American Civil War: The Overland Campaign

The Overland Campaign, fought between Grant and Lee in the spring of 1864 was, in many ways, the showpiece confrontation of the war. It’s the best general on each side, leading the most famous army on each side, in the area perceived to be most critical by citizens on each side—it had all the elements of high drama and potentially enormous consequences.

image of General Grant during the overland campaign
General Ulysses S. Grant, leader of the Army of the Potomac

Grant’s goals in Virginia were to tie Lee down and bleed his army as much as possible. The more that Lee’s army hemorrhaged, the better for the North. And the other goal was to capture Richmond, the most important city in the Confederacy. Grant doesn’t want to get to Richmond without fighting. He wants to hurt Lee as he gets closer to Richmond, because he believes that if he doesn’t fight Lee in significant battles on the way to Richmond, Lee’s army would be big enough so that Lee could defend the city of Richmond.

Portrait of Confederate General Robert E. Lee
General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia

Lee, for his part, could do no more really then try to parry Grant’s thrusts and hold off the Federals long enough to exhaust the Northern will to continue a struggle that was becoming increasingly expensive in terms of blood and treasure. Lee was coming off an extremely hard winter. The Confederate soldiers in Lee’s army had been on a ration that amounted to four ounces of meat a day—that’s one Big Mac patty, and that’s the precooked weight—and a pint of cornmeal. That is just barely enough food to keep someone’s body together. So it’s not an Army of Northern Virginia that’s been well fed; but it is an army that remains very confident in Lee’s leadership.

A Map of the Overland Campaign
A Map of the Overland Campaign (click to enlarge)

At the start of this campaign, the armies were arrayed opposite each other along the Rapidan-Rappahannock river line. That’s the frontier between these two big armies in Virginia. Grant’s army—just about 120,000 men at the outset of the campaign. Lee—64,000 plus or minus a few. The odds against the Confederates are thus about 2 to 1.

Grant was optimistic. He believed that if he did a competent job, Lee would not be able to fend off his blows in the upcoming campaign. He believed they had enough men and enough material, and enough competence among his officers and resolution among his men, to defeat the Rebels. He expected that they would drive Lee into the fortifications of Richmond, bleed him along the way, and then he believed that a siege would end in Union victory.

And that is what Lee feared most of all—a siege. He knew that if he were pushed into the defenses at Richmond, if his army were forced to hunker down behind the very strong fortifications at Richmond, all advantages would pass to the Federals and that siege would end as almost every other siege during the Civil War ended—with a United States victory.

The Battle of the Wilderness

Painting of the battle of the wilderness during the Overland Campaign
The Battle of the Wilderness

Let’s now look at the Battle of the Wilderness, fought on May 5 and 6, 1864, the first big battle of this confrontation between Grant and Lee. This firt area of battle is several dozen square miles of scrub, second and third growth area, known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. Very few roads go through the area; very few farmsteads break the clutches of that tangled landscape. Lee felt that he could catch Grant at a disadvantage in this area and would be able to offset to a degree the Union advantages in artillery and in numbers.

Ewell made contact first, and soon a fight grew between Ewell’s Confederates and Federals of Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps. The Wilderness was so thick in this area that control of troops was very difficult. Soon fighting also flared to the south when elements of A. P. Hill’s Third Corps became engaged with elements of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps. Fighting grew there, too. More and more men fed into these two corridors, these road corridors through the Wilderness; a great gap between them. This isn’t a continuous battle line north to south. There’s a battle in the north along the Turnpike, another in the south along the Plank Road, and a significant gap between them. Fighting was complicated by blinding smoke that built up in the foliage— an enormously confusing, disorienting type of fighting. Each side made some progress; each side lost some ground on both fronts. Nightfall brought a momentary peace, and the armies each tried to disentangle the lines as they had become confused during the fighting.

Confederates were in by far the weaker position because James Longstreet’s First Corps wasn’t on the field yet. It had been deployed far from the battlefield during the winter and it was still en route to the Wilderness. Also you had Ewell and Hill on the Confederate side that night without a continuous line and no certainty about what would happen in the morning. That gap between the two pieces of the Confederate army was potentially disastrous for Lee.

Grant was aware of it, and what Grant hoped to do on May 6 was renew the fighting along the Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road, and have Ambrose Burnside with his big Ninth Corps try to punch through this gap  in between the two pieces of the Confederate line.

The battle resumed a little past dawn on May 6. Winfield Scott Hancock—the best of the Union corps commanders, a very aggressive officer and a stalwart element of the corps-level high command—got his men going early and shattered the Confederates defending the Orange Plank Road.

Lee Risks His Life

The Confederates were literally sprinting away from the field. Lee rode into the midst of this and, in actions that anticipated a pattern that would be in place for much of the rest of the Overland campaign, Lee began to operate not only as the army commander but, in effect, as his own corps commander as well. There was one line of Confederate artillery pieces, basically all that stood between these advancing Federals of Hancock’s corps and utter collapse for the Confederate Army. Lee urged the gunners to do their work, and just at the moment when disaster seemed surely about to engulf the Confederates, the head of James Longstreet’s advancing troops came into sight. It just so happened that the best brigade in the entire Army of Northern Virginia was nearing the front of the line.

photo of General Robert E. Lee on his famous war horse Traveler
General Robert E. Lee on his famous war horse Traveller

Lee rode out among the Texans as they came onto the field, seemingly willing to lead them in the attack. A number of them crowded around his horse, Traveller. They grabbed Traveller’s bridle. They said they wouldn’t attack unless Lee went back.  They turned the horse around. When Lee finally went to the rear, the Texas Brigade and another Confederate brigade on their right assaulted into the teeth of Hancock’s approaching Federals and achieved a stable line on that part of the field. It had been a very, very close call.

drawing of four troops carrying a wounded soldier away from burning fires during the Battle of the Wilderness
A scene drawn shortly after the battle illustrating troops carrying fallen comrades out of the burning wilderness to safety

So the second day ended in a bloody standoff. The scene that night was horrible. The woods had caught fire in several places. The pitiful cries of the wounded soldiers made their way toward both lines. These wounded men would try to crawl away from the encroaching flames. Many of them couldn’t make it and many soldiers on both sides commented about how tortured they were sitting in their lines listening to comrades being burned up by fires that simply engulfed them.

Losses had been heavy on both sides, very heavy—17,500 for Grant, probably 12,000 for Lee. Most seriously on the Confederate side, James Longstreet was severely wounded, shot in the throat as he tried to get his lines untangled following the flank attack.

The tactical advantage probably went by a small margin to Lee. But the key thing here is that Grant refused to see this as a defeat at the Wilderness or even a major setback. The pattern of war for the Union Army up until then was to fight a major battle and then retreat North and lick their wounds. There’s a great moment in the history of the Army of the Potomac when the soldiers reach the crossroads, literally reach the crossroads. If they’d gone one direction, they knew they would be retreating back to the Rappahannock; if they went the other way, they knew that Grant meant to continue the campaign. When they turned to the right, they cheered Grant who was at that crossroads watching them. They wanted the chance to defeat Lee, and this was one of their great defining moments. They would move ahead and engage Lee again.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse

Spotsylvania Courthouse in 1864, site of the titular battle in the Overland Campaign
Spotsylvania Courthouse in 1864

Now the two armies moved toward Spotsylvania, the next point of strategic importance. The Confederates got there just ahead of the Federals, literally five minutes ahead of them. Lee’s line had a weakness in the middle, a big salient that bulged out toward the Federals. The Confederates thought, however, that it could be defended if there were enough artillery placed in it. On the 10th, 3,000 Federals punched a quick hole in the western face of that salient, which Lee’s troops sealed.

Grant decided that if 3,000 men could punch through on the 10th, he’d try it with far more men. On the 11th, troops moved into position. And on the morning of May 12, Winfield Scott Hancock sent the better part of 20,000 Federals against the northwestern portion of this “Mule Shoe” salient that the Confederates occupied.

They overran the Confederates. Confederate artillery had been ordered out and then belatedly ordered back into the Mule Shoe. It wasn’t there to participate in the attempt to drive back Hancock’s troops. It took an enormous effort on the part of the Confederates to seal the break. Lee again rode into the midst of the fighting. And only by the most tenacious fighting did the Confederates manage to stabilize this line along the northwestern face of the Mule Shoe.

painting illustrating savage fighting during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in the overland campaign
Fighting at the Mule Shoe Salient during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse

And then for the better part of 20 hours, the most fearsome close combat of the entire war took place along this little piece of works at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 12, 1864. Men stabbed each other across log entrenchments. They clubbed one another with muskets. Many of them talked about how a numbness set in. They’d fire and fire. Then they’d just wander off to the rear, some of them said, sitting on comrades’ dead bodies, get a little bit of a rest, and go back and resume the fighting.

It began to rain again. Layers of men were pushed down into the muck behind the breastworks. After the battle, when the people came to bury bodies, they found in some places four or even five layers of dead men pushed into this mire behind the works. The volume of fire was so great that a 22-inch oak tree was felled completely by musketry. You can see the stump of it at the Smithsonian even today.

In the end, Lee was able to hang on long enough to construct a new line of works south of the Mule Shoe, and his hollow-eyed veterans stumbled back to that line long after midnight on May 12. All told, the fighting would continue at Spotsylvania for several more days. There’d be more Union assaults on the 18th, a Confederate counterattack on the 19th, and then the armies would finally march away. Another 18,000 casualties for Grant, another 12,000 for Lee—staggering losses. Two huge battles, one right after the other with enormous losses, both in officers and men.

photo showing a Union staff meeting on May 21 as the Army of the Potomac heads South from Spotsylvania during the overland campaign
Union staff meeting on May 21 as the Army of the Potomac heads South from Spotsylvania

On May 20, Grant issued orders to continue his movement southward. He’s still not going to be put off by the second of these massive battles. And on the 20th and 21st, the armies marched away from the hideous battlefields at Spotsylvania. By this point in the Overland Campaign the vast majority of soldiers in both armies were exhausted. Once the armies became engaged on the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness, they were fighting pretty much continuously until late in the month as they head toward the North Anna. The losses had been appalling. Both armies were getting replacements, but these replacements in no way met the same standard for proficiency of the veterans who had been knocked out of the ranks at the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania. The overall quality of the armies is diminishing as we move into May—not only are we losing a number of men, but also the ranks of the leaders are being decimated on both sides, including the top echelon of the subordinates in each army, the corps commanders. So there are tremendous problems of command in both armies that go along with the tremendous attrition in the ranks.

A Missed Opportunity at North Anna

While at Spotsylvania, Grant decided to place his army between Lee and Richmond. He would yet again try to get around Lee’s right flank. That’s his intention, to get beyond Lee and perhaps get the closer track toward Richmond.

But Lee once again anticipated what Grant was going to do and took up a position behind the North Anna River, not many miles south of the Spotsylvania battlefield. He secured, by taking up that position, a crucial rail junction at Hanover, where the Virginia Central Railroad came in  just north of Richmond.

The Confederate line was in the form of a big inverted V, with the apex resting nearly on the North Anna River and then the flanks falling back to the southeast and the southwest. Confederates erected very strong entrenchments there. Grant moved up opposite Lee and, over the period between May 23 and May 25, managed to place the Army of the Potomac in a very awkward position. He had different parts of the Army of the Potomac south of the river and north of the river. That’s a terrible position and one that made both ends of Grant’s line vulnerable—not very good generalship on Grant’s part—but the Confederates could not take advantage of it because, for the one time in the war, Robert E. Lee was incapacitated by illness.

painting portrait of General Robert E. Lee
At North Anna, Lee was incapacitated by illness and unable to take advantage of a weakness in Grant’s position

Lee knew that Grant was vulnerable, but he was literally confined to his cot and could not get up and command the army. And the fact that his subordinates were not trustworthy in his view or were unknown quantities meant that Lee was not willing to entrust a major tactical offensive to any of them. If Jackson had been there, he would have given it to Jackson. If Longstreet had been there, he would have allowed Longstreet to do it. But the fact was he didn’t have anyone on whom he could rely, and this great potential opportunity for the Army of Northern Virginia passed in late May. Grant eventually disengaged and moved on southward once again.

Failed Frontal Assaults at Cold Harbor

By the end of May, the two armies found themselves opposite each other just a few miles outside Richmond. The Confederate line ended up being just about six miles long, one flank anchored on the Chickahominy River and the other flank anchored on Totopotomoy Creek. A very strong position: water on each side, strong entrenchments in between, ample artillery supporting the Confederate infantry. Grant examined his tactical options here and he took into account a number of factors away from this immediate battlefield, and he reached the conclusion that he should launch major frontal assaults against the Army of Northern Virginia at Cold Harbor.

Now the question is, why should he do this? It’s been a question that many people have asked, as we’ll see in a minute. The assaults were a disaster, costly, and they accomplished nothing. So the question always with the wonderful view of hindsight has been, why would Grant do something so stupid as to assault these Confederates in a strong position?

I think several factors helped persuade him that this was the course to take. I think Grant was experiencing frustration. I think that he had expected to do better against Lee than he had done, expected to find an opening really to smash Lee. They had not been able to do that. Lee had anticipated again and again what Grant was going to do, and I think here Grant decided that he would apply brute strength and try to overcome the Army of Northern Virginia.

I think Grant also believed, however, that his troops could break through at Cold Harbor. He’d seen Union soldiers do it at Chattanooga. He had seen Union soldiers do it on May 12th in the Battle of Spotsylvania when they smashed through the northern arc of the Mule Shoe salient.

Field drawing of 7th New York Heavy Artillery (serving as infantry) preparing to leave the trenches and charge the Confederate line at Cold Harbor during the overland campaign
7th New York Heavy Artillery (serving as infantry) preparing to leave the trenches and charge the Confederate line at Cold Harbor

When the men heard about this, many of them believed that they would not have a very good chance to survive. They knew how difficult that was to carry entrenched positions. One of Grant’s staff officers rode among the soldiers at Cold Harbor, and he said he found them calmly writing their names and addresses on pieces of paper and pinning those pieces of paper to the backs of their blouses. The men were hoping that if they were killed these little pieces of paper would allow someone to identify their bodies.

The big assaults came on June 3. Grant hurled about 50,000 Union soldiers against three miles of breastworks held by about 30,000 Confederate defenders. A Confederate soldier later told a Federal, a Federal who was working with a burial party, that “It seemed almost like murder for us to fire upon you.” But, of course, fire upon the Federals the Confederates did.

Most of the attacks lasted fewer than 30 minutes, and in the space of a relatively brief time, 7,500 Federals were shot down. Added to 5,000 casualties Grant had suffered the preceding two days, on June 1 and 2, this is another 12,500 casualties at Cold Harbor; Confederate losses, probably about 1,500.

photo showing General Grant and his war horse Cincinnati
General Grant and his war horse Cincinnati

The Northern public was beginning to question Grant. All they saw in Virginia was this series of very bloody encounters. A huge battle in the Wilderness—well, who really won? It’s hard to tell. A huge battle at Spotsylvania—who won? Hard to tell. Now at Cold Harbor another big battle, and here you could tell who won, and it wasn’t Ulysses S. Grant.

Lee, however, is not confused about what’s going on. Lee knew that Grant was slowly accomplishing what the Federals needed to accomplish, that is, pushing Lee back toward Richmond, circumscribing the area in which he could maneuver.

Grant Outfoxes Lee

On June 12, 1864, Grant began what would be a brilliantly successful move around the Confederate right flank. It’s one of the great movements of the war. Grant fooled Lee completely, left a few troops behind to hold Lee’s attention, and then shifted his immense army southward. The Union engineers constructed one of the most impressive pontoon bridges of the entire war across the James River, a feat of engineering that left officers on both sides in awe, really.

photograph showing a massive Union Pontoon Bridge constructed across the James River during the Overland Campaign
Union Pontoon Bridge constructed across the James River during the Overland Campaign

They did it quickly, and on June 15, a large Federal corps was just outside Petersburg with another one not far behind. Lee thought Grant was making another small turning movement such as he had executed after the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and on the road to Cold Harbor. And he kept his entire army north of the James. Confederate General Beauregard was down at Petersburg, meanwhile, with just a few thousand Confederate defenders in the works and he began to send messages to Lee: There are a lot of Federals in my front. There are a huge number of Federals in my front. Please send reinforcements.

Lee thought Beauregard was confused. He wasn’t, of course. But the Federal commanders on the scene even with a 9-to-1 advantage over Beauregard in the early stage of the action at Petersburg, couldn’t seem to orchestrate an effective set of assaults. They failed to push into the city.

They mounted ineffective assaults on June 15 through 18. Lee finally realized what was going on and rushed troops from the Army of Northern Virginia southward to Petersburg. By the end of the day on the 18th, the opportunity for a major Federal victory had passed.

The Federals had lost another 11,000 men; Confederates about half as many. And each side was now busy constructing what would become the most intricate and impressive set of trenches put together during the war. The siege of Petersburg had begun.

From the lecture series The American Civil War
Taught by Professor Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia