The Virginia Overland Campaign of 1864: From the Wilderness to the Gates of Petersburg

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2009

On March 10, 1864, Lincoln appointed Grant as General in Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant believed that up to that point, Union armies in different theaters had “acted independently and without concert, like a balky team, no two ever pulling together.” Accordingly, his strategic plan for 1864 called for putting five Union armies into motion simultaneously against the Confederacy. While three smaller armies in peripheral theaters (Nathaniel Banks against Mobile, Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; and Ben Butler moving toward Richmond via the James River) tied down significant Confederate forces, preventing them from shifting troops from one theater to another, the two main armies, Meade’s Army of the Potomac and William Tecumseh Sherman’s army group at Chattanooga would lock horns respectively with Lee in Virginia and Joe Johnson’s Army of Tennessee on the road to Atlanta. The simultaneous advance of several armies is called “concentration in time.”

As General in Chief, Grant chose to accompany Meade as he took on Lee. For nearly forty days, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were in nearly constant contact—at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Ana, and Cold Harbor.

The Wilderness

On May 4, 1864, a year after the bloodletting at Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac once again plunged into The Wilderness, hoping that the forest would screen the army’s advance but also hoping to get through it before Lee could react. Grant and Meade assumed that Lee would withdraw to his strong position along Mine Run or move toward the North Ana River. But while Lee was weakened by the absence of Longstreet, whose corps had been detached to Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee in September 1863 (and was in the process of returning to the Army of Northern Virginia after subsequent independent operations in East Tennessee), he once again failed to act in a predictable way.

As the Army of the Potomac moved southeast through The Wilderness on the Germanna Plank Road, Lee swiftly moved his army from the west along two parallel roads, the Orange and Fredericksburg Pike to the north and the Orange Plank Road to the south, threatening to split the Federal force in two places. But on May 5, Meade managed to strike first. The Confederates repulsed the attack, but Meade renewed the assault at dawn the next day. The massive Union offensive broke the Confederate line along the Orange Pike Road and threatened Lee’s rear.

The Union attack routed A.P. Hill’s corps, but Longstreet, who had been some forty miles away at the beginning of the battle (and who had been on the march for 35 of the previous 40 hours), arrived to blunt the Federal assault and reestablish the Confederate lines. The first unit of Longstreet’s corps to reach the battlefield was Gregg’s Texas Brigade. Lee, who had tried unsuccessfully to rally Hill’s fleeing troops, now attempted to join the Texans’ counterattack. Some soldiers shouted “Go back, General Lee.” Others grabbed the reins of his mount, Traveller. When it was clear to Lee that the brigade would not advance if he persisted in his attempt to join the attack, he relented and the 800 men of the Texas Brigade slammed into the advancing Union force. Only 250 of them returned unharmed.

Seeking to seize the initiative, Lee, as he had the previous year during the battle of Chancellorsville, launched a daring attack against the Union left, which turned what had seemed to be an imminent Federal triumph five hours earlier into defeat—indeed a rout. But just as the Confederates were on the cusp of victory, Longstreet suffered the same fate as Stonewall Jackson a year earlier, mistakenly wounded by his own troops as he and his staff attempted to organize a follow-on attack.

Had Longstreet died that day on the Orange Plank Road, he would have been enshrined along with Lee and Jackson in the pantheon of great Confederate generals. Instead he had the misfortune to survive his wounds and, after the war, commit three sins that were unpardonable in the eyes of Southerners: he became a Republican, he renewed his friendship with Grant, who was elected president in 1868, and—most unforgivably—he dared to criticize Lee. Jubal Early and the Virginia-dominated Southern Historical Society unjustly made him the scapegoat for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg and accused him of all manner of failure as a general.

But this is nonsense. Lee called Longstreet “my War Horse” and never hesitated to assign him the most difficult assignments. Longstreet had an uncanny ability to find and exploit the gap in his adversary’s line, as he did on the second day at Gettysburg and when he broke the Union position at Chickamauga, routing Gen. William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland.

In any event, Lee’s assault against the Union left bogged down after Longstreet was wounded. Lee now turned his attention to the north where Brigadier General John B. Gordon struck the exposed Union right flank north of the Orange and Fredericksburg Pike. Again initial success ended in stalemate.

In the two days of fighting in The Wilderness, Lee had inflicted another tactical defeat on the Army of the Potomac. Meade suffered 18,000 casualties to Lee’s 12,000 but the latter would not be able to replace his losses. The horror of the battle was made worse by raging fires, ignited by musket and artillery flashes, which burned to death many wounded soldiers trapped in the thick undergrowth.

As terrible as the battle of The Wilderness was, it was only the opening act of a bloody campaign that would essentially destroy two great armies. On the evening of May 7, the Army of the Potomac abandoned its lines and, side-stepping Lee, headed south.

Spotsylvania Court House

The Confederates were also headed south along a parallel road, and due to a fortunate turn of events, were able to reach a position on the Brock Road at Spindle Farm only moments ahead of the Yankees. Both sides reinforced their positions on May 8 and dug in. On May 9, Grant and Meade sent two divisions of Warren’s V Corps across the Po River in attempt to turn the Confederate left, however they were turned back by Henry Heth’s division on May 10. On May 11, the Federals launched a series of uncoordinated, piecemeal, and ultimately fruitless attacks against the Rebels on Laurel Hill and the salient that came to be known as the “Muleshoe.”

At dusk, an enterprising officer, Brevet Colonel Emory Upton, who had only graduated from West Point three years earlier, launched a surprise assault with 12 regiments that penetrated the left part of the Muleshoe salient, but the attack was not properly supported, and the attackers eventually fell back. However, Grant and Meade decided to reprise Upton’s tactics on a larger scale, concentrating on the apex of the Muleshoe, which was ever after known as the “Bloody Angle.” The initial assault crashed into the Confederate entrenchments at 5 AM on May 12, capturing some 3000 Rebels, including two generals.

But Lee responded with a series of counterattacks, resulting in sustained combat, often hand-to-hand, as both sides fed reinforcements into the melee. Meanwhile, Burnside’s IX Corps attempted to support the main attack by striking the Confederate fight, but the attackers themselves were struck on the flank by counterattacking Rebels. After 22 hours of uninterrupted fighting, Lee was able to construct a stronger position along the base of the Muleshoe salient.

On My 14, the Federals abandoned their lines along the salient and began to shift their forces to the east. Lee responded by shifting his own forces in that direction as well. Thinking that Lee had probably stripped his old lines to confront the shift to the east, Grant and Meade sent II and VI Corps doubling back to attack the base of the Muleshoe again. But the attack was stopped by devastating artillery fire and Grant soon abandoned the plan.

Having failed to dislodge Lee, Grant and Meade once again prepared to maneuver to the south and east. Suspecting that such a move was underway, Lee sent Ewell’s II Corps to probe the Federal right. The result was a bloody encounter at Harris Farm on May 19, which served only to add to the carnage, a further tribute to Moloch:

“besmeared with blood,
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears.”

In two weeks of vicious battle, the Union had suffered 18,000 casualties, the Confederacy between 11,000 and 12,000. Now the two armies raced toward the North Anna River.

North Anna and Cold Harbor

Lee arrived at the North Anna River on May 22 in an attempt to prevent the Army of the Potomac from crossing. Meade and Grant attacked on the 23rd and seized Telegraph Bridge. Repulsing a vicious attack by A.P. Hill’s Corps other Federal troops crossed the North Anna farther to the east at Jericho Mills.

But Lee sensed that the Army of the Potomac was walking into a trap. The disposition of the Army of the Potomac provided Lee with an opportunity to defeat the Union wings in detail. Accordingly, he organized his army into an inverted V-shaped line that prevented Meade from uniting the two wings of his army. But because of his own illness and, more importantly, his lack of confidence in the ability of his corps commanders (Hill, Ewell, and R.H. Anderson, who had replaced Longstreet after he was wounded at the Wilderness) to execute such a complex plan, Lee never sprang the trap. Lee most certainly missed Longstreet, his most reliable and competent corps commander.

Suffering heavy casualties at Ox Ford on May 24 in a failed attempt to unite their lines, the Federals once again moved southeast, slipping across the Pamunkey River at Hanovertown, only a few miles northeast of Richmond. Divining that Grant and Meade would then move west against the Richmond rail lines, Lee took up a defensive position along Totopotomoy Creek.

On June 1, Union cavalry under Phil Sheridan seized the crossroads at Cold Harbor, and both armies converged on the location. The Confederates spent all of June 2 constructing a strong defensive position, which served them well when Grant and Meade launched a series of frontal assaults the next day. The result was a slaughter, with the Army of the Potomac suffering some 7,000 casualties in only a few hours. Sensing the hopelessness of the upcoming assault, Union solders sewed bits of cloth with their names onto the back of their tunics.

Of Cold Harbor Upton wrote “our men have…been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed… We were recklessly ordered to assault the Enemy’s intrenchments (sic), knowing neither their strength nor position. Our loss was heavy, and to no purpose.” Grant agreed. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made…no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”

The human cost of the Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 was staggering. Lee lost a third of his senior leadership, 33,000 of his best—and irreplaceable—troops, and most of his offensive capability. Meade suffered 55,000 casualties in addition to the loss of thousands of veteran troops whose three-year enlistments came to an end. As one historian has remarked, “in short, both armies emerged from the campaign as shadows of their former selves.”

The Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 reflected Grant’s military philosophy. “The art of war,” he maintained, “is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” The terrible cost of the Virginia Overland campaign has led some to dismiss Grant as a butcher, but the truth of the matter is far more complex. This campaign demonstrated that Grant, unlike his predecessors, understood what it would take to defeat the Confederacy.

Grant’s strategic success was necessary to defeat the South but it did not impress the Northern public. War weariness, exploited by the so-called “Peace Democrats” or Copperheads, placed Lincoln’s hope for reelection in jeopardy. Not until Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay, Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, and Phil Sheridan’s success in driving the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley in the late summer and fall of 1864 did hostility toward the war in the North recede enough to ensure that the president would be returned to office and see the War of Rebellion through to its successful conclusion.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, RI, and editor of Orbis, the national security journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is writing a history of US civil-military relations.