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1864 proved to be key year in Civil War

The year 1864 would be different from all the preceding years of the American Civil War because of the entrance of one man, says James I Robertson Jr., dean of Virginia’s Civil War historians.

That man was Ulysses “Sam” Grant, Robertson told the crowd gathered Saturday morning at the Spotsylvania battlefield’s “Bloody Angle” for the kickoff of the National Park Service’s commemoration of 1864’s Overland Campaign.

With Lt. Gen. Grant in charge of all the armies of the United States, a responsibility and a rank not given to a commander since George Washington led troops in the American Revolution, “the question became which [would] give out first, Northern resolve or Southern resources?” Robertson said.

With Grant having come east to lead the U.S. military machine, 1864 became the critical moment of the Civil War, he said.

The chief biographer of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, who taught generations of students at Virginia Tech and guided the 1960s’ Civil War centennial as an advisor to President John F. Kennedy, spoke admiringly of Grant.

He noted the alleged drinking problem that got Grant tossed out of the Army earlier in his career, and quoted one later observer who described the officer as “an ordinary, scrubby-looking little man, neither a conversationalist nor a mixer.”

“He always seemed to be alone,” Robertson said.

But unlike some of his vainglorious predecessors in Virginia, Grant had no penchant for parades or grand reviews of his army, encamped 120,000 men strong in Culpeper County, he said.

Grant would ride casually down the line of soldiers, looking intently into their faces, “giving the impression that it was more important to see the men than for them to see him.

What Grant had that his predecessors had lacked was relentless determination, Robertson said.

He would devise a strategy or a battle plan, “and if that failed, he would try something else. He would hammer away unrelentingly until the opposition collapsed.”

Similarly, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee bore the weight of all Confederate aspirations by 1864, said John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

His “army [was] no less determined than Grant’s, but increasingly unable to fulfill the political, social, cultural and economic hopes of a nascent nation,” he said.

The first clash between the two leaders, the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5–7, “was the first sign of a sunset for the Confederacy,” Robertson said.

Mike Caldwell, the Northeast regional director of the National Park Service, spoke of President Lincoln’s foresight in 1864—as Grant laid siege to Petersburg—in setting aside what became the park system’s cornerstone: Yosemite Valley.

“So, why are we drawn to remember?” Caldwell asked about the Civil War.

To answer, he quoted Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Maine professor who became a decorated Union officer and postwar advocate for battlefield preservation.

Chamberlain said of the war’s battles and their landscapes that “in great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays.”

Forty-five minutes later, on the Wilderness battlefield a few miles to the north—where the war’s 40-day Overland Campaign began—Caldwell accepted the transfer of 49 acres of hallowed ground into Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

That important part of bloody Saunders Field, purchased by the nonprofit Civil War Trust in early 2011, was “the hole in the doughnut” at the Wilderness, trust President James Lighthizer told the 100-plus people gathered for the deed-transfer ceremony.

Saving such ground “for the education and enjoyment of future generations,” Lighthizer said, “will be a lasting legacy of the sesquicentennial.”

Special tours and programs in the park’s commemoration of the Overland Campaign continue daily through May 26.


Overland Campaign 150 events here:


Twitter: #overland150

Clint Schemmer: 540/374-5424


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