One historical chronology of the spring of 1864 refers to Northern field efforts as “the final spring campaign” of the war. Yes, the war continued for one more year, but the final, massive Union push to defeat the armies of the Confederate States of America consisted of a number of strong, coordinated actions which initiated in May 1864.
The extent of the US Army’s operations was breathtaking and perfectly demonstrated the North’s superior resources. To be sure, there was one exception: in the west, at Alexandria during the first week of the month, Union Maj Gen Nathan P. Banks’ “Red River Campaign” finally collapsed in the face of continued strong and oftentimes brilliant opposition by the Southern troops under Maj Gen Richard Taylor. Banks wound up finishing the war in New Orleans, attempting to resurrect his reputation and political career.
To the east, on 5 May, Maj Gen Benjamin Butler (of New Orleans occupation fame…or infamy) led the Army of the James ashore at Bermuda Hundred and City Point, east of Petersburg. Comprised of 40,000 men in two corps (X Corps, Maj Gen Quincy Adams Gilmore and XVIII Corps, Maj Gen William F. “Baldy” Smith), Butler’s Army of the James didn’t accomplish much initially and generally remained bottled-up by local Confederate forces. However, their arrival in close proximity to Petersburg and Richmond once again demonstrated the North’s superiority in transportation and logistics.
The first battle of the campaign took place on 6 May, when a division of Thomas’ troops overwhelmed the Confederate defenders at Tunnel Hill in Whitfield County, far north Georgia. A series of engagements and battles followed: Dug Gap, 8 May; Resaca, 13 May; Adairsville, 17 May; New Hope Church, 25 May; Pickett’s Mill, 27 May; and New Dallas, 28 May. In each fight the Southern defenders under Gen Joseph Johnston fought tenaciously and, if necessary, fell back to new defensive positions closer to Atlanta. And, following each fight – whatever the outcome – Sherman’s armies shifted left or right and kept on coming.
Finally, to the north, on 4 May the Army of the Potomac – still commanded by Maj Gen George Gordon Meade – crossed the Rapidan River in northern Virginia and headed for a collision with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The following morning the Union V Corps (Maj Gen Gouverneur K. Warren) attacked Lt Gen Dick Ewell’s corps on the Orange Turnpike in the vicinity of a heavily wooded area known as “The Wilderness.” Elements of VI Corps (Maj Gen “Uncle John” Sedgwick) and II Corps (Maj Gen Winfield Scott Hancock) then hit Lt Gen AP Hill’s Corps. The fighting continued for two days; only the arrival of Longstreet’s Corps prevented the collapse of the Confederate right on the 6th but General Longstreet left the field, severely wounded by friendly fire. The Union forces pulled back on the 7th, having lost 17,666 casualties, including two generals killed (Maj Gen Alexander Hays, Brig Gen Henry L. Abbott); Confederate losses included 7750 casualties and three generals KIA (Brig Gen John M. Johns, Brig Gen Leroy A. Stafford and Brig Gen Micah Jenkins; General Jenkins was killed in the same friendly fire incident on 6 May which wounded General Longstreet).
Much to the surprise of both the Confederate and Union troops (and leadership), following The Wilderness Lt Gen US Grant did not pull the Army of the Potomac back to regenerate, but instead ordered it around the left end of Lee’s army in the direction of Spotsylvania Courthouse. With no rest – particularly for Lee’s forces, which had to scramble to respond – the two sides went at it again on 8 May. Again, the casualty rate was high; at the Bloody Angle, Union forces captured a Southern division and almost cut the Army of Northern Virginia in two during fighting which lasted over 20 hours. Again, neither side prevailed; the North sustained 18,400 casualties this time, including the deaths of General Sedgwick and Brigadier Generals James C. Rice and Thomas G. Stevenson. The Confederates sustained 9000 casualties, two generals captured (Maj Gen Edward “Allegheny” Johnson and Brig Gen George H. Steuart) and two others mortally wounded (Brig Gen Abner M. Perrin and Brig Gen Junius Daniel).
The 12th of May brought a national tragedy: the death of Gen J.E.B. Stuart following a battle with Union cavalry under Maj Gen Phil Sheridan. Following Stuart’s wounding during the Battle of Yellow Tavern north of Richmond on the 11th, Maj Gen Fitzhugh Lee assumed command of the two Southern cavalry brigades but fell back under the onslaught of the Union cavalry divisions. Additional Confederate cavalry under Maj Gen James B. Gordon took positions along Meadow Bridge and held off the Yankee cavalry, giving other Confederate troops the chance to quickly reinforce Richmond. Unfortunately, Gordon too was wounded during the defense at Meadow Bridge and died within the week.
A national icon and the perfect image of a Southern horseman, Stuart passed at the home of his brother-in-law, Dr Charles Brewer, on 12 May. President Davis managed to visit and pay his respects to Stuart prior to the latter’s passing; upon receiving notice of his cavalry commander’s death, General Lee stated, “I can scarcely think of him without weeping.”
The news wasn’t going to get better anytime soon. Following the clash at Spotsylvania Courthouse, General Grant once again ordered Meade and the Army of the Potomac to go around one end of Lee’s army and continue south. With all of its resources, the Union could afford setbacks and large numbers of casualties; the Confederacy couldn’t. This point was driven home again at the end of the month, when Grant fell on Lee at a location on the Chickahominy River known as “Cold Harbor.”