Background of The Virginia Campaign

After Gettysburg, Lee no longer had the men, the horses, or the provisions to attempt another invasion of the North. He was now compelled to fight on the defensive. His task: repel the invader at every turn. His opponent, the best general the Union had: Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant’s plan was simple. Sherman’s fiery “March to the Sea” would ravage Georgia and then cut north through the Carolinas and Virginia; Phil Sheridan would go on a farm-burning crusade in the Shenandoah Valley; and the U.S. Navy would tighten its grip on the South’s blockaded ports. Meanwhile, Grant and Meade and the Army of the Potomac, about 120,000-strong, would march relentlessly down to Richmond slugging it out against Robert E. Lee’s army of roughly 62,000 men until the Grey Fox was pummeled and beaten into submission.


The Campaign:

Grant’s first major clash with Lee was at the Battle of the Wilderness (5-6 May 1864). The Confederates hit the Union army as it marched through “the Wilderness” west of Fredericksburg. Lee hoped to trap the Army of the Potomac in this dense forest where its numerical superiority would be negated by the impossibility of maneuver.

On the first day of fighting, Confederate general A. P. Hill—outnumbered nearly three to one—caught and held the Federals at his front. So the Confederate trap was set, if the thin grey line could hold. Lee’s plan was for Longstreet’s fresh corps, a day’s march away, to deliver a crushing attack on the Federal flank.

Longstreet, however, was slower than the Federals were. At 5:00 a.m., a massive Federal assault tore into the ragged Confederate lines compelling Lee to ride forward and rally his men. Just at that moment, when it looked as though the Confederates would break, Longstreet’s corps burst onto the scene. He might have been late, but he made up for it by pressing the battle aggressively, not merely repelling the Union charge, but crumpling the Federals’ left flank.

So effective was the Confederate countercharge that it appeared the momentum would be completely turned—that the moment of absolute Confederate danger might become an amazing Confederate triumph. But Longstreet, riding ahead of his lines, was badly wounded by friendly fire. With Longstreet down, Lee rode to the front to direct the Confederate attack, but he found the forward surge of the Confederate line had already stalled. The moment of redirecting it had passed.

Thwarted once, Grant was determined to continue after Lee, no matter what the cost. He would shift his men to the south and attack, shift to the south and attack, forcing Lee to keep moving with him to block the Federal army of the Potomac from advancing against Richmond.

Blue and grey clashed again, only two days later in a two-week-long struggle at Spotsylvania Court House, where Lee set his men to digging what his biographer Clifford Dowdey has called “the most elaborate system of field fortifications then seen in world warfare,” designing “what amounted to mobile forts.” Twice, during the fierce fighting, Lee had to be restrained from charging into the fray. When it was over, the results for Grant were as bad as they had been in the Wilderness. In both battles he had lost nearly two men for every one of Lee’s, while also outnumbering Lee by nearly two to one (110,000 Federals to 63,000 Confederates at Spotsylvania).

Grant swore that he would “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,” which it would—and more. Two days after the last fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, Lee checked Grant again at North Anna River (23 to 26 May 1864) in a well-executed tactical defense that Lee hoped to turn into another trap for Grant’s army, but Lee was too sick to direct his counteroffensive and had no worthy lieutenant to carry it out. So the armies repeated their mirrored shifts to the south, confronting each other at Cold Harbor.

Grant, frustrated at Lee’s continual thwarting of his advance, decided to rely on the sheer weight of his two-to-one superiority in numbers to end this bloody minuet. He hurled his men in a straightforward charge against Lee’s newly and hastily erected fortifications.

For Grant, at least in human terms, it was a terrible mistake. The Union soldiers ran into blistering musketry and artillery fire, blue uniforms falling in grotesque, bloody clumps. Grant ordered assault after assault, thinking he had shaken the Confederates. In fact, he had only demoralized his own men. The Battle of Cold Harbor (31 May to 3 June 1864) was a Union disaster. Federal casualties were 10,000 men to Confederate losses of 4,000 men. While Grant’s steady stream of reinforcements kept his army above 100,000 troops, it was his men who were wondering how long this could go on and his officers who feared political reaction to the staggering bill in casualties. In a month’s worth of fighting, Grant had lost 50,000 men. Nearly 1,700 Federal soldiers had sacrificed their lives or been wounded every day in Grant’s war of attrition.

What You Need to Know:

Though he fought for a lost cause, Lee’s brilliance shone during the Virginia Campaign of 1864. Every one of its major battles was a stunning tactical victory for Lee. In the battle of the Wilderness, Grant lost nearly two men for every one of Lee’s (Union casualties were 18,000 to not quite 11,000 for the Confederates). At Spotsylvania Court House it was the same story, with Union casualties of 18,000 to no more than 10,000 Confederates. Again at Cold Harbor, it was always Grant’s troops who got far the worst of the fighting. But in brutalitarian terms, these were casualties that Grant could afford, and Lee could not.


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