The Overland Campaign was a series of battles fought in Virginia during May and June, 1864 between the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War. Although nominally commanded by General George Meade, the Army of the Potomac was directed by General-in-Chief Ulysses Grant. Confederate forces were led by General Robert E. Lee. The campaign was notorious for its high casualties, especially on the Union side; it is best seen as a series of tactical defeats leading to an overall strategic victory for the Federal Army.
In the spring of 1864, General Grant was assigned the role of General-in-Chief of the Union armies and was sent to Northern Virginia, where the Army of the Potomac faced the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant decided on an overall strategy centered around two attacks: one by Sherman's army in Chattanooga, Tennessee, towards Atlanta, Georgia, and one by the Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Although the capture of Richmond, the Confederate capital, continued to be one of Grant's goals, his primary goal in Virginia became the destruction of Lee's army.
Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7, 1864): On May 4, Grant crossed the Rapidan River and attempted to move through the Wilderness, a dense growth of scrub on and near the site of the Battle of Chancellorsville, before Lee could catch up. The Army of Northern Virginia, however, was able to catch the Army of the Potomac, forcing the armies to fight within the scrub forest, negating Union artillery superiority. In doing so, Lee won a tactical victory, dealing 17,000 casualties while only taking 7500. Rather than withdrawing to recover, however, Grant ordered the army southeast to the important crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse in an attempt to move around Lee's right.
Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 8–21): Lee again beat Grant to the new battlefield, building strong breastworks and trenches. Grant attempted to attack a salient known as the mule shoe, suffering heavy casualties at what became known as The Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania. Again Grant disengaged to the South, attempting to move around Lee's right flank.
Yellow Tavern (May 11): General Phillip Sheridan's cavalry force had been released to track down and defeat General J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry. At Yellow Tavern, the two cavalry forces met and Stuart was mortally wounded.
North Anna (May 23–26): Lee again beat Grant to a new position, forming trenches behind the North Anna River. Although given a chance to heavily damage Grant's armies after poorly executed attacks, Lee mismanaged his own attacks. The Confederates successfully held of the Union army, which again redeployed.
Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12): On May 31, Sheridan's cavalry captured the junction at Cold Harbor and held it against Confederate attacks. As the Army of the Potomac began to arrive, Lee's army dug into strong entrechments. On June 3, Grant ordered a futile and costly attack on the works, costing him 7000 casualties in about an hour. Cold Harbor represented the geographical end of Grant's attempts to outflank Lee and force him into open battle, and Grant was forced to shift his strategy to one of besieging Lee's army by threating Richmond. On June 15, Grant redeployed his army across the James River and forced the Siege of Petersburg.
The Overland Campaign gave Grant a reputation as a butcher, not caring about the immense casualties suffered. It helped support the notion that Lee was only defeated by superior numbers, not by good generalship. Although there is a kernel of truth in this, it undestimates and misunderstands General Grant's strategy. The idea in the Overland Campaign was not to take Richmond but to permantly weaken Lee's forces. Grant did succeed in this regard, and Lee never recovered. Soldiers who fought for Lee against Grant seldom came home in one piece, unless they deserted; by the end, most had deserted. Lincoln, meanwhile, replaced all Grant's losses and used the Republican Party to hold public opinion in line behind Grant. Grant became the great American war hero.
The campaign demonstrated the very high cost in assaulting prepared defensive works.
NPS Battle Summaries: