“It is those campaigns in America that we must study.”
Historian Fletcher Pratt attributed that statement to a top German military leader in the run up to World War I.
We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War as the Sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War is entering its final year.
And if there were campaigns the Germans and other European powers should have studied, General Grant’s advance into Central Virginia in May 1864 should have been on the top of the list. It was the precursor for what developed in 1914 after the armies of the Central Powers and Allies bogged down in Northern France.
Let’s first set the stage for the situation in 1864.
The southern economy was in shambles. Surprisingly, the Union blockade was not the primary reason. As a whole, foreign trade increased in the South during the war years. For that matter, the port of Wilmington, NC was doing four times the amount of trade it did prior to the war. Wilmington was the key source of foreign supplies for General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee told the Confederate commander at Fort Fisher, which guarded Wilmington, that he would have to evacuate Richmond if the fort fell.
The problem was the composition of the trade. Private entrepreneurs, rather than the CSA government, was behind the vast share of shipments. Luxury goods were far more profitable to ship than heavy machinery, weapons and food ingredients. Although a substantial amount of military hardware did make it through, basic consumer goods and everyday supplies for troops – clothing, medicines – were always scarce. It was the “guns or butter” model every economics student learned in Econ 101. Basically, choosing what to produce or import involves opportunity costs as trade-offs are made between consumer vs. military goods.
What industry the South had was overwhelmingly dedicated to the manufacture of war materials – heavy artillery, shells, gunpowder. It was a small miracle that the CSA had an armaments industry. For that it could thank Josiah Gorgas, a West Point graduate whose pre-war military experience was in ordnance. He might very well be the most effective general no one ever heard of. Gorgas created an armaments industry from scratch. By 1864, most basic weapons and ammunition needs were fulfilled because of his management skills, which made the most of the South’s limited resources.
Gorgas’ backstory is worth mentioning. Although a Pennsylvanian, he married into an Alabama family while serving in Mobile in 1853. The marriage was arguably the primary reason he cast his lot with the South, although his reputation for bucking the army establishment probably contributed. His son, William Gorgas, was the Army surgeon whose work on controlling the spread of yellow fever in Panama saved countless lives and helped make the Panama Canal a viable project.
The distribution system, which served the seceded states well before hostilities, was inadequate to support a wartime economy.
Unlike the North, the South did not have a bureaucracy to administer a tax system, much less a system to process remittances. When it did implement an income tax in 1863, the states did little or nothing to enforce it. The Confederate government relied on printing notes to finance the war, which became increasingly worthless.
The South was struggling to feed and clothe its armies; Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was no exception to logistical and supply problems.
To make matters worse for Lee, he lost a number of experienced division and regimental commanders at Gettysburg. He lost Stonewall Jackson prior to Gettysburg. Aside from General James Longstreet, there was no one capable of stepping up to lead in the event Lee were incapacitated – a real concern due to his ongoing health issues, made worse by the strain of war.
The Union, which also suffered, was at least buoyed by the twin victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Even more important was its industrial capacity that could produce everything needed by its armies and still cover the core needs of the civilian population.
Still, the Union was not without its problems. The growing casualty list was a concern and Lincoln feared it could cost him in the 1864 election.
The New York draft riots in July 1863 required 4,000 federal troops straight from the battle of Gettysburg to suppress the violence, the largest public insurrection in United States history.
Overall, while the northern public still supported the war effort, patience was starting to wear thin.
The war had to be brought to a close….and soon. If it dragged on for too much longer, support would wane. No one knew that better than Lincoln. The current strategy was taking too long. The vast interior of the Confederacy was still untouched. It was time to pick a general who was willing to do what the president called the “terrible math” – to not allow the human cost to detract from achieving victory – a delicate balancing act. To incur too many more casualties with little to show for the sacrifice could cost Lincoln the election.
General Grant fit the bill. His results-oriented strategy in the western theater led to regaining control of the Mississippi River and saving a union army besieged in Chattanooga after it was defeated at Chickamauga.
Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General, the first officer to hold that rank since George Washington, and put in command of all Union armies.
Grant’s strategy was simple – launch coordinated campaigns along several fronts, primarily in central Virginia and north Georgia.
The former would target Lee’s army rather than Richmond. Grant believed if he could get between Richmond and Lee’s army, Lee would be forced to attack him in an open battle where the full force of the Union army could be brought to bear on the outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia. A decisive victory would mean the end of Lee’s ability to conduct operations and, therefore, result in the fall of Richmond.
Grant would have the numbers on his side – almost 120,000 men to face Lee’s 65,000. To build up this numerical advantage, Grant converted garrison troops from the defenses of Washington and other commands to infantry units. The operation would become known as the Overland Campaign. By contrast, General McClellan’s failed attempt to take Richmond two years earlier was labeled the Peninsular Campaign. In 1862, McClellan’s troops were transported by water and landed on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula at Union-controlled Fort Monroe, from where they moved west through Williamsburg to the outskirts of Richmond. That was as far as the Army of the Potomac got before Lee launched a series of counterattacks that drove the Union forces back.
General Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, remained in command of the Army of the Potomac, but he was not viewed to be aggressive enough to implement Grant’s strategy. His sluggish pursuit of Lee after Gettysburg and his failure to make any progress in Virginia during the fall of 1863 diminished his value in the eyes of Lincoln. Grant chose to accompany Meade’s command to assure compliance with the relentless tactics the campaign would require.
The Georgia campaign would be led by General William T. Sherman. Atlanta, the most important city in the south after Richmond, would be the objective.
Success of both campaigns would all but eliminate the South’s industrial and transportation capabilities.
The other campaigns would support the primary ones by cutting key supply lines and diverting the CSA’s attention from the main business at hand.
Operations commenced on May 4. The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, a tributary of the Rappahannock just west of Fredericksburg, and Sherman moved south from Chattanooga.
This article will focus on the Virginia campaign, not to diminish the importance of the one on Georgia, but it was the larger and bloodier of the two and the one that set the tone for the fighting in World War 1. I will cover the Georgia campaign in a later article.
The fighting started as most other previous battles had; two mobile forces maneuvering to gain a favorable position.
Grant wanted to march as quickly as possible through the densely wooded section south of the Rapidan known as the Wilderness and fight the southerners in open country where his superior numbers and artillery could be employed to maximum effect. Lee was motivated to engage the Union army in the Wilderness for exactly the opposite reason.
Logistics proved difficult for the Union force, especially the movement of its long trains of supply wagons. Lee, being closer to his supply base, could move more quickly – and did. Hence, the two armies faced off in the thick woods and dense underbrush of the Wilderness, near where the battle of Chancellorsville was fought a year earlier.
General Meade managed the tactical operations for Grant and eventually drove back the Confederate right flank. However, General Longstreet’s corp, which had been situated several miles away at the start of the battle, arrived on the scene and mounted a counterattack that recovered the lost ground and threatened to go farther. Unfortunately for Lee, Longstreet was wounded by friendly fire at a crucial phase. The attack bogged down and the northern line had a chance to stabilize. The Confederates pushed forward the next day and made more progress before darkness settled in, effectively ending the fighting.
Many wounded on both sides perished in the bullet-ignited brush fires that erupted in the woods. Their cries could be heard through the day and night. Some of the wounded committed suicide rather than be engulfed by flames. Muffled explosions could be heard as fires reached the cartridges of the fallen. The stench of burning flesh lingered through the woods.
In all, Grant lost 18,000 men to Lee’s 10,000, but rather than pull back and lick his wounds as his predecessors had done time and again after a defeat, he disengaged and moved southeast, forcing Lee to make a parallel movement lest Richmond be threatened. In so doing, Grant turned a tactical defeat into a strategic movement.
Longstreet would be out of action until October. That was bad news for Lee, whose other corp commanders lacked the consistency and resolve of the wounded commander of the 1st Corps. It would result in a lost opportunity later in the campaign.
Neither Grant nor Lee could have predicted how the nature of the fighting would change in the ensuing days. The horrors were just beginning. For that matter, the next month would find the opposing forces in close contact, including three other major battles and numerous smaller engagements.
Entrenching became more commonplace and complex as well. According to historian Dr. Earl J. Hess, who wrote extensively about Civil War fortifications, the constant contact drove soldiers to build earthworks and dig trenches as a matter of self-preservation. Bullets and artillery shells were always in the air.
Grant favored the fortifications as springboards for his next maneuver. Lee relied on them to offset the manpower advantage of the Union army.
Both sides became as reliant on the shovel as they did rifles. And the results proved deadly.
Digging virtually marked the troop movements to the southeast as Grant would try to work around Lee’s eastern flank while the latter matched his every move.
The next round of heavy fighting ran from May 8th through the 19th at Spotsylvania, close to fifteen miles south of the Wilderness battlefield. Lee beat Grant to the vital crossroads which offered direct access to Richmond.
The Confederates entrenched and repulsed several Union attacks. Grant authorized an untried tactic at one point. It was developed by Colonel Emory Upton. The tactic was designed to overwhelm entrenched defenders. The attackers would not stop to fire and reload – they would rush forward as fast as possible so the enemy would not have time to fire multiple volleys.
It worked. A breach was made, but the Confederates regrouped quickly with the aid of reinforcements and pushed Upton’s men back. The reinforcements were made possible by shifting troops from other entrenchments without unduly weakening other points on the defensive line and subjecting them to a counterattack.
Despite the lack of success, Grant recognized the potential value of the rapid assault and promoted Upton to the rank of general. Upton’s tactic became standard practice in World War 1. Unfortunately, the machine gun offset its advantage.
At one point, the opposing troops went toe-to-toe for almost 20 hours, firing point-blank, stabbing and clubbing along earthworks. Out of desperation, some men hurled their bayoneted rifles like spears. Intermittent rain turned trenches into rivers of mud. Many wounded were trampled to death in the ooze from the weight of combatants engaged in demonic hand-to-hand combat.
General John Sedgwick, commander of the Union 6th Corps was killed by a sniper bullet to the head shortly after he told his men he was too far away to make a good target.
The Confederates lost General Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant and brilliant commander of Lee’s cavalry corp. He was mortally wounded in a cavalry engagement at Yellow Tavern just outside of Richmond while responding to a Union raid led by General Philip Sheridan. Now Lee was without the services of his two ablest generals.
Grant lost another 18,000 men to Lee’s 12,000 in the Spotsylvania fighting. To complicate matters, Union enlistments were expiring and many men decided to head home. Replacements arrived, but they were not hardened veterans as the departing men were.
Lee was able to replace some of his losses. As mentioned earlier, Grant’s overall strategic plan called for supporting movements by other forces. A small army was put ashore by the Navy about 20 miles south of Richmond, but it was bottled up at Bermuda Hundred, a small peninsula formed by two rivers, by a contingent of General Beauregard’s troops. An attempt to cut Lee from his supply lines to the Shenandoah Valley also failed. As a result, Lee was able to move around 7,000 men from those areas to his main army.
At this point, Grant’s numerical advantage had diminished to a margin of only 14,000 – a far cry from the 55,000 he enjoyed at the start of the campaign.
Almost any other general would have withdrawn and regrouped, resuming the offensive only after rest and resupply.
Not Grant. In one of his dispatches, he swore, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
Grant continued to move to the southeast.
Both Grant and Lee set traps.
Grant tried to lure Lee into the open by exposing Hancock’s 2nd Corps as bait. He figured Lee would not be able to resist attacking an isolated formation. Before the ruse could be launched in full, a routine reconnaissance initiated by Confederate General Ewell’s corps was mistakenly interpreted as an attack and Grant delayed Hancock’s maneuver.
As it turned out, either Lee was unaware of Grant’s bait or simply chose to ignore it. Instead, Lee took up a position on the North Anna River, just 20 miles north of Richmond, and arranged his defensive line in an inverted V, thus any attack would split union forces in two disconnected wings. Lee could take advantage of his interior lines, which would facilitate shifting troops to one side or the other, concentrating enough of his force to support an overwhelming counterattack on an isolated segment of Grant’s army.
Grant fell for it, but Lee, who had been fighting off illness, succumbed to an intestinal malady and was confined to his tent. His corp commanders, also battling illness to some degree, could not follow through on his plan to attack. Had Longstreet been present, things may have played out differently. It could have been the end of the Overland Campaign.
Once Grant realized how exposed his army was to a crushing attack, he withdrew and reformed his army for yet another move to the southeast. This occurred on May 25th.
The scattered fighting of the North Anna engagement cost the Federals 4,000 men. Lee lost 2,500.
Major crossroads tend to serve as a magnet for combat – Gettysburg, for example. So it is no surprise that both armies were drawn to a an otherwise insignificant spot on the map where five key roads met. Cold Harbor, as it was named, was nothing more than a dilapidated tavern where a traveler could be served a cool drink and spend the night.
It was also uncomfortably close to Richmond for Lee, about 10 miles. The only natural barrier between the city and Cold Harbor was the Chickahominy River. If Grant could break through here, Lee would be forced into the trenches of his capital. It would become a siege. That was the last thing Lee wanted – to be pinned in one place and unable to launch a large-scale offensive against northern targets.
For Grant, a siege would be better than nothing, but time was an enemy. A stalemate in front of Richmond coupled with the potential for failure by Sherman to seize Atlanta could spell defeat for Lincoln in November. A peace candidate would likely negotiate with the Confederacy, if elected.
The stakes were getting higher as the armies crept ever closer to Richmond. Grant had failed to pull Lee out in the open, but he figured the Confederate Army was ready to break after weeks of continuous combat. He was aware of the poor logistics that hampered Lee and the adverse impact it must have had on the southerners.
Grant had also just received reinforcements transported by river from the failed operation at Bermuda Hundred.
The time was right for a general assault, he thought. If successful, Lee’s army would be routed and Richmond would fall, along with Petersburg – a key supply point.
Grant misjudged the morale of the Confederates. They were also now situated in what many experts consider the most carefully designed set of trenches and earthworks ever constructed in the war. The crossfire opportunities were numerous and the protection they offered the defenders was excellent.
The Union soldiers seemed to understand the gravity of assaulting the defenses. Many wrote their names on slips of paper and pinned them to the backs of their uniforms so they could be easily identified if killed.
Only about 500 yards separated the two armies, a little more than a lap around a school track. The no-man’s land in between already showed the skeletons from the fighting two years ago during McClellan’s campaign. It must have been a scene from hell as Dante would describe it.
The order was given and the Army of the Potomac stepped out from their cover in the early dawn and advanced.
The next half-hour would equal any mayhem produced by World War 1. Some 5,000 to 6,000 Union soldiers fell, many in rows, perhaps most in the first 15 minutes. No units breached the defenses. The attackers hit the ground and took what cover could be found, including using the dead bodies as shields.
There they stayed for nine hours. Grant did not order a retreat; if anything, he wanted them to renew the assault. Instead, men came crawling back, including any wounded capable of moving. The rest lay where they fell on the battlefield for the next two days until Grant asked for a truce to recover them.
It was actually closer to four days before he authorized parties to gather the wounded – most were dead by then, having succumbed to the stifling sun and lack of water. Grant had done this before – at Vicksburg, after his initial assault failed.
According to historians, asking for a truce to recover wounded was an admission of defeat…and Grant hated to admit defeat. In his memoirs, Grant regretted ordering the attack.
Grant downplayed his casualties throughout the Overland Campaign. According to Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, considered the hero of Gettysburg and a Medal of Honor recipient, in his memoirs (The Passing of the Armies): “Then the rushing, forced flank-movements, known and overmatched by the ever-alert; followed by reckless front attacks, where highest valor was deepest loss; buffetings on bloody angles; butcherings in slaughter pens, — all the way down to the fateful Chickahominy once more — a campaign under fire for twenty-seven days and nights together; morning reports at last not called for and when we asked explanation our superiors answered, — confidentially, lest it seem disloyal; ‘Because the country would not stand it, if they knew.’ ”
He went on to say in a speech to the Society of the Army of the Potomac in 1889: “I desire to say here today that in this Army of the Potomac whose suffering and losses were such in that same year of 1864 that we were not called upon or permitted to report our casualties during that whole campaign from the Rapidan and Rappahannock to the James and Appomattox, for fear the country could not stand the disclosure….”
Was it a cover-up?
If so, it has been suggested there was a desire to deflect any criticism that would impair Lincoln’s renomination at the Republican Convention, held June 7-8, just days after the fateful attack.
As great a man as Lincoln was, he could be brutally pragmatic when it came to war policy: suspension of habeas corpus, sacking generals, not freeing the slaves in states loyal to the Union, never commuting death sentences of deserters.
We will never know unless a cache of correspondence to that effect is found hidden in the walls of the White House. Barring that, this theory will remain nothing more than interesting speculation.
For nine days following the battle, the armies stared at each other from their wretched trenches, soldiers not daring to raise their heads lest a sniper find the range. Only the short truce to recover Union wounded provided respite.
In those long nine days, Grant decided to execute a bold maneuver, perhaps even more complex than the one he used to get around the Vicksburg defenses in the summer of 1863. He would forego striking directly at Richmond and instead target Petersburg. Petersburg was Richmond’s connection to vital supply lines.
The new plan was a marvel of engineering as pontoon bridges were quickly constructed across the Chickahominy and James Rivers. The plan had been in the back of Grant’s mind since before the Overland Campaign. He had even requested that bridging equipment be accumulated at Fort Monroe, from where it could be shipped to potential river crossing points.
To pull it off, Grant had to keep Lee’s attention focused closer to Cold Harbor. To that end, he left a few divisions west of his bridges to cover the movement.
Before Lee could react, Grant got the jump he needed and successfully landed a large force outside of Petersburg. The plan called for an immediate attack on the city, which was lightly defended, but there was a delay due to confusing orders. When the attack was finally launched, it lacked resolve, owing to trepidation by Union troops to attack yet another fortified position. This allowed Lee enough time to move a division of 5,000 men into the city’s trenches. A war-ending opportunity was lost.
The Overland Campaign was over; the siege of Petersburg and Richmond had begun – likely a very long one in the minds of Grant and Lee. As I noted earlier, a siege was the last thing either commander wanted. It put pressure on Sherman to take Atlanta before the November elections – and his campaign was moving slowly due to Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s defensive prowess and the tenacity of his army. That campaign will be covered in my next segment late this summer.
The horrific conditions faced by the men who fought for 40 straight days from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor must have had a profound effect on their mental health. I would not have been surprised if the suicide rate for these combatants exceeded what today’s veterans are experiencing.
Apparently, the opposite is true. Experts believe the rate could be three-times higher for troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
To read all of the articles in this series, follow this link.