Saturday, May 3, 2014

This Week 150 Years Ago

As if the bloodletting battles of 1862 and 1863 were not bad enough, the sustained intensity of combat in the Civil War was about to increase drastically this week 150 years ago.

General Ulysses S. Grant, now ultimately directing the Army of the Potomac, transitioned that force into a method of warfare that it had not yet experienced. The Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6), which was fought largely on what was arguably the Army of Northern Virginia's field of greatest success (Chancellorsville, May 1863) and most costly loss (the wounding and eventual death of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson), witnessed a bulldog tenacity offensive from the Yankees and a stubborn defense from the Confederates among a tangled mess of timber. When that battle ended the smoke only cleared for a few hours before the belligerents were at it again, this time at Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 7-12). A ferocity of combat none of the participants would forget tested the will power of all involved as desperate hand-to-hand fights broke out again and again over those small few small acres.

Fighting in such close confines and in such a sustained manner introduced a new age of earthwork construction and way of fighting. After Spotsylvania the fighting only continued at intense engagements around the North Anna River and then into June at Cold Harbor. The thwarted attack at Cold Harbor led Grant finally to Petersburg, and the fighting raged there in June, July and August.

Over in the Western Theater, with Grant gone east, General William T. Sherman battled Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston in northern Georgia. Like Grant, Sherman pushed and flanked with a new found intensity. Johnston's best chances for victory in the North Georgia mountains were lost opportunities as he retreated, entrenched, fought, retreated, entrenched, and fought on through the foothills.

A series of battles at Kennesaw Mountain slowed Sherman's progress somewhat in June, but by July, the Confederates were backed up to Atlanta. A change in command by President Jefferson Davis, who put his trust in the wounded warrior Gen. John Bell Hood. The switch in generals brought out a fighter who literally bled his Army of Tennessee in severe battles around the vital rail-hub city in July and August. Finally, Atlanta capitulated in early September.

Long gone were the days of fighting an intense battle and then each side going back to their corners to lick their wounds and rethink their strategy. With Grant now setting the strategy the story in 1864 was sustained fighting - a literal battle of attrition - which brought an unprecedented amount of killed, wounded (both physically and mentally), and captured soldiers. There would not be a more terrible year of that terrible war than 1864; and it all began this week 150 years ago.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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