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

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  1. 0:05 General Grant Takes Control
  2. 2:15 The Overland Campaign
  3. 4:53 Other Actions in 1864
  4. 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

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.

Other Actions in 1864

Meanwhile, Grant kept Lee occupied for ten months, allowing Sherman to advance nearly unopposed on his destructive march through Georgia. Also during the siege, Grant dealt with a pesky force of detached Confederate soldiers that came within five miles of Washington D.C. in the Shenandoah Valley. When he dispatched the cavalry to catch them, the guerrillas retaliated. Furious, Grant ordered a 'scorched earth policy' to destroy farms that had been supplying the southern army and suggested his most unorthodox solution yet - take the Confederates' families hostage. Then, when the soldiers surrendered, hang them immediately. Though very few Confederates were, in fact, executed, the threat was effective and the Valley was somewhat pacified.

Many questioned the harsh tactics used by Grant during the war.
Grant Scorched Earth Policy

It was just this sort of un-gentlemanly behavior that made the public wary of Grant. And it was just this sort of behavior that led Lincoln to believe Grant was finally the man to win the war. He was right.

Lesson Summary

At the beginning of 1864, Lincoln named General Ulysses S. Grant as the commander of the Union forces, a move that concerned some of Lincoln's own supporters. Grant got straight to work on accomplishing the fourth point of the Anaconda Plan: capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond. First, he directed General William T. Sherman to destroy the South's infrastructure as he marched to the sea. Meanwhile, Grant would go back east and get General Lee. Then they would take Richmond.

Grant's plan in the East involved three separate offensives, but two of the three failed. Grant and General Meade pursued a war of attrition against the South, suffering heavy casualties in the Wilderness campaign and Cold Harbor. Grant slipped across the James River and began a siege of Petersburg that lasted ten months, despite numerous attempts to break through. Meanwhile, Sherman plowed through the heart of the South and the cavalry finally put an end to guerilla fighters in the Shenandoah Valley.

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