Overland Campaign (May 5-June 24, 1864)

Also Known As: Wilderness Campaign

Updated: April 20, 2014

The Overland Campaign, also known as the Wilderness Campaign, was a Union offensive launched in May 1864, intended to defeat Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and to bring an end to the American Civil War. The campaign, designed by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, was the bloodiest of the war.

On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked their own timidity, Grant was tenacious. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant's focused on defeating Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long he was persistently engaged.

On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. The Wilderness was a tangled area of dense forest and undergrowth that had hampered the maneuverability of Federal forces during previous Union defeats at Fredericksburg (December 11 to 15, 1862) and Chancellorsville (April 30 to May 6, 1863). Major General George Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, but as General-in-Chief of the Armies, Grant chose to accompany Meade's army in the field so that he could personally supervise overall campaign operations. Grant hoped to use the Wilderness to screen his operations, but he also planned to pass through it before it impeded the Union army as it had done before. Hoping to see history repeat itself, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hastened to engage the Federals before they could escape the Wilderness. On May 5 and 6, the two armies met along the two plank roads that passed through the tangled forest. The Battle of the Wilderness was one of the more gruesome engagements of the war, as raging fires in the thick undergrowth burned many of the wounded soldiers to death. When the battle ended, Grant had suffered the same fate as Pope and Hooker before him. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade's army, while suffering only about 7,800 casualties himself. Unlike his predecessors, however, Grant did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to move his army deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.

Lee recognized the critical consequences of allowing Grant to position Meade's army between Lee's army and Richmond. Thus, on May 8, the race was on to Spotsylvania. Unfortunately for the Federals, the Rebels reached the community first, enabling them to establish superior defensive positions. From May 8 through May 21, the two armies built networks of complex trenches and engaged in a series of give-and-take battles around Spotsylvania that again resulted in high casualties. On May 12 and 13, a Union attack at a place known as the Bloody Angle nearly split Lee's army in half, but the Confederates regrouped and repulsed the Federals in a fight that continued for nearly twenty hours. Unable to break Lee's lines, Grant disengaged once more and ordered Meade to move his army southeast on May 21.

Lee responded by moving his army in the same direction, and the two armies raced for the North Anna River. Again, the Army of Northern Virginia was quicker and arrived on the south side of the river in time to impede a Federal crossing. Eventually, Meade's army was able to force its way across the river at two places, but they were walking into a trap. Lee had positioned his army in an inverted "V" formation, between the two crossings, with the tip at the river. The formation would enable Lee's army to fight a holding action on one side of the "V" while attacking on the other side. Fortunately for the Federals, Lee took ill, and the trap was never sprung. Upon realizing his tenuous position, Grant had the army temporarily entrench and then march off to the southeast once again.

Grant's next objective was Cold Harbor, where he intended to link up with Union troops from the Army of the James. Again, Lee anticipated Grant's move, and he ordered his cavalry to hold Cold Harbor until his infantry arrived. On May 31, General Philip Sheridan's Union cavalry seized the vital crossroads at Cold Harbor from the Confederates. The next day, Sheridan repulsed a counterattack by Rebel infantry trying to recover the position. By June 2, both armies had arrived at Cold Harbor and were entrenched along a front that extended for seven miles. On June 3, Grant ordered an ill-advised frontal assault on the Confederate lines and lost nearly 7,000 men, compared with 1,500 Rebel casualties. Grant later commented in his memoirs that this was the only attack that he wished he had never ordered. For the next ten days, the two armies continued to confront each other, until Grant abandoned his strategy of attacking Lee's army. On June 12, Grant evacuated Cold Harbor and moved Meade's army across the James River to begin an assault on Petersburg, a crucial supply depot for Richmond and Lee's army, which was located south of Richmond. The last official action of the campaign took place when Rebel and Federal cavalry units skirmished near St. Mary's Church in Charles City, on June 24.

Ohio units that participated in the Overland Campaign included:

Infantry units:

  • 4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 8th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 60th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 110th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 122nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
  • 126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Artillery units:

  • Battery H, 1st Ohio Light Artillery Regiment

Cavalry units:

  • 2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
  • 6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

The Overland Campaign was a strategic success for the North. By pounding at the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant hindered Southern efforts to send reinforcements to halt the other Union campaigns of Philip Sheridan in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and William T. Sherman in Georgia. In addition, although the Federals suffered higher casualties (39,000 to 31,500), the Confederacy was not able to replace their losses as readily as the North. Finally, by threatening Petersburg and, ultimately, Richmond, Grant tied down the Army of Northern Virginia, limiting Lee's military options for the remainder of the war. Despite the strategic success of the Overland Campaign however, it was not without its critics. High casualty rates and horrific battle conditions shocked war-weary Northerners. Some began to refer to Grant as a butcher, whose strategy of winning by attrition exacted too high of a toll in human life. The mounting losses provided ammunition for Peace Democrats intent on defeating Lincoln in his reelection bid in 1864. Many critics were quieted by the fall however, as Grant's strategy facilitated Sheridan's and Sherman's successful campaigns, securing the President's reelection and enhancing prospects for restoring the Union.

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"Overland Campaign," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 28 Jun 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=202>

APA Style

"Overland Campaign." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved June 28, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=202

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Ohio Civil War Central: An Encyclopedia of the American Civil War