Lt. George E. Dixon Camp 1962
Sons of Confederate Veterans
Last month’s column noted a reference to the spring of 1864 as “the final spring campaign” of the war, the campaign executed by Lt Gen U.S. Grant to bring Gen Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to ground. Another description is also used, that of “The Overland Campaign.” Highly descriptive and highly appropriate; as Lee and his brave Southerners were finding out, Grant kept the Army of the Potomac coming, moving overland either to the left or the right, no matter the outcome of the various battles.
Despite regular pronouncements by Southern politicians, in several of the Southern papers and even periodically from Richmond, it was now painfully apparent the Confederate States of America was mortally wounded as a nation. Grant’s success at Vicksburg in July 1863 (immediately followed by the Confederate surrender at Port Hudson a few days later) split the young nation in two. Two very large, well-equipped and battle-hardened Union armies were pointed at the heart of the South and moving forward, both in northern Virginia and in northern Georgia.
To be sure, the South still recorded occasional victories. On 2 June 1864, Brig Gen Samuel D. Sturgis sortied from Memphis with 8500 soldiers and cavalry and specific orders to find and destroy Lt Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry corps. Forrest and his 2000 men were doing their usual thing: running around Tennessee and northern Mississippi, tearing up railroads, knocking off Yankee outposts and severely impacting Maj Gen William T. Sherman’s supply lines
The two sides collided mid-morning on the 10th, when a brigade of Col Ben Grierson’s cavalry division struck one of Forrest’s brigade. The two forces fought back and forth until 1:30, when the Union infantry arrived…at which point, Forrest hit both the ends of the Union line, including a very close-range artillery attack. At 3:30 PM, the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry, CSA, attacked a bridge at the rear of the Union forces and Sturgis ordered a retreat, which immediately degenerated into your standard headlong route. Forrest’s men wound p seizing several hundred prisoners and a large amount of stores and supplies; back in Memphis, Sturgis received an immediate demotion and was sent west to keep an eye on the Indians. Sherman, upon receiving word of Sturgis’s route, wired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “…Forrest is the very devil…there will never be peace in Tennessee until Forest is dead.”
Way down South, Gen Joe Johnston spent the month drawing his lines back in the face of Sherman’s three corps. Tragedy occurred on 14 June at Pine Mountain near Marietta, when Johnston’s deputy, Lt Gen Leonidas Polk, was killed by a direct hit by an artillery shell. Said writer Thomas Connelly, “The army had suffered a severe loss…Polk was the army’s most beloved general, a representative of that intangible identification of the army with Tennessee.”
On 22 June, Maj Gens Joe Hooker and John Schofield turned back an unplanned and unauthorized attack by Lt Gen John B. Hood at Kolb’s Farm, southwest of Marietta. Poor terrain and steady Union artillery fire forced Hood’s valiant men back with heavy losses, but the dustup gave Johnston more time to entrench and fortify Kennesaw Mountain, to the north.
Convinced that Johnston’s forces were strung out, on Sherman ordered an attack on Johnston’s lines for the 27th. In what Sherman later termed “…the hardest fight of the campaign to date,” the Southerners successfully defended the mountain and forced the Yankees back with some 3000 losses. Johnston’s victory against superior forces bought both the Army of Tennessee and Atlanta just a little more time and brought the South some good news, particularly following the 19 June loss of the legendary CSS Alabama to USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg, France.
Up north, the other two major armies duked it out at the crossroads of Cold Harbor, VA, northeast of Richmond. Starting on 31 May with a cavalry action by Maj Gen Phil Sheridan against Confederate infantry, the next two weeks saw both sides throw in increasing numbers of forces. The repeated Northern assaults resulted in wholesale slaughter and drove many in the north – with a presidential election looming – to question Grant’s leadership and willingness to sustain losses. On 15 June, Grant pulled back, turned and headed for Petersburg to join up with Union troops already in contact.
The initial Battle of Petersburg had taken place on 15 June, when Major Generals William F. “Sooey” Smith (XVIII Corps) and Winfield Scott Hancock (II Corps) and 30,000 men assaulted a grand total of 5400 Southern defenders of the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia under Gen PGT Beauregard. Initially driven back under the combined weight of the two Yankee corps, Beauregard’s men managed to dig in while Lee rushed reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia. On 18 June, the newly reinforced Confederate defenders repelled an assault by three corps: II , IX (Maj Gen Ambrose Burnside) and V (Maj Gen Gouverneur Warren).
The Confederate defenses had held…General Lee and the entire Army of Northern Virginia were now in place…and the Siege of Petersburg had begun.