Gordon Rhea’s presentation at the 2014 Appomattox Court House National Historical Park and Longwood University Civil War Seminar held on March 15, 2014 at Longwood University in Farmville, VA was on “Grant and Lee in the Overland Campaign.”
Gordon brought up a popular view of Grant is that he was a slow-moving general who didn’t like to maneuver, would charge wildly and sacrifice huge numbers of men. He said that popular view reminded him of the view of dinosaurs when he was a kid, of a slow, lumbering brontosaurus. But, he said, Steven Spielberg showed us a different kind of dinosaur in the movie, Juraissic Park. He showed us the Velociraptor, which was fast, liked to use flank attacks, used maneuver, and was very good at fighting. Gordon said that after studying Grant during the Overland Campaign he’s come to think of Grant as the “Velociraptor of the Civil War.” He was a general who could maneuver, who tried to apply thoughtful measures of force and to maneuver to reach a successful conclusion. Grant was also a general who stopped thinking in terms of individual battles and began thinking in terms of overall campaigns. He might win some, he might lose some, but what’s important is how it all comes out at the end.
Lee also has a reputation. He has the reputation of being able to outfox all his adversaries. Many writers described Lee as a general who could outthink his opponent, who could almost mystically guess what his opponent’s next move was going to be and move to match it, thereby using his much smaller force to hold off larger concentrations of enemy troops. What we see in the Overland Campaign is that Lee did do a spectacular job. He held off an army double the size of his masterfully, but at the same time he missed a lot of major opportunities and on several occasions he made guesses about what Grant was going to do and Grant did something completely different. On a few occasions, Lee’s misapprehension of Grant and what Grant’s next move might be almost brought the Army of Northern Virginia to destruction.
These two men, then, were pretty evenly matched. They each had some problems they had to deal with, but each of them got up in the morning, looked in the mirror, and saw his opponent on the other side.
In the spring of 1864, Lincoln is worried. He may not be re-elected, and he may not even get his party’s nomination unless he can produce victories. He’s plugged particularly into the Eastern Theater, and that meant Virginia, the home of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, where Lee remains mostly unbeaten and unbowed. Many will say the war was won in the West, but the East was the theater being scrutinized more severely and where Lincoln had to produce victories. Lincoln brought his best general, Ulysses S. Grant, to the East.
Grant brought with him a whole new conception of how the war was to be fought. Gordon calls it his “Three Point Plan.”
Up to that point, generals had fought battles for up to two or three days, such as at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, or Gettysburg, and then the armies would pull apart. Confederates could then refit and make replacements, and then the two armies would fight again. Grant would do things very differently. He realized that you don’t give the enemy time to get back into shape. His goal was to attack the confederate armies, engage them in battle, and then keep them engaged, don’t stop, and drive them into submission.
The second thing Grant realized was that up to that point in the war the armies in the East and in the West had moved separately. It was like a balky mule team. Grant wanted to bring coordination to the armies East and West. He wanted to prevent, for instance, the confederates shipping troops from the East to the West as they had done just before the Chickamauga Campaign. His goal, then, for the spring of 1864 was to have the armies of the East and the West move in tandem, and fight every day until the confederacy was brought to its knees.
Finally, Grant realized that he had to change the overall focus on what the armies were to do. Up to this point it had been considered very important to capture confederate territory. That meant you had to have long supply lines, and you had to leave troops in the rear to guard those supply lines. Grant shifted the focus toward defeating confederate armies. Basically, latch onto the confederate armies in both theaters, fight them every day until they were destroyed, and that is how the confederacy would be brought to an end.
This was a whole new way of thinking about the war. Grant also decided he would bring this concept to defeating Lee.
Lee’s force was just below the Rapidan River. The main Union force, the Army of the Potomac, was just above the Rapidan River. Grant decided to take the Army of the Potomac and attack Lee, but at the same time have another army move south along the Shenandoah Valley in order to threaten Lee’s left flank and have another Union army come up the James River, taking Richmond if possible and threatening Lee’s rear. So there would be a three-pronged attack against Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant’s plan was well conceived.
Lee found himself in a predicament. Lee is now locked in place, entrenched. He’s united the army but he can’t take the offensive. He’s heavily outnumbered by the Army of the Potomac, but he also knows about the other subsidiary armies. If he moves, the Army of the James will attack Richmond, so he has to play a waiting game. He keeps the I Corps under Longstreet well to the south on the railroad so he can shift to any of the other fronts. He has the cavalry out as a tripwire along the Rapidan River so he can be alerted when the Army of the Potomac moves, but he’s basically stuck in place.
There’s one goal he has. Lee knows he has to defend the Rapidan line, that he has to defeat the main Union force, the Army of the Potomac there on the Rapidan. Otherwise, the jig will be up. He’ll have to retreat, fall back to the Richmond-Petersburg area, the Army of the Potomac will follow, and the war will become a siege and the Army of Northern Virginia will be neutralized. Lee, then, realizes he needs to win a battle on the Rapidan River, but he doesn’t know where Grant is going to go.
A big part of Grant’s strategy is how he was going to feed his army. Grant realized that if he was going to move south he needed a mobile supply line, otherwise he risked having his supplies cut off by confederate forces. He decided to first set up a big supply depot near Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia. He’ll then send supplies down the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay by barge, then send the barges up the various tidal rivers in Virginia and then transport those supplies to the army. So as the Army of the Potomac moves south it will have supply lines protected by the Union army without a land route. This was genius. It gave him tremendous flexibility, but at the same time it locked him into a certain type of maneuver. Grant had to make sure that Lee never got between the Army of the Potomac and the sea, because if Lee were able to do that he could cut the army off from its supplies. So throughout this campaign you’ll see Grant always shifting by Lee’s right, always between Lee and the Chesapeake Bay, always protecting those supplies.
Grant decides the Army of the Potomac will shift downriver from Lee fifteen or twenty miles, cross, and then come back. This will make all of Lee’s Rapidan River fortifications meaningless. The Army of the Potomac planners wanted to make sure their supplies will keep up with them. They decided once they crossed the river they would wait in the Wilderness for a day, let their supplies catch up, and then move on Lee. They based this on what had happened in previous campaigns. This is one of the major miscalculations of the campaign.
The Army of the Potomac moved across the Rapidan River on the evening of May 3-4. It organizes itself in the Wilderness, and while it’s halted, this gives Lee the chance to respond. Lee decides to do what he planned on doing from the start–take the initiative.
If you look at a map of the Wilderness, from Lee’s position there were three roads that ran toward where the Army of the Potomac was now located. One of those roads is the Orange Turnpike. The second road was the Orange Plank Road, and the third one was the Catharpin Road. Lee decided to send one army corps out the Orange Turnpike and fasten one part of the huge Union army in place. He then sent another army corps out the Orange Plank Road to lock the rest of the Union army in place. Finally, he decided to send the I Corps under James Longstreet down the Catharpin Road and slam into the underbelly of the Union Army and drive them back across the Rapidan River as he had done the year before at Chancellorsville. Lee was also aided by the terrain the Union Army was in. The Wilderness was second-growth forest with a thick underbrush. It was a place where a small army could fight a large army to its advantage because the large army could never really concentrate, artillery wouldn’t have clear fields to fire, and cavalry would be pretty much useless. This plan is a bit of a risk because if the Federals understood what Lee has done, that is broken his army into three separate parts, they could turn on each of those parts in turn and defeat Lee’s army piecemeal. This is the kind of plan where if it works everyone says you’re a military genius but if it fails everyone asks how could you be so dumb in the first place. Lee, however, wasn’t worried about what people would say. He wants to stop Grant in the Wilderness.
On the morning of May 5, Lee’s plan looks like it’s working well. His forces lock the upper part of the Army of the Potomac in place in the Wilderness. Longstreet is marching up. He’s not going to be able to get there on the first day, so the fight degenerates into a huge brawl in the woods. Now Grant has to face some personnel problems he had inherited. The general running the Army of the Potomac, George G. Meade, has been on the outs with the administration in Washington. Grant had decided that if he’s not going to have Meade at the head of the Union army he’s going to have to find someone just like Meade, because he needs someone the Army of the Potomac generals are used to working with. So Grant kept Meade to run the army while Grant’s role is to run the big picture. As Lee’s army starts to show up, Grant’s sitting on a stump whittling waiting to see what Meade is going to do. Grant likes action, but Meade doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything. Meade likes to make sure everything is in place before he moves. Grant finally orders Meade to launch an attack and Meade orders his subordinates to do so, and the Battle of the Wilderness erupts, much to the Union army’s disadvantage. At the end of the first day the armies are pretty much stalemated in the Wilderness. Grant then begins to micromanage the Army of the Potomac. He is frustrated with Meade and basically takes over command of the army. He orders about half of the army to report to General Hancock, one of the better Union corps commanders, and launch a huge attack at the part of the battlefield where Grant believed there could be victory down on the Orange Plank Road.
At sunup on May 6 this huge attack is launched. The Union juggernaut heads down the Orange Plank Road. The confederate forces there are rolled up. The lead confederate units trying to hold the position are from North Carolina, and they retreated in disarray. [North Carolina still celebrates this event. Their license plates say, “First in Flight.” ;)]
Lee is at the area called the Widow Tapp Field. Longstreet’s troops suddenly appear and Lee is rescued. Then Lee shows his usual aggressiveness. With the large Union army mired in the Wilderness Lee launches a huge flank attack. Then later in the day another flank attack is launched. By the end of the second day of fighting in the Wilderness the Union army is locked in place, the Army of Northern Virginia is on high, strong ground, and Lee’s plan to stop Grant is working.
The next morning, Grant comes up with a new plan. He will maneuver. He realizes that fighting in the Wilderness is not going to work. He decided to pull out of the Wilderness, drop south some ten miles down the Brock Road to an intersection at Spotsylvania Court House which will put him on good roads between Lee and Richmond. Grant figures that once he’s between Lee and Richmond it will force Lee to come out of the Wilderness to fight on a field where Grant can win. Grant will use maneuver rather than brute force. The Union soldiers realize they now have a general who won’t retreat.
Lee had no idea what Grant was going to do. He spent the whole day waiting to see what Grant would do. Fortunately for Lee, his new head of the I Corps, Richard H. Anderson who had taken over for Longstreet after Longstreet was wounded by his own troops in the Wilderness, was ordered to leave the Wilderness and move down to Spotsylvania Court House and decided to leave early, so by luck he ended up near Spotsylvania Court House on May 8 just as the lead Union army elements were showing up there. Anderson and JEB Stuart are able to throw up a defensive line blocking the Union advance. During the entire day of May 8 Grant pushed his forces southward and Lee’s troops are moving to block Grant. Again, Grant is stymied.
The next few days at Spotsylvania Court House are brutal. The confederates have learned by this time that it makes sense, when facing a large army like the Army of the Potomac, to dig entrenchments. They’ve learned how to build the most effective entrenchments and fortifications. They build elaborate works. The Union army starts to do the same thing, but Grant is still thinking in terms of maneuver. But he can’t. Two days after reaching Spotsylvania Court House Grant launches a multipronged assault, sending the V Corps in an assault against one end of Lee’s army, the IX Corps against another end of Lee’s army, and the VI Corps against the center of Lee’s army. The assault was poorly coordinated, persuading Grant that the Army of the Potomac under Meade has a lot of operational problems. Grant is determined to break through. At the end of these assaults Grant realizes there’s a serious weakness in Lee’s defensive line.
At the center of Lee’s position his engineers have thrown forward a large bulge in the confederate line about half a mile wide and about half a mile deep. It was put there to control some high ground. It was well positioned with artillery. The soldiers called it what it looked like, a Mule Shoe. This is a salient, and there are some problems with it. If a force is attacking from the front, the soldiers lining the inside of the Mule Shoe can’t help the ones in front. If they are attacked from one side, the soldiers on the other side will be shot from behind and can’t help defend from that attack. It was a bad formation, but Lee felt if he had artillery within it he could hold it, and in any event it was necessary to have that in order to keep the high ground it was on. Grant recognized the weakness of this position and decided to launch a massive attack. On the early hours of May 12 he took his best fighting force, the II Corps under General Hancock, and positioned it about a half-mile directly in front of the Mule Shoe. This will be a direct attack by something like 20,000 soldiers. The VI Corps is ready to jump in and exploit the breach, the IX Corps is ready to attack at the same time, and the V Corps is ready to lock down the rest of Lee’s army. It rains, so the elements are helping Grant. Confederate scouts see heavy movement behind the Union lines and report this to Lee. Lee figures that Grant is retreating. Lee then wanted to be ready to chase Grant first thing in the morning, so since the trails from the Mule Shoe to Spotsylvania Court House were getting muddy, Lee decided the best thing he could do was to pull all of his artillery out of the Mule Shoe and bring them back to Spotsylvania Court House so that in the morning when they are ready to chase Grant they could move out on good roads. Lee thus weakens the very piece of the line Grant planned to attack, totally misunderstanding what Grant was planning to do.
The massive attack launches at about 4:30 AM. The Union II Corps goes crashing across the field, up and over the confederate lines. Within minutes some 3,000 confederates are being sent to the rear as prisoners. Generals have been captured. The Army of Northern Virginia is ripped in half, and it looked like Lee’s mistake in trying to figure out what Grant planned had destroyed his own army. Fortunately for Lee, there was no Union general at the front with the authority to coordinate this huge number of Union soldiers that are in this critical piece of the battlefield. Lee reacts quickly. He realizes the only way to save his army is to put up a new defensive line about a half-mile behind the Mule Shoe on high ground. He needs to pull together some kind of force to hold the Union army in place while he builds this new defensive line behind the Mule Shoe, and that has to be done quickly. Lee jumps into the fray and starts to micromanage the Army of Northern Virginia. He decides he will drive the Union forces back. John B. Gordon, who at that point is commanding a division, drives the Federals out of the eastern edge of the Mule Shoe. The area of crisis is on the western side of the Mule Shoe and on some high ground where the Mule Shoe makes a big bend, an area later called the “Bloody Angle.” Lee rides to the front and starts directing different brigades to make attacks. Under Lee’s direction the Federal force is held back all that day and well into the night. The casualties are horrendous, but when the sun comes up the next morning, May 13, 1864, the Federal troops survey the situation and understand the confederates have abandoned the Mule Shoe and have taken up a new line a short distance to the rear that is stronger than the one they had when they were in the Mule Shoe. Basically, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House is coming to a grinding end.
But Grant doesn’t see it that way. Grant decides to go for maneuver again. He shifts two more corps around the right side of Lee’s line and plans to launch another attack. That gets foiled because Lee is able to shift more troops into position. Grant launches another big attack on the 18th of May back across the Mule Shoe. That one is driven back. Finally, by May 20 Grant realizes that Spotsylvania is not a place where he can win so he decides to maneuver again. He also understands that his two subsidiary armies, the one in the Shenandoah Valley and the one along the James River, aren’t going to be any help because they’ve both been defeated. Grant now is in the situation of having to do all his fighting with the Army of the Potomac. He comes up with another plan of maneuver. He decides he will take his best army corps, Hancock’s II Army Corps, send it on around the armies and drop it south a little bit over toward Bowling Green and have it sit there for a while–dangle it like bait. And with that bait dangling he figures Lee will send out a force to get this isolated force of the Union army and then Grant can descend on that force with the rest of his army and wipe it out. But this plan goes awry. The II Corps diversionary force goes out and settles near Bowling Green, but then another little confederate force comes up from Richmond, cuts them off, and has a little battle with them. Grant and his generals get worried that Hancock will be cut off, so they start shifting around to protect Hancock and also to try to beat Lee to the next major defensive river to the south, which is the North Anna River, about 25 miles to the south. Lee figures Grant is running toward the North Anna River so Lee pulls his army out of Spotsylvania Court House and heads south as well. Grant doesn’t realize Lee is leaving Spotsylvania Court House because he’s already left Spotsylvania Court House. Lee doesn’t know where Grant is, so a large portion of the confederate army goes down the Telegraph Road, heading toward the North Anna River, and portions of the Union Army, including almost the entire V Corps, are camped within four or five miles of where these two armies pass. This would have been a perfect chance for the Union army to catch Lee on the move, but Grant didn’t have the cavalry, who were off on the raid that killed JEB Stuart at Yellow Tavern. So he didn’t know where the confederates were and this opportunity was missed.
Lee drops down about 25 miles and gets below the North Anna River and waits to see what Grant will do. The Army of the Potomac manages to get to the North Anna River on the 23rd of May. One part of the Union army, the V Corps under General Warren, gets across the river. Lee has A. P. Hill try to drive Warren back across the river, but Hill is unsuccessful. So Lee now finds himself in a terrible predicament.
Lee has basically been flanked. He realizes he’s in a jam, and Richmond is not that far to the rear. Lee comes up with an ingenious plan to stop the Union army. He bends the Army of Northern Virginia into a wedge, an inverted “V.” This wedge has its tip on the southern bank of the North Anna River on high ground. Each of the arms is on high ground. It will look to the Federals as though Lee has retreated. So as Grant moves forward he’ll have half of his army on each side of the V, putting Lee in position to attack half of Grant’s force with nearly his entire army with the other arm of the V keeping the other part of Grant’s army at bay. Lee, however, gets very sick. He has a serious bout of dysentery and is confined to his bed. Lee was unable to handle the command complexities to spring his trap. His lower echelon of subordinate commanders were in disarray. Hill was also sick, Ewell was out of commission, and Longstreet was wounded. Grant figures out what happened after crossing the North Anna and the Army of the Potomac digs in. Grant refused to launch futile attacks on Lee’s works and decides to maneuver again. Grant decided he could pull back across the North Anna River and go down its north side and cross further down. He would then be only 17 miles from Richmond and in Lee’s rear. As bands play to disguise what’s happening, Grant pulls his army back overnight, swings down to the Pamunkey River, and crosses further down. Lee doesn’t figure this out until the next day. He gets reports from his cavalry as to where the Union army is so he also swings down and takes a strong position at the Totopotomoy Creek that basically blocked Grant’s movement at that point. The armies again are in a stalemate, but Grant is now 17 miles from Richmond with a good supply line.
Grant is unable to break through, but finally he thinks he sees a good way to do it. The lower end of the confederate line ends near a crossroads called Old Cold Harbor. Grant decides if he could concentrate enough force through Old Cold Harbor he could get below Lee’s army, cut off Lee’s supply line, take Richmond, a psychological blow to the confederates, and disrupt the entire confederate defensive line. Grant also brings up the XVIII Corps under General Baldy Smith from that force that was below Richmond which had been stymied and defeated. They end up being the main force that’s going to try to take Cold Harbor. Grant is able to funnel two army corps, the XVIII Corps and the VI Corps, down to the Cold Harbor front by the end of June 1st. The Union forces attack, Lee brings up reinforcements. The Union forces break through the confederate line but are ultimately repulsed. Grant now sees an opportunity. If he can bring in more troops, such as the II Corps, he can launch a massive attack and punch through Lee’s line, run around the lower end of it, and win that victory that’s been so elusive.
Problems with the Army of the Potomac slow him down again. It takes all day of June 2nd for the various Union forces to get into place. There are army corps that go down the wrong roads, and other problems as well. By the evening of June 2, though, Grant has the forces in place for a major attack.
Grant has been severely criticized for the attack that will take place the next day, the morning of June 3, 1864. We have to put ourselves in Grant’s shoes to understand why he decided to do this. The confederates had at least a day, if not more, to dig in. Confederate engineers had actually put lines out to mark the distances from their artillery. The confederate position was very powerful. But Grant realized this. Lee’s line was strong. It was anchored by the Chickahominy River and the Totopotomoy Creek. But Lee had nowhere else to go. Richmond was only a few miles to his rear. If his line could be broken that would be the end of the Army of Northern Virginia because he had a river and Richmond to his rear and couldn’t retreat. Politically, the nominating convention was about to take place. What better news could be brought to Philadelphia than the defeat of the main confederate army. Cold Harbor was a bad place to sit around. It was a malarial area with a large amount of mosquitos. It was a very bad place to be. Finally, Grant concluded the Army of the Potomac was as strong as it was ever going to be, and if he just sat around Lee’s army might get stronger. So he decided to order a unified assault against the confederate line to break through.
Meade did a very poor job of coordination. In fact he did no coordination. His orders to his corps commanders were to attack and try to coordinate with the people next to them. No reconnaissance or very little was done to make sure people understood the strength of the confederate line and where the weaknesses would be. Around 4:30 AM on June 3 the signal gun goes off and there was a massive attack along the lower sector of the Union line. Basically, there were two army corps involved and it’s a massacre. The Union forces are driven back in virtually every area with very heavy losses. They break through in one or two spots but are then expelled because Lee has strong reserves in that area as well. Later in the day Burnside leads another disjointed attack in the northern sector. That doesn’t work either and Grant finally calls off the assault. Gordon said he found about 3,000 Union casualties in the main assault and during the day another 3,000 occurred in various other attacks. Confederate casualties were obviously very, very low. But the attack on Cold Harbor was not the deadliest day of the campaign and the 7,000 or 15,000 or whatever we read in the books Union casualties that supposedly took place in ten minutes or twenty minutes simply didn’t happen. This was an assault that was no more deadly than any other assault that had been launched by other Union commanders, and actually was less deadly than many assaults Lee himself had launched, including Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.
Grant realizes he can’t break through the confederate lines here, so he turns again to maneuver. This time he sends a cavalry raid to cut the confederate supply line and divert Lee’s attention, then he’ll pull the army out, cross the James River and go for the confederate depot at Petersburg, which will then cut off Lee’s supplies.
The maneuver turns out well. Grant pulls the army away from Lee and Lee has no idea what is going on. All of a sudden the next morning the Federals are gone. He’s uncertain of what Grant is going to do. What happens next, at Petersburg, is the end of the Overland Campaign.
The question is always asked who won the campaign. That depends on what one means by “winning.” Grant lost more men than Lee. Union forces lost in the range of 55,000 soldiers killed, wounded, and captured while the confederates, according to the most recent studies, lost around 33,000 soldiers killed, wounded, and captured. On the other hand, if we’re talking about percentages, Grant lost less than half the men he started the campaign with and Lee had lost more than half the men he started the campaign with. But a better way to look at it is to ask what were the goals of each general and how close did he get to accomplishing them? Lee’s goal had been to stop Grant at the Rapidan line and prevent the stalemate at Petersburg and Richmond. At that, he had failed. The Army of Northern Virginia is basically pinned in place leaving Sheridan to do what he wants to do in the Valley, after his defeat of Early, so as far as objectives go, Grant achieved his objectives and Lee did not. Grant, then, clearly was the winner. If we look at generalship, each made mistakes, each performed marvelously, and the two were as evenly matched as any other two generals in history.
This was another excellent presentation, again delivered without notes. Gordon is supremely knowledgeable about the Overland Campaign and has an outstanding perspective on it. It was truly a pleasure hearing this presentation.