“The Overland Campaign”
Written by Ned Lodwick, U.S. Grant Homestead Association
Gen. Grant watches as his army ‘steals a march’ on Gen. Lee’s Confederates by crossing the James River the longest pontoon bridge up to that time.
Gen. Grant’s troops fought at Spotsylvania Courthouse from May 8-20, 1864. This time the Confederates dug in and fought behind strong defensive positions. Now the Union forces had to cross open fields of fire in a hope of breaking through. Wave after wave of Federal assaults were repelled until Ulysses pulled his army back and moved to the south again to try and get around the Confederate right flank.
A reporter asked Ulysses how long it would take to get to Richmond. Ulysses replied, “I will agree to be there in about four days.” Then with a smile he added, “That is if Gen. Lee becomes a party to the agreement, but if he objects, the trip will undoubtedly be prolonged.”
Ulysses wrote a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in which he included the line, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” This declaration proved to Washington D.C. critics that once Grant set a goal he was going to achieve it. President Lincoln said, “I am his man and he is mine until the end of the war.”
Everyone around the General saw that he was more than ever a man that was not going to turn back. Col. Theodore Lyman of Gen. Meade’s staff said, “Grant habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.” Col. Horace Porter of Grant’s staff added, “There is a spur on the heel of every order Grant sent, and his subordinates were made to realize that in battle it is the minutes that control events.”
Even Gen. Lee realized things had changed with the Army of the Potomac. Those who thought Grant’s success in the West was because he had not yet faced Lee’s armies didn’t consider that Lee’s successes were before he faced off against Grant. Now, Lee had seen Ulysses in action for a little over three weeks and said, “I don’t understand this man, I have beaten him five days in a row and still he moves forward.”
Grant would have answered him by telling Lee his theory of war, “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” This is exactly what continued to happen. The armies sidestepped from Spotsylvania to the North Anna then to Cold Harbor. Each time Ulysses tried to out flank Lee to the south it seemed as though the Confederates had a copy of the plans and were in force behind strong breastworks before the Union forces could reach their objective.
The night of June 13, 1864 was going to change all of that and the face of the war in the East. Gen. Lee was sure that Grant’s southward movements were over because the Union left (southern) flank was on the northern bank of the half mile wide James River. As an engineer, Gen. Lee knew that no temporary bridge had ever been built across a river that wide. Ulysses had done nothing to make Lee think differently. Union cavalry raids had been sent deep into Confederate territory but always to the north of the main Union forces seemingly looking for a weak spot this time on Lee’s left. It looked as though Grant may try to get behind Lee this time by moving back toward Washington on the left flank.
All of this deception worked. Union engineers completed a 13 foot wide, 2,100 foot long pontoon bridge in one night over the James River. The 115,000 men of the Army of the Potomac slipped away so silently and the few regiments left behind to cover the move were so convincing that the Confederates didn’t realize the Federals were gone for two days. By the time Gen. Lee realized Grant had ‘stolen a march’ nearly the entire Army of the Potomac was on the southern bank of the James. One hundred thousand infantry, eight thousand cavalry, two hundred artillery pieces and crews, hundreds of supply wagons, and a cattle herd of thirty five hundred head had all crossed the bridge.
Gen. Grant was not one to shy away from a fight but he knew the value of maneuver. Now, Ulysses was back in his environment, able to maneuver and strike the enemy where they did not expect.
The dedication of the U.S. Grant ‘Native Son’ statue at the Courthouse Square in Georgetown, Ohio will be held on August 25th, 2012 at noon. The public is invited and asked to bring their chair.