soldier with rifle american civil warJOE RYAN

Grant Meets Lee

There is no question but that Grant and Lee—two very different men in character—were as one in military mind; this is proved by their independent actions in May 1863 when each seized the initiative against their enemy, Grant against Pemberton at Vicksburg and Lee against Hooker at Chancellorsville.

Grant crossed the Mississippi at Bruinsburg with about 25,000 men and marched north to get on Pemberton's communications with the East thereby blocking reinforcements from reaching him, and, thus, ensuring Vicksburg's capture. Had General Lee been present, though, the objective evidence shows clearly that, unlike Pemberton, he would have been across the road to Raymond before Grant reached Rocky Springs and, as Grant could not break Lee's lines in Virginia, the probability is great he would not have broken Lee's lines, had he been in Mississippi.

Lee Would Have Met Grant At Rocky Springs

By the time the two generals met each other, in May 1864, Grant's accomplishments measured up to Lee's. In 1862, Grant had taken advantage of opportunity and moved the force Halleck had given him to seize Fort Henry on the Tennessee, to Fort Donelson and captured it, winning the status of the ranking major-general of volunteers in the West. Then, ignoring Halleck's orders to remain on the defensive, he moved the Army of Tennessee into camp on the west bank of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, inviting Sidney Johnston, whose army he knew was massed in his front, to attack him. He did this because he was certain in his mind that the Union had such superiority in manpower that it could not possibly be pushed away from any place where that manpower was massed, and in this he was obviously right. Then, by 1863, after a short period of embarrassment, he became commander of the operations against Vicksburg and, in exercising this command, learned how to organize a system of logistics which would maintain indefinitely in the field an army of one hundred thousand men.

Note: You see, it wasn't the battlefields that counted so much as the getting there.


Once Vicksburg was captured, Grant moved on, as commander of the entire Western Theater, to Chattanooga, which then was being tenuously held by Rosecrans. He pushed Bragg away and established the place as a secure base of operations for the campaign against Atlanta that was to come. This done, he left the campaign to Sherman and went to Washington where the Government made him the ranking general of the Union armies and it is then that he went into the field to meet Lee.

The historians make much of the fact that Lincoln's military policy in the East was to make Lee's army, not Richmond, the object of the Army of the Potomac's campaigns. Lincoln expressed this policy, both personally and through Henry Halleck, to McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker, and finally to Grant. Grant, himself, expressed this policy to Meade on April 9, 1864, when he wrote: "Lee's army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." But the evidence is plain that Grant did not mean what he said. At least jurors would see it, if Grant had said this in a courtroom.

Lincoln's policy was not, in terms of military science, a policy of aggression so much as a policy of defense. The policy was based on the fact that the war would certainly be won hands down in the West and it could only be lost in the East, if the Confederates were able to seize Washington—for Britain would use the seizure, however short it might last, as the excuse to break the Union's blockade of Confederate ports. So Lincoln demanded that the Union's eastern army keep itself at all times between Washington and Lee. But, this policy was beside the point by the time Grant arrived in the East. The manpower of the Union by then had been mobilized to such an extent that its masses were overpowering the Confederates on every front, and the grinding had begun.

By the time Grant arrived in the East to administer the coup de grâce, General Lee's army was surrounded: Sherman was invading Georgia now, with 120,000 men, pushing Bragg, then Johnston, then Hood, out of the State as first he burned Atlanta to the ground and then began sweeping through it, like a pestilence, to the Atlantic coast; then moving up through the Carolinas into Lee's rear, burning and destroying everything in his path.

South Carolina's Capital Burned To The Ground

Thirty thousand men, under Ben Butler's command, were landing at City Point and moving up the right bank of the James toward Richmond. The Confederate batteries at Drury's Bluff were being pounded by Union gunboats. Another 20,000 men, under C.F. Smith's command, were landing at the White House at the mouth of the Pamunkey River. And Grant now in de facto command of the Army of the Potomac had brought together in four corps over 120,000 men to do battle with Lee's army of 60,000.

Why Didn't Grant March Directly On Lee?

Like Burnside before him, Grant had no intention of moving down the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, to force a passage of the Rapidan in Lee's front. His experience in the West, of depending on railroads for supply, had convinced him that the farther he moved the Army of the Potomac down the single track of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, the more vulnerable would become his communications with his base of supply at Warrenton and ultimately, Washington. The same problem existed with regard to the idea of shifting his communications to the line of the Fredericksburg & Richmond Railroad and, like George McClellan before him, Grant clearly had in his mind the idea of getting onto the York River Railroad and operating—not against Lee's army but against Richmond, its base of supply.

But it was simply too impolitic for Grant to announce this reality to the country as the people, with good reason, could be expected to wake up to the fact that Lincoln's decision to remove McClellan's army from Richmond was the reason thecountry was about to suffer sixty thousand casualties, the "wastage" of 60,000 men which McClellan's movement up the Yorktown Peninsula had avoided.

Note: What did Lincoln think? One day he has his army at Culpeper facing Lee straight ahead, with the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to support it, and, suddenly,Grant is marching it off at an angle toward the Fredericksburg Railroad and going through the Wilderness. What gives?


In the same letter of April 9, Grant gave Meade instructions to reduce baggage and to make arrangements for forwarding supplies to the White House on the Pamunkey. By the 17th, Meade reported back that the Commissary Department was assembling steamers to transport one million rations to Fort Monroe. Similarly, the Quartermaster's Department was making ready to ship forage and other supplies to the same place. The Ordnance Department, too, was shipping one hundred artillery rounds per gun and one hundred rounds of ammunition per man. The Engineering Department was preparing tools, pontoons, and a siege train for shipment to Fort Monroe. The evidence, therefore, is plain that, from the outset, Grant intended to move to Richmond and destroy Lee's ability to fight by laying siege to it, as McClellan had done two years earlier.

Having decided that, Grant must have expected Lee would attack him as he moved. But, plainly, this fact did not matter to him. The individual was nothing to him; nothing counted in his mind but the fact that he had the masses and those masses, he knew, Lee could not stop.

Grant Follows Hooker's Route Into The Wilderness

(as at Shiloh Grant is inviting the attack) 

On May 3, 1864, Warren's 5th corps, followed by Sedgwick's 6th corps, went by way of Germana Ford while Hancock's 2nd corps went by way of Ely's. Burnside's 9th corps followed several days later. Ahead of Grant's columns were Sheridan's cavalry; Wilson's division of troopers reaching the intersection of the Brock Road with the Orange turnpike at Wilderness Tavern, turned down it to occupy Parker's Store, where the road leads to Spottsylvania Courthouse.

Warren's corps arrived at Wilderness Tavern at noon on May 4 and went in to camp essentially where Howard's 11th corps had camped the year before. Sedgwick camped behind Warren, along the road between Germana Ford and Wilderness Tavern. At the same time as this Sherman, in the West, was moving against Bragg at Dalton.

Howard's Position at Wilderness Church, May 1863 

Grant's Position At Wilderness Tavern

Just four miles away from Sedgwick's camp at the intersection of the Germana Ford Road and the turnpike leading to Wilderness Tavern, was Ewell's corps of Lee's army, having marched on the turnpike from Orange Courthouse. Hill's corps, followed by Longstreet coming from Gordonsville, had marched simultaneously with Grant's march, on the Orange Plank Road, and went into camp a few miles short of Warren's corps.

On May 5, as Warren's corps prepared to march to Parker's Store, with Sedgwick following him on his right and Hancock moving on his left toward Shady Grove Church—Grant's obvious destination being the crossroads at Spottsylvania Courthouse—Lee attacked.

Unlike Pemberton at Vicksburg, Lee Attacks

Whatever Meade's role was in things, now, it was not control of the tactics of the battles that ensued. Grant was in tactical command of the army and it was he that directed the movements and countermovements of the four army corps.

The fighting raged all day on the 5th of May, one side gaining an edge here, losing it as the other side gained, then that side fell back and on and on the sway went on into the deep hours of the night; commencing again at dawn, Hancock attacked Lee's left as Lee attacked Grant's right. . . an hour of fighting and the Confederates fell into confusion as Hancock seemed now on the verge of rolling up Lee's flank. Then, suddenly, Longstreet had come upon him and one of Hancock's brigades was swept away as Longstreet's men slammed into Mott's division which ran back through the forest, forcing Hancock's front back to the point it had begun in the morning. Here, in the greatest moment of tension in the battle, the Union general Wadsworth was mortally wounded and Longstreet was carried from the field with a bullet through his throat.

General Lee now took command of his right in person. During the night he withdrew his front, reformed, and at first light attacked Grant's left again. Part of Grant's line gave way and Anderson's division pushed through the opening, but then the rush forward, the smoke, and the density of forest caused Anderson's men to become disorganized, out of touch, and Lee was now in distress. But Grant's staff organization failed to inform him of this and he countermanded an order he had given to attack Lee's left, because Hancock's corps was exhausted and out of ammunition.

Note: These two men did these things.


The next day, May 6, Jubal Early, now commanding Ewell's corps—Ewell too having been carried from the field wounded—threw his men upon Sedgwick's right and forced Sedgwick to fall back some distance as night was coming on.

On May 7, Grant and Lee faced each other behind their barricades as the forest burned around them. In the West, Sherman was about to attack Joe Johnston and Ben Butler's corps had reached City Point.

At this point Grant decided to move on toward Richmond. As he put it delicately, to save Lincoln's face: "I gave orders for a movement by the left flank, fearing that Lee might move rapidly to Richmond to crush Butler before I could get there."

Note: Grant had no basis to "fear Lee might move rapidly to Richmond."There is nothing in the record to show that Lee had any intention of going anywhere but to keep as far away from Richmond as possible under the circumstances. Lee was being forced to move toward Richmond because Grant was moving in that direction. Grant's language, ". . . to crush Butler before I could get there" demonstrates that Grant's intent all along was to march to Richmond by sheer mass, and force Lee to save his base.

The Battle of Titans

Grant tells us, in his memoirs, "My object in moving to Spottsylvania was two fold: first, I did not want Lee to get back to Richmond in time to crush Butler before I could get there; second, I wanted to get between his army and Richmond, if possible."

This is nonsense. Getting "between" Lee and Richmond would have been exactly what Lincoln, at that time, did not want to see happen. It would have created exactly the situation Lincoln feared would happen with McClellan in 1862 and with Burnside and Hooker in 1863. Lincoln wanted Grant between Washington and Lee, not Lee between Washington and Grant. Remember the prime principle of a jury's deliberation—measure what they say against what the evidence shows they did.

When Grant's advance came up to Spottsylvania Courthouse, Anderson, now commanding Longstreet's corps, had his first division waiting inside barricades that Lee had caused to be built weeks before. When Warren arrived, he attacked Anderson with his entire corps, with Sedgwick coming up in support. Early, commanding Ewell's corps, encountered Hancock's corps at Todd's Tavern and, in the ensuing fight, prevented Hancock from helping in the attack against Anderson.

There were attacks and counterattacks, shifting of troops from one side to the other and back again. The Union general Stevenson was killed. And, by the end of the day, Warren's attacks had been repulsed, though Upton got into Lee's lines on the right and captured guns, but the counterattacks Lee launched were too fierce for him and he left the guns and backed out. Then Lee came out to attack Barlow but was repulsed.

On May 11, as both sides panted to catch their breath, Grant wrote Halleck this: "We have lost 11 general officers killed, wounded and missing and probably twenty thousand men. I am now sending my wagons to Fredericksburg for a fresh supply of provisions and ammunition and propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."

He went on—"I am satisfied the enemy is very shaky, and are kept up to the mark by the greatest exertions on the part of their officers."

Grant wrote this for Lincoln's ears, without any objective basis to believe what he was saying was true—the losses Lee forced his army to absorb, hardly supports it. Grant was preparing Lincoln's mind for what was coming: Grant was going to Richmond whether Lee came with him or not.

Note: And this is the horror or beauty of it all; at Culpeper, in moving southeast, Grant was challenging Lee to move on Washington. He was betting Lee didn't have the strength to do it.


After writing to Halleck, Grant issued orders for the army to attack a salient in the right center of Lee's lines. Sedgwick is killed, and the 6th corps command went to Wright and Grant told Wright to attack in front of the salient simultaneously with Hancock and Warren on his left and Burnside on his right.

On the morning of the 12th, Barlow and Birney of Hancock's corps went over the barricades and the shock of their weight carried them into the salient and a vicious, furious hand-to-hand combat ensued between the enemies, each side using their rifles in the close quarters as clubs. Warren and Burnside came up on the flanks of the salient, reached the parapet but fell back. Lee scrambled to bring up troops from the rear, got them together in time and attacked Hancock furiously, forcing Hancock back until he was again outside the barricades. Wright now threw his corps into the struggle and Hancock regained the toe of the salient and held it into the night.

It resumed again at 4:00 a.m. with Lee massing his forces heavily from the left flank of his line and throwing them against Hancock again and again and again but Hancock clung to the toe until nightfall fell a second time and the roar of the fighting sullenly faded to a grim grumble in the forest, and then Lee drew up a new line of barricades stretching across the base of the salient leaving Grant with nothing gained but 14,000 more casualties to report.

Grant blamed the failure on Warren and relieved him of duty, distributing his divisions among the other corps, and wrote to Halleck most soberly. "The enemy are obstinate and seem to have found the last ditch."

Note: In other words, it appears Lee is not going to be moved.


After two days of lull in the fighting, brought on by exhaustion on both sides aggravated by stormy weather, Grant wrote Halleck: "Assure the President that the elements alone have suspended hostilities, and it is in no manner due to weakness on our part." The next day, he shuffled his corps again, trying to catch Lee off guard by switching his attacks from Lee's right to his left, but Lee matched him blow for blow and nothing was accomplished but more dead bodies added to the bill.

Note: Grant's writing these reports to Halleck, instead of directly to Lincoln, shows his relationship with Lincoln was not personal and close. General Lee, on the other hand, reported directly to President Davis throughout the entire war.


The night of the 18th, moving the 5th and 6th corps by the rear to the left of Burnside, Grant prepared his army to abandon the line he meant to fight Lee on all summer, and go around him. While Burnside and Wright kept Lee busy with demonstrations, Hancock marched his corps southeast to Guiney's Station on the line of the Fredericksburg Railroad, then to Bowling Green and Milford, reaching the latter place the night of May 21. There he met Pickett's division marching north from Richmond to reinforce Lee and drove it away. Warren, his corps returned to him, followed on the morning of the 21st. The evening of the 21st, Burnside and Wright moved, Burnside marching on the Telegraph Road as far as Standard's Ford over the PO River but had to divert to the east when he found the ford fortified. He reached New Bethel Church the morning of the 22d.

So Much For Lincoln's Plan Of Preventing Lee From Falling Back

Lee's army took the Telegraph Road past the Po and marched parallel to Grant's columns, down to the point the Fredericksburg Railroad crosses the North Anna River; reaching there at the same time Sherman was crossing the Etowah River into Georgia.

Grant and Lee on the North Ana

Grant Decided He Better Go Around Again

"We can do nothing where we are," Grant now wrote Halleck. By this time Grant had shed most of his artillery, sending it back to Port Royal for shipment to Fort Monroe as Smith corps was landing. In his memoirs he tells the reader of his mind-set at this moment: "I determined to draw out of our position and make one more effort to get between Lee and Richmond." But the reality was, he was pressing forward with his original intent, get to Richmond and lay siege, like McClellan did, to Lee's base.

Note: Whether Grant lacked artillery at Cold Harbor and this hurt him, requires a study of the pressures of the battle beyond the scope of this piece.


On May 26, after spending hours scouting Lee's lines, trying to find some chance of attacking without simply creating more wastage, and failing, Grant telegraphed Halleck the next move he meant to make, telling him the army's base was now to be Mrs. Lee's place at the mouth of the Pamunkey, where the York River Railroad crosses the river and passes west to Richmond. He would move the army in an arc to the southeast again, crossing the Pamunkey River near Hanover Town and swinging back to the southwest to get in front of Richmond.

"Lee's army is really whipped," Grant told Halleck. "I feel our success over it is assured." Grant obviously wrote this to placate Lincoln's rising fears that the road to Washington would be open if Grant moved again to the southeast.

Halleck, perhaps with Lincoln standing over him, wired Grant back: "Is it not safer to have your depot in your rear toward Washington than on the York? I presume there are good reasons for abandoning the Fredericksburg Railroad, but it is shorter and more convenient than by water and I hardly think a large force is necessary to defend it." Grant eventually answered Halleck with the statement that, "it would not be practicable to hold the line north of Richmond that would protect the Fredericksburg Railroad."

"My idea from the start," Grant continued, has been to beat Lee's army, if possible, north of Richmond, then, after destroying his communication north of James River, to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him if he should retreat."

Note: Grant's statement presumes that (1) Grant's army will "beat" Lee's and, (2) as a consequence Lee will be "in" Richmond where Grant will besiege him from the south side of the James.


This is silliness; Grant hardly meant to "beat Lee's army north of Richmond," when his actions show him, again and again, leading his army away from Lee's front. And, if Grant's "idea from the start" had truly been to transfer his army to the south side of the James, there was no intelligent military reason why he would throw his masses against Lee's lines at Cold Harbor.

Yes, Grant had originally intended to "besiege Lee in Richmond," but he had assumed then, that once he got his army in position to use the York River Railroad as its means of supply, Lee would have, on his own, gone into the Richmond defenses. In this assumption, of course, Grant was dead wrong.

Who But Lee Would Have Done Such A Thing?

The most natural thing for a general in Lee's shoes to do, in reaction to Grant's closing in on the Chickahominy River in front of Richmond, was to do what Joe Johnston had done, in 1862, in the face of McClellan's appearance there—go inside the Richmond defenses that Lincoln believed would dash the Union Army to pieces if it attacked them.

George McClellan knew how to conduct a siege operation better than anyone, Grant included, and he knew where the key point was, which, if seized, would necessarily result in the capitulation of the city. That point was Old Tavern—at the intersection of the New Bridge and Nine Mile roads.

McClellan's Advance Reaches within a Half Mile of Old Tavern 

Once McClellan gained possession of Old Tavern, by bringing Franklin's corps across the Chickahominy, his big Parrott rifled guns could be planted there and the inner city of Richmond would then be within their range; and the pounding would begin, each thirty pound shell landing on something with devastatingly destructive effect. The place would be in flames, warehouses burning, buildings collapsing, the people in a panic.

 The only rational explanation for Grant's swinging down from Hanover town and slamming into Lee's lines with the impact of his whole 100,000 man force at Cold Harbor, was that Grant wanted to push Lee across the Chickahominy into the Richmond defenses and try to accomplish what McClellan did not. But Lee refused to be moved and Grant found himself unable to get where McClellan had been. In twenty minutes he had lost ten thousand men trying.

So then he decided there was nothing left for him to do, but go across the James as McClellan had planned at Harrison's Landing and move to choke off Richmond's supplies coming through Petersburg.

On June 3, with understatement, Grant sent this message to Meade by courier (The two men were but half a mile distant from each other.)

"The opinion of the corps commanders not being sanguine of success in case an attack is ordered, you may direct a suspension of farther advance for the present. . . . To aid the expedition of Hunter (in the Valley moving against Staunton) it is necessary that we detain all the army now with Lee

. . .  To do this it would be better to keep Lee out of the entrenchments of Richmond than to have them go back there."


Note: This message demonstrates, as far as the trial court is concerned, that Grant is dissembling here, that he is writing the note with his eyes on history. First, it is the minds of his corps commanders, not his, that is shirking from the task and, second, the reason he is now moving away from Richmond is to "keep Lee out of the entrenchments" on the apparent assumption that Lee will again be compelled to follow him.


Again, Grant moves away from Lee's front rather than toward it. So much for the silliness of the historians who pontificate: "Lincoln wants his generals to go after Lee, not Richmond!"


To Halleck, on June 5, Grant wrote, "All cannot be accomplished that I had designed outside the city." And in his memoirs, he wrote about this: "The move had to be made."

Grant summed up the results he had achieved this way: "When the campaign began the army numbered 120,000 men (Lee's numbered 60,000.). During its progress, 40,000 reinforcements were received (The record shows the number was 60,000.). At the crossing of the James the army numbered 116,000 (not counting Smith's corps of 20,000 at White House and Butler's corps of 30,000 at Bermuda Hundred.)."


Nine months later, Grant had choked off Lee's supplies from reaching Petersburg and, his men starving, Lee moved toward Lynchburg but Grant's masses surrounded him at Appomattox. It hardly mattered; Sherman had already burned Columbia and was on his way to Goldsboro.

The McLean Farmhouse

In recounting his impression of Lee, when he met him in McLean's parlor, Grant wrote this in his memoirs: "Lee was a large, austere man, and I judge difficult of approach by his subordinates. What his feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face. But my own feelings were sad and depressed."

Here is what Walter Taylor, General Lee's young aide, who had been with him from the day he took command of Virginia's militia army, in April 1861, had to say about feelings:

"I became separated from General Lee in the execution of his orders in regard to the parking of our trains in places of safety, and did not rejoin him until the morning of the 9th. After making my report the general said to me, `Well, colonel, what are we to do?'


In reply, a fear was expressed that it would be necessary to abandon the trains, and the hope was indulged in that, relieved of their burden, the army could make good its escape.


`Yes,' said General Lee; `perhaps we could, but the time has come for capitulation.'


`Well, sir,' I said, `anything but that.'


`Such is my thinking,' he said.


`But I know it is different with you,' I said. `You have to think of these brave men and decide not for yourself, but for them.'


`Yes,' he replied; `it would be useless and therefore cruel to provoke more blood, and so I have arranged to meet General Grant with a view to surrender, and I want you to come with me.'


Shortly after this the general, accompanied by Colonel Charles Marshall and myself, started back in the direction from which we had come, to meet General Grant as had been arranged.


We continued some distance after passing our lines and came upon an officer sent by General Grant to say he could not meet him here but the general had to meet him by another road. General Lee turned then toward Appomattox Courthouse. I shrank from this interview, and while I could not then, and cannot now, justify my conduct, I availed myself of the excuse of being tired from the exertions of the ride, and did not accompany my chief in this trying ordeal." (Walter Taylor, Four Years with General Lee (1878) D. Appleton & Co. New York)


Note: Grant was indeed an uncouth man. Here is an excerpt from his memoirs: "On May 23, I received dispatches from Washington saying that Sherman was rampaging in Georgia. I was seated on the porch of a fine plantation house at the time. The lady of the house, a Mrs. Tyler, and an elderly lady, were present. Burnside came up, his big spurs and saber rattling as he walked. He touched his hat politely to the ladies and said he supposed they had never seen so many "live" Yankees before. The elderly lady spoke up promptly that indeed she had, in Richmond. Prisoners, of course, it was understood.


I read my dispatch aloud. This threw the younger lady into tears. I left a guard to protect the house and assured her that if her husband was in hiding he would be protected to."


And so the commanding general of all the armies of the Union felt the need to lord over two distraught and ruined women.


Joe Ryan