Bloody Spring: Forty Days that Sealed the Confederacy's Fate
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In the spring of 1864, Virginia remained unbroken, its armies having repelled Northern armies for more than two years. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had defeated the campaigns of four Union generals, and Lee's veterans were confident they could crush the Union offensive this spring, too. But their adversary in 1864 was a different kind of Union commander—Ulysses S. Grant. The new Union general-in-chief had never lost a major battle while leading armies in the West. A quiet, rumpled man of simple tastes and a bulldog's determination, Grant would lead the Army of the Potomac in its quest to destroy Lee's army.
During six weeks in May and June 1864, Grant's army campaigned as no Union army ever had. During nearly continual combat operations, the Army of the Potomac battered its way through Virginia, skirting Richmond and crossing the James River on one of the longest pontoon bridges ever built. No campaign in North American history was as bloody as the Overland Campaign. When it ended outside Petersburg, more than 100,000 men had been killed, wounded, or captured on battlefields in the Wilderness, near Spotsylvania Court House, and at Cold Harbor. Although Grant's casualties were nearly twice Lee's, the Union could replace its losses. The Confederacy could not.
Lee's army continued to fight brilliant defensive battles, but it never mounted another major offensive. Grant's spring 1864 campaign had tipped the scales permanently in the Union's favor. The war's denouement came less than a year later with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House.
dirty, white coating,” wrote surgeon John Perry of the 20th Massachusetts. The dust got into everything—clothes, coffee, and food. “It fills our hair and mingles with the sweat on our faces,” wrote Private Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont.97 The Confederates made lean-to shelters by jabbing their muskets in the ground, bayonets first, and inserting the corners of a blanket under the musket hammers. Four men could crowd into the shade made by one blanket.98 The squalid conditions eerily adumbrated
276–278; Hennessey, “I Dread,” 72–80. 43. Curtis, 24th MI, 217–218; Badeau, Military History, 40–41. 44. Fite, Conditions in the North, 1, 5, 24, 27, 43–44, 67, 85–87, 105, 213, 263, 232; Catton, Glory Road, 235–241; M. R. Wilson, Business of Civil War, 1–2; Gallman, Northerners, 104, 108; Carruth, What Happened When, 411. 45. Badeau, Military History, 41; J. E. Smith, Grant, 307, 309–310; J. H. Wilson, Life of Rawlins, 426–427; Catton, Never Call Retreat, 298; Grant, Memoir s, 372; Grant,
their brass buttons and belt buckles. A dress review, the first in nearly two years, was scheduled. General Lee, their revered leader, was coming to inspect them. A week earlier, the corps had returned to Virginia after a hard winter in Tennessee. It was now camped in a broad valley near Gordonsville. The First Corps had been absent eight months from Lee’s army—sent to north Georgia in September 1863 to reinforce Braxton Bragg’s army. Together, Longstreet and Bragg had smashed the Union General
against enemy forces nearly twice their number.66 Despite the supply and manpower problems—as well as a wave of desertions by men who could not bear to face another campaign—the Confederate army was ready to fight. Asbury Hall Jackson told his sister that the winter’s hardships had tested the soldiers, but they “are not ready nor willing to give up, in short, not whipped.” Alexander Haskell of South Carolina described the Rebels as quietly confident. “The indications of spirit are of a better
six hours—two hours for Thomas Neill’s brigade from Getty’s division to reinforce Wright, and four more hours for the assembled task force to march the mile and a half from Spotswood Plantation to Saunders’s Field, a march that normally might have taken an hour. The road was narrow and overgrown, and the surrounding terrain ideal for ambush: crisscrossed by knife-like ridges and streams, gullies, and swamps. Rebels from Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s brigades bushwhacked Wright’s men at every