The American Civil War Overview
THE EASTERN THEATER: THE FORTY DAYS
On May 4, 1864, Grant began his advance by taking the same route followed by Hooker and Meade through the Wilderness around Chancellorsville. He hoped that by moving at a rapid pace, he would be out of the tangled undergrowth before Lee could react.
Major General Ben Butler was ordered to cooperate in this movement by advancing his Army of the James up the Yorktown peninsula to threaten Richmond from the south and east. This movement, Grant hoped, would provide a diversion to the main movement by the Army of the Potomac.
Things did not quite work out as planned for Grant. Lee reacted to Grant's movement and brought him to battle before he had cleared the Wilderness. This three day slug-fest was very confused, but the battle went heavily against the Federals.
On May 5, the V Corps, now commanded by Major General Warren, collided with Ewell and initially pushed him back. Ewell later counterattacked and Warren was almost outflanked by Hill who was eventually stopped by Hancock's II Corps. On May 6, Hancock pushed forward, but was stalled by Longstreet's arrival. A Confederate attack about mid-day punched into Hancock's left flank, but he eventually managed to stabilize his line. Burnside's IX Corps spent most of May 6 lost in the undergrowth, but eventually managed to make contact with Hill who repulsed his attack. Near sundown, a Confederate assault column led by Brigadier General J. B. Gordon smashed into and began rolling up the Federal right flank, but the attack fizzled out due to lack of support and the onset of darkness. May 7 was occupied with both sides digging-in.
In spite of the confused nature of the fighting, it was clear that Grant had been as decisively beaten as his predecessors. He had taken 17,666 casualties and had inflicted only about 7,800. Both Grant's flanks had been turned and Lee stood squarely in his front. If history was to repeat itself, Grant would retreat, a new general would be appointed, the army reorganized, and sooner or later the whole process would have to be repeated again. But Grant was not a Pope or a Hooker. He pulled out of his lines, but instead of retreating, he moved down the Brock Road, toward Spotsylvania. Grant was the "killer arithmetician" Lincoln had been looking for. He knew the North could afford take the losses and replace them; the South could not.
Lee was not surprised at Grant's move, because if he could take and hold Spotsylvania, he would be between Lee and Richmond which would then force Lee to attack a numerically superior force in an entrenched position. The Confederates narrowly beat the Federals in the race to Spotsylvania and was able to beat back the Federal attacks on May 8.
The following day, May 9, Grant lost one of his best subordinates, Major General John Sedgwick, to a Confederate sniper's bullet. Ironically, Sedgwick had been trying to instill confidence in his troops with the words, "they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance", just seconds before he was struck down.
May 10 and 12th were days of heavy fighting, particularly around a salient in the Confederate lines known as the Mule Shoe. On May 12, Hancock launched a successful assault and penetration, capturing three generals, thirty artillery pieces and almost an entire division of troops. Fierce fighting allowed the Confederates to re-stabilize their lines at the base of the salient. Despite some additional fighting the following week, Grant was unable to find any other weaknesses in Lee's lines. On May 20 therefore, he began another flanking movement.
In the meantime, additional Federal thrusts were meeting with little success. Butler's Federal Army of the James had allowed itself to become bottled up in the Bermuda Peninsula and was taken out of the equation for Grant's continuing drive on Richmond. Sigel's Federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley had met a reverse at the hands of Major General Breckinridge at the battle of New Market on May 15. Breckinridge was ably assisted in the battle by the Corps of Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute. The only good news from a Federal perspective was that now Grant had an excuse to relieve Sigel and replace him with Major General David Hunter.
With Butler out of the picture, Grant's task was made even more difficult. However on May 20 he began another turning movement by sending Hancock's corps towards Hanover Junction. Grant had hoped that Lee would try and attack this isolated corps, bringing him out into the open where the remainder of the Army of the Potomac could defeat him outside his entrenchments. Lee would not take the bait however, and marched south so that when Grant arrived on the North Anna River, he found Lee already entrenched in another strong blocking position.
At this point, Lee set a clever trap which Grant was slow to recognize. The Confederate army was deployed in a "wedge" south of the North Anna River, with the apex of the "wedge" touching the river at Ox Ford. The Federal corps of Wright and Warren crossed upstream and Hancock's corps, downstream of Ox Ford. While moving forward, they suddenly realized that Lee's position would enable him to fight a holding action on one side of this "wedge" while moving the bulk of his army to defeat part of the Army of the Potomac in detail. Almost in a state of panic, the Union army began entrenching at a frantic rate to protect itself against such an attack. As luck would have it however, the attack never came. Lee had apparently been taken ill by an intestinal complaint and could not personally direct his forces. Apparently, his subordinates did not fully comprehend what he had planned to do and so no Confederate attack took place. Grant disengaged from the potential trap and moved once more to the left.
After a large cavalry clash, Grant moved sideways once again toward Cold Harbor, where he planned to link up with Smith's corps that had been detached from Butler's Army of the James. Lee again anticipated the move and ordered his cavalry to hold Cold Harbor until the infantry could be brought up. May 31 was an all-day cavalry fight with Sheridan finally succeeding in taking the position as night fell. Sheridan had noted Confederate infantry arriving and sent a message to the effect that he did not think he could hold. Grant and Meade sent back word to Sheridan to hold "at all hazards."
Lee, who wanted to recover the position and roll up the Federal left before Grant was in a position to do the same to his own right, ordered a Confederate attack. However, Lee was apparently still suffering from his illness and unable to properly oversee the operations. The assault was mismanaged and by mid-morning on June 1, Wright's corps had arrived to relieve Sheridan and the Federal position held. Lee then abandoned the idea of recapturing the position, but again entrenched in strong defensive works.
From June 1-3, Grant ordered a series of ill-advised frontal assaults against Lee's entrenchments and was repulsed each time. The main assault of June 3 was particularly bloody, with Grant losing about 7,000 men to the Confederates 1,500 in a very short time span of only a few minutes. Even though the Federals could more easily replace battle losses, Grant could see that these loss ratios were not in his favor.
The opposing lines stabilized for ten days at Cold Harbor while Grant considered his options. Grant's critics were quick to point out that Grant was now in the same position McClellan had been two years earlier. However, Grant had paid for that privilege with over 50,000 casualties or about 41% of his original strength. Nevertheless, Grant's plan was still essentially working. He had kept Lee tied up with constant pressure and no Army of Northern Virginia troops were being sent to help Johnston in front of Atlanta where Sherman was still making steady progress. And, even though absolute Southern losses were much lower than those of the Federals, Lee had still lost about 27,000 men, or 40% of his own strength at the beginning of the campaign and several irreplaceable general officers had been killed, seriously wounded or captured. These were losses the Confederacy would not be able to replace.
On June 12, Grant did his last "side-slip" crossing the James River and attempting a new approach at Richmond from the south through Petersburg. Although delays and tactical failures on the part of his subordinates deprived Grant of the full fruits of this last maneuver, Lee was now bottled up inside his Richmond defenses. Grant undertook siege operations that would last for another ten months, but what Lee feared most had happened. He was now completely tied down defending Richmond and would no longer be able to conduct any major offensive operations against Grant.
This Page last updated 11/13/01
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CHAPTER XVI, The Eastern Theater: Early's Washington Raid