Overland Campaign

Overland Campaign
Date May 4 – June 24, 1864
Location Virginia
Victor Union victory
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
Ulysses S. Grant
George G. Meade
Robert E. Lee
Military Units in Battle
Army of the Potomac Army of Northern Virginia
Unit Strength
118,700 64,000
Casualties and Deaths
Total: 55,000 Total: 32,000
Battles Involved
Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7, 1864)
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21, 1864)
Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864)
Battle of Meadow Bridge (May 12, 1864)
Battle of North Anna (May 23–26, 1864)
Battle of Wilson’s Wharf (May 24, 1864)
Battle of Haw’s Shop (May 28, 1864)
Battle of Totopotomoy Creek (May 28–30, 1864)
Battle of Old Church (May 30, 1864)
Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31 – June 12, 1864)
Battle of Trevilian Station (June 11–12, 1864)
Battle of Saint Mary’s Church (June 24, 1864)
Part of the American Civil War

The Overland Campaign is the name given to a number of battles between the Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil war. It refers specifically to the encounters that took place between May 4 and June 24, 1864, after Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant had been appointed as general-in-chief of the Union army.


The Overland Campaign signaled a strategic change in the objectives of the Union army. For much of the Civil War, the Federal offensives were aimed at capturing the Confederate capital, Richmond in Virginia. Numerous battles had taken place in the attempt to take Richmond, but the Federal forces had so far failed in their objective.

Many of the failures were put down to hesitation from several Union generals, who had failed to take full advantage of victories against their Confederate opponents. The Union President, Abraham Lincoln, had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of aggressive leadership, and appointed Grant as overall commander, believing he had the skills and the character to deliver the final blow to the rebels.

By the time he appointed Grant, Lincoln had come to the conclusion that the primary goal should not be the taking of Richmond but the destruction of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which was under the command of General Robert E. Lee. If that army was defeated, Lincoln believed, then the Confederates would be unable to hold Richmond.

Grant was in total agreement with Lincoln, and together they devised a plan of campaign to crush the Confederate army. For the first time in the Civil War, the Union forces would try to inflict serious damage on Confederate forces by undertaking a concerted, coordinated series of attacks in different geographical areas. This strategy would seriously restrict opportunities for the Confederates to move their forces around.

The Union Army of the Potomac would launch an offensive on the Confederate forces close to Richmond. At the same time, offensives would be launched in the Shenandoah Valley, General Sherman was to lead an attack on Georgia to try to take Atlanta, troops under the command of Nathaniel Banks would try to take Mobile, Alabama, and units under the command of William W. Averill and George Crook would concentrate on disrupting Confederate railroad supply lines in West Virginia.

Battle of the Wilderness

The first battle of the Overland Campaign was the Battle of the Wilderness, which took place between May 5 and May 7. Grant had mobilized his army and his troops began crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, into an area known as the Wilderness. The terrain was rough and covered with scrub and bramble, making it very difficult to move through at pace.

Grant’s aim was to engage the Confederates at every opportunity, and his tactical approach differed completely from his predecessors. Previous battles in the Civil War had been notable for the Union forces being extremely cautious in their advances. Often, offensive campaigns would be delayed until all the supplies needed had been brought forward and divisions consolidated. These delays usually served to give the enemy time to build defensive earthworks, to occupy strategic sites that made assault very difficult, and to bring in reinforcements.

Under Grant, the Union army was ordered to continually push forward, regardless of the consequences. Despite protests from some of his officers, Grant insisted that attacks should be launched through the Wilderness.

What Grant did not know was that General Lee had correctly guessed where Grant was likely to attack, and he had dispatched troops to the Wilderness area. Lee’s soldiers were hidden in woods, and launched a surprise attack on the Union soldiers on May 5, and the Battle of the Wilderness began.

Over the next three days, there were huge losses on both sides. Union casualties were much higher than Conservative casualties, and the Federal army had failed to gain significant ground.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Instead of withdrawing to recoup, as had been the Union pattern in previous encounters, Grant ordered his troops to take control of the area around Spotsylvania Court House, with the intention of placing a large Union force between Richmond and Lee’s troops. However, Lee’s army had managed to get to the court house before the bulk of the Federal troops.

This led to the second battle of the Overland Campaign, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, which started on May 8. This battle was to last two weeks, ending on May 21, with sporadic fighting taking place throughout. In terms of casualties, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was the bloodiest of the campaign, with over 60,000 combined losses.

The Battle of North Anna

Even though the Federal objective at Spotsylvania had failed, Grant was undaunted and immediately planned a new offensive. His next move was to try to take the railroads at Hanover Junction near the North Anna River, and 25 miles south of Spotsylvania.

The Battle of North Anna took place between May 23 and May 26 and was really a handful of individual skirmishes near the river.

The Battle of Cold Harbor

Grant decided not to continue attacking well-defended Confederate locations around the North Anna. Instead, he chose to move yet again, this time intending to take control of the strategic crossroads at Cold Harbor, which was 25 miles to the southeast.

On May 31, an advance force of Union soldiers gained control of Cold Harbor. The rest of the forces on both sides began to arrive over the next few days, and the Confederates established a strong line of defense. Grant ordered his men to attack on June 3, and his troops suffered enormous casualties without managing to dislodge the enemy.

On June 12, Grant once again set his troops moving, this time towards the James River, the objective being to take the rail junction at Petersburg, bringing the Battle of Cold Harbor to an end.

The Battle of Cold Harbor was a victory for Lee and his Confederate forces, but it was to prove to be their last. While they had inflicted almost three times as many casualties on the Union army than they had sustained, the mounting losses had a greater effect on the Confederates.

The Overland Campaign ended with the Battle of St. Mary’s Church on June 24, when the Confederates overcame a section of the Union army, but failed to halt the progress to the James River.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *