American Civil War: The Overland Campaign

From the lecture series: The American Civil War

By Gary W. Gallagher, PhD, University of Virginia

The Overland Campaign, fought between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864 was, in many ways, the showpiece confrontation of the war. It’s the best general on each side, leading the most famous army on each side, in the area perceived to be most critical by citizens on each side—it had all the elements of high drama and potentially enormous consequences.

Portraits of General Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor, photographed by Edgar Guy Fawx in 1864 and Confederate General Robert E. Lee photographed by Mathew Brady in 1865.
General Ulysses S. Grant, leader of the Army of the Potomac (left) and General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia (right). (Image: Hal Jespersen/Public domain)

Grant’s goals in Virginia were to tie Lee down and bleed his army as much as possible. The more that Lee’s army hemorrhaged, the better for the North. The other goal was to capture Richmond, the most important city in the Confederacy. Grant didn’t want to get to Richmond without fighting. He wanted to hurt Lee as he drew closer to Richmond; at the time, he believed that if he didn’t fight Lee in significant battles on the way to Richmond, Lee’s army would be big enough to defend the city of Richmond.

Lee, for his part, could do no more than to try to parry Grant’s thrusts and hold off the Federals long enough to exhaust the Northern will to continue a struggle that was becoming increasingly expensive in terms of blood and treasure. Lee was coming off an extremely hard winter. The Confederate soldiers in Lee’s army had been on a ration that amounted to four ounces of meat a day—that’s one Big Mac patty at pre-cooked weight—and a pint of cornmeal. That is just barely enough food to keep someone’s body together. While it wasn’t an Army of Northern Virginia that had been well fed, it was an army that remained confident in Lee’s leadership.

At the start of the campaign, the armies were arrayed opposite each other along the Rapidan-Rappahannock river line—the frontier between these two armies in Virginia. Grant’s army—just about 120,000 men at the outset of the campaign, and Lee with 64,000 plus or minus a few. The odds against the Confederates were about 2 to 1.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Grant was optimistic. He believed that if he did a competent job, Lee would not be able to fend off his blows in the upcoming campaign. He believed they had enough men, material, competence among his officers, and resolution among his men, to defeat the Rebels. He expected that they would drive Lee into the fortifications of Richmond, bleed him along the way, and then he believed that a siege would end in Union victory.

That is what Lee feared most of all—a siege. He knew that if he were pushed into the defenses at Richmond, if his army were forced to hunker down behind the very strong fortifications at Richmond, all advantages would pass to the Federals and that siege would end as almost every other siege during the Civil War ended—with a United States victory.

The Battle of the Wilderness

Let’s now look at the Battle of the Wilderness, fought on May 5 and 6, 1864, the first big battle of this confrontation between Grant and Lee. This first area of battle is several dozen square miles of scrub, second and third growth area, known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. Very few roads go through the area; very few farmsteads break the clutches of that tangled landscape. Lee felt that he could catch Grant at a disadvantage in this area and would be able to offset to a degree the Union advantages in artillery and numbers.

Painting of the Battle of the Wilderness by Kurz & Allison 1887
Battle of the Wilderness–A desperate fight on the Orange C.H. Plank Road, near Todd’s Tavern, May 6th, 1864. (Image: By Kurz & Allison/United States Library of Congress)

Ewell made contact first, and soon a fight grew between Ewell’s Confederates and Federals of Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps. The Wilderness was so thick in this area that the control of troops was very difficult. Soon fighting also flared to the south when elements of A. P. Hill’s Third Corps became engaged with elements of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps. The fighting grew there, too. More and more men fed into these two road corridors through the Wilderness, a great gap between them. This isn’t a continuous battle line north to south. There’s a battle in the north along the Turnpike, another in the south along the Plank Road, and a significant gap between them. Fighting was complicated by blinding smoke that built up in the foliage— an enormously confusing, disorienting type of fighting. Each side made some progress; each side lost some ground on both fronts. Nightfall brought a momentary peace, and the armies each tried to disentangle the lines as they had become confused during the fighting.

Map of a portion of the Battle of the Wilderness of the American Civil War.
(Image: By Map by Hal Jespersen/Public domain)

Confederates were in by far the weaker position because James Longstreet’s First Corps wasn’t on the field yet. It had been deployed far from the battlefield during the winter and it was still en route to the Wilderness. Also, Ewell and Hill were on the Confederate side that night without a continuous line and no certainty about what would happen in the morning. That gap between the two pieces of the Confederate army was potentially disastrous for Lee.

Learn more about the sectional controversies and clashes that set the stage for secession and war

Grant was aware of it; he hoped to renew the fighting on May 6 along the Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road, and have Ambrose Burnside with his Ninth Corps try to punch through the gap in between the two pieces of the Confederate line.

The battle resumed a little past dawn on May 6. Winfield Scott Hancock—the best of the Union corps commanders, a very aggressive officer and a stalwart element of the corps-level high command—got his men going early and shattered the Confederates defending the Orange Plank Road.

Lee Risks His Life

photo of General Robert E. Lee on his famous war horse Traveler
General Robert E. Lee on his famous war horse Traveller. (Image: By Michael Miley (1841-1918)/Public domain)

The Confederates literally sprinted away from the field. Lee rode into the midst of this and, in actions that anticipated a pattern that would be in place for much of the rest of the Overland Campaign, Lee began to operate not only as the army commander but, in effect, as his own corps commander as well. There was one line of Confederate artillery pieces—all that stood between the advancing Federals of Hancock’s corps and utter collapse for the Confederate Army. Lee urged the gunners to do their work, and just at the moment when disaster seemed surely about to engulf the Confederates, the head of James Longstreet’s advancing troops came into sight. It just so happened that the best brigade in the entire Army of Northern Virginia was nearing the front of the line.

Lee rode out among the Texans as they came onto the field, seemingly willing to lead them in the attack. A number of them crowded around his horse, Traveller. They grabbed Traveller’s bridle. They said they wouldn’t attack unless Lee went back. They turned the horse around. When Lee finally went to the rear, the Texas Brigade and another Confederate brigade on their right assaulted into the teeth of Hancock’s approaching Federals and achieved a stable line on that part of the field. It had been a very, very close call.

Map showing Longstreet attacks Hancock's flank from the railroad bed on May 6
Confederate brigade retaliating and attacking the Union line from the right. (Image: By Map by Hal Jespersen/Public domain)

The second day ended in a bloody standoff. The scene that night was horrible. The woods had caught fire in several places. The pitiful cries of the wounded soldiers made their way toward both lines. These wounded men would try to crawl away from the encroaching flames. Many of them couldn’t make it and many soldiers on both sides commented about how tortured they were sitting in their lines listening to comrades being burned up by fires that simply engulfed them.

Losses had been very heavy on both sides—17,500 for Grant, probably 12,000 for Lee. Most seriously on the Confederate side, James Longstreet was severely wounded, shot in the throat as he tried to get his lines untangled following the flank attack.

Learn more about the delegates that established the Confederate States of America

The tactical advantage probably went by a small margin to Lee. But the key thing is that Grant refused to see this as a defeat at the Wilderness or even a major setback. The pattern of war for the Union Army up until then was to fight a major battle and then retreat North and lick their wounds. There’s a great moment in the history of the Army of the Potomac when the soldiers physically reached the crossroads. If they’d gone one direction, they knew they would be retreating to the Rappahannock; if they went the other way, they knew that Grant meant to continue the campaign. When they turned to the right, they cheered Grant who was at that crossroads watching them. They wanted the chance to defeat Lee, and this was one of their great defining moments. They would move ahead and engage Lee again.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse

Now the two armies moved toward Spotsylvania, the next point of strategic importance. The Confederates got there just ahead of the Federals, literally five minutes ahead of them. Lee’s line had a weakness in the middle, a big salient that bulged out toward the Federals. The Confederates thought, however, that it could be defended if there were enough artillery placed in it. On the 10th, 3,000 Federals punched a quick hole in the western face of that salient, which Lee’s troops sealed.

Grant decided that if 3,000 men could punch through on the 10th, he’d try it with far more men. On the 11th, troops moved into position. On the morning of May 12, Winfield Scott Hancock sent the better part of 20,000 Federals against the northwestern portion of this “Mule Shoe” salient that the Confederates occupied.

Map of Grant's grand assault, May 12.
Grant’s assault, May 12 (Image: By Map by Hal Jespersen/Public domain)

They overran the Confederates. Confederate artillery had been ordered out and then belatedly ordered back into the Mule Shoe. It wasn’t there to participate in the attempt to drive back Hancock’s troops. It took an enormous effort on the part of the Confederates to seal the break. Lee again rode into the midst of the fighting. Only by the most tenacious fighting did the Confederates manage to stabilize this line along the northwestern face of the Mule Shoe.

Learn more about what it was like to be a soldier in the ranks

Then for the better part of 20 hours, the most fearsome close combat of the entire war took place along this little piece of works at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 12, 1864. Men stabbed each other across log entrenchments. They clubbed one another with muskets. Many of them talked about how a numbness set in. They’d fire and fire. Then they’d just wander off to the rear, some of them said, sitting on comrades’ dead bodies, get a little bit of a rest, and go back and resume the fighting.

Battle of Spottsylvania painting by Thure de Thulstrup  1887
The most fearsome close combat of the entire war took place along the northwestern face of the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 12, 1864. (Image: By Thure de Thulstrup/United States Library of Congress)

It began to rain again. Layers of men were pushed down into the muck behind the breastworks. After the battle, when the people came to bury bodies, they found in some places four or even five layers of dead men pushed into this mire behind the works. The volume of fire was so great that a 22-inch oak tree was felled completely by musketry. You can see the stump of it at the Smithsonian even today.

In the end, Lee was able to hang on long enough to construct a new line of works south of the Mule Shoe, and his hollow-eyed veterans stumbled back to that line long after midnight on May 12. All told, the fighting would continue at Spotsylvania for several more days. There’d be more Union assaults on the 18th, a Confederate counterattack on the 19th, and then the armies would finally march away. Another 18,000 casualties for Grant, another 12,000 for Lee—staggering losses. Two huge battles, one right after the other with enormous losses, both in officers and men.

On May 20, Grant issued orders to continue his movement southward. He was not to be put off by the second of these massive battles. On the 20th and 21st, the armies marched away from the hideous battlefields at Spotsylvania. By this point in the Overland Campaign, the vast majority of soldiers in both armies were exhausted. Once the armies became engaged on the first day of the Battle of the Wilderness, they pretty much fought continuously until late in the month as they headed toward the North Anna. The losses had been appalling. Both armies were getting replacements, but these replacements in no way met the same standard for proficiency of the veterans who had been knocked out of the ranks at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. The overall quality of the armies diminished as they moved into May. Not only did they lose a significant number of men, but also the ranks of the leaders were decimated on both sides, including the top echelon of the subordinates in each army, the corps commanders. As a result, there were tremendous problems of command in both armies that went along with the attrition in the ranks.

Learn more about the loyalty of slaveholding states in the Union

A Missed Opportunity at North Anna

While at Spotsylvania, Grant decided to place his army between Lee and Richmond. He would yet again try to get around Lee’s right flank—to get beyond Lee and perhaps get the closer track toward Richmond.

But Lee once again anticipated what Grant was going to do and took up a position behind the North Anna River, not many miles south of the Spotsylvania battlefield. He secured, by taking up that position, a crucial rail junction at Hanover, where the Virginia Central Railroad came in just north of Richmond.

Map of Union and Confederate positions May 25–26
Union and Confederate positions May 25–26. Confederates could not take advantage of the Grant’s bad positioning of the Union troops because, for the one time in the war, Robert E. Lee was incapacitated by illness. (Image: By Map by Hal Jespersen/Public domain)

The Confederate line was in the form of a big inverted V, with the apex resting nearly on the North Anna River and then the flanks falling back to the southeast and the southwest. Confederates erected incredibly strong entrenchments there. Grant moved up opposite Lee and, over the period between May 23 and May 25, managed to place the Army of the Potomac in an awkward position. He had different parts of the Army of the Potomac south of the river and north of the river. That’s a terrible position and one that made both ends of Grant’s line vulnerable—poor generalship on Grant’s part—but the Confederates could not take advantage of it because, for the one time in the war, Robert E. Lee was incapacitated by illness.

Lee knew that Grant was vulnerable, but he was physically confined to his cot and could not get up and command the army. And the fact that his subordinates were not trustworthy in his view or were unknown quantities meant that Lee was not willing to entrust a major tactical offensive to any of them. If Stonewall Jackson had been there, he would have given it to Jackson. If Longstreet had been there, he would have allowed Longstreet to do it. The fact was, he didn’t have anyone on whom he could rely, and this great potential opportunity for the Army of Northern Virginia passed in late May. Grant eventually disengaged and moved on southward once again.

Learn more about which side had the edge in strategic and political leadership

Failed Frontal Assaults at Cold Harbor

By the end of May, the two armies found themselves opposite each other just a few miles outside Richmond. The Confederate line ended up being just about six miles long: One flank anchored on the Chickahominy River and the other anchored on Totopotomoy Creek. It was a very strong position: Water on each side, strong entrenchments in between, ample artillery supporting the Confederate infantry. Grant examined his tactical options here and he took into account several factors from this immediate battlefield. He concluded that he should launch major frontal assaults against the Army of Northern Virginia at Cold Harbor.

Map of the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 1
The positions of the armies on June 1. (Image: By Map by Hal Jespersen/Public domain)

Now the question is, why should he do this? It’s been a question that many people have asked. The assaults were a disaster, costly, and accomplished nothing. With the view of hindsight, why would Grant do something so stupid as to assault the Confederates in a strong position?

Several factors helped persuade him that this was the course to take. Grant likely was experiencing frustration. I think that he had expected to do better against Lee than he had done and he expected to find an opening really to smash Lee. They had not been able to do that. Lee had anticipated again and again what Grant was going to do, and I think here Grant decided that he would apply brute strength and try to overcome the Army of Northern Virginia.

I think Grant also believed, however, that his troops could break through at Cold Harbor. He’d seen Union soldiers do it at Chattanooga. He had seen Union soldiers do it on May 12th in the Battle of Spotsylvania when they smashed through the northern arc of the Mule Shoe salient.

When the men heard about this, many of them believed that they would not have a very good chance to survive. They knew how difficult it was to carry entrenched positions. One of Grant’s staff officers rode among the soldiers at Cold Harbor, and he said he found them calmly writing their names and addresses on pieces of paper and pinning those pieces of paper to the backs of their blouses. The men were hoping that if they were killed these little pieces of paper would allow someone to identify their bodies.

The big assaults came on June 3. Grant hurled about 50,000 Union soldiers against three miles of breastworks held by about 30,000 Confederate defenders. A Confederate soldier later told a Federal who was working with a burial party, that, “It seemed almost like murder for us to fire upon you.” But, of course, fire upon the Federals the Confederates did.

Map of the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3
(Image: By Map by Hal Jespersen/Public domain)

Learn more about Union successes in the West

Most of the attacks lasted fewer than 30 minutes, and in the space of a relatively brief time, 7,500 Federals were shot down. Added to 5,000 casualties Grant had suffered the preceding two days, on June 1 and 2, this is another 12,500 casualties at Cold Harbor; Confederate losses, probably about 1,500.

The Northern public was beginning to question Grant. All they saw in Virginia was this series of very bloody encounters. A huge battle in the Wilderness—who won? It’s hard to tell. A huge battle at Spotsylvania—who won? Hard to tell. Now at Cold Harbor another large battle; here you could tell who won, and it wasn’t Ulysses S. Grant.

Lee, however, is not confused about what’s going on. Lee knew that Grant was slowly accomplishing what the Federals needed to accomplish— pushing Lee back toward Richmond, circumscribing the area in which he could maneuver.

Learn more about how Robert E. Lee seized the initiative

Grant Outfoxes Lee

On June 12, 1864, Grant began what would be a brilliantly successful move around the Confederate right flank. It’s one of the great movements of the war. Grant fooled Lee completely, left a few troops behind to hold Lee’s attention, and then shifted his immense army southward. The Union engineers constructed one of the most impressive pontoon bridges of the entire war across the James River, a feat of engineering that left officers on both sides in awe.

Pontoon bridges across James River at Richmond, Va., April, 1865
The Union engineers constructed one of the most impressive pontoon bridges of the entire war across the James River. (Image: Pontoon bridges across James River at Richmond, Va., April/Library of Congress)

They did it quickly, and on June 15, a large Federal corps was just outside Petersburg with another one not far behind. Lee thought Grant was making another small turning movement such as he had executed after the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and on the road to Cold Harbor. He kept his entire army north of the James. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard was down at Petersburg, meanwhile, with just a few thousand Confederate defenders in the works and he began to send messages to Lee: There area huge number of Federals in my front. Please send reinforcements.

Map of the Siege of Petersburg of the American Civil War, assaults on June 15-16
Siege of Petersburg (Image: By Map by Hal Jespersen/Public domain)

Lee thought Beauregard was confused. He wasn’t, of course. But the Federal commanders on the scene even with a 9-to-1 advantage over Beauregard in the early stage of the action at Petersburg, couldn’t seem to orchestrate an effective set of assaults. They failed to push into the city.

They mounted ineffective assaults on June 15 through 18. Lee finally realized what was going on and rushed troops from the Army of Northern Virginia southward to Petersburg. By the end of the day on the 18th, the opportunity for a major Federal victory had passed.

Learn more about a confused battle at Perryville (October 8)

The Federals had lost another 11,000 men; Confederates about half as many. Each side was now busy constructing what would become the most intricate and impressive set of trenches put together during the war. The siege of Petersburg had begun.

Common Questions About the Overland Campaign

Q: Was there a winner in the Overland Campaign?

Yes. Although Grant suffered much loss and injury, he essentially navigated a thorough defeat of Robert E. Lee during the Overland Campaign.

Q: How long was the Overland Campaign?

The Overland Campaign lasted almost two months, from May 4, 1864 – June 24, 1864.

Q: How many battles were fought in the Overland Campaign?

There were approximately 14 major battles fought in the Overland Campaign, with small skirmishes and raids also taking place.

Q: Why is the Overland Campaign considered a Pyrrhic victory?

The Overland Campaign was the bloodiest campaign in American history. Grant suffered around 55,000 casualties, while Lee suffered around 33,600 casualties.

This article was updated on October 17, 2020

Keep Reading
Slavery, Compromise, and the Long Road to War
How the American Confederacy Was Born
Famous Battles of The American Revolution: The Second Victory at Trenton