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

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 May 23 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 important, 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.”

Following the Cold Harbor debacle, both armies dug in and Grant, concluding that there was no opening on his immediate front that would permit him to move directly on Richmond, decided to change his line of operation by shifting his forces to the south, crossing the James River, and seizing Petersburg, the critical railroad hub linking Richmond with the lower South. The operation would be a difficult one. Grant and Meade would have to break contact with Lee, move south around the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia, cross both the Chickahominy and James rivers, and take Petersburg before Lee could react.

Lee was indeed surprised. Boldly executing a bold plan, the Army of the Potomac soon was in position to seize the Petersburg lines, which were only weakly defended by elements of a small force under P. G. T. Beauregard. But while the early assaults on the Confederate positions were successful, the Union commander on the ground, perhaps still stunned by the carnage at Cold Harbor, did not follow up the attack. Both sides settled in for a nine-month siege, which ended only when Lee, advising Confederate president Jefferson Davis that he could no longer hold the Petersburg lines, attempted a breakout to the west that ended with his surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

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 Thomas Owens, a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam, is professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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