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.”
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.