- And Keep Moving On: The Virginia Campaign, May–June 1864
This new paperback edition of Mark Grimsley's highly acclaimed study of the Overland campaign of 1864, a volume in the Great Campaigns of the Civil War series, brings to students and teachers of the Civil War a military narrative of uncommon intelligence and lucidity. The book is at once a synthesis of the already rich literature on the campaign and its battles, the generals, and the soldier's life and an original argument about the character and conduct of the commanders at all levels, the physical costs of relentless campaigning and savage fighting, and the military and political consequences of six weeks of sustained grappling that ended in Ulysses S. Grant's inability to deliver the death blow to Lee's army (the campaign ended with the siege of Petersburg), Robert E. Lee's depleted resources and loss of initiative, and the exhaustion of two great armies.
The Overland campaign was the first direct encounter between Grant and Lee, and it acquired almost mythical meaning in its own day as a battle of titans, as it later became, for Southerners anyway, the "proof" that Grant was a "butcher," who defeated Lee and the South by sheer numbers alone, while a brilliant and noble Lee dodged the Union juggernaut with deft maneuvers. Grimsley recasts the narrative by placing the campaign in a wider strategic framework and by noting that this was the first time opposing armies were in long, sustained contact during the war, a fact that made the new kind of war difficult to assess in terms of any decisive battles or critical decision points. For Grimsley, the campaign is best understood as "an American Golgotha with more in common with Verdun than Belleau Wood [or] Normandy" (xv). It was a grand campaign, with Grant [End Page 88] ordering major offensive expeditions and raids all along the line in the eastern theater. The "duel" between Grant and Lee was thus part of a larger strategy to destroy Lee's army and bring down the Confederacy.
Generalship mattered much in deciding the campaign. Overall, Grimsley finds that, the energy of a Philip Sheridan notwithstanding, the Union effort suffered from the ignorance, incompetence, and hesitance of supporting generals to do their part, while Lee fared better with his supporting commanders, such as Jubal Early. Grant's strategic design failed in large part because "political generals" (men appointed for the political backing they brought to the Union cause rather than any military skills they might have) such as Franz Sigel and Benjamin Butler were unable to understand or execute any complex maneuvers or appreciate their roles in the campaign. Grant also had to adapt and use an army saddled with its own history of cautious generalship. Grant improved officers such as George Meade by discovering their strengths. Grimsley adds to the recent refurbishing of Meade's reputation, and makes much sense out of the command structure, in showing how Grant came to rely on Meade's professionalism and ability to organize and manage a large army. In doing so, he makes the telling point that Grant was a "coping" general comfortable with improvisation and the unpredictability of war, while Meade was a "control" general emphasizing planning and predictable outcomes. It took both kinds of generals, working together, to shape and use the army in a great campaign.
In assessing the generals, Grimsley emphasizes the similarities between Lee and Grant. Both commanders believed that "seizing the initiative and attacking hard and fast" (xiii) held the key to victory even as both proved adept adapters to new circumstances. At Cold Harbor, Grant lost any chance of defeating Lee in the field. Casualties mounted. But Grant kept moving on, dogging Lee until he wore him down. In some ways, this is an argument T. Harry Williams, among others, made years ago in assessing Grant in terms of the ultimate strategic objective rather than body counts. Body counts did matter, as Grimsley makes clear. In the Overland campaign...