The eastern theatre, primarily focused on Virginia, tends to get the most popular and scholarly attention when talking about the American Civil War. In large part this is because of the drama of Robert E. Lee’s repeated against-the-odds victories over the Army of the Potomac before George Meade took command. The commanders Lee defeated tend to get derided as incompetents, perhaps a bit unfairly in some instances. Regardless of that, I think it is worth considering what overall options these generals had open to them in regards to taking the offensive against Lee.
In regards to the AotP’s operational movements, I think it’s important to recognize that there’s essentially three lines of operation it could pursue. For an army of that size to function effectively, it needed to be supplied via railroad or water over extended periods of time. Particularly later in the war, the Northern Virginia countryside was becoming increasingly barren, and could only provide so much forage. Anyway, the line pursued by Burnside, Hooker, and later Grant, was along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad which ran from the north past Aquia Landing, a key Union supply base when it was held by the Federal troops, through Fredericksburg and directly towards Richmond. Aside from being the most direct route, it also could handle the most volume of the two railroad routes. The other option that utilized railroads was the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. However, it handled notably less volume than the RF&P, and had another notable disadvantage; it led away from Richmond. Charlottesville was about as close as it could lead towards Richmond. The Lincoln administration liked this route because it did keep the AotP more or less between Lee and D.C. Most of the AotP generals, particularly McClellan’s adherents, disliked this route however. Meade also maneuvered his army along this line throughout parts of mid-late 1863.
Speaking of McClellan, that also brings us to the third primary route that many in the AotP, such as McClellan and Union VI Corps commander Sedgwick, considered the “true” line of operation to take Richmond; the Peninsula-James River route. This route enabled the Union army to be secure on the flanks, and to be supplied by sea from the Union navy. However, the Peninsula route was inherently somewhat vulnerable to being bottle-necked, and just as importantly, McClellan’s failed campaign using this route poisoned it politically in the eyes of the Republicans. Still, strictly in military terms, McClellan was quite probably correct to see this as the best route.
When queried on the subject of Union strategy in Virginia by Union general-in-chief Henry Halleck, before he came east, Grant gave an interesting response, which I’ll quote below.
|CONFIDENTIAL.] HDQRS. MIL. DIV. OF THE MISSISSIPPI,
Nashville, Tenn., January 19, 1864.
Major General H. W. HALLECK,
General-in-Chief of the Army, Washington, D. C.:
GENERAL: I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in lieu of these one be taken farther south. I would suggest Raleigh, N. C., as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured, I would make New Berne the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured.
A moving force of 60,000 men would probably be required to start on such an expedition. This force would not have to be increased unless Lee should withdraw from his present position. In that case the necessity for so large a force on the Potomac would not exist. A force moving from Suffolk would destroy first all the roads about Weldon, or even as far north as Hicksford. From Weldon to Raleigh they would scarcely meet with serious opposition. Once there, the most interior line of railway still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then have, would be so threatened as to force him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee. It would throw our armies into new fields, where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy. It would cause thousands of the North Carolina troops to desert and return to their homes. It would give us possession of many negroes who are now indirectly aiding the rebellion. It would draw the enemy from campaigns of their own choosing, and for which they are prepared, to new lines of operations never expected to become necessary. It would effectually blockade Wilmington, the port now of more value to the enemy than all the balance of their sea-coast. It would enable operations to commence at once by removing the war to a more southern climate, instead of months of inactivity in winter quarters. Other advantages might be cited which would be likely to grow out of this plan, but these are enough. From your better opportunities of studying he country and the armies that would be involved in this plan, you will be better able to judge of the practicability of it than I possibly can. I have written this in accordance with what I understand to be an invitation from you to express my views about military operations, and not to insist that any plan of mine should be carried out. Whatever course is agreed upon, I shall always believe is at least intended for the best, and until fully tested will hope to have it prove so.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U. S. GRANT,
In essence, it’s the Vicksburg campaign as applied to the eastern theatre; Grant uses the navy to insert a force into the enemy rear, which severs their supply lines and isolates them, though he was proposing doing it on a rather grander scale here, isolating the entire state of Virginia. In response to this, Halleck gave one of his classic replies that said many things and nothing at the same time, acting as though the idea of detaching troops from the main AotP was incompatible with making Lee’s army the priority, and also fearing the possibility that Lee could come north, apparently discounting the idea that the reduced AotP plus the D.C. garrison plus whatever militia were available could at least check Lee. In essence, Halleck was afraid for any army to be within striking distance of Lee without immense superiority.
Confined to a direct approach then, Grant essentially used the same basic idea the Union attempted to apply in the theatre in 1862, with forces advancing from the north and east of Richmond, (utilizing the James) though he altered the weight of these forces and there was more direct coordination. Absent the possibilities of his first proposed plan, and confined to a direct approach it seems Grant’s basic plan, a modification of the 1862 campaign, repeating the basic idea of combining the Rapphannock and James River approaches, was about the best plan that could be implemented under the circumstances. Joseph Hooker arguably came up with the most clever way to follow the RF&P line south by flanking Lee’s positions around Fredericksburg, but unfortunately failed to follow through and was defeated at Chancellorsville.