Grant's overland campaign.
I. Combinations of the spring campaign.
If one should seek to discover the cause of the indecisive character of the Virginia
campaigns, and why it was that for three years the Army of the Potomac, after each advance towards Richmond
, was doomed to see itself driven back in discomfiture, it might be thought that a sufficient explanation was furnished in the consideration of the inherent difficulty of the task, arising from the near equality of its adversary in material strength, and the advantage the Confederates
enjoyed in fighting defensively on such a theatre as Virginia
But to these weighty reasons must be added another, of a larger scope, and having relation to the general conduct of the war. Justice to the Army of the Potomac demands that this should here be stated, especially as the campaign on which I am about to enter will, happily, show the army under new auspices as regards this particular.
, the Army of the Potomac had not only to combat the main army of the South
, but an army that, by means of the interior lines held by the Confederates
, might be continually strengthened from the forces in the western zone, unless these should be under such constant pressure as to prevent their
To the Confederates
bore the character of a fortress thrust forward on the flank of the theatre of war; and such was their estimate of its importance, that they were always ready to make almost any sacrifice elsewhere to insure its tenure.
In this they were greatly favored by the false and wasteful military policy of the North
, between whose two great armies in the East
and the West
there had hitherto been such lack of combination of effort, that the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the West had commonly found themselves in their extremest crises at the moment when the other, reduced to inaction, left the Confederates
free to concentre rapidly on the vital point.
Since the time when, for a brief period, McClellan
had exercised the functions of generalin-chief—a period during which he had opportunity to outline, but not to execute, a comprehensive system of operations—an incredible incoherence prevailed in the general conduct of the war. For three years there was presented the lamentable spectacle of a multitude of independent armies, acting on various lines of operations, and working not only with no unity of purpose, but frequently at cross-purposes; while in the military councils at Washington
there ruled alternately an uninstructed enthusiasm and a purblind pedantry.
At the period already reached in this narrative, the conviction had become general throughout the North
that this crude experimentalism was seriously jeoparding all hope of a successful issue of the war. This prompted the nomination of Major-General Grant
to the grade of lieutenant-general— in which rank he was confirmed by the Senate on the 2d March; and on the 10th, a special order of President Lincoln
assigned him to the command of all the ‘armies of the United States
The elevation of General Grant
to the lieutenantgeneral-ship gave perfect satisfaction throughout the North
—a sentiment arising not more from the conviction that it put the conduct of the war on a sound footing, than from the high estimate held by the public of General Grant
's military talent.
The country had long ago awaked from its early dream of a coming ‘Napoleon
,’ and there was no danger of its cherishing any such delusion respecting General Grant
; but it saw in him a steadfast, pertinacious commander, one who faithfully represented the practical, patient, persevering genius of the North
As it was his happy fortune to reach the high office of general-in-chief at a time when the Administration and the people, instructed somewhat in war and war's needs, were prepared to give him an intelligent support, he was at once able, with all the resources of the country at his call, with a million men in the field, and a generous and patriotic people at his back, to enter upon a comprehensive system of combined operations.
Moreover, the instrument given him to work withal was one highly tempered and brought to a fine and hard edge.
The troops had become, by the experience of service, thoroughly inured to war. They could march, manoeuvre, and fight.
The armies, in fact, were real
armies, and were, therefore, prepared to execute operations that at an earlier period would have been utterly impracticable.
was committed by the whole bent of his nature to vigorous action; and, upon taking into his hand the baton, he resolved upon a gigantic aggressive system that should embrace simultaneous blows throughout the whole continental theatre of war. His theory of action looked to the employment of the maximum of force against the armies of the Confederates
, to such a direction of this power as would engage the entire force of the enemy at one and the same time, and to delivering a series of heavy and uninterrupted blows in the style of what the Duke
used to call ‘hard pounding,’ and of what General Grant
has designated as ‘continuous hammering.’
The armed force of the Confederacy
was at this time mainly included in the two great armies of Johnston
—the former occupying an intrenched position at Dalton, Georgia
, the latter ensconced within the lines of the Rapidan
These bodies were still almost as powerful in numbers as any the South
had ever had in the field.
Their intrinsic weakness lay in the fact that those reservoirs of strength from which armies must constantly draw to repair the never-ceasing waste of war were well-nigh exhausted; that the sustaining power of the rebellion—to wit, the moral energy of the people—had so declined, that what remained of arms-bearing population in the South
evaded rather than courted service in the field.
Still, the existing armies presented a formidable and unabashed front, and by skilful conduct they might yet hope to do much.
The immediate command of all the armies west of the Alleghany mountains
, and east of the Mississippi River
, was committed to Major-General W. T. Sherman
, who was intrusted with the duty of acting against Johnston
's force by a campaign having as its objective point Atlanta
, the great railroad centre of the middle zone.
then established his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, from where he designed to exercise general supervision of the movements of all the armies.
This act was of itself a recognition of that primacy of interest and importance which belonged to that army, but which appeared, for a time, to have passed from it to its more fortunate rival in the western theatre of operations.
saw that the task assigned the Army of the Potomac was no less momentous now than ever; for it still confronted, in Virginia
, the foremost army of the Confederacy
, under the Confederacy
's foremost military leader.
After three years of colossal combat, that army, the head and front of all the hostile offending, still continued to cover Richmond
—a point which had been the first objective of the army's efforts, and which, though originally of no marked military importance, had come to acquire the kind of value that attaches to a national capital.
Bearing on its bayonets the fate of the Confederacy
, the Army of Northern Virginia stood erect and defiant, defending Richmond
No man but knew that so long as it held the field, the rebellion had lease of life.
It was the destruction
of this force that General Grant
undertook to accomplish, by the double agency of direct attack, and by engaging all the remaining forces of the enemy available for its re-enforcement.
Having provided for the latter in instructions to his lieutenants, he fixed his headquarters at Culpepper Courthouse during the last days of March, and sat down to study the difficult chess-board of Virginia
His opponent was that same veteran player who had checkmated so many antagonists—Robert E. Lee
Thus were brought face to face those Two whom, by common consent, the North
and the South
regarded as its own and its antagonist's ablest military leader.
It was natural that a surpassing interest should attach to the portentous game of war to which these rivals prepared to address themselves.
From the moment the nature of the coming campaign disclosed itself, the sounding notes of preparation and the energetic concentration of force in Virginia
, made it manifest that it was no ordinary passage at arms in which the contending hosts were to meet; but a remorseless life and death struggle.
was fully resolved, by rapid and remorseless blows, to crush that army which, spite of the many shocks it had received in past years, seemed yet invulnerable.
knew well the matchless temper of the instrument he wielded, and though he saw the superior heft of his antagonist's arm, and read that in his eye which showed the combat must be mortal, he did not lose heart of hope that by a stubborn defensive and quick returns of offence he might still hold his own.
In entering upon the problem of framing a plan of campaign against Richmond
and the covering force, there was one question that could not fail to present itself to General Grant
, and it is one of a higher order than any mere point of grand tactics.
It has relation to the choice of a line of operation against Richmond
as between that of the ‘overland route’ and a transfer of the army to the Peninsula
, or the south side of the James River
The former of these methods had been repeatedly essayed during the past three years—by Burnside
route; by Pope
by the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
Uniform ill-success had attended each attempted advance, and the many repulses the Army of the Potomac had met on that line had marked it with a bloody condemnation.1
The distance to Richmond
by this route, from any front held along the Rappahannock
, is between sixty and seventy miles. This necessarily involves communications excessively long and difficult to maintain for an army dependent for its supplies on its wagons, while the march must be made in a region full of the finest defensive positions.
Whether the movement be made by the Fredericksburg
or by the Orange
and Alexandria Railroad
—the only two lines of manoeuvres available in the overland routepeculiar difficulties beset it on each.
But assuming these to be severally overpassed, the successful execution of the long march only results in bringing the army abreast the fortifications of Richmond
, within which the defending force, with its communications south and west all open and intact, might stand an indefinite siege.
In other words, the aggressive army is brought to a dead-lock; and if it be attempted to undo this by shifting to the south side of the James River
, with the view of operating against Richmond
's communications, the transfer is made at the expense of the one advantage of the overland route (namely, that it covers the national capital), and the same line of operations is taken up, after enormous cost, that might have been assumed at first, without any sacrifice whatever.
If the army, therefore, is strong enough, and so placed by the presence of such a garrison and covering force for the defence of Washington
as to leave that city out of the question, there would seem to be every advantage in taking up, at the start, a line of operations that obviates the peculiar difficulties of the overland route.
Now, it is an interesting fact that, at the time the problem of the