Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Overland Campaign Begins

In early March of 1864, a slight (5'7", 135 lbs) and slightly disheveled and unassuming man, accompanied by his 14-year old son, checked into Willard's Hotel near the White House.  The clerk told him that only one small room was available to which the man responded that he was fine with that.  It was not until he signed the register "U.S. Grant & son, Galena, Ill" that the clerk realized who his guest was and arranged for larger quarters. 
Grant 1868(US Grant, 1868, from Crossroads)
Grant had been summoned East to meet for the first time with President Lincoln.  General Grant had captured Fort Donaldson and Henry on the Tennessee River in early 1862, the first substantial victory by Union forces in the Civil War, captured Vicksburg in July 1863 in one of the most brilliant and daring campaigns of the war (see July 4, 1863) and led the relief of a besieged Union army in Chattanooga culminating in the rout of the rebel Army of the Tennessee in November 1863.  A West Point graduate who saw service in the Mexican War (which he considered an unjust conflict) and who later, when his career stalled and he was posted to Northern California descended into drunkenness, resigning from the Army and at the start of the Civil War reduced to working as a clerk in his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, Ulysses S Grant was about to become the first person to receive the rank of Lieutenant General since George Washington and placed in command of all Union forces in the United States.

Lincoln had been searching for a general who would not be afraid to fight and not be intimidated by Robert E Lee and felt that in Grant he had found his man.  They were opposites.  Lincoln towered by almost a foot over Grant.  Lincoln was eloquent, an endless fount of anecdotes and humorous tales, while Grant was taciturn and uncharismatic but they developed a close and mutually admiring partnership over the next thirteen months.

Before he had been formally offered command of the armies, General Henry Halleck had solicited  his strategic ideas on the 1864 campaign in the East.  For those who think of Grant as just being a bloody blutcher (an image his Vicksburg campaign should have dispelled) his response to Halleck on January 19, 1864 is enlightening because he proposed an indirect approach to force General Lee to evacuate Virginia:

I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in line of these one be taken further South. I would suggest Raleigh North Carolina as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured I would make New Bern the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured. A moving force of sixty thousand men would probably be required to start on such an expedition . . .

From Weldon to Raleigh they would scarsely meet with serious opposition. Once there the most interior line of rail way still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then have, would be so threatened as to force enemy him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee. It would throw our Armies into new fields where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy. 
Grant's proposal was rejected because Halleck and Lincoln were preoccupied by Lee's potential countermoves and feared that Grant's plan would leave Washington DC too vulnerable.

The plan Grant eventually developed involved five coordinated campaigns all to start on the same date, May 4, 1864.  By coordinating attacks he believed it would prevent the Confederacy from transferring troops between areas and increasing the chances of a Union breakthrough.

Three of the five campaigns were subsidiary:

An attack by General Banks, based in New Orleans and coordinated with the US Navy, upon the Confederate port of Mobile, Alabama.

An advance by General Benjamin Butler from southeastern Virginia to threaten both Richmond and Petersburg.

A campaign by General Franz Siegel to clear the Shenendoah Valley of Confederate forces.

The two main campaigns:

General William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding the Armies of the Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio to advance from Chattanooga to Atlanta.(Sherman)

The Army of the Potomac under General George Meade to advance across the Rapidan River and upon Richmond, forcing Robert E Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia into a battle to defend the capital of the Confederacy.  This advance was to become known as the Overland Campaign.

(Four of the five campaigns, as planned)
Since 1861, President Lincoln had been used to being involved in the details of the campaign plans of the Army of the Potomac.  With the advent of Grant he lessened his preoccupation with those details.  On April 30, 1864 he wrote Grant:

Executive Mansion
Washington, April 30, 1864

Lieutenant General Grant.

Not expecting to see you again before the Spring Campaign opens, I wish to express, in this way, my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it. The particulars of your plans I neither know, or seek to know. You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon you. While I am very anxious that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine. If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know it.
And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.

Yours very truly
A. Lincoln

Grant's originally planned to return to the West when the 1864 campaign began.  However, the more time he spent in the East, the more he recognized the political aspects of the war and the fixation of Union politicians upon the Army of the Potomac.  With a Presidential campaign about to get underway those political stresses would only become more intense and Grant decided to stay in the East and travel with the Army of the Potomac creating an awkward situation with General Meade, the nominal commander of that army.

Moreover, in the West, Grant had a subordinate he fully trusted, General Sherman.  The two of them had developed a close relationship during the course of the campaign in 1862 and Sherman, then and in the future was a great admirer of Grant.  Like Lincoln and Grant, Grant and Sherman were contrasting personalities who worked together well.  Sherman was never a great battlefield commander and deliberately avoided entangling his army in large battles but he had a strategic view that was much more sophisticated than most other military men of that era.

Grant's instructions to Sherman were simple:

You I propose to move against Johnston's army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.

He left all the details to Sherman. 

The three secondary campaigns quickly went awry.  Before undertaking the Mobile expedition, General Banks was directed to undertake a campaign along the Red River in western Louisiana which ended in a debacle and ended any thought of an assault on Mobile (though the harbor forts were finally taken by Admiral Farragut of "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" fame, in August 1864).

General Butler incompetently managed to get his entire army bottled up at Bermuda Hundred, a small spit of land along the James River, by a numerically inferior enemy force where he remained isolated for many weeks until rescued by Grant.

In the Shenandoah Valley General Siegel's advance was abruptly halted in mid-May when defeated by a scratch Confederate force at the Battle of New Market and events in the valley quickly cascaded into a disaster for the Union climaxing with Jubal Early's July 1864 raid into Maryland which reached the outskirts of Washington DC.

Meanwhile, Sherman's campaign was launched on time and did make progress, albeit agonizingly slowly in May and June.
And one hundred and fifty years ago today, on May 4, 1864, Grant and the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan River.  The next forty days, through June 12, were filled with unrelenting violence, disappointment and long casualty lists, spreading gloom across the North and leading Lincoln to believe he could very well lose the upcoming election.  During those weeks the Army of the Potomac fought eleven battles, including three large and grim fights:  The Wilderness (May 5-6), a confused, sprawling struggle where the thick brush (The Wilderness, from Dickinson College) and scraggly second-growth forest caught fire, burning to death hundreds of wounded men, Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21) which culminated in a 19-hour face to face struggle across an earthen and log wall, the longest continuous such fight of the war, and Cold Harbor (June 1-12) with Union charges across open ground recognized as so hopeless by the soldiers that before its start they pinned notes containing their names to the backs of each others uniforms so they could be identified when killed and, of which, Grant later wrote "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made".
grant 52164 closeup(Grant, center, May 21, 1864, Crossroads)

Those forty days saw the Army of the Potomac suffer 60-65,000 casualties which, when added to an estimated 35,000 Confederate causalities, makes it among the bloodiest campaigns in American history, the only comparisons being the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne Forest in WWI (Sept 26 - Nov 11, 1918) with 125,000 casualties and the Battle of the Bulge in WWII (December 16, 1944 - January 25, 1945) with 90,000 dead, wounded and captured (and remember that the population of the U.S. was 3 and 4 times larger in the latter two campaigns).

As horrible as those weeks were they also demonstrated that with Grant in charge, the war had changed.  Just a year earlier when General Joe Hooker crossed the Rapidan and was defeated at Chancellorsville he quickly withdrew back across the river (see A Dipsomaniacal Apathy).  At The Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac was defeated but instead of retreating, Grant ordered a further advance which when the troops recognized they were marching south instead of north, led them to cheer.  Spotsylvania was a bloody stalemate (he wired Lincoln at one point during the battle "I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer") but again Grant moved south, again trying to outflank Lee and after the defeat at Cold Harbor he made his most daring and risky move which we'll cover in a post next month.

Grant and the Army of the Potomac won none of the battles in this campaign, yet by late June they had pinned down Robert E Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia into static warfare in which the Confederacy could not prevail.

Abraham Lincoln by all accounts was a gentle and kind soul as amply evidenced by his life and career before the Presidency.  During the war one of his responsibilities was to review and sign the death warrants for deserters and those who committed infractions such as sleeping while on guard duty.  He agonized over each one, irritating Secretary of War Stanton and the military commanders because he used every opportunity he could find to commute the death sentences. His was a sensibility capable of composing the most reflective and religious political sermon in American history, the Second Inaugural Address. Yet in U.S. Grant he finally found the general he had always sought, a commander as committed as he was to delivering the sustained and deadly violence that he was convinced was the only way to defeat the Confederacy and reunite the Union.    

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