Was Grant's Overland Campaign a Failure?

jackt62

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I've been thinking about the similarities between Grant's Overland Campaign and Hooker's Chancellorsville Campaign. While Hooker's campaign is considered as a failure, we do not often apply the same terminology to Grant's 1864 effort. In both instances, the plan (with certain exceptions in each) was for the AotP to cross the Rapidan/Rappahannock Rivers and outflank Lee's ANV to cause that army to be forced to fight on open ground or to retreat and have its supply lines cut. Both campaigns envisioned a quick march through the Wilderness to the open ground to the east. But in both cases, the AotP was caught flat-footed in the dense growth of the Wilderness, where its artillery and numerical advantages were diminished. (Despite its passage, Hooker negated his advance and chose to maintain a position in the Wilderness.) In both campaigns, Lee quickly took advantage of the Union position by mounting aggressive counterattacks each time. In Hooker's case, that was enough to prompt him to withdraw the AotP back across the river and essentially terminate his campaign. But Grant chose to maintain his offensive by embarking on a series of southeastward movements to outflank the ANV. The idea still being to force the ANV into open terrain from which it could be cut off from its supply lines and effectively assaulted.

Needless to say, that never happened. After the Wilderness battle, Lee chose to react defensively by fighting behind fixed entrenchments. This was the pattern from Spotsylvania through North Anna and Cold Harbor. Grant was forced to throw his force against a well entrenched enemy, and except at North Anna, amassed huge casualties with no apparent benefit. Was Grant overly optimistic in believing that Lee would not fight that type of defensive war, or did Grant believe that he had no other option but to continue attempted flanking movements until he ran out of room near the James River? In any case, it is hard to assess the Overland Campaign as anything more than a failed attempt to destroy the ANV.
 

A. Roy

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But Grant chose to maintain his offensive by embarking on a series of southeastward movements to outflank the ANV. The idea still being to force the ANV into open terrain from which it could be cut off from its supply lines and effectively assaulted.

Needless to say, that never happened.

This is interesting. I didn't realize that there was an articulated plan along these lines on Grant's part. I've only begun to study the Overland Campaign, but I've been thinking of it more as an effort at continuous contact to wear down and push back the AoNV, grinding down the enemy's resources until they just couldn't fight anymore. But you've probably studied this a lot more than I have. What documentation is there for what you're saying about Grant's strategy?

Roy B.
 

JeffFromSyracuse

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This is interesting. I didn't realize that there was an articulated plan along these lines on Grant's part. I've only begun to study the Overland Campaign, but I've been thinking of it more as an effort at continuous contact to wear down and push back the AoNV, grinding down the enemy's resources until they just couldn't fight anymore. But you've probably studied this a lot more than I have. What documentation is there for what you're saying about Grant's strategy?

Roy B.
It's one of Gordon Rhea's main talking points in his series.
 

JeffFromSyracuse

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After the Wilderness battle, Lee chose to react defensively by fighting behind fixed entrenchments. This was the pattern from Spotsylvania through North Anna and Cold Harbor. Grant was forced to throw his force against a well entrenched enemy, and except at North Anna, amassed huge casualties with no apparent benefit.
I disagree with this assessment.

Lee's casualties at the Wilderness meant he couldn't launch large scale offensives at later battles.

Grant thought a full scale attack would work on Laurel Hill on May 8 and 10, but these didn't work. By May 12, he had changed tactics on how to attack the Mule Shoe salient - casualties were bloody there because of the sustained duration of the fighting.

He didn't attack at the North Anna because he knew he couldn't carry the position.

According to some, Cold Harbor attacks were the result of staff fatigue and bad communication. If Grant and Meade had known how good the Confederate trenches were by June 3, they likely wouldn't have ordered another attack.

As was discussed in a recent thread, the "throwing his force against a well-entrenched enemy" is an oversimplification of the whole campaign. Grant was attacking where he knew or thought there was weakness. He was wrong several times, but he only ordered attacks he thought would work.
 

jackt62

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This is interesting. I didn't realize that there was an articulated plan along these lines on Grant's part. I've only begun to study the Overland Campaign, but I've been thinking of it more as an effort at continuous contact to wear down and push back the AoNV, grinding down the enemy's resources until they just couldn't fight anymore. But you've probably studied this a lot more than I have. What documentation is there for what you're saying about Grant's strategy?

Roy B.
There are many good sources on Grant and his campaigns that I've read over the years such as Gordon Rhea's series, "Grant and Lee" by J.F.C. Fuller, "Campaigning with Grant" by Horace Porter, and Grant's own memoirs to name just a few. Rather than simply wearing down an enemy by attrition, it seems to me that Grant's methods relied on taking the initiative, the avoidance of fighting from entrenchments, persistent maneuvering to gain advantage over an enemy, and obtaining secure lines of supply and communication. Taking initiative by striking first was a Grant trait from early on at Paducah, Belmont, and Forts Henry and Donelson. Persistent maneuvering finally led Grant to Vicksburg's "underbelly" and his 2 albeit, unsuccessful assaults on those fortifications were done to avoid the use of regular approaches to besiege that city. Opening the Cracker line at Chattanooga was a prerequisite for his assaults at Chattanooga as was his original goal of establishing a depot (which was not a success) at Holly Springs prior to an assault on Vicksburg. But don't get me wrong, Grant's methods could also lead to failure, as I posed as the question for this thread and as noted in the cases of Vicksburg. Being surprised at Shiloh was also a consequence of Grant's way of thinking, and in meeting a formidable opponent in Lee, Grant was forced to acknowledge that his tactics would need to be changed.
 

jackt62

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I disagree with this assessment.

Lee's casualties at the Wilderness meant he couldn't launch large scale offensives at later battles.

Grant thought a full scale attack would work on Laurel Hill on May 8 and 10, but these didn't work. By May 12, he had changed tactics on how to attack the Mule Shoe salient - casualties were bloody there because of the sustained duration of the fighting.

He didn't attack at the North Anna because he knew he couldn't carry the position.

According to some, Cold Harbor attacks were the result of staff fatigue and bad communication. If Grant and Meade had known how good the Confederate trenches were by June 3, they likely wouldn't have ordered another attack.

As was discussed in a recent thread, the "throwing his force against a well-entrenched enemy" is an oversimplification of the whole campaign. Grant was attacking where he knew or thought there was weakness. He was wrong several times, but he only ordered attacks he thought would work.

Don't get me wrong. I don't consider Grant to be a non-thinking "butcher" who blundered his way through to victory. Given that Grant believed in seizing the initiative, many of his assaults were conceived on the basis, as you say, of a reasonable chance of success. Grant was willing to take that chance. In the case of Cold Harbor, Grant was running out of room to maneuver and probably understood that this was his last attempt to obtain victory over the ANV. The assaults failed but the alternative as it turned out, was another 10 months of slogging around the Petersburg defensives.
 

jackt62

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Success. The Confederacy could not win the war by defending Richmond. Grant's opening moves in the East were were the beginning of the end of the war. Lee likely knew the inevitable outcome by the second half of June 1864.
Ironically, Grant's moves in the Overland Campaign did not pan out the way he expected it too, but in the end, his persistence in maintaining the pressure did bring victory to the Union.
 

JeffFromSyracuse

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Don't get me wrong. I don't consider Grant to be a non-thinking "butcher" who blundered his way through to victory. Given that Grant believed in seizing the initiative, many of his assaults were conceived on the basis, as you say, of a reasonable chance of success. Grant was willing to take that chance. In the case of Cold Harbor, Grant was running out of room to maneuver and probably understood that this was his last attempt to obtain victory over the ANV. The assaults failed but the alternative as it turned out, was another 10 months of slogging around the Petersburg defensives.
It's also very telling that Grant basically wouldn't allow a frontal assault around Petersburg from July 30 (the Crater) to April 2 (the Breakthrough). He gave up on one working for 9 full months.
 

jackt62

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It's also very telling that Grant basically wouldn't allow a frontal assault around Petersburg from July 30 (the Crater) to April 2 (the Breakthrough). He gave up on one working for 9 full months.
And during the same time, in keeping with Grant's restless ambition to attempt some sort of offensive action, he resorted to the alternative technique of attempting to cut off the enemy's supply lines at the Weldon RR.
 

A. Roy

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Rather than simply wearing down an enemy by attrition, it seems to me that Grant's methods relied on taking the initiative, the avoidance of fighting from entrenchments, persistent maneuvering to gain advantage over an enemy, and obtaining secure lines of supply and communication.

Interesting summary of a number of Grant's campaigns. I was wondering specifically about the parallel you drew between Grant in the Overland and Hooker at Chancellorsville; the idea being that both were intended to force Lee to fight on the open ground. I knew that's what Hooker was trying to do, but I hadn't realized that Grant had a similar intention.

Roy B.
 

jackt62

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Interesting summary of a number of Grant's campaigns. I was wondering specifically about the parallel you drew between Grant in the Overland and Hooker at Chancellorsville; the idea being that both were intended to force Lee to fight on the open ground. I knew that's what Hooker was trying to do, but I hadn't realized that Grant had a similar intention.

Roy B.
Hooker had the right idea; his problem was changing his own plan midstream and adopting a defensive posture instead. But Grant would never have given up the way Hooker did. That persistence was one of Grant's notable traits, which allowed him to head south, rather than retreat north, after the bloodletting in the Wilderness. In Grant's mind, the setback in the Wilderness was simply a bump on the road to achieving his goal of nudging the ANV away from fixed defenses. But Lee was a wily opponent who did not easily take the bait. Lee needed to conserve his slowly diminishing resources and found ways to frustrate Grant's intentions of offering battle outside of protective fortifications.
 

J C J Barefoot

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The Campaign was a strategic success that guaranteed the wrap up of the war. Grant knew and accepted when he came East that the only way the war would be one was by a simultaneous four prong attack on the major weak points. With opening moves in the Valley, Mobile, Atlanta and Bermuda Hundred, His (Grant’s) gaol was to destroy Lee’s army and to bring hell to the supply lines into Richmond.

Grant knew, as stated in his memoirs that the war was now turning to a war of attrition. He confirmed this during the Wilderness in a message to Lincoln that no matter the cost there would be no turning back. If Lee could not be destroyed in one blow, which Grant had hoped would happen in early May, then he would make Lee fight a war of attrition. In addition to raw attrition, he would be wearing down Lee’s army by destroying their ability to eat and to feed their horses. Disrupting puppy meant fewer and fewer calories for the southern soldiers. Since that was the goal his , the campaign was a success.
Let's look at the numbers. On May 1st​, 1864 Grant had 120,000 troops, a 1.85:1 advantage to Lee’s 65,000. At the close of The Wilderness Grant had 102,000 with a 1.89:1 advantage to Lee’s now 54,000. The Wilderness was the last time the ANV ever made an offensive attack. So Lee did not not decide to fight an defensive strategy after the Wilderness, he was forced into it and had absolutely no choice.
At the close of Spotsylvania Grant had 84,000 men with now a 2:1 advantage to Lee’s 41,000.
As ugly as Cold Harbor was for Grant, at the close he held his 2:1 advantage with 72,000 to Lee’s now diminished 36,000.
The open on Petersburg was the same. Attrition. By June 24th​ in Petersburg Grant still has 2:1 with 65,000 to Lee’s 32,000. Fresh new troops are flowing into the Grant, Lee none. No hope of replacing any of his 30,000 man loss.
As Bearis points out, for 24 months from June of ’62 to May of ’64 Lee always had the initiative either by invading the North or stopping every Yankee assault in Virginia. In just 51 days of the Overland ,from May 4th​ ’64 to June 24th​ Grant inflicted 50% losses on Lee, took away all offensive moves, bottled him up in Petersburg, cut his men’s calorie intake and broke the spirit of invincibility of Lee’s troops. He did this with the loss of 65,000 troops. Compared to the 82,000 troops the AOP lost trying to fight Lee by by all the other Generals over the afore mentioned two years….the Overland was successful. Lee never recovered.
 

A. Roy

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But Lee was a wily opponent who did not easily take the bait. Lee needed to conserve his slowly diminishing resources and found ways to frustrate Grant's intentions of offering battle outside of protective fortifications.

I guess Lee would have broken out and fought on open ground if he had thought that would accomplish anything at that point. But as you suggest, he was smarter than that. Fortifications bought more time -- the hope being maybe that political events (or "Providence") would intervene to save the cause.

Anyway, I see what you mean about the similarity in strategy between Hooker and Grant. I wonder whether Hooker actually had a better opportunity than Grant, and might have made something out of it, if he had just kept going (and maybe done a better job on his right flank). But Grant's persistence is what made the difference in the case of the Overland.

Roy B.
 

JeffFromSyracuse

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Anyway, I see what you mean about the similarity in strategy between Hooker and Grant. I wonder whether Hooker actually had a better opportunity than Grant, and might have made something out of it, if he had just kept going (and maybe done a better job on his right flank). But Grant's persistence is what made the difference in the case of the Overland.

Roy B.
Grant was flexible and tried to let events develop, while Hooker was married to his grand strategy.
 

jackt62

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the Overland was successful. Lee never recovered.
I would agree that Lee and the ANV were seriously diminished by the Overland Campaign and never recovered from it. But the Overland Campaign by itself failed to vanquish Lee. It was only Grant's persistence and the ability to revise his strategy after Overland played itself out that finally led to the Petersburg/Appomattox Campaigns ending in Union victory.
 

Dead Parrott

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No.

The Overland campaign had three possible positive outcomes:

1. the ANV is broken in open battle.
2. the AOP gets between the ANV and Richmond, taking Richmond.
3. the ANV is forced into a trapped siege.

Results 1 and 3 remove the ANV as an effective field force. Result 2 leaves the ANV as a threat but demoralizes and diminishes the CSA cause (and gets Lincoln reelected, which dooms the cause).

Result #3 occurs.

The campaign achieves, in 8 weeks, things unachieved over 3 previous years of bloodshed and defeat - removal of the ANV as an effective field force, sustained threat to Richmond, and trapping the ANV in a doomed siege.

In eight weeks.

'Failure' would have been the failure to achieve any of the three possible positive outcomes.

But despite bungling flank commanders, ponderous AOP movements, Lee's brilliance (yes I think, though he made mistakes, Lee was brilliant in this campaign), the ANV's tenacity, and the pressure of the spotlight and the impending election ...

...the ANV is removed as a field force and trapped in a doomed siege for control of the Confederate capital - in eight weeks.

The answer to the original question is a resounding No.
 
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