Politics & Policy

Twilight of the Confederacy

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

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.

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 Stonewall Jackson had 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 give 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 in September 1863, routing Major General 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.

The two days of fighting in the Wilderness were vicious. 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. Nonetheless Lee had inflicted a tactical defeat and nearly 18,000 casualties on the Army of the Potomac. But the problem for Lee was that he would not be able to replace the 11,000 casualties he suffered.

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. Under previous generals, the tactically defeated Army of the Potomac would have withdrawn north to lick its wounds and prepare for another encounter. Instead, on the evening of May 7, the Army of the Potomac abandoned its lines and, sidestepping Lee, headed south toward Spotsylvania Court House. This new approach 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.”

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 near Spotsylvania Court House 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 an attempt to turn the Confederate left, but 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 Union officer, Brevet Colonel Emory Upton, who had graduated from West Point only three years earlier, launched a surprise assault with twelve 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 a.m. on May 12, capturing some 3,000 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 right, 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 May 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 now suffered some 35,000 casualties, the Confederacy around 23,000. 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 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.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national-security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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