1864 was the last full year of the war.
The Army of Northern Virginia had many victories under its belt—Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were the two biggest—but attrition was taking a mighty toll on the South. Meanwhile, the war machine of the North seemed to become stronger every day. When the Army of the Potomac and Lee’s army collided at the Wilderness in Virginia beginning on May 5, only a few miles west of Lee’s great victories, it was the first time Lee would face Ulysses S. Grant, the commander-in-chief of the Union forces as of March 1864.
And while the name of the battle would go down in the history books as “the Wilderness,” it was really the beginning of one prolonged battle that would last almost a year and result in Lee’s capitulation at Appomattox in April 1865. Lee’s army was in poor supply, and this battle to the end would continue to exact a great toll on Virginia, a state already stripped of many resources because of three years of war. If the Confederacy had any hope, it was invested in its leadership. Civil War historian Gordon Rhea affirms, “In this season of scarcity, Lee was unquestionably the South’s prime asset.”
The Union also hung its hopes on leadership. Other than President Lincoln, whose main objective was to reinstate the Union, the people of the North looked to the new commander of all Union armies, General Ulysses Grant. Grant was the most recent in a string of qualified generals to take charge for Lincoln, but while the other generals—McClellan, Burnside, Meade—looked good on paper, they failed to take initiative when the president required it of them.
McClellan, in his early days over the Army of the Potomac, simply failed to prosecute the war. Burnside lost a crucial battle at Fredericksburg in late 1862, and Meade, though a good leader with a gift for finding the right place to pick a fight, had failed to follow up on Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg in the summer of 1863. Grant, however, came to lead the Union armies after he secured victory after victory in the Deep South, the most recent and most important of which was the surrender at Vicksburg in July 1863, simultaneous to Meade’s victory at Gettysburg.
David Ward, curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s upcoming exhibition “One Life: Grant and Lee” (July 4, 2014, through May 31, 2015), summarizes the state of the Union leadership at this moment, noting, “Meade remained in charge of the Army of the Potomac. Grant was brought East and made Lieutenant General in charge of all the Union armies (including those—i.e., Sherman’s—in the West) but served in the field rather than remaining in Washington.” Ward also notes that there was a vast difference in the scopes of command. “One of the interesting things about this campaign is that Grant was running the whole of the Union war effort. Conversely, Lee was focused only on Virginia, indeed refusing to consider a larger command or a shift to the South. Lee, of course, gets good press but not all the idolatry is warranted.”
At the Wilderness, the federals would pitch everything at the enemy. Gordon Rhea states, “Grant intended to go at Lee from all sides. Assigned the primary role, the army of the Potomac would be raised to maximum strength and hurled across the Rapidan.” Grant brought more than 100,000 men to battle, and Lee, roughly 60,000. The fighting was close-up, much of it in the dense forest outside of Chancellorsville. Grant would suffer casualties of more than 18,000 men, while Lee would lose more than 11,000.
The month of May 1864 would be one of the bloodiest of the war. At the Wilderness in Spotsylvania County, and in the subsequent battle at the Spotsylvania County Courthouse, Lee’s army twice again won Pyrrhic victories in that he suffered fewer losses than the federals, and he had strategically maintained his army between Grant and Richmond. However, the losses he sustained were losses he could not afford, and it was getting more and more difficult for Lee and the Confederacy to live and fight another day.
Grant’s supply line and mobility allowed him to shift further south after these two battles. He would continue to maneuver around Lee for another few weeks, failing to crush Richmond but successfully keeping Lee in the field, further draining the southern army of men and supplies. This series of battles would become known as Grant’s Overland Campaign. By spring’s end, the Union army would have the rebels locked into a siege at Petersburg, Virginia, a strategy of Grant’s intended to further winnow down Lee’s numbers. This action would occupy them both until the closing days of the war in 1865.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Heritage Preservation Services, CWSAC Battle Summaries, accessed May 7, 2014
Gordon Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5–6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994).