Overland The Overland Campaign

(Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor)
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Jun 16, 2016
Hey @cash . I stipulate to the correctness of Gordon Rhea. But, something just occurred to me. On July 3, 1863, Pickett's charge was made by three small divisions against a position with only a low stone wall and there were about 6,000 casualties in an hour or so. At Cold Harbor, three full corps attacked full entrenchments more than a mile long that are still clearly visible after 150 years and the casualties, according to the most reliable source, were the same 6000 in all-day fighting. Go figure.
Your point escapes me.

However, thanks for reminding us that Lee was also prone to launching bloody and futile frontal assaults. Guess he learned nothing from Malvern Hill.
 

Jimklag

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Your point escapes me.

However, thanks for reminding us that Lee was also prone to launching bloody and futile frontal assaults. Guess he learned nothing from Malvern Hill.
Sorry. My point was that seeing what happened in an hour at Gettysburg shows why people might believe the 7000 in 30 minutes thing at Cold Harbor. It was not pure fantasy.
 

cash

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Right here.
Hey @cash . I stipulate to the correctness of Gordon Rhea. But, something just occurred to me. On July 3, 1863, Pickett's charge was made by three small divisions against a position with only a low stone wall and there were about 6,000 casualties in an hour or so. At Cold Harbor, three full corps attacked full entrenchments more than a mile long that are still clearly visible after 150 years and the casualties, according to the most reliable source, were the same 6000 in all-day fighting. Go figure.

Your 6,000 figure is way too high. The best estimate I've seen is about 4,300.
http://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/picketts-charge.html

Now, I don't know the answer to this offhand, but it would be interesting to compare how much ground the Union soldiers had to cover in the attack at Cold Harbor vs. how much ground the confederates had to cover at Pickett's Charge.
 

Drew

Major
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Oct 22, 2012
As for best book on the Overland Campaign there is Trudeau's book "Bloody Roads South" but I would read Gordon Rhea's four (and someday hopefully soon) five volume series.

There are other good books on various aspects of the campaign out there.

I've got Trudeau's Bloody Roads South. It's excellent and there's no reason interested parties should go anywhere else. Gordon Rhea's series on the campaign is just more detailed and appropriate for the diehards among us.
 

Zack

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I think the Overland Campaign more than anything else speaks to the fighting capacity of the Army of the Potomac. Not to discredit the Army of Northern Virginia, but too often discussions of the Civil War end up praising the bravery and tenacity of an outnumbered band of ragged rebels stubbornly holding on for four years while ignoring the incredible bravery and sacrifice of the Union soldiers. Inevitable Northern victory is often attributed to manpower superiority, but I feel this is far too much of a simplification of the situation.

While Gettysburg was a tremendously important victory for the Union, I feel that it's significance is sometimes overstated. Lee was largely able to make good on his losses after Gettysburg. "General George G. Meade, the federal army's most recent commander, had won his nation's applause by repelling Lee's foray into Northern territory with his victory at Gettysburg in July 1863. But summer, fall, and winter had come and gone, and Meade had accomplished nothing to reap the fruits of his Gettysburg victory. By the spring of 1864, Lee had brought his army back up to strength, and the defensive mind-set of the Union high command had dissipated whatever promise of success Gettysburg had offered the North" (Rhea, Carrying the Flag, 8). It stopped Lee's invasion of the North, but when the campaign season started in 1864 there was Lee sitting square on the other side of the Rapidan same as he had been since 1862. The army was going to once again have to cross that river and get at Lee and offensively defeat him on his own turf - rather than defensively at home. Lee may never have gone on the offensive again after Gettysburg, but to be quite frank the South did not need an offensive victory to win the war, and Lee was simply being ambitious every time he crossed the Potomac. For the third time, the Army of the Potomac was going to have to find the strength to lift itself up and fight, and it was going to have to do it under a new leader whose victories in the West meant little to soldiers who felt that a commander wasn't worth a pinch of salt until he had faced Lee in battle.

The campaign itself was grueling. Though the North certainly had more men than the South, as always in combat the real hard fighting fell on an ever-shrinking number of men at the tip of the spear. And with the North losing more in nearly every battle, that meant more friends and family dying and more emotions to tamp down in order to soldier on. And, whether they knew it or not, ultimate Union victory would depend on whether or not they could prove to the Northern voters that, under Lincoln, the bloodshed could be brought to a close with Union victory.

Furthermore, the number of men is irrelevant if they cannot fight. The draft system was bringing in men, but they certainly were not the cream of the crop (though some certainly went on to be good soldiers). And Grant was stripping the defenses of Washington to get more troops, a sure sign that the army ranks were thinning and that recruitments and drafts were not adequately filling them back up. Sure that was more than the South had to draw on, but at the end of the day it's the tenacity of the guy with the gun that makes the real difference, and Northern soldiers proved time and again on the worst battlefields of the war in 1864 (as they did before and would continue to do after) that they were up to the task. The narrative had always been that one Reb was worth ten Yanks or something to that effect, but the grueling slog of 1864 proved that this was simply not the case. The South may have been worn down to defeat, and superior Northern numbers and industry certainly contributed to this, but I feel that it has often been forgotten that this wearing down was done by the fighting prowess of the Union soldier.

I'm not suggesting that the Southern soldier wasn't brave (though he fought for the most reprehensible of causes) and that he didn't face hardships, just that the Northern soldier was just as brave. To quote Pickett's explanation as to why he was defeated at Gettysburg: "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."

I'll go ahead and hop off my soapbox now : )
 

James N.

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If seeking more accurate information is due to people wanting to make a name for themselves, so what? It's the result that counts. No one's disputing Rhea's research methods.

Freeman and Foote didn't go digging in the National Archives to look at those sources firsthand.

Next we'll hear that claiming that the earth is round is a revisionist plot hatched by egomaniacs who can't stand the truth and who want to be politically correct.

As Shakespeare would say, Mistake me not! I wasn't complaining about the trend, just commenting on it. 'Way back when I was in college (in the 1960's) anything resembling narrative history was considered a dead issue because it had already been done. That was where my own particular interest lay so I allowed myself to be discouraged from considering anything like getting a degree in history and trying to do anything with it. I have actually been both amazed and pleased at the development the newer crop of historians has accomplished, even if it has meant having to reconsider or relearn former "facts" like these I'd always taken for granted.
 
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trice

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May 2, 2006
At Cold Harbor there were 7000 casualties in about a half hour.

This is pure guessing on my part, but I think it really happened like this:
  • There were about 7,000 Yankee casualties.
  • The attack was generally a failure in the first 30 minutes.
  • Many/most of those casualties happened in the first 30 minutes.
  • A lot of the troops were then pinned down in exposed positions under fire until dark, unable to withdraw.
  • A lot of casualties happened during the day, nobody knows exactly when, but probably not in the first 30 minutes.
 

wausaubob

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The Overland campaign;
1. When the Army of the Potomac moved south, the Confederate strategy of causing as many casualties as possible to break the will of the people of the United States to continue the fight and Lee attacked with everything he had in the Wilderness.
2. When the Army of the Potomac emerged from the Wilderness with its logistics intact, it then had a chance to see if the Confederates had made any mistakes in allowing approaches to the Confederate entrenchments. The Potomac Army found at least one place where they approach the Confederate line under cover.
3. After the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, the Confederates were pulling reinforcements from all over the Atlantic coast.
4. Despite the United States Army taking a very vulnerable position at the North Anna River, the Confederates did not attack.
5. The combination of the near success at Spotsylvania, the Confederates hesitating at the North Anna confrontation, frustration with the lack of response of the command structure to getting a position at Cold Harbor early, which could have been exploited, and the fact that Cold Harbor was the last place there could be a battle before resorting to moving below the James River, led to Grant allowing Meade to try the assault at Cold Harbor, which was a mistake.
6. This led to the crossing of the James and the siege of Petersburg, which replicated many of the same results as Vicksburg.
7. While this was going on in a series of larger and larger and raids, the United States cavalry gradually destroyed the Virginia landscape and made all of Virginia a theater of war.
8. Lee's partial success in defending Richmond and Jefferson Davis led to the ruin of Virginia, the state that Lee said he was committed to defend. Ironic.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
The Overland campaign;
1. When the Army of the Potomac moved south, the Confederate strategy of causing as many casualties as possible to break the will of the people of the United States to continue the fight and Lee attacked with everything he had in the Wilderness.
2. When the Army of the Potomac emerged from the Wilderness with its logistics intact, it then had a chance to see if the Confederates had made any mistakes in allowing approaches to the Confederate entrenchments. The Potomac Army found at least one place where they approach the Confederate line under cover.
3. After the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, the Confederates were pulling reinforcements from all over the Atlantic coast.
4. Despite the United States Army taking a very vulnerable position at the North Anna River, the Confederates did not attack.
5. The combination of the near success at Spotsylvania, the Confederates hesitating at the North Anna confrontation, frustration with the lack of response of the command structure to getting a position at Cold Harbor early, which could have been exploited, and the fact that Cold Harbor was the last place there could be a battle before resorting to moving below the James River, led to Grant allowing Meade to try the assault at Cold Harbor, which was a mistake.
6. This led to the crossing of the James and the siege of Petersburg, which replicated many of the same results as Vicksburg.
7. While this was going on in a series of larger and larger and raids, the United States cavalry gradually destroyed the Virginia landscape and made all of Virginia a theater of war.
8. Lee's partial success in defending Richmond and Jefferson Davis led to the ruin of Virginia, the state that Lee said he was committed to defend. Ironic.

There is a lot of inter-action not explicitly covered above, otherwise pretty good summary.

Examples:
  • Butler allows himself to get bottled-up at Bermuda Hundred instead of doing something useful (like cutting the RR between Richmond and Petersburg). Once he has been buffaloed by Pickett, then Beauregard, his army is penned up -- allowing reinforcements to be sent to Lee.
  • Sigel's disaster in the Shenandoah allows Breckinridge to move to reinforce Lee. Lee uses Breckinridge to plug the gap at Cold Harbor for a day, gaining critical time to shift troops and prevent a Union victory.
  • Meade's Cold Harbor plan, if executed properly (very big if), could have won the war in June 1864. Mistakes (poor leadership, stumbling by exhausted troops, etc.) kept it from working. If the final attack is carried through when ordered (36 hours earlier), the Union will almost certainly smash the Rebel flank, be south of Lee and closer to Richmond on an open road, with Sheridan's cavalry massed to exploit the breakthrough. That didn't happen, and the attack should have been cancelled to avoid disaster -- but 36 hours earlier it would have overwhelmed the Confederate right. Such is war: good plan, lousy execution, some bad luck = disaster instead of success.
 

Jamieva

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See the chart in my #59 above. Rhea, who seems to be the only source you trust, has about half as many total casualties as everybody else. I did not invent the 7000/30 minute thing. It's stated by Shelby Foote, both in his 3-volume history and in Ken Burns' documentsry and in the other places I have posted today ad nauseum. The historians who don't agree with Rhea are not chumps, yet you completely ignore them and rely solely on Rhea. That's your prerogative. I'll stick to the consensus.


iirc there is still signage at the battlefield that says it too
 

wausaubob

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There is a lot of inter-action not explicitly covered above, otherwise pretty good summary.

Examples:
  • Butler allows himself to get bottled-up at Bermuda Hundred instead of doing something useful (like cutting the RR between Richmond and Petersburg). Once he has been buffaloed by Pickett, then Beauregard, his army is penned up -- allowing reinforcements to be sent to Lee.
  • Sigel's disaster in the Shenandoah allows Breckinridge to move to reinforce Lee. Lee uses Breckinridge to plug the gap at Cold Harbor for a day, gaining critical time to shift troops and prevent a Union victory.
  • Meade's Cold Harbor plan, if executed properly (very big if), could have won the war in June 1864. Mistakes (poor leadership, stumbling by exhausted troops, etc.) kept it from working. If the final attack is carried through when ordered (36 hours earlier), the Union will almost certainly smash the Rebel flank, be south of Lee and closer to Richmond on an open road, with Sheridan's cavalry massed to exploit the breakthrough. That didn't happen, and the attack should have been cancelled to avoid disaster -- but 36 hours earlier it would have overwhelmed the Confederate right. Such is war: good plan, lousy execution, some bad luck = disaster instead of success.
Butler's offensive did not achieve what Grant wanted, but it probably achieved what Grant needed.
Sigel's failure had a larger impact, which Hunter compounded by not keeping his logistics intact. But that was not unique to Hunter. Every United States army ran into logistical problems in the upper valley.
 
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