Who Won The Overland Campaign?

Last night Gary Gallagher addressed the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable. His topic was the Overland Campaign and the more specific question of which side could claim to have come out ahead by the beginning of the siege of Petersburg.  Gary has been a guest every year, even going back to when he was teaching at Penn State before he moved to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Not surprisingly he gets a large turnout every year.  I’ve read most of Gallagher’s scholarship and am rarely surprised by his topics or conclusions.  I enjoy watching him engage the audience and the chance to share what many of us know to be his great passion in life.  He’s got a real knack for combining a serious interest in the war with an entertaining speaking style.  His criticisms are typically couched in a dry, but serious wit.  At the beginning of his talk he criticized his own colleagues in the academy who teach or study the war without any reference to the military side.  Most of the audience enjoyed this little swipe at the academy, but Gary was quick to counter with the fact that most of the people in the audience study nothing but the battles and have little or no appreciation for the broader issues.  "Somewhere between both of these approaches," Gallagher concluded "is where the real Civil War resides." 

I am not going to go through Gallagher’s full presentation; those of you familiar with his books and edited collections know where he stands in terms of the broad outline.  While he admitted that it is easy to conclude that both armies had reasons to be optimistic about the way the campaign evolved, Gallagher seemed to tip his hat to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  And the main factors involved had to do with the campaign’s political ramifications.  Gallagher argued that morale was actually higher in the Army of Northern Virginia at the beginning of the Petersburg Campaign compared with the Army of the Potomac.  Based on my reading of the manuscript and other primary sources in reference to the Crater I have to agree.  I was very surprised by how Confederates and those on the home front responded to the Confederate victory on July 30, 1864.  It rallied both soldiers and citizens around the belief that Grant’s army could be dealt with successfully at least until the fall elections.  And the presence of black soldiers reinforced for many white Southerners just what defeat would involve.  Gallagher was careful to emphasize the steps that the Democrats and "Copperheads" took to win the presidential election.  I highly recommend Jennifer Weber’s new study of the Copperheads.  She argues persuasively that we have not fully appreciated their growing influence in the North and especially in states like Indiana as the Overland Campaign and engagements around Petersburg left horrendous casualties and a sense that the war was not close to being won.  The Copperheads exercised tight control on the Democratic Party platform which was formulated in August 1864 and even managed to get one of their own on the ticket with McClellan.  Weber does point out that the Copperheads’ fatal flaw was in never presenting a reasonable alternative to seeing the war to a successful conclusion through military means; they failed to answer important questions about the legality of secession and emancipation (slavery).  This oversight alienated most of the soldiers in the army and guaranteed their support for Lincoln and even led to violence against individual Copperheads while on leave. 

What I was most struck by was the sharp change in public opinion regarding the Democrats following Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September 1864.  Support or interest doesn’t gradually decline, it disappeared throughout much of the country.  Gallagher compared this sharp shift with the summer of 1862 and Lee’s successful defense of Richmond and offensive that culminated at Antietam.  It is clear to me that the fighting around Petersburg did not guarantee Lincoln’s re-election; in fact it threatened it.  It was the capture of Atlanta that brought about the dramatic change in the political climate of the North which guaranteed Lincoln’s re-election.  A good case can indeed be made that as late as mid-August 1864 Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had the advantage.

3 thoughts on “Who Won The Overland Campaign?

  1. Brooks Simpson

    I think there’s merit to say that in the war of public expectations, through the end of August 1864 Lee had the upper hand … in a Virginia-centric view of the war. Oddly enough, that was due more to the stalemate of July and August (if the Crater cracks the CSA line for good, then things might have been seen differently) than to the bloodbath of May and June.

    That said, Grant was not fighting a Virginia-centric war. He would have been perfectly happy to knock Lee out, of course, and with better luck he might have done just that in the spring of 1864. But what he did do was to cancel out Lee’s ability to reverse public opinion by a swift, audacious move. Lee was cooked: the Northern public was slow to appreciate this.

    Grant’s strategy was flexible in that it didn’t matter where the break came, so long as it came, and it came at Atlanta. Lee couldn’t do much there, and he was unable to reverse public perception (something he had been able to do in the past). Nor would there be a Valley gambit that would reverse things (Cedar Creek would come after the Republicans triumphed in the October state elections: Early’s attack had run out of steam in the morning, and in the end the Union counterattack simply added to Yankee celebrations).

    The taking of Atlanta is critical in understanding public perceptions of who’s winning, who’s losing. Let’s face it: Sherman had already eliminated Atlanta’s importance as a supply and transportation hub. He didn’t need to enter the city, because he’d already rendered it useless. Indeed, in entering the city, he did not destroy Hood, which would have been a far more important achievement. But the capture played to public perceptions of victory and defeat. Those expectations were Napoleonic in nature. That’s why Cedar Creek captured the popular imagination. That helps to explain why Gettysburg fascinates us.

    To me, what’s interesting is the bankruptcy of CSA strategy between the fall of Atlanta and the elections of 1864. There was no real effort to undertake an operation that would counter the impact of Atlanta.

    Finally, let’s not overestimate the impact of Atlanta and other victories. Even with that achievement, Lincoln got only 55% of the popular vote (and it’s a northern electorate). If you compare that to the 1863 results or the 1860 results, state by state, you’ll have a better sense of what sort of victory it was. A change of one out of every eleven votes from Lincoln to McClellan and McClellan wins.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Brooks, — I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here. Grant was of course thinking beyond Virginia; unfortunately, in our tendency to fall into the trap of labelling Grant the butcher we lose sight of his broader strategic thinking. He wasn’t just simply throwing men into the mix.

    You said: “But what he [Grant] did do was to cancel out Lee’s ability to reverse public opinion by a swift, audacious move. Lee was cooked: the Northern public was slow to appreciate this.”

    In researching the Crater I found that Confederates in the ANV followed Early’s advance into Maryland closely. Although Early was unable to seriously threaten Richmond he did take the focus off of Petersburg and his corps was able to bring a significant amount of food and other supplies back to the army at Petersburg. I also found that Northern papers were pre-occupied with Early so I am not sure what you are suggesting here. Of course, Lee was unable to engage in the kinds of offensives that characterized 1862-63, but perhaps he doesn’t have to to sufficiently distract Lincoln and Northerners in general given the horrendous casualties of the Overland Campaign and the failure of the Army of the Potomac to take Petersburg in mid-June. By what measure was the Northern public slow to realize Lee’s situation?

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  3. Brooks Simpson

    Kevin– I guess what I’m saying is that Early was more of a pest than anything else, and that while the July movements were irritating, what they ultimately achieved was to alert Grant to the need to deal with Early in definitive fashion. Early was simply not going to pose the threat that Lee did in 1862 and 1863. That he achieved as much as he did was due in the first case to an intelligence failure (Grant did not detect Early’s departure early enough) and in the second case to the rather poor command situation around DC.

    Early did achieve something usually unnoticed: corps Grant had earmarked to join the Army of the Potomac were diverted to confront Early (more noticed is the Sixth Corps’ detachment).

    In the past Lee had been able to divert attention away from Union successes in the west. This ticked Lincoln off in 1862; in 1863 the invasion of Pennsylvania drew attention away from Vicksburg. Of course, this was part of the Eastern theater: 1861 saw a string of Union successes and two setbacks, but I bet people rememeber the setback in the East best (First Manassas) with Wilson’s Creek a distant second. In 1864 Lee could send Early north, but he couldn’t send himself.

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