Was Grant's Overland Campaign a Failure?

Dead Parrott

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 30, 2019
It was not technically a siege as Lee was not surrounded. However, to just bail and leave Petersburg and Richmond defenseless was not a tenable option until forced to do so. Grant even though he was stuck in this trench situation he didn't want, was always working to extend the works and stretch Lee to the breaking point.

Grant's plan would have forced the ANV into some very dire and unpalatable options. The flank failures gave Lee more breathing room, but Grant pressed too hard and kept the initiative. I'll say it again: once you get past the sloganeering simplifications (and veiled excuses\insults), this campaign was (on both sides) an amazing display of ability, adaptation, use of advantages, opportunities just missed, hard fighting, maneuver, and great commanders willing their battered armies forward in what everybody at the time considered the Championship Title Bout of the war. Now add in the election pressures on one side, and the crumbling resource issues on the other, and ... I'll say it yet again ... you have one of the most fascinating campaigns in all of military history to study!
 

Belfoured

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It was not technically a siege as Lee was not surrounded. However, to just bail and leave Petersburg and Richmond defenseless was not a tenable option until forced to do so. Grant even though he was stuck in this trench situation he didn't want, was always working to extend the works and stretch Lee to the breaking point.
Agree, with the emphasis on "technically". McClellan was on the verge of setting up a siege of Richmond which would not have fit "technically" either, but for all intents and purposes would also have met the criteria. The fact that Lee could have bailed at some point had nothing to do with the fact that neither city could bail.
 

jesse_james

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Jun 5, 2021
If the Overland Campaign was a defeat for the Union, then I'd have to consider Nathanael Greene's entire Southern Campaign a defeat for the Continental Army. Lee was completely neutralized and could not threaten the Union from the first day of that campaign until the end of the War. That this neutralization did not look like Cannae is the only reason a thread like this could go on past the first page.
 

American87

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If the Overland Campaign was a defeat for the Union, then I'd have to consider Nathanael Greene's entire Southern Campaign a defeat for the Continental Army. Lee was completely neutralized and could not threaten the Union from the first day of that campaign until the end of the War. That this neutralization did not look like Cannae is the only reason a thread like this could go on past the first page.

I'm not an expert on the Southern Campaigns in the Revolutionary War, but wasn't it a loss for Greene? He lost New Guilford Courthouse, and Cornwallis marched into Virginia, if I remember correctly.

And while I agree that Grant largely assumed the offensive in Virginia, we have to remember Early's Valley Campaign forced Grant to detach a corps to defend Washington. That is surely some initiative on Lee's part, a great deal I presume, especially had Early taken Washington and not been delayed at Monocacy by Wallace.
 

tony_gunter

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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.
Grants objective was set by Lincoln and was clearly defined as being Lee’s army.

I don’t see how pitching into Lee’s army at first contact constitutes “being caught flat-footed.”
 

jackt62

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Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
I don’t see how pitching into Lee’s army at first contact constitutes “being caught flat-footed."
The problem was getting stuck in the Wilderness without advancing into open terrain. Grant was certainly aware of this problem, given Hooker's prior year fiasco. The Overland Campaign was predicated on crossing the Rappahannock/Rapidan rivers and swiftly passing through the Wilderness in order to flank the ANV. Unfortunately, the AotP was bogged down either because of its huge wagon train or other reasons; Lee was able to take advantage of the situation by speeding Ewell and Hill's Corps along the Orange Turnpike and Plank Roads and offering battle on its terms in the dense growth of the Wilderness, where the strength of Union artillery and manpower were muted.
 

tony_gunter

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Mississippi
The problem was getting stuck in the Wilderness without advancing into open terrain. Grant was certainly aware of this problem, given Hooker's prior year fiasco. The Overland Campaign was predicated on crossing the Rappahannock/Rapidan rivers and swiftly passing through the Wilderness in order to flank the ANV. Unfortunately, the AotP was bogged down either because of its huge wagon train or other reasons; Lee was able to take advantage of the situation by speeding Ewell and Hill's Corps along the Orange Turnpike and Plank Roads and offering battle on its terms in the dense growth of the Wilderness, where the strength of Union artillery and manpower were muted.
Even if everything you say makes 100% sense, choosing to pitch into the enemy on poorly chosen ground is hardly the same as being caught flat-footed. 😃
 

Belfoured

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I'm not an expert on the Southern Campaigns in the Revolutionary War, but wasn't it a loss for Greene? He lost New Guilford Courthouse, and Cornwallis marched into Virginia, if I remember correctly.

And while I agree that Grant largely assumed the offensive in Virginia, we have to remember Early's Valley Campaign forced Grant to detach a corps to defend Washington. That is surely some initiative on Lee's part, a great deal I presume, especially had Early taken Washington and not been delayed at Monocacy by Wallace.
About Guilford, you make a valid point that Greene suffered a tactical defeat. But Cornwallis took an unacceptably large number of casualties in the battle, ended up abandoning the interior of NC to go to the coast, and then made the mistake of moving into Virginia, leading eventually to Yorktown. Greene stayed behind and ultimately he won a strategic victory because Cornwallis effectively ended Clinton's "southern strategy" in NC and SC.
 

American87

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About Guilford, you make a valid point that Greene suffered a tactical defeat. But Cornwallis took an unacceptably large number of casualties in the battle, ended up abandoning the interior of NC to go to the coast, and then made the mistake of moving into Virginia, leading eventually to Yorktown. Greene stayed behind and ultimately he won a strategic victory because Cornwallis effectively ended Clinton's "southern strategy" in NC and SC.

That doesn't seem like a loss though. It seems Cornwallsi won the battle, then had the freedom to maneuver at will. You say he "abandoned" North Carolina, which may be true for all I know, but it seems he could have stayed if he wanted to, unless I'm missing something.

Anyway, if he departed, abandoned or otherwise, North Carolina, it seems he ended the campaign on his own free will, not being hampered by Greene's army after its defeat at New Guilford Courthouse.

I'm not arguing one way or the other here, as I'm not even sure what argument the OP was making. Cornwallis' Campaign, military speaking at least, doesn't seem like a failure until he reached Virginia, in my humble opinion.
 

Belfoured

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That doesn't seem like a loss though. It seems Cornwallsi won the battle, then had the freedom to maneuver at will. You say he "abandoned" North Carolina, which may be true for all I know, but it seems he could have stayed if he wanted to, unless I'm missing something.

Anyway, if he departed, abandoned or otherwise, North Carolina, it seems he ended the campaign on his own free will, not being hampered by Greene's army after its defeat at New Guilford Courthouse.

I'm not arguing one way or the other here, as I'm not even sure what argument the OP was making. Cornwallis' Campaign, military speaking at least, doesn't seem like a failure until he reached Virginia, in my humble opinion.
I get that but everybody who has written about it considers Cornwallis's decision to leave NC a strategic defeat. The most recent is Southern Gambit by Stanley Carpenter. The whole "southern strategy" was to keep the southern colonies - including NC and SC - in the Royal fold based on what they assumed was significant Loyalist support. Once he retreated to the coast and then moved to Virginia, that was no longer realistic. His move to Virginia was aimed at cutting off supply to the Carolinas with the assistance of the Royal Navy. That blew up when Washington and Rochambeau moved to Virginia and the French Navy prevented the RN from aiding Cornwallis. Meanwhile, Greene was able to stymie the isolated British forces left in the Carolinas and eventually they were confined to Charleston when the war ended.

As for the battle, as I said, it was a tactical victory for the British but Cornwallis had suffered so many casualties - on top of the attrition he had suffered before the battle during the wild goose chase Greene had led him on in the "race to the Dan River" - that he was forced to retreat to Wilmington. Somebody in the British government (I forget who), after getting Cornwallis's report on Guilford, said "another such victory would ruin the British Army". Greene was outnumbered throughout, but his whole strategy was to wear the British out and prevent them from controlling the Carolinas. It worked.
 

American87

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I get that but everybody who has written about it considers Cornwallis's decision to leave NC a strategic defeat. The most recent is Southern Gambit by Stanley Carpenter. The whole "southern strategy" was to keep the southern colonies - including NC and SC - in the Royal fold based on what they assumed was significant Loyalist support. Once he retreated to the coast and then moved to Virginia, that was no longer realistic. His move to Virginia was aimed at cutting off supply to the Carolinas with the assistance of the Royal Navy. That blew up when Washington and Rochambeau moved to Virginia and the French Navy prevented the RN from aiding Cornwallis. Meanwhile, Greene was able to stymie the isolated British forces left in the Carolinas and eventually they were confined to Charleston when the war ended.

As for the battle, as I said, it was a tactical victory for the British but Cornwallis had suffered so many casualties - on top of the attrition he had suffered before the battle during the wild goose chase Greene had led him on in the "race to the Dan River" - that he was forced to retreat to Wilmington. Somebody in the British government (I forget who), after getting Cornwallis's report on Guilford, said "another such victory would ruin the British Army". Greene was outnumbered throughout, but his whole strategy was to wear the British out and prevent them from controlling the Carolinas. It worked.

O.k., that is your interpretation, and it is good enough from what I remember reading about it, the campaign that is.

But as to the O.P.'s original point, I don't see how this is a proper analogy to the Overland Campaign. Lee won that campaign, and Grant had to change his strategy by targeting Petersburg, Lee's base of supplies, or at least his most advanced base.

That hardly equates to Lee "abandoning the theatre" and giving up the campaign, Like Cornwallis might have done, at least if your synopsis is correct, in the Southern Campaign of The American Revolution.

So yeah, I disagree with the O.P. on their main point, although I do wish there was a section here to discuss Revolutionary battles, as they are another favorite of mine, and perhaps yours too, apparently.
 

tony_gunter

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Mississippi
Well, I'm not gonna quibble over semantics.
That’s hardly semantics. Flat-footed implies you were surprised by an attack.

Grant detected Lee nearby and decided to pitch in, exactly as Lincoln expected him to do.

One could argue the ground was poorly chosen in either direction really. Lincoln wanted some attrition, Grant gave it to him.
 

Belfoured

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Joined
Aug 3, 2019
O.k., that is your interpretation, and it is good enough from what I remember reading about it, the campaign that is.

But as to the O.P.'s original point, I don't see how this is a proper analogy to the Overland Campaign. Lee won that campaign, and Grant had to change his strategy by targeting Petersburg, Lee's base of supplies, or at least his most advanced base.

That hardly equates to Lee "abandoning the theatre" and giving up the campaign, Like Cornwallis might have done, at least if your synopsis is correct, in the Southern Campaign of The American Revolution.

So yeah, I disagree with the O.P. on their main point, although I do wish there was a section here to discuss Revolutionary battles, as they are another favorite of mine, and perhaps yours too, apparently.
To be clear, I wasn't intending anything about the Overland Campaign - just dealing with the Guilford issue. I don't see the relevance of the strategy Clinton/Cornwallis were following to anything Grant or Lee was doing. I would definitely favor a location for posts on the AWI. Others have proposed that before but I don't think it's gone anywhere.
 

jackt62

Captain
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Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
That’s hardly semantics. Flat-footed implies you were surprised by an attack.

Grant detected Lee nearby and decided to pitch in, exactly as Lincoln expected him to do.

One could argue the ground was poorly chosen in either direction really. Lincoln wanted some attrition, Grant gave it to him.
As a fan of Grant and his military abilities, I would certainly not be trying to diminish his leadership effectiveness. While he was not taken by surprise in the Wilderness, Lee had a keen ability to sniff out the movements of the AotP and exploit the fact that it was lingering in the terrain of the Wilderness. For sure, Grant rose to the occasion and aggressively blunted Lee's moves, but Grant was practicing a form of damage control at that point.
 
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