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American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865

Grant vs. Lee

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American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865

Major General Philip H. Sheridan, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration
American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865

Lt. General Jubal A. Early, CSA

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress
American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865

Union troops in the trenches at Petersburg, 1864-1865

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration
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Grant Comes East

In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and gave him command of all Union armies. Grant elected to turn over operational control of the western armies to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and shifted his headquarters east to travel with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac. Leaving Sherman with orders to press the Confederate Army of Tennessee and take Atlanta, Grant sought to engage General Robert E. Lee in a decisive battle to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. In Grant's mind, this was the key to ending the war, with the capture of Richmond of secondary importance. These initiatives were to be supported by smaller campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, southern Alabama, and western Virginia.

The Overland Campaign Begins & the Battle of Wilderness

In early May 1864, Grant began moving south with 101,000 men. Lee, whose army numbered 60,000, moved to intercept and met Grant in a dense forest known as the Wilderness. Adjacent to the 1863 Chancellorsville battlefield, the Wilderness soon became a nightmare as the soldiers fought through the dense, burning woods. While Union attacks initially drove the Confederates back, they were blunted and forced to withdrawal by the late arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps. Assaulting the Union lines, Longstreet recovered the territory that had been lost, but was severely wounded in the fighting.

After three days of the fighting, the battle had turned into a stalemate with Grant having lost 18,400 men and Lee 11,400. While Grant's army had suffered more casualties, they comprised a lesser proportion of his army than Lee's. As the Grant's goal was to destroy Lee's army, this was an acceptable outcome. On May 8, Grant ordered the army to disengage, but rather than withdrawal towards Washington, Grant ordered them to continue moving south.

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Marching southeast from the Wilderness, Grant headed for Spotsylvania Court House. Anticipating this move, Lee dispatched Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson with Longstreet's corps to occupy the town. Beating the Union troops to Spotsylvania, the Confederates constructed an elaborate set of earthworks in the rough shape of an inverted horseshoe with a salient at the northern point known as the "Mule Shoe." On May 10, Col. Emory Upton led a twelve regiment, spearhead attack against the Mule Shoe which broke the Confederate line. His assault went unsupported and his men were forced to withdrawal. Despite the failure, Upton's tactics were successful and were later replicated during World War I.

Upton's attack alerted Lee to the weakness of the Mule Shoe section of his lines. To reinforce this area, he ordered a second line built across the salient's base. Grant, realizing how close Upton had been to succeeding ordered a massive assault on the Mule Shoe for May 10. Led by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps, the attack overwhelmed the Mule Shoe, capturing over 4,000 prisoners. With his army about to be split in two, Lee led Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's Second Corps into the fray. In a full day and night's fighting, they were able to retake the salient. On the 13th, Lee withdrew his men to the new line. Unable to break through, Grant responded as he did after Wilderness and continued moving his men south.

North Anna

Lee raced south with his army to assume a strong, fortified position along the North Anna River, always keeping his army between the Grant and Richmond. Approaching the North Anna, Grant realized that he would need to split his army to attack Lee's fortifications. Unwilling to do so, he moved around Lee's right flank and marched for the crossroads of Cold Harbor.

Battle of Cold Harbor

The first Union troops arrived at Cold Harbor on May 31 and began skirmishing with the Confederates. Over the next two days the scope of the fighting grew as the main bodies of the armies arrived on the field. Facing the Confederates over a seven mile line, Grant planned a massive assault for dawn on June 3. Firing from behind fortifications, the Confederates butchered the soldiers of the II, XVIII, and IX Corps as they attacked. In the three days of fighting, Grant's army suffered over 12,000 casualties as opposed to only 2,500 for Lee. The victory at Cold Harbor was to be the last for the Army of Northern Virginia and haunted Grant for years. After the war he commented in his memoirs, "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made...no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."

The Siege of Petersburg Begins

After pausing for nine days at Cold Harbor, Grant stole a march on Lee and crossed the James River. His objective was to take the strategic city of Petersburg, which would cut the supply lines to Richmond and Lee's army. After hearing that Grant crossed the river, Lee rushed south. As the lead elements of the Union army approached, they were prevented from entering by Confederate forces under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Between June 15-18, Union forces launched a series of attacks, but Grant's subordinates failed to push home their assaults and only forced Beauregard's men to retire to city's inner fortifications.

With the full arrival of both armies, trench warfare ensued, with the two sides facing off in a precursor to World War I. In late June, Grant began a series of battles to extend the Union line west around the south side of the city, with the goal of severing the railroads one by one and overextending Lee's smaller force. On July 30, in an effort to break the siege, he authorized the detonation of a mine under the center of the Lee's lines. While the blast took the Confederates by surprise, they quickly rallied and beat back the mishandled follow-up assault.

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