The Overland Campaign: Alternatives

We are about to embark on the 150th anniversary of the campaigns of 1864, and at the moment most attention has been focused on the Overland Campaign. Was Grant’s plan of operations in 1864 the best under the circumstances? Did Robert E. Lee fail to explore alternatives?

There’s very little talk about what the Confederates might have done. Lee certainly did not think the war was over, and he was eager to renew operations. As for the Union, at the moment people are talking about what Grant planned to do … we’ve had near-silence about Sherman, Johnston, and the options for waging war from Georgia to the Mississippi. What are your thoughts about the grand plan of 1864 and the concept of the Overland Campaign?


28 thoughts on “The Overland Campaign: Alternatives

  1. jfepperson May 3, 2014 / 3:18 pm

    The Overland Campaign was a compromise of sorts, which means it can be criticized on lots of grounds. It could have been executed better by many in the AotP. Many mistakes were made. Lots of details should have been different. But I think the concept of bringing Lee to battle and holding on, not letting him breathe, so to speak, was very sound.

    • Jimmy Dick May 3, 2014 / 5:14 pm

      I agree. Grant understood that the destruction of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was the paramount objective. Threatening Richmond was the lure. Lee had won a lot of battles, but it seems to me that they were defensive efforts fought on his own soil. I don’t think Grant wanted to fight that kind of campaign, but rather one of maneuver. He ended up fighting Lee’s defenses, but he also stretched them to the point that it just ground down Lee’s army which was fine.

      Unlike other former generals I really believe that Grant understood that the war would not be won in one big battle. He had fought using sustained campaigns and was successful. That is what separates him from the other Union generals. He saw things strategically whereas many of them could only see tactically. He planned a campaign, adjusted as he went, and brought Lee’s army to battle whereupon he just ground them down and for all practical purposes practically wiped it out as an operational force.

      Lee had two choices in April of 1865. Fight and die for nothing or surrender and hope for the best in peace. He made the best possible choice available to him because he put the lives of his men over a for certain crushing defeat on the battlefield.

      • Tony May 4, 2014 / 4:43 am

        The destruction of Lee’s army was Lincoln’s paramount objective. Grant was smart enough to understand that Lincoln’s paramount objective became his own, unlike the other commanders in the east. The fact that Grant could achieve his goal (cutting off Richmond from the south) while executing Lincoln’s goal is the only thing that redeem’s Lincoln’s mad calculus of attrition.

        • Jimmy Dick May 4, 2014 / 1:42 pm

          Attrition is a good option at times. Wars are not necessarily won by fighting big battles, but in destroying the ability of the enemy to fight. When you fight your opponent on his ground in his defenses, he naturally has a significant edge over you. What you have to do is work around his defenses, find his weaknesses, and exploit them to negate his strengths. In this case Grant used his strengths to put pressure on Lee’s army which no one else had tried to do. That pressure cracked the ANV and eventually forced them out of their defenses whereupon Grant finished off Lee.

          There was nothing mad about it. It was a viable strategy using the strengths of the Union against the weaknesses of the Confederacy.

          • Tony May 4, 2014 / 3:26 pm

            It was a viable strategy, but not a good strategy. The same thing could have been accomplished with a much lower loss of life by cutting off Richmond from the south by moving the army over water.

          • jfepperson May 4, 2014 / 5:19 pm

            No. A Very Bad Idea. Good on a game board, but not in reality. They barely had the sea-lift capacity to move Butler’s force 70 miles up the James. Moving a larger force would have taken the army off the board for several days. What does Lee do in this window of opportunity? Don’t tell me that the AoNV could not sustain an offensive—was this known to be the case, north of the Rapidan?

      • Mark May 5, 2014 / 2:19 pm

        >> He made the best possible choice available to him because he put the lives of his men over a for certain crushing defeat on the battlefield.

        Look, I can accept and even appreciate fighting to the bitter end, but I always wonder why it is claimed that Lee put the lives of his men over this or that when it seems to me he arrived at that position that late by not doing so. Certainly after the Lincoln’s reelection crushed all reasonable hopes of success from any reasonable perspective. Isn’t it true that he feared humiliation at the hands of Union officers more than he feared the loss of his men? Didn’t he admit as much? Didn’t Longstreet have to convince him that Grant would not humiliate him before he would commit to surrender? Can anyone even imagine Grant thinking to ask the question, let alone doing it? What is the basis for believing Lee put his men before his own pride, other than the wish to believe him a great man as well as a great general?

        Did he put his four daughters wishes over his own when he forbid them to marry? None ever did. When did Lee ever put others first? Preserving your army is not putting others first, it is a matter of survival. It seems to me the evidence shows that Lee was:

        1) A prideful man who seemed to always put his own interests before his men, and who felt he embodied the cause but would never accept political responsibilities to those in it no matter who begged him to do so. And why is his quietism after the war seen as heroic?

        2) A whiny sore loser who couldn’t admit defeat (general order #9, a major basis for the Lost Cause) and spent his last days commiserating with his whiny sore loser buddies making conspiracy theories about how they didn’t really lose.

        3) A creepy-ass dad beyond the pale of any other dad I have ever heard my entire life this side of criminality.

        Yeah, the results are in. A selfless man who put others first. Please.

        • Mark May 5, 2014 / 6:11 pm

          Neglected to say that he acted brutally towards his slaves even by the standards of the day.

        • Jimmy Dick May 5, 2014 / 6:13 pm

          Yet, the fact remains he surrendered the ANV and did suffer the humiliation of defeat. He was a whiny loser, of that there was no doubt, but he made a decision that some commanders didn’t make in other wars. He surrendered and told his men not to engage in a guerrilla war, but rather to go home and move on with their lives. Regardless of how you view Lee, and I am definitely not a person that puts Lee on a pedestal at all, he did make the choice that put his men ahead of a meaningless death.

  2. Christopher Shelley May 3, 2014 / 3:21 pm

    As far as I understand it, Grant’s plan was a good one–move semi-crab-like south and east so as to keep a short line of communication with the rivers entering Chesapeake Bay, and maneuver Lee into open battle. I’m relying mostly on Grant’s memoirs, but it seems to me that the reason this never quite happened, stemmed as much from the chronic sluggishness of the Army of the Potomac as the tenacity of Lee. I can’t help wondering (counter-factually speaking) what would have happened if Grant and Sherman had traded forces–if Grant had had the Western armies of the Cumberland, Ohio, and Tennessee, and Sherman had had the AoP. One of Sherman’s constant concerns was communications, and, when Johnstone forced him into a flanking maneuver, Sherman had to bring up enough supplies to leave the rail line and use wagons. The Overland Campaign didn’t have the same problem. I think the AoP was too dull a tool for Grant.

    • jfepperson May 3, 2014 / 4:21 pm

      I think there was also an issue of confidence—the men and (especially) the officers in the AotP had more faith in Lee than in Grant.

  3. Joshism May 3, 2014 / 6:26 pm

    It seems like the Overland Campaign (and the associated Bermuda Hundred and Shenandoah campaigns) were all good plans that were poorly executed. Grant’s decision to keep pushing forward and turning Lee was I think the correct one – geography seems to limit his alternatives too much otherwise. Grant was also politically tied into Sigel and Butler, neither of whom had showed anything up to that point indicating they should have such a responsibility.

    Perhaps the best he could have done differently on a strategic level would be to either strengthen the Army of the James (although it might still be wasted with Butler in command) or scrap the Bermuda Hundred Campaign entirely for a larger and more powerful AotP that could fix Lee in place while having the manpower to simultaneously turn him.

    The other strategic mistake seems to have been pushing the AotP too hard for too long. The protracted fighting ground down both armies in terms of both quality and quantity, but the ANV had more experience in trying conditions than their Union counterparts and seem to have handled the strain better.

  4. John Foskett May 4, 2014 / 8:19 am

    The tougher of the questions which you raise regards what Lee should have done (and kudos for asking this, because the focus all too often is on Grant’s options). Frankly, I don’t have a good idea. Lee had (twice) tried the invasion route. Both had proved futile. Moreover, after Gettysburg he had suffered enough manpower losses (especially in the higher ranks) that the ANV was no longer a sharp offensive weapon nor capable of yet another invasion. Newton in his very good book makes a strong case that the manpower deficiencies were less than the numbers generally accepted. But (as always in the game of chasing down Confederate strengths at any given time), there is reason for caution in using his thesis. Moreover, the losses of experienced, competent officers were not fully replenished. Even with Longstreet returned from East Tennessee, then, I think we have to assume that the ANV was much more a “shield” than a “sword” by spring, 1864. And in fact, during the entire Overland Campaign Lee undertook only one truly “offensive” action, which actually was a localized counterattack in the Wilderness. The rest of the fighting – Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor – was defensive. So we have an army whose strong suit, its capacity for the offensive, is significantly diminished. We also know that retreating to defensive positions around Richmond/Petersburg rightly was considered by Lee to be a concession to ultimate defeat. So it seems to me that Lee had only two options – (1) follow the course he chose (stated simply as making Grant’s task so bloody and difficult that the Northern home front might force a negotiated peace) or (2) arrange for some combination with other forces (e.g., Johnston or the Taylor/Trans-Mississippi troops) to retake the offensive against Grant. The latter would require difficult “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choices by Davis, of course.

    • Lyle Smith May 4, 2014 / 10:53 am

      I agree with you about how blunted the Confederates had become offensively (logistical problems moving forward too), but Lee did try and get Ewell to attack Grant’s right flank after Spotsylvania Courthouse when Grant started to move again, if I’m not mistaken. There were also offensive chances at North Anna with Grant’s army divided, and Early’s Corps attacked Warren’s Corps at Bethesda Church before Cold Harbor.

      I think Lee was thinking about moving to the North or South Anna before the Overland campaign began.

      Johnston’s alternative would have been to shift the bulk of his force to link up with Polk and others in Alabama, and to launch some kind of offensive from there, or maybe even send most of his units to Lee in Virginia.

      • John Foskett May 4, 2014 / 1:53 pm

        Good point – I should have mentioned the May 19 maneuver. That, however, really was only a limited tactical move by part of his army. In fact, it could fairly be described as a “recon in force”. In neither instance did Lee commit his entire army to the tactical offensive and he never did anything resembling an operational offensive. Lee’s chance at North Anna was the invitation to Grant to walk into Lee’s inverted “V” – not an offensive action. Totopotomoy Creek was also what I’d call a “local/partial tactical” attack. I should also have mentioned that but, again, none of these events amounted to an overall tactical offensive nor, obviously, anything at the operational or strategic level. I think we’re in agreement that the ANV no longer was capable of more. Even these “local”/”partial” attacks had limited success or simply failed. As for Johnston combining with Lee , that would have required a decision by Davis to effectively abandon Atlanta and any hope of getting back part of Tennessee or (inconceivable) most of Virginia. That’s why I suggested Taylor/the T-M forces. There, the decision would be to abandon the T-M but it was already effectively isolated from the primary remnant of the CSA.

        • Lyle Smith May 4, 2014 / 5:02 pm

          You’re right they were tactical/operational offensive moves rather than strategically offensive moves. If they had come off big though, maybe that opens up the opportunity for taking strategic initiative back and going on the offensive once more. Lee of course sends Early north later on in the year.

          • John Foskett May 5, 2014 / 7:21 am

            The Early move was a completely different concept than undertaking an offensive operation. Lee knew that the “jig was up” if he simply hunkered down in Petersburg and let Grant starve him out. Early’s mission was essentially a raid by a relatively small force designed to draw off numbers from Grant (as it did). Ultimately Early holed up in the Valley where he was slobber knockered by Sheridan. Cedar Creek was indeed a tactical offensive by Early but the point we;’re discussing here is Lee’s ANV, not a component dispatched to operate independently. More proof – even with Grant’s severing the 6th Corps from the Petersburg Front, it was Grant, not Lee, who resorted to (largely unsuccessful) offensive operations around Petersburg. (with the exception of one limited attack by Lee in October which failed). Of course, there was the attack on Fort Stedman in late March, 1865, but that was simply an act of desperation which is the “exception that proves the rule”. Bottom line – Lee’s ANV was no longer capable of the tactical offensive and the 11 months from May, 1864 – April, 1865 is proof. Last, I’m not sure that what I call the “local/partial offensive” tactics could have changed this overall assessment. Let’s say that Longstreet’s May 6 attack produces bigger results. How does that change Lee’s options? His army is no better suited to taking the offensive than it was on May 5. In fact, it’s less suited because it’s just lost its most capable corps commander.

          • Lyle Smith May 5, 2014 / 10:07 am

            His army wouldn’t be better suited as you say, but maybe the AoP stand stills long enough (not likely under Grant) for Lee to receive reinforcements. As someone else has mentioned the ANV didn’t have all the units it could have had when Grant moved into the Wilderness. Lee was thinking defensively with the army he had for sure. That said, Lee had previously taken an undersized ANV and invaded Maryland, after unbalancing the Federal forces in northern Virginia once before.

          • John Foskett May 5, 2014 / 11:11 am

            Young makes a good case that Lee had more than he’s been credited with. More important, however, is that we’re not simply talking about the Wilderness (where he did have Longstreet) but about the campaign as a whole. I’m skeptical that even operating in Newton’s “perfect world” (and there are some questions about how he does his calculations), Lee was equipped with a weapon that could take the offensive as it had in the past. The analogy to Maryland is interesting but I’m not sure it works. Lee was coming off a big victory and, more important, the forces opposing him were split up. His army also was different, especially in the officer corps. And then there’s the issue of his actual numbers in the Maryland campaign – an impenetrable thicket which you’re well advised to avoid. 🙂

  5. Tony May 4, 2014 / 10:37 am

    The question of what Lee should have done is a good one. What did Lee know of Grant. Certainly he should have known thst Grant was no Hooker or Burnside. A heavy blow would not send him reeling back north. Better then to fall back deeper into Virginia before bringing him to battle, and try to overwhelm him in a counter-attack. Maybe try and lure him west away from resupply via the rivers?

  6. Shawn Woodford May 4, 2014 / 5:40 pm

    I would argue that both Grant and Lee recommended alternative courses of action than those actually adopted during the Overland Campaign, but both were overruled by their respective commanders-in-chief.

    Grant proposed the aforementioned raid against North Carolina and southern Virginia in January 1864. Halleck let him know that no strategic or operational concept that uncovered Washington, D.C. or did not directly engage the ANV would be rejected by Lincoln. [This correspondence lends a certain amount of irony to Grant’s account in his memoirs of his initial face-to-face meeting with Lincoln to discuss strategy in March. Grant recalled that the president stated that had not intended to interfere in military affairs, but had been forced to by the “procrastination on the part of commanders, and pressure from the people at the North and Congress.” Lincoln then told Grant he did not want to know what plan of campaign the general had in mind. However, Grant’s did not mention in his memoir his recent correspondence with Halleck or the fact that Grant was already well aware of Lincoln’s strategic preferences before their meeting.] Grant was astute enough to know that he did not possess the political capital to challenge Lincoln on this, at least in the early spring of 1864.

    As some commentators have stated here before, Grant’s actual operational concept for the Eastern Theater was a compromise between his own assessment of the situation and Lincoln’s indirectly-conveyed guidance. I believe Grant and most of the leadership of the AoP agreed that there was little chance of defeating, let along destroying Lee, and the ANV in open battle, given the forces available. His operational concept on the eve of the campaign was an attempt to generate a campaign of maneuver. I think he hoped the AoJ would be able to threaten Richmond sufficiently to compel Lee to race back to hold it, providing an opening to engage the ANV in the open. It was the failure of Butler and Sigel to execute their missions that left the AoP to face off against the ANV alone, which was never Grant’s intent. It was Lincoln who foreclosed Grant’s alternatives, not Grant.

    Davis did much the same to Lee. In early 1864, Lee had urged Davis to reassemble the scattered elements of the ANV to allow Lee to conduct a pre-emptive offensive against Grant’s forces building up across the Rappahannock. Instead, Davis delayed recalling Longstreet back to Virginia until early April and allowed the attack on Plymouth, North Carolina, using other elements of the ANV, to proceed into the third week of April. When Grant finally did move south in early May, the ANV remained incomplete and the elements returning from North Carolina clogged the rail lines through Richmond, delaying the arrival of reinforcing brigades from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Apparently Davis calculated that currying favor with Zebulon Pike was more important than forestalling Grant.

    The fact that Grant outnumbered Lee 2 to 1 in early May 1864 was the result of strategic and political choices made by Davis. Steven Newton has argued convincingly that Lee’s army could have been built up to 80,000 or so had all of its organic elements been reunited and the reinforcing brigades already earmarked been set in motion sooner. Rather than a 1:2 troop disparity, Lee could have been given much more reasonable 3:4 odds. Certainly the extra forces would have given Lee greater tactical choices in terms of launching counterattacks and had the build-up been done in a timely way, Lee could certainly have executed another operational flanking movement along the lines of August 1862 or October 1863. He may not have been able to defeat Grant, but the strategic name of the game in 1864 was timing and perceptions leading up to the November presidential election. Delay and stalemate worked in favor of the Confederacy and those were well within Lee’s capabilities.

    • Shawn Woodford May 5, 2014 / 6:59 am

      That would be Zebulon Vance, governor of North Carolina, not the western explorer and Pike’s Peak namesake.

    • John Foskett May 5, 2014 / 11:04 am

      Young’s recent book actually sheds light on two relevant issues. First, it appears that Lee had more men than he has traditionally been given credit for. Second, however, his losses probably were higher than has been assumed, as well. Nonetheless, Lee, an aggressive (“audacious”) tactician, showed less of that trait throughout the campaign. I believe that a significant reason may have been the substantial losses of important, experienced field officers and higher ranks over the preceding year. I am skeptical that the ANV would ever have been in a condition to undertake a major and successful offensive operation by spring, 1864. Simply put, taking the offense places a greater premium on having the right folks in positions of command than does holding your position and defending. You correctly state that “Delay and stalemate worked in favor of the Confederacy and those were well within Lee’s capabilities.” As I’ve implied, however, that appears to be the thrust of what Lee actually did by refraining from taking the offensive and forcing Grant to be the attacker.

  7. pedrog May 5, 2014 / 6:51 am

    Zebulon Pike?
    Davis was pretty desperate in 1864, wasn’t he.

    • Shawn Woodford May 5, 2014 / 9:20 am

      He was running out of people who didn’t hate him. 😉

  8. Dan Weinfeld May 5, 2014 / 9:31 am

    How can strategy in May 1864 be discussed without considering the upcoming presidential election? The Confederacy’s best chance to ensure independence by mid-1864 was surely not on the battlefield but with a Lincoln defeat at the ballot box in the coming November. Were Lee and Davis sophisticated enough to realize this? If the ANV was not strong enough to take the offensive or achieve a major battlefield victory, wasn’t leading Grant into an attrition campaign then the most promsiing option for weakening the Northern public’s war support?

    • John Foskett May 5, 2014 / 12:02 pm

      Yep. That’s why I said this above:

      “So it seems to me that Lee had only two options – (1) follow the course he chose (stated simply as making Grant’s task so bloody and difficult that the Northern home front might force a negotiated peace) or (2) arrange for some combination with other forces (e.g., Johnston or the Taylor/Trans-Mississippi troops) to retake the offensive against Grant. The latter would require difficult “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choices by Davis, of course.”

  9. Buck Buchanan May 5, 2014 / 1:23 pm

    Keep one point in mind when wondering why Grant did what he did: Grant knew going into that campaign he was going to lose a significant part of the Army, in both AOP and the AOJ, to the expiration of their tems of service as 3 year regiments. Some of the most storied regiments would march away from the fight to be disbanded all the way from May through July and into September.

    2 weeks after The Crater the AOP had only 6,000 men in the trenches in Petersburg. Part of this was due to casualties but a significant impact was the loss of 3 year troops who did not reenlist.

    In Spring 1864 the AOP was a use or lose it force…and Grant knew it.

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