By mid-1864, both the Confederate and Union had a man who stood as a symbol for the war effort, both publicly and militarily. For the Confederate army, Robert E. Lee had long become the icon of hope for independence. For the Union, Ulysses S. Grant had emerged as the chief commander of the Union and was putting the Confederate army on the defensive. As Lee had brought great successes and morale to the Confederate troops and civilians, the success of Grant in pushing through Confederate states brought a great amount of hope to the North that the war may soon be over. In May of 1864, Grant put into action a plan that would put many Union generals on the offensive as they attempted to march on key points throughout Confederate lands. For the first time in the public eye, Grant was marching toward Lee.
Though Lee seemed unstoppable for a large portion of the war up until the Battle of Gettysburg, Northern politicians and civilians believed Grant could defeat him due to the large amount of success Grant had recently along with Lee’s lack of success since he was forced to retreat from Union General George Meade at Gettysburg. On the other hand, Confederates looked to Lee to turn the recent downturn around and bring morale and momentum back to the Confederates. Before they would meet in battle, each general had his own plan of what he would try to accomplish. Lee wanted to hold off Grant and prevent him from marching deeper into Virginia and protect the supplies that were feeding his army. He also looked to not only defend against Grant’s attack but form his own counterattack and drive Grant backward.
Grant wanted to occupy Lee as long as possible and inflict as many casualties on the Confederate army as he could so Lee could not send reinforcements to protect Georgia from the invading Union General William Sherman. Grant looked to put Lee on the defensive, a position he did not like to be in, and inflict enough damage to cripple Lee’s war effort. With a two-front assault on Richmond as well as Lee’s army, Grant believed that Richmond would fall into Union hands in little time at all. To beginning of this campaign was at the Battle of the Wilderness, where Lee opened in early May with an attack on Grant in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Grant quality counterattacked and exposed Lee’s army by the end of the first day of fighting and continued to exploit it as Grant continued his offensive on the second day.
Confederate officer James Longstreet arrived as Lee’s army looked to be breaking, and his reinforcements helped to restore the lines and fix the gaps that Lee’s army had formed. It wouldn’t be long into that second day that Longstreet, much like “Stonewall” Jackson before him, was shot by his own men and rendered incapable of leading his men. His leadership was sorely missed, and the Confederate troops were unable to gain any significant ground even after being reinforced with fresh troops. Despite these reinforcements on the second day, Ulysses S. Grant decided not to retreat and, instead, continued to march. For the two weeks in the middle of May the armies would continue to fight as Grant pushed on, fighting the Battle of Spotsylvania for two weeks starting on May 8. For the two weeks Lee and Grant fought there was no decisive result, though Grant continued to march onward through Virginia.
College level lectures
James McPherson – “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”