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Chapter 19: Grant's overland campaign against Richmond

  • Army of the Potomac Crosses the Rappahannock
  • -- battles in the Wilderness -- Dana at scene of action -- despatches to Stanton -- advance to Cold Harbor -- abortive battles -- Crosses Chickahominy -- South of the James -- counter-movement against Washington

The winter and spring of 1864, in Washington, constituted a most interesting period. While the Confederacy had received its death-blows at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Missionary Ridge, the Mississippi had been opened and the Union army had established its sway over vast areas of the border States. Lincoln, although greatly encouraged, was far from happy. His re-election was near at hand, but by no means conceded. Many strong men, both in Congress and out of it, thought that he should step aside and allow a stronger one to take his place.

His own cabinet contained two candidates, the Senate several, and the army one at least. The Democratic party had pronounced the war a failure, and so long as Lee remained unvanquished there was a show of reason in their contention. It was absolutely essential that Lee should be beaten and that the Confederacy should be overthrown, and to that end every resource of the government was placed at the disposal of Grant. The forward movement in Virginia began on May 4th, with an effective force of one hundred and twenty thousand men, and only two days after that the desire of both Stanton and Lincoln for the fullest details of the marches and battles became irresistible. Grant, [317] who was habitually reticent, had no time for details, and hence they sent for Dana, who was found at a reception, but who made haste to present himself, although in evening clothes. They told him they had been in the dark since the army began its movement, were greatly troubled, and had concluded to send him to the front again. They naturally asked him how soon he could start, and were correspondingly gratified when he replied, in half an hour. A special train and a cavalry escort were prepared while he was changing his clothes, but the dangerous project still weighed heavily on the President's mind, and although the night was well advanced he sent for Dana again. They went over the subject more fully, but it was not till the kind-hearted President was assured that both Dana and his escort were equipped for running away, if they found themselves confronted by a party which they could not fight successfully, that he dismissed them with, “Good-night, and God bless you!” At seven o'clock on the morning of May 7th they reached the Rappahannock, where they had breakfast. The same afternoon Dana reported to Grant at Piney Branch Church, and notwithstanding the heavy fighting of May 5th and 6th, in the almost impenetrable jungles of the Wilderness, he found the army moving slowly but successfully towards Spottsylvania Court-House.

This of itself was a momentous fact, which he reported at once to Washington. Hitherto the Army of the Potomac, which now constituted Grant's main command and principal dependence, had not fought its battles through. It had had ample time to rest and recruit, and had been heavily reinforced. Its cavalry had been reorganized and placed under Sheridan. Its material and transportation were in good condition, and everything seemed to favor success. The plan for an advance by the left was fairly under way, but unfortunately the movements of the infantry columns were not rapid enough to carry them through the Wilderness [318] to the open country beyond, before Lee had sallied out and boldly brought them to bay. The situation was one of great peril. Under similar circumstances the Army of the Potomac had twice before given up its advance and recrossed the Rappahannock. On the night of the 6th the question arose in the minds of many as to whether it would not do so again. Grant had met Lee and had fought him two days without gaining a substantial victory. Would he fight him again, or would he retreat? For two hours--indeed, for all that night — the fate of Grant and of the great army under his command seemed hanging in the balance; but fortunately the lieutenant-general's courage proved to be equal to the great emergency, and with the determination to fight it out on that line if it took all summer, he pressed forward on the road to Richmond.

At this juncture Dana arrived on the scene of action, and was soon familiar with all that had taken place, and, what was better, was soon doing all in his power to support and encourage the forward movement. And the value of support and encouragement at this juncture will be better understood when the fact is recalled that there were only two generals and three staff-officers in all that army that had ever been in campaign or battle with Grant; that he was surrounded by strangers who, to say the least, were generally doubtful of his capacity to lead them successfully against Lee and his hitherto invincible veterans.

I found Dana at Grant's headquarters soon after his arrival, and from that time forth, whenever I could go to headquarters, or it was not too dangerous for him to come to me, we met frequently. He was in fine spirits, and from the day of his arrival he was, as of old, on terms of the closest intimacy with Grant and his staff. All were glad to see him and to assist him in getting the facts as they occurred. His despatches were sent daily, and even [319] hourly when necessary, and were based upon his own observations as well as upon official information as it came to headquarters. They covered every detail of interest; but as the generals commanding the various corps and divisions were men of experience and approved ability, and as the organization of the army itself had been controlled by Grant and was in every way satisfactory to him, Dana had but little occasion to comment upon the leading officers. All of Dana's despatches, something over seventy in number, are set forth in the Official Records just as they were sent.1 Whenever necessary for the purposes of this narrative, I have quoted from them, but much the larger part of what I have said is drawn from other sources. In the third one of the series he reports the occupation of Spottsylvania Court-House by the cavalry; the arrival of Longstreet at that place with two divisions of infantry that had marched all night; Grant's order for Warren to attack them with the support of Sedgwick; the death of Sedgwick, and the failure of these two corps to attack as ordered. He also reported Grant's orders to detach Sheridan with the cavalry corps, to operate against Lee's communications, and, after doing all possible damage, to march to the James River and communicate with Butler. This was followed by the statement that “General Hobart Ward is under arrest for running away” from the battle in the Wilderness, and that General H. G. Wright had succeeded to the command of Sedgwick's corps.

The next sixteen despatches, from the 10th to the 18th inclusive, relate to battles for the possession of Spottsylvania Court-House. They describe in sufficient detail the operations of Hancock's corps on the right in the neighborhood of Corbin's Bridge; the departure of Sheridan [320] with the cavalry, leaving the army with an effective strength of only ninety-four thousand men; Upton's successful assault of the enemy's works with twelve regiments; the failure to support his movement; the transfer of Hancock's corps from the extreme right to a position between Wright and Burnside; his impetuous and successful assault of the enemy's works, and his capture of two generals, with eighteen cannon and many prisoners; the dissatisfaction of Grant and Meade with Warren; the night transfer of Warren and Wright to the left; the rumors of Lee's retirement; the prevalence of rain; the fatigue of the army; the second successful assault by the intrepid Upton; the massing of the army in compact formation to cover Fredericksburg, and to resist counter-attack; the continuance of rainy weather and bad roads; the concentration of Lee's army around the Court-House, covering the road from Fredericksburg to Richmond; the withdrawal of Lee's trains to Guiney's Station; a full statement of the killed, wounded, and missing, amounting on May 16th to a grand total of 36,872; the arrival of the first reinforcements; another order “to attack at daylight,” which was not obeyed; an order for a further decisive movement towards the left; a sudden but unsuccessful return to the right; the gallantry of the new heavy artillery troops; and finally the success of the turning movement which compelled the enemy to withdraw towards Richmond, and enabled Grant to advance to Guiney's Station.

From this place to Cold Harbor the operations of the contending armies were minutely described, but as they consisted mainly of turning movements to the left across the intervening rivers, in which Grant showed great resolution and persistency, and tie prompt and unerring precision with which Lee interposed his army between him and Richmond, I need not analyze them day by day. They make it clear that Lee carefully avoided giving [321] battle in the open, and that his army thenceforth fought mostly behind breastworks, while on the other hand Grant and his generals were becoming more and more cautious, and their men were more and more reluctant to attack the enemy when covered by intrenchments.

By May 20th Sheridan with his cavalry had regained touch with the army, and thenceforth, till he was again detached, contributed greatly to the success of Grant's effective manoeuvres. Both officers and men approved their wisdom, and greatly preferred them to the “smash-'em-up” policy which, unfortunately, again became the cry a few days later.

On the 26th Dana, after giving a detailed account of the day's operations, closed his despatch with these significant words:

... One of the most important results of the campaign thus far is the entire change which has taken place in the feelings of the armies. The rebels have lost all confidence, and are already morally defeated. This army has learned to believe that it is sure of victory. Even our officers have ceased to regard Lee as an invincible military genius. On part of the rebels this change is evinced not only by their not attacking even when circumstances seem to invite it, but by the unanimous statement of prisoners taken from them. Rely upon it, the end is near as well as sure.

A few days later he chronicled the success of the cavalry operations in aid of the flanking movement which carried the army, without accident or delay, to Hawe's Shop south of the Pamunkey. After giving a full account of the various operations, he emphasized the fact that our officers and men were “in high spirits at the successful execution of this last long and difficult flank movement,” that Grant himself, feeling doubtful of its success, had feared for a while that he might be obliged to go to the White House [322] to make his crossing certain, that he meant to fight in that neighborhood “if he had a fair chance,” without running “his head against heavy works,” and that at any rate he would remain there over the next day to give time for the cavalry to break up the railroads and destroy the bridges over Little River and the South Anna.

Notwithstanding the heavy fighting which began on May 30th, Dana took time, at Grant's special request, to call the Secretary of War's attention to the fact that at New Orleans, and perhaps elsewhere, a custom had grown up of paying commutation for fuel and quarters to officers lodged in the houses of rebels, and recommending that a general order should be issued prohibiting the practice everywhere within the limits of the rebellious States. In the same despatch Dana called attention to the serious mismanagement of all the administrative departments of the Ninth army corps: that the men were without rations and the animals without forage, that the artillery horses had not had their harness taken off for nine days, that their shoulders and backs were sore, and that a thousand new horses were wanted immediately to supply the waste. He closed his despatch with the statement that this lamentable condition of affairs was known to Grant, and ought to be known to the War Department also.

On May 31st he noted the fact that the enemy was holding fast on the Cold Harbor road, that the cavalry could not finish the destruction of the railroad and bridges and rejoin “before to-morrow night,” that Smith, with reinforcements from Butler's army, was delayed at New Castle, and had been directed not to begin his march towards Cold Harbor till he had everything ready.

On June 1st Dana reported that Sheridan, after heavy fighting, had male good his hold on Cold Harbor; that if Wright had been there to support him, they might have [323] dispersed Lee's army; that both Grant and Meade were intensely disgusted with the failure of Wright and Warren; and finally that “Meade says a radical change must be made, no matter how unpleasant it may be to make it, but I doubt whether he will really attempt to apply so extreme a remedy.”

This despatch, dated 5 P. M., praised Sheridan “as a general who obeys orders without excessive reconnoitering.” This was followed by the announcement that he was engaged in a new turning movement around Lee's right flank and against his rear, and closes with the significant statement that

... General Grant's present design is to crowd the rebel army south of the Chickahominy; then he means to destroy both of the railroads up to the North Anna before he moves from here; besides, he wishes to keep the enemy so engaged here that he can detach no troops to interfere with the operations of Hunter.2

In pursuance of the policy of crowding Lee south of the Chickahominy, Dana's later despatches of the same evening, aided by those of the next day, show that while Sheridan's orders did not reach him in time to enable him to perform the part assigned to him, Wright, Smith, Warren, and Hancock had all been engaged and had suffered heavy loss; and that notwithstanding each of these generals claimed to have gained substantial advantage, Lee still held fast to the battle-field. Fierce and determined fighting, in which the enemy sallied from his cover, followed after nightfall, but without changing the general result. Grant remained unshaken, and, notwithstanding his heavy losses, ordered a renewal of the attack to be made early the next morning. It will not be forgotten that he had indicated his disposition only a few days before [324] not “to run his head against heavy works,” if it could be avoided. Dana's despatches throw but little light upon the abandonment of this policy, and yet it is certain that it had not escaped his observation. He records the fact that the order to attack on the morning of the 2d had not been carried into effect, and that Grant, at 2 P. M., had postponed it on account of heat and dust and the fatigue of Hancock's men till 4 A. M. the next day.

Dana gives a full account of the fighting on the 3d, but it was all costly and abortive. The order of battle from left to right was Hancock, Wright, Smith, Warren (in single line), with Burnside massed in rear of his right wing. Sheridan with two divisions of cavalry was on the extreme left, while Wilson with one division was well beyond and behind the enemy on the extreme right; but there was no coherence or co-operation between the various parts of the extended line. Indeed, singular as it may seem, none was provided for in the order of battle, and but little was possible. The fighting was desultory and hopeless from the first. According to Dana:

... At noon we had fully developed the rebel lines, and could see what was necessary to get through them. Hancock reported that in his front it could not be done. Wright was decidedly of opinion that a lodgement could be made in his front, but it would be difficult to make much by it, unless Hancock and Smith could also advance. Smith thought he could carry the work before him, but was not sanguine. Burnside also thought he could get through, but Warren, who was nearest him, did not seem to share this opinion. In this state of things General Grant ordered the attack to be suspended. . . . The weather is cool and pleasant. Showers have laid the dust.

It was on the third day that many of the disheartened soldiers wrote their names upon strips of paper and pinned [325] them to their coats for the identification of their bodies in case of death. It was this series of disjointed, disconnected, and unsupported attacks, extending over three days and several miles of front, which Smith afterwards characterized as “murderous.” Knowing that Grant had, from the first, left the details of carrying his orders into effect to Meade and his corps commanders, he held that officer primarily responsible for the useless loss of life, and criticised his generalship in unmeasured terms. It was in allusion to these attacks, and the absence of any provision whatever to make them successful, or even to take advantage of such success as chance might give to them, that the young but experienced Upton frankly confessed that there was no position in connection with that army to which he did not aspire.3 It was in connection with the costly series of battles from the Pamunkey to the Chickahominy that the newspapers now joined in the flood of criticism, which, for the first time, was concentrated upon Grant rather than upon Meade.

To those who took part in the campaign, it at once became a question of absorbing interest as to who was responsible for it all. After having attacked Lee's left flank in rear, I closed in upon the infantry, and for the first time in ten days found myself within reach of Grant's headquarters. Dana made his way to my bivouac on the evening of June 4th, and after dining with me on coffee, hardtack, roasted wheat, and fried bacon, told me the story of the marches and battles as he had learned it from personal observation. On the 7th, after conference with Grant, Meade, and Humphreys, I had conversations with Rawlins, Dana, Comstock, Porter, and Babcock, during which each gave me interesting details of what had taken place. On the afternoon of the 8th Dana and Rawlins [326] came to my camp near Long Bridge and remained to dinner, during which they took me completely into their confidence. They not only told me the story of the marches and battles substantially as I have condensed it above, but they did more: they gave me their innermost views of the campaign, its successes and its failures, concealing nothing and extenuating nothing. During this conversation they made it known to me, substantially as set forth in Dana's despatch of June 4th-7 P..A., that our infantry had begun regular siege approaches to the rebel works; that Sheridan had been ordered to destroy the railroad from Richmond through Gordonsville to Lynchburg, as an indispensable element in Grant's plan; that Grant expected before reaching the Chickahominy to have crushed Lee's army by fair fighting and completed this work; that before moving further in accomplishing the great object of the campaign the work of destruction must be finished; and finally that, if Sheridan failed in it, the whole army would swing around for that purpose, even if it should be necessary to temporarily abandon its communications with the White House. They commented with approval on the flanking movements which had brought the army from Spottsylvania to Cold Harbor with comparatively little loss. They heartily favored its continuance, and as heartily condemned “the insane policy of butting into intrenchments.” They lamented the bloody experiences of Cold Harbor, and explained that the change of policy which had there shown itself with such distressing results was due to the personal influence of an engineer who had come from the West with Grant and enjoyed his highest confidence. It was this officer to whom Rawlins attributed the cry of “Smash 'em up! Smash 'em up!” They explained that it embodied the pernicious idea which had taken possession of Grant and done all the mischief. When I expressed surprise that Rawlins had not prevented [327] its adoption, they called attention to the fact that the lieutenant-general's working staff was now composed mainly of regulars, of but recent acquaintance with Grant and but little experience with troops, and that, while they had perhaps not intended it, they had supplanted Rawlins in the dominating influence which he had hitherto exercised with his chief. The criticisms to which I have alluded had not yet become known to the army. Smith gave me his views, a few days later, in a letter which, with his permission, I sent to Dana to be used as he thought best, but both Dana and Rawlins were powerless. There was no one to whom they could appeal as against Grant, who was now in supreme command, by their concurrence, and this satisfactorily accounts for the fact that no mention of these criticisms is to be found in Dana's despatches. Their only course, with all the help they could get, was to exert their influence directly upon Grant himself as opportunity offered. What they or others may have said after that to Grant I have no means of knowing, but it is certain that Rawlins remained at his post to the end, never changing nor concealing his opinions, and never failing to condemn the policy of “Smash 'em up” when he had a proper opportunity. It is also certain that Grant at once resumed his sounder practice of resorting to turning movements, and never afterwards butted into intrenchments when it could be avoided. Whether this decision was due to his own reflections and good judgment, or to the weight of criticism and influence to which he had been subjected, must forever remain an unsettled question.

Fortunately for the country, Grant was not a general to remain long idle or in doubt. On June 7th Dana reported, with many other details, that Sheridan had set out at 3 A. M. to destroy the railroads north and west of Richmond; that Grantis now nearly ready to strike for the James.” Later the same day he reported that [328] “Crittenden had asked to be relieved because his division is not equal to his rank” ; that certain transports were not clean enough for wounded soldiers; and that one of them was serving “beef to wounded soldiers so fat and gristly that even the well could not eat it.”

On June 8th, at 4 P. M., Dana reported to Stanton, among other things, that two divisions of Warren's corps had taken position to the left of Hancock near Botton's Bridge; that two officers of Grant's staff were with Butler, “making preparatory arrangements for the movement of this army to Bermuda Hundred, and that-possibly the march may begin to-morrow night.”

From the sane despatch it appears that the correspondent of a Cincinnati newspaper had given currency to the report that General Meade, after the battle of the Wilderness, had favored the withdrawal of the army to the north side of the Rappahannock, and that Grant had prevented it. It also appears that Meade, incensed by this report, had that day caused the provost-guard to arrest the offender, and, after parading him through the camps with large placards on his breast and back inscribed “Libeller of the press,” had expelled him from the lines.

On June 9th Dana reported the army as still at Cold Harbor, working under General Barnard's direction at a line of inner intrenchments to cover its withdrawal, which would probably take place the next night; that Meade was much troubled at the report that after the battle of the Wilderness he had counselled retreat; that this report was “entirely untrue,” and that Meade had not shown any weakness of that sort, nor had he once intimated a doubt as to the successful issue of the campaign. As this despatch was sent with Grant's knowledge and approval, it gave great comfort to both Meade and the administration at the time, end should have put the discreditable rumor to rest forever. [329]

Dana's despatches show that he remained at Cold Harbor till the afternoon of June 12th with Grant; that the long halt of the army was at an end, and that the great movement by the left, apparently against Richmond, but really to cross the James River at Bermuda Hundred, was to begin that night. His last act before breaking camp that afternoon was to call the attention of the Secretary of War to the misconduct of Generals Ward, Owen, and Eustis, and to the fact that General Grant desired General Slocum, who was making war against a den of thieves at Vicksburg, should be left in command at that place. His first act after getting into camp that night four miles beyond Long Bridge was to report “everything going on perfectly; ... troops moving rapidly; ... weather splendid.”

During the entire day of June 13th Dana appears to have been engaged in riding from point to point, for the purpose of watching and reporting the movement of the army by the left flank towards Fort Powhatan on the James. The next day he crossed the James to Butler's headquarters at Bermuda Hundred, and the day afterwards went to City Point. His despatches for that period cover all the important operations in that field, and show that “All goes on like a miracle” ; that “the weather is cloudy, threatening rain, but I think we shall get everything out of the Chickahominy bottom upon the highlands along the James River before any trouble from that source.” Singularly enough, he added, “We know nothing of Lee's movements. He has not yet sent troops to Petersburg.” He reports later that Smith was to have attacked the last-named place at daylight on the 15th, that at 4 P. M. he had carried a line of intrenchments, and that at 7.20 P. M. he assaulted and carried “the principal line” before Petersburg. In the same despatch he tells us that he had ridden over the conquered lines with Grant, and found them to be “more difficult even to take than was [330] Missionary Ridge” ; that none of Lee's army had reached Petersburg when Smith stormed it, but that they seemed to be there the morning afterwards, making arrangements to hold the west side of the Appomattox. He commends the pontoon — bridge built by Major Duane, nearly seven hundred yards long, as “of the most admirable solidity.”

By the 19th it became evident that Smith's work was incomplete, and that the enemy had constructed an inner line covering Petersburg, which he meant to hold if possible. According to Dana, it was to meet this condition of affairs that Grant again ordered a general assault, which was, as usual, unsuccessful; that the fighting “had not been equal to our previous fighting, owing to our heavy loss in superior officers” ; that Grant, who was responsible for the first day's fighting, while Meade had ordered that of the second and third days, had finally declared “that no more assaults should be made, and that he would now maneuver.” It also appeared that Sheridan's attempt to destroy the railroads north of Richmond had not been entirely successful, and that Ewell's corps had gone to Lynchburg. In his despatch of June 20th Dana says, “Meade is ordered to devote himself to swinging his army around upon the south and southwest of Petersburg,” with the view of cutting both the Weldon and Lynchburg railroads, and resting his left flank on the Appomattox. He adds:

... As the object is to get possession of the railroad and enclose the enemy, fighting will not be sought for, though of course it will not be avoided. Once extended to the Appomattox, the railroad will be thoroughly destroyed as far south as practicable, then, if necessary, the Army of the Potomac may . . . move upon the Danville road, leaving its base of supplies here to be guarded by its fortifications and the forces of General Butler.

Official Records, Dana to Stanton, July 20, 1864-5 P. M.


This statement, it will be observed, is most important, as it clearly shows that Grant's plan on that day was to break up the Confederate railroads, and force his way by the left flank to the Appomattox River. It is a noteworthy fact that this remained his general plan to the end, and that Lee, for nearly ten months, or till his right flank was finally turned, beaten, and driven back at Five Forks, succeeded in defeating every movement and combination to carry it into effect.

Lee's detachment of Ewell, also mentioned for the first time in that despatch, was an event of the greatest importance, for it not only put the seal to the defeat of Hunter at Lynchburg, but notified the government of a series of bold and energetic counter-movements down the valley of the Shenandoah against Washington, which were destined to completely paralyze Grant's aggressive plans, and compel the principal army under his command to maintain a defensive attitude till the following spring.

This was one of the most interesting epochs in the history of the war. It gave rise to several misunderstandings and controversies, the most important of which was between Generals Butler and W. F. Smith. Dana's despatches throw light upon them all. Having been written in the midst of the events which they describe, they are of unusual value to the historian, and will be more fully referred to in the next chapter.

1 Dana, Recollections of the Civil War, p. 189 et seq.

2 Then marching against Lynchburg.

3 Life and letters of Major-General Emory Upton. D. Appleton & Co.

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