The Overland Campaign of 1864
“Lee’s Army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also”
The Dogwoods are in bloom as I drive through the Wilderness. Their zen-like white flowers stand out in contrast to the bright riot of green that is Northern Virginia in the spring.
150 years ago the soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies that marched and eventually fought through this area in the spring of 1864 mention the blooming Dogwoods but also commented on the devastated look of the landscape.
Only one year earlier in May 1863 the armies had contested this ground in the Battle of Chancellorsville.
“North of the Rapidan, tin pots, bones and shell fragments littered a wasteland of stumps and brambles….Not a house nor fence, not a tree to be seen for miles, where once all had been cultivated farm-land, or richly wooded country….Headstones hacked from boards and hastily scrawled with the names of dead soldiers were the only visible planting.” *
“The war had acquired a decidedly nasty edge as it rolled into its fourth year. The exuberance and sense of gamesmanship of earlier days had died, and the chivalry had crumbled in the face of harsh realities” *
“In February of 1864 Lincoln had issued a draft call for 500,000 men – more than the Confederacy could muster in all its camps between the Rappahannock and the Rio Grande – and then in March had upped the ante by calling for 200,000 more.” **
Additionally on March 10th Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant lieutenant general of all the Union armies. Bringing the hero of Vicksburg to Washington, “Lincoln believed he had finally found a general who understood the grim math of war and who possessed the resolve to do what needed to be done, as unpleasant as it would be.” ***
For the first time in the war the rallying cry wouldn’t be the ubiquitous “On to Richmond!”. Grant and Lincoln both understood that the Rebellion could only be brought to a close when all the Rebel armies were beaten on the field of battle. Grant would begin to devise a plan to put all the armies of the Union in motion at once, to asphyxiate the Confederacy.
“When the campaign opened, Grant directed General Meade to march south from the Rapidan with a directive of Biblical simplicity: “Lee’s Army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also”. At the same moment, Sherman was to move south from Chattanooga with a similar directive, Joe Johnson’s army being his objective point and the heart of Georgia his ultimate aim” ***
Grant would also send a Union force into the Shenandoah Valley and ordered General Benjamin Butler to land troops on the Virginia peninsula. These two independent commands were to put pressure respectively on the Confederate bread basket and Capital at Richmond.
As the Army of the Potomac began to prepare for their new spring campaign, across the Rapidan River from his lookout perch on Clark Mountain, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been keeping a close eye on the Federals camps. Unlike his meagerly supplied Army of Northern Virginia, Lee could plainly see Grant’s army was growing, filling up with new recruits and preparing for battle. Although not unprecedented in the war, in the coming campaign, Lee’s army would be outnumbered nearly two to one.
General Lee was not intimidated by this discrepancy, in fact, the Confederates had faced overwhelming numbers and had been victorious before. But unlike the first years of the war in the spring of 1864 the Confederate commander knew that new recruits would not be coming into his camp. The Civil War had turned into a “war of attrition” a struggle Lee and many in the Confederacy slowly began to realize they could not win.
“The Army of Northern Virginia’s usual optimism was tempered by a sense of foreboding. Henry K. Douglas, who had served with the army from the start, remarked that a grim, determined mood had replaced the jauntiness of former years… The conviction that the struggle ahead of us was of a different character from any that we experienced in he past- a sort of premonition of the definite mathematical calculation, in whose hard, unyielding grip it was intended our future should be held and crushed”. *
For one important Confederate officer the meaning of Grant’s appointment was plain. General James Longstreet, arguably Lee most trusted subordinate, was an old friend of Grant’s, former school mate and best man at Grant’s wedding, summed it up best when he said,
“We must make up our minds to get into line of battle and stay there for that man will fight us everyday and every hour till the end of the war” **
In fact, the fighting that began in the Virginia Wilderness in early May 1864 was a fight that lasted until the end of the war. Know as the Overland Campaign, the two rival armies slugged it out in four distinct bloody contests in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania Courthouse, the North Anna River and Cold Harbor from May 5th to June 9th before ending up face to face in a siege of Petersburg, Virginia.
That siege will takes us to the end of the war….
The overall mood in the Confederacy was summoned up succinctly by a Richmond diarist, “In all our parties and pleasurings there seemed to lurk a foreshadowing, as in the Greek plays where the gloomy end is ever kept in sight.” **
CWPP in 2014
I traveled to the Richmond and Fredericksburg areas of Virginia in the spring of 2014 to explore these critical battlefields and attend two sesquicentennial reenactments.
Explorations of the battlefields associated with the Bermuda Hundred Campaign of 1864 take us to Drewey’s Bluff the site of Fort Darling on the James River. Civil War era trenches snake for miles around the City of Richmond. Many of these now lead through residential neighborhoods and preserved have become part of the modern Richmond landscape. The remains of Fort Harrison, a Confederate bastion until captured by Federal troops in 1864, stands out amongst the roadside trenches with its high earthen walls now covered in wild grasses.
I also had a chance to walk the streets of Richmond and tour the famous Museum of the Confederacy. Filled with some remarkable relics the highlight of the museum is tour of the Confederate White House, Jefferson Davis’ residence in Richmond during the war. The vast mansion and its original contents are wonderfully preserved.
I visited City Point, Virginia before heading north to the Wilderness. City Point was Grant’s HQ and the main Union supply depot on the James River during the siege of Petersburg from June 1864 to March 1865. I will return to City Point in September 2014 for an exploration of the Petersburg Battlefields.
The two reenactments both highlighted the fighting that occurred in Virginia in 1864. In Mosley Virginia reenactors and living historians participated in the 150th anniversary of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. Camping in the woods in period tents and “shabangs” reenactors constructed elaborate Civil War style earthworks. At Spotsylvania people gathered for the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle for Spotsylvania Courthouse. Reenactors commemorated the fighting at the Mule Shoe Salient, just a few miles up the road, by digging trenches in an open field behind the old courthouse and staging the mock battle.
I have just returned from Atlanta Georgia following the march of Sherman’s army in the spring of 1864. Traveling from Dalton to Kennesaw Mountain and attending a reenactment in Resaca, Ga images and stories from the Atlanta Campaign will be posted shortly.
The fighting in the American Civil War became continuous in 1864. See links to the battlefields of the Overland Campaign below.
The Battle for Spotsylvania Courthouse
The North Anna River to Cold Harbor
Notes: (*) The Battle of the Wilderness – Gordon Rhea
(**) The Civil War:A Narrative Vol 3. – Shelby Foote
(***) Never Call Retreat – Bruce Catton