Ed Bearss on
"Grant, Lee and Meade in The Overland Campaign"

Edwin C. Bearss Speaks to the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia on October 14, 2014, about Grant, Lee and Meade and Lee in the Overland Campaign, at the Fort McNair Officers' Club in Washington D.C.

A PDF copy of the maps associated with Mr. Bearss' presentation is available by clicking HERE or by visiting http://files.cwrtdc.org/BearssMaps10-14-2014.pdf 

 Introduction to Presentation:  The Civil War dragged into its fourth year in March 1864. Abraham Lincoln made the strategic decision to place his trust and election-year prospects in the hands of yet one more military commander. In Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln believed that he at last had the right man to take the fight to the enemy. Grant was the hero of the West and claimed an impressive string of victories at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. The President had long prized Grant’s aggression and refused to oust him after the 1862 Battle of Shiloh and stated simply “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” Grant was given command of all Union armies, more than a half-million men, and was promoted to lieutenant general, a rank not given since it was awarded to George Washington in the American Revolution.

By May of 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac under General George Meade had been in a fruitless quest to defeat the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia since their victory at Gettysburg. Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee still retained his fearsome reputation as a wrecker of Union armies who dared to get too close to Richmond and Meade was very restrained in his pursuit. All that was about to change with the appointment of Grant, however. 

Grant’s plan was to lead the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River and continue on to Richmond. He had the manpower, the equipment, and easily outnumbered Lee. Lee, on the other hand, was anything but beaten and viewed Grant as just another Union general he would send packing as he had McClellan, Burnside, Pope and Hooker before him. Grant's army crossed the Rapidan and slowly entered the tangle of woods west of Fredericksburg known as the Wilderness. Lee planned to pin him there and destroy him before he came out the other side. 

When the sun came up on May 7, Grant and Lee confronted each other across a smoldering wasteland. Lee had fought Grant to a stalemate but had not driven him from the battlefield. And Grant had certainly not destroyed Lee. "There lay both armies," a Union aide wrote home, "each behind its breastworks, panting and exhausted, and scowling at each other." Two days of ferocious fighting in the Wilderness had resulted in some 18,000 Union casualties and Lee had suffered fewer than 12,000 casualties. Both Burnside and Hooker had retreated across the Rappahannock after tangling with Lee, what would Grant do?

Grant did not. In one of the most consequential decisions of the war, he ordered the engineers to remove the pontoon bridges at Germanna Ford on May 7 and directed his corps commanders to march toward Spotsylvania Court House that night. When Union soldiers realized that Grant was not retreating despite his losses, they cheered him. Finally they had a chieftain who would continue to fight Lee until he beat him. Lee was puzzled about what move Grant would make next. Would he renew the battle in the Wilderness? Would they sidestep to Fredericksburg and press south along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad? Or was Grant preparing to march toward Spotsylvania Court House?

The Overland Campaign, some 40-odd days of movement and battle between the Rapidan and James Rivers, was in motion. This contest would pit the Civil War’s greatest commanders — Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant for the Union, and Gen. Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy — against the other in a grueling contest of stamina and cunning. Ed will review and assess the decisions made by each commander after the Battle of the Wilderness that led to the final chess match between the two supreme generals of the Civil War. The campaign that would dictate the outcome of the Civil War in the East was underway.

About Our Speaker:  Ed Bearss needs no introduction to this round table or to most Civil War enthusiasts. He is a world-renowned military historian, author, and tour guide known for his work on the Civil War and World War II.  We are gratified to have him as our lifetime honorary member, yearly speaker, and chosen leader for our field trips and tours. 

Ed is the author of numerous books including the definitive three volume series, “The Vicksburg Campaign.” He is a tireless advocate of Civil War preservation donating his time to many organizations and activities involved with that mission including his service on the board of the Civil War Trust. Among his many honors, Ed was named by the Smithsonian as one of its “35 Who Made A Difference.” Since 2005, the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia has recognized Ed’s contributions to our round table by making an annual “Ed Bearss Award” to a preservation cause of his choosing. To date, the Ed Bearss Award has provided more $10,000 to worthy, many times little known, Civil War preservation efforts. 

Ed has worked as a historian at Vicksburg National Military Park where he did the research leading him and two friends to the long-lost Union gunboat, U.S.S. Cairo. He also located two forgotten forts at Grand Gulf, Mississippi.  He rose in the National Park Service (NPS) to the post of regional historian and was recognized as more knowledgeable on the Civil War battlefields than virtually anyone else. 

During his time with the NPS, Ed led efforts for researching, preserving, and interpreting Pea Ridge; Wilson’s Creek; Fort Smith; Stones River, Fort Donelson; the battlefields around Richmond, Fort Moultrie and Fort Point among many others. Bearss was named Chief Historian of the National Park Service in 1981, a position he held until 1994. He also served as special assistant to the NPS director from 1994 to 1995. After his retirement in 1995, he received the title Chief Historian Emeritus, which he holds to this day.  

Ed’s abundance of awards and honors are too numerous to mention but some of the more recent include the 2014 DAR Medal of Honor, the Douglas Southall Freeman Award for 2014 for his book entitled The Petersburg Campaign for the best published book of high merit in the field of Southern history; the Lincoln Forum’s Richard Nelson Current Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011; and the Civil War Trust has established its annual lifetime achievement award in Ed’s name
For additional information about his presentation, download CWRTDC's October 2014 newsletter available at http://www.cwrtdc.org/.  For information about the Round Table and to apply for membership, click HERE or the "About Us / Membership" Tab above. 

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