Grant’s Crossing of the James River


General Grant’s strategic military genius has been continually downplayed in modern times, often leading to a lack of comprehension of his astounding military skills. He has especially been branded as a butcher due to his high casualty rate in the 1864 Overland Campaign. Yet his strategic successes at Fort Henry & Donelson, Vicksburg and Missionary Ridge are typically ignored.

Grant’s operation to disengage the Union army from Cold Harbor in mid-June 1864 might be his most outstanding strategic maneuver.  Having lost a battle and many men in a frontal attack at Cold Harbor, he appeared to be at an end in his campaign, being trapped behind two rivers. In essence, Grant transformed a position that Lee thought boxed Grant up into the strategy that won the war. He faked Lee out of his boots. 


After the defeat at Cold Harbor, Grant realized that Lee’s fortified line was too strong to reverse by further frontal attacks. He deduced that he had to maneuver again to keep moving forward. As the map shows, he was northeast of Richmond, the Chickahominy River was south of him, and Lee had already sent his men to cover all approaches to Richmond. 

Grant outlined his new plan to General Halleck on June 5: “The enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive behind breastworks, or feebly on the offensive immediately in front of them . . .Without a greater sacrifice of human life than I am willing to make all cannot be accomplished that I had designed outside of the city.” 

General Grant was just 2 miles from where McClellan was after Malvern Hill; McClellan had thought he was trapped. Lee’s army was in his front. Every move he made to that point had been south and east. But Lee has already entrenched at the next crossroads, waiting. In almost the precise position in 1862, McClellan retreated and ended the Peninsula Campaign. 

Grant’s Innovation

Grant’s best chance for victory was to force Lee’s army from their entrenchments and fight in the open. Grant’s broad strategic plan was to seize Petersburg, a town 20 miles south of Richmond with a vital rail hub and wagon roads, which comprised Lee’s supply line. The value to Grant of going that far south was to both extend Lee’s defense lines and to threaten his supply. Since Lee had to protect Richmond with inferior numbers, his lines and Beauregard’s must merge, forcing him to entrench. Without the railroads entering Petersburg, Richmond could not be supplied with food, clothes or military materials. His primary goal was not to take Richmond directly, but rather to close off its retreat routes and disrupt its supply chains.

Pontoon Bridge being laid across the James River

To accomplish this plan though required a bold and dangerous tactical plan. Grant would again move south and east around Lee’s left flank. Grant had to cross not one but two rivers (also the Chickahominy River), and do it faster than Lee can catch up. There were terrible roads in this area and no bridges. The James River is 2000 feet wide, which is a formidable obstacle to moving a 100,000 man army with an enemy in one’s front. He thought that Lee wouldn’t suspect such a bold and risky move. Here is where Grant deserves the credit as the best general of the war.

To succeed, Grant had to create distractions and coordinate all of the troop movements to give the illusion that he wasn’t moving. Meanwhile, he had to actually move his men and supplies with alacrity, because Lee was certain to catch on, and if caught in movement, his army would be highly vulnerable.

Grant kept a force at Cold Harbor as a diversion to keep Lee in place. He began to shift the bulk of his army to the south, past Lee’s right flank. To occupy Lee’s attention, he sent General Philip Sheridan and most of his cavalry on a raid to the west (Trevilian Station).  He also ordered a break out of General Benjamin Butler’s command at Bermuda Hundred. The idea was to distract Lee’s attention from his main army’s movement. Meanwhile, he ordered the construction of a new entrenchment line to convince Lee he was staying where he was.  

Hancock’s and Wright’s corps withdrew to the new entrenchments in the evening of June12th.  They formed the rear guard. Warren’s corps crossed the Chickahominy River moving south.  Burnsides corps followed while Smith’s corps marched to White House on the Pamunkey River and transported by ship to Bermuda Hundred to assist in the diversion.

Grant’s Army Crossing the James River by B West Clinedinst

Lee believed that Grant would renew his attack and kept his forces entrenched. He had a severe manpower shortage at that stage (which is precisely the reason for Grant’s concept in the Overland Campaign), limiting his defensive options.

Union engineers worked rapidly to assemble a 2,170-foot pontoon bridge on June 15.  The distance bridged was the longest covered by a temporary span in modern military history.  It had to be anchored against strong water current and a four foot tide. The speedy construction of the bridge permitted the Union army to advance south of the James River and threaten Petersburg from the east. The bridge allowed the passage of 100,000 men, 49 artillery batteries, and thousands of wagons and horses in a brief period of time before Lee discovered their disappearance. Otherwise, Lee would be able to organize an attack on the Union rear and destroy them. The pontoon bridge was located between Windmill Point and Fort Powhatan, and was completed in just 7 hours.

Hancock’s Corps Crossing the James River at Wilcox’s Landing by William Waud

At 4:00 PM on June 15th Union engineers began work on the pontoon bridge between Windmill Point to Fort Powhatan; they completed it in just seven hours!  Grant then crossed his army over the James during the next two days with Lee still unsure as to his intentions, in one of the most daring, and successful, maneuvers of the War.  In Grant’s autobiography he states that he fully recognized the immense risks of such a movement, but believed it had to be done and thought that his proximity to Richmond would keep Lee in a position to protect it.

Pontoon Bridge Across the James River, 1864, near Fort Powhattan. By AJ Russell


The various feints and diversions worked perfectly. Lee wasn’t sure where Grant was located or where he was going. After crossing the James River, the advanced guard of the Union Army closed in on Petersburg, with only about 2500 defenders led by PGT Beauregard. However, at that point with victory so close, coordination totally collapsed. The attacks on the defenders were too cautious. Lee was able to reinforce Beauregard on June 18, 3 days later. The siege of Petersburg that followed required 9 months to achieve what could have been won in a couple of days. Grant later wrote: “Petersburg itself could have been carried without mush loss…This would have given us control of both the Weldon and South Side Railroads…and would have given us greatly the advantage in the long siege which ensued.” 


  • Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885. Da Capo Press. 2001. 
  • McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press 1988. 
  • Rhea, Gordon. On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864. Louisiana State University Press, 2017.

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