On May 4, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac, 120,000 strong, crossed the Rapidan River into a familiar territory, the war-scarred region between Fredericksburg and Richmond, Virginia. South of the river, awaiting, was Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, numbering slightly over 60,000 men. From then until June 12th, for 40 days, without respite, both armies bled each other in some of the most savage combat of the civil war. The Overland Campaign became a consuming, relentless war of attrition as Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, directing Union operations, indicated when he proposed "to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer".
The initial clash of this classic confrontation between Grant and Lee occureed in the Wilderness on May 5-7. When the Federals crossed the Rapidan, Lee reacted swiftly, catching his opponent in a landscape of vines, brambles, scrub oak, and pine trees. The terrain negated Grant's superior numbers, and in blinding, fearful fighting the Confederates inflicted more than twice as many casualties as they suffered. But, during the night of May 7-8, Grant, instead of retreating, marched his veterans southward around Lee's right toward Spotsylvania Court House. With this crossroads village in Union hands, Richmond would be threatened. Learning of Grant's march, Lee dispatched to the village, Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's corps. On the 8th, the Confederates won the race, bringing the Federals to fight again.
The Spotsylvania Court House Campaign lasted nearly 2 weeks. The tactical pattern of the Overland Campaign emerged as Grant sidled leftward and Lee, utilizing interior lines, parried each thrust. A new pattern of warfare also emerged as Lee's veterans constructed fieldworks that were more extensive and formidable than ever before seen. Twice, on the 10th and 12th, Grant launched major attacks on the entrenchments. On the 12th, hte federals crushed a salient, only to be stopped by Confederates by counterattacks. For 20 hours, the opponents engaged in the war's most vicious fighting, around the "Bloody Angle".
While at Spotsylvania, Grant sent his cavalry, under Maj. gen. Philip H. Sheridan, on a raid toward Richmond. On the 11th, his troopers clashed with Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry at Yellow Tavern. In the action, the irreplacable Stuart was mortally wounded.
Ten days later, Grant abandoned his lines at Spotsylvania, attempting to move once more southeastward beyond Lee's right. Lee countered and, on the 23rd, intercepted the Union movement along the North Anna River. Stalemated, Grant resumed his siding movement on the 26th, heading toward the peninsula. Operating on interior lines, Lee barred Grant's route again at cold Harbor. The Confederates once more erected fieldworks, creating one of the strongest positions they ever defended. The Union commander, frustrated by Lee's brilliant countermoves, unwisely ordered a frontal attack against the Confederate lines on June 3rd. The Confederates erased Grant's attack in 30 minutes, inflicting nearly 7,000 casualties.
This defeat ended the major fighting of the campaign. Sheridan undertook a 2nd raid on June 7, this time against the Virginia Central Rairoad and the James River canal. Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton, Styart's successor, intercepted Sheridan at Trevilian Station, where the Confederates defeated the Federals on June 11-12. But, as Sheridan and Hampton battled, Grant started his army toward the James River and Petersburg, and a seige that would doom the Confederates.
Grant failed in the Overland Campaign either to destroy Lee's army or capture his capital. Grant's casualties averaged 2,000 daily, but unlike any previous Union commander, he had limited the offensive prowess of his opponent. With the Overland Campaign, the army of the Potomac would never retreat again.