A New Phase begins at the Wilderness

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Battle of the Wilderness, skirmishToday marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Wilderness. It also marked a new phase in the War for the Union or the War for Southern Independence. Gone were the days when the Union Army of the Potomac would advance across the Rappahannock or the Rapidan Rivers, be repulsed and withdraw to the safety of the far bank.

The timidity of past commanders had been replaced by the determination of Ulysses S. Grant to pursue and destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It would take eleven months but Grant would accomplish his main objective and with it the virtual end of the war.

The Army of the Potomac would begin that long road in the dark, confusing Wilderness of Virginia. On the morning of May 5, the Union V Corps under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren attacked the Confederate Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, on the Orange Turnpike. That afternoon the Third Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, encountered Brig. Gen. George W. Getty‘s division (VI Corps) and Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock‘s II Corps on the Orange Plank Road. Fighting until dark was fierce but inconclusive as both sides attempted to maneuver in the dense woods.

The fighting would continue for two more days and at the conclusion almost 29,000 men were killed, wounded, captured or missing. But unlike Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and other battles Grant ordered George Gordon Meade to move his army south to Spotsylvania Court House where they would continue to engage their enemy.

By the light of the burning Wilderness eyewitnesses reported that Grant was cheered by his men as they moved past their general. They and their president knew that Grant was as Lincoln said when advised to relieve him: “I can’t spare the man. He fights.”

For those who wish to read my series on the Battle of the Wilderness, here are the links:

The Overland Campaign:

The Battle of the Wilderness (Days One and Two):

The Battle of the Wilderness (Day Three):

Clark Mountain: Robert E. Lee’s Lookout Post:




Grant’s Final Strategy

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series 1864: the Year of the Three Generals

Grant in full uniformAfter being turned down by the high Command and the President, Grant revisited his strategic plan. Washington was a risk-averse town and the military and civilian leaders of the Union government were the most risk-averse of all. Grant’s initial plans for the campaigns across the South were extremely radical.

His proposal to drive across North Carolina in order to cut off Lee’s supply lines was, in their view, the riskiest of all. Moving troops from northern Virginia would uncover the nation’s capital would risk raids by the Confederates. What if Lee didn’t take the bait and drove right up Pennsylvania Avenue? No, that just wouldn’t do.

Grant’s pincer attack from Mobile to Montgomery was rejected because Abraham Lincoln was fixated on a show of strength for the French in Mexico. He felt that the Union government needed to send a message by sending an expedition up the Red River. It was as if he was saying that we can protect all of our territory. So, it was back to the drawing board for General Grant.

Grant now proposed a new strategy. Grant had seen the war from a Western Theater point of view. In the Eastern Theater the war was mostly confined to Virginia with two confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. In the Western Theater the view was very different.

The war in the Western Theater exposed Grant to a war against the entirety of Southern society. He understood that the Southerners were unrepentant, their armies were resilient and the war zone was expansive.

In Virginia, the war was a one-on-one conflict between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. In the Western Theater, the war had to carried out against all of the elements: the population, the Confederate Army and Southern society. Therefore, Grant tailored his strategy based on these principles.

When asked about his opinion on Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini’s book on strategy, Grant was said to have replied:

I have never read it carefully; the art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on. 

Seems simple enough.

Grant’s first element of his strategy was the destruction of the Confederate field armies. His plan called for placing as much pressure as possible on Robert E. Lee’ Army of Northern Virginia and Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. His plan was to draw them out into the open field and destroy them by a series of major engagements.

In order to successfully carry out these objective, Grant planned to coordinate all of the Union armies. By doing this the Confederates would not be able to shift their forces across theater lines, as they had done when General James Longstreet’s Second Corps had been sent to the Western Theater. This would eliminate the Confederacy’s advantage of interior lines of supply.

Grant estimated that if he couldn’t annihilate his enemies in battle, he would be able to exhaust them logistically, economically and psychologically. It has been characterized by historians either as a annihilation or attrition or both.

Grant and his disciples, the foremost being William T. Sherman, saw war as brutal and unpleasant. They believed in the “hard war” or total war that would be necessary in order to bring the Civil War to swift and successful conclusion.

In order to carry out his strategy, Grant would need commanders that agreed with his belief in “hard war” but here he ran into the political realities of the war.

Sherman was a logical choice as commander of the Army of the Tennessee and eventually overall commander of the Western Theater. Today, he is best remembered for his pronouncement: “All war is hell” but in a letter to the mayor and city council of Atlanta he wrote:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.

Sherman was an easy position to fill but the others were not so easy. General Nathaniel Banks was in command of the Army of the Gulf. He was a former Massachusetts Congressman and Governor with very little military experience. His Red River Expedition was defeated before the campaigns in Virginia and Georgia could even begin. This gave Grant the opportunity to replace him with General Edward Canby. By then Grant lamented that the Red River Expedition had eliminated the use of 40,000 troops for the Sherman’s campaign and the attack on Mobile.

The commander in the Shenandoah Valley was General Franz Sigel, a German immigrant. So far, Sigel was a best inept and at worst incompetent. He had been appointed to his position by Lincoln who hoped to secure German immigrant support for the Republican Party. Sigel failed miserably at the Battle of New Market on May 15th and retreated North to safety. Grant was furious and replaced him with General David Hunter.

Grant’s plan called for the movement of the Army of the James to threaten Richmond from the East. The commander of the Army of the James was another Massachusetts politician, General Ben Butler. Butler was a former Democrat turned Radical Republican. Lincoln needed the support of that wing of his party so Butler’s appointment was a foregone conclusion.

Initially, Grant was favorably impressed with Butler when they met at Fortress Monroe in April. Grant’s initial judgment of Ben Butler was a serious mistake. He was indecisive and needed constant supervision. Grant constantly needed to prod him to take action. He was unable to break through the Confederate lines at Bermuda Hundred even though he outnumbered General P.G.T. Beauregard 33,000 to 18,000. This allowed Lee to move troops from this line.

Finally, Grant kept George Gordon Meade as the commander of the Army of the Potomac even though he offered to resign. Grant was impressed by Grant’s willingness to step aside for the welfare of the nation. Grant kept him on but decided to travel with the Army of the Potomac where he could guide his chief weapon.


You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.


March 9, 1864: The Day the Union Won the War

This entry is part 12 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Lt Gen Ulysses S. GrantThere are differing opinions on the turning point or points of the American Civil War. The arguments will probably go one as long as people remember the events that took place from 1861 until 1865.

Many historians say that Gettysburg was the turning point. of war. It marked the first time that Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was soundly defeated by the Army of the Potomac.

Others will point to the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. It wasn’t so much the battle but what came after with the Emancipation Proclamation and the eventual dismissal of George McClellan. These two events set the Union government on a new course. The war became more than a fight over states’ rights and saving the Union. It became a struggle to free 4,000,000 slaves from bondage.

Those who favor the Western Theater and its impact on the eventual outcome of the war point to the siege and surrender of Vicksburg. Coupled with the surrender of Port Hudson, these two events split the Confederacy for as Jefferson Davis had said: “Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” President Lincoln announced, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”

Professor Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia feels very strongly that the Battle of Seven Pines was a turning point in the struggle. The battle which took place on May 31 to June 1, 1862 saw the severe wounding of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and his replacement in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s superior ability as a field command would extend the Confederate effort for almost three more years.

But March 9, 1864 was a significant day in the Union war effort for it was on that day that Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General and appointed General-in-Chief of all of the Union armies. Grant was only the third lieutenant general in the United States Army, following in the footsteps of George Washington and Winfield Scott.

It was the appointment that counted but what Grant did with it. As General-in-Chief with the overall command of five armies, Grant strategy was one that the Confederacy could not overcome. He knew that the South could neither match the North’s industrial capacity nor its manpower advantage.

He proposed a coordinated series of offensives in all theaters of combat. They would begin about May 1st and continue until the Confederacy surrendered. The Confederacy would be unable to move forces from one theater to the other in order to reinforce their forces under attack. His strategy would negate the Southern advantage of having interior lines.

The only exception would be Lee’s dispatch of General Jubal A. Early to the Shenandoah Valley where he outmatched every Union commander until Grant sent General Philip Sheridan to lead the Union effort in the Valley. He eventually defeated Early and deprived Lee’s army of the provisions from this breadbasket of the Confederacy.

Grant realized a fundamental truth. In order to win the war he needed to defeat Lee’s army. Once the South was deprived of the veteran army which was led by their national hero, they would surrender and end the war.

Grant traveled with the Army of the Potomac which was commanded by General George Gordon Meade. Grant set the strategy and Meade mostly carried out the tactics. After the bloody three-day Battle of the Wilderness, the troops expected to withdraw across the Rapidan as “Fighting Joe” Hooker had done after the Battle Chancellorsville.

But Grant had ordered that the pontoon bridges across Germanna Ford on the Rapidan and Lee knew it. Here is how Noah Andre Trudeau in Bloody Roads South relates what occurred at about 8:30 PM on May 7th.

Generals Grant and Meade, with their staffs and escort…started out by the Brock Road, along which Hancock’s men were lying behind the works in which they had been fighting so hard.

A Second Corps soldier recalled later: Shortly after dark a loud cheer suddenly uprose on the right, and was taken up by regiment after regiment, as Generals Grant and Meade, with their staffs, moved toward the left in the direction of Spotsylvania Court House.

A soldier from the 19th Maine was uncertain of the time but he vividly described the scene:

…while the Regiment was resting by the roadside and awaiting developments, Generals Grant and Meade, accompanied by their staffs, rode along and halted at General Hancock’s headquarters…The burning woods lighted up the scene, and when the faces of the commanders were recognized, wild cheers echoed through the forest.”

For two years the Union Army of the Potomac had turned back, retreated and withdrew. No more. One Ninth Corps artilleryman summed up the feelings of many of his fellow Union soldiers:

The rank and file of the army wanted no more retreating, and from the moment when we…continued straight on towards Spotsylvania. I never had a doubt that General Grant would lead us on to final victory.

Neither did Abraham Lincoln. After all, after the Battle of Shiloh when the criticism of Grant’s leadership was called into question, the President said: I can’t spare this man; he fights.


George Gordon Meade

This entry is part 11 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General George Gordon MeadeAfter a series of failed commanders the Army of the Potomac finally was given a commander who would remain with the Army through the end of the war. His name was George Gordon Meade and he was probably the least likely to succeed as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. But succeed he did with the help of talented subordinates and a superior General-in-Chief, Ulysses S. Grant.

Meade was a career professional soldier and civil engineer who had worked on both coastal defenses and several lighthouses. He graduated from West Point in 1935 in the upper half of his class. He served with distinction in both the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War.

After that war he was chiefly involved in lighthouse and breakwater construction and coastal surveying in Florida and New Jersey. He designed Barnegat Light on Long Beach IslandAbsecon Light in Atlantic City, Cape May Light in Cape May, Jupiter Inlet Light in Jupiter, Florida, and Sombrero Key Light in the Florida Keys. He also designed a hydraulic lamp that was adopted by the Lighthouse Board for use in American lighthouses. He was also in command of the Great Lakes survey from 1857 until the start of the war.

Meade started the war as a captain in the regular army but by mid-August 1861 he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers as the commander of the 2nd Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves. At the Battle of Glendale, one of the Seven Days Battles, Meade was severely wounded in the arm, back, and side.

He partially recovered his strength in time for the Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run, in which he led his brigade, then assigned to Maj. Gen.Irvin McDowell‘s corps of the Army of Virginia. His brigade made a heroic stand on Henry House Hill to protect the rear of the retreating Union Army.

At the start of the Maryland Campaign he was promoted to the command of the 3rd Division, I Corps, Army of the Potomac, and distinguished himself during the Battle of South Mountain. During the following the Battle of Antietam he replaced the wounded Joe Hooker who was in command of I Corps. He was wounded once again, this time in the thigh.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Meade’s division made the only breakthrough of the Confederate lines, spearheading through a gap in Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at the southern end of the battlefield. For this action, Meade was promoted to major general of volunteers, to rank from November 29, 1862. His attack was not supported which resulted in the loss of much of his division.

Following Fredericksburg he was given command of V Corps which he led at the Battle of Chancellorsville but they were left in reserve for much of the battle. Meade had argued strenuously for the Army to resume the attack but Hooker, the army commander, chose to withdraw.

Hooker resigned from command of the Army of the Potomac while pursuing Lee in the Gettysburg Campaign. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1863, a messenger from President Abraham Lincoln arrived to inform Meade of his appointment as Hooker’s replacement. Meade was taken by surprise and later wrote to his wife that when the officer entered his tent to wake him, he assumed that Army politics had caught up with him and he was being arrested.

He had not actively sought command and was not the president’s first choice. John F. Reynolds, one of four major generals who outranked Meade in the Army of the Potomac, had earlier turned down the president’s suggestion that he take over. Reynolds was later killed on the first day of the battle.

Meade, with little knowledge of the army’s dispositions much less the enemies, took over the Army of the Potomac at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Maryland. Three days later he commanded the Union forces that defeated Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. The battle was climaxed by Pickett’s Charge at the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.

Both armies suffered fearful casualties and as Lee retreated Meade only sent cavalry to harass the retreating Confederates. Lee was able to set up a strong defensive positions to hold off the Union attackers while he moved his army across the rain-swollen Potomac River. Meade was heavily criticized by President Lincoln and other Washington politicians.

Nonetheless, Meade received a promotion to brigadier general in the regular army and the Thanks of Congress, which commended Meade “… and the officers and soldiers of [the Army of the Potomac], for the skill and heroic valor which at Gettysburg repulsed, defeated, and drove back, broken and dispirited, beyond the Rappahannock, the veteran army of the rebellion.”

After the Gettysburg Campaign Meade led the Army through two campaigns, the Bristoe Campaign and the Mine Run Campaign, which featured rather minor and inconclusive battles due to Meade’s reluctance to attack prepared defensive positions.

A London newspaperman described Meade:

“He is a very remarkable looking man—tall, spare, of a commanding figure in presence, his manner pleasant and easy but having much dignity. His head is partially bald and is small and compact, but the forehead is high. He has the late Duke of Wellington class of nose, and his eyes, which have a serious and almost sad expression, are rather sunken, or appear so from the prominence of the curve nasal appearance. He has a decidedly patrician and distinguished appearance.”

Meade’s short temper earned him notoriety, and while he was respected by most of his peers, he was not well loved by his army. Some referred to him as “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

In March of 1864 Ulysses S. Grant was appointed as the General-in-Chief of all of the Union armies. Meade offered to resign and let Grant choose his own man but Grant told him that he had no intention of replacing him. Grant did choose to travel with the Army of the Potomac since it was the prime weapon that he would use to bring Lee to bay.

Meade chafed at Grant’s close supervision. In June of 1864 Meade ran afoul of the press when he disciplined a reporter from from The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper for an unfavorable article. All of the press assigned to his army agreed to mention Meade only in conjunction with setbacks. Meade apparently knew nothing of this arrangement, and the reporters giving all of the credit to Grant angered Meade.

Grant’s strategy called for all of the Union armies to make simultaneous attacks across the South. This prevented to Confederates from shifting troops from one location to another. It proved to be the winning strategy of the war. The Army of the Potomac’s assignment called for it to attempt to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia by attrition.

Meade had become a more cautious commander and did not like to send his troops against fixed defensive positions. On the other hand, Grant was willing to sacrifice soldiers knowing that he had reinforcements available.

During the Overland Campaign and the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign most of the bloody frontal assaults were ordered by Grant. Meade was also frustrated by the preferential treatment that Grant sometimes gave to subordinates that had come with the General-in-Chief from the Western Theater. The latitude that he allowed Gen. Philip Sheridan with regards to his use of the Cavalry Corps was one such instance.

Meade preferred to have the cavalry perform traditional cavalry functions of reconnaissance, screening, and guarding the army’s trains, but Sheridan objected and told Meade that he could “whip Stuart” if Meade let him. Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who replied, “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.”

Meade deferred to Grant’s judgment and issued orders to Sheridan to “proceed against the enemy’s cavalry” and from May 9 through May 24, sent him on a raid toward Richmond, directly challenging the Confederate cavalry. It was during this foray that J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern.

In the early part of the siege of Petersburg, Meade ordered several assaults without proper reconnaissance. This resulted in high casualties, like those suffered at the Battle of Cold Harbor. He also failed to coordinate the attacks by his corps which allowed the Confederates to reinforce his defensive lines and prolong the siege.

He also not only ordered the digging of the mine under the Confederate lines by troops from Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Corps but he also changed Burnside’s plan to lead the attack with a well-trained African-American division that was highly drilled just for this action. He instructed him to take a politically less risky course and substitute an untrained and poorly led white division. But the resulting Battle of the Crater was one of the great fiascoes of the war.

Meade continued in command of the Army of the Potomac until the end of the war. He held various military commands, including the Military Division of the Atlantic, the Department of the East, and the Department of the South. He replaced Major General John Pope as governor of the Reconstruction Third Military District in Atlanta on January 10, 1868.

George Gordon Meade died in Philadelphia, while still on active duty, from complications of his old wounds, combined with pneumonia, on November 6, 1872. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery.


The Armies of the Union in May 1864

This entry is part 4 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Battle of the WildernessUlysses 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. John M. Schofield‘s Army of the Ohio, consisting of his own XXIII Corps and a cavalry division commanded by Maj. Gen. George Stoneman.

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.

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.