The Army of the Potomac From Brandy Station to Petersburg

This was a presentation by Scott Hartwig as part of the Gettysburg National Military Park’s 2014 Winter Lecture Series.

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Scott really gives a great presentation.  He’s knowledgeable, completely professional, has an outstanding delivery, and does a great job in preparing his talks.  If you ever have a chance to see one of his presentations, I highly recommend it.  This was no exception.

Scott set out in this presentation to do two things:  first, to give an overall idea of the major events of the Overland Campaign, and second, to give the audience a feeling of the impact of the campaign on the men of the Army of the Potomac.

For further reading, Scott recommended Gordon Rhea’s series on the Overland Campaign, Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, Howard Coffin’s The Battered Stars:  One State’s Civil War Ordeal During Grant’s Overland Campaign, Theodore Lyman’s With Grant and Meade from the Wilderness to Appomattox, Dear Friends at Home:  The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sgt. Charles T. Bowen, 12th US Infantry, 1861-1864, edited by Edward Cassedy, The Civil War Letters of General Robert McAllister, edited by James I. Robertson, Jr., When This Cruel War Is Over:  The  Civil War Letters of Charles Harvey Brewster, edited by David Blight, and Rufus Dawes’ Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers.

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The story begins at Brandy Station.  The Army of the Potomac had just completed the Mine Run Campaign and is in winter quarters.  They are still recovering from the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  In addition to the heavy losses suffered in those two campaigns, they have also lost almost 30,000 men whose two-year enlistments had expired, and in addition to that, the XI and XII Corps were transferred to the West.  To attempt to fill these gaps, they induct new draftees [the smallest number], substitutes [a much larger number], and bounty men, who were technically volunteers.  The volunteers of 1861 and 1862 look down upon these three categories of new men.  It was a painful period for both the new recruits and the veterans as they were brought together.

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George Meade and his chief of staff, Andrew Humphries, were working on a plan to reorganize the Army of the Potomac.  Meade had decided seven army corps plus a cavalry corps was too many corps for one army commander to manage.  He saw Lee’s organization of three army corps and a division of cavalry as a more flexible organization, and he wanted to go more toward that model.  The second thing was the I and III corps had suffered such grievous losses at Gettysburg and had discharged a large number of 2-year men after the Battle of Chancellorsville that he felt those two corps could never be brought up to strength again.  He wanted to consolidate.  In March of 1864 he sends a complete reorganization to the War Department, and it’s approved.  The III Corps goes into the II Corps and the I Corps goes into the V Corps, so now there will only be three army corps and a cavalry corps.  Charles Wainwright, Chief of Artillery in the old I Corps, had a great observation regarding the reorganization.

There’s a little bit of a mystery why George Sykes was relieved.  The speculation centers around two things.  First, his health wasn’t good.  Second, he wasn’t going to be a corps commander.  He would be a division commander and may not have wanted to do that.

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While most of the men welcomed the change, the men of the I and III Corps were furious, and they directed their anger not at Meade, but at Grant.  On March 10, Grant traveled to Brandy Station and established his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac.  Because he was there, soldiers assumed that he had directed the reorganization.  Such was not the case, though.  He only approved Meade’s reorganization.

Grant was that type of soldier everyone was curious about, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about him, and many wrote about him.

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Andrew Humphries is the chief of staff of the army.  He helps Meade plan operations and makes sure the plans are implemented.  In Lee’s army the chief of staff was essentially a clerk, a purely staff officer.  Andrew Humphries was more a chief of staff in the modern view of a chief of staff.  He helped to plan operations.  He had commanded a division in the III Army Corps at Gettysburg and had been a division commander in the V Corps earlier.  He understood military operations.  He was someone else everyone seemed to have an opinion about.

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The II Army Corps would be commanded by Maj. General Winfield Scott Hancock, the Hero of Gettysburg.  However, he was still not fully recovered from the wound he suffered at Gettysburg, and that will affect him during the Overland Campaign.

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Gouverneur K. Warren will get the V Corps.  Warren was a sensitive, moody, temperamental type of person.  The Overland Campaign took a heavy toll on him, as Wainwright relates.

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The VI Army Corps is commanded by the most beloved officer in the army.  His men refer to him as “Uncle John,” Major General John Sedgwick.

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The IX Army Corps, for all intents and purposes was a part of the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign, but if you were going to look at the official order of battle, they are not part of it, and there is a reason for that.  Ambrose Burnside, whose date of commission was earlier than Meade’s commanded the IX Corps.  Because Burnside’s date of commission was earlier than Meade’s, Meade could not command Burnside, so Burnside and the IX Corps reported directly to Grant.  It’s a very convoluted, confused command structure.

The date of the letter from Charlie Mills is interesting–April 27.  The Battle of the Wilderness will begin on May 5.  So less than a week before the campaign will begin, Burnside has not even been with his troops yet, so it doesn’t bode well for the IX Corps.

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The Cavalry Corps will be commanded by the “bullet-headed” Philip H. Sheridan.  Sheridan came from the West.  Most of the people in the Army of the Potomac didn’t know him.  The Cavalry Corps didn’t like him at first until they got to know him and he really began to take control of the corps.  They were suspicious of him.

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The army needed reinforcements.  One of the places Grant looked and saw a large number of men who weren’t being used was in the defenses of Washington.  They had heavy artillery regiments that had been raised to man the fortifications around the capital.  Grant said to give them muskets, train them as infantry, and send them to the front.  The men at the front thought this was the greatest thing that ever happened.

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For the first time in the history of the Army of the Potomac, they are now going to have attached to them black troops.  They are in the IX Corps, so they are not technically attached to them, but for all intents and purposes they are with the Army of the Potomac.  There is a division of them, commanded by Edward Ferraro.  They are exposed to unbelievable racism.  They received unequal pay, and the enemy had told them, they would not be taken prisoner.  They would either be sold into slavery or put to death.  They were basically viewed as labor battalions, but they are representative of the need for manpower.

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Another group not as large as the black troops was a number of Native Americans who come into the army as substitutes, draftees, and volunteers.  The speculation about why they volunteered includes that if they fought in the “White Man’s War” it might improve their lot.  They also weren’t segregated.  They were absorbed into white regiments.

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May 4, the Overland Campaign begins.  The Army of Northern Virginia was located around Culpepper Courthouse in Orange County.  The Army of the Potomac will march across the fords of the Rapidan River.  The plan is to get them through the Wilderness as fast as possible to draw Lee into the open.  Lee doesn’t want to let them get out of the Wilderness.

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Lee won the race to the Wilderness, and the battle takes place in the Wilderness.  From May 5-7 the Union Army will lose 37,666 casualties.

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The Wilderness is early growth forest.  It’s almost impenetrable, thick, young growth.  They couldn’t see more than a few yards, and once they were firing and there was thick smoke around they couldn’t see at all, and it was a very confusing battle for the men.

Everywhere the soldiers will go, every time they stop, they will dig in.  It’s learned very quickly that fortifications stop bullets.

Soldiers had a rough humor about them.  They were dealing with life and death and had to have that kind of humor to survive mentally.

At the Wilderness, when the line broke, the men ran for their lives.  The sights they saw and the stories of the battle were vividly imprinted on their memories, and they never forgot them.

On May 8, Sheridan and Meade had it out.  Meade didn’t like the way Sheridan was handling the cavalry and starts to chew out Sheridan.  Sheridan gives as good as he gets, and they go back and forth.  Finally, Sheridan said he was sick and tired of how the cavalry was being used the way they are, as orderlies, scouting, guarding wagon trains.  He said if Meade let him take his cavalry as a fighting force he would whip JEB Stuart.  Meade goes to Grant, and Grant says to let Sheridan do it.  This will cost Meade in the coming operations, because he will lose most of his cavalry.  Sheridan starts a raid to try to threaten Richmond to draw out the confederate cavalry.  About the only thing they accomplished was the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11.  In a hard-fought battle, JEB Stuart is killed, which is a huge blow to the confederate army.  The only other thing it accomplished was it made the soldiers of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac believe they were equal to or better than the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia.  They weren’t afraid of them.  They began to think of themselves aggressively, as a striking force, as tough troops.  Sheridan achieved this at the cost of depriving Meade of cavalry he would need at the Battle of Spotsylvania.

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Black troops of Ferrero’s division are basically guarding wagon trains and doing fatigue duty as laborers.  People see them and make comments.  As they marched to join the army, though, they left some stragglers behind.  The confederate 9th Virginia Cavalry behind the Army of the Potomac ran into about 200 Union stragglers, including three men from Ferraro’s division.  They were summarily shot by the road and their bodies left behind.

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Grant is stymied in the Wilderness.  He’s lost a lot of men.  The last time they were in the Wilderness was the Battle of Chancellorsville.  Joe Hooker lost his nerve and withdrew and the campaign was over.  This time the orders filtered down that the army was on the move.  One of the great scenes in Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox when one of the leading units reached this fork in the road.  The one fork will take them back toward Fredericksburg and the Rapidan. The other fork led toward Spotsylvania.  Grant was there, took his cigar out of his mouth and pointed at the fork towards Spotsylvania.  And everyone there who saw that knew that the war had changed.  The soldiers who would eventually be on that road knew this was a new type of war and a new type of commander.  He’s not deterred by a setback at the Wilderness.  He’s going to move on.

The plan was to try to beat the confederates to Spotsylvania Courthouse.  They almost did it, but the confederates got their first.  Both sides entrenched.  As they were jockeying for position on May 9, Sedgwick visited a part of the VI Corps front.  He was warned sharpshooters had shot several men there, but he made the famous statement, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”  There was a thwack, and he was shot in the head and was instantly killed.  The corps grieved for him, but there was no time.  Sedgwick was replaced by Horatio Wright and the war went on.

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On May 10, the armies were in position.  Lee’s army’s line had the big “mule shoe.”  Grant and Meade planned attacks all along the line.  One attack was the most significant, Emory Upton’s attack.  Upton was a brigade commander in the VI Corps who had been thinking about ways to assault fortified positions.  He felt that broad attacks on broad lines of battle would always fail because troops would eventually hit the dirt and start firing.  He wanted a compact formation 3 regiments wide, 4 regiments deep.  He wanted to get as close to enemy lines as they could.  The front line only would have their weapons loaded and capped.  The others would have their weapons loaded, but no percussion caps on them so they couldn’t fire until they got inside the enemy’s works and had time to put their percussion caps on their weapons.  At the signal everyone runs.  A soldier could cover about 200 yards before the enemy could get more than one shot off.  Upton got his wish to try.  He was given 12 regiments.  They got into position about 200 yards from Doles’ Brigade.  At the signal, about 6PM, they burst from the woods, swept across the field.  The confederates got a volley off, but Upton’s men poured into the works and overran Doles’ position.  All supporting attacks, though, failed.  The confederates converged against Upton’s men and drove them out.

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Grant saw opportunity in what Upton had done.  A division had made it, so let’s try it with a full corps.  On May 12, the plan was for Winfield Hancock’s entire II Army Corps to strike the top of the Mule Shoe.  He would be supported by Burnside, Wright, and Warren.  The attack began about 4:30 AM.  The confederate soldiers’ muskets had some wet powder.  Hancock’s men overran the Mule Shoe and took 4,000 prisoners, including Edward “Allegheny” Johnson.  They overran a whole bunch of confederate artillery.  The problem was there was so many Yankees they got into each other’s way.  There was no way to move around.  The confederates sealed off the breakthrough and an incredibly bitter battle developed around the Mule Shoe, with the two sides fighting it out at almost point-blank range.

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The fighting was at point-blank range.  The fighting men were starting to get tired of the way they are being handled.  They feel as if there is a war of attrition going on, which was not Grant’s plan.  They expected to run risks, but they didn’t like what seemed to be a war of attrition.  The remarkable thing is none of the men talk about deserting or quitting.  They complain about how they are being handled, but there is no thought of giving up.

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It takes a hard man to command under these circumstances.  Grant is undeterred.  Thirteen days they fight at or around Spotsylvania Courthouse.  He keeps probing and seeking some type of opening.  When he decides there is nothing more to be gained there, he determines to maneuver.  Grant’s strategy is not one of attrition.  It’s one of maneuver to get the confederates out of their positions so they can be annihilated.

This time he will try to maneuver out of Spotsylvania Courthouse and get below the North Anna River before the confederates and force them to fight him down there.  Once again, it’s not going to turn out well.

At the North Anna, the confederates occupy a triangular-shaped position.  It’s a good position because the Federal Army had the North Anna River running through it, with half the army on one side and half the army on the other side.  It was an ideal position for Lee to smash a part of the Union army.  Lee’s cardiac problems laid him in bed.  He couldn’t do anything and he had no commander capable of seizing the opportunity.

The losses at North Anna are lighter than at Spotsylvania and the Wilderness, but everybody was constantly under fire.

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The soldiers throw up works with shelter tents and blankets to keep the sun off them.  Many men try to rest, keeping their heads down because sharpshooters would fire at anything that moved.

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Grant moves again to try to get between the confederates and Richmond.  Charles Bowen writes about coming across some southern civilians.  The southerners claimed they had nothing to eat, but the US soldiers told them if they weren’t given a good dinner, the civilians would be thrown out of the house and everything would be burned.  The soldiers at this point in the war have no sympathy at all for the southern civilians due to the suffering the soldiers had endured to this point.

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The soldiers look at mail as even more important than their rations.  They want the mail to come through and are willing to wait for rations if it means they will get the mail.

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Grant maneuvers to Cold Harbor, but the confederates win the race again.

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The fighting at Cold Harbor lasts thirteen days, but the most significant and famous part happened on June 3 in which there was an attack all along the Union line.  Grant had faulty intelligence that the lines were weakly held and could be penetrated easily.  This attack led to the myth that Grant lost 7,000 men in an hour.  That was not the case.  On June 3, Grant lost fewer men than Lee lost at Pickett’s Charge.  Cold Harbor, though, was another fiasco.

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Grant planned another maneuver.  He would cross the James River to attack Petersburg.  The movement occurred June 12-16, and Lee was completely fooled.  For a time he didn’t know where the Army of the Potomac was.

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Grant conducted assaults on Petersburg from June 15 to 18.  The Federal soldiers were wary when they saw trenches and the initial assaults weren’t made aggressively.  PGT Beauregard was in charge of defenses of Petersburg, and he was able to gain enough time to allow Lee to make it to Petersburg and fully man the defenses.  The last attacks were made on June 19.

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After that it settled down into a siege.

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The Overland Campaign, from May 4 to June 18, cost the Army of the Potomac over 61,000 casualties.  The odds of being killed, wounded, or captured was almost greater than the odds of making it through.  This was now a new stage, a different type of war, including black troops and siege warfare.

The campaign succeeded in pushing Lee back into the defenses of Richmond where Lee can’t maneuver, but the price was extremely high and cost extensive damage.

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Rufus Dawes left the army in August of 1864.  Brewster was discharged in June and Bowen was discharged in August.

During the Q&A, Scott was asked about how Lincoln was able to sustain Grant through all the casualties.  Scott made the point that Lee was an uncommonly skilled general who had a really good army under him, and everyone knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  Lee was not going to be beaten by some maneuvers.  It would have to involve hard fighting, and that meant casualties.  Lincoln understood this, and stuck by Grant because he saw there was progress being made.

This was an outstanding presentation, as we’ve come to expect from Scott.  I hope that he’s called on to make more presentations in future Winter Lectures.

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