The Peninsula Campaign Versus the Overland Campaign

John Foskett poses the following question:

How should the Overland Campaign be evaluated vs. the option of redoing in some fashion the Peninsula Campaign? By constantly trying to turn Lee’s right and eventually ending up in the Cold Harbor vicinity, it seems that Grant landed where McClellan landed, at a far greater price. (This assumes that the campaign was over when Grant decided to back away from Richmond by crossing the James and going after Petersburg/the railroads).

Some people decided that they couldn’t wait until I posted the question separately to offer answers, suggesting that they also don’t color within the lines:

Shek responded:

John, I’d offer that to a certain extent, they are apples and oranges. The policy in 1862 was conciliation, and so the Peninsula Campaign sought to coerce the Confederacy by seizing Richmond. In 1864, Union policy had shifted to the hard hand of war and it was clear that the Union would have to compel the Confederacy into surrender. Thus, while Richmond remained a decisive point, the prize was now the Army of Northern Virginia, and so Richmond was now a means to an end rather than the end. While Grant was unable to bring the ANV to a battle of annihilation with the Overland Campaign, he was able to attrit it to the point that it no longer was able to regain the initiative with offensive operations. Contrary to 1862, where Lee went north, in 1864, Lee was fixed, allowing Sherman the ability to move through the South without fear of portions of the ANV combining with another force to attack him. Also, by going Overland, Grant kept DC covered, and by always going to Lee’s right, he was able to leverage Union seapower and concentrate forces at the front rather than bleeding manpower to protect land lines of communication.

Nick Fry opined:

I would say that the objectives of the two campaigns were different. Peninsula was a campaign built around the capture of Richmond. Overland was a campaign built around the engagement, defeat and destruction of a field army.

What do you think?


20 thoughts on “The Peninsula Campaign Versus the Overland Campaign

  1. Lyle Smith October 13, 2013 / 5:10 pm

    I think Grant was trying to capture Richmond/Petersburg to undermine Lee’s army and make it easier to destroy.

  2. tcgreen October 13, 2013 / 7:11 pm

    I agree that the two campaigns had different objectives, but I also think that the Overland Campaign did not end when Grant jumped the James River. Rather, it was all part of the same campaign that ultimately sought to cut Lee off from his supplies either by attritting the ANV while Butler and the AOJ invested Peterburg or, as Grant probably expected (given his earlier request for pontoons and Butler’s role) by taking the AOP to Petersburg and doing it himself. Although Grant was criticized for his NC proposal in his December 1863 letter to Halleck, I don’t think he gave up on that but rather (as I think Brooks has stated) reformulated the proposal to accommodate political realities while maintaining the ultimate goal. And it didn’t hurt to considerably weaken the ANV on the way down.

    • John Foskett October 14, 2013 / 10:53 am

      I understand your point about the campaign continuing by crossing the James but I respectfully disagree. Grant had tried to outflank Lee repeatedly with the notion of getting between him and the capitol to force a fight, and ended up exactly where McClellan ended up. At that point he decided on a different approach and to go after a different objective – taking Petersburg and its railroads before Lee could react. As we know, he may have succeeded but for the usual snail-like execution by his subordinates.

      • tcgreen October 14, 2013 / 6:35 pm

        I think we probably agree on much of the essentials (e.g., Grant was poorly served by many of his subordinates), but let me explain why I don’t think Grant’s movement across the James was a spur-of-the-moment thing and was in fact part of his overall plan for the AOP’s role in his grand strategy. First, as I intimated above, I think Grant thought that operating below Richmond was the right approach based on his proposal for operations in his December 1863 letter to Halleck regarding a movement in North Carolina; while that was rejected and criticized by Halleck, Grant didn’t typically give up on an idea so easily and I think he prepared his Overland Campaign plan by adapting this idea to reality. Second, early on after his appointment in General in Chief, Grant requested the pontoons. Third, Grant told Meade and Butler before the Overland Campaign opened that he expected to move both their armies below the James if he didn’t destroy Lee above it. Fourth, at about the same time, he told Halleck early on that he sought to bring both Meade and Butler’s forces together. Fifth, he wrote in a letter to Halleck in June that it had been his “idea from the start … to beat Lee’s Army, if possible, North of Richmond, then after destroying his lines of communication North of the James River to transfer to the South side and besiege Lee in Richmond or follow him South if he should retreat.” To me, all that points to Grant fully considering that moving south of the James was quite probable and to his planning accordingly for that possibility.

        I think Grant certainly wanted to defeat the ANV above Richmond, but I think he well expected that might not happen and that he consequently had to be prepared to move below Richmond and deal with Lee from that position. In this context, it certainly was no secret that Petersburg was a key supply point: as Brooks points out in Civil War in the East, Meade noted it in a letter written in 1862. I think Grant considered all that in an extremely sophisticated and forward-looking plan of operations.

        • John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 7:03 am

          It’s probable that we’re both right on this. I may take a more limited view of how to define the campaign but I understand your perspective, as well.

          • tcgreen October 15, 2013 / 7:20 am

            Thanks and agreed. It admittedly isn’t clear (and Grant didn’t help us by making his own decisions without much consultation with others) but it’s awfully fun to discuss. And I generally agree with your other recent comments that it probably would have worked better if Grant could have first moved south of the James–as I think he really would have preferred. But one of the great things about Grant is that he didn’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good–or the possible.

  3. Nick Fry October 13, 2013 / 7:40 pm

    Then why not go for another Hail Mary and move the AoP behind Lee and closer to Richmond by sea rather than giving the task to threaten Richmond/Petersburg to a 3rd string general like Butler?

    • tcgreen October 14, 2013 / 5:27 am

      Lincoln wouldn’t have accepted a campaign that appeared to seek to evade rather than fight the ANV and political realities dictated that Grant couldn’t get rid of Butler in early 1864 (he tried to mitigate the problem with some new corps commanders). I think political realities plus practical considerations required that Grant go with the AOP to ensure that it engaged and, probably more importantly, kept contact with the ANV (the crucial issue in Grant’s broad strategy). So rather than become paralyzed by wishing for armies with different commanders or for different political options, Grant implemented a practical strategy based on the realities that he faced.

  4. DT October 13, 2013 / 7:59 pm

    I dont get John’s Point at all.. and for that matter….I dont think John gets his own point. Of course Grants Overland campaign cost More. THAT folks is the point.!! Almost by indention “Winning ” campaigns often do cost more in lives and material and effort than losing campaigns… no?

    and yes the other point made above about Richmond being the goal in 1862 whereas in 1863 the ANV was… is correct and telling.

    • DT October 13, 2013 / 8:00 pm

      indention – definition

    • John Foskett October 14, 2013 / 7:49 am

      Oh, I get my point. Now go read up on McClellan’s Urbanna plan and its objectives, and why he changed the starting point to Fortress Monroe. Here’s another insight- Grant’s objective wasn’t attrition – spend some time and figure out what he was trying to do with the moves to Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. then go revisit Little Mac’s Urbanna/Peninsula thinking. You’ve proven that the simple analysis isn’t always the correct analysis. I gather that you’re not a follower of Dimitri.

      • DT October 14, 2013 / 2:33 pm

        I dont think I said that attrition was Grants ‘ objective. Wait let me go back and Check. Nope didnt say it. Nor do I dispute your other point ( the similarities between the 2 campaigns).

        When you stated.. “it seems that Grant landed where McClellan landed, at a far greater price…” it seem to me that that you are implying that George and Sam are close to bring equal as Generals. I suppose one could make that case on a strategic level but that is certainly not the case on a operational or even tactical level.

        All I said was that is was the very success of Grant’s 1864 campaign which is why it did cost more. Therefore while I recognize George’s strategic Plan had some merit to it and at less cost at some point you have actually *offensively* engage the enemy and defeat.. Grant was willing to do things that little George was not.

        • John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 6:56 am

          “Implying that George and Sam are close to being equal as Generals”? Not hardly, Pilgrim – unless we’re focused exclusively on planning and logistics. You must be new here, because if you were around to see my comments on other McClellan-themed posts you’d know that I tend to be a Mac basher. But let’s give the devil his due when it comes to strategic/operational thinking. I think that it’s legitimate to ponder whether Grant could have accomplished what he did in the end by pursuing the McClellan option or something like it. (Once at the point where the fighting would take place, I’ll take Grant 10 times out of 10). True – Grant battered the ANV, which was a much less effective fighting force by the time Richmond was in view. But the same is true of the Army of the Potomac by that stage – hence the debacle at the Crater and the unsuccessful forays out of the trenches against the railroads. In my opinion you’re mixing two different issues – how to get to the critical point and what to do once you’re there.

  5. Tony October 14, 2013 / 6:20 am

    Moving the army somewhere behind Lee and cutting off Richmond was Grant’s initial suggestion, was it not? Lincoln is the one who had the hard-on for targeting Lee’s army and not strategic objectives. That was the beauty of having Grant in command … he could satisfy Lincoln while executing his strategic goals.

    • John Foskett October 14, 2013 / 7:52 am

      Precisely, Tony. And for those who care to read they just might find similar thinking behind McClellan’s Urbanna plan, which changed its launch point to the Peninsula after the Confederates departed Manassas. Both were premised on flanking the Rebels and forcing them to come to battle for fear of having their capitol and their supply lines cut off.

      • Bryn Monnery October 14, 2013 / 4:01 pm

        McClellan’s Urbanna plan was a turning movement leading to envelopment of the Confederate Army of the Potomac. Grant’s initial idea was a grand raid against the Carolinas to rip up infrastructure but avoid facing the Confederate main body.

        • John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 6:57 am

          Okay – but once Grant settled on Virginia and the ANV his plan had similar objectives to McClellan’s.

  6. Mark October 14, 2013 / 11:00 am

    >> Here’s another insight- Grant’s objective wasn’t attrition

    Great point. His remark that the Confederacy “has not got army enough” to resist the coordinated full court press he planned after he came east wasn’t a reference to attrition. I think there is a single reference explicitly to attrition in terms of strategy somewhere that he made that I wish I could remember. But I think it was merely acknowledging an obvious fact of war. If it was an actual goal of his we’d have no trouble discovering this in all that he said and wrote.

  7. TF Smith October 14, 2013 / 8:40 pm

    Isn’t there a significant difference in that Grant was actively serving as both G-in-C and what amounts to an Army Group-level commander during the Overland, in a theater that – in 1864-65 – essentially included the whole of Maryland, DC, and Virginia?

    In 1862, after his illness and relief from the g-in-c position, GBM was essentially serving as an Army commander, and – for the most part – nothing more, at least until after the Peninsula Campaign failed and Lincoln was smart enough to get him to put the pieces back together again for the defensive campaign after 2nd Manassas.

    In terms of the “offensive” campaigns, it seems like GBM and Meade are probably closer in role; even when GBM still had the G-in-C hat in 1861, I get the feelling he did not care a whole lot abut what was going on in the West. He even fought against TW Sherman’s division going to Port Royal, IIRC, and kept asking for troops from the West.

    Bottom line, Grant’s responsibilities were much greater in 1864-65 than GBM’s were in 1862, and Grant’s forces won in every theater – Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, etc.

    GBM’s level of responsibility was much more limited – as he was.

    • John Foskett October 15, 2013 / 7:00 am

      Good points, but I don’t see how that affects the planning of an operation by the army of which he was in effective field command and with which he traveled. In other words, and regardless of his other duties and concerns, we’re talking only about this campaign against the ANV.

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