Military history


The Overland Campaign and the Fall of Richmond

JOSIAH GORGAS MIGHT have sensed that the Confederacy was tottering after Gettysburg, but it was not racing to destruction. As Adam Smith might have phrased it, there is an awful lot of destruction in a country. America was still full of Confederate troops, who were armed and supplied with the necessities of war-making and whose morale, despite the loss of Vicksburg and the defeat of Gettysburg, remained high. Lincoln, anxious to see the Gettysburg victory completed, urged Meade to harry Lee’s army to destruction but Meade missed his opportunity. His pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia was lethargic. He should have backed Lee against the Potomac as he retreated to the Virginia line, but though the bridges at Williamsport had been destroyed, he hesitated to attack the enemy in his defended bridgehead, fearing fierce resistance, and allowed Lee sufficient time to improvise a bridge from the timbers of a dismantled warehouse, to cross and slip away during the night of July 13-14. Lee then withdrew to the Rappahannock, where he stood, watched by Meade, occasionally exchanging shots but not closing for battle, for the next five months.

“Soon after midnight, May 3rd, 4th [1864], the Army of the Potomac moved out of its positions north of the Rapidan, to start upon that memorable campaign destined to result in the capture of the Confederate capital and the army defending it,” recorded Grant in his memoirs.1 Though now general in chief, his headquarters were with the Army of the Potomac, whose commander, General George Meade, Grant had resolved to leave as far as possible in independence. It was inevitable, however, that Meade’s freedom of action should be exercised in consultation with his superior and so proved to be the case. The course of the coming campaign was to be determined by Grant, as were the operations of the subordinate armies, Butler’s on the James River, Sigel’s in the Shenandoah Valley, and Banks’s on the Gulf. Sherman, commanding the Union’s other great army, was under less detailed supervision but the broad thrust of its drive was directed so as to further the main purpose of the 1864 campaign. Sherman, marching through Georgia and the Carolinas, would be heading to make contact with Grant, who would be fighting his way southward into central Virginia.

Yet, despite the absence of immediately bad consequences, in the wake of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the rebel war clerk’s judgement was correct. In July 1863 the war took a fatal turn for the South. In retrospect it is clearly visible what had happened. Two areas of vital importance to the South’s survival had been lost or their defence compromised. The first of these areas was northern Virginia, which Lee’s decision to invade Pennsylvania and Maryland had turned into a critical forward defence zone, or glacis, for the Confederacy. Its geography made it very difficult to use as an offensive campaigning ground by the Union; its narrowness and its plethora of short rivers flowing into Chesapeake Bay provided a defender with a succession of excellent lines of defence. McClellan, though he had not expressly voiced the perception, had correctly seen at the outset that to use the Army of the Potomac to butt its way southwards from one river line to the next would waste its strength and do the Confederates a favour. His scheme to bypass the region altogether by an amphibious but flanking movement to the Virginia Peninsula was strategically brilliant, and one for which he has never received correct credit. The withdrawal from Harrison’s Landing after the Seven Days was consonantly a serious strategic mistake. Had the landing places been kept open, Richmond would have been kept under permanent threat, with highly beneficial consequences. Withdrawal provided Lee with the opportunity to stage his two invasions of the North and to recapture the ground which would have to be fought over at such cost and such delay during 1864.

Yet, even as he embarked on his advance into Virginia in May 1864, Grant maintained the healthiest respect for Lee’s army. Though its commander had lost the most gifted of his subordinates, Grant doubted whether the Army of Northern Virginia could be pinned against an obstacle or denied a line of retreat. Lee was too skilful and his army too attuned to his methods to be trapped in the open field. Grant had decided that the only certain way of overcoming the enemy was by the relentless reduction of his fighting numbers. He had always been completely unsentimental about the nature of war, which he genuinely disliked. He had hated the Mexican War, which he thought an act of unjustified aggression. He had disliked everything about the Civil War so far, but had learnt to get on with it at whatever cost to his feelings. What sustained him was he disliked rebellion even more than than bloodletting. If blood was the price of restoring the Union, then he would shed it. It was in that spirit that he set out south from the Rapidan in May 1864.

His first point of encounter with Lee ensured that the cost of battle would be high. The ground on which the two armies met was the dense woodland of the Wilderness, abandoned farmland gone back to secondary forest, where Lee and Hooker had clashed at the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. Lee found Grant first and attacked. In the dense cover manoeuvre was difficult, though Longstreet delivered one dashing flank attack, and the fighting resolved itself into volleying whenever visibility offered a sight of the enemy. The conditions, which had led to Stonewall Jackson being shot by his own troops at Chancellorsville, now produced another similarly costly mistake. Longstreet was shot by Confederates, also in the arm, but though the wound was serious it did not prove fatal. The Wilderness was fatal to many others. Grant had hoped to cross it in a single day’s march and press on to meet Lee in open country. Meade, however, was encumbered with the large transport train of the Army of the Potomac and, reluctant to be separated from it, made himself a target of Confederate attack.

Gettysburg had spelled the end of the use of northern Virginia by the Confederates as a strategic buffer zone. The loss of Vicksburg was worse. It inaugurated the hollowing out of the South, of the Union’s capture of bases and lines of communication in the South’s interior from which campaigns could be mounted to enlarge the void in the South’s heartland and set about its destruction from within. It also spelled the end to the South’s hope of mounting a strategic threat to the North equivalent to that staged by Grant when he embarked on his campaign to seize the line of the Mississippi and to bisect the Confederacy at mid-point. Its chance of so doing, given its relative weakness in numbers and resources, never equalled that of the North’s bisecting the Confederacy.

Grant had been anxious to avoid fighting in the Wilderness, where the Union army had suffered so grievously the previous May. Lee, believing that his smaller army would be at less of a disadvantage in the tangled undergrowth of the forest, was prepared to risk a battle there. He recognised that the enemy was perilously close to Richmond and might, by successful manoeuvre, get past the Wilderness and into the open country which led across the little rivers of the Chesapeake shore to the capital’s outskirts. In a day of heavy and confused fighting on May 5, the Union forces drove the outnumbered Confederates south and by evening had secured ground from which next day they might fall on Lee’s right.

Lee planned an attack at the same time in the same sector. The Army of the Potomac, however, attacked first, driving the Confederate vanguard through the woods until both sides confronted each other across a small clearing where Lee had his headquarters. The circumstances of the battlefield were now chaotic, with the bush ablaze and threatening the many wounded with death. Union success had been partly due to the absence from the Confederate mass of Longstreet’s corps, which was returning from Tennessee. In the nick of time its advance guard appeared; Lee himself tried to lead it into action. The Texans who formed the leading unit drove Lee back with shouts of dismay and as more of their comrades appeared the tide was turned. In two hours of fighting, Lee’s men had driven Meade’s units almost back to their starting point. The Confederates were assisted by knowledge of the ground. One of Lee’s brigadiers knew of the existence of an unfinished railroad track, down which Longstreet directed four of his brigades in an attack on the Union flank. They achieved a successful surprise. In the fracas that followed Confederate units collided with one another unexpectedly, and just as had happened at Chancellorsville in 1863, a Confederate rifleman mistakenly hit one of his own comrades. Longstreet was struck in the throat and shoulder by a bullet which, though it did not kill him, severely incapacitated him and kept him out of action for several months.

Longstreet’s wounding drew the fangs of the Southerners’ attack, until Lee reorganised his entangled lines. In late afternoon one of his brigadiers discovered that Grant’s right flank was exposed and, on his own initiative, won permission to launch an attack, during which two Union generals were captured. Grant, however, refused to be moved by the general turmoil. Instead he laid plans for a Union assault the following day.

In all previous battles in northern Virginia, the Army of the Potomac was accustomed to being led to the northern bank of one of the nearby rivers to establish a defensive position within which to rest and refit after a heavy engagement. In the aftermath of the Wilderness battle, which had cost 17,500 casualties overall (Confederate losses were 7,750), the soldiers were surprised to be overtaken by Grant and his staff, riding southward in order, as quickly became apparent, to resume the offensive. His objective, ten miles south of the Wilderness, was Spotsylvania Court House. If it could be seized, he would be closer to the Confederate capital than the Army of Northern Virginia would be and occupying a position Lee would either have to attack or retreat from. During May 7 the armies skirmished without serious fighting, while Grant sent his supply columns and heavy artillery to the rear; Meade had recently attempted to reduce the logistic train, but on the passage through the Wilderness it still consisted of 4,000 wagons. This overprovision assured that its soldiers were so well-fed that they could easily march on short rations for a few days without hardship. During the night of May 7, the fighting divisions were put on the road also. To their soldiers’ surprise they found they were advancing, not retreating. Some began to sing. Despite the certainty of battle to come, they were exhilarated by the change of mood Grant’s assumption of command had brought.

The infantry advance was complemented by a cavalry advance. Sheridan’s 10,000 horsemen set off southward to harass Lee’s line of communications. They were opposed by their old enemies, J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry corps, which challenged them to fight. Eventually they did, on May 11 at Yellow Tavern, after Sheridan had done a good deal of destruction to the local railroads and supply depots. The Union cavalry was now much better armed than their opponents, every man having a repeating carbine. The encounter at Yellow Tavern resulted in an easy success for Sheridan’s men, who dispersed Stuart’s horsemen in separate directions. During the firefight, Stuart suffered a mortal wound; his death was almost as grave a blow to Lee as that of Jackson a year before.

Meanwhile on May 9, the two marching armies had met at Spotsylvania. Grant’s plan was to outflank Lee to the east and so get on the road to Richmond, now only forty-five miles distant, though still defended by several of the short rivers which had bedevilled campaigning in northern Virginia since the first days of the war. It was not water which was to form the critical obstacles at Spotsylvania, however, but earth. The Army of Northern Virginia had, as soon as it knew it would have to fight, fortified its front with entrenchments and timber obstacles. In the previous twelve months digging had become an automatic preparation for combat in both armies, though perhaps more so on the Southern side, which could afford the heavy casualties of close-range rifle volleying less than the Union. Unusually, the tactics of entrenchment do not seem to have been imposed from above but to have been adopted as a measure of self-protection by the rank and file. Preexisting obstacles had so obviously played a part in Confederate success at Fredericksburg: the stone-walled road at the foot of Marye’s Heights had held the Northerners at a distance while they were shot down in hundreds. Deliberate digging on the battlefield had begun earlier, however. Both sides had dug extensively during the Peninsula Campaign. Some of the digging was to construct formal siege defences around Richmond. Some, however, was “hasty” entrenchment, dug to defend a position before a coming firefight. At Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville), Union troops had constructed timber barricades, called abatis, to hold the Confederates at a distance, and extensive barricades were thrown up next day along Boatswain’s Creek. It was an enormous advantage to whichever side was defending that timber was so abundant in nineteenth-century America. Even when battle was not joined in woodland, as at Shiloh, Chancellorsville, and the Wilderness, timber was still available. Field fences of the time were usually of the split rail type, which had only to be pulled to pieces to yield the material for abatis, barricades, and chevaux-de-frise. American farmers were profligate in their use of timber, which anyhow had to be cleared to make fields. Their lumbering efforts provided huge quantities of already worked wood which was immediately suitable for military engineering.

Though the impetus to fortify implanted itself eventually among ordinary soldiers, for the best of reasons, that of sparing their lives, it was also part of the military mentality of the regular officer corps. West Point was an engineering school and the professor of engineering, Denis Hart Mahan, father of the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century, Alfred T. Mahan, was an advocate of engineering on the battlefield. A student of contemporary European warfare, he drew from his studies the doctrine that the rising losses in combat caused by long-range fire could only be stemmed if soldiers dug. Some of his pupils took note. By 1864 they were digging, and strengthening their diggings with cut timber, without any encouragement from higher up. At Spotsylvania, Lee’s soldiers built the strongest entrenchment yet to appear on any battlefield of the war. Grant tried to outflank their defences on May 9 but failed. On May 10 he sent a stronger force to make yet another of his costly frontal assaults. The attack repelled on the enemy’s left was more successful in the centre, where the young General Emory Upton ordered the assaulting force to try novel tactics. He formed his twelve regiments into four lines, with instructions not to fire their rifles until they were on top of the enemy trenches, which were to be carried by the bayonet. The succeeding regiments were to pass through the first to the next line of enemy trenches and so on, until a breach had been made and widened into the heart of the enemy position. Upton, though he could not know it, was anticipating a solution to the problem of carrying entrenched positions that would present itself on the Western Front sixty years later during the First World War. Upton’s men took a thousand prisoners and opened a wide gap in Lee’s front. Then the attack failed, for a reason often to be repeated in the First World War. The supporting division which was intended to exploit the success was slow coming forward and, when it did get into action, ran into massed artillery fire and retreated with heavy losses.

On May 11 Grant decided to make an all-out attack on the Confederate position, choosing as his centre of effort a salient known to the defenders as the Mule Shoe for its shape; its apex would become known as the Bloody Angle. During May 12-13, a ghastly eighteen-hour, close-quarters battle ensued, neither side giving ground. Huge quantities of ammunition were expended at close range, the trenches filling up with the bodies of those killed and wounded and the soil turning red with blood. Not until darkness fell did the Confederates withdraw. In the week which ended on May 12, Grant’s army had lost 32,000 killed, wounded, and missing, more than in any previous single week of fighting throughout the war. The Confederates, despite defending and from behind entrenchments, had lost over 18,000. Grant was accused by some of adopting the strategy of attrition—not yet a word in use—but that was not his intention. He was still striving to find a direct route to Richmond or open country in which to force Lee to fight in conditions where superior Union numbers would carry the day. Because Lee had skilfully met all his manoeuvres with counter-manoeuvres, he had been forced instead into pitched battles on Confederate terms. The frightful casualties of the second week of May 1864 were the inevitable consequence. It was not only the rank and file that paid the price. Lee lost twenty general officers in the twenty days that culminated at the Bloody Angle. James McPherson observes that the episode visibly marked those who survived to stay in the ranks. They looked thin and pale; many exhibited the symptoms of what would be called shell shock in the First World War and combat fatigue in the Second.

Spotsylvania did not end the terrible ordeal of the Overland Campaign. More anxious than ever to reach Richmond, Grant sent his army onward from Spotsylvania to the North Anna River, a tributary of the Pamunkey, which flows round Richmond’s northern approaches. Its meanders provided firm support for Lee’s flanks; when Grant, following up Lee’s retreat from Spotsylvania, appeared on May 23, Lee easily repelled his attacks. Grant’s purpose in disengaging at Spotsylvania and marching southward was to bring Lee to battle in the open or, if battle was refused, to find his way round Lee’s right flank and press forward towards Richmond down the narrow corridor between the Chesapeake and the James River. To start this episode in the Overland Campaign going, he sent Hancock’s Second Corps, the strongest and best in the Army of the Potomac, forward along the highway known as the Telegraph Road. His calculation was that, once Lee became aware that a single Union corps was acting in detachment from the main body, he would bring his troops out of their earthworks, which, as was now standard, the Confederates had begun to dig along the far bank of the North Anna, and risk an encounter in the open. As soon as Lee got word of Grant’s movement, he did indeed order the Army of Northern Virginia to leave Spotsylvania and start for the North Anna. He remained confident of his own and his army’s ability to get the better of the enemy. He was too sanguine. His army’s strength was dwindling and now amounted, after the awful losses at Spotsylvania, to only 40,000, though he was expecting reinforcements of 13,700 from Richmond. He had lost his trusted cavalry commander, J. E. B. Stuart, while his best subordinate, James Longstreet, was still recovering from wounds suffered at the Wilderness; worse, Lee himself was now showing signs of strain and exhaustion, unsurprisingly in view of the burden laid on him by the frequency of battle in this campaign, and anxieties about supply and manpower losses.

By the afternoon of May 22, 1864, the whole of the Army of Northern Virginia had taken station on the southern bank of the North Anna. That was not what Grant had hoped. He now had to drive the Confederates out of their position if he was to resume the advance on Richmond. During May 23 the Union troops, though at considerable cost, succeeded in crossing the North Anna at several points, but left much of the southern bank in Confederate hands. Unfortunately for Grant, Lee’s chief engineer, General Martin Luther Smith, now persuaded him that a deteriorating situation could be saved if entrenchments were hastily dug along the river and across the Telegraph Road. The Army of Northern Virginia was now expert at rapid entrenchment and dug itself in during the night of May 23 so that on the morning of May 24 Grant was confronted by a new and difficult situation. Both Lee’s flanks were refused, that is, turned away from the main line of the front on the river. Lee and Smith planned to inflict defeats on the Federals as they manoeuvred to attack the separate focus of the Confederate position and in so doing lost cohesion. The final stages of the battle of May 24 did indeed go badly for the Union. Units were thrown back and heavy losses suffered. The front became disorganised. On the afternoon of May 24, an opportunity was offered for the Confederates to deliver a concentrated counter-strike and halt the Union advance in its tracks. Regrettably for his army, Lee now succumbed to the strains of the campaign and retired to his sickbed. From it he railed at his subordinates, “We must strike them a blow … We must strike them a blow.” He, however, was quite incapable of mustering the powers of command which would have made that possible, while none of his subordinates had the ability to do so. The battle began to flicker out. The rest of May 24 and the whole of May 25 was spent by the Confederates in mounting local counter-attacks at the positions taken by their much stronger enemy, while Grant organized probing movements to get around the Confederate earthworks to the east and resume the advance down the Telegraph Road. On May 27 Lee, still in a weakened physical condition, recognized that he had lost the chance of inflicting serious damage on Grant’s army, and that his own could no longer hold the North Anna position. He ordered it to march out of its entrenchments and seek a new position, farther south, and ominously nearer Richmond, where he could stand across Grant’s advance. The route chosen ran towards the crossroads of Cold Harbor.

The battle of the North Anna, though not costly by comparison with most of those in the Overland Campaign (2,100 Union casualties, 1,250 Confederate) was nevertheless crucially damaging to the South. By his failure to hold the river and inflict a serious reverse on the enemy, Lee had surrendered his last chance of keeping the Union at a distance from the defences of Richmond. At Cold Harbor, he would be fighting again on the terrain of the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862.

Grant spent the rest of May trying to outflank Lee from the Tidewater side. Lee, though forced to surrender territory, fell back from one secure position on the Pamunkey to another on the Totopotomoy.

These two little waterways would support Lee’s flanks in the next, almost last stage of the Overland Campaign. Grant had fixed on a road junction known as Cold Harbor as the site of his next action. It lies close to Mechanicsville on the northeastern outskirts of Richmond, scene of one of the earliest of the Seven Days’ Battles of 1862. Lee was ahead of him and, despite heavy skirmishing by Sheridan’s cavalry, managed to entrench a position on a front of seven miles between the Pamunkey and the Totopotomoy. He had made good his losses but so had Grant, partly by remustering some heavy artillery regiments as infantry. Lee appealed to Richmond for reinforcements, but despite the failure of Sigel’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley and Butler’s confinement in the Bermuda Hundred, none could be spared. Lee had to defend the Cold Harbor position with the troops on hand, now numbering, after receiving all available reinforcements, about 60,000. Grant had over 100,000 troops but his attack was disjointed. He shrank from ordering a frontal attack on what he recognised to be a very strong enemy position but he believed—wrongly—that the Army of Northern Virginia was nearly at the end of its tether and he hoped for a clear-cut victory to clinch the outcome of the impending presidential election. Grant began the attack in darkness on June 1, it was then broken off for the day. At dawn of June 3, 1864, three corps of the Army of the Potomac attacked. The result was calamity, worse than Fredericksburg. What thwarted Grant’s hopes of victory were the preparations Lee’s men had made to render their positions impregnable. The fighting in the first days of June had been so intense that the events of the battlefield had concealed from both Grant and Meade how skilfully the Army of Northern Virginia had prepared the ground it held. Heavy skirmishing at Haw’s Shop, along the Totopotomoy, on the Matadequin, at Bethesda Church, and at Cold Harbor itself, skirmishes that might realistically have been denoted proper battles in their own right, had not only checked Grant’s advance upon Richmond but had solidified the grip of the Confederates on highly defensible ground, a muddle of marshland, thickets, and ravines which had allowed them to dig in along a concave front, a curve including two subordinate concavities, all covered by thousands of rifles and dozens of artillery pieces; the front was about seven miles long, resting at its ends on the Totopotomoy and the Chickahominy, and so not susceptible to being turned. It could only be attacked frontally, though where to attack baffled the Union commanders seeking to glimpse what lay behind the screen of vegetation their troops faced. At the beginning of the Cold Harbor engagement a week before June 1, a Union soldier in the 110th Ohio Regiment had referred to the scene of action as “this wilderness looking place;” the poor worked-out farmland of Richmond’s environs did readily recall that of the Wilderness, farther north, and though the line running across it had been dug largely with bayonets, mess plates, and drinking cups—spades were not a general issue in either army and the entrenching tool had not yet been invented—the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia had made themselves experts at sinking beneath the surface whenever serious battle threatened. Although Grant did not know what lay to the front, his orders for June 3 were that the Eighteenth, Sixth, and Second Corps were to advance at half past four in the morning and attack along the entire front.

The plan was for the whole of the seven-mile front to be attacked simultaneously, but because of its concave form the Union line was unable to exert an equal pressure at all points. The attack diverged. What made it even less concentrated was that the attackers could not see the enemy clearly, they being concealed by breastworks or by standing vegetation. Even the defenders lacked a clear view; Lee worked by hearing rather than sight. As the attack swelled in force, he remarked to a subordinate when the rattle of musketry swelled that that was what killed rather than the artillery, the roar of which was joining in. Confederate fire began to beat down the Union efforts to get onto the enemy position, efforts renewed in some places as many as fourteen times. The heavier and more frequently repeated assaults were made at the extreme right of the Confederates’ line, delivered by Hancock’s Second Corps against Marylanders and Alabamans dug in along Boatswain Creek. Defensive fire was so heavy that by six o’clock the ground in front of the Confederate earthworks was covered with the bodies of dead and wounded and the survivors were scratching the earth with spoons and fingernails to raise the slightest shelter. In places the Union troops got onto the enemy parapet and drove the Confederates out; but Lee, fearing weakness at this point, had positioned his only reserve to the rear, and the lost ground was recaptured, at even heavier loss to the Union. It was here that General Evander Law framed his later celebrated remark that the battle was “not war but murder.” Union soldiers not killed or disabled took shelter behind the bodies of dead comrades and tried to wriggle their way backwards, but signs of movement attracted sharpshooter fire. Meade issued orders at quarter-hourly intervals for the attacks to be pressed but they could not be obeyed, if they even reached the men pressed to the ground by the weight of Confederate fire, and he had no fresh troops to reinforce the front. By ten o’clock it had become clear that the attack was a disastrous failure, clear to the tortured troops at the front, and dawningly so to Meade and other superiors in the rear. Meade continued to order an advance but it had no effect, and in some cases met flat refusals to obey. An estimated 3,000 to 7,000 Union soldiers had been killed and wounded, including a disproportionate number of officers; most of the losses had been suffered in the first hour of the Union assault. Four days after the battle opened, days spent in skirmishing and sniping, Lee and Grant at last agreed on terms for a truce to bring in the wounded and bury the dead. The Confederates, though so much better protected, had suffered 1,500 fatalities. In the interval a large number of the untended wounded had died of shock, loss of blood, or thirst.

Grant decided to terminate the offensive. He wrote later in his memoirs that he “always regretted the last assault on Cold Harbor.” In truth, the whole battle was regrettable, since it hurt the Union more than the Confederacy and still left Richmond at a distance.

Grant had now to reconsider his strategy for bringing the campaign to a conclusion, which he wrongly believed might be done soon. What he could not afford, at least at this stage of the Overland Campaign, was another battle against entrenchments, since fighting behind earthworks favoured the defending Confederates, often in terms of casualties by a ratio of two to one or more. Accordingly, after Cold Harbor he decided to divide his efforts, which given his great superiority in numbers he could afford to do. He directed Sheridan to lead his cavalry on a raid into the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, the source of much of the Army of Northern Virginia’s food, to destroy its rail connections with Richmond. The Sheridan raid was only partly successful because he was intercepted by Lee’s cavalry, now commanded by Wade Hampton, at Trevilian Station and because he then failed to join forces with General David Hunter’s Union force in the valley. Hunter, harried by Confederate guerrillas, achieved little more than the destruction of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, where he burnt the buildings before beating a retreat across the mountains into West Virginia. His withdrawal was prompted by the appearance of Jackson’s old valley army, now commanded by Jubal Early, who displayed remarkable initiative by using the valley, as Stonewall had done in his time, as an avenue of advance which would threaten Washington. Having clashed with Hunter at Lynchburg during June, Early turned about and crossed the Potomac in July, reached Frederick in Maryland, and proceeded to invest the defences of Washington, which had been stripped of their garrison to strengthen Grant’s forces in Virginia. One Union contingent, the Sixth Corps, was hastily recalled and arrived just in time to deter Early from mounting an attack. There was scratch fighting nonetheless, witnessed by the president, his first view of the reality of the war thus far. As other Union troops marched to the rescue, Early found himself between two fires, so he prudently decided to retire into Virginia and got away scot-free. He had, however, reached as close as five miles to the White House, caused a sensation, and raised the spectre of a Southern military revival.

Such a reaction to what was only an impertinent raid was quite unjustified. It was the Confederacy which was now in danger, deadly danger, as Grant edged inexorably towards its capital. Lee had held him off so far by his unrivalled capacity to manoeuvre his pursuer onto ground where he could entrench and fight successful defensive battles. But he was running out of space in which to continue his game of evasion and delay, hemmed in as he now was between Chesapeake Bay, the lower courses of its rivers, and the fortifications of Richmond. On June 13 Grant disengaged his army from the Cold Harbor position and marched south, leaving Richmond to the west, until he reached the estuary of the James River, where he had arranged to be met by a pontoon-bridging train. What followed was an almost unprecedented achievement of combat engineering, made possible because Lee, short of cavalry, had temporarily lost touch with Grant and could not identify his whereabouts. While his military blindness persisted, the bridging column laid a span across the James, 2,100 feet long, and so got the Army of the Potomac across dry-shod, just east of City Point. The campaign had returned to the ground on which McClellan made his first attempt to take Richmond in 1862, with the difference that operations were now in the hands of a man who looked for reasons to press forward, rather than excuses to avoid action. Grant began to cross the James on June 14 and by June 15 was deploying the two most advanced of his five corps opposite the entrenchments defending Petersburg, Richmond’s railroad town, through which ran five railroads. Its capture would cut Richmond off from communication with the rest of the South and so ensure the Confederacy’s decapitation.

Grant recognised that. So did Lee, and he was determined to make the defence of Petersburg as tenacious as possible. Twenty miles separated the two cities, but because of the Army of Northern Virginia’s extraordinary capacity to dig, acquired in the pitched battles fought during the Overland Campaign, it was quite possible to connect them with continuous earthworks which would protect the railroads and the outskirts of the capital itself. When the Union troops, who had crossed the James by the pontoon bridge, arrived in the vicinity of Petersburg in mid-June, they found the earthworks already complete over a distance of ten miles. The breastworks were twenty feet thick and the ditch to the front fifty feet deep. The works included fifty-five artillery positions full of cannon. Smith, the Union corps commander, did not appreciate that Beauregard, commanding the defences, had almost no troops with which to garrison them. Fearing a repetition of the losses suffered in earlier attacks on Confederate entrenchments, as at Cold Harbor, he declined to mount an assault until evening and, though his soldiers then took a mile of trenches, they did not progress further, allowing Lee the chance to bring up reinforcements from Richmond. During the next three days, both sides reinforced as Grant brought more of the Army of the Potomac across the James and Lee weakened the defences of Richmond to reinforce those of Petersburg. On June 18 General Meade lost patience with his subordinates and commanded a full-scale advance, but the men, also remembering Cold Harbor, were unwilling to face the risk. One of the heavy artillery regiments that had been re-formed as infantry did mount a charge across open ground at the breastworks, only to lose three-quarters of its number. Meade then called a halt, and was supported by Grant, who ordered the army to dig itself in until a weak spot could be found.

After this decision, the struggle for Petersburg and Richmond resolved itself into a stalemate which anticipated trench fighting on the Western Front sixty years later, and for the same reason: unsustainable casualties. Since early May, when the Overland Campaign had opened with the fighting in the Wilderness, the Union army had lost 65,000 men killed, wounded, or missing, a casualty rate equal to three-fifths of that it had suffered during the previous three years. Because of the North’s superior manpower resources and the efficiency of its enlistment process, the losses could still be made good, as was decreasingly the case in the South. Nevertheless, such losses could not be sustained incessantly. The report of casualty figures in the newspapers encouraged time-expired regiments, those raised for three years’ service in 1861, to insist on their right to muster out, while also driving up the desertion rate, which at its worst could reach a hundred a day. Unsurprisingly, the struggle to take Petersburg and Richmond declined after midsummer 1864 into siege warfare, with the Union forces seeking to envelop Richmond from the west and the defenders extending their entrenchments to prevent them. The Army of the Potomac also sought to cut the railroads into the city, and its cavalry tore up many miles of the Weldon and the South Side railroads. The cavalrymen were unable, however, to mount a permanent block of the lines of communication, as the Confederates brought the railroads back into service, a remarkable achievement given the shortage of almost every sort of railroad equipment and necessity, particularly rail and fixing spikes. The South was already cannibalising the less essential railroads to provide track for the vital links. There were other expedients. On one railroad in Texas which had worn out all its locomotives, traffic was maintained by harnessing oxen to pull the rolling stock. During nearly a year of siege in 1864-65, the railroads running into Richmond were kept open. Only when they were interrupted would the siege succeed. Between August and December 1864 the lines scarcely altered.

Grant had lived with the hope that by pressing the Overland Campaign he might end the war as soon as he reached the James River. It was probably not a realistic hope; but its dashing did not mean that the campaign had failed in its objects. At the outset, the Army of the Potomac stood on the line it had occupied at the beginning of the war and was separated from Richmond by over a hundred miles of highly defensible territory which included such water barriers as the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, the Totopotomoy, the Mattapony, the Pamunkey, the North and South Anna and the Chickahominy rivers. Between May 4 and June 15, 1864, the Army of the Potomac had retaken all the ground between the Rappahannock and the James, secured and bridged all the water obstacles, built roads and repaired railroads. Territorially, it was one of the largest successes of the war. The cost had been appalling. Grant’s losses had been about 1,300 men a day, a total of 52,600 in forty days, in human terms a terrible price, though one that the Union could afford as the Confederacy could not. Lee’s 33,000 casualties were a permanent debit. The moral effect on Grant’s army was visible in the appearance of those who survived the ordeal to appear at the siege of Petersburg. As James McPherson describes, those who had fought the May to June campaign, with a battle almost every day, hard marching between engagements, and no relief from action, had grown thin and strained.2 Observers remarked that the men of the Army of the Potomac had aged several years in a few months. Since the horror of the Mule Shoe and the repulse at Cold Harbor, they had also lost the appetite for attacking earthworks. It was for that reason, as much as any other, that Beauregard was able to hold the defences of Petersburg with so few men in the first days of the siege when they might have been captured by a single resolute stroke. The only Union unit which could be persuaded to attack was one of the heavy artillery regiments Grant had remustered as infantry. It paid a terrible price for its bald-headed assault on the earthworks, losing 632 men out of 850.

Although the discrepancy in numbers between defenders and attackers made it seem certain that Grant could bring the siege of Petersburg to a successful conclusion in a short time, all his efforts in the summer of 1864 foundered. The Union difficulty was that whenever they pushed their lines south and west of the Confederate defences, the Confederates always found the men to extend their line a little farther and to garrison the new works. In late June Grant attempted a new method. One of the besieging regiments, the 48th Pennsylvania, was recruited from coal miners. One of them suggested to their colonel, Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer, that the regiment could drive a shaft under the lines and blow up a Confederate fort that dominated one of the sectors. Pleasants got permission to try and in a month a 500-foot shaft had been dug and a chamber containing four tons of gunpowder excavated at the far end. Then the careful planning was overtaken by pettifogging disputes as to how to proceed. A Union formation was specially trained to exploit the devastation when the mine was detonated. As the formation consisted of black soldiers, however, it was decided at the last minute to substitute a white formation in its place. In the aftermath of the explosion, which blew a hole 170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep, burying a whole Confederate regiment and artillery battery, the untrained white division, whose commander had remained behind, blundered about in the devastation, descending into the crater instead of negotiating the perimeter, and quickly fell victim to improvised Confederate defensive fire and then a well-executed counter-attack. The counter-attackers caught the black division, which had belatedly been sent forward, in an indefensible position and murdered many of its soldiers in the crater. When the fighting eventually ceased, over 4,000 Union troops had been killed or wounded and the Confederate line remained, apart from the enormous hole left by the explosion, intact.

After he was repelled from Washington in July, Jubal Early retired into the Shenandoah Valley, pursued by Sheridan, to whom Grant gave the additional instructions to lay the valley waste, to terminate for good the supply of provisions which reached the Army of Northern Virginia from it. Sheridan set about the laying waste energetically, in the process discovering that Early had retreated to Winchester, where his position seemed to be vulnerable. On September 19 Sheridan attacked and broke up Early’s force, capturing thousands of prisoners. When Early retreated to Fisher’s Hill, south of Strasburg, Sheridan attacked again on September 22 and drove them sixty miles into the mountains. Lee responded by sending Early an infantry division and a cavalry brigade. Despite news of this Confederate reinforcement, Sheridan left the army to go to Washington for a conference. While Sheridan was absent, Early concentrated his forces and attacked at dawn. He took the Army of the Shenandoah completely by surprise and drove it back four miles. Sheridan, however, had returned the previous evening, and when he woke to the sound of fighting, he jumped into the saddle and rode to the sound of the guns. Although Early had dispersed some of the Union force, the Sixth Corps was still intact and, shouting for the men to follow him, Sheridan gathered stragglers into a counter-attack force and caught Early contemplating what he believed to be a decisive victory. Sheridan, in what James McPherson calls “the most notable example of personal battlefield leadership in the war,”3 managed to reorganise his troops as he advanced to contact and unleashed a counter-attack which caused Early’s army to disintegrate in a rout to the south. Thus the battle of Cedar Creek, which had seemed to be a conclusive Confederate victory, ended as a Union triumph. With the valley pacified and stripped of all wealth, Sheridan was eventually able to withdraw the Army of the Shenandoah and rejoin Grant for the concluding stages of the siege of Petersburg.

Despite continuing good news from Sherman’s army in Georgia, the failure before Petersburg brought about a severe decline in Northern morale during the summer of 1864. The peace party found a new voice while Republicans, including the president himself, grew increasingly pessimistic about the prospect of winning the presidential election in the coming autumn. Jefferson Davis made peace feelers, and Lincoln unwisely agreed to meet Southern representatives to discuss terms. Despite Lincoln’s dread of bad war news and the personal agony brought by casualty reports, however, the South’s insistence on being treated as a legitimate combatant entitled to independence continued to supply Lincoln, who himself was adamant on the issue, with the support necessary to hold out for eventual victory. The Southern peace mission failed, as did a Southern attempt to foment treachery in the Midwest, while Lincoln’s electoral prospects improved as the summer drew out. Of cardinal importance to the presidential campaign was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September, following Farragut’s victory at Mobile, which decisively turned the tide of opinion. At the election Lincoln carried all but three states in the Union and won all but 21 of 233 votes in the Electoral College. His result was greatly assisted by the improvement of Union fortunes in Virginia, particularly the Shenandoah Valley.

By the fall of 1864, the military predicament of the South, combined with the fact of Lincoln’s re-election as president, lent energy to the movements for a negotiated peace, of which there were many. Some were entangled with Southern attempts to foment dissent in the Midwest; the unveiling of the connection stifled their prospect of success. Peace efforts continued nonetheless, and grew in strength in the South, where there was much disappointment as news from the front worsened. One Southerner, Jefferson Davis, remained as fervent for war as ever. He came under increasing pressure in early 1865, particularly after the fall of Fort Fisher, at Wilmington, North Carolina, to seek terms. Lincoln, too, though in a much stronger position, was also lobbied by peace-seekers to enter into discussions with the South, a tricky undertaking since Washington had steadfastly repelled any dealing with Richmond throughout the war. In January 1865 the Washington political veteran Francis Preston Blair persuaded Lincoln to grant him a pass to visit Richmond, with the object of persuading the Confederate government to join with the Union in an expedition to expel the Archduke Maximilian from Mexico, a scheme Blair argued would result in the cessation of civil hostilities. Lincoln understandably thought the project nonsensical, but acquiesced in Blair’s mission to see what came of it. Davis agreed to receive Blair, hoping that what he knew would be a restatement of Union demands for surrender and the abolition of slavery would reanimate Southern determination to fight for independence. Davis nominated three commissioners to meet the Northern delegation, including the Confederate vice president, the Speaker of the Senate, and the secretary of war. It was agreed that the two parties should see each other aboard the Union steamer River Queen in Chesapeake Bay. At the last moment Lincoln decided to join the Union delegation himself. He made it clear from the outset that surrender, disbandment of the Confederate army, and abolition of slavery were the only terms to be discussed and that they were non-negotiable. The delegates discussed points of detail inconclusively, and the talks relapsed into genial conversation about old political days in Washington, when they had been colleagues. The Southerners returned to Richmond without anything to offer to President Davis, who denounced the Northern party in contemptuous terms.

The River Queen episode occurred during the continuing stalemate on the Petersburg front, one of several long periods of quiescence in the eastern theatre. The first, between First Bull Run and the opening of the Peninsula Campaign, lasted nine months. The second, between Gettysburg and the Wilderness, lasted ten months. Grant, both by reputation and in fact so actively aggressive, allowed the Confederates to hold the Petersburg position without suffering a major attack between the Battle of the Crater in July 1864 and March 1865, a period of eight months. The reasons for these long pauses were various. After First Bull Run, McClellan delayed action because he was organising the Army of the Potomac and making plans, though at a luxuriously leisurely pace. After Gettysburg, Meade declined to attack Lee on the Rappahannock because he feared to compromise his great victory. Grant’s acceptance of inactivity outside Petersburg after Cold Harbor was determined by the condition of his army. The almost continuous fighting from May to July between the Rappahannock and the North Anna rivers had not only killed or disabled many of his best soldiers; it had also left the survivors without eagerness to mount further attacks, particularly against entrenchments, which at Petersburg were visibly very strong. They also extended too far to the west to be outflanked, so Grant therefore decided to attempt to draw Lee’s men out of the Petersburg lines, where they could be attacked and defeated in the open, without allowing them any opportunity to manoeuvre and escape towards Johnston’s army in the deeper South. In order to make Lee move, it was essential to persist with the cutting of the Richmond-Petersburg railroads on which his supply depended. The most important of the railroads was the Southside, which followed the line of the Appomattox River, and the Weldon, up which supplies came from the south. In August A. P. Hill, commanding one of Lee’s corps, managed to drive Grant away from the Weldon Railroad, and again on August 25. In September,Wade Hampton relieved Lee’s supply situation somewhat by capturing and driving into the lines 2,500 head of cattle. Grant ordered Meade to stage a major attack near Peebles’ Farm; the battle lasted three days, until October 2, and resulted in the extension of the Union line a further three miles beyond Petersburg to the west.

Winter brought a pause, to add to Grant’s frustration, but with the return of better weather in March he extended his siege lines again and interrupted the Boydton Plank Road, which brought supplies to Lee from the southwest. Grant’s efforts to sustain pressure on Lee’s communications were assisted by the return in March of Sheridan’s cavalry from the Shenandoah Valley, now completely laid waste and empty of Confederate troops. Grant was certain that Lee would, as soon as opportunity offered, break out of the Petersburg line and move south to link up with Joseph E. Johnston’s army, which was still operating in North Carolina. Before he did so, Grant wished to be certain that he had sufficient force in place to bring about Lee’s destruction. That required the further extension of his own line to the west, so as to be certain of getting around Lee’s flank as he moved out into open country.

Grant’s lines were now nearly forty miles long, extending from east of Petersburg to thirty miles west of it. Manning the lines consumed much of his manpower, but the arrival of Sheridan’s troops provided a mass of manoeuvre which he could use to advantage. On March 29 Grant started two corps westward towards Dinwiddie Court House; they were followed by three infantry divisions, while Sheridan’s cavalry was sent on a wide westward sweep to cut for good Lee’s surviving rail links with the South. Grant was sure that Lee would respond by bringing his troops out of the entrenchments. If he judged the Petersburg lines sufficiently weakened, he could assault them. In any case, once Lee was in the open, he would attack and bring about a clinching victory.

Lee, however, had plans of his own and hopes of securing sufficient advantage to make a clean break to join up with Johnston. His scheme was to attack Grant’s entrenchments and so force him to shorten his line at the western end in order to reinforce the threatened point. When Lee attacked at Fort Stedman on March 25, although he achieved success, captured ground, and took many Union prisoners, he was swiftly counter-attacked, the lost ground was retaken and 2,300 Confederates made prisoner. Moreover, Grant did not shorten his lines. Instead, on March 29 he directed parts of the Army of the Potomac, the Army of the James, now commanded by General Edward Ord, and Sheridan’s cavalry to march westward round the end of the Petersburg entrenchments towards the road junction at Five Forks. Lee had two bodies of troops in the vicinity, a corps under General Richard Anderson and two divisions under General George Pickett, of Gettysburg fame. Sheridan fought and defeated them on April 1.

Next day, Grant judged that the Petersburg defences had been sufficiently weakened to risk an attack on the entrenchments. The Confederate defenders were swept aside in an hour’s fighting, forcing Lee to recognise that he had no option but to leave the security of his positions and retreat westward. He gave orders to do so on the night of April 2, meanwhile sending word to Jefferson Davis that Richmond would have to be abandoned as well. The Confederates succeeded in extricating themselves from the entrenchments during the evening and by midnight were in retreat westward along the course of the Appomattox River. Lee had divided his remaining 30,000 men into two groups, marching parallel. They were pursued by Meade, leading the Army of the Potomac on the northern route, and Ord, leading the Army of the James behind them. The objective was the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which Lee had chosen as his route of escape south to join Johnston. Sheridan’s cavalry, however, pressing forward, reached the railroad before the Confederates arrived. Lee turned west and then, at Amelia Court House, south again, but whatever his efforts to shake off the pursuit, he found all routes of escape blocked. There was a fight at Sayler’s Creek on April 6 which resulted in heavy Confederate losses. Lee still had hopes of crossing the Appomattox and escaping to Lynchburg, in the Shenandoah Mountains, but the Union pursuers were able to prevent him, destroying the bridges behind him, and so terminated his last chance of delaying what was now inevitable. On April 7 Grant sent Lee a letter calling on him to accept what he could not now defer.

The result of last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance in the struggle. I feel that it is so and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility for any further effusion of blood by asking of you to surrender that portion of the C.S. Army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.4

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