This is Mark Grimsley’s book-length study of the Overland Campaign. It’s part of the Great Campaigns of the Civil War series from the University of Nebraska Press. If you want a very good, short, one-volume survey of the Overland Campaign, this book is for you. It was very well written with a good, tight narrative. Professor Grimsley gives a solid analysis of the campaign. He gives the options each commander considered and tells us why the commander chose the option he chose. What we see in this study first of all is how similar Lee and Grant were. “Both men believed in seizing the initiative and attacking fast and hard. They were unafraid to mix things up. They could improvise. They would keep moving on. And above all, they would not concede defeat if they could possibly help it.” [p. xiii] He gives us a concise summary of Grant’s overall strategy and lets us know how that strategy failed due to its dependence on subpar commanders.
Not only does he tell us about the campaign, but he helps us put the soldiers’ experiences into the context of the campaign. He describes the medical treatment the men received, and talks about how a wounded man was evacuated to a hospital. He also talks about the use of African-American soldiers in the IX Corps and the suspension of the Dix-Hill prisoner exchange cartel due to rebel refusal to treat captured African-American soldiers as prisoners of war. “In December 1862 President Davis announced that when captured, black soldiers would be treated essentially as runaway slaves. When it became apparent that the Richmond government intended to make good on its threat, the Federals suspended the cartel in May 1863. It continued informally for several months–Grant paroled the Vicksburg garrison to save him the trouble of shipping thirty thousand captives to northern prison camps–them collapsed entirely when some of these Vicksburg parolees returned to duty without being properly exchanged.” [p. 169] He also tells us how some rebel soldiers treated black soldiers they captured. “Confronted with the sight of Negroes uniformed in blue and carrying muskets, some Confederates gave vent to a cold, lethal rage. A small party of rebel cavalry, ranging in the wake of the departed Army of the Potomac, came upon an isolated detail of African American troops near Culpeper on May 8. ‘We captured three negro soldiers the first we had seen,’ one of the horsemen, Byrd C. Willis, noted tersely. ‘They were taken out on the road side and shot, & their bodies left there.’ Union prisoners at Orange Court House were roused one morning with the cry, ‘Hey thar you-uns, if yo want to see a [n-word] hang look ’round right smart.’ A New Jersey man peered out a window: ‘[S]ure enough they were just pulling up one of Burnside’s black heroes in full uniform.’ Fitz Lee’s cavalry reportedly executed two black soldiers captured at Fort Powhatan on the James River, and after Cold Harbor a black soldier captured on the picket lime was taken into some nearby woods and shot.” [pp. 173-174]
The last chapter of the book is a very cogent, insightful assessment of the campaign and the generalship of the two commanders. “Those who have defended Grant’s generalship based their case on four arguments. First, they have maintained, he was the first Union commander to deprive Lee of the initiative: As soon as Grant took the field, Lee danced to Grant’s tune, not the reverse. Second, Grant’s relentless pressure put a breaking strain on Lee’s army and laid the groundwork for its ultimate surrender. Third, while Grant lost fifty-five thousand men in a one-month campaign, that was no more than Lee lost in proportion to the size of his army–and Lee could not make good his losses. More imaginative defenders have argued that Grant lost far fewer men to gain a winning position than previous commanders in the East–McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade–squandered in a fruitless succession of campaigns. Finally, the defenders asserted, Grant’s strategy must be seen in its widest context. He had to pin his Confederate adversary to prevent Lee from sending reinforcements to aid Joe Johnston against Sherman. He also had to shield Washington, which ruled out an immediate seaborne movement to the south side of the James River. And he had to maintain a pressure on Lee persistent enough that it would not adversely affect Lincoln’s chance for reelection. Grant accomplished all these goals, thereby helping to ensure that Sherman took Atlanta and that Lincoln got a second term. Furthermore, he had planned all along for the possibility that he might have to defeat Lee through a siegelike attritional struggle. That maintained his proponents, showed uncommon foresight.” [pp. 224-225]
He puts his finger on what I think was the real problem. “The real problem in the Potomac Army’s command structure lay not in the personal relationship between Grant and Meade but in their contrasting command styles. By temperament and experience, Grant possessed a coping style of generalship, that is, a style aimed at shaping any outcome toward a desired objective. The classic example of this was the turn south after the Wilderness, a battle which, as historians have rightly pointed out, was as bad a setback for Union arms as the battle of Chancellorsville. Generally speaking, a coping style is the best form of generalship: It displays less fear of improvisation, encourages a faster reaction time, and displays a keener sense of the nonlinear nature of war, whereby small events can produce large results in much the way that a small dusting of snow can trigger an avalanche. Meade’s essential command philosophy was based on the assumption that good generalship consists in control–to use resources and to manipulate variables so as to guarantee success. Since in war that is impossible, almost by definition–the enemy will systematically seek to undermine one’s effort at achieving control–the next best thing is to avoid losing. This mentality was squarely in the McClellan tradition that shaped not only Meade but, with the exception of Horatio Wright, each of his infantry corps commanders. Grant perceived the grip of this tradition on the army but underestimated its strength. He thought that, simply by guiding Meade, he could force the army to adapt to his style. It is often said that Grant de facto commanded the Army of the Potomac. But it was Meade, not Grant, who remained the principal influence on the army’s organizational culture. And Meade perpetuated the emphasis on control. He never caught Grant’s vision. Though he obeyed Grant’s orders like a good soldier, he was never a true partner in the way that Sherman had been in the West or that Sheridan would increasingly become in the East. Meade’s instincts were reflected in his infantry corps commanders, whose principal hallmark was a cautious, half-defensive mind-set that harmonized poorly with the demands of a campaign aimed at the destruction of Lee’s army.” [pp. 229-230]
I highly recommend this book. It’s an excellent short survey, and though it came out before Gordon Rhea’s book on Cold Harbor, it holds up well with what we know following that later work.