At the end of 1863 both sides could each see a path to victory. The Confederacy realized that their path to victory needed to include the defeat of Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential elections and the defeat of his armies in the field. The Union side realized that their path to victory needed to be the utter defeat of the armies of the Confederacy.
Both sides began 1864 with relative equilibrium. But the events of the year would turn on the leadership of three generals: Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Lee was the commander of the preeminent Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He had assumed command after the severe wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines. Despite his disappointing results in western Virginia and along the coast earlier in the war, Lee seized command of the army and outfought George B. McClellan in the Seven Days Battles.
Lee was no longer the earlier ‘King of Spades’ or ‘Granny’ Lee. He became Marse Robert, the master of the battlefield. At the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) he whipped John Pope and forced him to withdraw to the safety of the Washington Defenses.
He attempted a plan that was much too complicated during the Maryland Campaign and his army suffered severe casualties at Antietam. Returning to Virginia, he bested the new Union commander, Ambrose Burnside, at the Battle of Fredericksburg, inflicting serious casualties on the enemy.
He then followed it up with what has been called his ‘perfect battle’ at Chancellorsville where he defeated another new Union commander, Joe Hooker, whose army outnumbered his by a 2-to-1 margin. However, his strong right arm, General Stonewall Jackson, was mortally wounded by his own troops while scouting after the first days’ fighting. He died several days later and Lee never adequately replaced the Great Stonewall.
At Gettysburg, almost two months later he would miss Jackson tactical skill and offensive verve. During a three-day battle, capped by a full frontal assault on the Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge, Lee’s army sustained over 23,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing. It amounted to almost one-third of his army.
But yet another Union commander, George Gordon Meade, did not take advantage of his victory and Lee held off the Army of the Potomac in a series of battles in northern Virginia that took place from October 13th to November 7th. The Bristoe campaign was a series of five minor battles that ended with the 2nd Battle of Rappahannock Station, a Confederate defeat. It forced Lee to order his army yo retreat southward.
Meade attempted to slip through the Wilderness, the site of the Battle of Chancellorsville, in late November 1863. His goal was to strike the right flank of the Confederate Army south of the Rapidan River. Meade’s goal for a speedy advance was thwarted when Maj. Gen. William H. French‘s III Corps got bogged down in fording the river at Jacob’s Ford. French caused traffic jams when he moved his artillery to Germanna Ford, where other units were attempting to cross.
Meade advanced on the Confederate positions at Mine Run but after concluding that a Confederate line was too strong to attack, he called off the assault. Meade ordered his army into winter quarters, ending the 1863 campaign season. Lee was disappointed that Meade had withdrawn, saying: “I am too old to command this army. We never should have permitted those people to get away.”
1864 would prove a trial for Robert E. Lee and test his skills as a tactical commander. He would need to confront a Union Army under the overall command of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant who would control all of the Union armies in the field. Grant understood that the destruction of the Confederate armies, especially Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, would spell the end of the Confederacy.