Twilight of the Confederacy
The 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign was the beginning of the end.

Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee


Mackubin Thomas Owens

This Civil War sesquicentennial has been very strange. Perhaps it’s a symptom of our preoccupation with current affairs and our general forgetfulness about our history, but, with rare exceptions, there has been little memorialization of this great and tragic conflict. Indeed, the only Civil War episode to merit any significant mention has been Gettysburg, as if that were the only important event of the war. Gettysburg was indeed the greatest battle ever fought in North America, but it did not end the war. There was much fighting and dying left to do after July 1863. A great deal of that took place during the spring and summer of 1864 during the Virginia Overland Campaign, which sapped the waning strength of the Confederacy but also, given the tremendous loss of life that it occasioned, almost caused the population of the North to turn against the war. Following his successes in the West at Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed by Abraham Lincoln as general in chief of the armies of the United States, and the Senate confirmed him as the first lieutenant general since George Washington. 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 Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern 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 40 days, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were in nearly constant contact — at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. The 1864 Virginia 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. As Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton after the war had ended, he believed that peace would come only when “the military power of the rebellion was entirely broken. . . . I therefore determined . . . to hammer continuously against the armed forces of the enemy and his resources, until by mere attrition, if in no other way, there should be nothing left to him but an equal submission with the loyal section of our common country to the constitution and laws of the land.”

The Wilderness

Although the Union Army of the Potomac had forced Lee to retreat after Gettysburg, it was nearly as badly damaged as the Army of Northern Virginia, validating the Duke of Wellington’s observation that “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” The mutual damage is confirmed by the fact that, despite extensive maneuvering in Virginia in the fall of 1863, the two armies did not fight a major engagement for the ten months following Gettysburg.

But on May 4, 1864, a year after the bloodletting at Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac once again plunged into the Wilderness, a series of bramble-choked thickets made up of — in the words of one Union soldier — “mean jumbles of jack pines, chinquapins, and oak trees, few of them thicker than a man’s arm, across a forest floor carpeted with dry leaves, infested with briars, and riddled with vines.” The army’s hope was that the forest would screen its advance, and also that it could get through the forest before Lee could react. Grant and Meade assumed that Lee would withdraw to his strong position along Mine Run or move toward the North Anna 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 40 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.

The Virginia Overland Campaign
This May marks the 150th anniversary of the Virginia Overland Campaign, a bloody series of Civil War battles that proved the beginning of the end for the Confederate war effort. Here’s a look at images of the campaign from the Library of Congress collection. Pictured, Battle of Spotsylvania by Thure De Thulstrup (Library of Congress).
The human cost of the Virginia Campaign of May-June 1864 was staggering. Confederate General Robert E. Lee lost a third of his senior leadership, 33,000 of his best — and irreplaceable — troops. Union General George Meade suffered 55,000 casualties. Pictured, Confederate dead at Spotsylvania.
THE UNION: Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant: In a departure from the disconnected efforts of previous commanders, Grant put five Union armies in motion simultaneously against the Confederacy, determined to break the military power of the rebellion.
Major General George G. Meade: Meade’s Army of the Potomac had fought General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, and now pursued Lee's forces into what was called the “Wilderness.”
General Winfield S. Hancock (seated) with Generals Francis C. Barlow, David B. Birney, and John Gibbons. (National Archives)
Major General Ambrose E. Burnside (seated)
Major General Philip Sheridan
THE CONFEDERACY: General Robert E. Lee: “The art of war 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.”
Lieutenant General James Longstreet: Lee called Longstreet “my War Horse,” and never hesitated to give him the most difficult assignments. He was wounded by friendly fire in the Wilderness.
Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell
Lieutenant General A.P. Hill
Major General J.E.B. Stuart
BATTLE OF THE WILDERNESS: “Battle of the Wilderness — Desperate Fight on the Orange C.H. Plank Road, near Todd’s Tavern, May 6th, 1864,” Kurz & Allison (Library of Congress)
The Battle for the Wilderness Va., May 5th & 6th 1864, Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)
“Major General Wadsworth Fighting in the Wilderness,” illustration by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress)
Union forces suffered 18,000 casualties during the fighting in the Wilderness, while the Army of the Potomac lost 11,000. Pictured, wounded Union soldiers after the fighting in the Wilderness, photographed by James Gardner (Library of Congress)
BATTLE OF SPOTSYLVANIA: Battle of Spotsylvania — Engagements at Laurel Hill & NY River, Va., from Kurz & Allison (Library of Congress)
“Army of the Potomac — The Struggle for the Salient, near Spotsylvania, May 12, 1864,” illustration by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress)
Battle of the Wilderness — Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse (Army Center of Military History)
“General Warren rallying the Marylanders,” sketch by Alfred Waud. (Library of Congress)
Confederate entrenchments near the “Bloody Angle” battle site at Spotsylvania, photographed by G.O. Brown (Library of Congress)
A Confederate shell lodged in a tree at the “Bloody Angle” battle site at Spotsylvania, at a position held by the Seventh Rhode Island Infantry (Library of Congress)
The fighting at Spotsylvania clamed 35,000 casualties on the Union side and 23,000 among the Confederates. Pictured, a Confederate soldier killed at Spotsylvania, photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan (Library of Congress)
Massachusetts Artillery soldiers bury their dead at the scene of Ewell’s attack (Library of Congress)
An encampment of Confederate prisoners after the Battle of Spotsylvania (Library of Congress)
BATLE OF COLD HARBOR: Battle of Cold Harbor (Library of Congress)
“Grant’s Great Campaign — The New York 14th Heavy Artillery Crossing Chesterfield Bridge, on the North Anna, Under a Heavy Artillery Fire,” illustration by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress)
“General Grant’s Great Campaign — General Barlow Charing the Enemy at Cold Harbor, June 1, 1864,” illustration by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly
“Grant’s Great Campaign — Stevens’s Battery at Cold Harbor,” illustration by A.R. Waud for Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress)
“The Seventh New York Heavy Artillery during Barlows Charge near Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864,” sketch by Alfred Ward. (Library of Congress)
“The Bucktail’s Last Shot,” at Cold Harbor, sketch by Edwin Forbes. (Library of Congress)
Federal troops occupying a line of breastworks on the north bank of the North Anna River, photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan (Library of Congress)
Black soldiers dig up the bones of fallen solders for reburial at a Cold Harbor battle site, photographed by John Reekie (Library of Congress)
Updated: May. 10, 2014