An atlas of the wilderness campaign, including all Cavalry operations, may 2-6 1864
This is the latest of the Savas-Beatie series of atlases on Civil War campaigns. Each page has a map on the right page and text on the left explaining the map. In the thick of the battle the time intervals per page can be as short as 15 minutes, but are usually about an hour. Each part of the field has its own connected set of pages so there is a minimum of mental scene switching.
The text is contains a good amount of tactical detail, but is by its nature more of an overview of the battle than a more in-depth study is. The strength of the book is that it does give the tactical details and maps that usually are described in a sentence or so with a map every chapter or so. In that way it is a good counterpoint to those other books.
The battle itself is the start of the Overland Campaign, the first where Grant met Lee in the field. The Army of the Potomac had been overmatched by Lees’ Army in part due to its own faltering leadership. This fact was compounded by fact that it had to fight on Lee’s turf, and being so close to the capital it was both under scrutiny and was tempted to play politics itself. It isn’t a coincidence that the two times Lee invaded the North and there was a clear purpose for the Army it fought much better and turned him back with a drubbing.
The Overland Campaign would be a strategic defeat for Lee, ending with him being pinned against the vital rail lines protecting the capital for the winter, then routed out of them and forced to surrender. Thus it starts the period where Confederate history starts to lose interest in the battles and shade into vagueness.and excuses. A recent study shows that by examining the newspapers of the time there is evidence that Lee received more reinforcements and lost more men in all these battles than estimated previously.
The Army of the Potomac had just been reorganized by Meade in the fall because the small corps previously in use were hard to manage and required many commanders, which could not be found due to battlefield losses. Complicating matters was the fact that Confederate corps were larger than Union due to the way regiments were recruited, so it required multiple Union Corps to contend with a Confederate one.
However, in retrospect the new size of the Union Corps was probably too large, compounded by the propensity of the high command to attach and reattach divisions from place to place in battle. Repeatedly the Union found its corps commanders unable to handle their large units, most having doubled in size or more since their last battle. As the campaign went on this tended to be ‘solved’ by losses and veterans going home, thus making the units more in line with what commanders were used to.
The main change in this battle was that at the top, Grant had no reluctance to engage the Confederates when encountered. Lee, despite what historians claim for him, did not realize this as his usual rush to contact on two widely separated roads put him in an embarrassing position when Grant attacked his forces, pinning them in place. Meanwhile, an entire Union division was in-between the two, able to pitch into the flank or rear of either. Sadly for the union, the high command did not realize this and the forces retired later to the main line. Later attempts to hit this wide gap from the front never quite managed to strike home.
A second crisis happened at the start of the second day of the battle. The southern prong of Lee’s army had been hard pressed at nightfall. Lee refused to pull the men back to another position claiming that his last corps, Longstreet’s, would arrive before the Union would attack. Since they had marched 32 miles and were still 15 miles off, this shows that he did not consider a dawn attack a possibility. Longstreet did arrive at 6 AM, but only after Hancock had routed Hill’s corps and driven them back nearly a mile. Only a stellar performance by Longstreet and the confusion of the attack column allowed the situation to be stabilized and kept his army from being driven west away from the capital. This would not be the last time in this campaign that Lee avoided disaster by luck and the Army of the Potomac’s fumbling rather than by his own decisions. By the next spring, the middle leadership of the Union Army had absorbed Grant’s attitude and become much more deft, and the result was a series of crushing defeats and eventual surrender.
Grant, as supervisor of Meade’s army, played a more limited role in tactical issues than he would later. He loses some points for confusing the command structure by dispatching divisions all over the field outside of their chain of command. This added to the hesitantness of the remaining troops who lacked reserves, and to the confusion of the arriving troops and the burden of the other corps commander. While you might expect poor commanders like Burnside to have problems, all the others also did, even veterans like Hancock and Sedgwick.
Historians have been hesitant to call this battle what it was, a decided Union victory. Unlike most other battles in the East, even Union victories, there was no long rebuilding pause and no change in policy by the army commander. Losses were proportionally even (or by modern research, higher for the South), and losses aren’t the point. Grant’s objective was to press Lee continually, and he continued to do so. Lee’s objective was to disrupt this campaign and gain time for the South, and he failed to do so.