Finally Lincoln had the commander he wanted. Grant’s success in the West, coupled with McClellan’s, Burnside’s, Hooker’s, and Meade’s failures in the East, led the frustrated president to name Grant Lieutenant General of all Union armies in March 1864.
Grant gave Lincoln more than a record of success. He also shared the president’s belief that the North must put more men and armies in the field to negate the South’s home field advantage. Thus far, Lee had effectively used his interior lines to shift and concentrate his smaller forces to meet the larger Northern armies. But if the North placed three, four, or five large armies in the field all at once, Lee would not have the manpower to respond.
Therefore in the spring of 1864, Grant ordered five large armies into the field. Three of these armies would converge on Richmond, one from Fort Monroe at the mouth of the James River, one by way of the Shenandoah Valley, and one from northern Virginia led by Grant himself.
The plan made great sense. But Lee jumped Grant before the Union general had a chance to get his 100,000 man army moving. The first stage of Grant’s march toward Richmond carried him across the Rappahannock River and through a dense wood known as the Wilderness. There Lee and his undersized army of 60,000 met Grant on 5 May 1864.
It was another brilliant move by the Confederate general. Within the Wilderness there were no clearings large enough to deploy artillery or allow massive armies to square off. Carved into dozens of narrow ravines, the Wilderness forced hundreds of small, guerrilla encounters. At one point, gunfire set the dense underbrush on fire, limiting the visibility, increasing the terror, and negating the benefits of numbers.
After two days of this chaotic, awful fighting, Grant’s army was in terrible shape. Both flanks had been penetrated and the casualties (had anyone had time to count) approached 20,000. Grant decided to abandon the field—but not the campaign. He led his men through an exhausting overnight march to the east and south in an attempt to outflank the rebel army and place himself in between Lee and Richmond. Lee sniffed out the move, and drove his men just as hard in order to intercept Grant’s army, which he did, at the Spotsylvania Court House on 8 May.
For the next twelve day the two armies engaged one another in vicious fighting. On the fifth day, Union forces broke through the Confederate lines at “Bloody Angle.” Southern soldiers blamed the rain that had dampened their gun powder; Northerners credited the toughness of the corps led by Major General Winfield Hancock. Lee rallied his retreating troops, and attempted to personally lead them back to the front. But in an amazing display of loyalty, they refused to advance until he returned to greater safety behind the lines. Once Lee was “to the rear,” the Confederates counter-attacked. Trees were cut in two by the withering gun fire between the armies. Then, as the armies grew closer, they engaged in hand-to-hand combat of medieval brutality. Eventually, the breach in the Southern lines was closed.
After twelve days of fighting, Grant again moved to the east and south in attempt to slide past Lee. The Union general had lost another 12,000 men at Spotsylvania. But as he explained to the folks at Washington, “I propose to fight it out all along this line if it takes all summer.” Lee once again parried his move. And the two armies converged again, this time at Cold Harbor on 1 June.
Both army’s had limped into Cold Harbor, actually a crossroads, not a harbor, about ten miles from Richmond. Over the preceding month Grant had lost more than 30,000 men, Lee about 18,000. But now both armies were re-enforced. Union General Benjamin Butler, who had been working his way up the James River, was able to send 16,000 men to Grant. Lee was re-enforced by 7000 men from General P.T.G. Beauregard’s army. Now the two replenished armies dug in along a seven-mile front stretching from Bethesda Church to the Chickahominy River.
Grant ordered his first assault on the evening of 1 June—but it was turned back after suffering more than 2000 casualties in just two hours. He took a day to re-group; Lee spent the time strengthening his defenses. Trees were felled to form barricades; earthen walls were erected. Artillery was arranged so that Grant’s attacking infantry would have to hazard shells flying in from several directions.
Not surprisingly, in retrospect, the Union assault the next day was a bloodbath. Almost 12,000 Northern soldiers were killed or wounded before Grant called off the attack. Even the battle-hardened general was sobered by the losses. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” he would later write.
The two armies stared at one another across a no-man’s land separating well fortified trenches. Then Grant moved his army yet again, this time to the town of Petersburg.