Consistent with every other battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s career that left him with a discouraging result, he had drawn up a plan to avenge the disaster at Cold Harbor and put the Confederates on their heels.
The underlying purpose of the plan was to thinly spread the outnumbered rebels, and to do so, he sent Franz Sigel’s men (then led by David Hunter) into the Shenandoah Valley with the goal of destroying railroads and taking a Confederate supply depot at Lynchburg before moving toward Richmond and cutting off the James River Canal and railroads from rebel use.[i] Meanwhile, Philip Sheridan had the responsibility of taking two cavalry divisions westward to dismantle railroads and then move south of Richmond to rejoin Grant and the Army of the Potomac.[ii] With his men on the move, Grant prepared to move on Petersburg, which served as a hub for southern railroads, as it would virtually guarantee Robert E. Lee and his men being forced into the open.[iii] Without the benefit of intricate fortifications, the inferior rebel numbers were far more likely to face defeat in open combat.
Neither Hunter nor Sheridan had the rousing success that their commander had hoped for: Hunter first ran into a group of Mosby’s raiders—men who had armed themselves “with anything that comes handy” and would kill small bands of federal troops only to hide their arms and go into hiding without a trace—but then faced Confederate resistance in numbers equal to his at Lynchburg.[iv] Hunter brought his men into a retreat westward; a move that, despite his rationalizations for the rest of the war, would bring him demotion.[v] Sheridan’s 7,000 men soon faced 5,000 of Lee’s mounted rebels in the bloodiest cavalry action of the war (that left casualties around twenty percent to both sides) and resulted in Sheridan and his men eradicating railroads that days later southerners were repairing in the absence of their adversaries.[vi]
With Grant’s plan foiled elsewhere, the Army of the Potomac’s move toward Petersburg on June 14, 1864 took on even more importance for the federals. By the following day, he had two corps approaching Petersburg which was guarded by P.G.T. Beauregard and 2,500 rebels—as Lee “remained puzzled for several days about Grant’s intentions.”[vii] William F. “Baldy” Smith commanded the two corps, and without realizing that his men were against a “scratch force,” he viewed the “ten miles of twenty-foot thick breastworks and trenches fronted by fifteen-foot ditches and linking fifty-five artillery redans bristling with cannons” as cause for concern in light of the result at Cold Harbor (which had less intimidating fortifications).[viii] Smith held his men and did not attack until near sundown which quickly led Union men to take “more than a mile of line and sixteen guns.”[ix] Beauregard wrote after the war, “Petersburg at that hour was clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander, who had all but captured it.”[x] Realizing that “Petersburg’s fate was Richmond’s,” Lee determined that it was time for he and his men to move to Petersburg and reinforce Beauregard.[xi]
Within the following two days, both sides had received sufficient reinforcements to gain confidence, but by June 18, Grant and Lee had moved tens of thousands additional troops to Petersburg.[xii] While the federals made an advance and pushed Beauregard’s line back and caused him to proclaim that “the last hour of the Confederacy had arrived,” the northern follow-up attack led them to charge into “nothing but empty trenches” as Lee had reset the rebel line with his men arriving from Cold Harbor.[xiii]
Looking at Lee’s line, a commander who had not seen the slaughter at Cold Harbor may have ordered relentless advances on it with the hope of a breakthrough—much as happened at Gettysburg with Pickett’s charge—but Grant and Meade knew the consequences and feared its effect on Union soldiers. In fact, Meade snapped when his corps commanders allowed their veterans to stay under cover and not charge through the “bullet-swept open ground” to the enemy trenches.[xiv] When the 1st Maine made an assault on the rebel line, the veterans called out, “Lie down, you damn fools. You can’t take them forts!” Of the 850 men who charged, 632 were downed within thirty minutes; the most severe loss “in a single engagement by any Union regiment in the whole course of the war.”[xv]
With his men exhausted and not having fought with the same “vigor and force which characterized our fighting in the Wilderness,” Meade called off the fight, and Grant agreed noting, “We will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein has been struck.”[xvi] With that came the end of Grant’s seven-week campaign against the Confederates that had introduced to the rebels a “brutal intensity . . . unmatched in the war.”[xvii] Both sides had lost many of their veterans, and those who remained were more reluctant to blindly charge to their deaths: since May 4, just the northerners had seen 65,000 killed, wounded, or missing.[xviii] Democrats had begun calling Grant a “butcher,” and a Union general on sick leave found “great discouragement over the North, great reluctance to recruiting, strong disposition for peace.”[xix] Justifiably, General Benjamin Butler’s wife wondered, “What advancement of mankind to compensate for the present horrible calamities?”[xx]
Despite the Union losses, Grant had pinned Lee’s smaller army eighty miles south of where they not long ago had been and forced the rebels to defend Richmond and Petersburg.[xxi] Lee, in recognition of the danger of defeat, noted to Jubal Early, “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before it gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”[xxii]
On June 16, President Abraham Lincoln addressed the Sanitary Commission in Philadelphia with the mood of the nation in mind when he answered the question, “When is the war to end?” with:
We accepted this war for [the] worthy object . . . of restoring the national authority over the whole national domain . . . and the war will end when that object is attained. Under God, I hope it never will until that time. [Great Cheering] . . . General Grant is reported to have said, I am going through on this line if it takes all summer. [Cheers] . . . I say we are going through on this line if it takes three years more. [Cheers].”[xxiii]
Within a matter of days, Lincoln boarded a steamer and made his way to Grant’s headquarters greeting Grant with a handshake and noting, “I just thought I would jump aboard a boat and come down and see you. I don’t expect I can do any good, and in fact I’m afraid I may do harm, but I’ll just put myself under your orders and if you find me doing anything wrong just send me right away.”[xxiv] The two men conferenced, and Grant reassured his commander that he would “never hear of me farther from Richmond than now, till I have taken it,” and he was “just as sure of going into Richmond as I am of any future event. It may take a long summer day, as they say in the rebel papers, but I will do it.”[xxv] Lincoln, aware of the casualty lists and their effects on the populace, responded, “I cannot pretend to advise, but I do sincerely hope that all may be accomplished with as little bloodshed as possible.”[xxvi] Before returning to his boat, Lincoln surveyed the soldiers by horseback where news of his coming had caused many black soldiers to gather “grinning from ear to ear.”[xxvii] Lincoln took off his hat to salute the men and, with tears in his eyes, “his voice broke when he thanked them for their cheers.”[xxviii]
[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 737.
[ii] See id.
[iv] Id. at 738-39.
[v] Id. at 739.
[vi] See id.
[vii] Id. at 740.
[x] Id. (quoting P.G.T. Beauregard, “Four Days of Battle at Petersburg,” Battles and Leaders, IV, 541.
[xi] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 438.
[xii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 740-41.
[xiii] See id. at 741.
[xiv] See id.
[xv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 441.
[xvi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 741 (citing War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 40, pt. 2, 156-57 (Washington 1880-1901).
[xvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 741.
[xviii] See id. at 742.
[xix] Id. (quoting John H. Martindale to Benjamin Butler, Aug. 5, 1864, in Jesse A. Marshall, ed., Private and Official Correspondence of General Benjamin F. Butler during the Period of the Civil War, 5 vols. (Norwood, Mass., 1917), V, 5; Frank L. Klement, The Copperheads in the Middle West (Chicago, 1960), 233).
[xx] Sarah Butler to Benjamin Butler, June 19, 1864, in Marshall, ed., Correspondence of Benjamin Butler, IV, 418.
[xxi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 743.
[xxii] Roy C. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), VII, 396.
[xxiii] Roy C. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1952-55), VII, 394-95.
[xxiv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 443.