The US Civil War in May 1864


In May 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant prepared to launch simultaneous Federal offensives against various Confederate targets. Southerners remained hopeful, but they knew their biggest challenge was about to come. The battles that raged throughout this month were the most terrible that the war had yet seen.

The Battle of the Wilderness

Under Grant’s direction, the Federal Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River to confront Robert E. Lee’s Confederates. As the Federals passed through the Wilderness, Lee launched a preemptive attack and the dense woods offset the Federal superiority in numbers and artillery. Two days of terrible fighting ensued in which wounded soldiers were killed in brushfires and top Confederate General James Longstreet was seriously wounded.

After the second day, both sides pulled back to regroup. The Federals suffered over 17,000 killed or wounded while the Confederates suffered 7,500. But unlike his predecessors, Grant would not retreat in the face of heavy casualties.

The Battle of Spotsylvania

Grant moved forward after the Wilderness fight, advancing to the southeast, or Lee’s right, toward the vital crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House. Lee, anticipating Grant’s move, arrived there first. A two-week fight ensued in which Federals and Confederates surged back and forth in desperate and continuous combat.

The Confederates defended a U-shaped salient called the “Mule Shoe,” repulsing numerous Federal assaults. Finally Grant resolved to disengage and move to the southeast once more in an effort to flank Lee. Spotsylvania cost another 17,000 Federal casualties, a terrible number despite the progress being made. Unlike the North, southern casualties could not be replaced, and thus this war of attrition was beginning to take its toll.

The Battle of Yellow Tavern

In an effort to divert Confederate cavalry from Lee’s main force, Grant dispatched General Philip Sheridan to attack Confederate General Jeb Stuart and destroy railroads and supplies along the way. Both sides skirmished at various points before confronting each other north of Richmond at Yellow Tavern.

Sheridan’s Federals drove Stuart’s Confederates back, but the fight gave the Confederates time to strengthen their defenses around Richmond. Southerners grieved at the news that Stuart, the “Cavalier of Dixie” and Lee’s greatest cavalry commander, had been killed in the fight.

The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

In conjunction with the general Federal offensive, General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James began moving up the James River to operate against Richmond from the south. Almost nothing blocked Butler’s path as he dispatched cavalry to disrupt railroads and supply lines south of the Confederate capital.

After desperately assembling all available men, a Confederate force under General P.G.T. Beauregard attacked Butler’s troops at Drewry’s Bluff on the south side of the James. Butler withdrew to Bermuda Hundred on the Virginia Peninsula. Grant later said that Butler’s army had effectively been put “in a bottle strongly corked.” This stopped a dangerous Federal threat to Richmond.

Sherman Faces Johnston

General William Sherman’s Federal Army of the West advanced from Chattanooga into Georgia, opposed by the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Joseph Johnston. Sherman relied on feints and flanking maneuvers to force Johnston out of several positions, slowly pushing him back toward the vital city of Atlanta.

A head-on Federal assault at New Hope Church was repulsed with heavy losses, but they regrouped and defeated the Confederates at Dallas. As May ended, Sherman was inching closer to Atlanta by sheer force of numbers, compelling Johnston to continually fall back. This raised alarm in the Confederate government that Johnston may surrender Atlanta.

The Radical Republican Convention

Disgruntled Radical Republicans assembled a convention in Cleveland to nominate a presidential candidate to oppose President Abraham Lincoln. The Radicals were unhappy with Lincoln’s moderate emancipation policies and general lack of vindictiveness toward the South.

The convention nominated former General John C. Fremont to run for president; Fremont had been demoted by Lincoln for insubordination before resigning from the army. The Radicals were a minority faction, but they concerned Lincoln because they threatened to divide the Republican Party and enable a Democrat to win the November election.

The Virginia Campaign

Following the terrible fights at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Grant moved his Federals against Lee’s right flank once more, and the two armies clashed at North Anna River and Hanover Junction. The fights were inconclusive as Grant moved his troops to the right again and Lee raced to meet him again.

By the end of May, Grant reached Cold Harbor, still moving to get around Lee’s right. However Lee was consistently able to block Grant’s path to Richmond. Grant was now as close to Richmond as George McClellan had been in 1862. But Lee still stood in his way, and more terrible battles were to come.


Long, E.B. and Long, Barbara: The Civil War: Day by Day (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)
Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving: The People’s Almanac (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1975)
Ward, Geoffrey; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken: The Civil War (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990)