The two armies had been in almost constant contact for the first week of what would become known as “the Forty Days.” The Battle of the Wilderness had been inconclusive, as, thus far, had the one at Spotsylvania, with the epic struggle for “the Bloody Angle” still to come. Neither commander had been able to accomplish his ultimate objective: namely, victory in a battle of annihilation. What had so far been accomplished was attrition, and a woeful amount of that.
Robert E. Lee, in a meeting with some of his officers on May 11, 1864, at the end of a day of more hard fighting, was discussing information about the movements of Union forces and what should be done to counter them when a staff officer said something about how General Grant had been throwing his troops against Confederate defenses like a “butcher.”
“I think,” Lee said, “that General Grant has managed his affairs remarkably well up to the present time.”
A. P. Hill, one of Lee’s corps commanders, spoke up. “General Lee,” he said, “let them continue to attack our breastworks. We can stand that very well.”
Lee, as always, insisted on the offensive, saying, “We must attack those people. . . . This army cannot stand a siege. We must end this business on the battlefield, not in
a fortified place.”
So the two armies continued to maneuver for position and to fight when they were not on the move. The bloodiest and most futile of these fights came in early June, at Cold Harbor, where Grant’s army took some 7,000 casualties in 20 minutes. If it was a Confederate victory, it was not the kind that Lee desired or needed.
Shortly before the battle, he had said to Jubal Early, another of his generals, “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”
General Grant wanted what Lee dreaded. If he could put his army between Lee and Richmond and force him to fight in the open, or if he could pin Lee’s back to the Confederate capital, then his superiority in numbers, firepower, logistics—everything, it seemed, except will where the forces were equal—would lead to a conclusive victory and the end of the war. He had said that he intended “to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,” and no one doubted his word. But he never said that he preferred this course.
Shortly after the disaster at Cold Harbor, Grant began working on a plan to leave his earthworks and move his entire army across the James River, below Richmond, to take the rail hub at Petersburg, then lay siege to the city. It was the sort of thing that Lee had done, almost routinely, and it involved substantial risk. It meant dividing his forces in the presence of the enemy, and it required movement that was both secret and speedy. Lee and Stonewall Jackson had become almost mythic for this sort of thing. The Army of the Potomac, on the other hand, had built a reputation for caution and for ponderousness, especially on the march. President Lincoln had remarked of one of its previous commanders, George McClellan, that he had “the slows.”
McClellan had failed, dismally, on some of the same ground over which Grant hoped to speedily and stealthily march his army. That had been two years earlier in the Seven Days battles, Lee’s first campaign as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan had superior numbers but was indecisive and cautious to the point of cowardice, and had been chased out of Virginia by superior generalship and harder marching.
Grant’s reputation was for direct action. He was thought to disdain maneuver warfare and had been quoted as saying, “I never maneuver.” But he was selling himself short (his victorious Vicksburg campaign was the proof). Still, here he was, back in the low country east of Richmond where the place names conjured up dark memories for the Army of the Potomac: Gaines’s Mill, White Oak Swamp, the Chickahominy River. This was the country through which Grant proposed to move his army, leaving the earthworks around Cold Harbor that were foul with the stink of the dead.
As he explained in a letter to his nominal superior in Washington, Chief of Staff Henry Halleck, “My idea from the start has been to beat Lee’s army, if possible, north of Richmond.” However, Grant admitted, “without a greater sacrifice of human life than I am willing to make, all cannot be accomplished that I had designed.”
McClellan could never have written those words. When he had been frustrated by Lee in this same country, he said it was because he had been betrayed by people in Washington.