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Grant's Overland Campaign

Wilderness Campaign

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As 1864 dawned, the war to save the Union showed no indications of ending anytime soon. Facing reelection in November, President Abraham Lincoln knew he must make progress toward victory before Election Day, or risk that his successor would negotiate an end to the fighting that included recognizing the rebelling states as a separate nation. To win, Lincoln needed a general with initiative, a habit of victory, and perseverance. Unable to find a worthy candidate in the eastern armies, Lincoln turned to Ulysses S. Grant. Successful in the west, the ”Hero of Vicksburg” had demonstrated that he could win battles consistently without being influenced by the political intrigues that plagued the commanders of the Army of the Potomac. On March 2nd, Lincoln elevated Grant to the rank of lieutenant general and named him General-in-Chief of all the armies of the United States.

Grant immediately made plans to press the Confederates everywhere simultaneously. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac would march against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, while William T. Sherman in Georgia, Nathaniel Banks in Louisiana, Benjamin Butler on the James River and Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley would all advance on the enemy armies in their fronts. Grant recognized the Confederates could not win a war of attrition, and he instilled in his commanders the need to exhaust the resources of the Rebels by destroying their armies and their means to fight.

Eschewing command of the armies from a desk in Washington, Grant made his headquarters in the saddle and attached himself to Meade’s Army of the Potomac. For the first time in the war, destruction of the Confederate army defending Richmond was to be the objective of Meade’s army, not the capital city itself. The Army of the Potomac, along with the independent IX Corps under Ambrose E. Burnside, totaled about 120,000 men. On May 4, Union cavalry moved south toward the Rapidan River and splashed across Germanna and Ely’s Fords. The remainder of the army followed across the river and pressed southward into an area known as the Wilderness due to its dense, second growth forest and heavy underbrush. Grant hoped to quickly push the army through the woods to confront Lee in the open terrain further south.

Lee, however, judged Grant’s intentions and moved his army to confront him in the Wilderness. The Battle of The Wilderness opened six weeks of nearly constant marching and fighting. The armies clashed at Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Totopotomy Creek, Cold Harbor, and Trevilian Station.  By the time the campaign ended, the two armies were in stalemate around Cold Harbor, where Grant already planned his next move—a daring plan to cross the James River and capture Petersburg.  It was a signal to both armies that Grant would not quit until there was no more fighting left to do.

The butcher’s bill for the Overland Campaign was around 88,000 combined casualties. For the 6-week period of May 4 to June 15, the average was nearly 2,100 casualties every day in near constant fighting. Grant had succeeded in his goal to wear down Lee’s army; the Confederates suffered around 33,000 casualties, half of Lee’s total strength. Although each army received reinforcements during and after the campaign, Grant’s capacity to augment his force was vastly greater than Lee’s. Lee emerged the tactical victor, forcing Grant and his superior numbers to maneuver away after nearly every battle of the campaign. Strategically, Grant was the victor however. Although the simultaneous advances of Banks, Sigel and Butler had all failed, Grant had finally succeeded at eliminating Robert E. Lee’s ability to mount an offensive. Forced inside the trenches at Richmond and Petersburg, the Confederacy’s days were numbered and Union victory was only a matter of time.



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BATTLE MAP | American Battlefield Trust’s map of the Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia on May 6,...
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