This day in history, May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac embarked on the largest campaign of the Civil War, known as Grant’s Overland Campaign, and crossed the Rapidan River in Virginia, eventually leading to clashes between forces that would decide the results of the Civil War.
In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant became commander of all the Union forces and devised a plan to destroy the two major remaining Confederate armies: Joseph Johnston’s Army of the Tennessee, which was guarding the path toAtlanta, and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Grant sent William T. Sherman to take on Johnston, and then rode along with the Army of the Potomac, which was still under the command of George Meade, to confront Lee’s forces.
On May 4, the Army of the Potomac moved out of its winter encampments and crossed the Rapidan River to the the Wilderness forest. The plan was to move the Federal troops quickly around Lee’s left flank and advance beyond the Wilderness before engaging the Confederates. But logistics slowed the move, and the long wagon train supplying the Union troops had to stop in the Wilderness.
Although there was no combat on May 4, the stage was set for a clash between Grant and Lee. The superior numbers of the Union army were minimized in the Wilderness environment. Lee attacked the following day. The fighting lasted into June with both armies heading to the east of Richmond, Virginia, ending in Petersburg, where they settled into trenches and fought for nearly nine months.