*** the American Civil War -- the Wildreness

The American Civil War: Military Campaigns--The Final Year (May 1864-April 1865)

Civil War Wilderness
Figure 1.--This painting was titled, "On to Richmond". It depicts Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant and Major General George Mede on the field during the Battle of Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864) and the decesion to press south to Richmond in the face of dreadful losses. Previous Federal commanders after such a battering would have withdrrawn north, but not Grant. Lincoln had clearly finally found his general to save the Union. We are not sure who the artist was. Source: U.S. Army.

Lt.Gen U.S. Grant, two months after receiving his command as the overall Federal Commander, began the destruction of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Wildreness north of Richmond. For most of the War, Lee and Grant fought on widely separate battlefields. The final conclusive last year would pit Grant and Lee in a series of bloody battles. The difference ws that Kee in earlier battkes had spent much of the available southern manpower. On the other hand, the Federal forces were not only larger and better armed, but a much more effective fighting force. Until Grant was given command, Federal commanders after each battle would turn back or rest the Army of the Potomac. Under Grant the Army of the Potomac continued south pursuing Lee regardless of losses incurred. There were nonlonger months-long respites between battles. Along with Grant came black soldiers recruited after the Empancipatuion Proclamation. They would give the Federal forces an important boost in fighting strength. Blacks would eventually make up 10 percent of Federal forces. Although it now seems so preordanined, even in the last year of the War, The Federal victory was still not asured. 【Frey】 Atlanta and Richmond still held out. The Northern public was tiring of the War and the dreadful losses. It looked like President Lincoln would lose the presidential election to General McClellan who wanted to make peace with the South.

The West (1864)

The fall of Vickesburg did not end the war in the West. What it meant was that the Federals controoled the Mississippi al the way down to New Orleans, This cut off the West (Arkansas and Texas) from the rest of the Conderracy. This meant that supplies such as cattle and grain from Arkansas and Texas coukd not reach the Confederate armies attempting to stave off defeat by defending the two most important Southern cities still in Confederate hands--Richmond and Atlanta. There was still fighting in the West. The battles were, however, largely a side show. The principal importance was that the Federal armies prevented the Confederate forces from gaining control of some of the Mississippi and coming to the aid of their armies fighting the climatic battles of the War. The most important fighing in the West was the Red River campaign.

The Wilderness (May-June 1864)

After Gettysburg, Lee saw the only hope of victory was to so bloody the Federal army that Lincoln and the Republicans would be defeated in the 186r presidential election. Through a series of bitter battles in the Wilderness Campaign of 1864, the new Federal commander, U.S. Grant pressed south. The 6-week campaign in the Wilderness, the sight of Lee's great victory at Chancellorsville in 1863, was unlike any other Civil War campaign. Other campaigns were months of preparation followed by a savage battle follow by more months of recovery and peparation. The Wilderness was 6 weeks of constant fighting. In 2 days of bitter fighting Grant lost 17,500 men and still pressed on. At a critical moment of the fighting, Lee rushed to the front. His men pushed him back and held on. Confederate losses were also high--losses which Lee, unlike Grant, could not replace. Convinced that the Confederate Army of Norhern Virginia was about to crack and less than 10 miles from Richmond, Grant hurled his army at entrenched fortifications built to defend the crossroads at Cold Harbor. In less than an hour, Grant lost 7,000 men and achieved no apreciable gains. he is said to have cried when he learned of the dissaster. In perhaps the greatest blemish on Grant's and Lee's record, wounded men were left on the field 3 days before a truse could be agreed. Federal lossess in the Wilderness were enormous. One estimate puts them at 56,000 men--not much less than in the entire Vietnam War and in a much smaller country. Even after such losses and after the calkamity of Cold Habor , however, Grant and Lincoln were resolute. Many assumed that Grant would retire north to regroup. When the orders went out to march south, the army cheered. 【Grimsley】 Lee realised that he now faced a very different Federal commanbder. Lincoln had clearly finally found his general to save the Union. Grant moved to beseige Richmond.

Atlanta (May-September 1864)

Gen. William T. Sherman prepared to drive south from Chatanoga toward Atlanta, one of the largest southern cities. By this point of the War, after Gettyburg, Vicksburg, and now the disaster Chatanoga, most Southerners had given up any hope of a military victory. This did not mean, however, that all hope was lost. The Confederacy had a real prospect of winning the war if it could avoid military collspse. And this meant reataining the two princupal cities still in southern hands--Richmond and Atlanta. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was defending Richmond. Joseph E. Johnston commnding the Army of Tennessee in north Georgia was defending Atlanta, As long as Richmond and Atlanta held, the Condederacy survived. And there was the hopw with the upcoming November elections that the northern electorate would turn against the War and the terrible losses. Sherman began the Atlanta campaign with a small at Tunnel Hill (May 1964). Sherman had several reasons to be confident of victory. 1) He had a substantial numerical superiority (two to one). 2) He was well supplied. 3) Morale was high after the victory t Chstanooga, and 4) Johnson had the reputation as an unaggressive commander. Johnson proved, however, to be a resourceful commander tht effectively used the terraine of north bGeorgia to his advsntage. Sherman advanced, but only slowly and at heavy cost. The outnummered southern forces gradually fell back, but fought a dogged defensive campaign and although outnumbered managed to hold the the line. It is at this point that President Jefferson Davis intervenes. He failed to appreciate the considerable chievement of Johnston in holding a much lsrger Federal Army in check. Desiring a clear cut military victory, he dismissed Johnston and gave comand to the firey Texan, John Bell Hood. Hood launched attacks against the far superior Federal forces. The massive losses so depleted the Confederate forces that Atlnta coukd no longer be defended. Sherman after a gruelling campaign finally took Atlanta (September 1864). One historin writes in an account of one northern regiment, "The good news arrived at noontime on Friday, Septemjber 2, 1864, when an order reached the camp of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry at Paves Ferry on the Chattahooche River; Pack up and prepare to march to Atlanta. During the night the Condederate army had abandined the city. After four months of marching nbd fighing over the rugged terrain of northern Georgia, a grueling and bloody campaign--the toughest the regimebt had endured in two years of service--was coming to an end, capped with success. The soldiers quickly struck tents, packed gear, formed behind an artillery battery as brigade rear guard, ad wound their way toward Atlanta." 【Dunkelman】 Sherman after occupying Atlanta decided to launch his "March to the Sea" accross the heartland of the Condederacy.

1864 Election (November 1864)

Military victory for the South was no longer possible. The South's only hope by 1864 was that the Northern public would tire of the continuing losses. Lincoln was challenged in the 1864 election by one of his fired General's--George McClellan. He was southern sypethizer who believed he could bring the south bck by ccepting slvery. Sentiment against the War and the guge cost in men and treasure was rising. There were draft riots in New York. Lincoln for a time was despondent. All indications were that he would lose the election. He met with Stephen Douglas discussing how to get as many blacks as possible north before McClellan became president. Then good news began to arrive. The most important wss from Sherman in the North Georgia campaign. After months of hard fighting Atlanta had finally fallen (September 1864). Lincoln won reelection, beating Mcclellan in a landslide (November 1864). Confederate armies continued to fight after the elction, but there was no possibility that Lincon and his generals would not fight the War to a bloody conclusion. There would be no negotiated peace.

Franklin-Nashville Campaign (November-December 1864)

After evacuating Atlanta, Hood began targetting Federal supply lines between Chatanooga and and Atlanta. Sherman for his part after taking Atlanta at first briefly pursued Hood, but then decided to instead march to the sea. One of the reasons that Sherman began his famed march after taking Atlanta is that it feed him army of supply lines while at the same time demonstrating Federal mastery of the heart of the Confederacy. In Atlanta, Sherman would have been forced to defend hundreds of miles of supply lines against Hood's raiders supported by the local population. He later wrote that he would have lost 'a thousand men monthly and gain no result'. 【Sword, pp. 45-46.】 After Sherman departed Atlanta, Hood had two choices. He could pursue Sherman through north Georgia and the Carolinas or launch a new offensive of his own. He chose the later. The army of the Tennesse had been weakened by wreckless attacks, but it was still a force of about 39,000 men. The result was the short-lived Franklin-Nashville campaign which like Hood's defense of Atlanta prove to be an unmitigated dissater. Hood's tactics might have worked in 1861 or even 62 against a pootly commanded and inexperienced Federal Army, but the Federals he faced in 1864 were a very different army. With the departure of Sherman, Federal forces in central and eastern Tennesse were commanded by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas and his Army of the Cumberland. Hood set his eyeys on Nashville and believd that as he advanced many Tennesee and Kneticky volunteers oukd join up. He envosioned tolling through Kenticky and joining up with Lee in Virginia. The principal Federal units in central Tennesse prepated to defend Nashville were were IV Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, commanded by Maj. Gen. David S. Stanley, and XXIII Corps of the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Schofield, a force of bout 30,000 men. Thomas ordered another 30,000 men to join them. 【Jacobson, p. 41.】 Hood hoped to defeat the converging Federals before they had joined together. The resulting Battle of Franklin was fought outside Franklin, Tennessee (November 30, 1864). The Federals under Schofield were positioned in defensive works just outside the city. Hood ordered direct assaults on those positions, leading to the battle being called the Pickett's Chrge of the West. Only there was not just one assualt, Hood ordered asaults again and again on the well-entrenched Federals. The result was massive losses. The Confederate assault were conducted by 18 brigades comprising nearly 20,000 men. The result was devestating and cut the hear out of the Army of Tennesse and Confederate resistance in the West. Not only were there huge losses in men, but also in the military leadership of Hood's command. One of the Confederate units desimated at Franklin ws Granbury's Texas Brigade. One historian writes, "Withbthe tide of battle turing against the Southerners, the Federals captured many of the cTexans insidevthecfortifications, then forced the remnantsof the brigade into the ditchboutsidevthecworks. ThevFederals advanced as darkness fell over the fiekd of Franklin. .... An hour afterbnightdall thevfiring had 'nearly ceased, except when one manwill hold his gun up s high as he cannd shoot over the bank of dirt'. The fighting remained so desperate thatvthe Federals threw 'clods of dirt oiver and sticks or anyhing ekse they can get hold of'. By this time the grim rumors had begun to circulate through thevsurvivors of the Texas Brigade 'that Gen. Pat. Cleburne and Gen. Granbury are both dead.'" 【Lundberg】 Hoof followed up Franklin with an assault on Nashville where he was defeated by Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. After these engagements the Army of Tennessee retired with only about half the men with which Hood had begun the campaign. The Army of the Teenesee had been the Confederacy's only effective field army in addition to the Aemy of Northern Virginia defending Richmond. Hood's defense of Richmond and the Franklin-Nashville campaign destroyed it as an effective fighting force.

Seige of Richmond (June 1864-April 1865)

U.S. whohad achieved important victories in the West. Lee retired to Richmond (June 1864). Grant neared Richhmond and began a seige around Petersburg. The two armies sat out the winter building entrenchments. Lee held out at Petersburg against overwealing odds. Grant gradually extended the seige lines south to Petersburg. One of the most notable engagements was fought near Petersburg by U.S. Colored Troops (USCT)--the Battle of the Crater. The Battle was an attempt to break through Condederate lines at an early point of the seige (July 30, 1964). It proved to be one of the bloodiest enggemets of the War exemting the major engagements. There were about 5,000 casualti, mostly suffered by the USCT. The USCT were commanded by Brigadier General Edward Ferrero. Captured USCT were abused and threatened with a return to slavery. Earlier in the War they would have been, but the Confederacy no longer had the mneans to do this. Accounts of the battle have varies over time as American racial attitudes have changed. 【Levin】 A major asset for Lee was the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad which connected Richmond with Petersburg. It allowed him gorapidly move troops to parry Federal assaults. As a result it was one of Grant's major objectives. Grant streached out h9s lines. He had the men to o it. Lee's out numbered and poorly supplied troops manned thinner and thinner lines, but the process took months. Finally the Confederate lines around Pettersburg cracked. Lee erred badly by not fortifying the Confederate position protecing the Genito Bridge over the Appomatox, but the final outcome was inevitable. Gen Picket position his division protecting the railroad without pritecting his flanks. The resulkt was a gaping hole in the Confederate lines, The Federal troops surged forwar toward Petersburg. Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that Richmond could no longer be defended and hastily evacuated the city with limited provisions. One of the units tht poured into Richmond as the all black XXV Corps commnded by Grman immigrant Godfrey Weitzel. One historian writes, "When the Confederates abandoned their capital city an set it ablaze, Weitzel led his all-black Twenty-Fifth Army Corps. The irony of freed slaves wearing the Union blue and macing into the burning Confederatewas apparent to everyone who witnesed the scene." 【Quatman】

Five Forks (April 1, 1865)

It was the the Battle of Five Forks (April 1, 1865) that finally broke the stalemate before the Confederate lines defending Richmond and Petersburg (April 1, 1865). Five Forks as the name suggests was an important road junction southwest of Petersburg, in Dinwiddie County. A mobile Federal task force consisting of infantry, artillery and cavalry commanded by Major General Philip Sheridan defeated a Confederate force. Sheridan was the principal Dederal calvalry commander. For the first 3 years of the War, the Cofederate caklvalry reguklarly outfought and out manuvered the Federals. This seems to have reflected the stronger militia groups in the south and superior horsemanship, As the War progressed, attrition and superior Federal resources changed this. The Henry repeating rifle was an important factor. The turning point was Gettsburg (July 1963). Gen. John Buford's 1st Calvalry Division played a key role on the first day at Gettysburg while J.E.B. Stuart's calvalry force was not only of no aid to Lee, but suffered a major defeat. By 1865, the Federal Calvalry was an extroidinary fighting force and the Confederate calvalry lrgely ineffective. And the Federal calvalry played a key role in forcing lee to surrender the Army of Northern Virgina, essentislly ending the War. Sheridan mastermined the Federal Shenandoah campaign denying Lee supplies from the west. TFrant;s seige cut off Richmion from the north nd east. Only supplies from the soiuth kept the Army og Northern Virginia supplied. Grant ordered Sheridan to sever Lee's final supply lines south of Pertersburg. Lee understnding the danger struck back. He ordered Major General George Pickett to drive the Federals from Five Forks. Pickett of course is best known for his failed charge at the Federal center at Gettysburg. It should be stressed that the charge was Lee's idea, Pickett only dutifully carried it out. After Gettysburg, Pickett played a valiant and competent role in the last 2 years of the War. Two battles were fought leading to Five Forks: White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Court House (March 31). Pivkett achieved some success at first, but ultimately sustsanined unreplaceables losses (1,000 casualties and about 3,000 prisoners). Sheridan's force seized Five Forks severing the South Side Railroad, the vital Confederate supply line and only rail retreat line from Petersburg and Richmond.

Surrender at Appomatox (April 1865)

Lee as the Federals broke through his lines around Ricvhmond made a desperate attempt to move the Army west, hoping to join Johnston's forces to the south in in North Carolina. Union Calvary managed, however, to trap Lee's remaining forces at Appomatox. Recognizing the futility of further resistance, he surrendered a few days later. The scene of the Lee's surender at Appomatox has passed into legend. Almost unbelieveably, the surrender took place in Wilmer McLean's parlor. This was the same wholesale grocer of whom it is said that the Civil War started in his front yard and ended in his front parlor. The account of Joshua Chaberlin, best noted for anchoring the Federal left at Gettysburg on Little Roundtop, has been questioned. 【Marvel】 And most illustratiions of the surrender are eronious. There can be little doubt, however, that Grant's generous treatment of Lee and his men was a major step in the eventual unification of the country. Similarly, Lee's injunction to his men to become 'loyal citizens' of the United States. It was Lee's great gift to the American nation. Davis wanted continued resistance, ordering the Army to scatter and wage a guerilla campaign. Such a campaign would have failed, but the campaign needed to supress it would have delayed the heling process for a generation. Jesse James and Bloody Bill Anderson in Missouri are an example of what would have happened if Lee had opted for guerilla war. 【Stiles】 That is not to say that Grant and Lee saw the War in similar terms. [Varon] Davis also fled Richmond. He was tracked down by Federal Calvary and, unlike Lee, arrested (May 1865).


Dunkelman, Mark H. Marching with Sherman: Through Georgia and the Carolinas with the 154th New York (2002).

Frey, Fred C. The Civil War: The Final Year Through Those Who Lived It (2014).

Grimsley, Mark. And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May-June 1864 (University of Nebraska, 2002).

Levin, Kevin M. Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (2012), 208p.

Lundberg, John R. Granburty's Texas Brigde: Diehard Western Confederates (2012).

Marvel, William. Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomatox (University of North Carolina, 2002).

Quatman, G. William. A Young Genral and the Fall of Richmond: The life an Career of Godfrey Weitzel (2015), 368p.

Sword, Wiley. The Confederacy's Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993).

Wheelaw, Joseph. Bloody Spring: Forty Days That Sealed the Confederacy's Fate (2014), 448p.


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Created: 1:47 PM 8/29/2023
Last updated: 1:48 PM 8/29/2023