Why was Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant successful against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, when his predecessors (McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker) were not?
By the time Grant left the Western theater for Union high command he had learned the art of war as a result of difficult and painful lessons. He was criticized for the disordered retreat at Belmont (7 November 1861) and almost ended his career for good after the debacle at Shiloh (6-7 April 1862), where he was accused of improperly preparing his soldiers for a surprise enemy attack. Vicksburg (December 1862 – July 1863) had been a long and trying campaign that challenged Grant’s every presumption and upset nearly every plan he devised. Only his dogged perseverance and dedication to improvisation and bold maneuver finally won out over Pemberton and Johnston.
Grant was sent to save Chattanooga following the capture of Vicksburg. He solidified his “hero” status by breaking the month long siege of Chattanooga after opening a supply line across Moccasin Point to Brown’s Ferry, west of the city. From Chattanooga Grant headed east to Washington to receive his promotion to Lieutenant General.
March 1864 marks a turning point of the war when Grant assumed overall command of the Union armies (as General-in-Chief, with responsibility over twenty-one army corps), a position previously held by the officious but uninspiring Henry W. Halleck. Grant understood that with his assumption of overall command came responsibility for winning the war for President Lincoln. From Grant’s memoirs, concerning their first meeting: “All he [Lincoln] wanted or had ever wanted was someone who would take responsibility and act, and call on him for all the assistance needed, pledging himself to use all the power of the government in rendering such assistance.” However much pressure Grant may have felt, it must have eased his mind some to know he was coming on the heels of a long list of such spectacular failures.
George Brinton McClellan was the Army of the Potomac’s first commander-in-chief and was considered by many to be its most “beloved” as well—even after he thoroughly disappointed President Lincoln, McClellan never lost the affection of his troops. McClellan, an especially successful West Point cadet, had an inordinate amount of self-confidence but used that quality as a basis for insubordination against the country’s highest leadership. Too self-assured, McClellan suffered from a messianic belief that he alone could save the Union; his views of himself and of the enemy became more and more divorced from reality. He consistently overestimated the strength and capabilities of the enemy and used these estimates to justify his inaction. Lincoln argued with McClellan over why Union soldiers could not do what Lee’s soldiers were doing all the time: fight with no shoes and only sporadic supplies. Lincoln was reduced to openly and pointedly challenging McClellan’s over-cautiousness. Once he was finally forced to prove himself in the field he was slow to act and indecisive to a fault. Grant was incapable of accepting indecision in himself or anyone under his command. Ambrose Burnside was probably Lincoln’s worst choice for army commander.
Burnside himself did not believe he was qualified to lead the Army of the Potomac. An unqualified failure, Burnside poorly led the Union left wing at Antietam, and after assuming command of the Army of the Potomac, led the disastrous and pointless assaults at Fredericksburg. The difference between Grant and Burnside comes down to pure competence. Joseph Hooker took over after Burnside and had initial success reviving army morale (especially following Burnside’s infamous “Mud March”), and effectively reorganizing the army as well. But starting very early on Hooker found it impossible to keep from undermining his superiors. After his high-profile command “paralysis” at Chancellorsville—where the boisterous Hooker simply found himself way beyond his capabilities and failed to command his army—it was obvious he could not fill the position of the general who would win the war for Lincoln.
Grant understood clearly the intent of his higher commander (President Lincoln) and intended to deliver success on those terms. Grant accepted that his plan would have to be “nested” in Lincoln’s overall scheme (politics and all)—in fact, unlike any of his predecessors, Grant accepted full well that he was the principle military subordinate of the President and nothing more. In contrast, McClellan had believed he was “superior” to his commanders (Lincoln and Halleck in particular) and was unwilling to serve them as a genuine subordinate. Grant planned to exhaust the Confederate armies through coordinated and persistent campaigns meant to drain the Confederacy of manpower it could not easily replace. Four separate but mutually supporting operations would squeeze Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James would advance along the line of the James River to Petersburg, maneuvering against Lee’s lines of communication and Richmond itself. General Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley would march south to Staunton. Sherman, in command of most of the Western armies, would begin his operational penetration to Georgia using the 100,000 soldiers assembled then at Chattanooga. Unlike Halleck, who had remained in the War Department close to Congress and the White House, Grant planned to accompany Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Grant took to the field to stay near what he believed was the decisive point, the Union army tasked with subduing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and to be in a position to react quickly to unfolding events.
Grant’s understanding of operational art is evident in his insistence—for the first time during the war—that all Union armies and offensives from Nathaniel Banks’ maneuver against Mobile, Alabama, to Benjamin Butler’s march west toward Richmond, be undertaken as coordinated efforts in an overall plan to exhaust the enemy forces. Lee was taking advantage of entrenchments in an attempt to make Union actions too costly in tactical terms, but Grant nullified this approach by focusing instead on operational actions and objectives. Grant was capable and even willing to accept tactical stalemates as long as his opportunities for operational maneuver remained viable. Grant made a historic break with his predecessors when he clearly articulated the connection between the operational level of the war (the numerous campaigns in dispersed theaters) and the strategic level.
Beginning only about sixty miles north of Richmond, Grant and the Army of the Potomac opened the Overland campaign on 4 May 1864 by crossing the Rapidan River and entering the area of tangled thickets and scrubby second-growth know as the Wilderness. Lee saw his opportunity and moved quickly to counter the Federals on terrain that would nullify at least in part the Union advantages in numbers and artillery. A confused three day battle resulted (5-7 May) but neither side gained its objective. Grant’s letter to Washington, on 7 May, aptly summarizes the meeting: “At present we can claim no victory over the enemy, neither have they gained a single advantage. The enemy pushed out of his fortifications to prevent their position being turned, and have been sooner or later driven back in every instance.” At one point during the battle an aide was trying to convince Grant that Lee was about to flank the Union army and put his Confederate brigades along Grant’s lines of communication. Grant had had enough and exploded: “Some of you seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” Where McClellan vastly over estimated Confederate strengths and capabilities, Grant was quick to cut Lee down to human size. Grant made victory over the growing Confederate legend possible by refusing to attribute unrealistic capabilities to him.
Instead of retreating from the bloody repulse at the Wilderness, Grant disengaged his forces and ordered them to march southeast to seize the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House. The difference between Hooker and Grant was clear to all. Where Hooker had been beat in the Wilderness and declared his own defeat, retreating north to regroup and reorganize following Chancellorsville, Grant accepted the results of the Wilderness as an “incident” and moved on with his grand plan. Only six miles from the Wilderness battlefield, only a couple miles above the Po River, Grant believed Spotsylvania Court House might give him the ability to get in between Lee and Richmond. Lee anticipated the turning movement and arrived at Spotsylvania first. After a very costly string of assaults against prepared Confederate positions at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House over two weeks (8-21 May 1864), Grant disengaged and maneuvered southeast in an effort to turn Lee’s flank again. At Spotsylvania Grant proved that his real aim was to seize the initiative—after which he would not surrender it—and force Lee’s tiring army to react to Union movements. “Grant is not like other Yankees,” wrote Captain T. J. Linebarger to his family. “Half such a whipping would have sent McClellan, Hooker, Burnside, or Meade crossing to the other side of the Rappahannock, but Grant may join us in battle at any moment.” In contrast, McClellan showed very little initiative at all when it came to campaigning against a viable enemy army in the field. Once Lee realized that Grant was marching south again, he was forced to do the same and from this point on his overarching concern would be protecting Richmond.
The armies joined in battle again just twenty miles south of Spotsylvania along the North Anna River where it crosses the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad. At the battle of North Anna—which proved to be a significant lost opportunity for Lee and his lieutenants—Confederate forces were positioned astride the river in such a way that it forced Grant to split his forces. The Confederate center at Ox Ford formed the apex of an inverted “V.” Both flanks were severely refused, the left anchored on the Little River, the right on the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad. With Ox Ford firmly held and both flanks strengthened and drawn well back, and with the North Anna River severely restricting Union movement south, Lee planned to exploit interior lines to defeat the Union army as it divided into three parts to cross at Jericho Mills, Ox Ford, and the Telegraph Road bridge. More costly but tactically indecisive action resulted between 23 and 26 May. Lee’s trap to defeat Grant’s forces in detail failed to materialize in part because Lee was suffering from illness and in part because at this late point in the war he did not have a trusted subordinate skillful enough to execute his plan. Instead of assaulting the Confederate entrenchments, Grant resolved to continue his flanking movement southeast parallel the Pamunkey River toward the town of New Cold Harbor. Despite weeks of inconclusive fighting, Grant “bridled” at the prospect of a retreat. By marching southeast again he would maintain his line of supply and draw needed reinforcements from the Union Army of the James operating south of Richmond. The maneuver would also put his army within a day’s march of the Confederate capital.
Leaving the North Anna the Army of the Potomac traveled southeast following the Pamunkey River and crossed to the south bank at Hanovertown. Twenty miles south of the North Anna battlefield and a mere seven miles from Richmond, the armies clashed again. The battle of Cold Harbor (31 May – 12 June) began as a small-scale fight between Confederate infantry and Sheridan’s Union cavalry troopers but ended with both armies entrenched along a seven-mile front. At this point Lee had only the Chickahominy River and Richmond to his back. Massive assaults resulted in very little gains, culminating in the disastrous Union assaults of 3 June where 7,000 were lost compared to the enemy’s 1,500. Grant wrote Halleck from Cold Harbor on 5 June: “My idea from the start has been to beat Lee’s army, if possible, north of Richmond, then, after destroying his lines of communication north of the James River to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat. I now find, after more than thirty days of trial, that the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive, behind breast-works, or feebly on the offensive immediately in front of them, and where in case of repulse they can instantly retire behind them.” Grant, ever optimistic, was certain he had Lee firmly in hand. Following Cold Harbor Grant made a bold flanking maneuver around Lee toward the James River, crossed his corps (now 100,000 strong) at Wilcox Landing, to a position in front of Petersburg. Throughout the entire movement aggressive Union diversionary attacks kept Lee focused north of the James River.
Grant reassessed his operational plan and approach following the defeat at Cold Harbor. He had succeeded in maneuvering to a point where Lee’s army was necessarily on the defensive; still he realized he could not force Lee into a decisive battle on the open areas of the theater. “The battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor, bloody and terrible as they were on our side, were even more damaging to the enemy, and so rippled him as to make him wary ever after of taking the offensive.” Grant decided to cross the James River and maneuver against the formidable fortifications of Petersburg—a shift in emphasis from destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia to threatening geographical (Petersburg) and political (Richmond) objectives. The Overland campaign, May-June 1864, maneuvered Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into Petersburg and set the stage for the Appomattox campaign. Though it also was costly in human lives and resulted in numerous tactical defeats, on the operational level it was a decisive victory for the Union. Lee was forced to defend thirty-seven miles between Petersburg and Richmond with only 60,000 under-supplied and battle weary soldiers. Grant eventually assembled 122,000 to meet Lee’s numbers, but more important than a mere ratio of forces, Grant applied constant pressure with probing attacks while he tried to figure out how to capture the Petersburg fortifications. Adopting a combination of entrenchment warfare, siege, and maneuver, Grant extended his lines by stages around the southern perimeter of the Petersburg defenses. After more than nine months of the opposing armies facing each other across entrenchments around Petersburg, a crack appeared in the Confederate defenses and Grant pounced on the weakness. Sheridan’s cavalry and V Corps smashed Pickett’s division at Five Forks (1 April 1865), piercing Lee’s far right flank and unraveling the rest of the Confederate lines. The rout of Pickett’s division left the road open all the way to the South Side Railroad and sealed off Lee’s primary escape route. Only rearguard actions allowed Lee to abandon both Petersburg and Richmond (beginning on the evening of 2 April) with his army intact.
After the evacuation of Richmond the Army of Northern Virginia began marching west on routes that converged at Amelia Court House on the Richmond & Danville Railroad. Lee still believed he could force march his army west to a point where he was free to acquire needed supplies, then march south and link up with Johnston’s army operating along the North Carolina Railroad opposite Sherman. To the very end Lee fought in his characteristic way, always ready to gamble, eager to bring on battle, and reaching for desperate measures wherever he could find them. Grant assessed Lee’s situation and made the decision to send his pursuing forces on a parallel course—following roughly the line of the South Side Railroad through Burkeville, Farmville, and finally Appomattox—to keep Union forces between the Confederate armies of Lee and Johnston and prevent their union. The maneuver worked and on 9 April Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Grant differed from his predecessors by showing an ability to focus on a larger, flexible plan. Just as his Vicksburg campaign plan unfolded through several key shifts and amendments, so his Overland campaign met with tactical setbacks and his operations were held up for many months at Petersburg, but still the overall operational plan was adhered to and furthered step by step. Even though Grant had devised a coordinated operational plan to win the war, as it turned out, all shaping operations except for Sherman’s resulted in draws or defeats. Still, his original premise—that as long as the Confederacy had an army in the field, the war would persist—proved sound, and his plan to exhaust the opposing armies proved successful. The relentless style of war fighting so often attributed to Grant was in full display during the Overland campaign and the final Appomattox campaign.
Grant learned lessons from his experiences. The difference between McClellan and Grant was stark: McClellan was steeped in the military theory of the times (almost exclusively European and quickly becoming outmoded), whereas Grant admitted to having read hardly any military theory at all. Grant’s methodical maneuvering against Lee during the Overland campaign was presumably learned during the complicated maneuvering of the Vicksburg campaign. Fort Donelson taught him to resist being psychologically beaten, to always bear in mind the state of the enemy as well as one’s own troops. Grant transferred numerous concepts from the Vicksburg campaign—Army-Navy cooperation, deep cavalry raids as shaping operations and diversions, and operating along multiple converging lines of operation in order to preserve operational maneuver room—to his operational plan for winning the war.
Where McClellan showed great promise starting early on, Grant showed no promise at all early in the war. Only after the first few years did Grant win his promotion to overall command as a result of hard won achievements intermixed with some reversals and costly mistakes. Grant’s ability to cut his opponent down to size, to see and understand his enemy’s position almost as clearly and as practically as his own, was very good for allowing him to take the initiative against Lee but also led him to underestimate the practicality and difficulties inherent in certain undertakings, as in his decision to attack at Cold Harbor when the odds for gain were so slim. Grant was bold and had determination to carry all of his operations through to their conclusion (going all the way back to his first independent action at Belmont). Hooker believed he was bold but when put to the test at Chancellorsville the bravado wore off and the timid army commander emerged. Subordinates respond to leaders who clearly articulate what must be done, put forth commonsense proposals to achieve objectives, demonstrate competence, and act as stabilizing forces during periods of stress and turmoil. Grant was that leader and coupled with his uniquely insightful operational plan to unite all Union efforts in a coordinated drive to defeat the Confederacy once and for all, he was naturally the man to lead Lincoln’s final effort to achieve victory.
1. Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters (New York: Library of America, 1990), 469.
2. Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968), 160.
3. Grant, 473.
4. Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. III, The Tide Shifts (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Reprint, ), 105.
5. Thomas B. Buell, The Warrior Generals: Combat Leadership in the Civil War (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997), 247.
6. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 570.
7. Buell, 299.
8. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 129 vols. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), XXXVI, pt. 1, 12-3, hereafter abbreviated OR.
9. Buell, 300.
10. OR, XXXVI, pt. 1, 2.
11. National Parks Civil War Series, The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania, 18-9.
12. Catton, 204.
13. NPCWS, Wilderness & Spotsylvania, 51.
14. Noah Andre Trudeau, “Ambush on the North Anna,” Military History Quarterly 18 (Winter 2006): 47.
15. Ibid.: 49.
16. OR, XXXVI, pt. 1, 11.
17. OR, XXXVI, pt. 1, 23.
18. National Parks Civil War Series, The Siege of Petersburg, 48.
19. OR, XXXVI, pt. 1, 57.
20. National Parks Civil War Series, The Campaign to Appomattox, 13 and 23.
21. Ibid., 8.
- “A nation is only as strong as its people. To ensure national strength there must be adequate military forces, properly equipped to repel any attacks upon our sovereignty, and such forces must be backed up by a well organized civilian population of high morale which can produce all the necessities for carrying on modern warfare. This unity of military and civilian strength will be only as strong as its weakest component, therefore, we must ensure that all parts of this combination are equally strong.” --- Admiral Chester W. Nimitz quoted in Military Review 27, no. 10 (January 1948): 11.