The appointment of U.S. Grant as commanding general of all Northern armies in the spring of 1864 saw a new level of coordination in the orders given to the various Union armies. Central to Grant’s plan to end the Civil War were two main campaigns – Sherman’s advance from Chattanooga to Atlanta in the west, and in the east an advance against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, by far the most effective of all the Confederate armies. To support these efforts, three other armies were to carry out less ambitious expeditions, intended to prevent the Confederates from reinforcing their main armies.
Grant’s own role in this was potentially ambiguous. General Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, had been retained as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Grant would accompany him, but in his role as commanding general he would at least attempt to issue orders to Meade rather than directly to the army. Despite this, Grant was clearly in command, and Meade can rather disappear from some accounts of the campaign.
Two of the three minor campaigns were planned to help Grant and Meade. In the Shenandoah Valley Franz Sigel was ordered to advance down the valley, preventing supplies and reinforcements from reaching Lee. Meanwhile, Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, already present east of Richmond, was to march along the James River and attempt to cut the railroad between Petersburg and Richmond. If these two expeditions succeeded, Lee would have to fight without significant reinforcements and with his supply lines almost entirely broken. Grant hoped to force Lee to attack him at a disadvantage.
The three Virginia campaigns were launched at the start of May. On 4 May, Grant and the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, hoping to march through the Wilderness before Lee could hit them. Instead, Lee attacked while Grant’s men were still in the tangled forests. The Battle of the Wilderness (4-7 May) set the tone for the next month’s fighting. Lee won a tactical victory, inflicting 17,000 casualties while only suffering 7,500. Despite that, at the end of the battle Grant did not retreat back to his camps to recover, but instead moved south east towards Spotsylvania Court House, in an attempt to get past Lee’s right wing.
Lee moved in time to prevent Grant from seizing the road junction at Spotsylvania. Fighting continued around Spotsylvania from 8-21 May. The best known incidents occurred around a salient in the Confederate line, known as the mule shoe due to its shape. After a well planned small scale attack on 10 May achieved limited success, Grant tried a full scale attack at the same place. This too met with some success, but then bogged down. The area became know as the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania.
After two battles, Grant had lost over 30,000 men, and inflicted 18,000 on Lee. Despite this unbalance in losses, if Butler and Sigel could prevent Lee being reinforced, then Grant’s plan was well on its way to success. However, both of them failed. Butler was the most culpable. On 5 May he landed between Richmond and Petersburg with 30,000 men. At the time there were only 5,000 Confederate soldiers in the two towns. For a few days Butler could have walked into either place almost unopposed. Lee was, after all, busy to the north. Instead, it took Butler a week to start his march, and even then he only took part of his army with him. By that time, the local Confederate commander, General Beauregard, had arrived with reinforcements. On 16 May Beauregard attacked Butler at Drewry’s Bluff, inflicting a defeat that stopped Butler in his tracks. For a crucial period in the summer, Butler was trapped between the James and Appomattox rivers. On the previous day Sigel had also been defeated. His defeat was not so surprising – he only had 6,500 men. At New Market he was defeated by a Confederate army of roughly the same side, led by John Breckinridge.
These defeats meant that Lee was able to draw reinforcements from these areas, restoring his army to its original size. However, he had suffered one serious loss during this period. On 11 May J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern, removing one of Lee’s most effective lieutenants from the scene at a crucial moment.
From Spotsylvania, Grant continued his movement to the south east, around Lee’s right and keeping close to the coast. Between 20 and 23 May, Grant and Lee were engaged in a race to the North Anna River. Lee won, and was able to hold the line of the river against attacks (23-26 May).
Grant’s constant movements to the south east now brought him to the Peninsula battlefields of 1862. On 31 May Sheridan’s cavalry captured Old Cold Harbor and managed to hold it against Confederate counterattack. By the time the main Union army had caught up, Lee’s men had dug themselves seven miles of elaborate trenches, creating some of the strongest defences yet seen on the battlefield. On 3 June Grant launched an utterly futile attack on this position. It cost him 7,000 casualties in an hour, and achieved nothing. Grant later said it was one of only two attacks he regretted ordering (along with the second attack on Vicksburg).
The attack at Cold Harbor ended the overland campaign against Richmond. There was very little potential left for flanking manoeuvres in the vicinity of Richmond, and the swamps around the Chickahominy were just as big a barrier to movement as they had been two years earlier. However, one of the many ways in which Grant differed from McClellan was that he was not easily discouraged. Once it was clear that he would not achieve his aims outside Richmond, he began to look for another target. He soon found that target. In mid-June, Grant’s men crossed the James River, shifting the focus of their attack from Richmond to Petersburg.
Grant’s campaign against Richmond was widely misunderstood at the time. Even after the war, some Confederate writers criticised him for marching to Richmond when he could have sailed there with no losses. This entirely missed the point. Grant wasn’t interesting in Richmond. He was interested in Lee’s army. His initial aim was to manoeuvre Lee out of his fortifications, and force him to fight on an open field, when Grant’s numbers would make the difference. In the best of all possible worlds, Grant hoped to force Lee to actually attack Union fortifications. This was the purpose of the move to Spotsylvania and the race towards the North Anna River. If Grant had beaten Lee to either of those places, then he would have been in a position to keep Lee away from Richmond and his supplies. This campaign gave Lee very little chance to demonstrate his great skills on the battlefield. Instead, the best he could do was make sure that he was in the right place to block each of Grant’s moves. In this he was successful, but by the end of the campaign he had been forced back almost to Richmond itself, slowly reducing his potential for manoeuvre.