THE BATTLE OF COLD HARBOR
In March 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant became commander
in chief of the Union war effort. He had won impressive victories in the
war's western theater, capturing Vicksburg and driving the Confederate
Army of Tennessee from its mountain fastness near Chattanooga. President
Abraham Lincoln hoped that Grant could impart his western tenacity to
the East, where General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia
boasted a string of successes.
As spring opened in 1864, Lee's army, numbering 65,000 men, held a
fortified line below the Rapidan River, near Orange Court House. Facing
Lee from the Rapidan's northern bank was the Army of the Potomac,
100,000 strong, commanded by Major General George G. Meade. Grant's
objective was the destruction of Lee's army, and he devised a
concentration of Federal forces to accomplish that end. He brought Major
General Ambrose E. Burnside's Ninth Corps, containing 20,000 soldiers,
to join Meade in a mighty host that would cross the Rapidan east of Lee
and bring the Southerner to battle. Simultaneously, the 30,000-man Army
of the James under Major General Benjamin F. Butler was to sally up the
James River and threaten Richmond, the Confederacy's capital, from the
rear. A third expedition headed by Major General Franz Sigel was to
slice south through the Shenandoah Valley west of Lee and threaten the
Confederates' left flank.
On May 4, 1864, Grant set his armies in motion, initiating a series
of engagements covering forty days that have come to be called the
Overland Campaign. He accompanied the main force under Meade, which
created an awkward command situation. Grant viewed his role as
formulating general policies for the Union armies and leaving tactical
decisions to theater commanders. He favored bold attacks and maneuvers,
however, while Meade felt more comfortable waging set-piece battles.
Their approaches to fighting Lee were incompatible, and friction was
inevitable. Burnside, who had formerly headed the Army of the Potomac,
outranked Meade, making it awkward for him to serve under the army
commander. Grant's solution was to act as middleman between Meade and
Burnside, issuing orders directly to the Ninth Corps and coordinating
the two forces.
Crossing below the Rapidan into a thickly wooded region known as the
Wilderness of Spotsylvania, Grant dropped his guard and fell prey to a
surprise attack by Lee. During May 5 and 6, the armies fought viciously
and sustained 30,000 casualties. Bogged down in heavily wooded terrain,
Grant shifted south toward the cross-roads hamlet of Spotsylvania Court
House in an attempt to interpose between Lee and Richmond. Soldiers and
ambulances clogged the roads, and superb Confederate delaying tactics
thwarted the advance. On May 8, Lee intercepted Grant and constructed a
strong defensive line above the courthouse town.
Unable to maneuver past Lee, Grant initiated a welter of offensives.
On May 10, he attacked Lee's left flank on the Po River but was
frustrated by Lee's adroit shifting of troops. That evening, he launched
an army-wide assault against Lee's front hoping to find a weak point.
Lee defeated the disjointed attacks piecemeal. On May 12, Grant
assaulted a weak sector of Lee's formation dubbed the Mule Shoe and
breached Lee's defenses, but rebel units handpicked by Lee fended off
Grant's assaults until the Southerners could prepare a new defensive
line. The Battle of the Bloody Angle, as the slugging match came to be
called, generated another 17,000 casualties with no tangible benefits to
either army. The next morning saw Lee entrenched more securely than
ever. During May 14, Grant tried to turn Lee's right flank, but heavy
rains transformed roads into quagmires and fatally slowed Grant's
columns. For several days, the armies jockeyed for position. On May 18,
Grant assaulted across the Mule Shoe, but Confederate artillery
decimated the Federals before they could reach Lee's new line. Grant's
efforts at Spotsylvania Court House had come to naught.
Two weeks of vicious fightng had
mauled both antagonists. Grant had lost about 36,000 men in combat and
had dispatched his cavalry on an expedition toward Richmond, which left
him short of horsemen to probe Lee's defenses.
Two weeks of vicious fighting had mauled both antagonists. Grant had
lost about 36,000 men in combat and had dispatched his cavalry on an
expedition toward Richmond, which left him short of horsemen to probe
Lee's defenses and shield his own movements. He had received, however,
some 17,000 reinforcements, which gave him a total of 90,000 foot
soldiers. For his part, Lee had lost over 20,000 troops in combat and
had sent away three cavalry brigades, numbering perhaps 3,500 men, which
left him slightly over 40,000 men to oppose Grant's 90,000. But Lee's
prospects for reinforcements were good. On May 15, Major General John C.
Breckinridge defeated Sigel at New Market, and the next day, General
Pierre G. T. Beauregard repulsed Butler at Drewry's Bluff. These
victories freed Breckinridge to join Lee and enabled Beauregard to
release Major General George E. Pickett's division and other elements
from Richmond. Altogether, Lee could expect 15,000 seasoned soldiers
during the coming week, raising his numbers to 55,000.
WHILE THE FIGHTING IN THE WILDERNESS PRODUCED HEAVY CASUALTIES, THE
FIRES THAT CLAIMED THE LIVES OF MANY WOUNDED WOULD FOREVER LEAVE A
LASTING IMPRESSION ON THE SURVIVORS. (BL)|
Facing stalemate at Spotsylvania
Court House, Grant decided to abandon frontal attacks and undertake a
maneuver similar to the one he had employed after the
Facing stalemate at Spotsylvania Court House, Grant decided to
abandon frontal attacks and undertake a maneuver similar to the one he
had employed after the Wilderness. By knifing south toward Richmond, he
hoped to force Lee to abandon his earthen fortifications and move onto
open ground. Grant's objective was the North Anna River, a stream
coursing west to east about 25 miles below Spotsylvania Court House.
Hanover Junction, immediately below the river, was an important rail
center. It was here that the Virginia Central Railroad, from Staunton,
and the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad, from
Fredericksburg, intersected. By seizing the river and rail junction,
Grant stood to deprive Lee of his next defensive line and sever the rail
network supplying the rebel army.
If Lee accepted the invitation, Grant
would pounce on him with his three remaining army corps. If Lee
demmurred, Grant would lose nothing.
Grant's direct route to the North Anna lay along Telegraph Road. A
few miles east of Telegraph Road, the Ni, Po, and Matta Rivers joined to
form the Mattaponi River, which curved south. Grant recognized that by
marching east and then veering south along the curve of the Mattaponi,
he could use the river to shield him from surprise attacks by Lee. As
Grant matured his plan, he hit upon an intriguing wrinkle. Rather than
staking everything on a race to the North Anna, what if he sent a single
corps south along the rail line? Might not Lee leave his earthworks and
attack this inviting target? If Lee accepted the invitation, Grant
would pounce on him with his three remaining army corps. If Lee
demurred, Grant would lose nothing, as his advanced component would
still enjoy a considerable head start toward the North Anna. Grant
decided to try the venture. For bait, he selected the Potomac Army's
Second Corps, headed by his ablest field commander, Major General
Winfield S. Hancock.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL ULYSSES S. GRANT (NA)|
GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE (LC)|