Grant: Butcher of the Wilderness?

When Ulysses Grant assumed command of all Union armies in the spring of 1864, Lincoln at last had found the aggressive leader he had needed and wanted. Frustrated by the failures of McClellan, Meade, and Halleck to prosecute the war in a vigorous and aggressive manner, Lincoln was very pleased with Grant’s plans to take the fight to the enemy throughout all theaters. Grant believed that all the Union armies needed to go on the offensive simultaneously and in a coordinated manner in order to keep the Confederacy from utilizing its interior lines of defense and communication to reinforce its disparate elements. Grant’s plan called for Nathaniel Banks to operate on the Gulf Coast, Benjamin Butler to move on Richmond from the Peninsula, and Franz Sigel to harass Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, meanwhile, would move overland from Washington to Richmond, with Grant accompanying. Lincoln agreed that pressuring the enemy at multiple points was ideal, stating that “those not skinning can hold a leg.”[1] Unfortunately for Grant and his plans, “the leg-holders bungled their jobs.”[2] Banks’s Red River campaign in Louisiana was a disaster, and he never moved on Mobile as planned, while Sigel did little more than display his “skill at retreating” in the Shenandoah Valley.[3] Butler’s expedition up the James River got off to an encouraging start, but ended with his army trapped between the James and the Appomattox River.[4] These failures would put additional—and certainly unneeded—pressures on Meade’s Army of the Potomac, but Grant surely understood and accepted Moltke’s admonition “that no plan survives contact with the enemy.”[5]

Grant’s decision to travel with the Army of the Potomac was controversial and probably created confusion about who was actually in charge, both inside and outside the chain of command.[6] Grant, however, shared the frustration of Lincoln and others in Washington at the unwillingness of Union commanders to pursue the enemy and destroy them after victories at Antietam and Gettysburg. Union armies in the eastern theater had repeatedly disengaged after both victories and defeats to return to Washington and lick their wounds. In accompanying Meade, Grant intended to ensure that the Army of the Potomac would pursue and engage Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a thoroughly aggressive manner. These tactics would lead to more casualties, but Grant believed that such a strategy would end the war and ultimately lead to fewer lives lost.[7]

As the Army of the Potomac began crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, Lee correctly ascertained Grant’s intentions and began moving his forces into blocking positions in the tangled brush of the Wilderness. Fighting was intense, and the thick scrub forest ensured that Federal forces could not maneuver well enough to bring their superior numbers to bear. As the fighting raged on throughout the fifth and sixth of May, neither side was able to gain a decisive advantage. Grant continued to press the fight despite the “defeatist attitudes” of his troops, and upbraided his subordinates for presuming to know Lee’s intentions. “’Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do,’ he barked. ‘Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and on both our flanks at the same time.’”[8] Grant eventually recognized the Wilderness as the “meat grinder” that it was, and moved his army to the east and around Lee’s left flank. The Army of the Potomac had suffered more casualties than the Army of the Northern Virginia, but the Union army was larger and “could afford this. Lee could not.”[9]

Grant’s tactics were called into question by Northern Democrats appalled by the casualties his aggressiveness had caused. They “began denouncing [him] as a ‘butcher,’ a ‘bull-headed Suvarov’ who was sacrificing the flower of American manhood.”[10] Two months of awful campaigning had indeed produced horrific carnage, with “some 65,000 northern boys…killed, wounded, or missing since May 4.”[11] But these charges against Grant were patently unfair. Grant understood better than any of his civilian critics that war was an awful business, and that “its glory,” as Sherman put it, “is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentation of distant families.”[12] Both Grant and Sherman understood that in order to end the war, it needed to be fought with utmost vigor, and that only aggressive campaigning would put an eventual stop to the bloodletting. Furthermore, the tactics employed by both sides did not keep pace with advances in technology. Each side suffered correspondingly higher casualties when it was on the offensive, the Confederates losing more men in its offensive campaigns of 1862 and 1863 than the Union. Grant’s 1864 campaign reversed the offensive situation and the casualty count.[13]

The soldiers of the Army of the Potomac did not seem to agree with the critics, for even “with their extremely close-up perspective on the battle they had just fought, the combat…did not seem all that much different from that of Chancellorsville or any of the other bloody and indecisive defeats the army had suffered at Lee’s hands.”[14] The difference under Grant, however, was that after receiving some knocks from the Army of Northern Virginia, the Union soldiers did not retire from the field, but kept pressing the attack. As the men emerged from the Wilderness, they approached a crossroads that offered a choice to go back north or head south. As the column turned south toward Richmond, and “despite the prospect of another immanent bloody meeting with Lee’s army, the men of the Army of the Potomac waved their caps and cheered at the realization that they had fought a battle and were still advancing.”[15]


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 721-2; Donald Stoker, Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 351-2,; Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 250-1.

[2] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 722.

[3] Ibid., 722-4, quotation on 724.

[4] Ibid., 723-4.

[5] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 251.

[6] Joseph T. Glatthaar, “U.S. Grant and the Union High Command during the 1864 Valley Campaign,” in The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 37,; Robert N. Thompson, “The Folly and Horror of Cold Harbor,” Military History 23, no. 8 (November 2006): 40-1,

[7] Stoker, Grand Design, 368.

[8] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 254.

[9] Ibid., 256.

[10] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 742.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sherman quoted in Stoker, Grand Design, 358.

[13] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 476-7.

[14] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 256.

[15] Ibid.

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