One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 8, Number 9
September 2000

I spent much of the summer catching up on a stack of Civil War books that I have accumulated over the past year. Among them were the three volumes by Gordon Rhea on the initial campaign between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864 from May 5 to 25. Included in this period are the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and North Anna River. Still on my reading list is the new account by Ernest Ferguson of the Battle of Cold Harbor, which brought the Overland campaign to its climax on Friday, June 3. As many writers have pointed out, the four major battles and almost continuous combat that occurred during those thirty days represent the bloodiest period of the Civil War—Grant lost about 50,000 men, and Lee something like 32,000 during the campaign.

Source material about the Army of the Potomac is considerably more extensive than that available for Lee’s army, which probably accounts for Rhea’s decided emphasis on the Northern version of events. However, all of Rhea’s books are impressively researched, and well-written with good maps by George Skoch. Other good accounts of the Overland campaign are Lee’s Last Campaign by Clifford Dowdey, which is written from the Southern perspective, and Noah Trudeau’s Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May–June 1864.

A common thread throughout all the accounts of the 1864 campaign reminds us of the terrible hardships endured by both the common soldier and the officers on both sides of the conflict. The constant marching and fighting under terrible conditions including rain, mud, and heat over a month-long period exacted a terrible toll on both armies. By the spring of 1864, both sides had come to appreciate the value of fighting from behind earthworks, and so this period also saw miles and miles of entrenchments dug at every encounter extending from the Rapidan River in the north to Cold Harbor in the south. Someday I’m going to make a stab at measuring the actual number of miles of trenches in this linear distance of about sixty miles. Digging was tough enough for the Union troops, most of whom were well-supplied with shovels, but it must have been especially hard for the men of Lee’s army who were forced to use mostly bayonets, sticks, and whatever other tools they could scrounge. Earthworks are preserved at all the battlefields, but perhaps the most pristine (except for the trees) are those at Ox Ford on Mahone’s segment of the “inverted V” at North Anna. They are spectacular and well worth a trip to see.

In addition to the risks of being shot or bayoneted, the physical exertion, sickness, fatigue, hunger, thirst, and other hardships endured by the men took its tool. On May 23 a soldier in the 45th Georgia caught the prevailing sentiment: “I think I am nearer worn out, dirtier, and more in want of rest than I have been since I can recollect. Last night was the first time in three weeks that I have been able to pull off my boots and shoes to sleep.”

The hardships of this terrible war spared no one. Robert E. Lee was 57 years old in 1864. By the time the armies had reached the North Anna River, Lee had slept little in the twenty harrowing days since Grant had crossed the Rapidan. In addition to his role as Army commander, he had lost so many of his key staff that he had been forced to assume tactical leadership as well in many instances. He frequently worked after midnight, and was generally awake by 3 A.M. On the night of May 21, for example, he left his camp near Spotsylvania Court House at 8 P.M. and rode south down the Telegraph Road with Ewell’s and Anderson’s corps. At 3 A.M. on the 22nd, he stopped to make camp for the night. After a short meal, he lay down in his tent until 5 o’clock when he arose and continued south. At 8:30 that morning he crossed the Chesterfield Bridge over the North Anna River. How many of us could endure such a schedule?

In addition to his heart problems, he had contracted a severe intestinal disorder by the time he crossed the North Anna, and was so sick that he lay prostrate in his tent for long periods. When he did gather enough strength to visit his men, he was forced to travel in a carriage rather than on his faithful Traveller. His aide Walter Taylor wrote that the general “could attend to nothing except what was absolutely necessary for him to know or act upon.” And even Lee, himself, admitted that: “I am not fit to command this army.” It was a time of great frustration for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Using an “inverted V” defensive line, he had lured Grant into a trap on the south side of the river with the opportunity to annihilate an entire Union corps. But Lee was too ill to command the complex maneuvers necessary to spring the trap, and generals like Jackson and Longstreet were no longer with him at this critical moment to execute his plans. His admonition to his army to “strike them a blow” and “never let them pass us again” could not be fulfilled. By mid-June Grant’s army reached the James River, and Lee’s worst fear was expressed in his prescient comment: “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.” The war would be over in less than ten months.