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Grant versus Lee: The Wilderness to Petersburg

Grant versus Lee:  The Wilderness to Petersburg


Grant and Lee were the greatest
antagonists in American military history. Each was a brilliant, aggressive
general, the best soldier in his army. Each looked to seize the initiative. Each anticipated what his opponent would
do by imagining how he would react in the same situation.
Neither would accept defeat. Consequently, in May 1864,
when they finally locked horns, each general faced
the challenge of his life. “Gen. Grant will go down like
the rest of the Yankee gens that have been brought against this army.”
–Confederate soldier from Georgia, 10 March 1864 “The art of war is simple enough.
Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can,
strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.”
–Ulysses S. Grant Grant’s crucial goal was to destroy
Lee’s army rather than to gain territory. If he was successful, the war would be over. Lee’s goal was much the same;
if he did not destroy Grant, Richmond would inevitably fall. One of the keys to Grant’s
effectiveness was numbers. He commanded 120,000 soldiers, while Lee
had but 65,000 when they met on May 5. The other was Grant’s determination. In The Wilderness however, the Confederate
shortage of troops was less consequential. Lee attacked, hoping to obliterate Grant’s army
in what would be the final major battle of the war. Grant responded calmly with
a relentless wave of assaults. On May 5, darkness alone saved
the Army of Northern Virginia. On May 6, Grant ordered Winfield Scott Hancock,
with one half of the Army of the Potomac, to attack at five in the morning. Lee had planned virtually
the same offensive at daybreak. Hancock’s massive assault nearly
overwhelmed the Confederate lines. Grant wrote, “The woods were
set on fire by the bursting shell, and the conflagration raged. The wounded
were either suffocated or burned to death.” At the end of the day, each commander
had lost almost 20% of his army, but the battle was a draw. However, for the first time, a Union army
would head south following an encounter with Lee in Virginia. Grant would keep his troops moving
to the south and east, attacking the Confederates at every opportunity. Grant marched 12 miles to
Spotsylvania Courthouse, as he put it, “To get between
Lee’s army and Richmond.” Lee, however, anticipated the move.
His troops arrived first and dug in. “Ulysses S. Grant, to his Chief of
Staff, Henry Halleck, 11 May 1864. I propose to fight it out on
this line, if it takes all summer.” The natural features of the landscape
dictated that entrenchments take the form of an inverted U, a shape
that Lee put to effective use. Troops from one wing formed a reserve
that could easily reinforce the other. The weakness of this breastwork
was its apex, a part of which would earn the descriptive name,
“The Bloody Angle.” On May 11, Grant sent 20,000 of
Hancock’s troops against this apex. Union soldiers charged the breastworks
and engaged the Confederates in horrendous hand-to-hand fighting for the next 18 hours. The space was insufficient for them
to maneuver, an area about the size of 2 football fields. Some could not even lift their arms to fight. Grant then hurled another 15,000
soldiers at the bloody angle. The Southerners counterattacked. Grant wrote, “Five times during
the day, Lee assaulted furiously. All the trees between the lines were very
much cut to pieces by artillery and musketry.” The dead lay 8 to 10 deep in places. Both generals lost close
to 7,000 soldiers that day. When Lee showed no signs of abandoning
his entrenchments at Spotsylvania, Grant again move beyond Lee’s east flank. The two armies raced 25 miles south to
the North Anna River and Hanover Junction, where 2 rail lines converged. Once again, Grant met a well-entrenched enemy, this time protected behind breastworks
constructed during the preceding winter. For a time, the Army of the Potomac was
vulnerable because it was separated into 3 components by the curves
of the North Anna River. Lee, however, was too ill with an
intestinal malady to orchestrate an attack. Grant whirled once more to the east and south. This time he beat Lee to their
common destination, Cold Harbor, but his troops were too exhausted to
seize the advantage. Lee dug in. Frustrated, Grant ordered a broad
frontal assault at the center of a 7 mile-long Confederate line. A number of his soldiers wrote
their names on their uniforms so that their corpses could be easily identified. Some 7,000 Union troops, exposed to relentless
Confederate firepower, were slaughtered. “I have always regretted that the last
assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. No advantage whatever was gained
to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”
–Ulysses S. Grant “My idea from the start has been to beat
Lee’s army, if possible, north of Richmond. I now find after more than 30 days of trial
that the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive,
behind breastworks. I will move the army to the south side of the James River.”
–Ulysses S. Grant to Henry Halleck, 5 June 1864 Grant ordered his engineers to build a
pontoon bridge 30 miles east of Richmond. It would be the longest in military history. An army of 115,000 men would
cross a river 700 yards wide. This was Grant’s ultimate maneuver to the left,
one so bold that even Lee could not counter it. This time, Grant successfully
outflanked his opponent. He would threaten Richmond from
the south through Petersburg. For a few days Lee did not know
that Grant had left Cold Harbor. He had anticipated the crossing, and
had warned the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, of this possibility
the day before it happened. However, unable to leave the northern
exposures of Richmond unprotected, Lee was trapped. Not until June 18 was he certain
of Grant’s new position. By then, the first attack on Petersburg
had been made by General William F. Smith. Grant believed that had the June 15
attempt been conducted with competence, the city would have been easily taken. Instead, the Siege of Petersburg began.
It was to last 10 long months. By the spring of 1865, after
having survived various assaults, including an attempt to tunnel under its
fortifications, Petersburg was ready to fall. The road would soon be open to Richmond,
but it was still Lee and his army, rather than any city, that Grant
had most squarely in his sights.

8 thoughts on “Grant versus Lee: The Wilderness to Petersburg”

  1. For such a quick synopsis, this is pretty good.  The music is unfortunate but the narration is succinct and paints the broad picture of the campaign. 

  2. Hard to believe this video was produced by Virginia Historical Society.  It is clearly biased toward Grant.   Had Grant not had tremendous resources he would failed totally.  He lost in that summer of 64 as many man as Lee had in his entire army.  Lee is recognized as clearly the best commander the war produced by most all military scholars.

  3. There were many things working against Grant. He was hampered by the overall poor Corp leadership. This was a problem all during the campaign. If he would have had Sherman with him, the war in the East would have ended in 1864. Twice Petersburg should have been captured but poor Union battle field leadership allowed Lee to hold on. Grant lost over 50,000 men during these battles. Some here have said that makes him less of a general than Lee. Cold Harbor was him only major mistake. Lee fought on the defensive often behind breast works. It should be remembered that Lee lost well over 30,000 men. Those were losses he could never replace. Grant had more resources and used his advantage well.

  4. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander wrote they only had 40000 men serving under Gen. Lee by sharpsburg and the Union always thought the confederates had larger numbers.

  5. Hate to break it to the Lost Causers, but it was really more Meade vs Lee.
    Meade remained in command of the Army of the Potomac and handled the tactics.
    Grant was commanding General in the entire US Army, and handled the strategies of all major campaigns in all land theaters.

    After Cold Harbor, Grant outflanked Lee on the James River while Lee had no idea where the Army of the Potomac was, and pinned him down in Petersburg after just 8 weeks.

    The Wilderness was a draw, but a morale booster for the Army.
    Spotsylvania Courthouse was ultimately a victory for the US Army, because the rebels had retreated from the field after losing nearly 900 men at Harris Farm on what was supposed to be a simple recon. mission.

    Lee never went where Grant didn't want him to go, and ended up exactly where Grant wanted him, in the strategic city of Petersburg, just south of Richmond, and Richmond fell immediately after Petersburg did.

  6. Since the fighting was all in the south, Lee always had home court advantage, knowledge of the terrain, and the support of the population living there.

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