In March 1864, after three years of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief of all Union armies. His main target was to be Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This became known as the Overland Campaign, a brutal seven weeks of near continuous combat in eastern Virginia, resulting in approximately 90,000 total casualties. The two armies fought three major battles and several smaller engagements, the locations of which you can still visit today.
Fought between May 5-7, 1864, The Wilderness was the first battle of Grant’s campaign. It resulted in approximately 28,600 total casualties. Participants described the aptly-named battle as a whirlwind where front and rear were almost indistinguishable. It ended in stalemate, but rather than retreat, Grant ordered his army to move south around his enemy’s flank.
On May 6, Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was accidentally wounded by his own men while leading an attack along Orange Plank Road. This was the second time a veteran Confederate corps commander was wounded by friendly fire in the tangled Wilderness, the first being Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville, just a few miles east of that intersection.
Fought between May 8-21, 1864, Spotsylvania Courthouse was the longest and bloodiest battle of the campaign. It resulted in approximately 31,000 total casualties. The worst fighting occurred at a salient in Lee’s line, where General Grant twice tried to break through with a relentless frontal assault. The first attempt, on May 10, was led by Colonel Emory Upton and 12 hand-picked regiments and met with moderate success.
The largest attack occurred on May 12, when Grant tried to duplicate Upton’s limited success with Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s II Corps. The fighting at the Bloody Angle was some of the most intense of the entire war. Union casualties numbered approximately 9,000. Confederate casualties, including 3,000 prisoners of war, were approximately 8,000.
On May 9, 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan rode south with 10,000 Union cavalry and 30 horse artillery to confront his Confederate counterpart, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, who had a reputation for invincibility. Stuart and his Confederates, however, could only muster around 4,500 troopers to confront him. On the morning of May 11, Stuart’s exhausted troopers arrived at the intersection of Telegraph and Mountain roads near an abandoned inn called Yellow Tavern.
Sheridan’s men attacked their outnumbered opponents around 11am, but the Confederates fought ferociously and temporarily drove them back. Stuart was mortally wounded. The exhausted Confederates, overwhelmed and demoralized by Stuart’s wounding, withdrew. Union forces sustained 625 dead and wounded but captured 300 prisoners. Confederate casualties are unknown. J.E.B. Stuart died at his brother-in-law’s house in Richmond on May 12th.
After the brutal Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, General Grant again tried to outflank Lee, but Lee was one step ahead and established a strong defensive position behind the North Anna River. On May 23, Confederate Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division opposed a river crossing by Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps at Jericho Mills, but Wilcox was outnumbered 2-to-1 and withdrew.
The Army of Northern Virginia then settled into a defensive formation designed to trap pieces of Grant’s army on the river’s southern side. With their backs to the river, the much larger Union Army would be vulnerable to attack. Unfortunately for the Confederates, General Lee developed a debilitating stomach ailment, and his inexperienced corps commanders were in no shape to direct his army.
On May 24, a drunken Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie decided to attack the Confederate positions at Ox Ford with his lone brigade, with predictable results. His attack was repulsed, and a Confederate counterattack sent his men fleeing for the rear. All tolled, the Union Army sustained 3,986 total casualties in three days of fighting to the Confederate’s 1,552.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was fought in Hanover County near Mechanicsville, Virginia from May 31 to June 12, 1864, northeast of Richmond. The battle was a Confederate victory and resulted in approximately 18,000 total casualties. It included one of the bloodiest and most lopsided assaults during the war. Confederate soldiers built elaborate trenches with sheltered tunnels leading from the rear to their entrenchments, so they could move supplies back and forth without being exposed to fire.
After the Union’s disastrous assault on June 3, the two armies settled into over a week of low-intensity skirmishing and artillery duels, foreshadowing the Siege of Petersburg’s long, bloody months. Grant made the fateful decision to break away from Lee’s army and move south again, to cut off Lee’s supply base at Petersburg.
By the opening days of June 1864, the Union and Confederate armies had been locked in near-continuous deadly combat for a month. After the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant planned to slip away from Lee and cross the James River. He sent Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad, one of Lee’s main supply lines, as a diversion.
Sheridan’s 9,286 troopers departed Cold Harbor on June 7, riding 65 miles northwest in four days. Confederate cavalry followed, covering a shorter distance before the two sides converged at Trevilian Station. Brig. Gen. George A. Custer rode into Trevilian Station virtually unopposed, capturing the Confederate supply trains. His triumph was momentary, however, since Confederate forces quickly descended on him from three directions. Sheridan charged hard to his rescue.
That night, the Confederates withdrew to an L-shaped defensive position about two miles west of Trevilian Station. Union forces renewed their attack the next day, but despite hours of fighting, could not make headway. Darkness ended the battle. Despite Sheridan’s insistence to the contrary, his operation could hardly be considered a success. Union forces suffered 102 killed, 470 wounded, and 435 missing or captured to the outnumbered Confederate’s 612 to 831 total casualties.
After six bloody weeks, 55,000 Union and 33,600 Confederate soldiers lay dead or wounded. Grant and Lee’s armies settled into a siege around Petersburg, Virginia, where they would sit for over nine months, eventually leading to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and the end of the war.