May 1864 saw the start of Sherman's attmept to capture the vital city of Atlanta. The Army of the Potomac was also ordered by Grant to follow and pursue the army of Robert E Lee wherever it went.
May 1st: General Sherman started his advance on the Army of the Tennessee.
May 2nd: The first skirmishes between Sherman’s troops and the Army of the Tennessee occurred.
President Davis also told the Confederate government that there was no hope of any form of recognition of the Confederacy by foreign governments.
May 3rd: The Army of the Potomac was ordered to start its campaign against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Grant claimed that the men in the Army of the Potomac were “in splendid condition and feel like whipping somebody”.
May 4th: The Army of the Potomac, numbering 122,000 men, crossed the River Rapidan in pursuit of Lee’s army. Lee had 66,000 men under his command. General Sherman’s men prepared for their march on Atlanta. He had 98,000 men under his command.
May 5th: Grant and Lee’s troops engage en masse for the first time in this campaign. Fighting in the ‘Wilderness’, Lee’s troops had the advantage because the terrain was covered in scrub oak, stunted pines and sweet gum. All this made concealment easy and made Grant’s task far more difficult despite a 2 to 1 superiority in terms of troop numbers.
May 6th: The Battle of the Wilderness continued. Neither side could claim victory at the end but in terms of casualties the Union could afford to lose more men than the South. The North lost 2236 dead, 12,037 wounded and 3383 missing. The Confederates lost 7,500 men in total.
May 7th: After a short rest the Army of the Potomac moved off again. This time Grant headed towards Richmond. This time it was Lee who had to be wary of Grant’s movements. The Army of the James was already threatening Richmond to the South.
May 8th: An attempt by Grant to get his army between Lee and Richmond failed when the Union’s V Corps failed to take Spotsylvania Cross Roads.
Sherman continued his march on Atlanta with little, at present, to stop him.
May 9th: Well-placed and well-dug trenches ensured that the Confederate force opposing Grant was difficult to move and there was a temporary halt to major attacks between Lee and Grant with the Union engaged in a series of reconnaissance raids as opposed to anything more.
May 11th: The Army of the Potomac spent the day manoeuvring into position for an attack primed for May 12th.
Six miles from Richmond, J E B (‘Jeb’) Stuart was killed in a skirmish. The South had lost one of its most talented commanders.
May 12th: The North’s attack against Lee’s army started at 04.30. Their initial assault was a success but a Confederate counter-attack ensured that the North was unable to capitalise on this. The fighting in an area known as ‘Bloody Angle’ – part of the South’s entrenchments – was some of the bloodiest of the war.
May 13th: The fighting for ‘Bloody Angle’ near Spotsylvania ended at 04.00. The North had lost 6,800 men, the South 5,000. Once again, the Army of the Potomac could afford the losses while the South could not. Grant continued his aggressive approach of looking for Lee’s army. There was little doubt that Grant’s confidence of victory rubbed off on his men.
Sherman encountered determined opposition at Resaca. Here the South had built extensive entrenchments and they proved a major obstacle for Sherman and his army.
May 14th: Heavy rain meant that all forms of movement were curtailed around Spotsylvania.
May 15th: A Union force commanded by General Sigel was defeated at New Market. Sigel had been sent to defeat Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. In this he failed. On the side of the successful Confederates was Colonel George Patton, grandfather of the officer with the same name who found fame in World War Two. Sigel was relieved of his command on May 19th.
Sherman was unable to make a breakthrough at Resaca.
May 16th: The North suffered a major defeat at Drewry’s Bluff and lost 25% of their manpower during the battle – 4160 men killed and wounded out of 18,000. The blame was later directed at the lacklustre leadership of General Butler.
May 18th: When the rain stopped Grant launched another unsuccessful frontal assault on Lee’s positions. With increasing casualties, Grant call off the attack. He had clearly underestimated just how well the Confederates entrenchments had been made.
May 19th: Buoyed by his successes, Lee turned to the Confederates II Corps and ordered an attack on Union lines. This led to heavy fighting between both armies but neither one gained an advantage. By the end of the day the fighting around Spotsylvania had come to an end. The Army of the Potomac had lost 17,500 men. Combined with the loss of men at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant had lost 33,000 men out of 122,000 in just one month – 27% of the Army of the Potomac’s total. However, Grant still had an army nearly 90,000 strong. There are no accurate figures for Lee’s losses for the same period but they were undoubtedly high. While the Union could sustain their losses, however unpalatable the figure, the South could not.
May 20th: Sherman continued his advance to Atlanta.
May 23rd: Grant continued in his policy of shadowing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He had a 2 to 1 advantage in terms of troop strength. The cause of the South was not helped when Lee was taken with a fever and had to retire to bed.
May 24th: One of the consequences of Sherman’s advance was that he had extended supply lines. On this day a raid by Confederate cavalry on his lines led to the destruction of large quantities of supplies. There was not a great deal Sherman could do about this, as he wanted to continue with his advance to Atlanta and the Confederates were skilled at quick cavalry attacks.
May 28th: The Army of Northern Virginia moved towards Cold Harbor. By doing this Lee had placed his army between Grant and Richmond.
May 29th: Lee entrenched his positions around Cold Harbor.
May 30th: Rather than shy away from contact with Lee, Grant maintained his aggressive stance and faced his army at Cold Harbor.
May 31st: Sherman’s advance on Atlanta was stalled by Confederate troops commanded by J E Johnston. Their tactics, while never going to defeat Sherman, were sufficient to slow down his army to, on average, just one mile a day.