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 instead of 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.
Into the Wilderness
On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. Although Meade nominally commanded the Army of the Potomac, Grant accompanied the army in the field so he could personally supervise campaign operations. The Wilderness was a tangled area of dense forest and undergrowth that had hampered the maneuverability of federal forces during a previous Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). Grant prepared to use the Wilderness to screen his operations, but he also planned to pass through it before it impeded the Union army as it had done before.
Battle of the Wilderness
From May 5 to May 7, the two armies fought to a standoff at the Battle of the Wilderness, one of the more gruesome engagements of the war. Fought in thick undergrowth, many of the wounded soldiers burned to death during the conflict. When the battle ended, the Federals had suffered the same fate as previous Union forces that had fought in the vicinity. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade’s army while suffering approximately 11,000 losses. Grant, however, unlike his predecessors, did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to disengage, march his army around Lee’s forces, and move deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.
Race to Spotsylvania Court House
Lee recognized the critical consequences of allowing Grant to position Meade’s army between Lee’s army and Richmond. Thus, on May 8, the race was on to Spotsylvania Court House. Unfortunately for the Federals, the Rebels reached the town first, enabling them to establish superior defensive positions. From May 8 through May 21, the two armies built networks of complex trenches and engaged in a series of give-and-take battles around Spotsylvania Court House that again resulted in high casualties.
Cavalry Battle at Yellow Tavern
Hoping to cause confusion among the Confederates during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Grant dispatched Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps on a raid of Southern communication and supply lines near Richmond. Lee immediately sent General J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry in pursuit. On May 11, the Rebels intercepted the Federals at Yellow Tavern, Virginia. Union soldiers outnumbered the Confederates and forced them to retreat following a spirited engagement.
Aftermath of the Battle
After the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Union officials reported 625 casualties (killed, wounded, captured/missing). The Confederacy lost roughly 300 soldiers (mostly captured).
Perhaps more significantly, during the conflict, Union Private John A. Huff dealt the Confederacy a substantial blow when he mortally wounded Stuart with his .44 caliber revolver. Stuart died the next day, May 12, 1864, leaving a sizable void in the Army of Northern Virginia’s leadership.