By the latter part of May, 1864, Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee had fought each other to a standstill. After engagements in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House, the two men now faced each other at the North Anna River. There, Grant had marched his men into a well designed trap below the river. The Rebel position was formed in the shape of an inverted V, an assault upon which “would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify”. Fortunately, Grant was able to extricate the army before Lee could take advantage of the misstep. Now, Grant would look to another course of action.
The following is an excerpt from Dan Davis and Phill Greenwalt’s Hurricane from the Heavens, The Battle of Cold Harbor, May 26-June 5, 1864.
s mind was being able to supply the army. A move to the west, around s left would extend his supply lines and leave them vulnerable. Another march around s right, to the southeast, would allow Grant to utilize the Virginia rivers to transport supplies. Additionally, it would place Grant closer to the Union Army of the James, which was actively campaigning against the city of Petersburg. The maneuver would present Grant the option of using the two forces to operate in concert against Lee.
On the morning of May 26, as he sat next to the campfire sipping coffee and smoking a cigar, Grant issued orders to begin the march that night. This time, the objectives were the crossings along the Pamunkey River, well east of Lee’s North Anna fortifications.
Ever since the antagonists made contact on May 5 in the Wilderness, the war had turned savage in Virginia. The two armies had been in daily contact. The top military commanders—Grant and Lee—had traded punch for punch. Each engagement was highlighted by fierce fighting. The armies were bleeding dry.
Grant’s plan to swing east seemed sound. However, Grant would limit the one trump card he had played time and again: maneuver. From the Wilderness to the North Anna, where the armies were currently stalemated, Grant had executed a march around the Confederate right flank to gain a more favorable edge. It had been the great equalizer.
By shifting to the ground between the Pamunkey and Chickahominy Rivers, Grant would be severely condensing the area of operations. Grant believed that he would not be able to fight Lee in the open and restricting his movement could potentially limit future maneuvers should Lee be able to counter again.
Whether “Marse Robert” still had the capacity to effectively engage the Yankees was a matter of question. The inability of Lee to attack the Federals below the North Anna convinced Grant that the Confederate army was on the brink of collapse. “I feel that our success against Lee’s army is already assured,” Grant crowed to Washington. “Lee’s army is really whipped.” Unbeknown to Grant was Lee’s illness, which was the only reason the butternuts did not sweep out of their earthworks and trap the Yankees against the riverbank. Still, the pounding he had administered over the previous weeks was nothing like what Lee’s army had felt up to this time in the war. In the past, Lee was used to having his way with the Union commanders sent against him. But Sam Grant was not George McClellan, John Pope, or Ambrose Burnside. The constant pressure applied by Grant allowed him to retain the initiative, an element coveted by Lee.
James Longstreet accurately described Grant’s tenacity prior to the beginning of the campaign: “That man will fight us every day and every hour until the end of the war.” Longstreet’s words could not have been more prophetic. In three weeks of fighting, Grant had inflicted over 27,000 casualties. It seemed that one final, concerted strike might be enough to break the Confederates. As the armies inched farther and farther into east-central Virginia, Grant remained true to his overall plan to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Now, with the Confederate capital a stone’s throw away, would Lee’s army continue to be Grant’s target? Would Lee be able to counter Grant’s left hook yet again? Would Grant be forced to change his strategy? These answers lay many days, and thousands of lives, in the future.