Chapter Eleven: Grant and Lee
I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.
Ulysses S. Grant
With the blessing of God, I trust we shall be able to prevent General Grant from reaching Richmond.
Robert E. Lee
No two men better exemplified the cause for which they fought than Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant. Slaveholder, patrician, scion of the First Families of Virginia, the fifty-seven-year-old Lee personified the romantic virtues of the Old South. His father was Light-Horse Harry Lee, Washington's larger-than-life cavalry commander, governor of Virginia, spendthrift, womanizer, and ultimately a fugitive from debtor's prison who spent his last years in self-imposed exile in the West Indies. His mother was Ann Carter, daughter of the Tidewater Carters, the most prominent of James River planters, and once reputed to be the wealthiest family in America. Eager to emulate his father's soldierly example, and equally desirous of sparing his mother the cost of a civilian education, Lee entered West Point in 1825 and rarely looked back. Brevetted to the engineers, he served with distinction on the staff of General Winfield Scott during the Mexican War, became the ninth superintendent of the military academy in 1852, and three years later assumed temporary command of the 2nd Cavalry, his first troop duty in twenty-six years of active service. In 1859 Lee commanded the detachment that captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry, and on March 16, 1861, he was promoted to full colonel and assigned to command the 1st Cavalry regiment. The following month, when Virginia seceded, Lee promptly resigned his commission and headed south. "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children," he wrote a Northern friend.
Lee's decision to join the Confederacy was not easily taken. The very day he learned Virginia had left the Union, he was offered the field command of the United States Army by the War Department. "I declined the offer," Lee wrote later, "stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposed to secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of the Southern States." Five days later, April 23, 1861, Lee assumed command of Virginia's military forces. Three weeks after that, with the formation of the Confederate States of America, he became a brigadier general in the Confederate army, and on August 31, 1861, was confirmed in the rank of full general.
Lee was a strikingly handsome man, above medium height and well proportioned. He had a massive torso, and sitting on a horse, his shoulders and neck made him appear larger than he actually was. According to his principal biographer, he preferred the company of women, especially pretty women, to that of men, although there was never a suggestion of scandal. Deeply religious, Lee's belief in God was personal, not denominational. He read his Bible and prayer book daily, and spent much time on his knees seeking solace and support. He did not use tobacco, hated whiskey, and rarely drank even the smallest amount of wine. Like Grant, he was blessed with great powers of endurance and a strong nervous system. Despite his innate dignity, he met people easily and had a well-developed memory for names. His mind was mathematical, directed toward problem solving rather than abstraction. He was an accomplished linguist, his reading encompassed a broader range than that of most officers, and, like many gifted commanders, he was bored by office routine. He viewed his father as a Revolutionary War hero, not a tragic bankrupt, and George Washington was his idol. Douglas Southall Freeman wrote that by 1861 Lee "had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel."
During the first year of the war, Lee's star was eclipsed. His initial assignment was to reclaim western Virginia for the Confederacy an effort that ended in failure, in part because of Lee's timidity. Like Grant at Belmont, he was still learning the art of command. Lee reluctantly ordered an autumn pullback from the Kanawha, and was castigated by the bellicose Richmond press as "Granny Lee," a theoretical desk soldier who would not fight. Lee's second assignment was to improve coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia an assignment that placed him at loggerheads with the cream of Southern soldiery. At that point in the war, it was beneath the dignity of a white man to dig fortifications, besides which a brave man would not hide behind earthworks in the first place. This unwelcome duty earned Lee a second sobriquet, "King of Spades." He returned to Richmond in early 1862 to become Jefferson Davis's military secretary and adviser, an inauspicious posting that promised an abundance of desk work and little future. "Granny Lee." "King of Spades." The war, it seemed, had passed him by.
Opportunity appeared by accident. In May 1862, McClellan had pushed to within six miles of Richmond. Confederate forces under Joseph E. Johnston held the line on the Chickahominy, and on May 31 counterattacked at Seven Pines. At the climax of the battle, Johnston was seriously wounded, and Davis turned to Lee. It was an inspired choice and also a brave one. The fact that Lee was the ranking Confederate general available scarcely offset the disappointing reputation he had acquired. More troublesome was that in thirteen months of war, Lee had not taken part in a general engagement. Justified or not, Lee was viewed as a military theoretician who was out of place in the field. Most of Johnston's subordinates expressed discomfort at being placed under "a staff officer like Lee," and Union reaction was joyous. "I prefer Lee to Johnston," McClellan wrote Lincoln. "The former is too cautious and weak under grave responsibility. Personally brave and energetic to a fault, he is yet wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility, and is likely to be timid and irresolute in action."
Union celebrations were short lived. Despite his unpromising start, Lee proved to be, as his friend Major General Henry Heth observed, "the most belligerent man in the Confederate army." Within a month McClellan was on the run, outmaneuvered and outfought at Mechanicsville, Gaines' Mill, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill. In August, Lee routed Pope at Second Manassas. Twice within the next year he crossed the Potomac to carry the fight to the North, hoping to sap Yankee sentiment to continue the war and coming perilously close, both at Antietam and Gettysburg, to smashing the Union line. Twice again he defeated the Army of the Potomac in Virginia: Burnside at Fredericksburg in 1862, Hooker at Chancellorsville in 1863. The battle of the Wilderness saw Lee on the attack once more. Whether Lee's aggressiveness aided or hurt the Confederacy is an argument recently renewed by historians, but for Grant and Meade in 1864 the answer was scarcely debatable.
Ulysses Grant, the son of an Ohio tanner, a man indistinguishable in a crowd even in uniform, personified the egalitarian values of a modernizing, democratic society. Modest, rumpled, sometimes a bit seedy, Grant was an ordinary man gifted with an extraordinary talent for making war. His simple exterior cloaked a formidable intellect and a rock-solid self-confidence that was equal to any crisis on the battlefield. He had a topographer's feel for landscape, a photographic memory when it came to maps, and a command of the English language at its incisive best. "There is one striking feature of Grant's orders," said Meade's chief of staff, Major General A. A. Humphreys. "No matter how hurriedly he may write them in the field, no one ever had the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read over them a second time to understand them."
Grant had an eye for the main chance. He focused on the enemy's weakness, not his own. No matter how badly things were going, he instinctively assumed they were worse for his opponent. After three years of war, he had become a master at maneuvering large bodies of troops on the battlefield. The battle of the Wilderness was not the best example. The working relationship between him and Meade had yet to be refined, and Grant had been unfamiliar with the capacities and shortcomings of the Army of the Potomac. Nevertheless, for the first time since the war began, a Union army was moving south after fighting Lee in Virginia. With the tenacity that had become his hallmark, Grant had captured the initiative. The democratic general of a democratic fighting force, he was determined to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to its knees.
Grant's object in moving on Spotsylvania was to force Lee out of his works in the Wilderness and bring him to battle in open country. Twelve miles southeast of Wilderness Tavern, Spotsylvania was situated on a direct line between Lee and Richmond. The town itself was of little importance except that it provided an easy approach to the two rail lines of central Virginia that were vital to the supply of Lee's army. By moving quickly, Grant planned to insert the Army of the Potomac between Lee and Richmond, take up a strong defensive position, and compel the Confederates to attack on terrain of his choosing.
The key to Grant's plan was to reach Spotsylvania before Lee. Once again, however, the Army of the Potomac proved sluggish and unresponsive. Despite the fact that it had a considerable head start, a better road, and a shorter distance to travel, the Union vanguard did not reach Spotsylvania until mid-morning of May 8. By then the Confederate 1st Corps was there and waiting. Lee anticipated Grant's move, and Longstreet's veterans commanded now by Major General Richard Anderson had marched briskly through the night, sliced ahead of Meade's forces, and secured the town before the Federals arrived. For Grant, the result was disappointing. Rather than standing between Lee and Richmond, he once again confronted the rebel army dug in and holding the high ground. Piecemeal attacks by Union infantry failed to dislodge the Confederates, and for the rest of the day Grant and Lee brought up reinforcements and deployed their armies in line of battle.
The town of Spotsylvania lies on a ridge between the Po and Ni rivers, two of the four northern Virginia streams (the Mat, the Ta, the Po, and the Ni) that join to form the Mattaponi River. At Spotsylvania, the ridge is about three miles wide and affords a strong defensive position. Neither the Po nor the Ni is especially wide, but the streams are deep, with steep banks, and bordered by heavily wooded bottom land. Crossing them is difficult, and Lee utilized the rivers to secure his flanks. To the front, elaborate rebel breastworks stretching between the rivers dominated the ridgeline. Taking full advantage of the natural features of the terrain, the Confederates laid out their fortifications in the shape of a huge inverted U, or "hog's snout," a configuration that would also enable Lee to shift troops internally from one side to the other as the need arose. Rebel artillery was sited to be mutually supporting, and wherever practicable, an abatis of fallen timber was put in place.
Lee's eye for taking advantage of the topography had been sharpened under Scott in Mexico, and at Spotsylvania he more than demonstrated his proficiency. The man who had been ridiculed in 1862 as "King of Spades" had discovered a means of countering Grant's numerical superiority. The era of trench warfare, which had been slowly developing, came to fruition at Spotsylvania. Interlocking timber-and-dirt barriers blocked the way forward, deep traverses zigzagged to provide cover against Union artillery fire, and head logs, chocked a few inches above hard-packed soil from the trenches, afforded rebel riflemen a protected slit through which they could take deliberate aim at an approaching enemy. As Meade's chief of staff noted, Lee's fortifications during the last year of the war multiplied his defensive strength fourfold. And if the works were manned properly, "there is scarcely any measure by which to gauge the increased strength thereby gained."
On May 9, 1864, with his troops dug in and his flanks snug between the rivers, Lee waited confidently to smash the inevitable Union attack. "With the blessing of God," he wrote Jefferson Davis, "I trust we shall be able to prevent General Grant from reaching Richmond."
By late afternoon on May 8 most of Grant's troops were in place. The Union line faced south and was laid out in a rough semicircle paralleling the Confederate works. Hancock's 2nd Corps was deployed on the right, Warren and Sedgwick in the center, and Burnside on the left. From a tactical point of view, Grant was in no better position than in the Wilderness. He had moved south because he saw no advantage in assaulting the works Lee's men had thrown up in the forest, yet the Confederate fortifications at Spotsylvania were even more formidable, laid out on dominant terrain between unfordable rivers. If Grant was perturbed, he did not show it. He wanted to bring on a battle, unwelcome as the setting might be, and proceeded accordingly.
The one bright spot that afternoon was Sheridan. Thus far the Union cavalry had rendered little assistance. Meade held to the view that horse soldiers could best be used screening the army's advance and protecting slow-moving wagon trains. Sheridan wanted to mass the troopers into a compact hard-hitting body, take off deep into the Confederate rear, lure Jeb Stuart into battle, and whip the socks off him. The dispute broke into the open on May 8. Both Meade and Sheridan were endowed with fiery tempers, and as the recriminations ("highly spiced with expletives") escalated, Meade decided to take the matter to Grant. He stalked over to Grant's tent and related the conversation he had had with his cavalry commander. When he got to Sheridan's claim that he would destroy Stuart if Meade would only let him, Grant perked up. "Did Sheridan say that?" he asked, more amused than angered by the cavalryman's insubordination. Meade nodded. "Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it."
Meade took this with good grace, although by traditional standards of military discipline Grant was wrong. Rather than support the commander of the Army of the Potomac in a dispute with a subordinate, he winked at Sheridan's infraction. By now Grant was thoroughly frustrated with the Eastern army's caution, and if the obstreperous cavalry commander believed he could beat Stuart, Grant wanted him to go to it.
Early the next morning Sheridan set out with his three cavalry divisions in the direction of Richmond. Riding four abreast, the column of troopers stretched thirteen miles in length and moved at a walk a deliberate provocation to entice Stuart to attack. Sheridan's first target was Lee's advance supply base at Beaver Dam Station, fifteen miles south. Stuart nipped at Sheridan's heels, but was unable to prevent the destruction of three weeks' rations for the Army of Northern Virginia, twenty miles of railroad track, a hundred freight cars, and half the locomotives of the Virginia Central line. After wreaking havoc in Lee's rear, Sheridan continued south. Stuart stayed abreast of the Union column but did not make a stand until the Federals reached Yellow Tavern, a point six miles north of Richmond where the rebel leader hoped to receive reinforcements from the city's garrison. The reinforcements failed to arrive, and Stuart's cavalry proved no match for Sheridan's troopers, who outnumbered them two to one and who were armed with rapid-fire carbines instead of the South's standard-issue muzzle loaders. Stuart was mortally wounded in the fighting a devastating blow to the Southern cause and the once invincible Confederate cavalry was routed. Sheridan pushed on, easily rode through Richmond's outer defenses, but paused before plunging into the city itself. "I could have gone in and burned and killed right and left," Sheridan wrote later, but it would have been for no permanent advantage. Tempted though he was, Little Phil led his troopers into Butler's lines on the James, rested his mounts, refitted, and rejoined the Army of the Potomac on May 24.
While Sheridan was crossing swords with the Confederate cavalry near Richmond, Grant and Lee were engaged in a titanic struggle at Spotsylvania. May 9 was a day of preparation. Lee's troops continued to improve their position, and Grant, after probing the Confederate center, dispatched Hancock to turn the rebel left. Grant was looking for a weak spot. Rather than assault the formidable Confederate works head-on, he would first try to slip the 2nd Corps around the entrenchments for a sudden descent on Lee's rear. Unfortunately, the maneuver required Hancock to cross the Po River twice, and by the time the troops were ready to attack on May 10, Lee had shifted two divisions under Jubal Early to counter the threat. Early's men had industriously dug themselves in, and with the element of surprise gone, Hancock reluctantly informed Grant that an attack would be futile.
A greater disappointment for Grant was the death of John Sedgwick. After meeting with Grant the morning of May 9, the 6th Corps commander had gone forward to the center of his line, found the troops were nervous because of scattered fire from Confederate sharpshooters, and tried to reassure them. The rebel marksmen were a good 800 yards away and Sedgwick mocked: "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." The next crack of the rifle sent a bullet that struck Sedgwick in the head, killing him instantly. Uncle John, the best loved general in the Army of the Potomac, was gone. Meade wept, Lee was saddened by the death of his old friend, and Grant was incredulous. "Is he really dead?" he asked Horace Porter. "His loss to this army is greater than the loss of a whole division."
The good news on May 9 was that the war elsewhere was going as Grant hoped. A package of dispatches from Washington revealed that Sherman was moving swiftly through northwest Georgia and that Joseph E. Johnston had yet to make a stand. A report from Butler stated he had landed at City Point and was preparing to move on Petersburg. Butler said he anticipated hard fighting and asked for reinforcements. General Sigel reported from the Shenandoah valley that he had not yet encountered the enemy and would soon be moving on the railhead at Staunton, an important supply point for Lee's army. Grant had already instructed Halleck to provide reinforcements for Butler, and after digesting the messages from the field, he telegraphed Washington a brief report on the situation at Spotsylvania. "Enemy hold our front in very strong force and evince strong determination to interpose between us and Richmond to the last." As if to reassure the capital, Grant added, "I shall take no backward step." He asked Halleck to rush another five million rounds of small arms ammunition to the front and "all the infantry you can rake and scrape....We can maintain ourselves and in the end beat Lee's army, I believe."
Since Lee had withdrawn two of Early's divisions from his line to meet the threat Hancock presented on his left, Grant concluded (wrongly as it turned out) that he must have weakened his center. Still seeking a soft spot, the general in chief ordered a frontal attack for 5 P.M. on May 10, the principal thrust directed at the tip of the hog's snout or "mule shoe," as it came to be called. As was too often the case with the Army of the Potomac, the attack was poorly coordinated. Warren's 5th Corps moved out an hour early, Hancock's corps, which had to make a forced march back from the Po, was an hour late, and instead of a weakened Confederate center, Union troops ran directly into the massed firepower of the Confederate 1st and 2nd corps. Losses were heavy all along the line, except among Burnside's troops, who once again barely got into action. At no point was the rebel line breached, except briefly in front of the 6th Corps where Colonel Emory Upton led an elite force of twelve regiments and demonstrated that Lee's line was not impregnable providing the attackers moved quickly.
A brash twenty-four-year-old West Pointer from New York who took soldiering seriously and himself even more so, Upton had no patience with incompetent brother officers or tactics that proved manifestly outdated. Strong on theory and eager to test it in the field, Upton argued that the way to breach a fortified position was to attack it on a narrow front and on a dead run, not stopping to fire or reload until the troops were over the parapets and inside the enemy's works. So persuasive was Upton that Grant decided to give his plan a try. Martin McMahon, the hard-bitten 6th Corps chief of staff, handpicked twelve regiments for the task. "Upton," said McMahon, "you are to lead those men upon the enemy works this afternoon, and if you don't carry them, you are not expected to come back." Upton replied predictably that he intended to carry the position, and then set about to organize his attack.
The point selected for Upton's assault was about midway down the west face of the mule shoe. Confederate artillery was thickest there, but Upton planned to overrun the guns before they had a chance to do much damage. He deployed his regiments three abreast, four lines deep. The first line was to charge across no-man's-land without pausing, breach the ramparts, and fan out left and right to widen the gap. The second line would plunge straight ahead to deepen the penetration, while the third and fourth lines would follow on to provide support wherever needed. The troops were instructed to cover the distance as rapidly as possible: no firing, no loading, and no pausing to give aid or succor to wounded comrades.
Grant rode out to observe the attack, found a suitable knoll, dismounted, and sat down on a fallen tree to write a dispatch. No sooner had he started writing than a shell exploded directly in front of him. Grant looked up briefly and then resumed writing. A group of wounded from the 5th Wisconsin were being carried past at the time, and one remarked: "Ulysses don't scare worth a damn."
At ten past six, Upton gave the signal to advance. Rebel gunners opened a deadly barrage but in less than four minutes men of the three leading regiments were swarming over the Confederate parapets and fighting hand-to-hand in the trenches. The second wave followed and quickly overwhelmed the defenders. The first Federal line fanned out, the second line continued forward, and the third and fourth waves came on to round up a thousand or so dazed defenders. So far, everything had worked as Upton said it would. Lee's line had been punctured and the road to Richmond seemed open. At this point, Union follow-through failed to materialize. Lee, on the spot as always, rushed reinforcements to contain the breakthrough, rebel artillery boomed all along the front, and the division assigned to support Upton crept forward cautiously and crawled back ignominiously as soon as it came under fire. Deprived of support, Upton's twelve regiments were unable to withstand the withering counterattack Lee mounted. The breakthrough had gone for naught. The men of the 6th Corps fell back to the main Union battle line, leaving a thousand or more casualties. Southern losses were similar. That evening a Confederate band assembled near the site of Upton's breakthrough and mournfully intoned "Nearer My God to Thee." A Union band responded with the "Dead March" from Saul. The rebel musicians followed with "Home Sweet Home," and in the words of an enlisted man from Georgia, "A united yell went up in concert from the men on both sides, such a one as was never heard among the hills of Spotsylvania county before or since."
Grant was annoyed that the Army of the Potomac had failed to exploit Upton's breakthrough, but the tactics of the young West Pointer had proved promising. (Upton, who had been wounded, received an on-the-spot promotion to brigadier general.) Grant decided to repeat the maneuver using a whole corps instead of simply a brigade. He would employ Hancock's 2nd Corps and hit Lee on the snout the apex of the rebel salient, traditionally believed to be a weak point in such a formation because not as many guns could be brought to bear. Meade was instructed to slip the 2nd Corps behind Warren and Wright (who had succeeded Sedgwick) to the center of the Union line, and set the attack for 4 A.M., May 12. Burnside was to move forward simultaneously on Hancock's left, while Wright and Warren kept up the pressure on the right and far right. Grant believed the one-day delay would allow the troops time to get in place, and give Hancock an opportunity to make a thorough reconnaissance of the avenue of attack. The downside was it afforded Lee an additional day to prepare.
Wednesday, May 11, dawned cold and wet, a seasonal spring rain breaking the heat that had set in two weeks earlier. As Grant sat drinking his breakfast coffee he was joined by Congressman Elihu Washburne, who had accompanied the army since crossing the Rapidan. Washburne was returning to Washington that day, and asked Grant if he could give him a statement for President Lincoln and Mr. Stanton. "I know they would be greatly gratified if I could carry a message from you giving what encouragement you can as to the situation."
Grant hesitated. He knew any statement he sent would be released to the press, and he did not want to engender false hopes of an early victory. He also did not want to disappoint Washburne, to whom he owed just about everything. Rather than send a message to the president, Grant said he would write a letter to Halleck. "I generally communicate through him, giving the general situation, and you can take it with you."
Grant stepped inside his tent, sat down at his writing table, and jotted a brief message, cigar firmly clinched between his teeth. "We have now ended the sixth day of very heavy fighting. The result to this time is much in our favor. But our losses have been heavy as well as those of the enemy." Grant estimated his casualties at 20,000. He said Lee's army was "very shaky," and that it entrenched at every opportunity in order to protect itself. He closed with a flourish, soon to be splashed across the front pages of Northern newspapers in large headlines: "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."
It was on May 11 that Lee made one of his rare tactical errors. In the afternoon rebel scouts reported massive Federal wagon trains moving northeast toward Fredericksburg. Grant was sending his empty vehicles back for a fresh supply of food and ammunition, but Lee, after studying the reports, concluded that his opponent was going to break off the fight at Spotsylvania and pull back behind the Rappahannock to regroup. If the Union army was withdrawing, Lee wanted to take advantage of it. "We must attack those people if they retreat," he told Henry Heth. "This army cannot stand a siege. We must end this business on the battlefield, not in a fortified place." Lee thereupon ordered the artillery deployed in the mule shoe to be limbered up and withdrawn, ready to set out in pursuit of the Federals when their retreat got underway. Lee had completely misread Grant's intentions. Rather than retreating, the general in chief was deploying his forces to launch the most powerful attack thus far in the campaign. Hancock's 2nd Corps would hit Lee's line exactly at the point from which the guns were being withdrawn.
It rained incessantly throughout the night of May 11. Hancock's troops, drenched to the bone, sloshed through ankle-deep Virginia mud to their rendezvous area, a thousand yards from the flattened apex of the Confederate salient. The soldiers were dead tired, some units having marched for seven hours, but by 2 A.M. 2nd Corps was in place. Grant's plan to storm the mule shoe head-on had yet to be communicated to the rank and file, but the troops sensed that something out of the ordinary was in the offing. "Great events have a power of self-proclamation," wrote a soldier from Massachusetts. "The feeling ran through the ranks that they were near to momentous happenings."
Hancock deployed his corps two divisions abreast, two deep. Each division was tightly massed, five paces between regiments, ten between brigades. A member of Hancock's staff described the corps as a "solid rectangular mass of nearly 20,000 men to hurl upon the enemy's works as soon as it should be sufficiently light for our purpose." Some of the men dozed in the mud, most stood in ranks, swaying restlessly, wiping the rain from their face, straining to hear the command to advance. Orders were to rush forward silently, with no firing until the rebel line was breached. Surprise was the watchword.
The appointed jump-off time of 4 A.M. came and went. It was still pitch black and Hancock wanted at least a glimmer of daylight. At 4:35, when the first hint of dawn appeared, the order to advance was given and the troops moved forward almost as many as Thomas mustered for the charge up Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, twice as many as Pickett led at Gettysburg. "It did not require anyone to tell us what to do," an infantryman from Pennsylvania remembered. "Everyone seemed to catch the inspiration that his safety depended on getting to those works." Another wrote, "All line and formation was now lost, and the great mass of men, with a rush like a cyclone, sprang upon the entrenchments and swarmed over." Sergeant Albert Marsh of the 64th New York noted, "It was a brilliant charge, with the bayonet, hardly a gun being fired."
The Confederate defenders were not taken entirely by surprise, but they were not exactly ready for the blow either. Powder was damp, muskets misfired, and the awesome weight of the Federal mass struck fear into even the most intrepid rebel rifleman. "As far as the eye could reach," an officer from Louisiana wrote, "the field was covered with the serried ranks of the enemy, advancing in close columns to the attack." The most serious problem for the Confederates was the lack of artillery, the two dozen guns that anchored the salient having been withdrawn during the night under Lee's instructions. Major General Edward Johnson, whose division held the forward edge of the salient, became apprehensive that evening with his gun pits standing empty and urged that his cannons be returned lest Grant not be retreating. Johnson, known affectionately as "Old Allegheny," the oldest (at forty-eight) of Lee's division commanders, had no hard evidence to go on other than the distant rumble of troops on the march. Yet a sixth sense warned him of impending calamity. Lee, who continued to believe Grant was heading toward Fredericksburg, was puzzled by Johnson's request but acquiesced, ordering that the guns be returned to the salient by daylight. They arrived just as the blue tide surged over the rebel ramparts, too late to be of service, too far forward to be withdrawn. All but two of the pieces fell into Union hands, along with most of Johnson's division, which melted under the onslaught.
Grant was up well before daylight that morning, his ear cocked for sounds of Hancock's attack. The salient was more than a mile away, but soon the distant roar of cheers and the rattle of musketry drifted back. Shortly after 5 A.M. a staff officer galloped in with a report from Hancock. "Our men have the works with some hundred prisoners. Impossible to say how many; whole line moving up." On the first rider's heels came another: "Prisoners come in rapidly. Probably over 2000." Fifteen minutes later Hancock reported capturing two general officers, Edward Johnson and George H. Stuart of Maryland. Grant's aides began to celebrate Lee's defeat, Meade's staff was dubious, and Grant remained seated on a camp stool near the fire stoically digesting the reports, the cape of an old army overcoat shrouding his reaction. Eventually he allowed that "Hancock is doing well," and sent instructions to Burnside to "push on with all vigor." The 9th Corps had moved against the east face of the salient simultaneously with Hancock, and was encountering stiff resistance.
Meade was sitting with Grant that morning when a prisoner rode into the compound wearing the uniform of a Confederate major general. It was Edward Johnson, an old friend of Hancock's who had been in the Corps of Cadets with Meade and served in Mexico with Grant. Hancock had given him a horse and told him to report to Union headquarters. Johnson's uniform was torn and he was covered with mud, but he dismounted with dignity and saluted his captors. Meade rose instantly, took Johnson's hand, and introduced him to Grant.
"It's been a long time since last we met," said Grant.
"Yes," replied Johnson, "it is a great many years, and I had not expected to meet you under such circumstances."
"It is one of the many sad fortunes of war," Grant acknowledged, as he offered Johnson a cigar, picked up a camp chair and placed it near the fire. "Be seated, and we will do all in our power to make you as comfortable as possible."
The three generals commenced an animated conversation, reminiscing about the past, when another message arrived from Hancock. "I have finished up Johnson," it said, "and am now going after Early." Out of consideration for Johnson's feelings, Grant handed the dispatch around rather than reading it aloud as he usually did. Arrangements were then made to have Johnson transported to the rear in a Union ambulance. No sooner had Johnson departed than a message arrived from Burnside reporting that his right wing had lost contact with Hancock. "Push the enemy with all your might," replied Grant. "That is the way to connect."
Lee had been taken by surprise. Hancock's corps had ripped a half-mile hole in his line and was on the verge of splitting the Army of Northern Virginia in two. The shoulders on either side of the breakthrough were holding, which meant that the breach was laterally contained, but the reserve division of General John B. Gordon, positioned at the base of the salient, was all that held the two wings of Lee's army together. Unless Gordon could seal the fissure, Grant would pour through the opening, turn left and right, and defeat the Confederate army in detail.
Fortune now smiled on Lee. As one historian has written, no Southerner was better fitted for the bloody work ahead than John B. Gordon, whose lack of formal military training was more than made up for by an instinctive grasp of tactics and a temperament of unadorned aggressiveness. With the first report of Hancock's attack, Gordon had formed his brigades into line of battle across the neck of the salient. When the breakthrough was confirmed, he ordered his troops forward. Lee arrived on the scene just as Gordon's men moved out. "The picture he made, as the grand old man sat there on his horse, with his noble head bare...can never be forgotten by a man that stood there," wrote a soldier of the 52nd Virginia. Lee rode to the center of Gordon's line where he turned Traveller toward the oncoming Federals, obviously intent on leading the charge as he had tried to do six days earlier in the Wilderness. When Gordon saw Lee he was horrified, and once again the shouts echoed across the rebel front, "Go back, General Lee." "Lee to the rear." "Lee to the rear." Gordon wheeled his horse and confronted Lee. "These men are Georgians and Virginians," said the young brigadier. "They have never failed you and will not fail you here." When Lee showed no sign of turning back, a tall Virginia sergeant grabbed Traveller's rein, jerked his head around, and led him to the rear through ranks of cheering infantrymen.
The charge of Gordon's division at Spotsylvania, like that of Longstreet's corps on the Orange plank road a week earlier, stopped the Union drive in its tracks. Inspired by Lee and led by Gordon, the men in gray advanced headlong into the Federal mass, the sheer audacity of the effort taking Hancock's troops by surprise. It was three brigades against four of the finest divisions in the Union army, but the impetus of the Confederate counterattack was overwhelming. "Onward they swept," wrote Gordon, "pouring their rapid volleys into Hancock's confused ranks, and swelling the deafening din of battle with their piercing shouts." The massive blue tide wavered and then lurched back. Hancock's troops were already in disarray when Gordon hit, the overextended victims of their initial success. The breakthrough was so rapid that the Federal line had become hopelessly jumbled. Close to 20,000 men had charged into the salient and were now wedged shoulder to shoulder in an area not much larger than two football fields. Union troops were packed so tightly that some men could not lift their arms to use their weapons. Subjected to the withering fire that Gordon's advancing troops laid down, Hancock's men broke and tumbled back to the toe of the mule shoe, seeking shelter in the entrenchments they had captured on their way in.
It was close to 6 A.M. when Hancock fell back to the mule shoe perimeter, and at that point Grant hurled Wright's 6th Corps against the west angle of the salient, the infamous Bloody Angle in Civil War historiography. The 6th Corps had been held back initially to avoid hitting Hancock's troops with friendly fire. The two corps were adjacent and attacking at right angles. Both could not safely go forward at the same time. Once Hancock pulled back, the way was open for Wright. And so at six o'clock another 15,000 men slammed into the west face of the mule shoe, 200 yards from where Hancock hit. "The enemy seemed to have concentrated the whole engine of war at this point," a Mississippian remembered. "Shells of every kind and shape from field pieces raked the approaches, while a forest of muskets played with awful fury over the ground itself." To a South Carolinian it seemed as if "Grant ha[d] all the hosts of hell in assault upon us."
For the next eighteen hours North and South grappled hand-to-hand in the most horrendous fighting of the war thus far. "The flags of both armies waved at the same moment over the same breastwork," wrote a 6th Corps survivor. "It was a literal saturnalia of blood," wrote another. "Nothing but the piled up logs of breastworks separated the combatants. Our men would reach over the logs and fire into the faces of the enemy, would stab over with their bayonets. Many were shot and stabbed through the crevices and holes between the logs. Men mounted the works and with muskets rapidly handed to them kept up a continuous fire until they were shot down, when others would take their places."
The slaughter was unrelenting. So too was the rain, turning trench floors into an oozy muck where the dead and wounded were trampled out of sight by men fighting for their lives. Close-in fighting like this usually ended quickly when one side broke and ran, but at Spotsylvania neither line broke. As a Confederate officer wrote, "There was one continuous roll of musketry from dawn until midnight." In places the dead were sprawled eight or ten bodies deep. So intense was the firing that an oak tree, two feet in diameter, was cut down by the chipping bullets. "I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania," one of Wright's officers wrote, "because I should be loath to believe it myself were the case reversed."
All day long and well into the night Grant and Lee continued to throw reinforcements into the angle. Grant was determined to achieve a breakthrough; Lee was equally determined to hold his line until Confederate engineers completed a new set of works across the base of the salient. For each, strategic considerations dictated the tactics, and those considerations were remarkably similar. In Grant's case, he wanted to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, and every casualty Lee suffered was a step in that direction. Lee, on the other hand, wanted to wear down the Northern will to fight. The longer he held out, and the more casualties he inflicted, the more likely it was that Union enthusiasm for the war would erode. For better or worse, both were engaged in a war of attrition. As Lee saw it, the glass was half full. He could win the war by not losing it. For Grant, the glass was half empty. He had to destroy Lee before anti-war sentiment in the North took control.
It was close to midnight when Lee gave the order to withdraw. The weary rebel troops disengaged unit by unit, and stealthily fell back a half mile to where a new and even more formidable line had been dug. Equally tired Federal troops let them go, content to take possession of the trenches they had fought over for the last eighteen hours. Exhausted, out of contact at last, rebels and Yanks slept on their arms in the mud where they lay, oblivious to the pelting rain. Daybreak revealed the damage. Grant had lost almost 7,000 men in the day-long assault on the mule shoe; Lee's losses were similar: nearly 3,000 veteran troops captured, and a somewhat larger number killed and wounded. Since crossing the Rapidan on May 5, the Army of the Potomac had lost 32,000 men killed, wounded, and missing more than for all Union armies combined in any previous week of the war. Lee's casualties, though less, had been proportionately as great: about 18,000 of the 60,000 troops engaged. Far more serious, however, the Army of Northern Virginia had lost twenty of fifty-seven corps, division, and brigade commanders the leadership cadre of the army. Grant had lost but ten.
At this point in the war, reinforcements were still available, though the Southern supply was dwindling fast. Within the week each army had made good at least half of its losses. Six brigades from Richmond and two from the Shenandoah joined Lee; Grant continued to draw from the store of artillerymen assigned to defense duty in the rear. A more worrisome problem for the general in chief was that the three-year enlistments of many regiments would expire in the next six weeks. Unless the men reenlisted, the drain on Union manpower would be substantial.
Grant was able to witness more of the fighting at Spotsylvania than in the Wilderness because the terrain was more open. During the afternoon he ordered his reliable pony Jeff Davis saddled and rode out to several points where he could observe Hancock's troops fighting at the tip of the mule shoe and Wright's assault on the west angle. On balance, Grant thought things were going well. Back at headquarters that evening, he wired Halleck: "The eighth day of battle closes, leaving between three and four thousand prisoners in our hands and thirty pieces of artillery." Grant said the enemy was obstinate and "seemed to have found the last ditch." But he remained optimistic. The Army of the Potomac had not lost a single unit, while the enemy had surrendered an entire division and a full brigade. Later he wrote Julia that he was well and full of hope. "The world has never seen so bloody or so protracted a battle as the one being fought and I hope never will again. The enemy were really whipped yesterday but their situation is desperate beyond anything heretofore known. To lose this battle they lose their cause. As bad as it is they have fought for it with a gallantry worthy of a better."
The following day, as the rain continued and the armies regrouped, Grant wrote Stanton to recommend the promotion of Meade and Sherman to major general in the regular army, traditionally the highest rank the nation could bestow. Meade, said Grant, "has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and Sherman are the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with." Conscious of his need to maintain a balance between the Eastern and Western theaters, Grant cautioned Stanton that he "would not like to see one of these promotions without seeing both."
Since crossing the Rapidan, Grant and Meade had worked hand in hand to throw the weight of the Army of the Potomac against Lee. Meade, the older man, was instinctively more cautious, yet Grant was pleased with the Pennsylvanian's coolness under pressure and his ability to administer the nation's largest army. Nevertheless, the dual command arrangement was cumbersome. Meade's chief of staff, writing after the war, took the traditional view: "There were two officers commanding the same army. Such a mixed command was not calculated to produce the best results that either singly was capable of bringing about."
Grant's staff took a similar position. After the fighting at the Bloody Angle, Rawlins and others strenuously urged Grant to bypass Meade and issue his orders directly to the corps and division commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Their contention was that too much time was lost under the present system; that Grant's incisive orders lost force and vigor when filtered through Meade's headquarters; and that Meade had an irascible temper that often irritated officers in contact with him. According to Colonel Horace Porter, the discussion became heated and undoubtedly reflected the tension that had developed between two general staffs that operated side by side with their respective fields imperfectly defined.
Grant listened, but dismissed the suggestion. He told his staff he was aware of the problems, but it could not be otherwise. "I am commanding all the armies, and I cannot neglect others by giving my time exclusively to the Army of the Potomac." Grant said that to take over from Meade would involve him in the detailed duties of an army commander, "enforcing discipline, reviewing court martial proceedings, and so on." In addition, Meade knew the Army of the Potomac thoroughly, and had led it to a memorable victory at Gettysburg. "I have just come from the West, and if I removed a deserving Eastern man from the position of army commander, my motives might be misunderstood." Grant said that he and Meade worked together easily. "He is capable and perfectly subordinate, and by attending to the details he relieves me of much unnecessary work."
For his part, Meade accepted the situation with good spirit. Writing to his wife during the battle of Spotsylvania, he noted that journalists seemed puzzled at the command relationship and had apparently decided that "Grant does the grand strategy, and I do the grand tactics. Coopée in his Army Magazine says, 'the Army of the Potomac, directed by Grant, commanded by Meade, and led by Hancock, Sedgwick and Warren,' which is quite a good distinction, and about hits the nail on the head."
The problem with the Army of the Potomac was not with Meade but with its corps commanders. When he was in the West, Grant could rely on Sherman and McPherson, and at Chattanooga, George Thomas and Joe Hooker. Each general was as eager as Grant to take the fight to the enemy. But in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania, only Hancock proved up to snuff. Horatio Wright at this point was an uncertain replacement for Sedgwick, while Warren and Burnside simply lacked the fighting instinct. Burnside had been tardy in the Wilderness, and at Spotsylvania he again failed to get his divisions on line in sufficient time to support Hancock's assault on the mule shoe. He was the senior major general south of the Rapidan, but his lapses were a serious embarrassment for Grant.
Warren was a different problem. Talented, youthful, intelligent, Gouverneur Kemble Warren was cut in the mode of McClellan, Buell, and Halleck. He firmly believed war was a rational exercise, to be conducted by carefully planned maneuvers that flanked the enemy out of position without the necessity for fighting set-piece battles. He was uncomfortable with Grant's head-on style, and found it difficult to launch his men against a prepared enemy position. "An excess of caution, a delay in assuming the offensive, even when ordered, an indisposition to take tactical risks," is how Grant's secretary, Adam Badeau, described Warren. Meade simply thought Warren had lost his nerve. Grant, who at one time had considered Warren a possible replacement for Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac, despaired at his timidity. "He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it." On the morning of May 12, when Warren was late once more in getting his attack organized, Grant told Meade to relieve him and replace him with the army's chief of staff, Major General A. A. Humphreys, if he did not move forward immediately. Warren's troops eventually got into action and acquitted themselves well, but had they moved sooner Lee would have been hard pressed to hold the salient. "Burnside is a d d Humbug, and Warren is a ditto," wrote Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a 6th Corps staff officer. Emory Upton said it equally pungently: "Some of our corps commanders are not fit to be corporals. Lazy and indolent, they will not even ride along their lines."
Grant was not ready to call it quits at Spotsylvania. Although it rained steadily for the next two days and into a third, the general in chief continued to probe Lee's line for a weak spot. On Saturday the 14th, the 5th and 6th corps attempted to move around the Confederate right but bogged down on the road and the attack had to be called off.75 On the 18th, believing that Lee was falling back, Grant sent Hancock and Wright against what he assumed was the thinned-out rebel line at the base of the mule shoe. Lee was not falling back, the line was defended more robustly than ever, and after two hours of fruitless assault the Union attack fizzled out. "We found the enemy so strongly entrenched," Meade wrote his wife, "that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall, and directed a suspension." After six days of effort, Grant recognized that Lee's position at Spotsylvania could not be stormed by frontal assault and could not be turned by short-range flanking maneuvers. He decided to swing wide to his left, move once more between Lee and Richmond, and force his opponent away from his Spotsylvania entrenchments and into the open country. As his immediate objective, Grant chose Hanover Junction, just beyond the North Anna River, twenty-five miles south. The two rail lines on which Lee depended, one from the Shenandoah valley, the other from Richmond, intersected there and Grant assumed Lee would rush to defend it. Once more the premium was on getting to Hanover Junction first, the North Anna representing a serious natural obstacle and dangerous to cross in the face of an enemy as powerful as the Army of Northern Virginia.
As Meade prepared the marching orders, Grant received another series of communications from the field. The good news was that in Georgia, Sherman had taken Dalton, and outflanked Johnston at Resaca. As a result, the Confederates were falling back toward Atlanta. The bad news involved Union forces in the Shenandoah and on the James. In the valley, Sigel had not only failed to capture Lee's base at Staunton, but was in headlong retreat toward Winchester, the victim of a resounding defeat delivered by General John C. Breckinridge at New Market. Breckinridge, former vice president of the United States, and the electoral college runner-up to Lincoln in 1860, had come north to join Lee after the battle of Chattanooga. Leading a pickup rebel force of 5,000, including 247 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, he laced into Sigel just after dawn on May 15 and routed him. Grant, who was counting on the Shenandoah offensive to pin Lee down, was furious, but Halleck was not surprised. "If you expect anything from Sigel you will be mistaken," he wired Grant. "He will do nothing but run. He never did anything else." The upshot was that Lee continued to draw supplies from the Shenandoah unmolested, and Breckinridge's troops entrained to join the Army of Northern Virginia near Hanover Junction. Grant solved the Sigel problem by prevailing upon Lincoln to relieve him, but the Shenandoah remained firmly fixed in rebel hands.
On the James, Benjamin Butler, another leg holder, had also run into trouble. After landing midway between Petersburg and Richmond with 30,000 men on May 5, the former Massachusetts legislator did not move against the Confederate capital until a week later. By then General P. G. T. Beauregard, back on active duty in southside Virginia, had amassed a force almost as large and on May 16 lashed into the Federals at Drewry's Bluff, eight miles south of Richmond. After an all-day battle, with heavy losses on both sides, Butler pulled back to his trench line across the neck between the Appomattox and James rivers. Beauregard entrenched a line immediately opposite Butler's, and the two armies settled into a stalemate. Beauregard could not advance past Butler's works, but Butler could not advance either. Grant told Halleck that Butler's Army of the James was "shut off from further operations as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked." Both the Confederate line and the Union line could be held with relatively few troops. As a consequence, 6,000 of Beauregard's troops were sent to reinforce Lee, while Grant ordered the 18th Corps under Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith to join him on the North Anna.
On May 21 Grant put the Army of the Potomac in motion toward Hanover Junction. "We were now to operate in a very different country from any we had before seen in Virginia. The roads were wide and good, and the country well cultivated." Grant said there were no maps, but "our course was south, and we took all roads leading in that direction which would not separate the army too widely."
Lee, who moved along interior lines, kept his army between Grant and Richmond and arrived on the North Anna well ahead of the Union vanguard. He took up a defensive position on the south bank of the river, entrenched behind a formidable series of earthworks, and waited for Grant to attack. "If I can get one more pull at him, I will defeat him," Lee confided to his staff surgeon.
As soon as Grant had his troops arrayed in order of battle, he probed the center of the Confederate line and then briefly attempted a double envelopment. But Lee's works were too strong. Grant thereupon called off the assault in favor of another crablike sidle to the left to force his opponent into open country. As he told Halleck, "Lee's right rests on a swamp, his center rests on the North Anna, and his left on Little river....To make a direct attack would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify." As a consequence, Grant said he would try to turn the rebel right by breaking off contact and moving twenty miles downriver. Like Lee, Grant was sanguine about victory. As he informed Washington:
"Lee's army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his Army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of entrenchments cannot be had. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee's army is already insured."
Four days later, with the Army of the Potomac on the move, Grant instructed Halleck to round up all the pontoon bridging the Union possessed and send it posthaste to Fortress Monroe at the mouth of the James River. He did not explain why he wanted it, but his intention was obvious. As he had done at Vicksburg, Grant was thinking about crossing another mighty river, taking the enemy by surprise, outflanking Lee's army once and for all, and approaching Richmond from the south. It had worked on the Mississippi in 1863; Grant believed it might work again.
By nightfall on May 29 the Army of the Potomac had reached Totopotomy Creek, nine miles northeast of Richmond, only to find the Army of Northern Virginia drawn up in line of battle, artillery emplaced, and all three corps dug in and waiting. Since crossing the Rapidan on May 5, Grant had pressed forward relentlessly and was now at the outskirts of the Confederate capital. Wishful thinking aside, however, the rebel army remained as formidable as ever. Grant had captured the initiative, but Lee had countered every assault, trading space for time in an equally relentless effort to wear down Union morale and perhaps even defeat Grant should he let his guard down. "The grand object," Lee told Major General Richard Anderson, "is the destruction of the enemy." Indeed, the Confederate retreat from the Rapidan was not without its blessings. Lee was now close to his principal base of supply, his lines of communication were considerably shortened, and in a pinch he could call on the 6,000 troops in the Richmond garrison for support.
Just as on the North Anna, Grant probed Lee's defenses on Totopotomy Creek and decided he did not like what he found. After two days of skirmishing he sidled to the left once again, moving southward to take the vital road intersection of Cold Harbor, halfway between Totopotomy Creek and the Chickahominy. There is no anchorage at Cold Harbor. The misleading name is of British lineage signifying an inn that offered overnight lodging without hot food. It was adopted here because the settlement's main feature was a frame tavern set in a grove of trees at the juncture of five roads coming in from all sides. Lee shifted right to stay between Grant and Richmond, counterattacked briefly on May 31 hoping to catch the Union army strung out on the march, but was quickly repulsed. During the night of June 1-2 the remainder of both armies arrived and began to entrench facing each other for the seven miles between the Totopotomy and the Chickahominy.
Grant put his forces on line and made ready to attack. With the arrival of Smith's 18th Corps from the James, the Army of the Potomac now numbered approximately 110,000 men. Lee could count on the services of almost 60,000. Both armies had built themselves back up almost to their numbers at the start of the campaign four weeks earlier. Those weeks had been without precedent. Grant's casualties totaled some 44,000; Lee's losses were proportional, roughly 25,000. Never before had the two armies been continuously engaged for so long, and the hammering was having its effect. "Many a man," wrote Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "has gone crazy since the campaign began from the terrible pressure on mind and body."
By now Grant was well aware of how costly it was to attack Lee once the Confederates had dug in. On the North Anna and at Totopotomy Creek he confronted virtually impregnable rebel positions and passed up an assault in order to maneuver Lee out of those positions. Cold Harbor looked like the opportunity he was waiting for. The country was open and rolling, and he had finally beaten Lee to the battlefield. Grant's plan was to move forward as early as possible on June 2 before the rebel works were completed. All five corps of the Army of the Potomac were on line: Hancock on the left, Burnside on the right, with Wright, Smith, and Warren in the center. Once again, however, the Union response was sluggish. Hancock's corps, which had the furthest to march, was late getting into position, and Smith's corps, fresh from the James, was having difficulty sorting itself out. Rather than go forward piecemeal, Grant instructed Meade to postpone the attack until first light the next morning, Friday, June 3, 1864. The twenty-four-hour delay proved fatal. Lee was given more than enough time to prepare a defensive line of interlocking trenches supported by artillery, sometimes out in front of the infantry, so that it could lay down a killing crossfire on all avenues of approach along the entire seven-mile front. Having disposed his army to meet the attack, he was content to leave the rest to the defensive skill of his troops, which was formidable.
Late in the afternoon of June 2 an opportunity flickered briefly on the right of the Union line but it disappeared just as quickly. As Burnside and Warren were adjusting their lines, they were attacked by the Confederate troops opposite. After some hard fighting the attacks were repulsed, and Burnside and Warren were content to let it go at that. Grant was not informed of the attack until several hours later, and he was angry that neither corps commander had taken advantage of the opportunity to attack the rebels outside their breastworks. The object of the whole campaign since crossing the Rapidan had been to catch the Confederate army in the open, and Burnside and Warren had been oblivious to the possibility. Grant directed Meade to instruct each corps commander to attack immediately whenever the enemy came out of his works and to follow up the attack vigorously. As Grant saw it, the Army of the Potomac, with the exception of Hancock's corps, had become content with repelling rebel attacks and was slow to take advantage of the enemy's lapses.
Having waited a day, Grant ordered the attack for 4:30 A.M. on June 3. Hancock, Wright, and Smith were to carry the burden of the Union assault, while Warren and Burnside, on the right and far right, were to move forward at the same time and, if possible, turn Lee's flank. The rebel and Union lines hugged one another between the Totopotomy and the Chickahominy and all day long the men in blue could see the Confederate earthworks grow and become more formidable. As the troops made ready that evening, Colonel Horace Porter passed through the Union lines on foot with last-minute orders. Porter noticed that in one regiment many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in mending them. He thought that strange, and when he looked closer he found that the men "were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper, and pinning them on their coats, so that their dead bodies might be recognized and their fate made known to their families." Porter noted that the troops were veteran soldiers, and were simply preparing for the desperate work ahead with a courage he thought to be sublime.
At the appointed hour, more than 60,000 closely packed troops belonging to 2nd, 6th, and 18th corps dashed forward, striking for three points along the center and right-center of the rebel line. Up ahead, the Confederate trenches erupted with a hail of screaming lead. "It seemed more like a volcanic blast than a battle," a Federal survivor recalled. Another said, "It had the fury of the Wilderness musketry with the thunder of the Gettysburg artillery superadded." Never before, in this or any other war, had so large a body of troops been exposed to such a concentration of firepower.
Union attackers carried the rifle pits at the edge of the rebel skirmish line but that was as far as they got. Within thirty minutes the attack was broken. "The dead and dying lay in front of the Confederate line in triangles, of which the apexes were the bravest men who came nearest to the breastworks under that withering, deadly fire," a Southern soldier remembered. A colonel from Alabama, whose regiment lost three men killed and five wounded, looked out through the smoke and haze to his immediate front and saw that the Union dead "covered more than five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid." To the right of the Federal line the effect was the same but the carnage less severe. Warren's troops had not attempted to move forward and Burnside's did little better. Orders for the attack to be renewed went unheeded. Hancock told Grant the position in front of him could not be taken. Wright said he might be able to secure a lodgment, but nothing would be gained by it unless Hancock and Smith advanced at the same time. Smith thought he might be able to attack once more, but was not sanguine about the prospects. At that point Grant recognized the inevitable and called a halt. "Hold our most advanced position," he instructed Meade, but "suspend any further advance for the present." Union losses were staggering. Grant's casualties for the day totaled more than 7,000, most of them during the first half hour. Lee lost something less than 1,500.
"I regret this assault more than any I have ever ordered," Grant told his staff that evening. "I regarded it as a stern necessity, and believed that it would bring compensating results; but no advantages have been gained sufficient to justify the heavy losses suffered." Meade, somewhat more circumspectly, wrote his wife that although the battle ended without any decided results, "I think Grant had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee's army is not Tennessee and Bragg's army."
Costly as the battle was, Grant had no intention of pulling back or relaxing his grip on Lee. Success, he told his staff, "was only a question of time." Lee recognized the danger. Despite the victory at Cold Harbor, his army was exhausted. Even more worrisome, the lack of efficient commissary support was taking its toll. "Some of the men now have scurvy," Lee told Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan, who had ridden out from Richmond to observe the fighting. Lee said that unless fresh vegetables were supplied quickly, the men could not go on. Reagan asked Lee what would happen if Grant broke through. Were there any reserves that could be called on?
"Not a regiment," said Lee. "And that has been my condition ever since fighting commenced on the Rapidan. If I shorten my lines to provide a reserve, Grant will turn me; if I weaken my lines to provide a reserve, he will break them."
Grant had no detailed knowledge of Lee's predicament nor was he privy to the Confederate commissary problem, but he knew instinctively that sooner or later the Army of Northern Virginia would collapse under the hammering he was administering. Colonel Adam Badeau, who was with Grant at Cold Harbor, wrote afterward that the general in chief was in no way deterred by the setback:
Neither the skill of his opponent, nor the splendid fighting of the rebel army; neither the disappointment when he saw his immediate plans frustrated; nor his chagrin when his troops found the hostile works impregnable; neither the unavoidable losses which his army sustained, and which no man appreciated more acutely or deplored more profoundly than he; neither the increasing responsibilities nor the settling gloom of this terrible and seemingly endless campaign depressed or discouraged, so far as those nearest him could discover, this imperturbable man. He believed, all through these anxious days and weary nights, that if he had not accomplished a positive victory, he was yet advancing, not only toward Richmond, but toward the goal he had proposed to himself, the destruction of Lee and of the rebellion.
Despite the incredible carnage during the initial minutes of the Union assault on June 3, Grant's casualties during the fighting at Cold Harbor were significantly less than the Army of the Potomac suffered in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania. The morale of the army remained high, although there was a growing reluctance to attack heavily fortified positions frontally. A Union staff officer wrote his wife that McClellan would not like what the troops were saying now: "They all say if he had not retreated with them, but stood and let them fight it out as Grant is doing, they would have been in Richmond two years sooner." Charles Francis Adams, Jr., a captain in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, wrote to a friend that "so far Grant has out-generalled Lee and he has, in spite of his inability to start Lee one inch out of his fortifications, maneuvered himself close to the gates of Richmond." A soldier in Baldy Smith's corps, which suffered heavily at Cold Harbor, wrote, "We have the gray backs in a pretty close corner at present and intend to keep them so. There is no fall back with U. S. Grant." Another soldier assured his parents, "Grant has been successful in all his movements during the campaign and his men feel sanguine of success, although it will no doubt take time to do it."
In the North, the heavy casualties sustained by the Army of the Potomac had diminished public support for Grant but did not affect delegates to the Republican National Convention, which met in Baltimore the week following Cold Harbor. Lincoln was renominated without opposition and the convention adopted a platform that recommended a constitutional amendment to prohibit slavery in the United States. Lincoln too was worried about the casualties in Virginia but he did not budge in his support for Grant. When the Ohio delegation serenaded him with a brass band after his renomination, he responded: "What we want, still more than Baltimore conventions or presidential elections, is success under General Grant," and he urged his listeners to do everything possible to support "the brave officers and soldiers in the field." In public meeting after public meeting the president expressed his gratitude to the soldiers, to the officers, and especially to "that brave and loyal man, the modest general at the head of our armies, General Grant."
When the fighting ended on June 3 Grant faced a critical decision. He could not smash Lee's line with a frontal assault, and if he sidled left once more it would put the Army of the Potomac in the swampy bottoms of the Chickahominy. Even if he cleared that hurdle, the army would confront the permanent defenses of Richmond, which, after three years of war, had become far more formidable than the improvised entrenchments Lee had thrown up at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Looking at the situation from the map room in the War Department, Halleck urged Grant to lay siege to Richmond from his present position, draw his supplies from the Fredericksburg railroad, stay between Lee and Washington, and move on the Confederate capital in slow, methodical stages: in effect, a repeat of Halleck's tactics at Corinth. It was the conservative way to wage war, and if anyone was reluctant to take risks it was Halleck.
Grant thought otherwise. To creep forward against Richmond from the north would play into Lee's hands. It would allow the Confederacy to make maximum use of its fortified position and would turn the fighting into a lengthy war of attrition. As Grant saw it that would fan anti-war sentiment in the North, encourage those who wanted to make peace, and imperil President Lincoln's reelection.
Instead, Grant sought a breakthrough: to get the drop on Lee by doing what he least expected. For the past two weeks Grant had been mulling over his strategy at Vicksburg. On May 25 he had instructed Halleck to ship every pontoon he could lay his hands on to Fortress Monroe. It was now time to put that plan into effect. He would disengage at Cold Harbor, swiftly take the Army of the Potomac across the James, seize Petersburg and its hub of railroads linking Richmond with the South, strike Richmond from its soft underbelly, and force Lee into the open. The risks were enormous. What Grant contemplated involved breaking off contact with a powerful opponent along a seven-mile trench line, with rebel revetments sometimes no more than forty yards away; stealthily withdrawing across the Chickahominy swamps to a crossing site on the James during which time the army would be vulnerable to attack; and crossing a powerful tidal river half again the width of the Mississippi below Vicksburg, during which the army would be even more vulnerable. Grant has often been credited with little imagination. Yet his decision to cross the James ranks with his crossing of the Mississippi as a tactical breakthrough. Crossing the Mississippi paved the way for victory in the West; crossing the James set the stage for Lee's ultimate defeat.
On June 5 Grant informed Washington of what he intended. He told Halleck it was not practical to hold a line north of Richmond and rely on the Fredericksburg railroad for support. "To do so would give us a long vulnerable line of road to protect, exhausting much of our strength in guarding it, and would leave open to the enemy all of his lines of communication on the south side of the James. My idea, from the start, has been to beat Lee's army north of Richmond....I now find that after more than thirty days of trial that the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the Armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive, behind breastworks, or feebly on the offensive immediately in front of them and where, in case of repulse, they can instantly retire behind them." Grant said he could not prevail in the present setting "Without a greater sacrifice of human life" than he was willing to make.
"I have therefore resolved upon the following plan. I will continue to hold the ground now occupied by the Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of any favorable opportunity that may present itself, until the cavalry can be sent to destroy the Virginia Central railroad. When this is effected I will move the Army to the south side of the James river." Once across the James he would cut Lee's supply line, and prepare for a final showdown.
For Grant, Cold Harbor had been a setback, not a defeat. He concluded his message to Washington on a high note. "The feeling of the two Armies now seems to be that the rebels can protect themselves only by strong entrenchments, whilst our Army is not only confident of protecting itself, without entrenchments, but that it can beat and drive the enemy whenever and wherever he can be found without this protection." For the Army of the Potomac, this was a new experience.
Copyright © 2001 by Jean Edward Smith