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The Overland Campaign, or Grant's Overland Campaign, was a series of battles fought in Virginia during May and June, 1864, in the American Civil War. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of all Union armies, directed the actions of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and other forces against Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
In March 1864, Grant was summoned from the Western Theater, promoted to lieutenant general, and given command of all Union armies. He chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac although Meade remained the actual commander of that army. He left Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in command of most of the western armies. Grant devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of Confederacy from multiple directions: Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Lee near Richmond; Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley; Sherman to invade Georgia, defeat Joseph E. Johnston, and capture Atlanta; George Crook and William W. Averell to operate against railroad supply lines in West Virginia; Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama. This was the first time the Union armies would have a coordinated offensive strategy across a number of theaters.
Although previous Union campaigns in Virginia had the Confederate capital of Richmond as their primary objective, this time the objective was the destruction of Lee's army. Grant ordered Meade, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also."
At the beginning of the campaign, the forces to be engaged were 101,895 for the Union, 61,025 for the Confederates. Grant was prepared to fight a war of attrition—battles in which the superior Union forces would bleed Lee's army. Both Union and Confederate casualties could be high, but the Union had greater resources to replace lost soldiers and equipment. Grant did have a manpower challenge to deal with, however. A number of soldiers in the Army of the Potomac were on three-year enlistments that would expire during the campaign. Some of these soldiers would be obviously reluctant to participate in dangerous assaults with so little time left in their service. Grant supplemented his forces by transferring soldiers manning the heavy artillery batteries in the Washington, D.C., defenses into new infantry regiments.
The Overland Campaign began as Grant's forces (the Army of the Potomac under Meade and the IX Corps under Ambrose Burnside) crossed the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864. Their objective was to move as quickly as possible through the area known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania and engage Lee somewhere south of it. (The Wilderness was the same area in which part of the Battle of Chancellorsville was fought in 1863 and Grant knew it was an unsuitable place to encounter Lee. The dense undergrowth negated much of the Union's advantages in men and artillery.)
The battles fought during the Overland Campaign were:
- Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7, 1864) — Meade foolishly allowed his army to camp overnight in the Wilderness and Lee moved quickly to counter Grant's advance. Lee attacked down two roads with the corps of Richard S. Ewell and A.P. Hill and a vicious fight erupted. On the 6th, the corps of James Longstreet launched a surprise flank attack; Longstreet was seriously wounded. Despite enormous losses (on both sides), Grant disengaged and moved southeast to the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House.
- Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21, 1864) — Lee beat Grant to his objective and dug in. In a series of attacks over two weeks, Grant hammered away at the Confederate lines, mostly centered on a salient known as the "Mule Shoe". A massive assault by Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps on the "Bloody Angle" portion of this line, May 12, would foreshadow the breakthrough tactics employed against trenches late in World War I. Grant once again disengaged and slipped to the southeast.
- Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864) — The cavalry corps in Meade's army under Philip Sheridan had been utilized up until now purely as a screening and reconnaissance force. Sheridan went over Meade's head and received permission from Grant to operate as a separate force that would pursue and battle J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry corps. The two cavalrymen clashed at Yellow Tavern and Stuart was mortally wounded.
- Battle of Wilson's Wharf (May 24, 1864) — Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry division attacked the Union supply depot at Wilson's Wharf and was repulsed by two black regiments under Brig. Gen. Edward Wild .
- Battle of North Anna (May 23–26, 1864) — Intercepting Grant's movement, Lee positioned his forces behind the North Anna River in a salient that would force Grant to divide his army to attack it. On May 23, one of A.P. Hillís divisions assaulted the V Corps, which had crossed the river, resulting in bloody, but inconclusive, fighting. On the 24th, Union infantry was repulsed at Ox Ford, but advanced on the Confederate right. Lee had the opportunity to defeat Grant in detail, but failed to attack in the manner necessary to spring the trap he had set, possibly because of an illness. Grant continued moving southeast, in the direction of Old Cold Harbor.
- Battle of Haw's Shop (May 28, 1864) — David McM. Gregg's Union cavalry division, supported by Alfred Torbert 's division, advanced to cover the Army of the Potomac's crossing of the Pamunkey River and movement toward Totopotomoy Creek. Fitzhugh Lee's and Wade Hampton's cavalry divisions met the Federals at Enon Church. After seven hours of mostly dismounted cavalry fighting, the Federal advance was stopped.
- Battle of Totopotomoy Creek (May 28–30, 1864) — Lee's forces had entrenched behind the Totopotomoy Creek, covering all of the direct approaches to Richmond. The II Corps forced a crossing of the creek in two places, capturing the first line of Confederate trenches, but the advance was stopped at the main line. In the meantime, the V Corps, moving near Bethesda Church on the far left flank of the Union army, was attacked by Jubal A. Early's corps. The Federals were driven back to Shady Grove Road after heavy fighting.
- Battle of Old Church (May 30, 1864) — With the armies stalemated along the Totopotomoy Creek line, the Federal cavalry began probing east and south. Torbert's Union cavalry division attacked and defeated Matthew C. Butler 's Brigade near Old Church. Butler's troopers were driven steadily back on the road to Old Cold Harbor, opening the door for Sheridan's capture of the important crossroads the next day.
- Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31–June 12, 1864) — On May 31, Sheridan's cavalry seized the vital crossroads of Old Cold Harbor, and on June 1, repulsed an attack by Confederate infantry. Confederate reinforcements arrived from Richmond and from the Totopotomoy Creek lines. Late on June 1, the Union VI and XVIII Corps reached Cold Harbor and assaulted the Confederate works with some success. By June 2, both armies were on the field, forming on a seven-mile front that extended from Bethesda Church to the Chickahominy River. At dawn June 3, the II and XVIII Corps, followed later by the IX Corps, assaulted along the Bethesda Church-Cold Harbor line and were slaughtered at all points. The armies confronted each other on these lines until the night of June 12, when Grant again advanced by his left flank, marching to the James River.
- Battle of Trevilian Station (June 11–12, 1864) — To draw off the Confederate cavalry and open the door for a general movement to the James River, Sheridan mounted a large-scale cavalry raid into Louisa County, threatening to cut the Virginia Central Railroad. On June 11, Sheridan with the Gregg's and Torbert's divisions attacked Hampton's and Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry divisions at Trevilian Station. Sheridan drove a wedge between the Confederate divisions, throwing them into confusion. On the 12th, fortunes were reversed. Hampton and Lee dismounted their troopers and drew a defensive line across the railroad and the road to Gordonsville. From this advantageous position, they beat back several determined dismounted assaults. Sheridan withdrew after destroying about six miles of the Virginia Central Railroad. The Confederate victory at Trevilian prevented Sheridan from reaching Charlottesville and cooperating with Hunter's army in the Valley.
- Battle of Saint Mary's Church (June 24, 1864) — Hampton's cavalry attempted to cut off Sheridan's cavalry returning from their raid to Trevilian Station. Sheridan fought a delaying action to protect a long supply train under his protection, then rejoined the Union army at Bermuda Hundred.
Although the overall campaign must be considered a Union strategic victory, because it maneuvered Lee into an untenable position and critically depleted his already scarce resources, most of the individual battles were Confederate victories. Grant differed from his predecessors in his determination to keep moving south despite his massive losses. The campaign was the bloodiest in American history: approximately 53,000 casualties on the Union side (of which 7,600 were killed), 31,500 (4,200 killed) on the Confederate. Grant received a reputation as a "butcher" at the time and history has maintained the attitude that he needlessly threw lives away in fruitless frontal assaults to bludgeon Lee. It is worth noting that Lee's losses, although lower in absolute numbers, were a higher percentage of his army than Grant's were. And, that Grant accomplished more with his 53,000 casualties than all his predecessor Union generals had against Lee, despite their cumulatively higher casualties over three years.
The Overland Campaign concluded with Grant's crossing of the James River and the start of the Siege of Petersburg, also known as the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. This represented a change in strategy for Grant. He realized that he could not successfully maneuver Lee into a final battle in the open and decided to shift his focus to geographic and political objectives: the cities of Richmond and Petersburg. If the railroad lines feeding those cities from the south could be captured, Lee would be forced into the open. He also knew that the multiple, coordinated offensives he had devised had failed; except for Sherman, who was advancing on Atlanta, all of the other generals were stalled or defeated.
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