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The New War of Attrition

The New War of Attrition


Virginia. By the end of 1863 Northern hopes for a quick end to the war faded after Union troops failed to capitalize on their July victories. Union general George G. Meade and his Army of the Potomac followed Robert E. Lees army into Virginia, but, like his predecessors, Meade failed to strike a crushing blow against the Confederate commanders crippled force. For the rest of the year both armies jockeyed for position in Virginia with no results. In the West the war also slowed, as Confederate and Union troops parried from June to November 1863 in Tennessee. At the end of November, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant finally drove Southern forces back to Georgia. Although Georgia was now open to Union invasion, the long campaign in East Tennessee once again confirmed Confederate resiliency to check Northern invasion. Many Northerners now accepted the fact that strategic victories alone, such as the capitulation of important cities, would not compel Confederate forces to lay down arms. Federal commanders would have to destroy the Southern army.

Southern Strategy. Other events in 1863 also affected Confederate strategy on the battlefield. Defeats at Gettysburg and Chattanooga, Tennessee (23-25 November), shattered Southern hopes for a knockout blow through invasion of the North or European intervention. Moreover, staggering casualties took their toll on the Confederate army, and the South found it increasingly difficult to secure new recruits. By the end of 1863 Confederate officials hoped to defeat the Union at the ballot box. They implemented a defensive strategy, hoping to prolong the war and break the Northerners will to continue fighting. If this strategy worked, Southern leaders were convinced that in the November 1864 elections the North would elect a Democrat who would enter into immediate peace negotiations to end the war and leave the Confederate nation intact.

Grant Takes Command. In 1864 Union president Abraham Lincoln faced an election year. Although fighting slowed down by January 1864, military successes during the previous summer and fall fed Northern expectations for a quick victory. To meet this demand, Lincoln turned to Grant and named him general-in-chief in March. The new commander of Union armies planned to wage a war of attrition, wearing down enemy forces with his superior numbers in troops and supplies. Grant designed a plan to coordinate movements in the Eastern and Western theaters: two armies would strike Confederate forces simultaneously to prevent Lee from moving reinforcements from one region to the other. While Grant himself launched an offensive against Lee in Virginia, Gen. William T. Sherman, Grants replacement in the West, would attack Confederate defenses in Georgia. With 115,000 troops under his command, Grant moved against Lees 75,000-man army in May. Over the next six weeks, Lee continually checked Grants advance in Virginia. Unlike previous Union commanders and despite an astonishingly high casualty rate, Grant refused to retreat and kept moving his force south toward Richmond. The series of battles (the Wilderness, 5-6 May; Spotsylvania Courthouse, 8-12 May; and Cold Harbor, 1-3 June) produced the wars heaviest casualties. Grant lost 60,000 men compared with 30,000 for Lee. By mid June, Grant changed strategies and decided to bypass Richmond and strike farther south.

Petersburg. Grant planned to hit the railroad junction at Petersburg, a town located twenty miles south of Richmond which guarded the rail link to other Southern states. If it fell Grant could isolate the Confederate capital and cut its communications to Southern armies in other seceded states. Lee again challenged Grants assault, however, and this time Grant viewed the high casualties as a sign to settle down for a siege against the Confederate trenches that stretched from Petersburg to Richmond.

The Battle of the Crater. The frustration of the Union invaders trying to break through Confederate defenses at Petersburg was highlighted at the end of July. Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, the commander of the Forty-Eighth Pennsylvania Infantry, a regiment of former coal miners, received permission to dig a mine under the enemy entrenchments and fill it with gunpowder. After detonating the explosives and blowing a hole in the Confederate line, Union infantry would sweep around the abyss and attack the enemy flanks and rear. On 30 July 1864 the miners detonated the gunpowder and blew a huge crater in the Confederate fortifications. However, instead of sweeping around the hole and attacking the rattled enemy flanks, Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie sent his men into the crater. The Federals quickly found themselves trapped, and they became easy prey for Southern sharpshooters. As he watched his men die like ducks in a shooting gallery, Grant lamented that the battle was the saddest affair I have witnessed and ordered a retreat. He finally settled down to a prolonged nine-month siege. In addition to this fiasco, news from Georgia mirrored the stalled operations in VirginiaShermans troops were stalled at the outskirts of Atlanta. With Northern elections only a few months away, the Confederate strategy of weakening Northern resolve seemed to be working as the conflict drew to an apparent stalemate.


Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, N.Y.: Double-day, 1953);

William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1981).

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