The Overland Campaign, also known as the Wilderness Campaign, was a Union offensive launched in May 1864, intended to defeat Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and bring an end to the American Civil War. The campaign, designed by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, was the bloodiest of the war. Despite losing several battles and suffering higher casualties, the campaign was a strategic Union victory. Grant successfully reduced the insurrection to a war of attrition, which the South was unable to win.
Prelude to the Overland Campaign
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 previous Union generals, Grant was tenacious. 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 focused on defeating Robert E. Lee and his 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.
Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7, 1864)
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. The Wilderness was a tangled area of dense forest and undergrowth that had hampered the maneuverability of Federal forces during previous Union defeats at Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862) and Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863).
Major General George Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, but as General-in-Chief of the Armies, Grant accompanied Meade’s army in the field so he could supervise overall campaign operations. Grant hoped 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. Hoping to see history repeat itself, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hastened to engage the Federals before they could escape the Wilderness.
On May 5–6, the two armies met along the two plank roads that passed through the tangled forest. The Battle of the Wilderness was one of the more gruesome engagements of the war, as raging fires in the thick undergrowth burned many of the wounded soldiers to death. When the battle ended, Grant had suffered the same fate as Pope and Hooker before him. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade’s army while suffering only about 7,800 casualties himself. Unlike his predecessors, however, Grant did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to move his army deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.
Race to Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21, 1864)
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. Unfortunately for the Federals, the Rebels reached the community 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 that again resulted in high casualties. On May 12 and 13, a Union attack at a place known as the Bloody Angle nearly split Lee’s army in half, but the Confederates regrouped and repulsed the Federals in a fight that continued for nearly twenty hours. Unable to break Lee’s lines, Grant disengaged once more and ordered Meade to move his army southeast on May 21, ending the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864)
Hoping to cause confusion among the Confederates during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Grant dispatched Major General Philip Sheridan and his cavalry corps on a raid of Southern communication and supply lines near Richmond. Lee immediately sent General J.E.B. Stuart and his 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. During the Battle of Yellow Tavern, 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.
Battle of North Anna (May 23–26, 1864)
As Grant continued to press southeast, Lee responded by moving his army in the same direction, and the two armies raced for the North Anna River. Again, the Army of Northern Virginia was quicker and arrived on the south side of the river in time to impede a Federal crossing. Eventually, Meade’s army forced its way across the river at two places, but they were walking into a trap. Lee had positioned his army in an inverted “V” formation, between the two crossings, with the tip at the river. The formation would enable Lee’s army to fight a holding action on one side of the “V” while attacking on the other side. Fortunately for the Federals, Lee took ill, and the Rebels never sprung the trap. Upon realizing his tenuous position, Grant had the army temporarily entrench and then march off to the southeast once again, ending the Battle of North Anna.
Battle of Haw’s Shop (May 28, 1864)
On May 27, Confederate forces intercepted Union cavalrymen as they attempted to cross the Pamunkey River at Dabney’s Ferry and at Crump’s Creek. The following day, two northern cavalry divisions commanded by Brigadier Generals Alfred Torbert and David Gregg engaged two southern cavalry divisions commanded by Major General Wade Hampton and Major General Fitzhugh Lee. The Battle of Haw’s Shop raged for seven hours, with Yankees attempting to ford the Pamunkey River. Eventually, the Rebel infantry arrived on the battlefield, reinforcing the Confederate position and repulsing the Federals.
While the fighting raged at nearby Haw’s Shop, Rebel soldiers fortified the south bank of Totopotomoy Creek on May 28. The next day, federal forces probed for the Confederates’ position. On May 30, the Union’s 2nd Corps drove a portion of the Rebel soldiers from their entrenchments, gaining a foothold on the south side of Totopotomoy Creek. As the 2nd Corps advanced, Confederate soldiers, under the command of Jubal Early, attacked the Union left, driving the Northerners back. When the engagement ended that evening, the Southerners remained in possession of the battlefield. Despite their victory, the Rebels did not stop Grant from continuing his advance into the heart of the Confederacy.
Federal Bloodbath at Cold Harbor (May 31–June 18, 1864)
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, 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. Grant suffered serious casualties at the Battle of Cold Harbor 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 June 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. The last official action of the campaign took place when Rebel and Federal cavalry units skirmished near St. Mary’s Church in Charles City, on June 24.
Battle of Trevilian Station (June 11, 1864)
On June 11, Sheridan’s men engaged Confederate cavalry divisions commanded by Major General 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, ending the Battle of Trevilian Station.
Battle of Saint Mary’s Church (June 24, 1864)
On June 24, Wade Hampton’s men intercepted two brigades of Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, commanded by Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg, at Saint Mary’s Church in Charles City, Virginia as they retreated eastward. The Federals fought a brief holding action, allowing their supply train to escape the Confederates. Gregg’s men then withdrew, bringing the battle to a conclusion. The Battle of Saint Mary’s Church, also known as the Battle of Nance’s Shop, was the final battle of Grant’s Overland Campaign.
Aftermath of the Overland Campaign
The Overland Campaign was a strategic success for the North. By pounding at the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant hindered Southern efforts to send reinforcements to halt the other Union campaigns of Philip Sheridan in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and William T. Sherman in Georgia. In addition, although the Federals suffered higher casualties (39,000 to 31,500), the Confederacy could not replace their losses as readily as the North. Finally, by threatening Petersburg and, ultimately, Richmond, Grant tied down the Army of Northern Virginia, limiting Lee’s military options for the rest of the war.
Despite the strategic success of the Overland Campaign, it was not without its critics. High casualty rates and horrific battle conditions shocked war-weary Northerners. Some began to refer to Grant as a butcher, whose strategy of winning by attrition exacted too high of a toll in human life. The mounting losses provided ammunition for Peace Democrats intent on defeating Lincoln in his reelection bid in 1864. Criticism subsided by the fall, however, as Grant’s strategy aided Sheridan’s and Sherman’s successful campaigns. Federal victories on the battlefield secured the President’s reelection and enhanced prospects for restoring the Union.