FOUNDATIONS OF GRANT’S OVERLAND CAMPAIGN OF 1864
©2016 Jim Werbaneth
When Ulysses S. Grant commenced the Overland Campaign in May 1864, his strategy was based upon a sound logistical foundation. The Army of the Potomac consisted of upwards of 125,000 fighting soldiers; with an army this size, there was no room for logistical improvisation. Furthermore, Grant’s logistical choices had to be made in the context of his mission, which was to engage and defeat the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant’s orders to George Gordon Meade and the Army of the Potomac were summed up in two simple sentences: “Lee's Army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes there you will go also." Then Grant accompanied Meade and his army to make sure that Robert E. Lee’s host remained the center of gravity, and also to stay away from the distractions of Washington.
The Army of the Potomac had to be fed and sustained in this mission, and Grant could not do this through foraging, as he did in the Vicksburg Campaign the year before. Further, one of the early lessons of that campaign, especially when the Confederate commander Earl Van Dorn derailed Grant’s army by destroying his supply base at Holly Springs, was that the danger to supply lines increased with their length.
Therefore it was in the interest of the Army of the Potomac, heading into the Overland Campaign, to shorten its supply lines as much as possible. Further, Grant had to maintain a more conventional approach than he had in the final drive on Vicksburg. While he was dedicated to the strategic offensive, he had to plan the campaign restrained by logistical considerations. It is indicative of his flexibility was well as determination to stay on the attack that he made the decisions that he did.
Grant had two options for the campaign. The first was to make a more easterly advance, which would take the Army of the Potomac through the Wilderness, on a more direct advance toward Richmond. The second was a more westerly move, avoiding the Wilderness, but extending the Union supply lines. Further, the eastern option had the attraction of being closer to Chesapeake Bay, and had the potential of drawing upon seaborne supply rather than the vulnerable railroads. Thus the Army of the Potomac would be able to drawn upon the prodigious Union sealift capability and even shorter and more secure supply lines.
In the end, Grant chose the eastern option. This entailed tactical risk through movement into the Wilderness, a hazard that Lee exploited by attacking the Army of the Potomac there. However, this route carried fewer risks to the Union supply lines. Therefore Grant accepted greater risks on the battlefield in exchange for reducing those to his logistics. Furthermore, by adopting this option, Grant raised the probability that the Army of the Potomac would attempt to flank the Confederate army, and Richmond, from the east in 1864. Thus logistical considerations, more than the purely strategic and operational, dictated the course of the Overland Campaign and the advance to Petersburg in 1864.
PREQUEL IN THE WEST
The Overland Campaign was the culmination of Grant’s career to date, and the deciding episode of the Civil War in the East. When it ended Richmond remained in Confederate hands and the Army of Northern Virginia was in the field, but besieged south of Petersburg. With its mobility negated and without the ability to take the initiative against the Army of the Potomac, Lee’s force was backed into a nearly hopeless corner; sooner or later, the Union would be able to force Lee into overextending his units, and deliver a death blow that would force his army to retreat, and yield both the critical rail junction of Petersburg and the rebel capital at Richmond. Reflecting both is essential aggressiveness and anticipating that a stalemate would doom his army, Lee told Jubal Early in July, before Grant left his positions at Cold Harbor: “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Indeed it was, and though it took months of trench warfare punctuated by hard fighting around Petersburg. But April 1 1865, that “mere question of time” ran out, and troops under Philip Sheridan turned the Confederate flank at Five Forks. Thus both armies set off on the road to Appomattox.
Grant’s path to the Overland Campaign, the eventual final victory over the Army of Northern Virginia the next year, starts with his earlier campaigns in the West. There, Union logistics were dependent on two types of communications lines, railroads and rivers. Further, distances between opposing armies, and territorial objectives, tended to be longer than in the east, with more room to maneuver. With longer supply lines, there was more opportunity to interdict them, as demonstrated by Van Dorn’s attack on Holly Springs. However, when supplies and transport went by river rather than rail or wagon, the lines of communications were more secure; it really took a fort and emplaced artillery to denial passage to riverine units, and the most impressive posts could be passed, as eventually happened at Vicksburg on the night of 16 April 1863. Further, ships on the rivers could not just exercise control of them for friendly forces, but interdict enemy land lines of communication and supply, where they intersected with rivers. For example, before Grant’s move against Fort Donelson, on 7 February 1862, the gunboat USS Carondelet and a company of troops steamed up the Tennessee River to destroy a bridge bearing the Memphis and Bowling Green Railroad.
Rivers, especially the Tennessee and Mississippi, were critical to the war in the West, as objectives and avenues of movement. As a result, there was a need for combined operations and amphibious warfare. In the West, this was geared toward penetrating the Confederacy along river lines, while in the East, George B. McClellan tapped the North’s naval and sealift capabilities to launch is Peninsular Campaign, all in accordance with Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Therefore the integration of ground and naval power was far from a surprising development, and was actually essential to Union strategy from the very beginning.
All of Ulysses S. Grant’s campaigns in the West were dictated in large part by logistical considerations. It was not enough to bring a Union army to bear on an objective or defeat the Confederates; his forces had to be supplied, and that could not be taken for granted. Most of the time too, river transport was essential, at least as important as that over railroads, or by wagon via the road network. This started with the campaign for Forts Henry and Donelson, in which the objectives were control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to facilitate an invasion of Tennessee and, secondarily, make the Confederate positions at Bowling Green, Kentucky untenable. Therefore the objectives were not simply a pair of forts, control of the supply lines into the Confederacy.
In the Union drive that led to the Battle of Shiloh, the Tennessee River was the axis of advance. When it became clear to Grant that Albert Sydney Johnston was indeed attacking at Pittsburg Landing, one of his first decisions was to strip the troops defending Crump’s Landing, where his supplies and transports were sited, to reinforce the battle five miles to the west. Accordingly he called the division of Lew Wallace from Crump’s to move to Pittsburg, an order that was unfortunately misunderstood, delaying Wallace’s arrival. This time, Grant made a calculated logistical risk in order to address a compelling tactical crisis.
The apotheosis of Grant’s logistical reasoning in the West was in the Vicksburg Campaign. The city of Vicksburg, Mississippi was the last obstacle to Union control of the Mississippi River, and that river was also crucial to supplying his army. Further, Grant demonstrated a high level of imagination to do the impossible, which was to supply his troops through foraging, in effect a return to Napoleonic practices, while cutting himself off from both the advantages and vulnerabilities of supply depots and lines of communication. It was a supremely bold move, and yet one that was extremely effective.
Grant’s plan was to move two corps of about 17,000 men to the west bank of the Mississippi, and march it down below Vicksburg. To support them, the Navy’s riverine fleet and transports under David Dixon Porter would run past the city and its batteries at night, and meet Grant, in order to transfer his army back to the eastern side of the river, and support it as it drove north, and then back west toward the objective. A third corps, under Sherman, would follow. Grant counted on the ability of Mississippi to feed his army, while other supplies were borne on Porter’s transports. If it worked, then Grant’s Army of the Tennessee would be able to move without the hindrance of extensive supply trains, or vulnerable lines of communication that enemy cavalry could cut.
Grant was not prone to soliciting advice or trying to win others to his views, but he did consult two officers whom he trusted most, his corps commanders Sherman and James B. McPherson, objected to the risk. In his memoirs, Sherman states that he never lodged an actual protest to Grant’s plan, but rather his objections were the culmination of informal talks. Furthermore, Sherman relates that after the war, Grant told him that if the latter had experience at operating without the benefit of a regular logistical base, he would not have turned back from Vicksburg upon the destruction of his depot at Holly Springs. As it was, in April 1863 Sherman recommended a more conventional approach of withdrawing to Memphis, capturing Granada, Mississippi, and starting over with an overland march.
Grant’s judgment, and his calculated risk, was vindicated by his success in forcing the surrender of Vicksburg on 4 July 1863. Not only was the victory Grant’s, according to Sherman, but so were the details. According to Sherman:
The campaign of Vicksburg, in its conception and execution, belonged exclusively to General Grant, not only in the great whole, but in the thousands of details. I still retain many of his letters and notes, all in his own handwriting, prescribing the routes of march for divisions and detachments, specifying even the amount of food and tools be to carried along.
This is not simply the frank allocation of general credit by a friend and devoted subordinate. It sheds light on Grant’s attention to detail the Vicksburg Campaign, including the finer points of logistics.
DECISIONS IN THE EAST
When Grant came east, he found an entirely different situation facing the Army of the Potomac than he had out west. Geographically, the theater was much more constricted, bounded by the Blue Ridge in the West and the Potomac estuary and Chesapeake Bay in the East. There simply was not the room for lateral movement as in the West. For example, the final stage of the Vicksburg Campaign involved a deep penetration along the Mississippi, and then a wide march eastward, as far as Jackson, before rebounding toward Vicksburg. There was no room for such sweeping movement in the East. Any flanking move would be a “small solution,” rather than the “large solutions” possible to the west.
Secondly, there was a virtual absence of navigable rivers that could bear supplies or armies. Any movement inland from Chesapeake Bay or the lower Potomac had to be along roads. What rivers passed through the area tended to run from west to east, and were more likely to be obstacles than avenues for an invading army. Thus there was little opportunity to use riverine gunboats and transports, let alone to the degree that Grant had at Henry and Donelson, and especially Vicksburg. In the West, Grant’s campaigns at Forts Donelson and Henry, Shiloh had been defined in large part by rivers. Moreover, he had forged a close partnership with the Navy, and especially David Dixon Porter. Despite an inauspicious beginning, Grant and Porter formed a productive partnership, and at Vicksburg especially, made combined operations a key Union strength. It is hard to imagine Vicksburg ever falling without effective use of the Navy, despite Sherman’s advocacy of an overland approach. In the East, there was simply no chance to employ riverine forces in any way resembling those in the West.
The correlation of forces in the East was far different too. In the first battle of the Overland Campaign, the Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac had 101,895 men, exclusive of cavalry, engaged. When Grant concentrated his Army of Tennessee for his first assaults on Vicksburg in on 22 and 23 May 1862, he had about 45,000 infantry engaged. He had more soldiers available in the November 1863 battle at Chattanooga, with 56,359 in action. Therefore he could muster about twice as many soldiers to fight Lee than he had against John Pemberton, Joseph Johnston, or Braxton Bragg.
Regardless of whether Grant attacked Lee via an easterly or western approach, at least the first phases of his 1864 campaign would have to rely on road supply by wagons. Additionally, war in the East would be sure to take on a more attritional nature than that in the West. There would be more troops attacking in a narrower theater, with less opportunity for defeating the Confederates by sweeping movement. At the same time, the Army of the Potomac’s mission to engage the Army of Northern Virginia ― “Lee's Army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes there you will go also”― severely reduced the value of going where the Confederates were not.
Grant was aided by a two logistical factors. First, the railroads in the area had been dramatically improved since the start of the war. In November 1862, for example, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad could supply about 40,000 men. Then when Meade and Lee were maneuvering in the area after Gettysburg, Union estimates were that it could have supplied upwards of 300,000. Additionally, while Virginia lacked the deeply penetrating, navigable rivers of the West, there was a coastline with plenty of creeks and estuaries where cargo could be landed. Most important of them was City Point on the James River, the chief supply nexus for the siege of Petersburg. Initially it could be supplied only from the sea, and then rail transport joined it to the North. Finally, the Army of the Potomac’s logistical capacity and its mobility too were assisted by a series of reforms and expansions of its own assets since the start of hostilities. It began the 1864 campaign with more than enough draft animals and wagons; there were counted 3,500 wagons and 29,650 horses and 53,343 mules, a standard that Grant had ordained for the Army of the Tennessee before he was promoted and moved east. The wagons were marked and organized according to unit and cargo too, leading Grant to comment that “There never was a corps better organized than was the quartermaster’s corps of the Army of the Potomac in 1864.” Ultimately, a combination of rail infrastructure, army-level transport, and the proximity of the coast combined to sustain the Army of the Potomac in 1864. However, had Grant elected to take a more westerly route toward engaging the Army of Northern Virginia, those coastal landing spots would have been largely out of reach, and the railroads and wagon trains more vulnerable to enemy cavalry.
As formidable as the Army of the Potomac’s logistical system was under the command of Rufus Ingalls, Grant was still reluctant to trust the Army of the Potomac’s supply mission to wagons alone, saying that this was “nearly impossible.” Fortunately for him, the Union had uncontestable control of Virginia’s coastal waters, and thus the ability to land supplies at will. Therefore there were strong reasons for Grant to take the eastern route, where the Navy provided the option of either augmenting landbound supply, or largely replacing it. Grant might not be able to replace completely the long lines of wagons that sustained his and Meade’s army, but he could shorten and secure them.
As for forage, this was not much of an option. Both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had been operating in the area since 1862, and Virginia’s resources were taxed to the utmost. The year earlier, in fact, the need to move the war out of war-ravaged Virginia into the North had been one of the reasons for Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, ending at Gettysburg. There is no reason to believe that Virginia was in any better shape with Grant crossing the Rappahannock the next spring.
One can view Grant’s approach to logistics as following two primary models. The Vicksburg model was one relying on long navigable rivers for transportation of both troops and supplies. At least equally important, it involved a casting off of the ties of traditional lines of communication, foraging for food, if not for other supplies; ammunition and medicine do not grow on even the best of farms. But Grant, and albeit reluctantly Sherman, found that Mississippi could feed the Union army.
The Overland Campaign model was one that relied more on traditional depots and lines of communication. The army that it sustained was more than twice as large at its peak, in a much different, more confined area, lacking really useful rivers. However, Virginia lent itself to supply from the sea. As practiced by Grant, it ended up as a hybrid between reliance on a wagon trains connecting the army to depots, much unlike the Vicksburg Campaign, and naval supply. It required structure and organization, which Rufus Ingalls provided ably, and a commitment to cooperation and reliance upon the Navy. There was a measure of improvisation with the Vicksburg model, but none whatsoever with that of the Overland Campaign.
Grant’s decision to take the eastern route, and the availability of seaborne supply, were factors in the drift of the action eastward. When Grant tried to flank the Confederates, it was on the whole to south and the east, first from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, and then to Cold Harbor. Then the Army of the Potomac skirted Richmond and move east of it, crossing the lower James River and assaulting Petersburg unsuccessfully from 15 to 18 June. Significantly, this all followed an easterly path, as the Army of the Potomac passed between Richmond and Chesapeake Bay, before marching southeast of the city to attack Petersburg.
From a logistical point of view, this made sense, and took advantage of a critical Union advantage. In most campaigns, as an army advances, its supply lines extend and become more tenuous, not just from possible enemy action, but the need to devote resources to maintaining them. In the Overland Campaign, especially after Cold Harbor, the Union advance actually carried the potential of shortening those supply lines, as the Army of the Potomac closed the distance between it and the coast. Grant was in the rare position of actually securing his logistics as he penetrated deeper into enemy territory. Thus Grant was able to maintain the initiative and his advantages in manpower over Lee, without a diminishing overall logistical situation. When the armies settled in for attritional trench warfare at Petersburg, the Army of the Potomac was well-sited to be supplied by sea, and then by rail, to City Point.
In the end, the Union effort in the
Overland Campaign was largely decided by, and sustained by, Grant’s
He had an impressive, even
excessive, capacity for rail and wagon-borne supply, and he took
full advantage of it.
Moreover, Grant saw the
possibility cooperating with the fleet, not exactly as he had in
Vicksburg, but in a new way, with supplies coming from the sea
rather than the rivers.
Finally, he showed that he was not
bound by previous experience; the lessons of Vicksburg could not,
and were not, overextended to dictate the campaign against Lee a
Boatner, Mark M., III. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: David McKay, 1983.
“Bruinsburg Crossing (April 30-May 1). Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi. http://www.nps.gov/vick/learn/historyculture/bruincross.htm. accessed 22 December 2015.
Dowdey, Clifford. Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant ―1864. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1988.
Esposito, Brigadier General Vincent J. (ed.). The West Point Atlas of War: The Civil War. New York: Tess Press, 1995.
Glatthaar, Joseph T. Partners in Command: The Relationships Between Leaders in the Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1994.
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant and Selected Letters. New York: Library of America, 1990.
Hagerman, Edward. The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
“Lee and Grant ―The Civil War.”
The Virginia Historical Society.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Perrett, Geoffrey. Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President. New York: Modern Library, 1997.
Sherman, William Tecumseh. Memoirs of General Sherman. New York: Library of America, 1990.
Underwood, Robert Johnson and Clough, Clarence (ed.). Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I. New York: The Century Company, 1887. https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/battles. accessed 20 December 2015.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of
the Union and
Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 36,
Woodworth, Steven. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990).
 Clifford Dowdey, Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant ― 1864 (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1988), 54.
 “Lee and Grant ― The Civil War,” The Virginia Historical Society, http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/lee-and-grant/civil-war. accessed 20 December 2015.
 Joseph T. Glatthaar, Partners in Command: The Relationships Between Leaders in the Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 207.
 Steven Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990), 184.
 Dowdey, 355.
 Mark M. Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary (New York: David McKay, 1988), 282-284.
 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 627.
 Rear Admiral Henry Walke, USN, “The Western Flotilla at Fort Donelson, Island Number 10, Fort Pillow and Memphis,” in Robert Johnson Underwood and Clarence Clough (ed.), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I (New York: The Century Company, 1887), 430. The Ohio State University Online Books Section, https://ehistory.osu.edu/books/battles/vol1/430. accessed 20 December 2015.
 Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 67-68.
 Boatner, 394.
 Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant and Selected Letters, Volume I (New York: Library of America, 1990), 266.
 “Bruinsburg Crossing (April 30-May 1),” Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi, http://www.nps.gov/vick/learn/historyculture/bruincross.htm. accessed 22 December 2015.
 McPherson, 626-627.
 William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of General Sherman (New York: Library of America, 1990), 343.
 McPherson, 627.
 Sherman, 343.
 Geoffrey Perret, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (New York: Modern Library, 1997), 251.
 Sherman, 359.
 Glatthaar, 163-164.
 Boatner, 925.
 Ibid., 876.
 Ibid., 147.
 Hagerman, 77.
 Ibid., 247.
 The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 36, Part II (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891), 355, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;idno=waro0068;node=waro0068%3A2;view=image;seq=357;size=100;page=root. accessed 23 December 2015.
 Hagerman, 248.
 Grant, Volume II, 523.
 Ibid., 476.
 McPherson, 647.
 Boatner, 644-646.
 Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito (ed.), The West Point Atlas of War: The Civil War (New York: Tess Press, 1995), 133.