A Comprehensive View of the Overland Campaign, Part II

Part of a Series

Through sanguine fighting at the Battle of the Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac had just won a strategic victory against their longtime nemesis, the Army of Northern Virginia.  After Ulysses Grant took the initiative from Robert E. Lee, he remained deeply concerned about Lee retaking the initiative. He relayed in his memoirs the importance of the initiative while keeping the supply lines open, “These movements of the enemy gave me the idea that Lee was about to attempt to go to, or towards, Fredericksburg to cut off my supplies. I made arrangements to attack his right and get between him and Richmond if he should try to execute this design.”[1]

This action was not the only point during the campaign when Grant read the topography decisively. After the Federal’s strategic victory at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant sought to get the Army of the Potomac between Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia and force the Confederates to attack their entrenched positions. Unfortunately for Grant, the Confederate forces beat his troops to Spotsylvania Courthouse. Grant still managed to protect Union supply lines and their positions. He did initially seek to outflank the Confederate forces by sending Burnside around to Lee’s right flank on May 9. This action prevented the Confederates from using the Fredericksburg road to outflank and cut off Grant’s supply lines. On May 10 multiple attacks took place across the Confederate line; one failed attack on the Confederate right involved Burnside’s IX Corps. Initially, he turned Lee’s right, but it was not followed up.  Grant conceded it was a mistake not sending a staff officer with him to know what was in his front. Most significantly, this movement prevented Jubal Early from reinforcing Ewell on May 12 during the assault on the Mule Shoe.[2]

Grant, his generals, and staff looking at maps during the Overland Campaign, just after the extended Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (colorized by Marina Amaral)

On May 8, Grant cut Philip Sheridan loose with the majority of Federal cavalry after a tense exchange between Sheridan and General George Meade. Meade had become enraged after finding the cavalry corps blocking general Warren’s advance. Sheridan used multiple expletives, exclaiming he could whip Jeb Stuart if given a chance. Meade stormed back to Grant’s headquarters, hoping the new general-in-chief would reprimand the hot-headed Sheridan. Grant’s response was plain and composed, “Did Sheridan say that? Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.”[3]

With his decision to let Sheridan loose, Grant lost a means of reconnoitering enemy lines but he found other methods to clear the fog of war. Henri-Antoine Jomini wrote The Art of War that 19th-century armies could gain information about enemy armies through multiple measures. He wrote, “The first is a well-arranged system of espionage; the second consists in reconnaissance are made by skillful officers and light troops; the third, in questioning prisoners of war; the fourth, in forming hypotheses of probabilities.”[4] Grant utilized all four measures throughout the fighting around Spotsylvania Court House.

On May 10, General Horatio Wright gained a considerably advanced position and organized a storming party with Emory Upton leading the charge. General Grant issued orders for General Warren to move in conjunction with Wright’s Corps.[5] Upton’s assault failed, but before Grant proceeded with a determined assault against the same position, he required more information. On May 11, there was no battle except by Mott, who did a reconnaissance. Mott discovered a salient on the 11th, and then Grant determined to assault that position.[6] The following day, the Army of the Potomac delivered one of its most decisive blows against the Army of Northern Virginia with the capture of the salient.

Many more bloody assaults occurred during the next week without much gain; however, Grant made these decisions through the Bureau of Military Intelligence. Before the assault on May 12, Grant received information that Butler’s offensive ground to a halt on the peninsula. Lee did not detach any force east; therefore, Grant concluded it was best to “compel Lee to retreat or to…cripple him.”[7] Grant also received multiple reports from deserters and prisoners that the morale of the enemy army was shaky. There were similar reports of Confederate prisoners at Chattanooga, and to Grant, the fortifications at Spotsylvania were much less imposing than the Confederate position at Missionary Ridge.[8] Other local citizens reported to Grant that “Lee is beaten.”[9] To both Grant and the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac’s dismay, morale in the Army of Northern Virginia still ran relatively high. Grant’s initiative and information from the BMI led to breaking the Confederate position on May 12, 1864.

Central Virginia Battlefield Trust map of Myer’s Hill (by Edward Alexander)

This tactical decision did not significantly change the outcome, but it is necessary to understand the success of Grant’s decision-making at Spotsylvania Courthouse. Grant scored a minor tactical victory on May 14 at Myers Hill by continuing to press Confederate forces.[10] Four days later, Grant suffered his worst engagement of the campaign as both the II Corps and VI Corps assaulted the Confederate position one more time on May 18, suffering terrible casualties.[11] Grant did receive criticism from Gordon Rhea in his book The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse and Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7, 1864, for his repeated attacks against Confederate positions. Nonetheless, Grant believed that it would weaken one part of the enemy line or vice versa; this idea comes from Clausewitz’s principles of war.

Thus, even if it engaged the enemy prematurely and was defeated, its fight will not have been in vain. The enemy will unfold and expend his strength against this one corps, offering the rest a good chance for an attack. The way in which a corps should be organized for this purpose will be treated later. We therefore assure the cooperation of all forces by giving each corps a certain amount of independence, but seeing to it that each seeks out the enemy and attacks him with all possible self-sacrifice.[12]

After Grant was unable to hammer through the Confederate line on May 8, 10, 12, and 18, he maneuvered south once again to the North Anna, where again he pressed Lee’s army. Grant’s initial success turned into a stalemate due to General Franz Sigel’s route from the Shenandoah Valley and the bottled-up forces of General Benjamin Butler on the James River Peninsula. Grant’s peripheral strategy fell apart after two weeks of fighting at Spotsylvania Courthouse. Not wanting to expend more men’s lives, Grant sought to maneuver his forces between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond once again.


[1] John F. Marszalek, David S. Nolen, and Louie P. Gallo, eds., The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017), 540.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant, (New York: The Century Company, 1897), 84.

[4] Antoine Henri Jomini, The Art of War: Strategy & Tactics from the Age of Horse & Musket, (London: Leonaur Publishing, 2010), 269.

[5] John F. Marszalek, David S. Nolen, and Louie P. Gallo, eds., The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition, 542.

[6] John F. Marszalek, David S. Nolen, and Louie P. Gallo, eds., The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition, 546.

[7] William Feis, Grant’s Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox, (Lincoln, Neb: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 211.

[8] Ibid. 212.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brooks Simpson, Triumph Over Adversity, (Osceola: Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2014), 313.

[11] Gordon Rhea, To the North Anna: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005), 152.

[12] Carl von Clausewitz, Principles of War, (Massachusetts: Courier Corporation, 2012), 7.


Clausewitz, Carl von. Principles of War. Massachusetts: Courier Corporation, 2012.

Feis, William. Grant’s Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox. Lincoln, Neb: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Jomini, Antoine Henri. The Art of War: Strategy & Tactics from the Age of Horse & Musket. London: Leonaur Publishing, 2010.

Marszalek, John F., David S. Nolen, and Louie P. Gallo, eds. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant: The Complete Annotated Edition. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Porter, Horace. Campaigning with Grant. New York: The Century Company, 1897.

Rhea, Gordon. To the North Anna: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Simpson, Brooks. Triumph Over Adversity. Osceola: Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2014.

3 Responses to A Comprehensive View of the Overland Campaign, Part II

  1. This is a great and helpful post. I visited Spottsylvania a decade ago. I was struck by the quiet, the haunting view shed of the Confederate works, the trail used by Upton in his attack.

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