Back to Richmond
To many Americans, George Meade was the hero of Gettysburg—the great turning-point battle of the war. However, President Lincoln observed that Meade, like so many of his other generals, failed to capitalize on victory. In contrast, Ulysses S. Grant had demonstrated a willingness to fight and then fight some more. Thus, with the war entering its fourth year, Lincoln finally found his general. In March 1864, the president named Grant general in chief of all the Union armies. Grant’s strategy was simple: exploit the North’s superiority in industrial strength and in population. This meant that Grant and his subordinate commanders could not afford to be fearful of sacrificing men and material. Grant was so single-minded in pursuing this strategy that some men within his own ranks cursed him as “The Butcher.”
Grant put the Union’s fiercest warrior, William Tecumseh Sherman, in command of the so-called western armies (which actually fought in the middle South). Meade retained command of the Army of the Potomac—albeit under Grant’s watchful eye. Using these two principal forces, he relentlessly kept pressure on the South’s Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
The Wilderness Campaign (May-June 1864) was the first test of the strategy of attrition. Grant directed Meade, leading a force of 100,000, to attack 70,000 men of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the tangled woodlands just 50 miles northwest of Richmond. The Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6) cost some 18,000 Union lives. Undaunted, “The Butcher” then ordered Meade southeast to Spotsylvania Court House, where more than 14,000 Union soldiers were killed between May 8 and 18. Still Grant pushed, attacking Lee’s right at Cold Harbor, just north of Richmond. Thirteen thousand Union troops fell between June 3 and June 12.
Following Cold Harbor, Grant marched south of the James River and began the Petersburg Campaign, laying siege to this important rail center just south of Richmond. The siege consumed nearly a year, from June 1864 to April 1865, and it succeeded in hemming in Lee, who was put on the defensive, trying to stave off the assault on Richmond.
In order to restore maneuverability to his army, Lee attempted to draw off some of Grant’s strength by detaching Jubal Early, with Stonewall Jackson’s old corps, in an assault against Washington in mid-June. Although the capital was briefly bombarded, Union General Philip Sheridan pursued Early into the Shenandoah Valley and defeated him at Cedar Creek on October 19.
Just three weeks later, Lincoln was elected to a second term by a comfortable margin. Clearly, the North was prepared to continue the fight, and the defenders of Petersburg, starving, sick, and exhausted, at last broke in March 1865. On April 2, Lee evacuated Richmond. Jefferson Davis and the entire Confederate government fled the Southern capital.