the Mule Shoe, Lee unwittingly weakened the very spot Grant had targeted.

As morning approached, Ewell, whose troops occupied the Mule Shoe, became convinced that his line was in danger and asked for the artillery back. But before the guns could return, Hancock’s troops attacked, clambering over the ramparts and sending some 3,000 Confederate prisoners to the rear. Grant’s plan was succeeding perfectly.

Riding into the Mule Shoe, Lee took personal control of the effort to repel the Federal hordes. His plan was to hurry reinforcements into the salient to detain the Federal onslaught until he could construct a new defensive line along high ground to the rear. Leading a scratch force of North Carolina and Virginia troops, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon drove back the Unionists in the Mule Shoe’s eastern sector. Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s brigade charged into the Mule Shoe’s western leg, recapturing a stretch of entrenchments. And successive attacks by Brig. Gens. Abner Perrin, Nathaniel H. Harris and Samuel McGowan recovered more line on Ramseur’s right, including critical high ground at a bend in the salient aptly called the Bloody Angle.

Fighting in the Mule Shoe raged unabated throughout May 12 and into the early morning of May 13. Wright’s VI Corps joined the attack, as did Burnside’s IX. In one of the war’s most brutal episodes, the Confederates sent into the Mule Shoe by Lee held their ground for nearly 20 hours of face-to-face combat. Around 3:00 a.m. on May 13, Lee ordered the Mule Shoe’s defenders back to the new defensive line. As the sun rose over Spotsylvania County, Grant learned that Lee now confronted him from a new position stronger than ever.

Stymied again, Grant strove to regain the initiative. During the stormy night of May 13–14, Warren and Wright made a forced march toward the Rebel army’s unprotected right flank below Spotsylvania Court House. Muddy roads slowed their progress, and they failed to reach their objective until after sunrise. The Rebels seemed prepared to receive them, so Grant called off the attack. Later in the day, Lee shifted Anderson’s First Corps from the left of his line to his right, blocking Warren and Wright’s planned offensive. The armies now faced each other in lines running generally north to south, with Lee still controlling the approaches to Spotsylvania Court House.

The rain stopped on May 17, and Grant hatched yet another plan. Since Lee was expecting an attack against the southern part of his line, Grant decided to attack from the north. During the night of May 17–18, Wright returned to the blood-stained fields near the Mule Shoe, and at first light, he and Hancock charged toward the new line that Ewell had occupied after the battle of May 12.

Once again, Grant had surprised Lee, but the ruse went for naught. Secure behind their earthworks, Ewell’s Confederates applauded the attack as an opportunity to settle old scores. In an impressive display, Ewell’s artillery broke the assault. It was later said that Confederate infantrymen patted the smoking tubes of the guns with affection.

Grant concluded that Lee’s Spotsylvania line was indeed impregnable. Bad news also arrived from other fronts. On May 15, Rebels under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge had defeated Sigel at New Market, wrecking the Union offensive in the Shenandoah Valley. The next day, another Rebel force cobbled together by Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard had beaten Butler at Drewry’s Bluff, near Richmond. Worried for the safety of his army, Butler withdrew to Bermuda Hundred, in the angle formed by the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers. As Grant saw it, his subsidiary armies had failed miserably. It was up to the Army of the Potomac to defeat Lee.

Haw's Shop Battlefield
Haw's Shop Battlefield, Virginia. (Shenandoah Sanchez)

The North Anna Campaign

Undeterred, Grant devised yet another plan to entice Lee from his earthworks. This time, he would send Hancock on a march to the southeast in hopes that Lee would try to snag the isolated Union corps. When Lee went for the bait, Grant would attack with the rest of his army, plunging down Telegraph Road to destroy whatever force Lee dispatched against Hancock.

On the night of May 20, Hancock started his diversionary march, passing through Bowling Green and entrenching near Milford Station, 20 miles southeast of the armies. At the same time, Grant withdrew Warren’s corps to Telegraph Road, where it waited to pounce on any force that Lee sent against Hancock. The next day, Lee learned of the Union movements and concluded that Grant intended to march south along Telegraph Road, the direct route to Richmond. To thwart Grant’s expected move, Lee rushed Ewell east to Mud Tavern, where Telegraph Road crossed the Po.

Grant became increasingly concerned. He had heard nothing from Hancock — Rebel cavalry controlled the countryside toward Milford Station — and Ewell’s Confederates were now entrenching across Telegraph Road, blocking the direct route to Richmond. Worried that Hancock might be in danger, Grant evacuated his Spotsylvania Court House lines, sending part of his army to follow Hancock’s route through Bowling Green while the rest pushed south on Telegraph Road to overwhelm Ewell. Once again, a Union operation that had begun as an offensive thrust was assuming a decidedly defensive tone.

Nightfall saw a Union army in disarray. Near Milford Station, Hancock sparred with Confederates sent from Richmond to reinforce Lee. On Telegraph Road, Burnside ventured south but was halted by Ewell’s defenses. Turning around, the IX Corps entangled with the VI Corps, creating a messy traffic jam. Warren’s corps, meanwhile, followed in Hancock’s footsteps, stopping for the night at Guinea Station.

Lee still had no clear idea of Grant’s intentions, but signs increasingly pointed to a Union move south. The next good defensive position was the North Anna River, 25 miles away, and Lee started his army in that direction. Blind to the fact that Lee was marching past his recumbent troops — Sheridan’s horsemen had not yet returned — the Federals let Lee’s army slip by unhindered.

May 22 witnessed Lee’s exhausted troops cross the North Anna and encamp south of the river, along the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee’s concern was to protect the rail line, which served as an important link to the Shenandoah Valley.

Grant pushed south as well, following in Lee’s wake. On May 23, the Union army converged at Mount Carmel Church, a handful of miles above the North Anna River. Hancock’s corps routed a brigade of South Carolinians from a redoubt at Chesterfield Bridge and entrenched along the river’s northern bank; Burnside extended the Union line upriver from Hancock, securing the crossing at Ox Ford; and Warren’s troops marched upriver to Jericho Mills, threw pontoon bridges across and went into camp on the southern bank. Grant had breached the river line without a serious fight.

Learning that Federals had crossed at Jericho Mills, Lee ordered Hill to drive them back. The ailing corps commander, however, misjudged the size of the Union force and sent only one division into battle. Attacking Warren’s corps, Hill’s troops were overwhelmed and retired to the Virginia Central Railroad.

Learn More North Anna

Lee was in serious trouble. Part of Grant’s army had crossed the river and was threatening his western flank. With Richmond only 25 miles away, Lee had little room to maneuver. That evening, Lee, his chief engineer and several subordinate generals devised an ingenious plan to deploy the Army of Northern Virginia into a wedge-shaped formation, its apex touching the North Anna River at Ox Ford and its legs reaching back to anchor on strong natural positions. When the Federals advanced, Lee’s wedge would split Grant’s army in two, affording the Confederates a strong defensive position and perhaps even permitting a counterattack. Lee’s plan cleverly suited the military maxim favoring interior lines to the North Anna’s topography.

The next morning, Grant concluded that Lee was retreating and crossed the river in pursuit. Confined to his tent with dysentery, Lee could do little more than hope that his defensive line held. As evening came on, Grant discovered Lee’s clever deployment and ordered his troops to start digging. Soon the Union army had entrenched, hugging close against the wings of Lee’s wedge. Lee was locked in place, but his position remained too strong for Grant to attack. Stalemated once again, the hostile armies stared across at one another, pressed cheek-to-jowl south of the river.

cold Harbor
Cold Harbor Battlefield, Virginia. Richmond National Battlefield Park. (Shenandoah Sanchez)

Cold Harbor

For the third time, Lee had stymied Grant, and for the third time, Grant looked to maneuver to break the impasse. A short distance east of the armies, the North Anna merged with other rivers to form the Pamunkey. Grant decided to disengage from Lee under cover of darkness, cross to the river’s northern bank and sidle 30 miles southeast to Hanovertown. The maneuver would bring the Union army 17 miles from Richmond, and provisions could be shipped in from Chesapeake Bay and unloaded at White House Landing on the Pamunkey. A quick dash across the Pamunkey, and the Confederate capital would fall, bringing the war to a rapid close.

On the night of May 26–27, Grant stole across the North Anna and headed east. The next morning, Lee learned that Grant was gone, and that Union infantry had materialized at Hanovertown. Lee quickly marched to interpose between Grant and Richmond. On May 28, Union and Confederate mounted forces collided south of the Pamunkey at Haw’s Shop in a battle that raged most of the day. While Union cavalry gained possession of the field, Confederate horsemen led by Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton succeeded in discovering the location of Grant’s army while shielding Lee’s whereabouts from Grant.

Lee’s next move in his deadly chess game with Grant was to assume a defensive position along Totopotomoy Creek, a marshy stream that intersected Grant’s route to Richmond. Union probes found the Rebels entrenched behind formidable works lining the creek’s southern bank, and attempts to break the Confederate line failed. Once again, Grant faced the prospect of stalemate.

Federal fortunes brightened on May 30, when Warren crossed Totopotomoy Creek downstream from Lee and drove west toward the Rebels. Recognizing an opportunity to attack Warren’s unsupported corps, Lee directed Early, now commanding the Confederate Second Corps, to attack Warren with his own troops and Anderson’s First Corps. The offensive started well enough, as Early’s lead elements slammed into Warren. Anderson’s Confederates, however, made little headway, and Early’s attempt to turn Warren’s flank ended in a bloody repulse for the Rebels. The grueling campaign seemed to have dulled the Army of Northern Virginia’s offensive capacity.

Burnett’s Tavern was a ramshackle wooden structure at a star-shaped intersection a handful of miles below the armies. Known as Cold Harbor, the intersection was to figure importantly in the campaign’s next stage. By seizing the road junction, Grant hoped to gain an unobstructed route to Richmond and a chance to strike Lee’s flank and rear.

On the last day of May, Maj. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps arrived from Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Meade. Concerned that Smith intended to occupy Cold Harbor, Lee dispatched cavalry to reconnoiter, and a mounted engagement soon crackled around the crossroads. As the combat heated, Lee forwarded more cavalry toward Cold Harbor and persuaded Beauregard to send a division — Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s command — from the Richmond defenses. By evening, Sheridan had driven the Rebel horsemen from the strategic crossroads and looked on as Hoke’s division marched up and erected a defensive line west of the intersection, facing Sheridan.

Grant and Lee rushed more troops toward the emerging Cold Harbor front. During the night, Wright’s corps headed for the intersection; orders went out for Smith to march that way as well; and Lee directed Anderson to start south and join Hoke. All night, troops wearing blue and gray packed the roads in a race for Cold Harbor.

On the morning of June 1, Anderson’s lead elements attacked Sheridan at Cold Harbor, only to be driven back by concentrated fire from the Union cavalrymen’s repeating carbines. Forming next to Hoke, Anderson extended the Rebel formation northward. Soon the Union VI Corps tramped into Cold Harbor, and by late afternoon, Smith’s troops had arrived as well, falling into place on the VI Corps’ right.

By evening on June 1, Union and Confederate infantry confronted each other along a north-south axis. Around 6:30 p.m., anxious to maintain the initiative, Wright and Smith attacked and breached the Rebel line. Although darkness fell before the Federal commanders could achieve complete success, the results were heartening to the men in blue. Each side had lost about 2,000 soldiers, but the Federals were well positioned to exploit their gains.

Cold Harbor LOC
The Cold Harbor Battlefield overlapped with the scene of fighting at Gaines' Mill in 1862, leading to burial parties to make gruesome discoveries when interring casualties. (Library of Congress)

Hoping to finally strike a killing blow, Grant hurried Hancock’s corps toward Cold Harbor. But dark roads and an improvident shortcut delayed Hancock’s march, and not until noon on June 2 did his winded men straggle into position. Grant decided to postpone the attack until June 3, a delay that would prove fatal, as Lee, now fully alerted to Grant’s intentions, had time to shift more soldiers — Breckinridge’s troops, recently arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, and Hill’s corps — to the Cold Harbor sector. All day, the Rebels prepared for the expected Union assault.

Grant’s decision to attack Lee’s formidable entrenchments the morning of June 3 has provoked strong criticism. The general’s assessment, however, was grounded in a sober appraisal of the situation. Grant believed that the constant regimen of marching and fighting had severely weakened Lee’s army. After all, Lee had failed to take the offensive at the North Anna, had permitted Grant to cross the Pamunkey unopposed, had fumbled at Bethesda Church and had almost been overwhelmed on June 1. The Rebel army, it seemed, was a depleted force, ripe for the plucking.

The Army of the Potomac, however, was flush with fresh troops from Washington and with Smith’s XVIII Corps. Delaying made no sense — more time would only give the Rebels a chance to bring up reinforcements. Moreover, the Republican convention was about to convene, and what better gift could Grant offer President Lincoln than the destruction of the main Confederate army and the capture of Richmond? Aggressive by nature, Grant decided to proceed. If the offensive worked, the rewards would be tremendous; failure would simply represent another reverse in a campaign filled with reverses, and Grant would try another tack. In short, the consequences of not assaulting — forfeiting the chance for quick victory — seemed worse than attacking and failing.

Grant’s plan called for an army-wide offensive across a six-mile front. Meade was responsible for overseeing the assault but resented his subordinate position and thoroughly disapproved of Grant’s hard-hitting tactics. He expressed his discontent by doing little; the record reveals no efforts to reconnoiter, coordinate the corps or tend to the things that diligent generals ordinarily do before sending troops against fortified lines. The victims of Grant’s and Meade’s untidy command relationship would be the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.

A signal gun sounded at 4:30 a.m. on June 3, and the Union army’s southern wing — Smith’s, Wright’s and Hancock’s corps — stepped forward under a deadly hail of lead. Hancock achieved a brief breakthrough, but was quickly repelled. Wright’s troops advanced a short distance and began digging in, and in Smith’s sector, three brigades marched into a pocket lined with Rebel muskets and cannon and sustained horrific casualties. The attack was finished in less than an hour. Later in the morning, Warren and Burnside made disjointed attacks in the battlefield’s northern sector and were unable to make headway. By noon, Grant adjudged the offensive a failure and called it off.

The Union assault at Cold Harbor was a disaster, although stories of fields strewn with blue-clad corpses convey a distorted impression of what really happened. A few sectors saw massive slaughter, but along much of the battle line, Union losses were minor, and many Confederates had no idea that an offensive had even been attempted. Historians have suggested numbers ranging from 7,500 to well over 12,000 casualties, all supposedly incurred in a few terrible minutes. A careful analysis of the units engaged, however, suggests that the grand charge at Cold Harbor generated more like 3,500 Union casualties. Total Union casualties for the entire day approximated 6,000; Confederate losses were about 1,500.

For several days, sharpshooters plied their deadly trade, and corpses rotted under the scorching summer sun. After a tragic interval of delays and misunderstandings, Grant and Lee finally negotiated a truce to remove the dead and wounded. For most injured soldiers lying between the armies, the truce came too late.

Looking to break the impasse at Cold Harbor, Grant again turned to maneuver, this time with an eye to severing Lee’s supply lines. Union cavalry rode toward Charlottesville, aiming to wreck the Virginia Central Railroad, and Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley headed toward Lynchburg, terminus of the James River Canal. Once again, Lee danced to Grant’s tune, sending Early’s corps to protect Lynchburg and dispatching cavalry to intercept the Union mounted raid, ultimately clashing at Trevilian Station.

The heart of Grant’s new plan was to dash boldly across the James River and capture Petersburg, severing the main rail links to Richmond. After dark on June 12, the Union force disengaged and streamed south. Fearing that Grant might glide past his right flank and attack Richmond, Lee concentrated on blocking the roads leading to the Confederate capital. Grant, however, had a different plan in mind. The Overland Campaign from the Rapidan to the James was coming to a close, and the Petersburg Campaign was about to begin.

Trevilian Station Battlefield
Trevilian Station Station Battlefield, Virginia. (Shenandoah Sanchez)

Importance of the Overland Campaign

Who was the victor? The answer lies in how one defines winning. Grant lost about 55,000 men during the Overland Campaign, and Lee about 33,000, allowing the Rebel to claim a victory of sorts. However, measuring losses against the respective sizes of the armies at the campaign’s outset — Lee had about 65,000 men, and Grant some 120,000 — Lee’s subtractions exceeded 50 percent, whereas Grant’s were about 45 percent. And while each army received substantial reinforcements during the campaign, Grant’s capacity to augment his force was vastly greater than Lee’s. Simple arithmetic suggested that Grant would ultimately prevail.

If the commanders are scored by tactical successes, Lee comes out the clear winner. Although consistently outnumbered, he achieved victories at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, Totopotomoy Creek and Cold Harbor, thwarting Grant in each of those battles. But if the campaign is viewed in its entirety, Grant comes out ahead. Although he sustained multiple tactical reverses, he never considered himself defeated, and he continued to advance his strategic goal through maneuver. The Rebel commander’s grand objective was to hold the line of the Rapidan, and he failed; Grant’s goal was to negate Lee’s army as an effective fighting force, and in that he largely succeeded. By the end of the campaign, Grant had pinned Lee into defensive earthworks around Richmond and Petersburg. While he had not destroyed Lee’s army, he had gutted the Rebel force’s offensive capacity and seriously diminished its ability to affect the outcome of the war.

With the stalemate at Petersburg, the Confederacy’s clock ticked off its final hours. The Army of Northern Virginia’s demise, and with it the demise of the Confederacy, was but a matter of time.

About the Author

Gordon C. Rhea is considered a foremost expert on the Overland Campaign. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the battles of Cold Harbor, North Anna, Spotsylvania Court House and the Wilderness, as well as a respected attorney in Charleston, S.C.

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