Grant comes East: ‘Along this line if it takes all Summer’

By Sherman Fleek USMA Historian

March 28th, 2019 | News, News and Features
 A map showing the Overland Campaign in 1864.
 What became known as the Overland Campaign, it was an operation that helped doom the Confederacy during the last year of the war. This was the offensive that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (left) planned but Gen. George Meade and the Army of the Potomac executed. Photos Courtesy of Sherman Fleek

After the great victory at Chattanooga in November 1863, the western area of operations was dominated by Federal field armies under Grant. The only major object now was to destroy Confederate Braxton Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee, which would clear a path into Georgia and capture of the foremost industrial and transportation hub in the west: Atlanta. Grant wintered in Chattanooga preparing his 80,000 troops in three field armies for the drive into the heart of the Confederacy, which would possibly bring victory and the end of the war in 1864.
With a stalemate in the east, the west was the theater of maneuver, success and the key to victory. Grant was excited and ready for the spring campaign season.
This all changed when he was summoned to Washington D.C. in early March 1864. President Lincoln ever Grant’s strongest supporter and, who, also grasped the realities and vision of modern and total war, made one of the great political and military decisions in the Civil War and American military history.
Ulysses Simpson Grant would be promoted to the revered rank of lieutenant general, three-star, in the Regular Army, only held previously by George Washington. Congress had to pass a law approving this promotion, which it did and on March 9, 1864, Lt. Gen. Grant received his commission.
A week later, Grant was appointed General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States displacing his former chief and nemeses at times, Henry Halleck. Grant then made the most unorthodox decision as the new general-in-chief, he would not command from an office in Washington, but he would maintain his headquarters in the field accompanying Major Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. In the spring, the Army of the Potomac would campaign against the Gen. Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant soon formulated a strategic plan for all the armies across the entire theater of war. He would accompany Meade in Virginia; Gen. William T. Sherman would move out of Chattanooga and invade Georgia to take Atlanta and then march south to control Georgia. Smaller armies would campaign in the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia. Another force in Virginia based at Fort Monroe would advance north to Richmond and support Meade’s army in the north.
The smaller efforts more or less failed. After a summer of frustration, Grant sent Gen. Phil Sheridan, USMA Class of 1853, to finally capture the Shenandoah Valley, which he did. Sheridan also scourged the land of military resources. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September 1864 ensured President Lincoln’s re-election in November. His continued “March to the Sea” is one of the great military campaigns of all time when he reached Savannah just before Christmas Day.
In early May, the Federals crossed the Rapidan River and the next day encountered Lee’s army in a thick forest full of underbrush famously known as the Wilderness.
After three ferocious days of fighting and fires caused from the cannon fire in the dry tender, and some 28,000 casualties, Meade following orders from Grant, moved to Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 7, Meade engaged Lee behind trenches and earthworks where some of the bloodiest fighting of the war occurred.
The site of the Mule Shoe and the Bloody Angle is where thousands fell during a full day and night of hand-to-hand fighting. During this time, Gen. John Sedgwick was shot from his horse and was dead before he hit the ground. He was a member of the USMA Class of 1837 and a statue memorializes him on the Plain.
After 10 interminable days of blood and slaughter with another 30,000 casualties, including 4,300 dead, again the Federals slipped to the east on the night of May 20-21 and marched toward the North Anna River.
What became known as the Overland Campaign, it was an operation that helped doom the Confederacy during the last year of the war. This was the offensive that Grant planned but General Meade and the Army of the Potomac executed.
There were two major qualities of the Overland Campaign different than the other major campaigns fought in the east. After experiencing a major defeat or an indecisive battle, other Union commanders would have retreated north; not Grant. Next, Grant had operational momentum during the entire campaign with the objective to crush the Rebel field army and also to out flank it. If Meade could insert the Army of the Potomac between the Confederates and Richmond, cutting off Lee’s army from the capital, the Confederacy would never recover.
Grant knew that this war of attrition would eventually destroy the South’s ability to field armies and supply them. The Northern war effort is often interpreted as a investable victory because of its larger population and industrial power that eclipsed the South.
Though true later in the war, but early on the South had several opportunities to force the U.S. government to negotiate peace. Now in 1864, Grant knew that constant pressure, a coordinated strategy across the entire line of fronts would defeat the South eventually; it was a matter of time. With utter confidence, Grant wrote these words to Secretary of War William Stanton in Washington on May 11, 1864, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer. U.S. Grant Lieut. Gen. Cmdg Armies.”
After the two blood-baths in June, Grant ordered an attack at Cold Harbor on June 3, that he would later regret. The attack was probably more Grant’s fault than Meade’s, though Meade recommended the assault also. After a couple limited attacks against entrenched positions across a large open prairie, some 20,000 Federals in three corps attacked and within hours 4,000 soldiers lost their lives. In his Memoirs, Grant wrote, “I have always regretted that the very last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.” Grant’s Cold Harbor regret has often been painted by critics as evidence that Grant was a butcher. We must remember that Gen. Lee ordered some 6,000 men to their deaths during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg of some 15,000 men who went forward. Lee lost more men with fewer troops in his attack. Why is Lee not a butcher?
The Overland Campaign was not a masterpiece like Vicksburg, but it was effective in its right for tenacity and Grant’s single-minded purpose. After a dozen large and small engagements, Grant forced Lee into a defensive position south of Petersburg, a siege that doomed the Confederates. Like a precursor of the World War I stalemate, Grant eventually tightened his grasp and forced Lee to attempt a breakout in April 1865, which ended in surrender and the eventual collapse of the Confederacy. This was modern warfare in America.
For historians, enthusiasts and students of the Civil War, the match or rivalry created after the war was a result of who was the better general and who won the major battles in Virginia in 1864: Lee or Grant. The truth is not that simple. George Meade commanded the Union army, Grant accompanied it, and at times ordered Meade in some specifics. It is impossible to turn this campaign into a chess match between Grant and Lee as it often is. Regardless of the tactical successes, soldierly grit, and brilliant leadership demonstrated, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. That is the final epithet.