If These Parks Could Talk
Remembering the Civil War Overland Campaign of 1864
One hundred and fifty years ago last week, two large armies stirred from their winter camps in central Virginia and prepared again for war. Leading one of the armies was Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of Vicksburg and the savior of Chattanooga. Summoned east by President Lincoln, appointed to the rank of Lieutenant General, and given command of all Federal troops including the 120,000 soldiers who comprised the Army of the Potomac, Grant now prepared to move his army south to engage troops led by the Confederacy’s best general, Robert E. Lee.
The bloodletting began on May 5, 1864, in an unforgiving landscape known as the Wilderness. In densely thicketed woods, the best-laid plans of generals on both sides vanished as quickly as the sunlight. Large formations of men accustomed to fighting on relatively open fields became lost in the undergrowth. Privates became their own generals in combat that more closely resembled “Indian fighting” than the fighting seen at Antietam or Gettysburg. The butcher’s bill for the two days of inconclusive slaughter exceeded 29,000 casualties on both sides.
What made the Battle of the Wilderness a watershed event was Grant’s decision on May 7th not to retreat— as so many Union commanders had after their first encounter with Lee—but instead to continue the fight by marching his men south toward Richmond. His decision would inaugurate a bloody, two-month-long sequence of battles against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at then little-known places such as the Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bethesda Church, and Cold Harbor.
The unrelenting nature of the fighting that spring and summer was new to the men on both sides. According to NPS historian and interpretive ranger John Hennessy, a soldier might previously have expected to spend eight to ten hours a year in combat. Grant’s dogged pursuit of Lee now meant that some of his men would spend eight to ten hours a day for days on end under fire. Grant knew that to win the war his army had to pursue, engage, and systematically weaken the enemy. The Union, with a substantial numerical advantage in service-eligible men, could replace battlefield losses incurred by the constant fighting. The Confederacy could not.
Lee understood that although outright military victory was beyond the reach of the Confederacy, his army might still win a negotiated peace on favorable terms. If, in the election year of 1864, he could inflict enough Union casualties to sour northern voters on the war and rob President Lincoln of a second term, the Southern cause might prevail. With generals on either side thus determined, the armies settled into a deadly pattern of attack and defend.
A trained military engineer, Lee set up defensive positions that turned fields of approach into killing zones. The Federal assault on entrenched Confederate positions at Cold Harbor on June 2, 1864, was one clear example. The attack resulted in 7,000 Union casualties in just 45 minutes without gaining the North a single inch of ground. Ignoring his losses, Grant again moved south, this time to Petersburg where initial assaults gave way to a ten-month siege that presaged the trench warfare of the first World War.
Grant’s Overland Campaign ultimately crippled Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It also destroyed any romantic notions remaining among the soldiers and the public regarding the true nature of the fighting, which by the summer of 1864 had evolved with a swift, terrible fury into a modern, total war.
Today, NPCA works to protect key lands, from Wilderness to Petersburg, which help the National Park Service tell the story of how the Civil War’s momentum turned towards preserving the United States, and continuing along our collective journey towards civil rights for all.
This story originally appeared in NPCA’s most recent Mid-Atlantic Field Report.