After the battle of Gettysburg the year 1863 passed without an engagement between the two armies in Virginia. Lee, after crossing the Potomac, retired behind the line of the Rapidan. Meade massed his army at Warrenton. In October Lee made a rapid advance to the old battle-ground of Manassas. But if he hoped to take his antagonist by surprise he was mistaken: Meade was too quick for him, and he was forced to retreat hastily. In November Meade retaliated with an equally rapid advance, hoping to surprise Lee in his lines at Mine Run. This effort also ended in failure: Lee concentrated his army and Meade retired without a battle. Late in the winter a cavalry expedition under Kilpatrick sought to take Richmond by surprise. It failed, and nothing further was done till the spring of 1864.
Grant's victorious career in the West had now made him the most prominent figure in the Union armies, and on March 9, 1864, he was placed in command of all the forces in the field, with the high grade of lieutenant-general, which had been held by no one since Washington, Scott holding this rank only by brevet. He at once appointed Sherman to the command of the Western armies, and took command in person of the Army of the Potomac. It was designed that all the armies should work thenceforward strictly in conjunction. On May 1 Grant opposed Lee with a force estimated at one hundred and forty thousand to his sixty thousand. A simultaneous movement was designed, and on May 4 Grant advanced towards the Rapidan, while Butler, with twenty thousand men, moved from Fortress Monroe up the south side of the James; and on the 6th Sherman advanced from Chattanooga.
Lee was found in line of battle in the difficult region of the Wilderness, the scene of the previous desperate battle of Chancellorsville. A terrible engagement ensued, which continued throughout the 5th and 6th of May. It was a confused and sanguinary struggle, in the depths of a tangled thicket, in which Grant lost more than twenty thousand men, five thousand of whom were taken prisoners. The Confederates lost ten thousand. Neither side could claim a victory.
Reconnoissances now showed that Lee had intrenched his army, and that a renewed attack must result in very serious losses. On the night of the 7th, therefore, Grant began a secret flanking march upon Spottsylvania Court-House. Lee discovered the movement, and, having the shortest line, reached Spottsylvania first. Warren, in the advance, had a severe fight in gaining his designated point. For several days the armies faced each other, in busy preparation. On the 10th Grant assailed the Confederate lines. A severe battle took place, resulting in no substantial advantage, while the losses on both sides were very heavy. Early on the morning of the 12th the conflict was renewed. Hancock made a sudden charge on Lee's right, captured the intrenchments, and took three thousand prisoners. A desperate battle followed, the Confederates retiring to an interior line of breastworks, which were vigorously defended, and held to the end of the day. So far neither army could claim a victory, while the losses on both sides had been enormous,--the Union loss being the greatest, from the fact that the Confederates were fighting on the defensive, and most of the time behind strong works.
Heavy rains prevented operations during the few succeeding days. On the 19th Grant received reinforcements from Washington, and, deeming the lines at Spottsylvania too strong to be taken, he prepared for a night of the 21st. Lee penetrated the design, and, having the shorter line, succeeded in again outmarching his opponent. A battle took place here on the 23d, Grant having to force the passage of the river in the face of the enemy. The conflict was much less sanguinary than those preceding it, but, as Lee's position proved impregnable, Grant gave orders for another flanking march. Sheridan, who had been sent on a cavalry raid to cut Lee's lines of communication, rejoined the army on the 25th, having inflicted much damage, threatened Richmond, and killed the ablest Confederate cavalry leader, General J. E. B. Stuart.
On the night of May 26 another effort to turn Lee's right was made by a rapid march towards Richmond. Some fighting took place on the 30th, and on the 31st Cold Harbor, in the vicinity of the previous battle of Gaines's Mill, was reached. Here Grant made a fourth vigorous effort to overthrow Lee, who, as before, faced him with intrenched lines. An assault was made at five P. M. on the 1st of June, with some success, yet without breaking Lee's second line. On the morning of the 3d an advance of the whole army was ordered, and a desperate and sanguinary struggle took place. Despite every effort, Lee's lines remained unbroken,--Grant losing seven thousand men to Lee's three thousand.
This ended the engagements in the field. The task of beating Lee by open fighting had proved too murderous, the Union loss being very considerably greater than that of the Confederates. Grant now determined on siege-operations, and decided to move his army south of the James, at Bermuda Hundred, then held by Butler. This gave him a water basis of supplies, and he was not troubled by that nightmare of covering Washington which had weakened the efforts of all previous commanders. In the campaign up to this time he had lost over fifty-four thousand men, Lee about thirty-two thousand. Grant's army, including Butler's, was now about one hundred and fifty thousand men, Lee's about seventy thousand. These numbers are taken from Draper's "Civil War."
Immediately after crossing, a dash was made on Petersburg, in the hope of taking it before Lee could strengthen its garrison. The effort ended in failure, through lack of sufficient celerity of movement. Grant lost about nine thousand men in this unlucky enterprise. Both sides now began to intrench, and there gradually arose that wonderful series of earthworks which eventually stretched for many miles both north and south of the James, from the vicinity of Richmond to and beyond Petersburg, and behind which the opposing armies lay facing each other for nearly a year.
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