Following the 1864 Overland Campaign: 75 miles in Photos and Sketches

In the spring of 1864, Union General George Meade and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant launched forces against General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in what is now known as the Overland Campaign.

Following the Union army to serve the needs of 19th-century citizens hungry for news and depictions of the conflict were documentary photographers and professional sketch artists. From the Rapidan River to the James, their first-hand perspective covers some of the most storied engagements of the Civil War--the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor.

Scroll down to follow the armies' routes and see a collection of photos and drawings
which document the scenes and sights of the Overland Campaign.

Timothy O'Sullivan, May 4, 1864

Location: Germanna Ford

The Great Campaign Begins

On May 4, 1864, the Union army, under the overall direction of General Ulysses S. Grant, crossed the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford, intent on forcing Lee's army out of its works and into the open for a battle. The large-format glass plate negatives taken that day are extremely rich in detail.

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Battle of The Wilderness
May 5–7, 1864

General Lee blocked Meade's way and forced a battle in the tangled, second-growth timber that was so dense it came to be called the Wilderness.

The woods negated the use of artillery and robbed the Union of its numerical superiority. The fighting produced some 30,000 casualties, making it one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

G.O. Brown [credited], 1866

Location: The Wilderness

Fighting in a Tangled Nightmare

A photographer returned after the war and captured photos of what the Wilderness looked like in 1864. Indeed the Wilderness deserved its sobriquet.

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Edwin Forbes, May 7, 1864

Location: The Wilderness

A Welcome Change

Artist Edwin Forbes captured the salient moment when the Union troops realize that they are headed toward Richmond instead of toward Washington!

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Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
May 8–21, 1864

The armies raced and met at the roads around Spotsylvania Court House where they fought for the better part of two weeks. By the time it was over the engagement produced more than 31,000 casualties--the third costliest battle of the war.

G.O. Brown [credited], 1866

Location: Spotsylvania, the Mule Shoe

Promise, Stalemate at Spotsylvania

Gone were the days when soldiers would stand up in a field and shoot at each other. Sophisticated entrenchments and costly attacks were now the order of the day.

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Timothy O'Sullivan, May 20, 1864

Location: Spotsylvania

A Human Toll at Spotsylvania

On May 20, 1864, Timothy O'Sullivan and his assistants poured chemicals, prepared plates and set up their stereoptic camera to record six photos of some of the human toll wrought at Spotsylvania.

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Mathew Brady's crew, May 1864

Location: Winchester Street, Fredericksburg

Wounds that Proved Mortal

Fredericksburg soon brimmed with the human wreckage of the Overland Campaign. Here, on Winchester Street, some of the many injured whose wounds proved mortal were laid to rest.

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Timothy O'Sullivan, May 21, 1864

Location: Massaponax, Fredericksburg

Historic moment captured on glass

After leaving Spotsylvania behind, Generals Grant and Meade paused en route to the next battle with their staffs at Massaponax Church on May 21, 1864, as captured here from a second floor window.

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Battle of North Anna
May 23–26, 1864

General Lee next took position behind the meandering North Anna River where he hoped to force his opponent to divide his army and expose a weakness. On May 23, 1864, Union soldiers crossed the river at Jericho Mill on a pontoon bridge.

The Battle of North Anna raged from May 23-26 without decisive result.

Timothy O'Sullivan, May 24, 1864

Location: Jericho Mills

Busy Days at Jericho Mill

Army engineers constructed a road up the steep bluffs to accommodate the cannons and wagons that would soon be needed.

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Mathew Brady's crew, May 30, 1864

Location: Port Royal, Virginia

Critical Base of Supply

Among General Grant's greatest concerns were feeding and supplying his soldiers on campaign. As Grant moved southward, so did his base of supply.

Here is Port Royal, Virginia on the Rappahannock River on the day it was being evacuated for a point further south.

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Battle of Totopotomoy Creek
May 28–30, 1864

The armies left the North Anna and the Rappahannock Rivers behind and moved to the north and east of Richmond. Lee took up a strong position behind Totopotomoy Creek. Both sides launched assaults on May 30, 1864; both made gains, but both were unable to exploit them.

Alfred Waud, May 1864

Location: Shelton House

Lee is Strongly Entrenched Again

This is a sketch of the Shelton house, which sat near the Union center at Totopotomoy Creek.

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Battle of Cold Harbor
May 31 - June 12, 1864

After Totopotomoy Creek, the armies raced for the critical five-road junction at Cold Harbor--a place neither cold nor near a harbor.

Union soldiers won the race but Lee's men built particularly strong and deep earthworks to block any Union advance on Richmond, just ten miles away. Grant mistakenly thought Lee's army was ready to break and paid dearly for that mistake in bloody and failed assaults on June 3, 1864.

After the fruitless assaults on June 3, 1864, the armies faced off for more than ten days.

Timothy O'Sullivan, June 4, 1864

Location: Cold Harbor Crossroads

Critical Crossroads

Burnett's Inn was one of a few structures at Cold Harbor and sat right at the crossroads.

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Mathew Brady's Crew, June 1864

Location: Burnside's Headquarters

A Candid Photo After the Storm

In the Union rear, photographers were busy taking pictures of, among other things, every corps commander's headquarters. Here is the headquarters of General Ambrose Burnside, Ninth Corps commander.

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John Reekie, April 1864

Location: Cold harbor

Eerie Exhumations

The Overland Campaign had already cost more than 75,000 casualties and there were more to come as the armies moved toward Petersburg in mid-June 1864. The dead were in most cases exhumed in the months and years after the battles and moved to National or Confederate cemeteries.

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Mathew Brady's Crew, June 1864

Location: Cold Harbor

With Glass Plates in Hand

There were thousands of photographers in America during the Civil War but only a handful had the expertise and resources to expose documentary photos away from their studios in the field. These photographers, including a few who traveled from Cold Harbor to Petersburg and Appomattox managed to take some 10,000 photographs in the camps, cities, roads and battlefields of the Civil War.

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By the Civil War Trust