End of the Civil War: General Grant Begins the March Toward Richmond

  • 0:05 General Grant Takes Control
  • 2:15 The Overland Campaign
  • 4:53 Other Actions in 1864
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

President Lincoln took a gamble and named Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Union army. They devised a plan to finally take Richmond and win the war in 1864. In this lesson, learn about General Grant's controversial tactics.

General Grant Takes Control

The Anaconda Plan had been successful in damaging Southern power and economics.
Anaconda Plan Accomplished

When Union General Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg on the 4th of July, 1863 and seized the length of the Mississippi River, he was given command over the entire Western Front of the Civil War. Later in the year, Grant rescued a fellow Union general who had retreated into Chattanooga, TN following a defeat and was now under siege from Confederate troops. Grant took charge of the situation and so thoroughly defeated the Southern general that he resigned his commission. After rescuing the army at Chattanooga, Lincoln promoted Grant to General-in-Chief of the entire Union army, and he was moved east to command the effort in Virginia. Lincoln's support for Grant hurt him in a critical election year because of the General's unconventional ideas about warfare and his reputation as a drunk. But Lincoln would not give in to public demands to replace him. 'I can't spare this man,' Lincoln insisted, 'He fights!' At the start of 1864, Grant was still in command. But after this lesson, maybe you'll see what I mean about his tactics.

In early 1864, most of the original Anaconda Plan had been accomplished:

  1. The naval blockade of the South nearly eliminated income from cotton sales and drastically reduced the importation of war supplies.
  2. The entire length of the Mississippi River was under Union control.
  3. The Tennessee River Valley was secure. The army was ready to move on towards Georgia.

All that remained was capturing Richmond, VA, the capital of the Confederacy. General Grant devised a two-pronged offensive. (1) Move the Western army through the heart of the South towards the sea, destroying everything in its path. And at the same time, (2) defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee once and for all in Virginia. The two armies would then meet up to capture Richmond. He put General William T. Sherman in command of the Western Theater while he took charge of the East himself. We'll talk about Sherman's campaign in another lesson. For now, let's look at Grant's Overland Campaign in the East.

This was one of many battles designed by Grant to maximize confederate troop casualties.
Battle of the Wilderness Picture

The Overland Campaign

Initially, Lincoln and Grant together had devised three separate movements in the East. But two of the generals failed in their tasks, leaving Grant with General Meade (who had presided over the Battle of Gettysburg) to do the entire job themselves. Their first major engagement was in the Wilderness, north of Richmond, where Grant fought Lee's army for three days. There was no definitive winner, and the North lost many more men than the South. But Grant's goal wasn't necessarily to win the battle - he was trying to win a war of attrition. See, Grant could replace his lost men; Lee couldn't. So Grant continued to engage Lee's army throughout the month of May almost continually - racking up an estimated 50,000 casualties that month! The American public started calling General Grant 'the Butcher.'

In June 1864, Grant realized that if he could defeat the Southern troops around Cold Harbor, VA, nothing would stand between him and Richmond. But while Grant waited for reinforcements, General Lee dug trenches and fortified his line. When Grant finally launched a frontal assault, he suffered thousands of casualties in the first half hour of battle. His surviving men hastily entrenched with bayonets and water cups. During a 4-day stalemate, as many as 10,000 wounded Union soldiers remained on the battlefield in the hot sun without attention, most of who died and were buried where they lay at a later date. Over 13 days total, the Confederacy lost, at most, 1500. Cold Harbor was a clear Southern victory that Grant regretted for the rest of his life, but General Lee was trapped. He spent the rest of the war in defense of Richmond.

Trench warfare helped the Confederacy defend themselves against the Union Army.
General Lee Trenches

Grant retreated from Cold Harbor and snuck across the James River. Once again, he rescued a failed general and took the combined force on to Petersburg, which guarded and supplied Richmond. An unsuccessful Union attack led to ten months of trench warfare, beginning in June. Though many Northern citizens were frustrated with Grant for sitting still, he wasn't really sitting still. He actually tried many creative (though unsuccessful) attempts to destroy the enemy's trenches, including tunneling under them and setting off explosions. After continually stretching his lines around and forcing Lee to do the same, Grant brought in a giant 17,000 pound rail-mounted mortar, called 'the Dictator', to blast the Confederate trenches. That tactic was finally successful in capturing the city the next spring.

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