The battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania marked the start of Grant's 'Overland Campaign', a series of costly battles that ended with the Lee and Grant facing each other outside Richmond and Petersburg at the start of a prolonged siege that lasted into 1865. This was a controversial campaign, marked by the failure of most of Grant's subsidiary operations, and battles that were at best draws from the Union point of view, but at the same time Grant robbed Lee of his freedom of action, preventing him from mounting an third invasion of the North or from helping other Confederate forces.
That was all in the future when the campaign started. This book covers a period of mobile warfare, where Grant almost managed to out manoeuvre Lee on more than one occasion, only to be frustrated by Lee's actions, his own subordinate's failures, muddy roads and chance. The two battles covered here were very different. In the Wilderness Grant and Lee's men stumbled into each other in an area of dense woodland, fighting a series of encounter battles in a conflict that ended as a draw, with the Union forces suffering higher casualties. At Spotsylvania Grant was frustrated in his attempts to get around Lee's right flank, then suffered heavy losses attacking strong field fortifications. In both cases the most significant feature of the battle was its aftermath - where earlier Union commanders withdrew after this sort of setback, Grant just kept on advancing.
This is a good account of this part of the Overland Campaign. In the Wilderness section we get a good sense of the chaos on the ground, without losing track of what was happening. The Spotsylvania section traces the course of each of the attacks on the Confederate lines and the plans behind them, dispelling any idea that these were thoughtless, hopeless attacks, despite their eventual failure. We also get some idea of the reasons for the Union failures, including the confused array of senior commanders, many linked to earlier failed commanding officers, or who gained their appointments through political influence. The Army of the Potomac was an impressive force, but it wasn't as fast moving as Grant's western commanders, and in a campaign where hours sometimes mattered that had a big impact on the course of events.
The Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania
The Battlefields Today
Author: Andy Nunez