Good news for those of us – and our numbers are legion – who are abidingly and insatiably interested in the American Civil War and the large footprint it has left on our history: Mackubin Owens has published a splendid piece in the current National Review on the battles and maneuvers of 150 years ago that have come to be known as “The Virginia Overland Campaign.” In his treatment of the Civil War, Shelby Foote supplied more biblical resonance, calling it “The Forty Days.”
It was an epic and tragic chapter in the struggle, with Grant attempting to maneuver Lee into a situation where he would be obliged to fight on open ground against the numerically superior Union army, and the Confederate general eluding the traps and setting those of his own that invited exceedingly bloody frontal assaults like the one on the “Mule Shoe” at Spotsylvania. (Which is, incidentally, where an ancestor of the Francis Underwood character played by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards was killed.)
In his piece, Owens moves the pieces in this military chess game so adroitly that the reader can follow (no easy thing) and makes the case for the importance of this campaign which tends to be overlooked in the popular imagination because there is no one battlefield and no single conclusive engagement. And this, in fact, is the essential truth of the Overland Campaign. Each battle not only added to the casualty list but also validated the insights of Grant and Sherman and Lincoln about the awful truth of this war. That it would come down to attrition.
The last battle of the Overland Campaign was at a place called Cold Harbor in early June of 1864. On the 150th anniversary of that sad affair, the Standard will publish my own treatment of the Overland Campaign. Of Civil War literature there is no end. The memories are too deeply embedded, as this haunting piece in the Wall Street Journal, makes plain.