Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
The Overland Campaign — Grant Pursues Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s offensive focused on defeating Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Union forces persistently engaged the Rebel army.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. Although Meade nominally commanded the Army of the Potomac, Grant accompanied the army in the field so he could supervise overall campaign operations.
Throughout the month of May, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia slugged it out in a series of battles including the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7), Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21), Battle of North Anna (May 23–26), Battle of Haw’s Shop (May 27), and the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek (May 28–30). Although the Rebels inflicted high casualties on the Federals during those battles, Grant continued his strategy of moving south and east (to Lee’s right) and then re-engaging. Grant’s moves forced Lee to reposition his lines continually to defend Richmond.
Bloodbath at Cold Harbor
Grant’s next objective was Cold Harbor, where he intended to link up with Union troops from the Army of the James. Again, Lee expected Grant’s move, and he ordered his cavalry to hold Cold Harbor until his infantry arrived. On May 31, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Union cavalry seized the vital crossroads at Cold Harbor from the Confederates. The next day, Sheridan repulsed a counterattack by Rebel infantry trying to recover the position. By June 2, both armies had arrived at Cold Harbor and entrenched along a front that extended for seven miles.
On June 3, Grant ordered an ill-advised frontal assault on the Confederate lines and lost nearly 7,000 men, compared with 1,500 Rebel casualties. Grant later commented in his memoirs that this was the only attack he wished he had never ordered. For the next ten days, the two armies continued to confront each other until Grant abandoned his strategy of attacking Lee’s army.
On to Petersburg
On May 12, Grant evacuated Cold Harbor and moved Meade’s army across the James River to begin an assault on Petersburg, a crucial supply depot for Richmond and Lee’s army, located south of Richmond. Grant sent Sheridan’s cavalry forces into Louisa County, Virginia to destroy portions of the Virginia Central Railroad, an important Confederate supply line. Grant hoped that Lee would send his cavalry in pursuit of Sheridan, making it easier for Meade to move toward Petersburg.
June 11, 1864 — Clash at Trevilian Station
On June 11, Sheridan’s men engaged Confederate cavalry divisions commanded by Wade Hampton at Trevilian Station. Initially, the Yankees divided the Confederate force, but the tide shifted the next day when the Rebel troopers dismounted and repulsed several Union assaults. Federal soldiers destroyed about six miles of railroad track before the Confederates forced them to withdraw and return east.
Aftermath of the Battle
Casualties during the Battle of Trevilian Station totaled about 1,600 soldiers for the combined forces. Following the battle, Rebel and Federal cavalry units skirmished again near St. Mary’s Church in Charles City, on June 24, the final engagement of Grant’s Overland Campaign.