Grant's Overland Campaign: History & Summary

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Overland Campaign took place in May and June 1864. It ended with Union forces beginning the siege of Petersburg and was the bloodiest campaign of the war with more than 80,000 casualties.


The Overland Campaign was, in many ways, one of the most important campaigns of the war. It featured Ulysses S. Grant going head to head against Robert E. Lee. In the span of just a few weeks, well more than 80,000 men fell as casualties in the bloodiest campaign of the war. By late June, the campaign evolved into trench warfare, and the siege of Petersburg began. The campaign reminds us of how truly terrible war can be. Let's learn more about this harrowing campaign.

Beginning of the Overland Campaign

1864 was the deadliest year of the American Civil War. Early that year, in an attempt to gain the upper hand, the U.S. Congress revived the rank of Lieutenant General, a rank that had previously only been held by George Washington. That March, Ulysses S. Grant was given the coveted rank. Grant would assume command of all Federal armies, guiding them toward the common goal of destroying Confederate forces. Due to his new rank, Grant came to the East to oversee the fight against Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee's army had persevered against numerous Union generals for several years, and Grant believed he could finally destroy Lee's famous Army of Northern Virginia.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant during the 1864 Overland Campaign

In Virginia, Grant would be in the field to oversee Major General George Meade and the Union Army of the Potomac (Meade took command of this army in June 1863; while Grant oversaw the campaign against Lee, Meade remained in command of the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war). Grant's strategy would be to press toward Richmond, the Confederate capital. Rather than going by sea, as George McClellan had done in 1862, Grant and Meade would move through Virginia, giving the campaign its name of 'Overland.' While McClellan's 1862 attempt had minimized casualties in getting close to the Confederate capital, it had ultimately failed. Grant's approach would likely bring more casualties, but his firm resolve meant that Union forces would press on regardless of the loss. Grant knew he had more men to spare than did Lee's Confederate army. Thus, he was more willing to stomach the catastrophic losses that an overland approach against the Confederate capital would bring.

During the Overland Campaign, Grant had a strong numerical advantage over Lee. At the start, the Army of the Potomac numbered more than 110,000 men. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was just less than 70,000 strong.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

May 1864

The bloodshed began on May 5, 1864. After crossing the Rapidan River, Grant wanted to force Lee out of his winter fortifications to fight. Lee moved forward and quickly attacked Grant near the site of the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. This fight took place in a dense forest; it was called, appropriately enough, the Battle of the Wilderness. With underbrush, trees, and difficult terrain, Union forces had a difficult time bringing their superior numbers and artillery to bear against the Confederates. On May 5, 6, and 7, the two armies were engaged in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Fires in the forest burned wounded soldiers alive, and confusion reigned supreme. During those three days, there were more than 26,000 casualties (casualties are those listed as killed, wounded, or missing/captured).

On May 7, while the fighting still continued, Grant decided to try to flank Lee. He tried to move toward Spotsylvania Court House, hoping to get between Lee and Richmond. While Grant had the right idea, Lee moved too quickly to be outflanked. By May 8, Lee's army had arrived at Spotsylvania, taking up defensive positions before the Federals arrived. That day, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House began. While the dead and dying still littered the Wilderness battlefield, Lee's army dug in and began fending off Federal assaults. The biggest and most famous attack at Spotsylvania came on May 12 when Federal troops amassed to attack a salient on Lee's line, known as the Mule Shoe. For 24 hours, the fight of the Mule Shoe raged with fierce hand-to-hand combat, adding nearly 17,000 men to the casualty list. This fight is known in history as one of the most brutal of the entire Civil War. By the end of the nearly two-week battle of Spotsylvania, there were about 30,000 combined casualties added to the campaign's toll. Added with the loss in the Wilderness, more than 50,000 men had fallen in just a few weeks' time.

While the fighting raged at Spotsylvania, Union cavalry led by Major General Phillip Sheridan made a bold move toward Richmond to engage Confederate cavalry under Major General Jeb Stuart. On May 11, the Battle of Yellow Tavern was fought. During this fight, Stuart was mortally wounded. His death was a stunning blow for Lee and the Confederacy.

By May 20, Grant had decided once again to try his maneuver. He began an advance toward the North Anna River. Several more days of fighting occurred near this river, weakening the armies even further. By May 27, Grant decided to swing to the east, moving toward the Pamunkey River. For each one of these maneuvers, Grant was pushing farther and farther south. By the end of May, he was moving dangerously close to the Confederate capital of Richmond.

June 1864

By the end of May, Grant and Meade had reached Cold Harbor, several miles north of Richmond. At this point, Union and Confederate forces were each a shell of their former strengths as a result of casualties and expiring enlistments. At Cold Harbor, the campaign's pattern of frontal assaults and slaughter continued. While the fighting at Cold Harbor raged for several days, it is perhaps best remembered for the assault on the morning of June 3. By noon that day, after a massive attack, there were as many as 7,000 Union casualties. After this assault, the fight at Cold Harbor bogged down into trench warfare, as would most of the fighting for the remainder of 1864.

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