“I now feel like ending the matter.” –Ulysses S. Grant
Both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant waited anxiously for spring in 1865, and for the same reason. Warmer weather meant dry roads, and dry roads meant armies could move quickly again. Lee knew that with the advent of spring he would have to evacuate his lines of fortifications defending Richmond and Petersburg, abandoning the Confederate capital to the Yankees, and seek a battle of decision elsewhere. Grant knew this as well, and he wanted to make sure that Lee did not elude his grasp.
The spring campaign started on March 25, when Lee struck a blow at Union lines at Fort Stedman, not all that far away from Grant’s headquarters and supply hub at City Point. The Confederate commander hoped to force his Union counterpart to contract his lines, thus easing the path of escape westward. However, the assault proved a dismal failure. Grant, alert that the time was drawing near when Lee would make his move, had already been looking to strike first by embarking on yet another swing around the Confederate right flank south of Petersburg. If Union forces reached the Appomattox River west of Petersburg and severed the Southside Railroad, Lee would find himself in serious trouble. The attack on Fort Stedman proved but a minor interruption. That Grant would have to direct this operation while conferring with President Lincoln and fellow commander William T. Sherman on the shape of things to come simply placed additional burdens on his shoulders.
For months Grant had tested the Confederate defenses, seeking to stretch the Confederate defenders to the breaking point if he could not catch them off balance. That he had fallen short of his desired results in the past could be attributed to a number of factors, including the leadership of the Army of the Potomac at the corps level. By the spring of 1865 only army commander George G. Meade and V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren retained the commands they had held at the outset of the Overland Campaign the previous May. Gone were Hancock, Sedgwick, and Burnside; also gone were Army of the James commander Benjamin F. Butler and a series of subpar corps commanders. Among those relatively new to corps command were Andrew A. Humphreys and John Gibbon, while both John Parke and Horatio Wright had had some experience by now, especially Wright in the Shenandoah Valley. At the same time Phil Sheridan returned to Grant’s army at the head of his cavalry corps. Grant would entrust him with spearheading the drive that everyone hoped would result in a final victory at Petersburg that would move the war much closer to its end.
Having failed to regain the initiative at Fort Stedman, Lee preferred to counter Grant’s move while continuing to think about evacuating his position. Perhaps he should have been more aggressive in this regard, instead of letting Grant call the shots, After all, had he not been ready to move on the heels of a success at Fort Stedman, he would have frittered away whatever opportunity a victory there would have given him. He needed to get a head start over Grant if he was to march southward to join forces with Joseph Johnston in North Carolina with the hope of defeating Sherman and Grant in turn.
At the end of March the Yankees began to move. In a series of sharp clashes the Confederates frustrated Sheridan and Warren as they started their swing around the Rebel right, but these successes proved short-lived. By the evening of March 31 Sheridan and Warren were ready to strike a blow … although Sheridan remained skeptical that Warren was the best man for the job. He had asked Grant to assign Wright to the operation, for he knew Wright’s VI Corps well in the wake of the victories in the valley the previous year. But Wright was not available on such short notice, given where VI Corps was then deployed, and Sheridan would have to make do with Warren. Neither Grant, Meade, or Sheridan trusted the New Yorker, and Grant later empowered Sheridan with the authority to replace Warren should he deem it necessary. As for Lee, he left the security of his extreme left to none other than George Pickett. Yes, he could have called on any of his three corps commanders from the previous spring, for James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, and A. P. Hill were still available, even if Ewell no longer was at the head of his corps (now directed by John B. Gordon, with a fourth corps headed by Richard Anderson). But it seemed that no Confederate commander was quite the man he once was … and the Confederate cavalry was no longer what it once was, with neither Jeb Stuart (killed) or Wade Hampton (detached elsewhere) to take charge (Fitzhugh Lee was now in charge).
Thus, as March came to an end, Grant was ready to end Lee’s sojourn at Petersburg.