The Overland Campaign

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign
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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Grant’s Virginia Strategy

The Overland Campaign was Ulysses S. Grant’s initial campaign against the Confederates in central Virginia. The Overland Campaign included a series of interlinked battles that began in early May 1864 at the Wilderness and concluded at Saint Mary’s Church outside of Richmond in late June. There were at least 14 major and minor engagements during this time span. Some were combined arms battles; others were cavalry battles, such as Yellow Tavern where J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded. Grant had two goals during the Overland Campaign: bleed Lee’s army and force him back to Richmond. He accomplished both.

Grant and LeeGrant planned a three-pronged strategy that was meant to converge on Lee’s army and destroy it. Butler’s force was to march up the James River from Fortress Monroe in support of the main army. His goal was to force the Confederates back along the river and into their entrenchments around Richmond.

Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley was to drive south and prevent the Confederate force under Breckinridge from reinforcing Lee. At the same time a victory in the Valley would cut off vital supplies to the Army of Northern Virginia.

Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps had been attached to Grant’s headquarters and not under Meade. Burnside outranked Meade so in order to avoid a difficult situation between the two; Grant attached the IX Corps to his own headquarters and commanded it through Burnside. It was to have some interesting consequences.

The Army of the Potomac would cross the Rapidan River using fords and pontoon bridges and move against Lee’s force.

Simple and to the point. Find the enemy, fix him in place and destroy him. It would be easier said than done.

On May 3-4, 1863 the great Federal advance began in the East with Sherman’s advance beginning two days later in the West.

First Stages of the Federal Plan

The Wilderness of Virginia was a large area of dense woods, ground vegetation and narrow gullies that stretched along the south bank of the Rappahannock River west of Fredericksburg. An expanse 12 miles long and 6 miles wide it was criss-crossed by narrow dirt roads that were used byOverland Campaign Map logging companies. The best roads ran west to east. The narrow avenues available for movement would nullify the numerical advantage of the Federal forces. The last thing that anyone on the Federal side wanted was to fight a battle in this wasteland. It had been tried once before at Chancellorsville to the regret of Joe Hooker.

The Army of the Potomac was a massive force numbering some 120,000 men. The supplies that would be needed for this campaign would fill 4,300 wagons. Both armies were divided similarly. Each had a number of Corps which were further divided into divisions. Divisions were divided into brigades, brigades into regiments, regiments into companies. However, there weren’t a prescribed number of men in any of these units.

Andrew Atkinson Humphreys was Meade chief of staff. It was his responsibility to turn Grant’s strategy into a logistical plan for the Army of the Potomac’s advance. In order to minimize confusion Humphreys split the army into two parallel columns. The western column consisted of Gouvernor Warren’s V Corps and John Sedgwick’s VI Corps. James Wilson’s 3rd Cavalry Division would lead the advance. This column would cross the Rapidan at Germanna Ford and march to Wilderness Tavern on the first day.

To the east there was a mixed force of David Gregg’s 2nd Cavalry Division followed by Winfield Hancock’s II Corps and the Federal Artillery Reserve. They would cross the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford and head to Chancellorsville.

Burnside’s IX Corps would cover the rear and screen the large supply train. All of this group would also cross at Ely’s Ford. The plan called for the army with its supply trains to be through the Wilderness by the end of the second day.

Humphreys’ plan called for the army to commence crossing in the early morning in order to minimize Confederate observations from Clark’s Mountain. Located along the southern side of the Rapidan River, Clark’s Mountain was a 1,100 foot peak with a commanding view of 20 Virginia counties.  From this prominent position the Confederates could see almost everything that the Federal army was doing.  Lee told one of the young Confederate observers to begin keeping a watch at night. Lee had a feeling that the hammer would fall soon.

Series NavigationThe Battle of the Wilderness (Days One and Two) >>

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