For most Americans, the military aspects of the Civil War are known in broad strokes – the firing on Fort Sumter, the epic battle at Gettysburg, and Lee’s grudging surrender to Grant at Appomatox. While Ken Burns’s wildly successful documentary introduced millions to other conflicts, at Antietem, Chickamauga, and Vicksburg, unless you are a “buff” with granular knowledge of one side’s regiments or some obscure dust-up that occurred in a remote corner of Georgia, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Spring 1864 Overland campaign is often overlooked, but in Joseph Wheelan’s new book Bloody Spring, Forty Days That Sealed The Fate of the Confederacy, we learn that this six week period of relentless fighting was as important to the Union victory as repelling Pickett’s Charge.
1864 was a perilous time in our nation’s history. Lincoln’s re-election was far from assured, Robert E. Lee had spirited his defeated troops back to Virginia after his loss at Gettysburg, and from the western theater came Ulysses S. Grant, a hard charging (and some said too hard drinking) general who had choked off half the South by defeating rebel troops at Vicksburg. Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant General and overall commander of all Union forces spoke to Lincoln’s frustration at the Army’s failure to leverage its superior manpower and personnel to beat Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the President’s desire to hand authority to a commander who would stand and fight. On the other hand, the South was relying on war fatigue to either oust President Lincoln (whose opponent in 1864 was his former commandeering officer, George McClellan, who was running on a negotiated peace platform) or result in its recognition by other nations like Great Britain to reach the same result. In the alternative, the South hoped for a decisive battlefield victory based on Lee’s strategic and tactical skill; however, Sherman’s march through Georgia, the Army of the Potomac’s vastly superior (in soldiers and material) numbers, and the crippling blockade that starved the South of basic necessities, made this scenario highly improbable. Indeed, the North’s advantages suggested that the right man, with the right temperament, could snuff the rebellion and secure Lee’s surrender.
Grant’s elevation was far from ordained. His military career was choppy and he was not even in the army at the time fighting began; but through dogged determination, a killer’s instinct, and an utter lack of remorse for the casualties his troops inflicted and suffered, Grant’s reputation as a fighter par excellence was cemented when Vicksburg fell. When handed the reins of the entire Union force, he developed a multi-pronged strategy that relied on Sherman’s continued penetration of the deep South and the Army of the James’s menacing of areas below Richmond to squeeze Lee and his forces like an anaconda choking out its victim. When Union troops crossed the Rapidan River to begin the Overland campaign, Grant signaled a point of no return – he would not retreat even in the face of battlefield setbacks.
And with this backdrop in mind, Wheelan sets a furious pace through brisk storytelling and evocative language that places the reader in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Wilderness, the fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, and the war councils of Grant and Lee. Wheelan’s treatment of his main protagonists is judicious. While Lee is certainly portrayed as the better strategist, deftly moving his troops around and battling heroically against a greater force, Wheelan is not afraid to point out his mistakes. Similarly, Grant is not shown to be a mindless warrior piling bodies into the maw; his nimble removal of the entire Army of the Potomac from the stalemate at Cold Harbor was a masterful feat involving the laying of a 2,100 foot pontoon bridge that ferried 100,000 troops across the Pamunkey River without Lee even knowing about it. Had Grant’s underlings moved aggressively after this daring river crossing, it would have reached Petersburg ahead of Lee’s troops, effectively bottling up the Army of Northern Virginia and bringing the war to a close. Indeed, Wheelan suggests that Grant’s shortcomings as a general were less about his tactical or strategic acumen, but rather, someone saddled with an overly cautious staff whose postponements and reluctance to engage the enemy left their commander frustrated, his objectives unmet, and victory just out of reach.
Wheelan admirably captures the scope of carnage wrought in this short time. The six weeks of fighting resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and even more injured and mangled. It is not a pleasant story, but one well told. To sit back in 2014 and attempt to imagine casualty numbers that surpassed, in a single day, all those killed in the Iraq War is sobering to say the least. That Grant continued his grinding progress even as the body count mounted earned him the sobriquet of “butcher,” but Lee’s casualties, while less in sheer numbers, were greater as a percentage of his overall force. Unlike Grant, who could rely on a fresh supply of soldiers, the Confederacy was tapped out and incapable of sustaining the battle over the long haul.
Wheelan also takes care to flesh out the biographies and personalities of those around these two larger than life figures. In this way, the leadership challenges of each is brought into sharper relief. For Grant, it is commanders reluctant to charge and a direct report (Meade) who teeters between paranoia and self-pity as his authority is steadily eroded. Lee, on the other hand, is in many ways a team of one, as he loses his cavalry leader Jeb Stuart during the campaign, while his de facto number two, James Longstreet, is seriously wounded. It is clear from Wheelan’s storytelling that Lee is the linchpin of his entire force, with his men furiously demanding his return to the rear any time he nears the battlefield, while Grant’s men are generally respectful, he does not engender the same blind loyalty.
On one level, this is understandable. As Grant’s troops ram into Lee’s fortified barricades, the body count skyrockets, and the Confederates offer grudging respect for the one Union general they have met who will stand and fight; but the futility of these charges is captured by the line grunts, whose diaries show a poignant fatalism, particularly as the lethality of attempting to breach the breastwork defenses Lee’s troops mastered becomes more and more apparent. Meanwhile, the Union generals’ complicity in undue slaughter is clear – be it through their inability to press advantages or stubbornness in futile attacks at impregnable defensive positions. Indeed, as a military side note, the rapid evolution of trench warfare even within this short season of combat is startling and an ominous foretelling of World War I. The Overland campaign was among the first to take place behind fortified lines and across empty spaces that quickly turned into killing fields.
Ultimately, Grant’s aggression and Lee’s dwindling forces allowed the former to steadily make his way toward Petersburg, where a months-long siege that stretched into 1865 finally choked off the Army of Northern Virginia, who attempted a break out in early April, only to be cornered near Appomatox Court House. While the Petersburg siege could fill its own book, Wheelan’s superficial accounting of those long months is one of his few missteps – an afterthought that barely covers two pages, but could have, in a slightly longer epilogue, provided a more fitting cap to his story. That said, Bloody Spring is a worthy addition to the voluminous Civil War record.