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View Poll Results: How would you rate Grant during the Overland Campaign?
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Old October 14th, 2012, 05:58 PM   #1

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Ulysses S Grant in the Overland Campaign


Yes, I am shamelessly stealing an idea from a combination of Viperlord and TJadams.

By the opening months of 1864, US Grant was famed as one of the Union's most prolific generals in the Western Theater. Now he reached the pinnacle of his military career, becoming only the second lieutenant general in American history, and set up shop with the Army of the Potomac.

In May and June of '64, Grant subsequently directed what has become known as the Overland Campaign, against Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The result was the epic bloodletting at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, the North Anna River, and Cold Harbor.

So, in the same manner as the ongoing thread on Lee's performance during the same campaign, how would you rate Grant's conduct during the Overland Campaign? Was his eventually only successful due to his superior resources and 'bulldog' tenacity, or did he display more military finesse than many give him credit for?
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Old October 14th, 2012, 06:23 PM   #2

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I think I'll wait a bit and see some responses. My first impressions include things like, How many men had to die at Cold Harbor before Grant learned the lesson? On the other hand, Grant was successful in breaking Lee's back with the campaign.

I do like this rating of the performance in specific campaigns/battles.
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Old October 14th, 2012, 07:14 PM   #3

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Quote:
My first impressions include things like, How many men had to die at Cold Harbor before Grant learned the lesson
Compared to the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor (Speaking about the famous June 3rd engagement here) was a rather small engagement. 3,500 or somewhat more Union casualties to 1,500 Confederates. A grim tally for sure, but far less than Lee for example regularly lost in other battles. Also, Meade was exercising tactical control at that time, and both Meade and the corps commanders failed to follow Grant's orders to examine the ground before launching an assault, and they failed in coordinating it. Meade bizarrely boasted about ordering the attack in a letter to his wife. Grant should have called off the assault earlier than he did once it was apparent nothing was going right, but it was Grant who stepped in to call it off while Meade was still urging his commanders to press the attack.

As I'll detail later, I think there's a couple of significant mistakes made by Grant; Cold Harbor on the other hand, is a case where there's plenty of blame to go around, and it wasn't all that important in a strategic sense other than as a last probe at Lee's left.
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Old October 14th, 2012, 07:33 PM   #4

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Another important thing to consider when evaluating Grant is the command structure of the Army of the Potomac. Grant did not command the army; Meade did. Grant could and indeed did supercede Meade when he thought it appropriate. But Grant couldn't run the entire war, stay in constant communication with Washington, and personally direct the Army of the Potomac at the same time, or such was the view at the time. Because of his own awkward position, and not entirely through fault of his own, Meade frequently was a hindrance. Meade's chief of staff, A.A. Humphreys, astutely noted that the divided command prevented either general from accomplishing what they could have on their own. This brings to mind the Napoleonic quote "Better one bad general, than two good ones."
Thus, when discussing Grant's role in the Overland Campaign, I think it's important to keep this in mind. Given this, I think we should focus on Grant's administrative, operational, and strategic contributions to the campaign, rather than examine tactical matters which he frequently had little to do with. This isn't to disregard tactics entirely; after all, Grant ordered the May 12 Spotsylvania assault based on Upton's tactics. But Grant was not the absolute commander of his force that Lee was, not from lack of authority so much as the awkwardness of the command structure. We can't wave the finger at Grant for every tactical or operational failure by a subordinate, whereas Lee frequently started personally directing his army corps in battle in certain situations in the Overland Campaign. That's not to say Lee is always to blame for subordinates' failure either, it just means that Lee was more involved in the lower level of his army's command than Grant was.
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Old October 14th, 2012, 07:48 PM   #5

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Originally Posted by Baltis View Post
How many men had to die at Cold Harbor before Grant learned the lesson?
Cold Harbor was not repeated. Lee's the general who did not learn the lesson - even after he'd seen what happened to the Union troops at Fredericksburg, Lee ordered Pickett's Charge.
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Old October 14th, 2012, 07:49 PM   #6

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Originally Posted by Salah View Post
Yes, I am shamelessly stealing an idea from a combination of Viperlord and TJadams.
Pass out the hymnals.
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Old October 14th, 2012, 08:04 PM   #7

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I think Viperlord's summary is pretty accurate. Overall I think Grant did a pretty fair job in the Overland. Haven't posted a score yet but I will directly. But Cold Harbor always sticks in my mind as a bloodbath for the AOP, simply from reading about the Federal troops pinning names and home addresses on the backs of each other as they prepared to assault the solidly entrenched rebels of Lee's army, knowing that their chances of survival were slim to none, and wanting to be sure they didn't end up as an unknown KIA. (there were no dog tags used back then)

I've also read that the rate of Federal casualties was approx 7000 in less than an hour, however recently I've seen variations of those numbers and time frame.

In my reading an image stuck in my head of the description given by a rebel soldier in the trenches of Federal soldiers making a leap up, or dive toward the parapets and being shot in mid-air by many riflemen simultaneously, the bullets hitting the dusty blue uniforms and creating puffs of dust on impact.

I guess the most troublesome part of Cold Harbor for me was the length of time that the wounded Federals lay in no-man's land, being unable to move, or get water brought to them, or simply be brought out/evacuated for treatment, while Lee and Grant 'negotiated' a truce that would enable assistance to get to the Federals. It is my understanding that there was an issue/disagreement with the wording of the messages being sent back and forth between the lines, and neither general approved of their verbal makeup. The result of this delay caused many Union wounded to suffer and/or die unnecessarily. I'm a little vague on the specifics, perhaps Viperlord can expound on that some.

I don't think Cold Harbor was Grant's finest hour, although as Viperlord has stated correctly it wasn't Grant who ordered the continuous charges, it was Meade. Grant, though, seemed to take his time in putting an end to the disaster.
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Old October 14th, 2012, 08:19 PM   #8

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Originally Posted by glorybound View Post
I think Viperlord's summary is pretty accurate. Overall I think Grant did a pretty fair job in the Overland. Haven't posted a score yet but I will directly. But Cold Harbor always sticks in my mind as a bloodbath for the AOP, simply from reading about the Federal troops pinning names and home addresses on the backs of each other as they prepared to assault the solidly entrenched rebels of Lee's army, knowing that their chances of survival were slim to none, and wanting to be sure they didn't end up as an unknown KIA. (there were no dog tags used back then)

I've also read that the rate of Federal casualties was approx 7000 in less than an hour, however recently I've seen variations of those numbers and time frame.

In my reading an image stuck in my head of the description given by a rebel soldier in the trenches of Federal soldiers making a leap up, or dive toward the parapets and being shot in mid-air by many riflemen simultaneously, the bullets hitting the dusty blue uniforms and creating puffs of dust on impact.

I guess the most troublesome part of Cold Harbor for me was the length of time that the wounded Federals lay in no-man's land, being unable to move, or get water brought to them, or simply be brought out/evacuated for treatment, while Lee and Grant 'negotiated' a truce that would enable assistance to get to the Federals. It is my understanding that there was an issue/disagreement with the wording of the messages being sent back and forth between the lines, and neither general approved of their verbal makeup. The result of this delay caused many Union wounded to suffer and/or die unnecessarily. I'm a little vague on the specifics, perhaps Viperlord can expound on that some.

I don't think Cold Harbor was Grant's finest hour, although as Viperlord has stated correctly it wasn't Grant who ordered the continuous charges, it was Meade. Grant, though, seemed to take his time in putting an end to the disaster.
If I may take this one point at a time, not necessarily in order.

Quote:
I don't think Cold Harbor was Grant's finest hour, although as Viperlord has stated correctly it wasn't Grant who ordered the continuous charges, it was Meade. Grant, though, seemed to take his time in putting an end to the disaster.
There was a reason that Meade was supposed to be commanding on the field and why Grant wasn't micromanaging. Shortly before this stage of the campaign, emboldened by what he saw as Grant's lack of success at the North Anna, Meade had been fussing about not being allowed to exercise control of his own army, and exploded in typical fashion over the issue. Grant, occupied with fusing part of the Army of the James into his force, was willing to let Meade handle frontline affairs, as he should have been. Unfortunately, Meade failed to do that in a efficient manner at Cold Harbor.

Quote:

I've also read that the rate of Federal casualties was approx 7000 in less than an hour, however recently I've seen variations of those numbers and time frame.
The premier historian of the Overland Campaign, Gordon Rhea, disputes those figures in his authoritative account, and most park service historians I've talked to or read of, also believe the figures to be absurd. It's not based in any primary source whatsoever. Rhea cited the 3,500 figure I mentioned. While discussing Cold Harbor on this forum recently, I tore through a significant amount of the relevant volume of the Civil War Official Records. What I found was that there were 3,000 or so casualties in the three divisions that made any serious attack on the Confederate lines. There were some other scattered casualties from some light action on Burnside's front and other parts of Smith's, but I can't find anything that directly points to even another 1,000 casualties, let alone another 4,000. It was certainly not over the timespan of an hour.

Quote:
I guess the most troublesome part of Cold Harbor for me was the length of time that the wounded Federals lay in no-man's land, being unable to move, or get water brought to them, or simply be brought out/evacuated for treatment, while Lee and Grant 'negotiated' a truce that would enable assistance to get to the Federals. It is my understanding that there was an issue/disagreement with the wording of the messages being sent back and forth between the lines, and neither general approved of their verbal makeup. The result of this delay caused many Union wounded to suffer and/or die unnecessarily. I'm a little vague on the specifics, perhaps Viperlord can expound on that some.
Essentially, Lee wanted Grant to ask for a formalized "truce" as opposed to a ceasefire (It's possible I have the terms backwards.) This would be a tacit admission of defeat. Grant initially resisted, but then gave in. It's not an episode that reflects favorably on either general, but I think if you must pick a villain here, it shouldn't be Grant.

Quote:
But Cold Harbor always sticks in my mind as a bloodbath for the AOP, simply from reading about the Federal troops pinning names and home addresses on the backs of each other as they prepared to assault the solidly entrenched rebels of Lee's army, knowing that their chances of survival were slim to none, and wanting to be sure they didn't end up as an unknown KIA. (there were no dog tags used back then)
This was not something unique or special to Cold Harbor. Soldiers did it throughout the war, as the government did not issue dog tags. In fact, a general sense of optimism was prevalent in the army before the Cold Harbor operations. The claim that it was unique or peculiar to Cold Harbor, stemming from one of Grant's aides, is unfounded.

I think Grant scholar Brooks D. Simpson sums it up best. https://cwcrossroads.wordpress.com/2...-harbor-myths/
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Old October 14th, 2012, 08:24 PM   #9

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Originally Posted by Viperlord View Post
If I may take this one point at a time, not necessarily in order.

There was a reason that Meade was supposed to be commanding on the field and why Grant wasn't micromanaging. Shortly before this stage of the campaign, emboldened by what he saw as Grant's lack of success at the North Anna, Meade had been fussing about not being allowed to exercise control of his own army, and exploded in typical fashion over the issue. Grant, occupied with fusing part of the Army of the James into his force, was willing to let Meade handle frontline affairs, as he should have been. Unfortunately, Meade failed to do that in a efficient manner at Cold Harbor.

The premier historian of the Overland Campaign, Gordon Rhea, disputes those figures in his authoritative account, and most park service historians I've talked to or read of, also believe the figures to be absurd. It's not based in any primary source whatsoever. Rhea cited the 3,500 figure I mentioned. While discussing Cold Harbor on this forum recently, I tore through a significant amount of the relevant volume of the Civil War Official Records. What I found was that there were 3,000 or so casualties in the three divisions that made any serious attack on the Confederate lines. There were some other scattered casualties from some light action on Burnside's front and other parts of Smith's, but I can't find anything that directly points to even another 1,000 casualties, let alone another 4,000. It was certainly not over the timespan of an hour.

Essentially, Lee wanted Grant to ask for a formalized "truce" as opposed to a ceasefire (It's possible I have the terms backwards.) This would be a tacit admission of defeat. Grant initially resisted, but then gave in. It's not an episode that reflects favorably on either general, but I think if you must pick a villain here, it shouldn't be Grant.


This was not something unique or special to Cold Harbor. Soldiers did it throughout the war, as the government did not issue dog tags. In fact, a general sense of optimism was prevalent in the army before the Cold Harbor operations. The claim that it was unique or peculiar to Cold Harbor, stemming from one of Grant's aides, is unfounded.

I think Grant scholar Brooks D. Simpson sums it up best. https://cwcrossroads.wordpress.com/2...-harbor-myths/
Thanks for your valuable input, Viperlord. Appreciate your clarifications on those points. I will be reading at the link you provided now.
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Old October 14th, 2012, 08:26 PM   #10

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I'll explain the two main mistakes that Grant made that I believe hurt his chances for greater success in the campaign.

1. In a word (well, two,) Philip Sheridan. More specifically, the way that Sheridan was handled after May 7th. Sheridan had performed poorly in the Wilderness campaign as cavalry corps commander and the march to Spotsylvania. He had then spoken in a insubordinate and disrespectful manner to George G. Meade, the Army of the Potomac's commander, and vowed he could whip Stuart if Meade turned him loose. When Meade reported this to Grant, Grant allowed Sheridan to take the army's cavalry on a raid towards Richmond. This in no way materially aided Grant's campaign, and just as importantly, Sheridan was rewarded for insubordination, and Grant thus made it impossible for Sheridan and Meade to ever work together again. Grant was a master of the strategic cavalry raid, but had no prior experience using cavalry as part of a army or combined-arms force. This was due to the nature of the western theater, and this lack of experience in this field showed in the Overland Campaign. The lack of cavalry left Grant nearly blind and because of it, he missed an opportunity to smash Lee on the way to the North Anna when Lee carelessly marched his entire army across Grant's front. Fifth Corps pickets noticed the movement, but the information didn't make it up the chain of command for some reason.

2. I believe Grant expected more from the Army of the Potomac than it was capable of in terms of it's command culture. That is to say, Grant tried to use the Army of the Potomac like it was his Army of the Tennessee out west. But Grant had installed a aggressive spirit of command in his western army; the eastern army did not have that. His corps commanders were Hancock, Warren, Sedgwick, and Burnside. Hancock was a aggressive and capable leader, but his Gettysburg wound sapped his former vigor noticeably. Warren was a brilliant man in his own way, but he was cautious, ambitious, arrogant, and tended to over-think things. He was not a man to instill aggression in the army. Sedgwick was reliable, but no more aggressive than Warren. Burnside was a disaster waiting to happen. More than any of these men, and partly due to Lee, a culture of caution and defeatism had been instilled in the army, and that was Grant's enemy as much as Lee. Grant eventually triumphed over it; the conduct of the army during the last Petersburg engagement and the Appomattox Campaign proves that. But it took time and a lot of bloodshed and command shake-up.
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