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The timidity of past commanders had been replaced by the determination of Ulysses S. Grant to pursue and destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.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:




The Best Laid Plans…

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series 1864: The Year of Decision

Battle of the Wilderness, skirmishGeneral 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.



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.