As described by Gordon Rhea in the Spring 2014 issue of Hallowed Ground, “The Overland Campaign, some 40-odd days of maneuver and combat between the Rapidan and James Rivers, pitted the Civil War’s premier generals — Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant for the Union, and Gen. Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy — against one another in a grueling contest of endurance and guile.” A native of East Tennessee with a BA in history with honors from Indiana University, an MA in American History from Harvard University, and a JD from Stanford University Law School, and currently a practicing attorney, Rhea wrote a series of five books that currently serve as the definitive account of that campaign. Each of the books were published by the Louisiana State University Press in Baton Rouge, LA. Here is a guest review of the series by a friend of the TVCWRT, John Howard Oxley, “with [his] reactions and conclusions”. If you want to challenge, have questions or other comments for John, let me have them, and I’ll forward them on. –Emil L. Posey
The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864/ [1994. ISBN: 978-0-8071-1873-3]. I have always found The Battle of the Wilderness to be a most puzzling encounter, despite owning a wargame on the subject, but this volume makes what happened and why abundantly clear, coming to the justified conclusion that Grant was defeated in the battle.
The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern: May 7-12, 1864/[1997. ISBN: 978-0-8071-2136-8]. This is a very clear rendering of some complex actions, though the battles in question are already well-covered in the literature.
To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 15-25, 1864/[2000. ISBN: 978-0-8071-2535-0]. This volume is primarily about movement rather than combat (although there was much minor fighting going on, none of which was minor to those involved). Rhea still manages to make this interesting and absorbing, and illuminates what was previously somewhat shrouded to me.
Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864/[2002. ISBN: 978-0-8071-2803-9]. This is an excellent account of a battle which has been badly misunderstood and inaccurately represented in USA Civil War historiography – you emerge from this understanding what happened and why.
On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 /[2017. ISBN: 978-0-8071-6747-2]. This book brings the campaign to a close, concluding with summary judgments about the two commanders and the armies they commanded.
Overall, this is a model of campaign history: clearly written, accurate, well-sourced, supported with effective maps, while delivering an authoritative account of its subject. I cannot think of any similar history which exceeds it in scope, detail, and insight. This set should be in the library of anyone interested in the USA Civil War. I would say that I have a good grasp of the major campaigns of the USA Civil War, with the exception of the Overland Campaign – and now, having read Rhea, I have that too.
Nits are few and far between:
A) In the first volume, the footnotes, which often contain discursive material, are properly positioned at the bottom of each page, but in the succeeding volumes they are relegated to the end, which impedes effective reading;
B) In the last volume, an over-zealous editor (I assume) has decided that the word ‘refused’, as applied to a formation’s flanks, should be written as ‘re-fused’; and,
C) On p. 120, the author describes Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative as a “historical novel”, which it definitely is not, being one of the best-regarded general popular histories of the USA Civil War.
My conclusions (some of which come from Rhea himself, and some from reading him), from top to bottom:
1) Grant had an excellent strategic plan, which was badly compromised by the bungling of his subordinate commanders (with the singular exception of Sherman, who was making slow and distant progress in this same time). It is nothing short of astounding that such demonstrated incompetents as Sigel, Butler, and Burnside should be given major field commands at this stage of the war. Of course, they were political generals, for the most part, and had to be placated, but surely some sort of ceremonial rear command could have been found for them, and as Rhea points out, there were a number of Union subordinate commanders fully qualified to step up.
2) I admire Grant, both as a man and a general, but my admiration is tempered (for the Overland Campaign, at least) by Rhea’s account of his weaknesses:
I) Grant did not take the time to effectively evaluate the Army of the Potomac’s strengths and weaknesses, and then to devise plans which maximized the former and minimized the latter.
II) Both Grant and Meade were guilty of something approaching the ‘chateau generalship’ of WWI – they did not make any effort to examine the ground in front of them, so their plans were not well-adjusted to the actual facts on the ground – and ultimately this, like the failure again and again to simply ensure that orders were carried out and intentions being followed, is in Grant’s lap, because he was wearing all the stars.
III) Grant did not make effective use of cavalry for scouting and information gathering and seemed content to operate in an environment of information paucity. (Sun Tzu was turning over in his grave quite rapidly at this point, I think.)
I recognize that Meade’s reputation has had something of a rehabilitation over the past decade or so, in the popular history largely from the redoubtable Ralph Peters, but I think it is clear that even as the campaign opened, that Meade’s mental balance was inadequate to his responsibilities – he was badly worn out and needed relief. Of course, the question would be: by whom? As I indicate below, none of the current three AoP corps commanders would have been up to the task, which would have meant bringing in an outsider (e.g. James Birdseye McPherson), which, however effective the general in question might be, would create problems of its own.
IV) Effective communication was obviously a problem for the Army of the Potomac and its associated formations for the whole of the campaign, yet Grant neither acknowledged this fact or took any steps to mitigate it. It astounds me to learn that Grant intended Hancock’s II Corps to support Smith’s XVIII Corps in the attack on Petersburg on 14/15th June, yet Hancock “was never told about it”, by Grant or Meade, or anyone else – was Grant expecting his corps commanders to be mind-readers?
Lee, by contrast, made mistakes and was sick for much of the time, but he had the Napoleonic quality of luck, and was able to recover from potential disasters with resilience. (Many decades ago, before I kept a reading record, I read a book on the medical maladies of the high commands on both sides of the USA Civil War – it requires an act of imaginative strength to realize that pain from injuries in an environment which was full of threats and debilitating illness were the “regu” ar*features of all these men’s lives – and remember they were mostly of the middle- and upper-stratus, so they were as well-provided for health care as was possible in those days.)
3) On the Union side, the decision to re-organize the Army of the Potomac into three large corps appears to me to have been a mistake. These larger corps were simply too heavy and cumbersome to maneuver effectively (the ANV was also in three corps, each of which was only 60% of the size of its Union counterpart), and breaking each one into two, while dissolving Burnside’s corps entirely to make an army reserve, would have worked much better. As already mentioned, there were a number of Union divisional generals who would have made good corps commanders.
4) Neither general was particularly well-served by his subordinate corps commanders.
On the Confederate side, for I Corps, the effective Longstreet was taken out of action early in the campaign, and Anderson, his replacement, was both dull, and seemed incapable of co-operating with his fellow corps commanders. I think Ewell, of II Corps, probably was suffering from debilitating combat stress by this stage of his career. His relief by Early was probably one of Lee’s best moves, as Early proved a sterling corps commander, but of course, both he and his corps were diverted to the Shenandoah Valley (a partial vindication, somewhat belated, of one plank in Grant’s strategy). While Rhea mentions that the III Corps’ A.P. Hill was seriously ill, he is somewhat coy about the illness itself (it was syphilis) – but Hill was obviously not at his best, and temporary replacements did not do anything to ensure corps efficiency. Stuart, of the Cavalry Corps, was just as good as always, but again, was killed fairly early in the campaign, and not replaced for some time.
On the Union side, Hancock of the II Corps was suffering so severely from his Gettysburg wound that he was non compos from opiates much of the time, and far below his usual par at others. (His failure to guard his flanks or reconnoiter effectively at the Battle of the Wilderness would not have been tolerated in a newly-minted shavetail.) Warren of V Corps I was in the same mental state as Ewell and had been promoted above his competence. I have never understood why Sedgewick, of the VI Corps, has had such a high reputation among USA Civil War generals, apart from being efficient and taking care of his men, because he never seemed to show much enterprise or dash. Again, killed early in the campaign, his replacement, Wright, seems largely to have been a cypher (one of the few cases where Rhea, I think, does not illuminate the personality involved). For the Cavalry Corps, as an offensive fighter, Sheridan had few peers and no superior, but he failed disastrously at the equally important task of information-gathering, and, at least some of the time, in screening. His failure to work effectively with Meade redounds poorly on both men, but ultimately a subordinate has the duty to suck it up and get on with it, which Sheridan manifestly did not – he was obviously better suited to independent command. Of Grant’s other corps commanders (who were not continuously under AoP command through the course of the campaign), sufficiently bad cannot be said against Burnside of IX Corps, although to be fair, the quality of his divisional commanders was poor (only in the Union army in the east could a drunken incompetent like Leadlie be given, and keep, divisional command), as was the general quality of the troops in his corps, who were mostly new recruits. The other is W.F. Smith of XVII Corps. Grant ranked him highly, perhaps for the wrong reasons, but at least in the Overland Campaign he was nearly debilitated by sickness at times, proved incapable of effective co-operation with his fellow corps commanders, and failed at the culminating point of the campaign.
5) Divisional and formation leadership on both sides was a mixed bag. There were some bright spots, and some duds – perhaps a few more on the Union side at critical times, but not many.
6) On average, the Confederate soldier was superior to his AoP counterpart – time and time again, the Confederate succeeded in attack and defense, whereas the Union soldier failed at both. This, in part, was the result of the fact that most of the ANV soldiery were experienced veterans (and even with their experience, their numbers were irreplaceably reduced in the course of the campaign), whereas many of the Union soldiers were either untried conscripts or reserve heavy artillery troops hastily converted into infantry. But again, one of the marks of a good general is that he understands the nature of the troops under his command (Montgomery was very good at this) and makes the appropriate adjustments. I don’t see that Grant did this.
In the end, of course, you have to ask: What was Grant’s objective? It was to pry Lee’s army out of its Rapidan defenses and pin it down to render it impossible for him to assume the offensive. This Grant did, at the cost of greater casualties and time had the campaign been handled more effectively. So, in the end, Grant was the victor in the campaign, as Rhea concludes, and this was largely the result of Grant’s determined character.
Regards, John Howard Oxley
John Howard Oxley was born right after WWII ended, which may account for his lifelong interest in military matters, with particular reference to technical naval history [he is a major battleship fan]. Apart from three years of service in the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve’s University Naval Training Division, where he completed service as a sub-lieutenant, he has had no connection with the military whatsoever, apart from a two-year stint in the early 1990s as Research Director for Crisis Simulations Inc., which developed computer-assisted simulators for the Canadian Army and for civilian disaster relief organizations. He retired from a 17-year career teaching IT at a private, for-profit university in Atlanta in 2014, relocating back to his native Canada in the following year.
Being single, with no responsibilities except for his cat, in retirement he indulges his passions for reading military and naval history along with lots of sci fi, board wargaming (including extensive re-design of existing naval war games), drinking good brandy, and smoking far too many cigars. For over three decades, he has published reviews, mostly on military books, for The American Reference Book Annual, and is currently the feature editor of the Ships’ Library for the International Naval Research Organization. He also has an abiding affection for bad puns.