Copyright © 2001 Jean Edward Smith. All rights reserved.
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 ofVirginia, the fifty-seven-year-old Lee personified the romantic virtues of theOld South. His father was Light-Horse Harry Lee, Washington's larger-than-lifecavalry commander, governor of Virginia, spendthrift, womanizer, and ultimatelya fugitive from debtor's prison who spent his last years in self-imposed exilein the West Indies. His mother was Ann Carter, daughter of the TidewaterCarters, the most prominent of James River planters, and once reputed to be thewealthiest 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 theengineers, he served with distinction on the staff of General Winfield Scottduring the Mexican War, became the ninth superintendent of the military academyin 1852, and three years later assumed temporary command of the 2nd Cavalry, hisfirst troop duty in twenty-six years of active service. In 1859 Lee commandedthe 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 Cavalryregiment. The following month, when Virginia seceded, Lee promptly resigned hiscommission and headed south. "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, myhome, my children," he wrote a Northern friend.
Lee's decision to join the Confederacy was not easily taken. The very day helearned Virginia had left the Union, he was offered the field command of theUnited States Army by the War Department. "I declined the offer," Lee wrotelater, "stating as candidly and as courteously as I could, that though opposedto secession and deprecating war, I could take no part in an invasion of theSouthern States." Five days later, April 23, 1861, Lee assumed command ofVirginia's military forces. Three weeks after that, with the formation of theConfederate States of America, he became a brigadier general in the Confederatearmy, 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 himappear larger than he actually was. According to his principal biographer, hepreferred the company of women, especially pretty women, to that of men,although there was never a suggestion of scandal. Deeply religious, Lee'sbelief in God was personal, not denominational. He read his Bible and prayerbook daily, and spent much time on his knees seeking solace and support. He didnot use tobacco, hated whiskey, and rarely drank even the smallest amount ofwine. Like Grant, he was blessed with great powers of endurance and a strongnervous system. Despite his innate dignity, he met people easily and had awell-developed memory for names. His mind was mathematical, directed towardproblem solving rather than abstraction. He was an accomplished linguist, hisreading encompassed a broader range than that of most officers, and, like manygifted commanders, he was bored by office routine. He viewed his father as aRevolutionary War hero, not a tragic bankrupt, and George Washington was hisidol. Douglas Southall Freeman wrote that by 1861 Lee "had come to view duty asWashington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, toemulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel."
During the first year of the war, Lee's star was eclipsed. His initialassignment was to reclaim western Virginia for the Confederacy an effortthat 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 autumnpullback from the Kanawha, and was castigated by the bellicose Richmond pressas "Granny Lee," a theoretical desk soldier who would not fight. Lee's secondassignment was to improve coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia anassignment 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 digfortifications, besides which a brave man would not hide behind earthworks inthe first place. This unwelcome duty earned Lee a second sobriquet, "King ofSpades." He returned to Richmond in early 1862 to become Jefferson Davis'smilitary secretary and adviser, an inauspicious posting that promised anabundance of desk work and little future. "Granny Lee." "King of Spades." Thewar, it seemed, had passed him by.
Opportunity appeared by accident. In May 1862, McClellan had pushed to withinsix miles of Richmond. Confederate forces under Joseph E. Johnston held theline on the Chickahominy, and on May 31 counterattacked at Seven Pines. At theclimax 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 theranking Confederate general available scarcely offset the disappointingreputation 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 viewedas a military theoretician who was out of place in the field. Most of Johnston'ssubordinates expressed discomfort at being placed under "a staff officer likeLee," and Union reaction was joyous. "I prefer Lee to Johnston," McClellanwrote Lincoln. "The former is too cautious and weak under grave responsibility.Personally brave and energetic to a fault, he is yet wanting in moral firmnesswhen pressed by heavy responsibility, and is likely to be timid and irresolutein action."
Union celebrations were short lived. Despite his unpromising start, Lee provedto be, as his friend Major General Henry Heth observed, "the most belligerentman 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 withinthe next year he crossed the Potomac to carry the fight to the North, hoping tosap Yankee sentiment to continue the war and coming perilously close, both atAntietam and Gettysburg, to smashing the Union line. Twice again he defeatedthe Army of the Potomac in Virginia: Burnside at Fredericksburg in 1862, Hookerat Chancellorsville in 1863. The battle of the Wilderness saw Lee on the attackonce more. Whether Lee's aggressiveness aided or hurt the Confederacy is anargument recently renewed by historians, but for Grant and Meade in 1864 theanswer was scarcely debatable.
Ulysses Grant, the son of an Ohio tanner, a man indistinguishable in a crowdeven in uniform, personified the egalitarian values of a modernizing,democratic society. Modest, rumpled, sometimes a bit seedy, Grant was anordinary man gifted with an extraordinary talent for making war. His simpleexterior cloaked a formidable intellect and a rock-solid self-confidence thatwas equal to any crisis on the battlefield. He had a topographer's feel forlandscape, a photographic memory when it came to maps, and a command of theEnglish language at its incisive best. "There is one striking feature of Grant'sorders," said Meade's chief of staff, Major General A. A. Humphreys. "No matterhow hurriedly he may write them in the field, no one ever had the slightestdoubt as to their meaning, or even has to read over them a second time tounderstand them."
Grant had an eye for the main chance. He focused on the enemy's weakness, nothis own. No matter how badly things were going, he instinctively assumed theywere worse for his opponent. After three years of war, he had become a masterat maneuvering large bodies of troops on the battlefield. The battle of theWilderness was not the best example. The working relationship between him andMeade had yet to be refined, and Grant had been unfamiliar with the capacitiesand shortcomings of the Army of the Potomac. Nevertheless, for the first timesince the war began, a Union army was moving south after fighting Lee inVirginia. With the tenacity that had become his hallmark, Grant had capturedthe initiative. The democratic general of a democratic fighting force, he wasdetermined 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 inthe Wilderness and bring him to battle in open country. Twelve miles southeastof Wilderness Tavern, Spotsylvania was situated on a direct line between Leeand Richmond. The town itself was of little importance except that it providedan easy approach to the two rail lines of central Virginia that were vital tothe supply of Lee's army. By moving quickly, Grant planned to insert the Army ofthe Potomac between Lee and Richmond, take up a strong defensive position, andcompel 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 thefact that it had a considerable head start, a better road, and a shorterdistance to travel, the Union vanguard did not reach Spotsylvania untilmid-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 byMajor General Richard Anderson had marched briskly through the night, slicedahead of Meade's forces, and secured the town before the Federals arrived. ForGrant, the result was disappointing. Rather than standing between Lee andRichmond, he once again confronted the rebel army dug in and holding the highground. Piecemeal attacks by Union infantry failed to dislodge theConfederates, and for the rest of the day Grant and Lee brought upreinforcements and deployed their armies in line of battle.
The town of Spotsylvania lies on a ridge between the Po and Ni rivers, two ofthe four northern Virginia streams (the Mat, the Ta, the Po, and the Ni) thatjoin to form the Mattaponi River. At Spotsylvania, the ridge is about threemiles wide and affords a strong defensive position. Neither the Po nor the Niis especially wide, but the streams are deep, with steep banks, and bordered byheavily wooded bottom land. Crossing them is difficult, and Lee utilized therivers to secure his flanks. To the front, elaborate rebel breastworksstretching between the rivers dominated the ridgeline. Taking full advantage ofthe natural features of the terrain, the Confederates laid out theirfortifications in the shape of a huge inverted U, or "hog's snout," aconfiguration that would also enable Lee to shift troops internally from oneside to the other as the need arose. Rebel artillery was sited to be mutuallysupporting, and wherever practicable, an abatis of fallen timber was put inplace.
Lee's eye for taking advantage of the topography had been sharpened under Scottin Mexico, and at Spotsylvania he more than demonstrated his proficiency. Theman who had been ridiculed in 1862 as "King of Spades" had discovered a meansof countering Grant's numerical superiority. The era of trench warfare, whichhad been slowly developing, came to fruition at Spotsylvania. Interlockingtimber-and-dirt barriers blocked the way forward, deep traverses zigzagged toprovide cover against Union artillery fire, and head logs, chocked a few inchesabove hard-packed soil from the trenches, afforded rebel riflemen a protectedslit through which they could take deliberate aim at an approaching enemy. AsMeade's chief of staff noted, Lee's fortifications during the last year of thewar multiplied his defensive strength fourfold. And if the works were mannedproperly, "there is scarcely any measure by which to gauge the increasedstrength 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 blessingof God," he wrote Jefferson Davis, "I trust we shall be able to prevent GeneralGrant from reaching Richmond."
By late afternoon on May 8 most of Grant's troops were in place. The Union linefaced south and was laid out in a rough semicircle paralleling the Confederateworks. Hancock's 2nd Corps was deployed on the right, Warren and Sedgwick inthe center, and Burnside on the left. From a tactical point of view, Grant wasin no better position than in the Wilderness. He had moved south because he sawno advantage in assaulting the works Lee's men had thrown up in the forest, yetthe Confederate fortifications at Spotsylvania were even more formidable, laidout on dominant terrain between unfordable rivers. If Grant was perturbed, hedid not show it. He wanted to bring on a battle, unwelcome as the setting mightbe, and proceeded accordingly.
The one bright spot that afternoon was Sheridan. Thus far the Union cavalry hadrendered little assistance. Meade held to the view that horse soldiers couldbest be used screening the army's advance and protecting slow-moving wagontrains. 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 whipthe socks off him. The dispute broke into the open on May 8. Both Meade andSheridan were endowed with fiery tempers, and as the recriminations ("highlyspiced 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 withhis cavalry commander. When he got to Sheridan's claim that he would destroyStuart if Meade would only let him, Grant perked up. "Did Sheridan say that?" heasked, more amused than angered by the cavalryman's insubordination. Meadenodded. "Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start rightout and do it."
Meade took this with good grace, although by traditional standards of militarydiscipline Grant was wrong. Rather than support the commander of the Army ofthe 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 ifthe obstreperous cavalry commander believed he could beat Stuart, Grant wantedhim to go to it.
Early the next morning Sheridan set out with his three cavalry divisions in thedirection of Richmond. Riding four abreast, the column of troopers stretchedthirteen miles in length and moved at a walk a deliberate provocation toentice Stuart to attack. Sheridan's first target was Lee's advance supply baseat 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 Armyof Northern Virginia, twenty miles of railroad track, a hundred freight cars,and half the locomotives of the Virginia Central line. After wreaking havoc inLee's rear, Sheridan continued south. Stuart stayed abreast of the Union columnbut did not make a stand until the Federals reached Yellow Tavern, a point sixmiles north of Richmond where the rebel leader hoped to receive reinforcementsfrom the city's garrison. The reinforcements failed to arrive, and Stuart'scavalry proved no match for Sheridan's troopers, who outnumbered them two toone and who were armed with rapid-fire carbines instead of the South'sstandard-issue muzzle loaders. Stuart was mortally wounded in the fighting adevastating blow to the Southern cause and the once invincible Confederatecavalry was routed. Sheridan pushed on, easily rode through Richmond's outerdefenses, but paused before plunging into the city itself. "I could have gonein and burned and killed right and left," Sheridan wrote later, but it wouldhave been for no permanent advantage. Tempted though he was, Little Phil led histroopers into Butler's lines on the James, rested his mounts, refitted, andrejoined 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 aday of preparation. Lee's troops continued to improve their position, andGrant, after probing the Confederate center, dispatched Hancock to turn therebel left. Grant was looking for a weak spot. Rather than assault theformidable Confederate works head-on, he would first try to slip the 2nd Corpsaround the entrenchments for a sudden descent on Lee's rear. Unfortunately, themaneuver required Hancock to cross the Po River twice, and by the time thetroops were ready to attack on May 10, Lee had shifted two divisions under JubalEarly to counter the threat. Early's men had industriously dug themselves in,and with the element of surprise gone, Hancock reluctantly informed Grant thatan attack would be futile.
A greater disappointment for Grant was the death of John Sedgwick. Aftermeeting with Grant the morning of May 9, the 6th Corps commander had goneforward to the center of his line, found the troops were nervous because ofscattered fire from Confederate sharpshooters, and tried to reassure them. Therebel marksmen were a good 800 yards away and Sedgwick mocked: "They couldn'thit an elephant at this distance." The next crack of the rifle sent a bulletthat struck Sedgwick in the head, killing him instantly. Uncle John, the bestloved general in the Army of the Potomac, was gone. Meade wept, Lee was saddenedby 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 awhole division."
The good news on May 9 was that the war elsewhere was going as Grant hoped. Apackage of dispatches from Washington revealed that Sherman was moving swiftlythrough 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 tomove on Petersburg. Butler said he anticipated hard fighting and asked forreinforcements. General Sigel reported from the Shenandoah valley that he hadnot yet encountered the enemy and would soon be moving on the railhead atStaunton, an important supply point for Lee's army. Grant had alreadyinstructed Halleck to provide reinforcements for Butler, and after digesting themessages from the field, he telegraphed Washington a brief report on thesituation at Spotsylvania. "Enemy hold our front in very strong force and evincestrong determination to interpose between us and Richmond to the last." As if toreassure the capital, Grant added, "I shall take no backward step." He askedHalleck to rush another five million rounds of small arms ammunition to thefront and "all the infantry you can rake and scrape....We can maintainourselves and in the end beat Lee's army, I believe."
Since Lee had withdrawn two of Early's divisions from his line to meet thethreat Hancock presented on his left, Grant concluded (wrongly as it turnedout) that he must have weakened his center. Still seeking a soft spot, thegeneral in chief ordered a frontal attack for 5 P.M. on May 10, the principalthrust directed at the tip of the hog's snout or "mule shoe," as it came tobe called. As was too often the case with the Army of the Potomac, the attackwas poorly coordinated. Warren's 5th Corps moved out an hour early, Hancock'scorps, which had to make a forced march back from the Po, was an hour late, andinstead of a weakened Confederate center, Union troops ran directly into themassed firepower of the Confederate 1st and 2nd corps. Losses were heavy allalong the line, except among Burnside's troops, who once again barely got intoaction. At no point was the rebel line breached, except briefly in front of the6th Corps where Colonel Emory Upton led an elite force of twelve regiments anddemonstrated that Lee's line was not impregnable providing the attackers movedquickly.
A brash twenty-four-year-old West Pointer from New York who took soldieringseriously and himself even more so, Upton had no patience with incompetentbrother officers or tactics that proved manifestly outdated. Strong on theoryand eager to test it in the field, Upton argued that the way to breach afortified position was to attack it on a narrow front and on a dead run, notstopping to fire or reload until the troops were over the parapets and insidethe enemy's works. So persuasive was Upton that Grant decided to give his plana try. Martin McMahon, the hard-bitten 6th Corps chief of staff, handpickedtwelve regiments for the task. "Upton," said McMahon, "you are to lead those menupon the enemy works this afternoon, and if you don't carry them, you are notexpected to come back." Upton replied predictably that he intended to carry theposition, and then set about to organize his attack.
The point selected for Upton's assault was about midway down the west face ofthe mule shoe. Confederate artillery was thickest there, but Upton planned tooverrun the guns before they had a chance to do much damage. He deployed hisregiments three abreast, four lines deep. The first line was to charge acrossno-man's-land without pausing, breach the ramparts, and fan out left and rightto widen the gap. The second line would plunge straight ahead to deepen thepenetration, while the third and fourth lines would follow on to providesupport wherever needed. The troops were instructed to cover the distance asrapidly as possible: no firing, no loading, and no pausing to give aid or succorto wounded comrades.
Grant rode out to observe the attack, found a suitable knoll, dismounted, andsat down on a fallen tree to write a dispatch. No sooner had he started writingthan a shell exploded directly in front of him. Grant looked up briefly andthen resumed writing. A group of wounded from the 5th Wisconsin were beingcarried 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 adeadly barrage but in less than four minutes men of the three leading regimentswere swarming over the Confederate parapets and fighting hand-to-hand in thetrenches. The second wave followed and quickly overwhelmed the defenders. Thefirst Federal line fanned out, the second line continued forward, and the thirdand 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 andthe road to Richmond seemed open. At this point, Union follow-through failed tomaterialize. Lee, on the spot as always, rushed reinforcements to contain thebreakthrough, rebel artillery boomed all along the front, and the divisionassigned to support Upton crept forward cautiously and crawled backignominiously as soon as it came under fire. Deprived of support, Upton'stwelve regiments were unable to withstand the withering counterattack Leemounted. The breakthrough had gone for naught. The men of the 6th Corps fellback to the main Union battle line, leaving a thousand or more casualties.Southern losses were similar. That evening a Confederate band assembled near thesite of Upton's breakthrough and mournfully intoned "Nearer My God to Thee." AUnion band responded with the "Dead March" from Saul. The rebelmusicians followed with "Home Sweet Home," and in the words of an enlisted manfrom Georgia, "A united yell went up in concert from the men on both sides, sucha one as was never heard among the hills of Spotsylvania county before orsince."
Grant was annoyed that the Army of the Potomac had failed to exploit Upton'sbreakthrough, but the tactics of the young West Pointer had proved promising.(Upton, who had been wounded, received an on-the-spot promotion to brigadiergeneral.) Grant decided to repeat the maneuver using a whole corps instead ofsimply 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 insuch a formation because not as many guns could be brought to bear. Meade wasinstructed to slip the 2nd Corps behind Warren and Wright (who had succeededSedgwick) to the center of the Union line, and set the attack for 4 A.M., May12. Burnside was to move forward simultaneously on Hancock's left, while Wrightand Warren kept up the pressure on the right and far right. Grant believed theone-day delay would allow the troops time to get in place, and give Hancock anopportunity to make a thorough reconnaissance of the avenue of attack. Thedownside was it afforded Lee an additional day to prepare.
Wednesday, May 11, dawned cold and wet, a seasonal spring rain breaking theheat that had set in two weeks earlier. As Grant sat drinking his breakfastcoffee he was joined by Congressman Elihu Washburne, who had accompanied thearmy 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 fromyou 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 didnot want to disappoint Washburne, to whom he owed just about everything. Ratherthan send a message to the president, Grant said he would write a letter toHalleck. "I generally communicate through him, giving the general situation, andyou can take it with you."
Grant stepped inside his tent, sat down at his writing table, and jotted abrief message, cigar firmly clinched between his teeth. "We have now ended thesixth 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 estimatedhis casualties at 20,000. He said Lee's army was "very shaky," and that itentrenched at every opportunity in order to protect itself. He closed with aflourish, soon to be splashed across the front pages of Northern newspapers inlarge headlines: "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes allsummer."
It was on May 11 that Lee made one of his rare tactical errors. In theafternoon rebel scouts reported massive Federal wagon trains moving northeasttoward Fredericksburg. Grant was sending his empty vehicles back for a freshsupply of food and ammunition, but Lee, after studying the reports, concludedthat his opponent was going to break off the fight at Spotsylvania and pull backbehind the Rappahannock to regroup. If the Union army was withdrawing, Leewanted 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 businesson the battlefield, not in a fortified place." Lee thereupon ordered theartillery deployed in the mule shoe to be limbered up and withdrawn, ready toset out in pursuit of the Federals when their retreat got underway. Lee hadcompletely misread Grant's intentions. Rather than retreating, the general inchief was deploying his forces to launch the most powerful attack thus far inthe campaign. Hancock's 2nd Corps would hit Lee's line exactly at the point fromwhich 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 theirrendezvous area, a thousand yards from the flattened apex of the Confederatesalient. The soldiers were dead tired, some units having marched for sevenhours, but by 2 A.M. 2nd Corps was in place. Grant's plan to storm the mule shoehead-on had yet to be communicated to the rank and file, but the troops sensedthat something out of the ordinary was in the offing. "Great events have a powerof self-proclamation," wrote a soldier from Massachusetts. "The feeling ranthrough the ranks that they were near to momentous happenings."
Hancock deployed his corps two divisions abreast, two deep. Each division wastightly massed, five paces between regiments, ten between brigades. A member ofHancock's staff described the corps as a "solid rectangular mass of nearly20,000 men to hurl upon the enemy's works as soon as it should be sufficientlylight 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 thecommand to advance. Orders were to rush forward silently, with no firing untilthe rebel line was breached. Surprise was the watchword.
The appointed jump-off time of 4 A.M. came and went. It was still pitch blackand Hancock wanted at least a glimmer of daylight. At 4:35, when the first hintof 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 atChattanooga, twice as many as Pickett led at Gettysburg. "It did not requireanyone to tell us what to do," an infantryman from Pennsylvania remembered."Everyone seemed to catch the inspiration that his safety depended on gettingto those works." Another wrote, "All line and formation was now lost, and thegreat mass of men, with a rush like a cyclone, sprang upon the entrenchments andswarmed over." Sergeant Albert Marsh of the 64th New York noted, "It was abrilliant charge, with the bayonet, hardly a gun being fired."
The Confederate defenders were not taken entirely by surprise, but they werenot exactly ready for the blow either. Powder was damp, muskets misfired, andthe awesome weight of the Federal mass struck fear into even the most intrepidrebel rifleman. "As far as the eye could reach," an officer from Louisianawrote, "the field was covered with the serried ranks of the enemy, advancing inclose columns to the attack." The most serious problem for the Confederates wasthe lack of artillery, the two dozen guns that anchored the salient having beenwithdrawn during the night under Lee's instructions. Major General EdwardJohnson, whose division held the forward edge of the salient, becameapprehensive that evening with his gun pits standing empty and urged that hiscannons be returned lest Grant not be retreating. Johnson, known affectionatelyas "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 themarch. Yet a sixth sense warned him of impending calamity. Lee, who continuedto believe Grant was heading toward Fredericksburg, was puzzled by Johnson'srequest but acquiesced, ordering that the guns be returned to the salient bydaylight. 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 thepieces fell into Union hands, along with most of Johnson's division, whichmelted under the onslaught.
Grant was up well before daylight that morning, his ear cocked for sounds ofHancock's attack. The salient was more than a mile away, but soon the distantroar of cheers and the rattle of musketry drifted back. Shortly after 5 A.M. astaff officer galloped in with a report from Hancock. "Our men have the workswith some hundred prisoners. Impossible to say how many; whole line moving up."On the first rider's heels came another: "Prisoners come in rapidly. Probablyover 2000." Fifteen minutes later Hancock reported capturing two generalofficers, Edward Johnson and George H. Stuart of Maryland. Grant's aides beganto celebrate Lee's defeat, Meade's staff was dubious, and Grant remained seatedon a camp stool near the fire stoically digesting the reports, the cape of anold army overcoat shrouding his reaction. Eventually he allowed that "Hancockis 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 withHancock, and was encountering stiff resistance.
Meade was sitting with Grant that morning when a prisoner rode into thecompound wearing the uniform of a Confederate major general. It was EdwardJohnson, an old friend of Hancock's who had been in the Corps of Cadets withMeade and served in Mexico with Grant. Hancock had given him a horse and toldhim to report to Union headquarters. Johnson's uniform was torn and he wascovered with mud, but he dismounted with dignity and saluted his captors. Meaderose 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 tomeet you under such circumstances."
"It is one of the many sad fortunes of war," Grant acknowledged, as he offeredJohnson a cigar, picked up a camp chair and placed it near the fire. "Beseated, and we will do all in our power to make you as comfortable as possible."
The three generals commenced an animated conversation, reminiscing about thepast, when another message arrived from Hancock. "I have finished up Johnson,"it said, "and am now going after Early." Out of consideration for Johnson'sfeelings, Grant handed the dispatch around rather than reading it aloud as heusually did. Arrangements were then made to have Johnson transported to therear in a Union ambulance. No sooner had Johnson departed than a message arrivedfrom Burnside reporting that his right wing had lost contact with Hancock. "Pushthe 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 inhis line and was on the verge of splitting the Army of Northern Virginia intwo. The shoulders on either side of the breakthrough were holding, which meantthat the breach was laterally contained, but the reserve division of GeneralJohn B. Gordon, positioned at the base of the salient, was all that held the twowings of Lee's army together. Unless Gordon could seal the fissure, Grant wouldpour through the opening, turn left and right, and defeat the Confederate armyin detail.
Fortune now smiled on Lee. As one historian has written, no Southerner wasbetter fitted for the bloody work ahead than John B. Gordon, whose lack offormal military training was more than made up for by an instinctive grasp oftactics and a temperament of unadorned aggressiveness. With the first report ofHancock's attack, Gordon had formed his brigades into line of battle across theneck of the salient. When the breakthrough was confirmed, he ordered his troopsforward. Lee arrived on the scene just as Gordon's men moved out. "The picturehe made, as the grand old man sat there on his horse, with his noble headbare...can never be forgotten by a man that stood there," wrote a soldier ofthe 52nd Virginia. Lee rode to the center of Gordon's line where he turnedTraveller toward the oncoming Federals, obviously intent on leading the chargeas he had tried to do six days earlier in the Wilderness. When Gordon saw Lee hewas horrified, and once again the shouts echoed across the rebel front, "Goback, General Lee." "Lee to the rear." "Lee to the rear." Gordon wheeled hishorse and confronted Lee. "These men are Georgians and Virginians," said theyoung brigadier. "They have never failed you and will not fail you here." WhenLee showed no sign of turning back, a tall Virginia sergeant grabbed Traveller'srein, jerked his head around, and led him to the rear through ranks of cheeringinfantrymen.
The charge of Gordon's division at Spotsylvania, like that of Longstreet'scorps on the Orange plank road a week earlier, stopped the Union drive in itstracks. Inspired by Lee and led by Gordon, the men in gray advanced headlonginto the Federal mass, the sheer audacity of the effort taking Hancock's troopsby surprise. It was three brigades against four of the finest divisions in theUnion army, but the impetus of the Confederate counterattack was overwhelming."Onward they swept," wrote Gordon, "pouring their rapid volleys into Hancock'sconfused ranks, and swelling the deafening din of battle with their piercingshouts." The massive blue tide wavered and then lurched back. Hancock's troopswere already in disarray when Gordon hit, the overextended victims of theirinitial success. The breakthrough was so rapid that the Federal line had becomehopelessly jumbled. Close to 20,000 men had charged into the salient and werenow wedged shoulder to shoulder in an area not much larger than two footballfields. Union troops were packed so tightly that some men could not lift theirarms to use their weapons. Subjected to the withering fire that Gordon'sadvancing troops laid down, Hancock's men broke and tumbled back to the toe ofthe mule shoe, seeking shelter in the entrenchments they had captured on theirway in.
It was close to 6 A.M. when Hancock fell back to the mule shoe perimeter, andat that point Grant hurled Wright's 6th Corps against the west angle of thesalient, the infamous Bloody Angle in Civil War historiography. The 6th Corpshad been held back initially to avoid hitting Hancock's troops with friendlyfire. The two corps were adjacent and attacking at right angles. Both could notsafely go forward at the same time. Once Hancock pulled back, the way was openfor Wright. And so at six o'clock another 15,000 men slammed into the west faceof the mule shoe, 200 yards from where Hancock hit. "The enemy seemed to haveconcentrated the whole engine of war at this point," a Mississippianremembered. "Shells of every kind and shape from field pieces raked theapproaches, while a forest of muskets played with awful fury over the grounditself." To a South Carolinian it seemed as if "Grant ha[d] all the hosts ofhell in assault upon us."
For the next eighteen hours North and South grappled hand-to-hand in the mosthorrendous fighting of the war thus far. "The flags of both armies waved at thesame moment over the same breastwork," wrote a 6th Corps survivor. "It was aliteral saturnalia of blood," wrote another. "Nothing but the piled up logs ofbreastworks separated the combatants. Our men would reach over the logs andfire into the faces of the enemy, would stab over with their bayonets. Many wereshot and stabbed through the crevices and holes between the logs. Men mountedthe works and with muskets rapidly handed to them kept up a continuous fireuntil they were shot down, when others would take their places."
The slaughter was unrelenting. So too was the rain, turning trench floors intoan oozy muck where the dead and wounded were trampled out of sight by menfighting for their lives. Close-in fighting like this usually ended quicklywhen one side broke and ran, but at Spotsylvania neither line broke. As aConfederate officer wrote, "There was one continuous roll of musketry from dawnuntil midnight." In places the dead were sprawled eight or ten bodies deep. Sointense was the firing that an oak tree, two feet in diameter, was cut down bythe chipping bullets. "I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what Isaw of the horrors of Spotsylvania," one of Wright's officers wrote, "because Ishould be loath to believe it myself were the case reversed."
All day long and well into the night Grant and Lee continued to throwreinforcements into the angle. Grant was determined to achieve a breakthrough;Lee was equally determined to hold his line until Confederate engineerscompleted a new set of works across the base of the salient. For each,strategic considerations dictated the tactics, and those considerations wereremarkably similar. In Grant's case, he wanted to destroy the Army of NorthernVirginia, and every casualty Lee suffered was a step in that direction. Lee, onthe other hand, wanted to wear down the Northern will to fight. The longer heheld out, and the more casualties he inflicted, the more likely it was thatUnion enthusiasm for the war would erode. For better or worse, both wereengaged in a war of attrition. As Lee saw it, the glass was half full. He couldwin the war by not losing it. For Grant, the glass was half empty. He had todestroy Lee before anti-war sentiment in the North took control.
It was close to midnight when Lee gave the order to withdraw. The weary rebeltroops disengaged unit by unit, and stealthily fell back a half mile to where anew and even more formidable line had been dug. Equally tired Federal troopslet them go, content to take possession of the trenches they had fought over forthe last eighteen hours. Exhausted, out of contact at last, rebels and Yanksslept 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-longassault on the mule shoe; Lee's losses were similar: nearly 3,000 veteran troopscaptured, and a somewhat larger number killed and wounded. Since crossing theRapidan 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 ofthe war. Lee's casualties, though less, had been proportionately as great: about18,000 of the 60,000 troops engaged. Far more serious, however, the Army ofNorthern Virginia had lost twenty of fifty-seven corps, division, and brigadecommanders the leadership cadre of the army. Grant had lost but ten.
At this point in the war, reinforcements were still available, though theSouthern supply was dwindling fast. Within the week each army had made good atleast half of its losses. Six brigades from Richmond and two from theShenandoah joined Lee; Grant continued to draw from the store of artillerymenassigned to defense duty in the rear. A more worrisome problem for the generalin chief was that the three-year enlistments of many regiments would expire inthe next six weeks. Unless the men reenlisted, the drain on Union manpower wouldbe substantial.
Grant was able to witness more of the fighting at Spotsylvania than in theWilderness because the terrain was more open. During the afternoon he orderedhis reliable pony Jeff Davis saddled and rode out to several points where hecould observe Hancock's troops fighting at the tip of the mule shoe andWright's assault on the west angle. On balance, Grant thought things were goingwell. Back at headquarters that evening, he wired Halleck: "The eighth day ofbattle closes, leaving between three and four thousand prisoners in our handsand thirty pieces of artillery." Grant said the enemy was obstinate and "seemedto have found the last ditch." But he remained optimistic. The Army of thePotomac had not lost a single unit, while the enemy had surrendered an entiredivision and a full brigade. Later he wrote Julia that he was well and full ofhope. "The world has never seen so bloody or so protracted a battle as the onebeing fought and I hope never will again. The enemy were really whippedyesterday but their situation is desperate beyond anything heretofore known. Tolose this battle they lose their cause. As bad as it is they have fought for itwith a gallantry worthy of a better."
The following day, as the rain continued and the armies regrouped, Grant wroteStanton to recommend the promotion of Meade and Sherman to major general in theregular army, traditionally the highest rank the nation could bestow. Meade,said Grant, "has more than met my most sanguine expectations. He and Shermanare the fittest officers for large commands I have come in contact with."Conscious of his need to maintain a balance between the Eastern and Westerntheaters, Grant cautioned Stanton that he "would not like to see one of thesepromotions without seeing both."
Since crossing the Rapidan, Grant and Meade had worked hand in hand to throwthe weight of the Army of the Potomac against Lee. Meade, the older man, wasinstinctively more cautious, yet Grant was pleased with the Pennsylvanian'scoolness under pressure and his ability to administer the nation's largestarmy. Nevertheless, the dual command arrangement was cumbersome. Meade's chiefof staff, writing after the war, took the traditional view: "There were twoofficers commanding the same army. Such a mixed command was not calculated toproduce 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 ordersdirectly to the corps and division commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Theircontention was that too much time was lost under the present system; thatGrant's incisive orders lost force and vigor when filtered through Meade'sheadquarters; and that Meade had an irascible temper that often irritatedofficers in contact with him. According to Colonel Horace Porter, thediscussion became heated and undoubtedly reflected the tension that haddeveloped between two general staffs that operated side by side with theirrespective fields imperfectly defined.
Grant listened, but dismissed the suggestion. He told his staff he was aware ofthe 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 thePotomac." Grant said that to take over from Meade would involve him in thedetailed duties of an army commander, "enforcing discipline, reviewing courtmartial proceedings, and so on." In addition, Meade knew the Army of thePotomac thoroughly, and had led it to a memorable victory at Gettysburg. "I havejust come from the West, and if I removed a deserving Eastern man from theposition of army commander, my motives might be misunderstood." Grant said thathe 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 hiswife during the battle of Spotsylvania, he noted that journalists seemed puzzledat the command relationship and had apparently decided that "Grant does thegrand strategy, and I do the grand tactics. Coopée in his Army Magazinesays, 'the Army of the Potomac, directed by Grant, commanded by Meade, and ledby Hancock, Sedgwick and Warren,' which is quite a good distinction, and abouthits the nail on the head."
The problem with the Army of the Potomac was not with Meade but with its corpscommanders. 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 asGrant to take the fight to the enemy. But in the Wilderness and atSpotsylvania, only Hancock proved up to snuff. Horatio Wright at this point wasan uncertain replacement for Sedgwick, while Warren and Burnside simply lackedthe fighting instinct. Burnside had been tardy in the Wilderness, and atSpotsylvania he again failed to get his divisions on line in sufficient time tosupport Hancock's assault on the mule shoe. He was the senior major generalsouth of the Rapidan, but his lapses were a serious embarrassment for Grant.
Warren was a different problem. Talented, youthful, intelligent, GouverneurKemble Warren was cut in the mode of McClellan, Buell, and Halleck. He firmlybelieved war was a rational exercise, to be conducted by carefully plannedmaneuvers that flanked the enemy out of position without the necessity forfighting 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. "Anexcess of caution, a delay in assuming the offensive, even when ordered, anindisposition to take tactical risks," is how Grant's secretary, Adam Badeau,described Warren. Meade simply thought Warren had lost his nerve. Grant, who atone time had considered Warren a possible replacement for Meade as commander ofthe Army of the Potomac, despaired at his timidity. "He could see every dangerat a glance before he had encountered it." On the morning of May 12, whenWarren was late once more in getting his attack organized, Grant told Meade torelieve 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 eventuallygot into action and acquitted themselves well, but had they moved sooner Leewould have been hard pressed to hold the salient. "Burnside is a d -- dHumbug, and Warren is a ditto," wrote Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a 6thCorps staff officer. Emory Upton said it equally pungently: "Some of our corpscommanders are not fit to be corporals. Lazy and indolent, they will not evenride along their lines."
Grant was not ready to call it quits at Spotsylvania. Although it rainedsteadily for the next two days and into a third, the general in chief continuedto probe Lee's line for a weak spot. On Saturday the 14th, the 5th and 6thcorps attempted to move around the Confederate right but bogged down on the roadand the attack had to be called off. On the 18th, believing that Lee was fallingback, Grant sent Hancock and Wright against what he assumed was the thinned-outrebel line at the base of the mule shoe. Lee was not falling back, the line wasdefended more robustly than ever, and after two hours of fruitless assault theUnion attack fizzled out. "We found the enemy so strongly entrenched," Meadewrote his wife, "that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads againsta brick wall, and directed a suspension." After six days of effort, Grantrecognized that Lee's position at Spotsylvania could not be stormed by frontalassault and could not be turned by short-range flanking maneuvers. He decidedto swing wide to his left, move once more between Lee and Richmond, and forcehis opponent away from his Spotsylvania entrenchments and into the open country.As his immediate objective, Grant chose Hanover Junction, just beyond the NorthAnna River, twenty-five miles south. The two rail lines on which Lee depended,one from the Shenandoah valley, the other from Richmond, intersected there andGrant assumed Lee would rush to defend it. Once more the premium was on gettingto Hanover Junction first, the North Anna representing a serious naturalobstacle and dangerous to cross in the face of an enemy as powerful as the Armyof Northern Virginia.
As Meade prepared the marching orders, Grant received another series ofcommunications from the field. The good news was that in Georgia, Sherman hadtaken Dalton, and outflanked Johnston at Resaca. As a result, the Confederateswere falling back toward Atlanta. The bad news involved Union forces in theShenandoah and on the James. In the valley, Sigel had not only failed tocapture Lee's base at Staunton, but was in headlong retreat toward Winchester,the victim of a resounding defeat delivered by General John C. Breckinridge atNew Market. Breckinridge, former vice president of the United States, and theelectoral college runner-up to Lincoln in 1860, had come north to join Leeafter the battle of Chattanooga. Leading a pickup rebel force of 5,000,including 247 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, he laced into Sigeljust after dawn on May 15 and routed him. Grant, who was counting on theShenandoah offensive to pin Lee down, was furious, but Halleck was notsurprised. "If you expect anything from Sigel you will be mistaken," he wiredGrant. "He will do nothing but run. He never did anything else." The upshot wasthat Lee continued to draw supplies from the Shenandoah unmolested, andBreckinridge's troops entrained to join the Army of Northern Virginia nearHanover Junction. Grant solved the Sigel problem by prevailing upon Lincoln torelieve 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 Confederatecapital until a week later. By then General P. G. T. Beauregard, back on activeduty in southside Virginia, had amassed a force almost as large and on May 16lashed into the Federals at Drewry's Bluff, eight miles south of Richmond. Afteran all-day battle, with heavy losses on both sides, Butler pulled back to histrench line across the neck between the Appomattox and James rivers. Beauregardentrenched a line immediately opposite Butler's, and the two armies settledinto a stalemate. Beauregard could not advance past Butler's works, but Butlercould 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 stronglycorked." Both the Confederate line and the Union line could be held withrelatively few troops. As a consequence, 6,000 of Beauregard's troops were sentto reinforce Lee, while Grant ordered the 18th Corps under Major General WilliamF. "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 seenin 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 roadsleading in that direction which would not separate the army too widely."
Lee, who moved along interior lines, kept his army between Grant and Richmondand arrived on the North Anna well ahead of the Union vanguard. He took up adefensive position on the south bank of the river, entrenched behind aformidable series of earthworks, and waited for Grant to attack. "If I can getone 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 thecenter 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 favorof 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 NorthAnna, and his left on Little river....To make a direct attack would cause aslaughter 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 andmoving twenty miles downriver. Like Lee, Grant was sanguine about victory. Ashe informed Washington:
"Lee's army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and theactions of his Army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside ofentrenchments cannot be had. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success overLee's army is already insured."
Four days later, with the Army of the Potomac on the move, Grant instructedHalleck to round up all the pontoon bridging the Union possessed and send itposthaste to Fortress Monroe at the mouth of the James River. He did notexplain why he wanted it, but his intention was obvious. As he had done atVicksburg, Grant was thinking about crossing another mighty river, taking theenemy by surprise, outflanking Lee's army once and for all, and approachingRichmond from the south. It had worked on the Mississippi in 1863; Grantbelieved 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 Virginiadrawn up in line of battle, artillery emplaced, and all three corps dug in andwaiting. Since crossing the Rapidan on May 5, Grant had pressed forwardrelentlessly and was now at the outskirts of the Confederate capital. Wishfulthinking aside, however, the rebel army remained as formidable as ever. Granthad captured the initiative, but Lee had countered every assault, trading spacefor time in an equally relentless effort to wear down Union morale and perhapseven defeat Grant should he let his guard down. "The grand object," Lee toldMajor General Richard Anderson, "is the destruction of the enemy." Indeed, theConfederate retreat from the Rapidan was not without its blessings. Lee was nowclose to his principal base of supply, his lines of communication wereconsiderably shortened, and in a pinch he could call on the 6,000 troops in theRichmond garrison for support.
Just as on the North Anna, Grant probed Lee's defenses on Totopotomy Creek anddecided he did not like what he found. After two days of skirmishing he sidledto the left once again, moving southward to take the vital road intersection ofCold Harbor, halfway between Totopotomy Creek and the Chickahominy. There is noanchorage at Cold Harbor. The misleading name is of British lineage signifyingan inn that offered overnight lodging without hot food. It was adopted herebecause the settlement's main feature was a frame tavern set in a grove oftrees at the juncture of five roads coming in from all sides. Lee shifted rightto stay between Grant and Richmond, counterattacked briefly on May 31 hoping tocatch the Union army strung out on the march, but was quickly repulsed. Duringthe night of June 1-2 the remainder of both armies arrived and began toentrench facing each other for the seven miles between the Totopotomy and theChickahominy.
Grant put his forces on line and made ready to attack. With the arrival ofSmith's 18th Corps from the James, the Army of the Potomac now numberedapproximately 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 startof the campaign four weeks earlier. Those weeks had been without precedent.Grant's casualties totaled some 44,000; Lee's losses were proportional, roughly25,000. Never before had the two armies been continuously engaged for so long,and the hammering was having its effect. "Many a man," wrote Captain OliverWendell Holmes, Jr., "has gone crazy since the campaign began from the terriblepressure on mind and body."
By now Grant was well aware of how costly it was to attack Lee once theConfederates had dug in. On the North Anna and at Totopotomy Creek heconfronted virtually impregnable rebel positions and passed up an assault inorder to maneuver Lee out of those positions. Cold Harbor looked like theopportunity he was waiting for. The country was open and rolling, and he hadfinally beaten Lee to the battlefield. Grant's plan was to move forward as earlyas possible on June 2 before the rebel works were completed. All five corps ofthe Army of the Potomac were on line: Hancock on the left, Burnside on theright, with Wright, Smith, and Warren in the center. Once again, however, theUnion 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, washaving difficulty sorting itself out. Rather than go forward piecemeal, Grantinstructed Meade to postpone the attack until first light the next morning,Friday, June 3, 1864. The twenty-four-hour delay proved fatal. Lee was givenmore than enough time to prepare a defensive line of interlocking trenchessupported by artillery, sometimes out in front of the infantry, so that it couldlay down a killing crossfire on all avenues of approach along the entireseven-mile front. Having disposed his army to meet the attack, he was content toleave 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 rightof the Union line but it disappeared just as quickly. As Burnside and Warrenwere adjusting their lines, they were attacked by the Confederate troopsopposite. After some hard fighting the attacks were repulsed, and Burnside andWarren were content to let it go at that. Grant was not informed of the attackuntil several hours later, and he was angry that neither corps commander hadtaken advantage of the opportunity to attack the rebels outside theirbreastworks. The object of the whole campaign since crossing the Rapidan hadbeen to catch the Confederate army in the open, and Burnside and Warren had beenoblivious to the possibility. Grant directed Meade to instruct each corpscommander to attack immediately whenever the enemy came out of his works and tofollow up the attack vigorously. As Grant saw it, the Army of the Potomac, withthe exception of Hancock's corps, had become content with repelling rebelattacks 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 Warrenand Burnside, on the right and far right, were to move forward at the same timeand, if possible, turn Lee's flank. The rebel and Union lines hugged oneanother between the Totopotomy and the Chickahominy and all day long the men inblue could see the Confederate earthworks grow and become more formidable. Asthe troops made ready that evening, Colonel Horace Porter passed through theUnion lines on foot with last-minute orders. Porter noticed that in one regimentmany of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged inmending them. He thought that strange, and when he looked closer he found thatthe 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 recognizedand their fate made known to their families." Porter noted that the troops wereveteran soldiers, and were simply preparing for the desperate work ahead with acourage 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 centerand right-center of the rebel line. Up ahead, the Confederate trenches eruptedwith a hail of screaming lead. "It seemed more like a volcanic blast than abattle," a Federal survivor recalled. Another said, "It had the fury of theWilderness musketry with the thunder of the Gettysburg artillery superadded."Never before, in this or any other war, had so large a body of troops beenexposed to such a concentration of firepower.
Union attackers carried the rifle pits at the edge of the rebel skirmish linebut 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 whichthe apexes were the bravest men who came nearest to the breastworks under thatwithering, deadly fire," a Southern soldier remembered. A colonel from Alabama,whose regiment lost three men killed and five wounded, looked out through thesmoke and haze to his immediate front and saw that the Union dead "covered morethan five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid." To the rightof 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 littlebetter. Orders for the attack to be renewed went unheeded. Hancock told Grantthe position in front of him could not be taken. Wright said he might be ableto secure a lodgment, but nothing would be gained by it unless Hancock and Smithadvanced 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 theinevitable and called a halt. "Hold our most advanced position," he instructedMeade, but "suspend any further advance for the present." Union losses werestaggering. Grant's casualties for the day totaled more than 7,000, most ofthem 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 staffthat evening. "I regarded it as a stern necessity, and believed that it wouldbring compensating results; but no advantages have been gained sufficient tojustify the heavy losses suffered." Meade, somewhat more circumspectly, wrotehis wife that although the battle ended without any decided results, "I thinkGrant had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee'sarmy is not Tennessee and Bragg's army."
Costly as the battle was, Grant had no intention of pulling back or relaxinghis grip on Lee. Success, he told his staff, "was only a question of time." Leerecognized the danger. Despite the victory at Cold Harbor, his army wasexhausted. Even more worrisome, the lack of efficient commissary support wastaking its toll. "Some of the men now have scurvy," Lee told ConfederatePostmaster General John Reagan, who had ridden out from Richmond to observe thefighting. Lee said that unless fresh vegetables were supplied quickly, the mencould 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 fightingcommenced on the Rapidan. If I shorten my lines to provide a reserve, Grantwill 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 theConfederate commissary problem, but he knew instinctively that sooner or laterthe Army of Northern Virginia would collapse under the hammering he wasadministering. Colonel Adam Badeau, who was with Grant at Cold Harbor, wroteafterward 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 assaulton June 3, Grant's casualties during the fighting at Cold Harbor weresignificantly less than the Army of the Potomac suffered in the Wilderness andat Spotsylvania. The morale of the army remained high, although there was agrowing reluctance to attack heavily fortified positions frontally. A Unionstaff officer wrote his wife that McClellan would not like what the troops weresaying now: "They all say if he had not retreated with them, but stood and letthem fight it out as Grant is doing, they would have been in Richmond two yearssooner." 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 spiteof his inability to start Lee one inch out of his fortifications, maneuveredhimself close to the gates of Richmond." A soldier in Baldy Smith's corps, whichsuffered heavily at Cold Harbor, wrote, "We have the gray backs in a prettyclose corner at present and intend to keep them so. There is no fall back withU. S. Grant." Another soldier assured his parents, "Grant has been successful inall 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 haddiminished public support for Grant but did not affect delegates to theRepublican National Convention, which met in Baltimore the week following ColdHarbor. Lincoln was renominated without opposition and the convention adopted aplatform that recommended a constitutional amendment to prohibit slavery in theUnited States. Lincoln too was worried about the casualties in Virginia but hedid not budge in his support for Grant. When the Ohio delegation serenaded himwith a brass band after his renomination, he responded: "What we want, stillmore than Baltimore conventions or presidential elections, is success underGeneral Grant," and he urged his listeners to do everything possible to support"the brave officers and soldiers in the field." In public meeting after publicmeeting 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 ofour armies, General Grant."
When the fighting ended on June 3 Grant faced a critical decision. He could notsmash Lee's line with a frontal assault, and if he sidled left once more itwould 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 defensesof Richmond, which, after three years of war, had become far more formidablethan the improvised entrenchments Lee had thrown up at Spotsylvania and ColdHarbor. 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 hissupplies from the Fredericksburg railroad, stay between Lee and Washington, andmove on the Confederate capital in slow, methodical stages: in effect, a repeatof Halleck's tactics at Corinth. It was the conservative way to wage war, and ifanyone was reluctant to take risks it was Halleck.
Grant thought otherwise. To creep forward against Richmond from the north wouldplay into Lee's hands. It would allow the Confederacy to make maximum use of itsfortified 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 thosewho wanted to make peace, and imperil President Lincoln's reelection.
Instead, Grant sought a breakthrough: to get the drop on Lee by doing what heleast expected. For the past two weeks Grant had been mulling over his strategyat Vicksburg. On May 25 he had instructed Halleck to ship every pontoon he couldlay his hands on to Fortress Monroe. It was now time to put that plan intoeffect. He would disengage at Cold Harbor, swiftly take the Army of the Potomacacross the James, seize Petersburg and its hub of railroads linking Richmondwith the South, strike Richmond from its soft underbelly, and force Lee into theopen. The risks were enormous. What Grant contemplated involved breaking offcontact with a powerful opponent along a seven-mile trench line, with rebelrevetments sometimes no more than forty yards away; stealthily withdrawingacross the Chickahominy swamps to a crossing site on the James during which timethe army would be vulnerable to attack; and crossing a powerful tidal river halfagain the width of the Mississippi below Vicksburg, during which the army wouldbe even more vulnerable. Grant has often been credited with little imagination.Yet his decision to cross the James ranks with his crossing of the Mississippias a tactical breakthrough. Crossing the Mississippi paved the way for victoryin 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 wasnot practical to hold a line north of Richmond and rely on the Fredericksburgrailroad for support. "To do so would give us a long vulnerable line of road toprotect, exhausting much of our strength in guarding it, and would leave open tothe enemy all of his lines of communication on the south side of the James. Myidea, from the start, has been to beat Lee's army north of Richmond....I nowfind that after more than thirty days of trial that the enemy deems it of thefirst importance to run no risks with the Armies they now have. They act purelyon the defensive, behind breastworks, or feebly on the offensive immediately infront of them and where, in case of repulse, they can instantly retire behindthem." Grant said he could not prevail in the present setting "Without a greatersacrifice of human life" than he was willing to make.
"I have therefore resolved upon the following plan. I will continue to hold theground now occupied by the Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of anyfavorable opportunity that may present itself, until the cavalry can be sent todestroy the Virginia Central railroad. When this is effected I will move theArmy to the south side of the James river." Once across the James he would cutLee's supply line, and prepare for a final showdown.
For Grant, Cold Harbor had been a setback, not a defeat. He concluded hismessage to Washington on a high note. "The feeling of the two Armies now seemsto be that the rebels can protect themselves only by strong entrenchments,whilst our Army is not only confident of protecting itself, withoutentrenchments, but that it can beat and drive the enemy whenever and wherever hecan be found without this protection." For the Army of the Potomac, this was anew experience.