General Ulysses S. Grant had planned what appeared to be a superior strategic plan. He had five armies poised to strike the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley, the Western Theater, east of Richmond and to the west of Richmond in the beginning of May 1864.
But like Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or as General George Pickett said when why his attack at Gettysburg failed: “I think that the Yankees had something to do with it.”
In the case of the Union strategic plan, it simply not only did not survive contact with the enemy but it didn’t survive the incompetency of some of its own generals. But the brilliance of Ulysses Grant was that he was able to adjust his plans to the situation.
Unlike George McClellan Grant knew how to improvise and adapt to the conditions. He had proved it in the Western Theater and he was to prove it once again in the East.
After Franz Sigel failed in the Valley at New Market, Grant quickly replaced him with David Hunter who advanced as far as Lynchburg before Jubal Early was dispatched to the Valley by Robert E. Lee to retrieve the situation from utter defeat. Early moved down the Valley (North) for several months until Grant countered with one of favorites, Philip Sheridan, who defeated Early and devastated the Valley.
Grant allowed William T. Sherman to carry on the fight in the Western Theater with very little interference. After all Sherman’s main weapon was the Army of the Tennessee, a fighting force that had seen nothing but victory since its formation.
Ben Butler who commanded the Army of the James to the east of Richmond was indecisive and hesitant. During the rest of the war until he was relieved, Grant needed to constantly prod him into action.
Grant’s main problems were in the Eastern Theater. George Gordon Meade was a methodical engineer whose plodding ways sometimes frustrated Grant. In fact, on more than a few occasions Grant had to directly intervene in the tactical operations of the Army of the Potomac, something that he was loathe to do.
Once the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock River they were on the enemy’s home ground. From early in the war this river and the Rapidan were the dividing line in Virginia between Union and Confederate.
The Army of the Potomac had crossed twice before and been repulsed with serious losses. In December of 1862, they had been defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg after a series of bloody frontal assaults against Marye’s Heights. The following May, they had been defeated at Chancellorsville. On both occasions, the Army of the Potomac returned to their camps on the north side of the river.
But Ulysses S. Grant was not a commander who believed in withdrawing. His goal was to bludgeon the Army of Northern Virginia and force it to withdraw. He was willing to sustain high casualties to accomplish his objectives.
His main objective was to draw Lee’s army onto open ground and fight him on ground of Grant’s choosing. But Grant did not account for a number of factors. He gambled that Meade could move his army quickly enough to avoid being ensnared in the Wilderness, but Meade recommended that they camp overnight to allow the wagon train to catch up.
Grant agreed, believing that Lee could not intercept the army had its most vulnerable point. But Meade had neglected to send out adequate cavalry cover. Knowing that his army was outnumbered almost two-to-one, Lee knew that he needed to use the Wilderness to even the odds.
The two armies fought a savage battle over three days that produced almost 29,000 total casualties. Despite this Grant was determined to move forward.
James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom described the scene:
While the armies skirmished warily on May 7, Grant prepared to march around Lee’s right during the night to seize the crossroads village of Spotsylvania a dozen miles to the south. If successful, this move would place the Union army closer to Richmond than the enemy and force Lee to fight or retreat. All day Union supply wagons and the reserve artillery moved to the rear, confirming the soldiers’ weary expectation of retreat. After dark the blue divisions pulled out one by one.
But instead of heading north, they turned south. A mental sunburst brightened their minds. It was not another “Chancellorsville … another skedaddle” after all. “Our spirits rose,” recalled one veteran who remembered this moment as a turning point in the war. Despite the terrors of the past three days and those to come, “we marched free. The men began to sing.” For the first time in a Virginia campaign the Army of the Potomac stayed on the offensive after its initial battle.