The Overland Campaign, also known as Grant's Overland Campaign and the Wilderness Campaign, was a series of battles fought in Virginia during May and June 1864, in the American Civil War. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of all Union armies, directed the actions of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and other forces against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Although Grant suffered severe losses during the campaign, it was a strategic Union victory, maneuvering Lee into a siege at Petersburg, Virginia, in just over eight weeks.
Background and opposing forces
In March 1864, Grant was summoned from the Western Theater, promoted to lieutenant general, and given command of all Union armies. He chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, although Meade remained the actual commander of that army. He left Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in command of most of the western armies. Grant devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Lee near Richmond, Virginia; Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman to invade Georgia, defeat Joseph E. Johnston, and capture Atlanta; George Crook and William W. Averell to operate against railroad supply lines in West Virginia; Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama. This was the first time the Union armies would have a coordinated offensive strategy across a number of theaters.
Although previous Union campaigns in Virginia had the Confederate capital of Richmond as their primary objective, this time the objective was the destruction of Lee's army. Grant ordered Meade, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also."
At the beginning of the campaign, Grant's Union forces totaled 118,700 men and 316 guns. They consisted of the Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and the IX Corps (until May 24 formally part of the Army of the Ohio, reporting directly to Grant, not Meade). The five corps were:
- II Corps, under Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, including the divisions of Maj. Gen. David B. Birney and Brig. Gens. Francis C. Barlow, John Gibbon, and Gershom Mott.
- V Corps, under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Charles Griffin, John C. Robinson, Samuel W. Crawford, and James S. Wadsworth.
- VI Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Horatio G. Wright, George W. Getty, and James B. Ricketts.
- IX Corps, under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Thomas G. Stevenson, Robert B. Potter, Orlando B. Willcox, and Edward Ferrero.
- Cavalry Corps, under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Alfred T.A. Torbert, David McM. Gregg, and James H. Wilson.
Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia comprised about 64,000 men and 274 guns and was organized into four Corps:
- First Corps, under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, including the divisions of Maj. Gen. Charles W. Field and Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw.
- Second Corps, under Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, including the divisions of Maj. Gens. Jubal A. Early, Edward "Allegheny" Johnson, and Robert E. Rodes.
- Third Corps, under Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, including the divisions of Maj. Gens. Richard H. Anderson, Henry Heth, and Cadmus M. Wilcox.
- Cavalry Corps, under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, including the divisions of Maj. Gens. Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, and W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee.
Grant was prepared to fight a war of attrition—battles in which the superior Union forces would bleed Lee's army. Both Union and Confederate casualties could be high, but the Union had greater resources to replace lost soldiers and equipment. Despite Grant's superior numbers, he had manpower challenges. Following their severe beating at the Battle of Gettysburg the previous year, the I Corps and the III Corps had been disbanded and their survivors reallocated to other corps, which damaged unit cohesion and morale. And by virtue of operating on the offensive in enemy territory, Grant had to defend his bases of supply and the lines extending from them to his army in the field. Furthermore, since many of his soldiers' three-year enlistments were about to expire, they were naturally reluctant to participate in dangerous assaults. To deal with these challenges, Grant supplemented his forces by reassigning soldiers manning the heavy artillery batteries around Washington, D.C., to infantry regiments.
The Overland Campaign began as Grant's forces crossed the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864. Grant's objective was to force an engagement with Lee, outside of his Mine Run fortifications, by either drawing his forces out or flanking them. Lee, displaying the audacity that characterized his generalship, moved out as Grant desired, but more quickly than Grant anticipated; Union forces had insufficient time to clear the area known as the Wilderness, a tangle of scrub brush and undergrowth in which part of the Battle of Chancellorsville had been fought the previous year. By forcing a fight here, Lee effectively neutralized the Union's advantage in artillery.
The battles fought during the Overland Campaign were:
The Wilderness (May 5–7, 1864)
Fighting erupted on the morning of May 5, as Ewell's Confederate corps, moving rapidly down the Orange Turnpike, collided violently with Warren's V Corps. As the day progressed, fighting broke out further south along the Orange Plank Road where A.P. Hill's Confederates met up with Hancock's II Corps. On May 6, Longstreet's Confederate corps arrived on the field. It first halted a Federal advance, and then in a flank attack, the corps sent the Federals into retreat until they established a defensive position near the Brock Road. Amidst all the confusion, Longstreet was wounded by friendly fire and replaced in corps command by Richard Anderson. On May 7, rather than following his predecessors' habit of retreating back north following a battle against Lee, Grant sent his men south and east to the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House.
Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21)
Lee beat Grant to his objective and dug in. In a series of attacks over two weeks, Grant hammered away at the Confederate lines, mostly centered on a salient known as the "Mule Shoe". A massive assault by Hancock's II Corps on the "Bloody Angle" portion of this line, May 12, would foreshadow the breakthrough tactics employed against trenches late in World War I. Grant once again disengaged and slipped to the southeast.
Yellow Tavern (May 11)
Sheridan's Cavalry Corps in Meade's army had been utilized purely as a screening and reconnaissance force. Sheridan went over Meade's head and received permission from Grant to operate as a separate force that would pursue and battle Stuart's cavalry corps. The two cavalry forces clashed at Yellow Tavern, just north of Richmond, and Stuart was mortally wounded.
Meadow Bridge (May 12)
Sheridan's cavalry forced a crossing of a railroad bridge over the rain-swollen Chickahominy River and enabled pioneers and engineers to rebuild a nearby road bridge, enabling the troopers to escape to safety.
Wilson's Wharf (May 24)
Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry division attacked the Union supply depot at Wilson's Wharf and was repulsed by two black regiments under Brig. Gen. Edward Wild.
North Anna (May 23–26)
Intercepting Grant's movement, Lee positioned his forces behind the North Anna River in a salient that would force Grant to divide his army to attack it. On May 23, one of A.P. Hill's divisions assaulted the V Corps, which had crossed the river, resulting in bloody but inconclusive fighting. On the May 24, Union infantry was repulsed at Ox Ford but advanced on the Confederate right. Lee had the opportunity to defeat Grant in detail but failed to attack in the manner necessary to spring the trap he had set, possibly because of an illness. Grant continued moving southeast, in the direction of Old Cold Harbor.
Haw's Shop (May 28)
Gregg's Union cavalry division, supported by Torbert's division, advanced to cover the Army of the Potomac's crossing of the Pamunkey River and movement toward Totopotomoy Creek. Wade Hampton's cavalry division met the Federals at Enon Church, a mile west of Haw's Shop. After seven hours of mostly dismounted cavalry fighting, the Federal advance was stopped, and Lee received valuable intelligence about the movement of Grant's infantry.
Totopotomoy Creek (May 28–30)
Lee's forces had entrenched behind the Totopotomoy Creek, covering all of the direct approaches to Richmond. The II Corps forced a crossing of the creek in two places, capturing the first line of Confederate trenches, but the advance was stopped at the main line. In the meantime, the V Corps, moving near Bethesda Church on the far left flank of the Union army, was attacked by Early's corps. The Federals were driven back to Shady Grove Road after heavy fighting.
Old Church (May 30)
With the armies stalemated along the Totopotomoy Creek line, the Federal cavalry began probing east and south. Torbert's Union cavalry division attacked and defeated Matthew C. Butler's Brigade near Old Church. Butler's troopers were driven steadily back on the road to Old Cold Harbor, opening the door for Sheridan's capture of the important crossroads the next day.
Cold Harbor (May 31 – June 12)
On May 31, Sheridan's cavalry seized the vital crossroads of Old Cold Harbor, and on June 1, they repulsed an attack by Confederate infantry. Confederate reinforcements arrived from Richmond and from the Totopotomoy Creek lines. Late on June 1, the Union VI and XVIII Corps reached Cold Harbor and assaulted the Confederate works with some success. By June 2, both armies were on the field, forming on a seven-mile (11-km) front that extended from Bethesda Church to the Chickahominy River. At dawn on June 3, the II and XVIII Corps, followed later by the IX Corps, assaulted along the Bethesda Church-Cold Harbor line and were slaughtered at all points. The armies confronted each other on these lines until the night of June 12, when Grant advanced by his left flank, marching to the James River.
Trevilian Station (June 11–12)
To draw off the Confederate cavalry and to clear the way for a general movement to the James River, Sheridan mounted a large-scale cavalry raid into Louisa County, threatening to cut the Virginia Central Railroad. On June 11, Sheridan, with Gregg's and Torbert's divisions, attacked Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry divisions at Trevilian Station. Sheridan drove a wedge between the Confederate divisions, throwing them into confusion. On June 12, fortunes were reversed. Hampton and Lee dismounted their troopers and drew a defensive line across the railroad and the road to Gordonsville. From this advantageous position, they beat back several determined dismounted assaults. Sheridan withdrew after destroying about six miles (10 km) of the Virginia Central Railroad. The Confederate victory at Trevilian prevented Sheridan from reaching Charlottesville and cooperating with Maj. Gen. David Hunter's army in the Valley.
Saint Mary's Church (June 24)
Hampton's cavalry attempted to cut off Sheridan's cavalry returning from their raid to Trevilian Station. Sheridan fought a delaying action to protect a long supply train under his protection, then rejoined the Union army at Bermuda Hundred.
The Overland Campaign was a thrust necessary for the Union to win the war, and despite losing several battles (most notably Cold Harbor), the campaign was a great Union strategic victory. By engaging Lee's forces and not permitting them to escape, Grant forced Lee into an untenable position. The campaign was the bloodiest in American history: approximately 55,000 casualties on the Union side (of which 7,600 were killed), 32,600 (4,200 killed) on the Confederate.
Estimates vary as to the casualties for the entire campaign. The following table summarizes estimates from a variety of popular sources:
|National Park Service||38,691||31,448||70,139|
|Bonekemper, Victor, Not a Butcher||7,621||38,339||8,966||54,926||4,206||18,564||9,861||32,631||87,557|
|Esposito, West Point Atlas||55,000||20–40,000||75–95,000|
|McPherson, Battle Cry||65,000||35,000||100,000|
|U.S. War Dept., Official Records||6,586||26,047||6,626||39,259|
Grant received a reputation as a "butcher" at the time. The knowledge that Grant could more easily afford to replace his losses of men and equipment than Lee may have shaped Grant's strategy. However, historians do not agree that Grant deliberately engaged in numerous attacks merely to defeat Lee solely through attrition, without regard for the losses to his army, needlessly throwing lives away in fruitless frontal assaults to bludgeon Lee. The overall strategy of the Overland Campaign depended on using Grant's numerical superiority to allow progressive shifts to the left by "spare" Union corps while Confederate forces were relatively pinned in their positions by the remaining Union forces. Such a strategy could not succeed without the continuing threat of defeat by direct assault in each of the positions assumed by Lee's army. The strategy failed in that Lee, possessing shorter lines of march (being nearer to Richmond, which was also his base), was able to prevent Grant's forces getting between Lee and Richmond, but was effective in allowing Grant to draw progressively closer to Richmond up to the battle at Cold Harbor. There, with the barrier of the James River and estuary to his left, Grant did not have the room necessary to successfully continue this strategy. He had to pick one among three possibilities: attack, shift to the right and thus back towards Washington, or cross the James to get at Lee's supply lines. He attempted the first, then did the third, as the second was unacceptable.
It should be noted that Lee's losses, although lower in absolute numbers, were higher in percentage. Grant accomplished more with his 55,000 casualties than all his predecessor Union generals had against Lee, despite their cumulatively higher casualties over three years.
The Overland Campaign concluded with Grant's crossing of the James River and the beginning of the Siege of Petersburg, also known as the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. This represented a change in strategy for Grant. He realized that he could not successfully maneuver Lee into a final battle in the open and decided to shift his focus to geographic and political objectives: the cities of Richmond and Petersburg. If the railroad lines feeding those cities from the south could be captured, Lee would be forced into the open. He also knew that the multiple, coordinated offensives he had devised had failed; except for Sherman, who was advancing on Atlanta, all of the other generals were stalled or defeated.
- Eicher, p. 660.
- NPS, Wilderness battle summary
- NPS, Spotsylvania Court House battle summary
- NPS, Yellow Tavern battle summary
- NPS, Wilson's Wharf battle summary
- NPS, North Anna battle summary
- NPS, Haw's Shop battle summary
- NPS, Totopotomoy Creek/Bethesda Church battle summary
- NPS, Old Church battle summary
- NPS, Cold Harbor battle summary
- NPS, Trevilian Station battle summary
- NPS, St. Mary's Church battle summary
- National Park Service battle descriptions
- Bonekemper, Edward H., III, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant's Overlooked Military Genius, Regnery, 2004, ISBN 0-89526-062-X.
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox, Random House, 1974, ISBN 0-394-74913-8.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States), Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-19-503863-0.
- Smith, Jean Edward, Grant, Simon and Shuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84927-5.
- U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901.
- Staff Ride Handbook for the Overland Campaign, Virginia, 4 May to 15 June 1864: A Study in Operational-Level Command, Combat Studies Institute Press, United States Army.
- Animated History of the Overland Campaign
- "Wilderness". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
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