One hundred and fifty-six years ago today, Union troops under the overall command of Ulysses S. Grant engaged Robert E. Lee's Confederates in the last battle of Grant's grueling Overland Campaign.
The fighting took place at a rural crossroads in Charles County, Va., some 20 miles east of Richmond and is called the Battle of St. Mary's Church or, in some accounts, the Action of Nance's Shop. Prosaic names, to be sure, although to the families of the 630 men killed or wounded there, the place was as fateful as Gettysburg or Antietam.
Grant had dispatched Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's cavalry units to the area for a dual purpose: First, rip up the Virginia Central Railroad tracks used by Lee to move rebel troops; second, lure Lee into sending cavalry divisions under Wade Hampton's command to the area, thus removing them from the path of Grant's infantry, which was marching inexorably on Petersburg. This chess move was vintage Grant, the relentless general whose arrival in the east President Lincoln had been awaiting -- and Lee had been fearing.
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By late June 1864, it was clear to Robert E. Lee where U.S. Grant was heading: Petersburg, yes, and ultimately Richmond. But Grant's true aim was even more ominous to the Confederates' most famous commander. Gen. Grant's Army of the Potomac, the largest fighting force ever assembled on this continent, was going wherever Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was going -- with the intention of grinding it to dust.
The Overland Campaign had been launched on May 4, 1864, as the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River at dawn. Gen. George Meade was the corps commander, but there was no doubt who truly led this fighting force. U.S. Grant had been undistinguished at West Point, little remembered in the Mexican American War, despite his personal heroism, and had washed out of the peacetime army. But President Lincoln had been looking for a general willing to bring the fight to the South and in Grant he found an answer to his prayers.
"Lee's Army will be your objective," Grant wrote to Meade on April 9, 1864. "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also."
Leaving nothing to chance, Grant rode with his army, too. And what transpired during the next six weeks at places etched into our national memory for their sheer carnage -- The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor -- decided the course of the Civil War, doomed the evil institution of slavery on these shores, and ensured that we once again were a single republic. Yet, from time to time -- and this is one of those times, as statues not just of Lee, but also of Lincoln and Grant are defaced or destroyed -- the words of Benjamin Franklin echo in our ears. "A Republic…if you can keep it."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.