Wilderness Campaign

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Battle of Cold Harbor.jpg
This image is half of a two-page illustration from Frank Leslie's The Soldier in Our Civil War, Vol. II (1893). Its caption reads "THE BATTLE OF COLD HARBOR, VA., JUNE 1ST, 1864--THE EIGHTEENTH CORPS DRIVING LONGSTREET'S FORCES FROM THEIR FIRST LINE OF RIFLE PITS--FROM A SKETCH BY EDWIN FORBES."

The Wilderness Campaign of 1864 was one of the most violent and deadly of the American Civil War.

In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses Simpson Grant to lieutenant general and named him supreme commander of all Union forces for the remainder of the American Civil War. In this new position, Grant took the offensive and focused his attention on General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. During the war's first several years, other Union commanders had tried to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Often defeated by the Army of Northern Virginia, the Union soldiers had retreated to the relative safety of Washington, DC. Grant refused to retreat. He realized that the Union had a much larger number of men available for duty. He believed that the most effective way to defeat the Confederacy was to attack repeatedly. The Confederacy did not have the men and supplies to reinforce the soldiers already in the field.

To end the war, Grant repeatedly attacked during the summer of 1864. His first campaign against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia became known as the Wilderness Campaign. Grant's Army of the Potomac, numbering approximately 120,000 men, advanced across the Rapidan River into a place in Virginia known as the Wilderness. It was called the Wilderness due to the large number of trees and dense ground cover in the area. Lee met Grant's army, in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5 and 6, 1864. Despite having just one-half the number of men that the Union had available for the battle, the Confederates succeeded in blunting the Union advance.

Unlike other Union commanders before him, Grant refused to retreat. He ordered his men to flank Lee's army and advance to Spotsylvania Courthouse. The Army of Northern Virginia managed to intercept Grant's force, and the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse lasted from May 8 to May 19, 1864. Again, Lee's men stopped Grant's army. Grant, however, continued to advance, meeting Lee's men at the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. In a little over one hour, the Union Army suffered seven thousand casualties.

The Battle of Cold Harbor marked the end of Grant's campaign to defeat the Confederacy easily. During the month or so of fighting, the Union suffered almost sixty thousand casualties to the Confederate's twenty thousand. Despite the tremendous difference in the numbers of men killed and wounded, Grant had a large supply of troops in reserve, and the Union was able to recover from these high losses.

Following the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant advanced towards Petersburg, Virginia, a city located approximately twenty miles south of Richmond. A siege resulted, with the Union's Army of the Potomac virtually surrounding the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia in Petersburg. The siege lasted for almost ten months. The Union finally drove the Confederates from Petersburg in early April 1865. The Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, 1865.

See Also


  1. Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.  
  2. Grant, Ulysses S. The Civil War Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. New York, NY: Forge, 2002.  
  3. Grant, Ulysses S. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, n.d.  
  4. McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York, NY: Norton, 1981.  
  5. Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of Rebellion, 1861-1866. Akron, OH: The Werner Company, 1893.  
  6. Porter, Horace. Campaigning with Grant. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.  
  7. Reid, Whitelaw. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Generals and Soldiers. Cincinnati, OH: Clarke, 1895.
  8. Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.  
  9. Rhea, Gordon C. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.  
  10. Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.  
  11. Simpson, Brooks D. Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.