American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865

Grant vs. Lee

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

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Grant Comes East

In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and gave him command of all Union armies. Grant elected to turn over operational control of the western armies to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and shifted his headquarters east to travel with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac. Leaving Sherman with orders to press the Confederate Army of Tennessee and take Atlanta, Grant sought to engage General Robert E. Lee in a decisive battle to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. In Grant's mind, this was the key to ending the war, with the capture of Richmond of secondary importance. These initiatives were to be supported by smaller campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley, southern Alabama, and western Virginia.

The Overland Campaign Begins & the Battle of Wilderness

In early May 1864, Grant began moving south with 101,000 men. Lee, whose army numbered 60,000, moved to intercept and met Grant in a dense forest known as the Wilderness. Adjacent to the 1863 Chancellorsville battlefield, the Wilderness soon became a nightmare as the soldiers fought through the dense, burning woods. While Union attacks initially drove the Confederates back, they were blunted and forced to withdrawal by the late arrival of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps. Assaulting the Union lines, Longstreet recovered the territory that had been lost, but was severely wounded in the fighting.

After three days of the fighting, the battle had turned into a stalemate with Grant having lost 18,400 men and Lee 11,400. While Grant's army had suffered more casualties, they comprised a lesser proportion of his army than Lee's. As the Grant's goal was to destroy Lee's army, this was an acceptable outcome. On May 8, Grant ordered the army to disengage, but rather than withdrawal towards Washington, Grant ordered them to continue moving south.

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Marching southeast from the Wilderness, Grant headed for Spotsylvania Court House. Anticipating this move, Lee dispatched Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson with Longstreet's corps to occupy the town. Beating the Union troops to Spotsylvania, the Confederates constructed an elaborate set of earthworks in the rough shape of an inverted horseshoe with a salient at the northern point known as the "Mule Shoe." On May 10, Col. Emory Upton led a twelve regiment, spearhead attack against the Mule Shoe which broke the Confederate line. His assault went unsupported and his men were forced to withdrawal. Despite the failure, Upton's tactics were successful and were later replicated during World War I.

Upton's attack alerted Lee to the weakness of the Mule Shoe section of his lines. To reinforce this area, he ordered a second line built across the salient's base. Grant, realizing how close Upton had been to succeeding ordered a massive assault on the Mule Shoe for May 10. Led by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps, the attack overwhelmed the Mule Shoe, capturing over 4,000 prisoners. With his army about to be split in two, Lee led Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's Second Corps into the fray. In a full day and night's fighting, they were able to retake the salient. On the 13th, Lee withdrew his men to the new line. Unable to break through, Grant responded as he did after Wilderness and continued moving his men south.

North Anna

Lee raced south with his army to assume a strong, fortified position along the North Anna River, always keeping his army between the Grant and Richmond. Approaching the North Anna, Grant realized that he would need to split his army to attack Lee's fortifications. Unwilling to do so, he moved around Lee's right flank and marched for the crossroads of Cold Harbor.

Battle of Cold Harbor

The first Union troops arrived at Cold Harbor on May 31 and began skirmishing with the Confederates. Over the next two days the scope of the fighting grew as the main bodies of the armies arrived on the field. Facing the Confederates over a seven mile line, Grant planned a massive assault for dawn on June 3. Firing from behind fortifications, the Confederates butchered the soldiers of the II, XVIII, and IX Corps as they attacked. In the three days of fighting, Grant's army suffered over 12,000 casualties as opposed to only 2,500 for Lee. The victory at Cold Harbor was to be the last for the Army of Northern Virginia and haunted Grant for years. After the war he commented in his memoirs, "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."

The Siege of Petersburg Begins

After pausing for nine days at Cold Harbor, Grant stole a march on Lee and crossed the James River. His objective was to take the strategic city of Petersburg, which would cut the supply lines to Richmond and Lee's army. After hearing that Grant crossed the river, Lee rushed south. As the lead elements of the Union army approached, they were prevented from entering by Confederate forces under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. Between June 15-18, Union forces launched a series of attacks, but Grant's subordinates failed to push home their assaults and only forced Beauregard's men to retire to city's inner fortifications.

With the full arrival of both armies, trench warfare ensued, with the two sides facing off in a precursor to World War I. In late June, Grant began a series of battles to extend the Union line west around the south side of the city, with the goal of severing the railroads one by one and overextending Lee's smaller force. On July 30, in an effort to break the siege, he authorized the detonation of a mine under the center of the Lee's lines. While the blast took the Confederates by surprise, they quickly rallied and beat back the mishandled follow-up assault.

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Campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley

In conjunction with his Overland Campaign, Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel to move southwest "up" the Shenandoah Valley to destroy the rail and supply center of Lynchburg. Sigel began his advance but was defeated at New Market on May 15, and replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter. Pressing on, Hunter won a victory at the Battle of Piedmont on June 5-6. Concerned about the threat posed to his supply lines and hoping to force Grant to divert forces from Petersburg, Lee dispatched Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early with 15,000 men to the Valley.

Monocacy & Washington

After halting Hunter at Lynchburg on June 17-18, Early swept unopposed down the Valley. Entering Maryland, he turned east to menace Washington. As he moved towards the capital, he defeated a small Union force under Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace at Monocacy on July 9. Though a defeat, Monocacy delayed Early's advance allowing Washington to be reinforced. On July 11 and 12, Early attacked the Washington defenses at Fort Stevens with no success. On the 12th, Lincoln viewed part of the battle from the fort becoming the only sitting president to be under fire. Following his attack on Washington, Early withdrew to the Valley, burning Chambersburg, PA along the way.

Sheridan in the Valley

To deal with the Early, Grant dispatched his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan with an army of 40,000 men. Advancing against Early, Sheridan won victories at Winchester (September 19) and Fisher's Hill (September 21-22) inflicting heavy casualties. The decisive battle of the campaign came at Cedar Creek on October 19. Launching a surprise attack at dawn, Early's men drove the Union troops from their camps. Sheridan, who was away at a meeting in Winchester, raced back to his army and rallied the men. Counterattacking, they broke Early's disorganized lines, routing the Confederates and forcing them to flee the field. The battle effectively ended the fighting in the Valley as both sides rejoined their larger commands at Petersburg.

Election of 1864

As military operations continued, President Lincoln stood for reelection. Partnering with War Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, Lincoln ran on the National Union (Republican) ticket under the slogan "Don't Change Horses in the Middle of a Stream." Facing him was his old nemesis Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan who was nominated on a peace platform by the Democrats. Following Sherman's capture of Atlanta and Farragut's triumph at Mobile Bay, Lincoln's reelection was all but assured. His victory was a clear signal to the Confederacy that there would be no political settlement and that war would be prosecuted to end. In the election, Lincoln won 212 electoral votes to McClellan's 21.

Battle of Fort Stedman

In January 1865, President Jefferson Davis appointed Lee to command of all Confederate armies. With the western armies decimated, this move came too late for Lee to effectively coordinate a defense of the remaining Confederate territory. The situation worsened that month when Union troops captured Fort Fisher, effectively closing the Confederacy's last major port, Wilmington, NC. At Petersburg, Grant kept pressing his lines west, forcing Lee to further stretch his army. By mid-March, Lee began to consider abandoning the city and making an effort to link up with Confederate forces in North Carolina.

Prior to pulling out, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon suggested a daring attack on the Union lines with the goal of destroying their supply base at City Point and forcing Grant to shorten his lines. Gordon launched his attack on March 25 and overran Fort Stedman in the Union lines. Despite early success, his breakthrough was quickly contained and his men driven back to their own lines.

Battle of Five Forks

Sensing Lee was weak, Grant ordered Sheridan to attempt a move around the Confederate right flank to the west of Petersburg. To counter this move, Lee dispatched 9,200 men under Maj. Gen. George Pickett to defend the vital crossroads of Five Forks and the Southside Railroad, with orders to hold them "at all hazards." On March 31, Sheridan's force encountered Pickett's lines and moved to attack. After some initial confusion, Sheridan's men routed the Confederates, inflicting 2,950 casualties. Pickett, who was away at a shad bake when the fighting started, was relieved of his command by Lee.

The Fall of Petersburg

The following morning, Lee informed President Davis that Richmond and Petersburg would have to be evacuated. Later that day, Grant launched a series of massive assaults all along the Confederate lines. Breaking through in numerous places, Union forces forced the Confederates to surrender the city and flee west. With Lee's army in retreat, Union troops entered Richmond on April 3, finally achieving one of their principle war goals. The next day, President Lincoln arrived to visit the fallen capital.

The Road to Appomattox

After occupying Petersburg, Grant began chasing Lee across Virginia with Sheridan's men in the lead. Moving west and harried by Union cavalry, Lee hoped to re-supply his army before heading south to link up with forces under Gen. Joseph Johnston in North Carolina. On April 6, Sheridan was able to cut off approximately 8,000 Confederates under Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell at Sayler's Creek. After some fighting the Confederates, including eight generals, surrendered. Lee, with fewer than 30,000 hungry men, hoped to reach supply trains that were waiting at Appomattox Station. This plan was dashed when Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. George A. Custer arrived in the town and burned the trains.

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Meeting at Appomattox Court House

While most of Lee's officers favored surrender, others did not fearing that it would lead to the end of the war. Lee also sought to prevent his army from melting away to fight on as guerrillas, a move that he felt would have long term harm for the country. At 8:00 AM Lee rode out with three of his aides to make contact with Grant. Several hours of correspondence ensued which led to a cease fire and a formal request from Lee to discuss surrender terms. The home of Wilmer McLean, whose house in Manassas had served as Beauregard's headquarters during the First Battle of Bull Run, was selected to host the negotiations.

Lee arrived first, wearing his finest dress uniform and awaited Grant. The Union commander, who had been suffering a bad headache, arrived late, wearing a worn private's uniform with only his shoulder straps denoting his rank. Overcome by the emotion of the meeting, Grant had difficulty getting to the point, preferring to discuss his previous meeting with Lee during the Mexican-American War. Lee steering the conversation back to the surrender and Grant laid out his terms.

Grant's Terms of Surrender

Grant's terms: "I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside."

In addition, Grant also offered to allow the Confederates to take home their horses and mules for use in the spring planting. Lee accepted Grant's generous terms and the meeting ended. As Grant rode away from the McLean house, the Union troops began to cheer. Hearing them, Grant immediately ordered it stopped, stating he did not want his men exalting over their recently defeated foe.

End of the War

The celebration of Lee's surrender was muted by the assassination of President Lincoln on April 14 at Ford's Theater in Washington. As some of Lee's officers had feared, their surrender was the first of many. On April 26, Sherman accepted Johnston's surrender near Durham, NC, and the other remaining Confederate armies capitulated one by one over the next six weeks. After four years of fighting, the Civil War was finally over.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: War in the East, 1863-1865." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).