Ulysses S. Grant was named General-in-Chief on March 9, 1864. He was one month shy of his forty-second birthday. Grant immediately began to formulate a new coordinated strategy for the field armies of the Union.
His strategy called for coordinated offensives against the Confederate armies in order to prevent them to keep the Confederates from shifting reinforcements within southern interior lines. Grant had realized early on in the Western Theater that defeating the Confederate armies rather than capturing geographical objectives must be the goal of the Union armies.
‘Wear them down and grind them up’ were the keys to this war of attrition. With the Union’s overwhelming industrial strength and its population superiority Grant knew that the Union armies would eventually destroy the Southern Confederacy’s will to resist. The only things that stood in the way of this bloody strategy would be the political will of the Union leaders and the war weariness of the North’s civilian population.
As Grant formulated and implemented his strategy he had at his disposal a number of military formations.
In the Western Theater, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman had been promoted to overall command of all Union armies in the region. Technically, he was commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. Within his division Sherman had three different armies at his command. At the start of the campaign Sherman had 95,000 men, a number that increased to 112,000 by June. This was more than double the Confederate’s manpower.
The Army of the Tennessee had been under the command and Sherman. It now was commanded by Major General James B. McPherson, a 35-year old former engineer. His army included the corps of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan (XV Corps), Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge (XVI Corps), and Maj. Gen. Frank P. Blair, Jr. (XVII Corps).
Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas‘s Army of the Cumberland, including the corps of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (IV Corps), Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer (XIV Corps), Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker (XX Corps), and Brig. Gen. Washington L. Elliott (Cavalry Corps).
Sherman’s goals were two-fold: the capture of the key rail junction of Atlanta and the destruction of the Confederate’s Army of Tennessee in battle. With the capture of the city, Sherman would then be in a position to eviscerate the Deep South.
The balance of the armies were in the Eastern Theater. The largest and most well-known was the Army of the Potomac commanded by Major General George Gordon Meade. Meade’s army consisted of three infantry and one cavalry corps. In addition there was one corps, the IX under Major General Ambrose Burnside, that reported directly to Grant rather than Meade.
- II Corps, under Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, including the divisions of Maj. Gen. David B. Birney and Brig. Gens. Francis C. Barlow, John Gibbon, and Gershom Mott.
- V Corps, under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Charles Griffin, John C. Robinson, Samuel W. Crawford, and James S. Wadsworth.
- VI Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Horatio G. Wright, George W. Getty, and James B. Ricketts.
- IX Corps, under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Thomas G. Stevenson, Robert B. Potter, Orlando B. Willcox, and Edward Ferrero.
- Cavalry Corps, under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, including the divisions of Brig. Gens. Alfred T.A. Torbert, David McM. Gregg, and James H. Wilson.
At the start of the Overland Campaign this force totaled totaled 118,700 men and 316 guns. They were opposed by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with 64,000 men and 274 guns. The goal of Meade’s army was to engage the Confederates in constant battle while driving them east toward Richmond.
The Army of the Potomac was to be aided by Major General Benjamin Butler‘s Army of the James. Butler’s mission was to deploy his 33,000-man army via the James River to the Virginia Peninsula and strike northwest to Richmond. The objective was not to capture the Confederate capital directly, but 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.
Butler’s army consisted of two corps, the X under Major General Q.A.Gillmore with three divisions and the XVIII under Major General W.F.Smith with three divisions. He also had at least 20 batteries of artillery and various cavalry and engineering units under his command.
Major General Franz Siegal commanded the Union Army of West Virginia. Grant commanded Siegal to invade the Shenandoah Valley and destroy Robert E. Lee’s supply lines by driving south and capturing the key city of Lynchburg. Unfortunately, Siegal was only given 10,000 men to accomplish his goals. After his defeat at the Battle of New Market on May 15th, he was relieved and replaced by Major General David Hunter.
Brigadier General George Crook was ordered by Grant to take his Kanawha Division and attack the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, Richmond’s primary link to Knoxville and the southwest, and to destroy the Confederate salt works at Saltville, Virginia. Once he had accomplished this mission he was to was to march east and join forces with Major General Franz Sigel, who meanwhile was to be driving south up the Shenandoah Valley.
Brigadier General William W. Averell was ordered to conduct a cavalry raid against Saltville but he was repulsed at the Battle of Cove Mountain, in Wythe County, Virginia. In this engagement Averell had one cavalry brigade of 2,500 while his opponent, Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones, had a force of 4,000.