The Overland Campaign

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Dead Parrott

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Personally, after reading some of the posts here, I do think the strategy was more about destroying Lee's army. I don't know that Richmond as a Capital was as important to take as, say, the likes of Vicksburg for strategic purposes. Although it's proximity to Washington would certainly create a threat while hostilities were ongoing. If it was taken, the Confederate Government could always be moved to another location. But, destroy an army and you have no government, because that's how wars are won.
Destroy, isolate or neutralize the ANV, and Richmond falls.
 

Dead Parrott

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Lincoln consistently advocated the destruction of the rebel armies, rather than the capture of cities such as Richmond. Grant adhered to this concept, and instructed General Meade at the onset of the Overland Campaign: "Lee's army will be your objective. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." That being said, the taking of southern cities as a goal should not be overlooked. After all, much of the Union's ability to defeat the Confederacy was based on the capture of strategic places like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, which were prime logistical bases for the south and which also held psychological significance to the southern population and administration. So in actual fact, military conflict was not a simple choice of "either-or" and the distinction between going after armies and seizing vital towns and cities was often commingled.
Valid point. If Lee were cut off or retreated and Richmond fell, it would reelect Lincoln. Its' one of the reasons that Grant's strategy included the possibility of Lee retreating South if cut off. Destroying\capturing\neutralizing the ANV was the key goal, but the fall of Richmond would be no minor matter, from a morale standpoint.
 
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While I don't disagree with the above quotes (they accurately reflected Grant's views), I am always concerned when they are cited as some people use those same quotes to demonstrate that Grant was an unimaginative commander who simply overwhelmed Lee with superior numbers -- and that was the extent of Grant's military ability. It also tends to oversimplify the difficulty in neutralizing, let alone eliminating, an opposing army. Grant's entire strategy in Virginia in 1864 was to eliminate Lee's Army by eliminating his logistical support. The fact is, most of that plan failed, which is why the Overland Campaign became the bloodbath that it was.
 
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Cavalry Charger

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This is an outstanding thread @Cavalry Charger just what I expect from you! Congratulations on a great effort
Regards
David
Such a huge compliment :cloud9:

Thank you, David!

I'm enjoying reading the responses.
 
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Dead Parrott

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When the Overland Campaign started, there was only a general plan of campaign for the Virginia campaign. It went like this:
  1. Grant/Meade would move on Richmond, assuming would move to attack them or to interpose between the their advance and Richmond.
  2. Sigel would push up the Shenandoah, threatening Confederate sullies/LOC and acting as a possible turning reinforcement for Grant/Meade
  3. Butler (really Smith and Gillmore) would move on the Petersburg-Richmond RR line to cut the Confederate LOC
  4. Crook and Averell would lead expeditions against the Confederate RR/LOC from West Virginia.
This fell apart quickly, with Breckinridge routing Sigel and Butler blundering into uselessness at Bermuda Hundred. Averell was stopped at Cove Gap, but Crook tore up the RR and burned the New River Bridge before returning to WV (hearing that Lee had beaten Grant at the Wilderness.

That left Grant/Meade. They were marching quickly, trying to get through the Wilderness and get to better territory. Lee moved to strike them hard, wanting to see if he could pull off another Chancellorsville. Grant and Meade had discussed what to do and were on the same page: if Lee came into range, fight him!

So when the AoP is in the Wilderness and Meade hears Lee is approaching, there is no hesitation. Meade calls off the advance, pivots the army to the West, and moves to meet Lee. After he issues those orders, he notifies Grant of what he has done.

Two days of bloody battle later, Grant looks out across the smoldering Wilderness, sees the Confederates digging in, ready for more fighting. He mutters "After two such days, Joe Johnston would retreat." That night, Grant pulls the AoP out and marches SE. When the army realizes that they are not pulling back to Fredericksburg but pushing towards Richmond, the troops erupt in cheers. Finally, they have commanders who will keep up the fight, who will lead them against the enemy until the war ends.

That takes us to Spotsylvania and the bloody fighting there. Grant sends Sheridan on his raid towards Richmond; Lee detaches Stuart to counter Sheridan and Stuart dies. Fighting around Spotsylvania continues day after day, Grant hitting Lee left, right, and center. Grant wants to keep Lee tied in position and neither has enough cavalry present to engage in a real campaign of movement. Grant would gladly crush Lee and comes close a time or two (particularly at the Mule Shoe); Lee defends with grit and skill.

When Grant gets the reports of how things have fouled up in the Shenandoah and at Bermuda Hundred, he realizes it is all up to the main force. He starts the series of turning movements that take us to the North Anna, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. In those days, they used to call this campaign the "Forty Days" as a reference to the suffering and trials of the Bible.

The campaign of Grant and Meade came close to breaking Lee more than once. Confederate disaster loomed overwhelmingly in the days before Cold Harbor and then again at Petersburg. Hard fighting, General Lee, overall exhaustion of the soldiers and plain luck saved the Confederacy in those dark days.

There was no specific campaign plan drawn out beforehand. Grant and Meade acted on general principles and ideas. They knew that every step closer to Richmond was a blow to the Confederacy. They knew what Lee knew: that Lee needed room and distance from Richmond to wage the campaign of maneuver he favored, that the more tied to Richmond and Petersburg the ANV became the less of a threat to the Union they were. While Grant must have wanted to avoid a siege and win quickly, Grant must also have known a siege would grind slowly in favor of the Union.
An absolutely fantastic summation of the campaign. Kudos!
 

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That left Grant/Meade. They were marching quickly, trying to get through the Wilderness and get to better territory. Lee moved to strike them hard, wanting to see if he could pull off another Chancellorsville. Grant and Meade had discussed what to do and were on the same page: if Lee came into range, fight him!

So when the AoP is in the Wilderness and Meade hears Lee is approaching, there is no hesitation. Meade calls off the advance, pivots the army to the West, and moves to meet Lee.
So, they had a good plan, but if Lee preferred to fight in the Wilderness, they would abandon their plan and accommodate their enemy on his terms. Then, after two days of head-to-head slugfest, with the Rebs being the ones to get in an imaginative flank attack, Grant pulled out and reverted to something like his original plan, except of course that Lee and his army were now in close proximity.
 

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While I don't disagree with the above quotes (they accurately reflected Grant's views), I am always concerned when they are cited as some people use those same quotes to demonstrate that Grant was an unimaginative commander who simply overwhelmed Lee with superior numbers -- and that was the extent of Grant's military ability. It also tends to oversimplify the difficulty in neutralizing, let alone eliminating, an opposing army. Grant's entire strategy in Virginia in 1864 was to eliminate Lee's Army by eliminating his logistical support. The fact is, most of that plan failed, which is why the Overland Campaign became the bloodbath that it was.
He continually stressed the importance of cutting the railroads into Richmond, to Sigel, Hunter, Butler, and even Sheridan, all of whom failed to one extent or another. Of course it was finally done, but not until the following year.
 
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Andy Cardinal

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He continually stressed the importance of cutting the railroads into Richmond, to Sigel, Hunter, Butler, and even Sheridan, all of whom failed to one extent or another. Of course it was finally done, but not until the following year.
Yep. If Sigel, Hunter, and especially Butler had come anywhere close to doing what Grant intended, the last year would have been much different and I suspect the war would have been much shorter. And, incidently, I think Grant would be better appreciated today as a strategist.
 

trice

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So, they had a good plan, but if Lee preferred to fight in the Wilderness, they would abandon their plan and accommodate their enemy on his terms. Then, after two days of head-to-head slugfest, with the Rebs being the ones to get in an imaginative flank attack, Grant pulled out and reverted to something like his original plan, except of course that Lee and his army were now in close proximity.
Very true in many ways. Grant viewed maneuvering as a way to come into contact with the enemy and fight him at an advantage. He and Meade were on the same page on this -- to the extent that when Meade learns that Meade is coming hard at The Wilderness, he issues orders to turn and strike Lee before he notifies Grant that Lee is approaching.

The Overland Campaign (or the "Forty Days" as it was sometimes called then) is essentially a series of turning movements by Grant (and a time or two by Lee). Grant/Meade almost always moves to their left, trying to turn Lee's right. Once in a while Grant/Meade move and strike right (just to see if Lee had left himself vulnerable by leaning too much the other way, I think). In the actions around Spotsylvania Court House, both sides are hindered by a lack of cavalry (after Sheridan and Stuart ride south) and so the movements are short hooks to the body with a head shot or two (the Mule Shoe) with the armies almost in a clinch. Once the cavalry returns, the movements become wider ranging.

Grant was never tied to a plan. He was willing to react to events as they happened while still remaining true to his original concept. He understood Lee's situation just as he understood his own. He knew Lee's biggest weakness was being tied to Richmond, which made his actions somewhat predictable and restrained. By constantly applying pressure and always prodding at and threatening Richmond, he was able to make steady progress. If he had faced a less talented opponent, Grant would (IMHO) have ended the war with a victory in Virginia in 1864.

The two days at The Wilderness are clearly some form of a drawn battle with a horrible cost. It is the will of Grant and his actions that follow from it that make it a turning point for the Union and the Confederacy. I think Grant faces a challenge here, a gut check such as he had not been subjected to before, and he knew it. As he stared out across the smoldering Wilderness on the 3rd day and saw Lee's troops digging in further, daring him to come on again, Grant said: "After two such days, Joe Johnston would have retreated." It was then and there that Grant admitted to himself that Robert E. Lee was something he had not faced before.

On the other side, Lee was having his own moment. He had tried to remember Grant, who he knew he had met in Mexico, and recalled nothing of worth. Lee had studied Grant's campaigns in the West. He had asked those officers he had who knew Grant before the war about him. That included Longstreet, who had been at Grant's wedding (Longstreet told the ANV officers who asked him of Grant in Spring 1864 that he would fight them every day until the war ended).

When the campaign started, Lee resolved to strike Grant as hard a blow as he could, to shock the AoP and drive it back. Arguably, Lee hurt Grant/Meade at the Wilderness every bit as hard as he had hurt Hooker at Chancellorsville, and possibly worse. The question then became what Grant would do next: retreat on Fredericksburg or strike towards Richmond. Lee thought Fredericksburg the likely course, but had a nagging doubt -- that's why Anderson is in motion for Spotsylvania when Grant makes his move on the night of the 3rd day, arriving just in time.

I think that's when Lee knows. This is the man he never wanted to see, the one who will keep coming when battered, shake his head to clear it and come on again. That makes Grant the man who will actually use all the Union advantages, who will lean on the Confederates, press them, pound them, wrestle with them, bring all the strength and weight he can to bear. If nothing else works, he will make it a battle of attrition, he will bear the agony of dead and wounded men, until in the end the Confederacy will break or be buried under the avalanche.

Lee and his men would fight on, do their best and more -- but it would not be enough. They needed some great event to rescue them, a decisive victory in the West, a political eruption in the North, some unforeseen diplomatic triumph. None came.
 
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I am finding most of the discussion favorable but there exist several areas in need of addressing. For one Grant’s original Plan A should more accurately be listed as follows: Grant/Meade was to directly drive Lee into Richmond for a fatal siege within roughly ten (10) days solely north of the James River; Butler/Army of the James was assigned to meet Grant/Meade at Richmond within the same stated ten (10) days by sealing off Richmond solely south of the James River; Sigel was to invade the Valley thus pinning down potential reinforcements; Hunter was to do the same south of West Virginia. Plan A was immediately destroyed by Lee in that Lee seized the initiative by a surprise ambush of Grant/Meade in the Wilderness. The fallout of this Battle was that Butler/Army of the James was rendered isolated and threaten thus a forced default/retreat. Due to this position, CSA Beauregard attacks but is stopped from destroying the Army of James by his militarily being checked at Bermuda Hundred fortress. Sigel and Hunter ended unpleasantly. Therefore, Plan A ended in failure by Grant, Meade, Butler, Sigel, and Hunter. Of course, due to the outstanding abilities of Grant there were other follow up Plans which would eventually lead to Victory in 1865.
 
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Cavalry Charger

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Lee and his men would fight on, do their best and more -- but it would not be enough. They needed some great event to rescue them, a decisive victory in the West, a political eruption in the North, some unforeseen diplomatic triumph. None came.
This, IMHO, is a great assessment (the whole post). Thanks for posting it. It reminded me of two boxers in the ring, the way you described it, with the bobbing and weaving, and the 'knock out punch' yet to come.
 
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James N.

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… When the campaign started, Lee resolved to strike Grant as hard a blow as he could, to shock the AoP and drive it back. Arguably, Lee hurt Grant/Meade at the Wilderness every bit as hard as he had hurt Hooker at Chancellorsville, and possibly worse. The question then became what Grant would do next: retreat on Fredericksburg or strike towards Richmond. Lee thought Fredericksburg the likely course, but had a nagging doubt -- that's why Anderson is in motion for Spotsylvania when Grant makes his move on the night of the 3rd day, arriving just in time.

I think that's when Lee knows. This is the man he never wanted to see, the one who will keep coming when battered, shake his head to clear it and come on again. That makes Grant the man who will actually use all the Union advantages, who will lean on the Confederates, press them, pound them, wrestle with them, bring all the strength and weight he can to bear. If nothing else works, he will make it a battle of attrition, he will bear the agony of dead and wounded men, until in the end the Confederacy will break or be buried under the avalanche.

Lee and his men would fight on, do their best and more -- but it would not be enough. They needed some great event to rescue them, a decisive victory in the West, a political eruption in the North, some unforeseen diplomatic triumph. None came.
One of my favorite quotes - by Bruce Catton, I believe, speaking about the morning of May 3, 1863 at Chancellorsville - has always been "Oddly enough, Joe Hooker was not in particularly bad shape." But as usual for that time in the war, Lee was able to once again totally overawe his opponent; the Army of Northern Virginia had not beat the Army of the Potomac nearly as much as Lee beat Hooker. And as you say, by only a year later that had all changed. An interesting question might be what would've happened had Grant not come east and the campaign been fought entirely between Lee and Meade.
 

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I am finding most of the discussion favorable but there exist several areas in need of addressing. For one Grant’s original Plan A should more accurately be listed as follows: Grant/Meade was to directly drive Lee into Richmond for a fatal siege within roughly ten (10) days solely north of the James River; Butler/Army of the James was assigned to meet Grant/Meade at Richmond within the same stated ten (10) days by sealing off Richmond solely south of the James River; Sigel was to invade the Valley thus pinning down potential reinforcements; Hunter was to do the same south of West Virginia...
There are a few flaws in the way you have the roles assigned: Grant was actively attempting to keep Lee out of the Richmond defenses, but knew the surest way to force Lee to come to grips with him was by threatening the Confederate capital. Butler DID of course meet Grant and Meade, but his original assignment was to seize, destroy, and hold the railroad junction at Petersburg. Hunter wasn't actually in the picture until he replaced Sigel and the instruction to both was not only to keep reenforcements from Lee but to also destroy the railroad at Lynchburg; that also became a target for Sheridan who didn't take it out until the following year.
 
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trice

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One of my favorite quotes - by Bruce Catton, I believe, speaking about the morning of May 3, 1863 at Chancellorsville - has always been "Oddly enough, Joe Hooker was not in particularly bad shape." But as usual for that time in the war, Lee was able to once again totally overawe his opponent; the Army of Northern Virginia had not beat the Army of the Potomac nearly as much as Lee beat Hooker. And as you say, by only a year later that had all changed. An interesting question might be what would've happened had Grant not come east and the campaign been fought entirely between Lee and Meade.
That is an interesting question. Grant had thought of staying West, but he knew almost nothing personally of the Eastern commanders and needed to handle the political relationship in Washington as well as the military one. Interestingly enough, both Grant and Sherman felt that Halleck had protected them from the high command early in the war; Sherman and Halleck had been friends since the Mexican War and it wasn't until after the war that Grant discovered Halleck had been willing to shop him as a scapegoat to McClellan in early 1862.)

Lee respected Meade, as noted when he heard Meade had assumed command before Gettysburg (General Meade will make no mistake on my front, and should I make one, will be quick to seize upon it.” ) Both had been members of the Napoleonic Society of West Point; both had served as Engineers. Meade's first two days in command of the AoP are a textbook example of what was called the Napoleonic bataillon-carré system of moving an army of Corps in an advance upon the enemy. Meade was skillful and aggressive, a tough fighter.

In line with your point, one of the most interesting what-ifs of the Overland Campaign is actually a Meade plan: the operation that led to Cold Harbor. Meade had conceived that plan and was quite proud of it (bringing Smith's Corps up from Butler to try to get around Lee). It almost worked. If it had worked, the Union would have been south of Lee, closer to Richmond than Lee on an open road, with Sheridan's cavalry massed to exploit the breakthrough.

That did not happen, of course. Partly it was a tired Union Army not getting administrative details right, supply issues and bad troop-leading. Partly it was an outstanding personal effort by Lee, followed by tough fighting to hold the crucial point and rush reinforcements to stave off the Yankees. The final attack was delayed and delayed again; it should have been cancelled to avoid the bloodbath we think of as Cold Harbor. But if could have been launched when planned, 24-36 hours earlier, it would almost surely have swamped the Rebel defenders and opened the path to Richmond. The actual attack that became history had no chance; the earlier efforts fumbled and flopped about as the chance slipped away.

So Meade in real command of the Overland Campaign would be a very interesting thought. It would have to mean Grant is not in the field in Virginia, and probably that Sheridan is out West with Thomas, maybe in a Corps command, so someone else is commanding the cavalry.
 
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Thanks for the reply James N. but let me elaborate more. I had observed in Grant’s materials where in my understanding the flanking moves upon Lee initially were of two components; make Lee comes out of his entrenchments into open field battles; and secondly these series of battles would weaken Lee and compel Lee to end up in Richmond in a weaker state. Grant wanted Lee in the Box at Richmond just like Grant put Pemberton in the Box at Vicksburg and Grant put Floyd/Pillow/Buckner in the Box at Fort Donelson. I will look for those documents proving this. Second item involves the original Butler/Army of James assignment which you said was railroads networks at Petersburg south of Richmond. Grant has statements that as an afterthought cited those railroads must be cut; but that was a benefit from fulfilling the objective goal of Grant’s instructions, which was to meet Grant at Richmond to siege Lee. Those railroads would be cut with Butler coming out of Bermuda Hundred going toward Richmond, not going south to Petersburg. Grant never told Butler to take Petersburg, until immediately after the final Grant defeat at Cold Harbor. Thanks for the additional details on Sigel/Hunter.
 

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Thanks for the reply James N. but let me elaborate more. I had observed in Grant’s materials where in my understanding the flanking moves upon Lee initially were of two components; make Lee comes out of his entrenchments into open field battles; and secondly these series of battles would weaken Lee and compel Lee to end up in Richmond in a weaker state. Grant wanted Lee in the Box at Richmond just like Grant put Pemberton in the Box at Vicksburg and Grant put Floyd/Pillow/Buckner in the Box at Fort Donelson. I will look for those documents proving this. Second item involves the original Butler/Army of James assignment which you said was railroads networks at Petersburg south of Richmond. Grant has statements that as an afterthought cited those railroads must be cut; but that was a benefit from fulfilling the objective goal of Grant’s instructions, which was to meet Grant at Richmond to siege Lee. Those railroads would be cut with Butler coming out of Bermuda Hundred going toward Richmond, not going south to Petersburg. Grant never told Butler to take Petersburg, until immediately after the final Grant defeat at Cold Harbor. Thanks for the additional details on Sigel/Hunter.
Apparently not - Grant's main objective seems always to have been to end the war as quickly as possible, thereby saving both lives and money. Driving Lee into earthworks that would require a lengthy siege was the last thing Grant wanted. It must be remembered that the "siege" of Richmond/Petersburg wasn't a siege at all - at NO time were the Confederates sealed up in their defenses and cut off from the rest of the Confederacy like Vicksburg and Donelson had been. (And then, neither really was Donelson, but everybody except Forrest believed it was!) Grant's aim was to hopefully defeat Lee openly in a field battle where the remnants could be overcome piecemeal, much like was finally done during the Appomattox Campaign at places like Five Forks and Sayler's Creek.
 
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trice

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Thanks for the reply James N. but let me elaborate more. I had observed in Grant’s materials where in my understanding the flanking moves upon Lee initially were of two components; make Lee comes out of his entrenchments into open field battles; and secondly these series of battles would weaken Lee and compel Lee to end up in Richmond in a weaker state. Grant wanted Lee in the Box at Richmond just like Grant put Pemberton in the Box at Vicksburg and Grant put Floyd/Pillow/Buckner in the Box at Fort Donelson. I will look for those documents proving this. Second item involves the original Butler/Army of James assignment which you said was railroads networks at Petersburg south of Richmond. Grant has statements that as an afterthought cited those railroads must be cut; but that was a benefit from fulfilling the objective goal of Grant’s instructions, which was to meet Grant at Richmond to siege Lee. Those railroads would be cut with Butler coming out of Bermuda Hundred going toward Richmond, not going south to Petersburg. Grant never told Butler to take Petersburg, until immediately after the final Grant defeat at Cold Harbor. Thanks for the additional details on Sigel/Hunter.
Apparently not - Grant's main objective seems always to have been to end the war as quickly as possible, thereby saving both lives and money. Driving Lee into earthworks that would require a lengthy siege was the last thing Grant wanted. It must be remembered that the "siege" of Richmond/Petersburg wasn't a siege at all - at NO time were the Confederates sealed up in their defenses and cut off from the rest of the Confederacy like Vicksburg and Donelson had been. (And then, neither really was Donelson, but everybody except Forrest believed it was!) Grant's aim was to hopefully defeat Lee openly in a field battle where the remnants could be overcome piecemeal, much like was finally done during the Appomattox Campaign at places like Five Forks and Sayler's Creek.
Grant's first idea was to take the AoP, load 10 days supplies into the wagons, cut loose from his supply lines, and move south along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge -- then turn west to strike at Richmond, forcing Lee to fight west of the city. This would avoid the 3 years worth of fortifications defending the northern and eastern approaches to Richmond. To put it mildly, this is a wild and woolly proposal that would scare the daylights out of most commanders.

Grant would later say he would have actually followed through on this idea if he had known how good an army the AoP was and they had known enough about him.

Of course, another one of Grant's first ideas when he was put in command was to make better use of resources by bringing generals McClellan, Buell and Franklin back to active service. Political reality reared its' ugly head and only Franklin came back (Grant wanted him to command the AoP cavalry, but Grant could not manage that and Halleck suggested Sheridan). Not all of Grant's ideas come out looking good in hindsight.

Of course, Robert E. Lee might have had some interesting ideas of his own if the AoP cut loose from their LOC and came down around Gordonsville-Charlottesville. :hungry:
 
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Now lets take time and allow General Benjamin Butler speak by way of the wonderful book: BUTLER'S BOOK:

"From an interview with Sheridan (see Feb 25th), I (Butler) learned what Lee and Grant had done in the march from the Rapides. The position of Grant's army and its distance from Richmond, contradicted all the dispatches I had received from Washington, and I judged that it was impossible for him to do otherwise than to take the alternative in the plan agreed upon between us (the infamous suppressed meeting on 04/01/1864 at Fort Monroe), in case he failed to turn Lee's left and drive him back into Richmond (the infamous boxing of Bobby Lee), where I was to meet him (Grant) in TEN DAYS. Evidently Grant was not coming to Richmond (per the secreted talk with Sheridan) but had marched by his left flank to join me at City Point, intending to continue his operations on the south side (of James River). I had PERFORMED MY PART by being around Richmond, holding its outer defences (at Fort Durery) on the south side of the James River, and now --------- I concluded that I would not continue to hold my position more than a day or two longer, long enough to hold a road open for Kautz (only cavalry force available to Butler) to find his way back to join in if he had met with disaster (while attacking rebel railroads). The fortifications of our INTRENCHED CAMP at BERMUDA (HUNDREDS) were by no means in such condition as they needed to be, to be thoroughly impregnable to the attack of the WHOLE OF LEE'S ARMY, he having the interior or shorter line. He might attempt to carry them and thus force Grant, whom he had learned was to make this (BERMUDA HUNDRED'S) his NEW BASE, into the position in which McClellan was at Harrison's landing. Accordingly it was IMPERATIVE that I should NO LONGER PERIL THE SAFETY OF GRANT'S NEW BASE, AND ALSO PROBABLY THE SAFETY OF HIS ARMY."
 
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