Starting with the Overland Campaign and continuing until the end of the war, the two sides had diametrically opposing military and political strategies. 1864 was not only a year with military objectives but also political ones.
The Union government and their army, now completely under the control of Ulysses S. Grant, had one military goal and one political one. Grant’s military goal was to defeat the armies of the Confederacy in the field.
Grant had proposed and Abraham Lincoln had approved a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Lee near Richmond, Virginia; Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman to invade Georgia, defeat Joseph E. Johnston, and capture Atlanta; George Crook and William W. Averell to operate against railroad supply lines in West Virginia; and Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama. This was the first time the Union armies would have a coordinated offensive strategy across a number of theaters.
In the east he gave George Meade one overriding command: “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Richmond was no longer the primary goal of the Army of the Potomac. Their primary goal was to be the destruction and surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant knew that with the defeat of Lee’s army would precipitate the fall of Richmond.
In the Western Theater, Sherman had been tasked with the capture of the rail center of Atlanta. He would then seek the destruction of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Finally, Sherman would wreak destruction through Georgia, South Carolina and South Carolina, gutting the Deep South and preventing the supplying of the various Confederate armies.
Not all of Grant’s armies were led by professional soldiers and they would fall short of his goals. Butler’s mission was to deploy his 33,000-man army via the James River to the Virginia Peninsula and strike northwest to Richmond. His objective was to cut the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, a critical Southern supply line, and force Lee to send reinforcements to that front, weakening him against Grant and Meade. Ben Butler would be bottled up at Bermuda Hundred by General P.G.T. Beauregard with a force of 18,000.
Sigel would be defeated at the battle of New Market by John C. Breckinridge. Sigel staged a rapid retreat northward to Strasburg, leaving the field and the Valley to Breckinridge’s army. After learning of the Union defeat, Grant became furious and replaced Sigel with David Hunter.
Hunter waged an aggressive campaign in the southern Valley forcing Lee to dispatch Jubal Early and his Second Corps to face the Union Army. Early forced the Union forces out of the Valley and proceeded to march north into Maryland. He eventually threatened Washington, forcing Grant to send a corps to protect the city.
He returned to the Valley but Grant appointed Philip Sheridan to command the Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan conducted an aggressive campaign against Early, eventually annihilating the Second Corps and forcing the remnants to rejoin Lee. The Valley was lost as a breadbasket for the Confederacy.
Robert E. Lee had a purely defensive strategy. His initial goal was two-fold: preserve his army from attrition and defend Richmond. With an army that on occasion half the size of the Army of the Potomac, Lee would become the master of the terrain of his native state. He used every topographical feature that was available to his army.
He fought a masterful defensive campaign during May and June of 1864. Battles in the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and North Anna featured the Confederates skillful use of the terrain to bleed the Union Army. Outnumbered almost 2-to-1 his army inflicted 55,000 casualties on their enemy while sustaining 33,600. However, the Confederate losses represented about half of their army.
Grant knew that he could bleed Lee’s army while his own armies had a much larger pool of manpower available. However, looming in November was the Presidential election. Lincoln needed victories in the field in order to fend off the challenge from George McClellan, the Democrat nominee. The rising casualty lists would drive the voters into the arms of the Democrats unless they saw the hope of victory on the horizon.
Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee realized that their only hope of achieving independence was the defeat of Abraham Lincoln at the polls. 1864 would therefore become the most important year of the war. Victory would hang in the balance for the greater part of the year.