Continuous Contact: Grant’s Tactical Doctrine in the Eastern Theater

ECW welcomes back guest author Nathan Provost

“In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten. Then he who continues the attack wins.”[1]

Federal dead in Fredericksburg, casualties of the Overland Campaign.

This quote by Ulysses Grant, general-in-chief of Federal forces, signifies the grand tactic of Continuous Contact. Dr. Earl Hess, a preeminent historian on the Civil War, defines “grand tactics” as “the larger aspect of maneuvering for battle within reach of the enemy.[2] He then identifies Continuous Contact as a major doctrine in the Overland Campaign. He states, “This was Grant’s innovation; besides the use of temporary fieldworks, it was the only major innovation in grand tactics during the Civil War.”[3] Grant utilized it in the eastern theatre of the American Civil War. The grand tactic was extremely effective as it bestowed Grant the initiative. He needed to put General Robert E. Lee on the defensive and never let him strike. Nonetheless, the tactic itself was a double-edged sword. It thickened the fog of war for both sides, preventing both commanders from seeing the field of battle more clearly. It is essential to analyze how this grand tactic affected both armies and its overall effectiveness in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns.

The Federal soldiers endured tremendous and unfair suffering between May and June of 1864. Nowhere else did they endure such torment than at the Bloody Angle on May 12, 1864. One soldier described the condition of the II Corps before the early morning assault on the salient, “Our teeth chattered and our frames shook like leaves.”[4] The diary of Major Lemuel Abijah Abbott created a horrifying scene at Spotsylvania Courthouse, “The thought we have to assault into the jaws of death at the bloody angle in the gray of morning is appalling for I am told there are thousands of dead and uncared for wounded on the field between the lines, and in the rebel works the dead and wounded lay in piles, the wounded bound in by the dead several deep.”[5] Soldiers engaged in combat for hours upon hours at a time; the tactic led to high casualties on both sides as the soldiers engaged for days at a time without rest. It eliminated the manpower of the Confederate army, but it quickly drained the morale and manpower of the Federal army. The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse was one of many battles in the Overland Campaign that resulted in exceedingly high casualties. Grant’s solution was to continuously engage the Army of Northern Virginia to hold the initiative.

Grant wrote a dispatch to General Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, on April 9, “Lee’s army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” [6] At no point could Grant or Meade permit General Robert E. Lee to go on the offensive. Lee hoped to win the war with one decisive victory on the battlefield that forced the capitulation of the United States. He looked for those victories at Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. While Lee failed to score a significant victory at Gettysburg, his initiative might have brought the Confederacy closest to victory. Earl Hess acknowledges the need for Lee to retain the initiative, “Trench warfare tied him down, inhibiting the rebel general from employing offensive tactics that had defeated previous opponents since the Seven Days Campaign.” [7] When Lee had time to rest and maneuver, he was as effective as Napoleon’s great victory at Austerlitz. Lee’s ability to turn the northern public opinion against the war with his military exploits was extraordinary.

Before the campaign’s outset, Grant successfully identified Lee and his army as the center of gravity. Lieutenant Colonel Echevarria was an assistant professor of European History at U.S. Military Academy in the 1980s. He explains the significance of the center of gravity, “A center of gravity is the one element within a combatant’s entire structure or system that has the necessary centripetal force to hold that structure together. This is why Clausewitz wrote that a blow directed against the center of gravity will have the greatest effect.”[8] General Grant gave the Army of Northern Virginia no rest. In the Overland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac took part in fifteen significant offensives.

The major assaults resulted in only three tactical victories. The first occurred on May 12 at the Bloody Angle, where the soldiers engaged the rebels for twenty-two continuous hours.[9] Next, a minor tactical victory on May 23 at the Telegraph Road. Finally, the Federals captured multiple batteries on June 15 during the Second Battle of Petersburg. After the unsuccessful attempt to capture Petersburg, the Overland Campaign came to an end with Meade’s order, “Our advanced lines are held and will be intrenched.”[10] From May 5 to June 18, 1864, 39,000 Confederate soldiers perished from the battles at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Yellow Tavern North Anna, Haw’s Shop, Bethesda Church, Cold Harbor Crossroads, Cold Harbor, Trevilian Station, and the assaults at Petersburg. The constant fighting began taking a toll on some Confederate soldiers. Creed Thomas Davis, a private in the Army of Northern Virginia, wrote, “Genl. Grant still entrenches himself before Petersburg, he will no doubt capture the place.”[11]

A famous image of Grant studying a map over General Gordon Meade’s shoulder. He was heavily involved with tactical decisions during the Overland Campaign despite his rank of general-in-chief.

On May 23, 1864, at the Battle of North Anna, General Lee created a trap for the Army of the Potomac as the opportunity presented itself at the North Anna River. He looked to retake the initiative with a field fortification in the shape of an inverted “V.” The apex was located against the North Anna River, and it provided the Confederates an opportunity to split the Federal army and destroy or capture the II Corps. On one side of the river, the Confederates could come out from their entrenchments and overwhelm and destroy an outnumbered II Corps while Confederates on the side could hold a strong defensive position. Warren and Wright would be unable to support II Corps without crossing the North Anna twice.[12] Lee stated, “We must strike them a blow.”[13] Unfortunately for General Lee, he was stricken with illness and unable to coordinate a successful assault. There was no one else that could decisively take charge of the offensive, and the initiative presented itself rarely to the Confederates in the Overland Campaign. Grant’s grand tactic of Continuous Contact made it extraordinarily difficult to find an opening as the Federals dug in close to the Confederates in every engagement. General Jubal Early of the Army of Northern Virginia wrote in his autobiography after the war about Federal entrenchments, “Grant made it an invariable practice to cover his front, flank, and rear, with a perfect network of entrenchments.”[14] Jubal Early defined Grant’s tactic as the “Pegging-Hammer Art of War.”[15] It is not too far from the truth. Again, grand tactics is the ability to maneuver within reach of the enemy. Therefore, Continuous Contact enabled the Army of the Potomac to dig in close to the enemy and re-engage after every battle. In that period between May 5 to June 18, 1864, the Army of Northern Virginia launched only three major offensives against Federal lines. They occurred on May 6 at the Wilderness, May 23 at Jericho Mills, and May 30 at Bethesda Church. Ulysses S. Grant fixed the Army of Northern Virginia in place long before the Petersburg Campaign.

The Federals continuously dug in close to the Confederate army and re-engaged after every battle throughout the Overland Campaign. Consequently, Grant held the initiative through Continuous Contact. He understood that his counter-part launched effective offensives throughout the war between 1862 and 1863. Grant thought the best option was to give him no rest. His theory on war is criticized time and again for the high casualties. However, time was not on Grant’s side with the coming election in November. He needed to score a major victory against Lee, but most importantly, he needed to prevent Lee from retaking the initiative. Grant’s grand tactic was ultimately successful given Lee’s report at Petersburg by June of 1864, “The enemy has a strong position and can deal with us more injury than from any other point he has ever taken. Still we must try and defeat them. I fear he will not attack us but advance by regular approaches. He is so situated I cannot attack him.”[16] General Grant understood better than any previous Federal general that Continuous Contact was the only viable option to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia.

Nathan Provost is a US History Teacher at Crossroads Preparatory Academy in Missouri. Currently, he is working towards a doctorate in history through Liberty University. Before that he received a Masters in Teaching from the University of Central Missouri and worked as an Assistant Instructor in the Fort Leavenworth School District.

Nathan has always had a passion for military history and education because his grandfather was a Korean War veteran and professor. He first discovered his interest in the Civil War when he visited Grant’s headquarters in Florida, Missouri.

Since then, Nathan has travelled to various battlefields across the United States. Nonetheless, his focus lies in the eastern theatre because he plans on writing more about the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns.

[1] Kenneth Lay, “The Leader and the Led,” The Military Review 40, no. 6 (1960): 9.

[2] Earl Hess, Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015), xx.

[3] Earl Hess, In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 283.

[4] Lawrence Kreiser, Defeating Lee: A History of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 173.

[5] Abijah Abbott, Personal recollections and civil war diary, 1864, (Burlington: Free press printing, 1908), 56.

[6] Ulysses S. Grant, John Y. Simon, and John F. Marszalek, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 273.

[7] Earl Hess, In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 284.

[8] Antulio II Echevarria, “Center of gravity: recommendations for joint doctrine,” Joint Force Quarterly, Summer 2003, 15.

[9] “The Overland Campaign: A Strategic Overview,” Battlefields, American Battlefield Trust, 2020,  https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/overland-campaign

[10] U.S. War Department, The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington DC: Government Printing Press, 1884), vol. 40, pt. 2: 157.

[11] Keith Harris, “We Will Finish the War Here: Confederate Morale in the Petersburg Trenches, June and July 1864,” In Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Caroline Janney, University of North Carolina Press, 2015: 210-227.

[12] Gordon Rhea, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 323.

[13] Chris Mackowski, Strike Them a Blow: Battle along the North Anna River, May 21-25, 1864, (California: Savas Beatie, 2015), 114.

[14] Jubal Early, A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence, in the Confederate States of America, Containing an Account of the Operation of his Commands in the Years 1864 and 1865, by Lieutenant-General Jubal A. Early, (New Orleans: Blelock & co., 1867), 29.

[15] Ibid, 91.

[16] Robert Lee, Jones De Renne & Douglas Freeman, Lee’s dispatches: unpublished letters of General Robert E. Lee, C.S.A., to Jefferson Davis and the War Department of the Confederate States of America, 1862-65, from the private collections of Wymberley Jones De Renne, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), 254.

 

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6 Responses to Continuous Contact: Grant’s Tactical Doctrine in the Eastern Theater

  1. Never thought of Grant’s tactic being labeled as “Continuous Contact”, but it makes a lot of sense. And it was clearly effective. Would this method also be defined as waging a “war of attrition”? (asking for clarification on semantics)

  2. Nate says:

    That is a great question Sheritta. I typically find that is not what Grant wanted to happen. It did occur, but the Overland Campaign was one of maneuver. Grant attempted to get in between Lees army and Richmond so Lee would be forced to come out of the trenches and fight the AotP. However, this did not occur so Grant did the next best thing which was to remain right in the ANVs front to limit all possibility of maneuver. The sanguine assaults that took place are a rsult of measured risks (sometimes justified, other times not). But to answer your question, no it is not attrition. It is to take the initiative and pin an army in place. Hess mentions that it was the only new grand tactic of the Civil War.

  3. scott s. says:

    I would think that “war of attrition” is more of a strategic concept rather than tactical. Here the goal seems to be to eliminate operational maneuver as an option for Lee. In fact while AoP was in contact, they also maintained the ability for operational maneuver and made IIRC 5 successive changes of base in support of maneuver to the front of Petersburg.

  4. Douglas Pauly says:

    It seems to me that Grant, in his capacity as commander of ALL of the Federal forces, promoted such an approach everywhere. Sherman’s offensive(s) that took Atlanta and later Savannah and points north of there were all about grabbing hold of the ‘enemy’ and not letting go. The same with Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. All of those initiatives were about engaging the Confederate forces in those areas and preventing them from rest, resupply, and reinforcement, among other objectives. I always like to say “Do the math” when it comes to certain things. US Grant was named General-in-Chief of the Union forces in early March, 1864. Thirteen months later, Lee surrendered. “Case closed” as they say.

  5. Eric says:

    Great job my friend well written article

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