In the Wilderness


*Following the defeat of Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga, both armies saw changes in their leadership.


*Davis at last withdrew Bragg from command, and put in his place Joseph Johnston.


*In March, Lincoln promoted Grant to overall command of Union forces.  Grant went East to take personal command of the Army of the Potomac.  Although Meade remained the nominal head of the Army, Grant directed its movements.  William Tecumseh Sherman was promoted to command of the Army of the Tennessee.


*Grant and Sherman devised a plan for the army.  With the Anaconda Plan's first two objectives completed--the Southern coast blockaded to cut the Confederacy off from the rest of the world and the Mississippi seized to cut the South in half--it was at last time for the third part of the Plan:  on to Richmond! 


*In 1864, Grant moved into Virginia and began to attack Lee.  Grant’s army was larger than Lee’s, but Lee’s men were mostly veterans, and Grant’s were mostly new recruits.  Grant also was not a brilliant commander in the field; he killed thousands in frontal assaults, but he did so in part because he knew he could afford it—the North had far more men to spare than did the South.  When Grant’s campaign in Virginia began, Grant has about 123,000 men compared to Lee’s 65,000, and Grant knew his men could be replaced while Lee's could not.


*Grant and Lee faced off in what is called the Battle of the Wilderness, in Virginia not far from Chancellorsville.  This is actually a series of battles and skirmishes.  The fighting was so intense that the discharge from some of the guns set the dry woods on fire, and some men were burnt to death in the ensuing forest fires.  The battle lasted from 2 to 6 May, 1864, although there were some skirmishes before and after that period.  In the battle General Longstreet, back from Tennessee, was, like Jackson a year before, shot by his own men, but Longstreet eventually recovered.


*Grant took terrible casualties (17,666 compared to 7,500), but refused to retreat.  Rather, he moved South on the 8th, and attacked again.  The Battle of the Wilderness was a tactical victory for the CSA but a strategic win for the North.


*Grant’s next attack was at Spotsylvania Courthouse.  There Lee’s men managed to dig in on a series of hills.  The main fighting was against a Confederate salient called the ‘Mule Shoe.’ The worst fighting along the Mule Shoe was called ‘the Bloody Angle’ where Grant concentrated his men to try to break through in one place, thus disrupting the Southern lines.  Grant’s men weakened the Mule Shoe and it drew back, but they could not take the field. 


*During the battle, Union Cavalry under Sheridan attempted to ride around the Confederate Army, but would be stopped by JEB Stuart, although Stuart would die in the effort.  The battle lasted from 8-19 May when Grant decided he could not take the field and moved on after taking 18,000 casualties and inflicting 12,000 on Lee's army. 


*From 31 May to 3 June, 1864, Grant (with 105,000 men) fought Lee at Cold Harbor, where Lee’s men (59,000 including new reinforcements) were again dug in.  Cold Harbor is infamous for fighting so intense that 7,000 men died in less than an hour.  More would have been killed as Grant ordered further attacks, but his officers refused to obey his orders, knowing them to be futile.  Grant decided now to never again attack Confederate fortifications:  he would instead turn to siege warfare again.


*At Cold Harbor, the Union army lost 13,000 men against a loss of only 2,600 for the Confederates. The battle brought the toll in Union casualties since the beginning of May to a total of more than 52,000 compared to 23,000 for Lee.  For leading his men through such losses, Grant was condemned across the North and the South as a butcher and a monster, and many called for his removal, but Lincoln stood by him, happy to have a general who would keep attacking.


*Grant moved out again, and Lee fled before him, getting to Petersburg, a major rail hub south of Richmond, where he dug in, and Grant prepared for a lengthy siege, ultimately lasting from 15 June, 1864 to 2 April, 1865.  The Union did try a few assaults on the Confederate lines, the most bizarre of which was the Battle of the Crater, on 30 July, 1864.


*Sheridan, hero of Missionary Ridge, accompanied Grant on most of this campaign, but after the siege of Petersburg began, he moved on to the Shenandoah Valley, where he burnt fields full of crops, as well as barns, mills, and other public buildings, killed or confiscated livestock, captured towns such as Winchester, and defeated several Confederate armies.  This was done partly in revenge for Jubal Early’s burning of McCausland, Pennsylvania (itself burnt in revenge for earlier Union depredations in the Valley), but mostly to starve the South.

This page last updated 24 September, 2018.
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