In the spring of 1864 the Civil War’s two titanic generals—Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—clashed on the battlefield for the first time. Almost daily for six brutal weeks, Union and Confederate forces battled on a 100-mile arc around Richmond, Virginia. On its 150th anniversary, look back at Grant’s Overland Campaign, which resulted in back-to-back battles that were two of the four bloodiest in the entire Civil War.
As the Civil War dragged toward its fourth year in March 1864, Abraham Lincoln prepared to place his faith—and election-year prospects—in the hands of yet another military commander. Repeatedly frustrated by generals such as George McClellan and George Meade who had failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the president finally believed that he had found the right man to take the fight to the enemy in Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of the West who had conquered Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Lincoln had long admired Grant’s aggression and resisted calls for his ouster after a poor performance at the 1862 Battle of Shiloh by firing back, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” The president gave Grant command of all Union armies, a force that numbered more than a half-million men, and elevated him to lieutenant general, a rank not given to a wartime commander since George Washington in the American Revolution.
The newly appointed commander immediately began planning a massive offensive to capture Lee’s army and take the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Grant’s Overland Campaign called for a three-pronged attack in Virginia to keep Lee’s forces engaged as General William T. Sherman’s forces swept across the South toward Atlanta. Grant knew he had the numerical advantage in troop strength and wasn’t afraid to sustain high casualties in the short term in the hope that it would save lives in the long term by hastening an end to the war.
As Meade’s Army of the Potomac broke its winter camp 100 miles north of Richmond, Grant ordered the general: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” So would Grant, who personally accompanied the 115,000-man force as it crossed Virginia’s Rapidan River at dawn on May 4, 1864, to begin the Overland Campaign. With the Union army nearly twice the size of his own, Lee knew his best chance to negate the North’s numerical advantage was to confront his opponent in the tangled woods west of Fredericksburg.
On the morning of May 5, the Union Fifth Corps encountered Confederate troops on the Orange Turnpike, and the Battle of the Wilderness began in earnest. The woods thundered with gunfire, and men fell like forest leaves to the ground. The thick underbrush neutered the Union cavalry and made it impossible for units to move in an orderly fashion. Soldiers fired blindly into the blooming foliage and stifling smoke, in some cases shooting their own men. Artillery and small arms fire ignited the dry tinder, which resulted in an inferno that roasted hundreds of wounded soldiers who couldn’t escape the forest of flames. “It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of the earth,” Union Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter wrote of the carnage. More than 18,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded. The carnage caused Grant to sob alone in his tent, but it did not deter his resolve. “If you see the president,” the lieutenant general told a reporter during the battle, “tell him from me that whatever happens there will be no turning back.”
The two-day Battle of the Wilderness ended in a tactical draw. The Army of the Potomac expected that Grant would order their retreat as his predecessors had done repeatedly when repelled by Lee. Grant wasn’t like the other generals, though. He told them to press on toward Richmond. Lee, however, knew that Grant was unlike his previous counterparts as well and anticipated his next move, so when Union soldiers arrived at the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House on the morning of May 8, the rebels were already waiting.
Mere hours apart, the Battle of the Wilderness bled right into the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. The Confederates dug themselves into a system of entrenchments shaped like an inverted U, and the fierce standoff climaxed at dawn on May 12 when Grant commanded 20,000 men under Winfield Scott Hancock to pierce the rebels’ curved battle line. For 20 hours in a driving rainstorm, shooting and hand-to-hand combat raged at “Bloody Angle.” “Rank after rank was riddled with shot and shell and bayonet thrusts, and finally sank, a mass of torn and mutilated corpses,” Porter wrote. The dead were piled four deep, and beneath some corpses were the twitching bodies of some of the wounded, still alive.
The protracted battled continued for nearly two weeks as forces attacked and counterattacked. When Grant became convinced that he would not be able to dislodge the rebels, he disengaged his army on May 21 and, still confident that he could win a war of attrition even after losing another 18,000 men at Spotsylvania, ordered them to march southeast toward Richmond. After the armies of Grant and Lee engaged again at North Anna and Totopotomoy Creek, they squared off at Cold Harbor, 10 miles northeast of Richmond. Grant’s decision to order a massive assault on June 3 resulted in the killing and wounding of as many as 7,000 Union soldiers in less than an hour, and the Confederate victory at the Battle of Cold Harbor would be one the war’s most lopsided engagements.
On June 12, Grant’s forces crossed the James River to Petersburg, where a nine-month siege ensued. The six-week Overland Campaign had ended, leaving behind numbing losses: the dead, missing, and wounded totaled 55,000 for the Union and 33,000 for the Confederacy. According to the Civil War Trust, Spotsylvania Court House (30,000 combined casualties) and the Wilderness (29,8000 combined casualties) were the third- and fourth-bloodiest battles of the Civil War, trailing only Gettysburg and Chickamauga.
Through the carnage, Lincoln never lost faith in his new commander. As the Union forces dug in at Petersburg, Grant received a telegram from the commander-in-chief: “I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all. A. LINCOLN.”