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150 Years Since Ulysses S. Grant's Superstition Won a War

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May 4 through June 24 is the 150th anniversary of the Overland campaign, which took place during the American Civil War in 1864. Although General Robert E. Lee didn't surrender until April 9, 1865, the Overland campaign turned the Civil War into an end-game scenario with the Union holding all the pieces. This campaign is often overlooked in favor of other campaigns, such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg. However, the Overland campaign is just as fascinating. Below, I summarize the major battles of one of the most decisive campaigns in American history on the 150th anniversary.

1. Pregame

George Meade, the commander of the major Union army, had done virtually nothing since his victory at Gettysburg the previous year, allowing the Southern commander, Robert E. Lee, to regroup, rest, and prepare for invasion. Abraham Lincoln orders Ulysses S. Grant, who had won the Battle of Vicksburg the previous year, eastward to oversee all of the Union armies and end the war. Grant's forces are about twice the size of Lee's army. Additionally, Grant will receive legions of reinforcements and Lee will not. This is important.

2. Grant's Superstition

About a year ago, I read in DeGregorio's Complete Book of U. S. Presidents that Grant, "believed it bad luck to retrace one's steps. If he inadvertently walked beyond his destination, for example, he would not simply turn around and walk back down the same street, but rather would keep going further away from the place and return via another road." This is telling, as Grant never wins a battle in this campaign, but wins purely by not retreating and moving on. All of the previous commanders fighting in this theatre (Irvin McDowell, George McClellan, John Pope, Joseph Hooker, Ambrose Burnside, George Meade) had either retreated or stayed still whether win, lose or draw. Grant's eccentricities made Grant's successes possible.

3. A Tangled Strangeness (The Wilderness, May 5-7)

Grant had a major advantage in artillery, so Lee moved into the tangled woods of northern Virginia, forcing Grant to attack him without having this advantage. Both commander promptly lost contact with most of their units as the woods also cut off communication lines. This led to some rather surreal instances:

  • Grant sharpening a stick with his knife after losing his army while he waits for the battle to unfold and end.
  • Muttonchopped Burnside breakfasting in the middle of the battlefield and missing much of the action because he can't find friend or foe.
  • Lee, James Longstreet and JEB Stuart, narrowly escaping death when they are found by a Union unit, which promptly runs back into the woods on seeing three semi-mythical figures.
  • Lee having to be restrained from personally leading troops into battle.
  • Lastly, we have a forest fire.

In the end, Grant had to pull out, but he didn't retreat, he moved on.

4. They Can't Hit an Elephant but they Can Hit a General (Spotsylvania, May 8-21)

The next battle was bloodier than the first; some units had to fight for 24 straight hours. In the course of the battle, Union general John Sedgwick, was killed seconds after saying, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Another fatality occurred as a result of a verbal fight between George Meade and the cavalry commander, Phil Sheridan. Sheridan claimed he could defeat the legendary JEB Stuart if he was allowed to pursue him, after Meade had accused Sheridan of incompetence. Eventually, Sheridan was allowed to go after Stuart. Sheridan's division killed Stuart in a cavalry battle outside of Yellow Tavern. However, Grant couldn't defeat Lee at Spotsylvania. He again withdrew, but didn't retreat, he moved on.

5. Lee's Diarrhea or a Drunkard's Charge (North Anna, May 23-26)

Grant tried to beat Lee to North Anna and plow on to Richmond, but he was blocked. This battle is notable for an ingenious strategy that was never followed through. Lee had a fortification built in the middle of the night in the form of an inverted V. His hope was to lure half of Grant's army into the fortification so that Lee could use his entire force to smash the one side of Grant's army not held by the inverted V. Perfect! However, Lee had an attack of diarrhea that took him out of the action. The plan was never properly executed and Lee was foiled (soiled?) by his own unstoppable bowel movements.

Elsewhere, an inebriated Union general named James Ledlie was launching unsupported attack after unsupported attack, despite orders to wait. Although, soundly repulsed on every suicidal charge, Ledlie was promoted after the battle for his tenacity. Note, Ledlie would drink again to order his troops to charge into a crater, only to get massacred, at the Battle of the Crater, after the Overland campaign.

6. Crossing the Unpronounceable Stream (Totopotomoy, May 28-30)

This is the least interesting battle of the campaign. The losses were relatively light in comparison; however, Lee lost more men. Despite this, Grant withdrew, didn't retreat, and moved on over the Totopotomoy.

7. Grant's Self-Massacre (Cold Harbor, May 31-June 12)

Most massacres involve killing people you aren't leading. Grant in the worst performance of his career, launched a series of uncoordinated attacks, which were easily repulsed by Lee's dwindling army. Supposedly, Grant lost over 7,000 men in about 20 minutes at one point. Despite Grant's losses, he didn't retreat. He moved on.

8. Victory without victories: The Result (June 12-24)

Grant was able to get a step on Lee's small army. Once the Union army crossed the James River, Lee was forced to protect Petersburg, which was the supply city for Richmond, the Confederate capital. As his army was so small, Lee had to settle for an impossible siege, ending the most unusual campaign of the war, ensuring eventual Union victory, which was won by reinforcements and a superstitious Ulysses S. Grant.